Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
May 27th, 2009

Farewell Meat Market Mass

Thirtysomething, single and looking for affirmation



I attend church in a left-leaning parish that specializes in outreach services to students at the local university. It succeeds so well that every Sunday night at 7 p.m., the place turns into Studio 54 — a magnet for coltish, confident, overachieving young Catholics who glow as though someone tossed them into a swimming pool filled with chrism.

Or so it seemed to me two and a half years ago, when I began to attend catechism classes offered through the parish’s RCIA program. I was a thirty-four-year-old bachelor and grad school dropout. Since leaving the academic life, I’d bounced from one office job to the next. My own glow had long since faded.

But, in church, the promise of renewal hung in the very air. Through the rite of baptism, I was to be reborn in the spirit. Why, I began to wonder — as I watched the young Olympians prance off to drink microbrew and (I imagined, gnashing my teeth) abuse their flesh — could I not also hope for a backward projection of ten measly years, to the time when women wanted to date me and men gave a hoot in hell for my views on the threat of Russian expansion in the Baltic?

As I memorized the difference between doctrine and dogma, and the importance of perfect contrition, I filled my closet with Ed Hardy t-shirts and highlighted my hair. Every Sunday after Mass let out, I dutifully took my place in the small smoking section by the parking lot, waiting for God to grant me admission to a Ph.D. program, along with a girlfriend with bangs and a nose ring.

A fool’s errand

It didn’t happen. After smoking hundreds of cigarettes and striking as many Mickey Rourke-ish poses, I realized I was on a fool’s errand. An overripe thirtysomething can only keep his dignity in the company of his coltish juniors if they’re being threatened by town rowdies, and he’s Billy Jack.

I decided to leave youth to enjoy itself unenvied, and find a niche in the Church where I could wear my age gracefully.

There are a number of other Masses I could attend, but none of them feel quite right. The 9 a.m. Mass caters to the Hometown Buffet crowd. Noon Mass is for families. There is a 5 p.m. Mass but I was never able to determine its composition, since our Catechism class met at the same time, directly above the chapel where it was celebrated. (Coming through floorboards, “He is Exalted” sounds pretty much the same, no matter who’s singing it.)

The unmarried and unordained

It is easy to see the logic. The Catholic Church has always stressed the sanctity of family life. The unmarried and unordained, once they reach a certain age, threaten to gum up the works — especially if, as I did, they still secretly think they’re cool.

But I soon learned I’d been underestimating the charitable impulses of Mother Church. One day, I was invited to attend a retreat for people exactly like myself — that is, for singles who considered themselves too old to join the youth group. The retreat’s exact theme I forget, but it was something like “How to be an older single Catholic and not go barking mad.” Relieved at the prospect of fellowship with real peers, I accepted.

The whole notion of fellowship based on a negative felt demoralizing… Catholic, single, aging — these attributes might describe what I was, but I could not let them define who I was.

As the first day of the retreat approached, my enthusiasm faded quickly. The whole notion of fellowship based on a negative felt demoralizing. It reminded me of that support group from the first scene in Fight Club, where everyone’s lost his testicles to cancer. Catholic, single, aging — these attributes might describe what I was, but I could not let them define who I was. In the end, I begged off, pleading exhaustion from a trying workweek. The lie was shameful, but the act of punking out was a psychological necessity. It saved my self-respect.

At this point, I wish I could write that I’ve found exactly the kind of affirmation I’ve been after. But I haven’t. The Church is what she is. She teaches that one of the three basic vocations — marriage, Holy Orders or celibacy — has my name on it. Whichever it might be, I’ve got to resign myself to it sooner or later.

My resignation is still a work in progress. I’ve put out feelers to the Dominicans and the Paulist Fathers. If it turns out there’s no cassock in my future, maybe I’ll figure out some way to do celibacy in style — say, by founding the Confraternity of Gene Tunney, a Catholicized fight club whose members have to take off their shirts but leave on their scapulars.

In the meantime, I’ve found the perfect Mass. It begins at 9:15, Sunday evening. At such a late hour, the mood is more meditative than festive. The crowd, though young, is usually too tired to frisk or flirt. Best of all, it takes place by candlelight, which I understand makes me look thirty, tops.

The Author : Max Lindenman
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2008.
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  • Dwayne Marling

    Max, Great writing!

    Your article and comment feedback led me to wonder if you have looked into joining other Church-based groups. As an example, the Knights of Columbus are active in most parishes and are always looking for good faithful new men to join with them — two bonuses for you: 1. The K of C are having their annual Supreme Convention in Phoenix at the beginning of July, and 2. The K of C are active in both promoting and supporting vocations to the priesthood and religious life (whether they are “early” or “late” vocations). The Knights, or a similar group, may be a great “home-base” for you in the Church.

    Good luck as you travel down whichever path your discernment leads you!

  • The Author

    Marie: Wow! Now that’s what I call positive feedback! I haven’t been up to the Bay Area in years, but if you ever make it down to the Valley, feel free to give me a call.

    Kyra: You’re absolutely right. God is not a waiter; he does not take orders. Learning to surrender is a hard thing, especially when the evidence suggests that His plans and yours may not coincide.

    Last Monday, when I was interviewed on Busted Halo’s Father Dave Dwyer show, I remarked how a friend, upon reading this article, had responded with: “Dial 1-800-WAAAAH!” I took his point. Compared with a lot of people, I’ve got it easy. It helps to remember that. For that reason, I begin all my prayers with thanks, then plead forgiveness. Then, only after I’ve asked favors for my friends who are in real trouble, will I ask for relief from my own silly problems.

  • Kyra

    I hope this doesn’t come off sounding more like a lecture than a comment…but I recently had an epiphany regarding being called to a particular vocation, and maybe this will help some others.

    First let me state for the record that I am a single woman in my late twenties who regularly attends the 9 AM mass. With my parents. Who I live with. And my three year old son. If there are any young single men in my parish, I wouldn’t know it.

    Anyway, that said, I’ve recently read a couple things that enhanced and clarified my understanding of “waiting” to be called to a particular vocation. The first is: “If you aren’t sure if you are called to lifelong celibacy, just ask yourself if you could go the entire rest of your life without sex, a spouse and children, and not be bitter about it. If your answer is no, then guess what? You’re called to marriage! (as over 90% of Catholics are)…”

    Great, now that that’s out of the way, the second step is in how you approach God to answer your questions. God is a parent who wants nothing but good things for His children and takes joy in surprising us. He is also a friend with whom we’re supposed to be honest and have a real relationship. Once I started really thinking about what that means in regard to my relationship with God, it’s that I’ve gotten more “real” with Him. I’ve become more trusting of God the Parent, and more demanding of God the Friend, as I would be of any friend who I felt wasn’t giving me a straight answer. Instead of praying “pretty please, God” I have basically told Him “Look. I can’t go the rest of my life without a husband and my son can’t go the rest of his life without a father. I know that marriage is my vocation, and I want You to make this happen for me.” Faith isn’t about hoping God will grant us these things. It is about knowing these things that we ask are good and right, and knowing God will grant them.

  • yaya

    Max, Marie, I <3 U!!!
    Marie, I know, IVY, I’m Catholic and getting so sick of going to Mass when it is clearly just for “families.”
    Max, I’m 29, I live in the CA Bay Area, I’d like to meet you for coffee, where do you live? :-)

  • Babs

    Thanks for a great entry Max. I too find myself in a similar position. The pull to be a Sister has always been in the back of my mind; it leaves for a while and then pops back in again. There is also the pull to get married and have children. At 26, many of my friends and family are themselves getting married and starting families. Others are living with a boyfriend/girlfriend with no plans of ever getting married. Being able to talk about being pulled into these directions is not always easy. Some friends are more receptive to others. I find a similar situation in my church. I recently relocated to a new state and Church and have had difficulty finding my niche. Apparently, being 26 and single has already made me an old maid. The parish is very young with many people my age having spouses and small children. Finding my place, especially in this parish, won’t be easy but I know I’ll find it in the end. I hope you will too. Good luck.

  • brandy101

    Max –

    Its funny; after I wrote that, I realized I wasn*t just posting on Facebook or similar! Whoops! But, truly I agree; I have had many attempts-at-trendy fashion police disasters back-in-the-day and the blessing is, I can look back and chuckle about them today ;)

    Kudos to anyone who maybe flubs up but has the courage to OWN IT.

  • Marie

    I wish local churches would keep single people in mind rather than pretending we’re not there. I – a 39 year old never-married woman – stopped attending mass because the only reference to singles the priest gave was basically ‘singleness is a gift, don’t have sex’. As someone who longs to be married with family going to mass every Sunday was akin to a woman struggling with infertility being forced to go a baby shower every Sunday.

  • The Author

    Good question, Brandon. Since nearly everyone in my RCIA class was becoming Catholic in order to marry one, our teachers didn’t waste too much time on singlehood. They were content to say, in so many words, that God calls each person to the station where he or she can love most effectively.

    I took that to mean that some people are pastoral by nature, others are parental, and a relatively small number are best suited to show charity as laymen who have endless time on their hands.

    My main objection to the vocation of singlehood was the complete lack of prestige attached to it. Everyone respects priests (at least in the abstract), and married people are always welcome in the club, especially if they have children. But I was afraid, if I were to remain single, that people would point and whisper: “What’s his deal? Is he, you know, comme ca? Is he some kind of social retard? Or is he, God forbid, a freelance writer of very uncertain career prospects?”

    But then I met my friend C. Approaching fifty, she has never married, and has chosen to have few intimate relationships. (One of those relationships resulted in the birth of a child, but that’s another story for another time.) She wears her singlehood with great dignity, and makes the most of her spare time, taking a leading role in many of the parish charities. In her spare time, she likes to schmooze lapsed Catholics into having their children baptized.

    One day, after hearing me gripe for an hour or better about feeling marginalized,stimatized, blah, blah, blah, she turned to me and said, “Whatever you do, don’t do it for the badges.”

    It made me think — about her; about saints like Martin de Porres and Faustina Kowalska, who had dedicated their lives to grinding, tedious, dangerous tasts; about people who were forced to remain single because of painful or life-shortening disabilities.

    I can’t say it turned my head around completely. (I am, after all, a db with frosted tips and eighty-dollar t-shirts, who would love to be created a Knight of Malta.) But it did make me want to carry my Cross a little higher.

    Hope that helped.

  • Brandon

    My young adult group at my parish took some time to look at the 3 main vocations this year and we were all disappointed with all of the published material on single life that we found. They mostly address single life as transitional. What if you are called to single life for life?!? Many sources also said that people who live a single life can devote more time to their job and do things that people who are married couldn’t because of family ties. I think this explanation reduces people to what they do for a living and implies that single people are worthless unless they have some noble or dangerous profession that requires extreme commitment. I would be very interested in a sermon/pamphlet/etc. that could do a better job of explaining the vocation of non-transitional single life in a positive way.

  • Shea

    LOL, Max!

  • The Author

    Dear readers:

    Thank you all for your kind, insightful comments. (Some of them have the ring of an intervention, which I find a little embarassing, but nonetheless very, very touching.) Just to clarify: I don’t feel ill-served by the Church, or by my parish. Of all the parishes in the area, none could be more welcoming to older singles than mine. The demographic makeup of this particular Mass may have forced me to come to terms with my age and singlehood much earlier than I’d have wanted, given my druthers, but in the end, the reckoning will do me good. As my fellow Catholic convert Oscar Wilde wrote, whatever is realized, is right.

    Fr. Larry: My interest in the priesthood is very sincere. I’d never heard of the CSP until Bill McGarvey mentioned it to me, but its charism sounds right up my alley. (According to Wikipedia, Paulist priests are famous for their sense of humor.) Will definitely stay in touch.

    To Joe, Shea and Erin — thanks. Am keeping all my options open.

    To brandy: I can’t believe you wrote “db” on a religious website. You ARE edgy. But yeah, I figure there’s no point in making a fool of yourself if you can’t dine out on the stories later on. Greater love hath no man than this: to admit he goes to church dressed like an off-duty mortgage broker.

  • brandy101

    I *loved* this article – especially your admission to the ultra db-ish getup of Hardy shirts and highlighted hair. Good for you for owing up to it, Max!

  • Joe

    Max, I suggest you read Julia Duin’s book, “Quitting Church.” Pay particular atttention to Chapter 5 which deals with singles in the church (Catholic or protestant). You’ll quickly see that your situation is not unique. The church’s “bread and butter” is from the married with family crowd. Thus, churches really don’t want to deal with singles at all, especially the 35+ crowd. Many have concluded that churches actively try to keep singles from finding a mate and dating. There seems to be this obsession with avoiding sexual sin. As a result, singles are fleeing the church. It was enlightening to read that in other countries such as India, the Christian pastors there view it as part of their job to help singles in their congregation find mates for those who ask. Here in the US questions about singleness are met with answers like Fr. Larry’s that singleness is “one of the three basic vocations” or in protestant churches such questions are considered as “rebellion.” The worse action you can take is to think, hope, and pray that by sitting in a church you will meet your mate or buy into the belief that you are called to being single and allow yourself to be recruited into the Paulists. You have to get out and meet as many women as possible.

  • Erin

    I’m single, hopefully transitionally so as I desire married life, so I relate to Max’s story of not feeling at home in the church at times. But I’m most troubled by the line “the Church is what she is.” It implies the church has, is and always will be as it is today. The problem with this is that the church has changed throughout the centuries (remember that the church wanted nothing to do with marriage for the first thousand years and it didn’t become an official sacrament until Trent.) My hope is that Max can be critical yet faithful enough to the church as he finds her today to ask where can single people, transitional or not, find a home, healing and hope. Surely, the “people of God” can learn to respond these needs.

  • Shea

    I think perhaps it’s easy to say “Some people are called to single life, but any real vocation pulls you forward in life; it‚Äôs not what you settle for or default to.” But being “called” to single life isn’t necessarily a choice. Sometimes you just haven’t met the right person yet, and you’re having to “settle” for single life until you find that person. Having been single until I was 41, I understand Max’s frustrations. From what I’ve noticed, the Church is only now starting to acknowledge single people. For many, many years I sat through homilies about families, vocations to religious life, etc. but never anything for me. I’m starting to see that change, and it’s a good thing.

    Alison, I used to have people try to find out where my focus was off, or what I needed to fix in my approach, or what exactly I was doing wrong to not find a husband. Turns out the only thing I was doing wrong was not finding him! As soon as I met him, I knew it was right, and nothing I could have done in the past would have changed when I met him or the fact that he was the one. Maybe Max is ready, but just hasn’t found her yet. I was being saved for my husband! We were meant to be, even if we were on other sides of the country! Just took us longer to find each other.

    Max, keep yourself out there. If nothing else, you’ll make some friends. I’ve made some wonderful friends through different groups in the Church. Being yourself … no matter how “old” you are … is key. You’ll be happier, and the people you meet will know the real you, and they’ll like you for who you are, and not who you pretend to be.

  • Jeff

    Sorry Alison, Fr. Larry’s got this one though he was not specific. There are three vocations: Married, Clergy/Religious, and Singleness. All three are called to chastity within their vocation. Celibacy is the commitment to chastity that Clergy/Religious make upon their ordination/profession. Those called to a single state of life are also called to chastity, which is manifested in celibacy, but that celibacy is not a life-long commitment. The person called to single life can/must abandon celibacy if he or she enters into the married state or make their commitment to celibacy permanent through ordination/profession. Chastity and celibacy are often used interchangeably though they do not mean the same thing. A married couple that engages in sexual intercourse (of course without the evil of contraception) is acting chastely just as a priest or single person refraining from sexual acts are acting chastely.

  • Alison

    Fr. Larry, I mean no disrespect but I think Max’s naming of the vocation to the single life was accurate (although his second one wasn’t, religious/clergy life). Both those called to the clergy or religious life and those called to the single life are called to celibacy.

    Max – I’ve got a female friend that’s just in your shoes. To attract her attention though, you’d have to stay in the chapel after Mass saying your prayer of thanksgiving or praying a Rosary, not running outside to have a cigarette with your cool t-shirts and colored hair. Perhaps God has your wife all ready for you, but is waiting for you to become more ready for her? My advice would be to use this time to really focus on the Lord and where you’re at with your faith, and trust in Him to make your vocation clear to you when He believes you’re ready for it.

  • Fr. Larry

    Max, I think the “three basic vocations” are married live, religious/clergy life (including celibacy), and singleness. Some people are called to single life, but any real vocation pulls you forward in life; it’s not what you settle for or default to.

    For what it’s worth, as hard as it is to let go of your “coltish” youth, I think you’d move closer to your true vocatiion (whatever that might be) by embracing who you are *now*, and assessing your current interests, needs, desires, dreams, skills, passions, etc.

    While you’re discerning, I hope you’ll take a good look at the Paulists. We could use more guys who communicate well, connect with American culture, and are fans of Fight Club. (What’s the first rule of Fight Club?)

    Hang in there, and listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    Peace. – Fr. Larry Rice, CSP

  • Nora

    Max Lindenman,
    A great piece, and uplifting at the end! I hope fate finds a way to keep you uncassocked.

  • Bob Stark

    This is a very enlightening and hilarious piece. Keep up the great writing.

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