If marriage is a journey to salvation, what happens to people who stay single and don’t become monks/nuns? What is their journey to salvation?
Many people like to point out that the Church has blessed two “ways of life”: marriage and monasticism. These are the two ways, if you will, that have a definitive beginning through a sacramental initiation and for which the Church prepares us.
But are they the journey of salvation? When we look at the grand story of salvation and the message of the Gospel, is the answer to, “What must I do to be saved?” “Go, get married or join a monastery,” or is it, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. If you love Me, you will keep my commandments. Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself”?
I think the answer is pretty clear. The way of salvation is the way of the Cross, the journey of self-offering out of love for God and neighbor, of repentance when we fail, and of trust and faith in the grace of the Father which is given to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me. John 14:6
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:24
If anything, then, I think the claim that there are two “blessed” ways in the Church must mean that these are the two ways that are laid before us as obvious crosses which can lead to the crucifixion of our passions and selfish desires. We enter into them sacramentally as the Church recognizes the blessing of the struggle that is to come. But in of themselves, they are not salvific.
And just as fasting or prayer or almsgiving can be outward acts that do not penetrate our hearts and actually help us in the struggle against the flesh (and often become a foundation for pride and judgment of others who do not do as we do), simply being married or tonsured is no guarantee for holiness.
We can have faithless, selfish marriages where we seek only to have our desires met that are no more a blessing to us than adultery and harlotry. We can be prideful, arrogant monastics that look down upon lay people as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God and no more gain salvation than if we were the Pharisee exalting himself on the steps of the temple.
And it can’t possibly be the case that there is no spiritual life outside of marriage and monasticism–that would negate the entire Eucharistic life of a Christian from baptism until deciding to be married or join a monastery. Would we say that every communion, every confession, every prayer, every act of kindness or devotion to God was meaningless in the life of a child simply because they were not married or tonsured? Of course not.
So why do we say it once someone hits the age of 25? Perhaps there is a sense in which as one is no longer under a rule of obedience to one’s parents and has more autonomy, the temptation to live a selfish and passionate life can increase. When the demands of siblings and family obligations diminish, certainly there is more opportunity for the demons to turn our lives inward and less obvious opportunities for acts of self-sacrificial love. But it is important to remember that every season of life has its particular temptations–that doesn’t make the single life devoid of spiritual value; it simply offers the single person an opportunity to recognize his particular temptations and repent when he falls prey to them.
I think talking about single life and also the decision to marry or join a monastery deserve their own posts, so I’ll save the practical advice for later, but for now, let’s set the record straight: the only “way of life” the Church blesses is a life in which we unite ourselves to Christ with self-sacrificial love. There is no other way.