It can be difficult to be a single Christian. I remember watching as one by one my friends would marry, start families, and settle down. The cards would come just before Christmas with news of another baby or a new home, and I would set them on the table in my empty apartment and sigh. As a Christian, my newsfeed was like one long drawn out toast to holy matrimony, and I was getting tired of holding up my glass. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and the baptized faithful had so much to say about marriage and family. But I was single. At least the world, as St. Paul calls it, didn’t rub it in so much.
[Note: this essay was first published by Catholic Exchange and is reprinted with permission.]
So it was more than the intensity of color or the exquisite detail, the visual intricacies or the physical presence of the figure that drew me into the oil-on-wood painting by John Millais, Mariana. It was the sigh of broken dreams, of singleness, of yearning.
A lot of people are single, and they love it. Singleness can be a beautiful and rewarding vocation. But for a lot of other people, singleness can be painful and hard. It was, after all, singles of whom St. Paul spoke when he spoke of those who “burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). This reflection on Mariana is a gesture of recognition for the passion of singleness. It’s for those who are in the long slow burn.
The Long, Slow Burn
Mariana is a portrait of waiting. Waiting for love. Waiting for belonging. Waiting for fruitfulness and laughter and beginnings. But the waiting has been drawn out, the seasons keep turning, and yet again autumn is ending. Like a pen almost out of ink, singleness can be thin, scratchy, and annoying. And nothing ever seems to change—no matter how hard you push.
Look closely at the scene. It is a moment of desire, of Autumn, and a nearly finished tapestry. The maiden has stuck her needle upright into the richly patterned, flowering embroidery. She stands up and stretches, pushing her hands into her back, pushing her torso forward, leaning her head to one side. The posture is casual, absent-minded, tired. Is she praying? How long has she been gazing out the window? Long enough to let the leaves land on her embroidery.
Perhaps you can strangely relate to this Victorian spinster. Maybe you know the feeling of just needing to stand, to stretch your aching back. Or maybe you know the swelling of a sigh over the prattle of a room littered with leaves. So your eye moves from the maiden to the tapestry. The creases in the cloth demand your attention. The gloom around the altar on the right and the lonely glow of a diminished prayer candle. You try to catch a glimpse of the landscape outside—Will he come? Why hasn’t he come?
Against this veiled backdrop of a landscape, the stained glass window flashes brightly. The windowpane of the Annunciation—when the angel Gabriel brought happy tidings to the Virgin Mary—shines out clear as day. God is close, the window seems to say. Behold, he makes all things new.
In Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, Mariana has been abandoned by her lover Angelo, because her marriage dowry was lost at sea. In Millais’ painting we see an aging virgin. The mouse, the leaves, the worn look of the place betray the sad tale of lost fortunes, and a home falling into decay due to poverty and neglect. Shakespeare’s play ends happily, and Angelo agrees to wed Mariana in the final scene. Does the Annunciation scene in the stained glass window confirm a sense of promise and hope, for a future marriage and a child? Is her pose not one of despair, but of yielding to the Light, perhaps with a sigh: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).
Perhaps, even though singleness can be difficult—as all waiting is—it can also be good. Anything worth doing is difficult. Why should singleness be an exception? Singleness is worth doing, and doing well.
My Soul Waits Upon the Lord
Look at the painting just once more, but zoom in on Mariana herself. The velvet blue dress brings relief to the intricate detail of the room. The maiden’s face is beautiful in a plain, unimposing way. Her jeweled belt suggests wealth. Yet autumn leaves blow in. A mouse scuttles across the floor. She is alone, her estate dwindles, winter approaches, and she grows tired in the half-light. What is the lesson?
In light of the Annunciation scene that splashes through the stained-glass window or the votive candle burning at the altar, I think the lesson is this: God’s timing is not our timing. Good things rarely come quickly. Winter is approaching, and autumn is blowing in under our doorways. So often we can feel very alone. But the loneliness has a purpose. It’s not meaningless. “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (Psalm 105:4). He will make your paths straight (Prov. 3:6).
Again, many single people are happy to be unmarried. So I do not want to send the message that the single life is not a worthy, noble life. But I also know that for many people, singleness is a painful waiting, a long, slow burn. And this reflection on Mariana is for them.
Singleness can be exhausting. It can be labor. But anything worth doing is difficult. What we learn from Mariana is that the unsung treasure of singleness lies hidden in suffering. The passion of singleness is an invitation into the open side of Christ. It is because God seeks to be glorified in our lives that singleness is worth doing, and doing well.
In the end, everyone is waiting. Most of us just haven’t woken up to the deepest yearning of our heart. May we all pray with the Psalmist: “My soul waits upon the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). More than watchmen wait for the morning, more than Mariana waits for her husband, more than any of us wait for anything, may we wait upon the Lord. The treasure of singleness is that it reminds all of us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We were made for God, and a life lived well is a life of waiting for him.
Perhaps your life has been littered with pain and broken relationships. But, like Mariana, you are surrounded by the promises and provision of a God whose name is Love. He is always present, even if you cannot feel him. Perhaps the votive candle burns for a reason. Perhaps it is in the waiting that God is refining you as in fire. “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Psalm 143:8).
Read it in the Catholic Exchange