For the past four years, I’ve spent New Year’s Eve renting a house with friends I met freshman year of college. For two, sometimes three nights, we catch up, play games, and just enjoy the company of people we have known for nearly a decade, reminiscing on old times as we make stories worth telling next year. Now nine years removed from the time we all met living in the same freshman dormitory, twelve different people have attended at least one weekend and seven of us have attended them all. To say that it’s one of my favorite times of the year is an understatement.
As the years roll on, so do our lives, and it’s amazing to watch my friends grow up, to see their careers take off, and most significantly, to be a part of their lives as their personal relationships become more serious. While we have always included new boyfriends/girlfriends into the fold and “couples” have generally made up more than half of the group, this year marked a distinct step. Of the thirteen people attending, ten were with someone with whom they have been dating for more than three years (with the longterm boyfriend of another unable to attend and the other having just ended a serious two-year relationship with a former attendee), two sets of couples had gotten a pet together in the past year (and brought it with them), and one couple had even gotten married since last year.
And then there was me. Not in a relationship, not looking to be in one. While my friends are all really mature when it comes to the setting and are in no way exclusive or publicly affectionate while in the group, the gravity of the situation was impossible to miss: when each night was over and people went to bed, when we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, everyone else had a partner. Everyone else had someone else on the journey, someone to share a conversation with, to share their lives with.
Me? I had the radio. And it was a jerk.
“An’ here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.”
With my friends on my mind, the first song I heard on the radio was “Here I Go,” by Whitesnake. Yeah… I didn’t listen to the rest of the song.
But it got me thinking. As I continue to discern my life with the friars and my imminent decision of whether or not to make final vows in August, am I really choosing a life “on my own”?
The immediate and obvious answer is “no.” As I shared during my first year and have reiterated numerous times since, just because I am choosing to remain unmarried does not mean that I am choosing to forgo intimacy. There are multiple ways to love and be loved and I’m simply saying no to one of them. There is still the intimacy of platonic friends supporting each other through struggles, of work colleagues pouring their lives into a project, of academics challenging one another intellectually, of “the guys” working out and playing sports together, and of course, of the brothers in the fraternity committing their lives to one another, among many more. As a friar, I have and will continue to experience intimacy on many levels, feeling a part of something greater than myself, finding a permanent home with men who welcome unconditionally, and sharing in a common vision of life and Church. In a very true and important sense, I will never, ever be alone because I have the brothers.
And yet, five and a half years with the friars has shown me that, no matter how significant and important it is, a fraternity most certainly is not an equivalent alternative to a spouse. While, yes, both are lifestyles of intimacy and commitment, both are intended to be unconditional and lifelong, and both offer stability and produce fruit for the Church and world, they are fundamentally different in focus and lived experience: a marriage is based on a one-to-one, finely-chosen relationship while a fraternity consists of hundreds of unchosen ones. As similar as they may seem and as fruitful as both can be, choosing to love and making a commitment to one romantic partner will never, ever be the same as growing in and learning how to love a group of diverse, transient people. Like a married couple, I can say without question that in times of crisis and times of joy the fraternity will be there to share in and support me, but I cannot say with certainty who the individual men will be, where they’ll be when I need them, or when I will see those most important to me. Very much unlike marriage, my decision to stay or leave the fraternity is not dependent on the individual members of it, and in fact, some of my closest friends within the fraternity have left the order, will eventually leave, or will ultimately die within my lifetime. Thus, even though there exists many intimate relationships, my life within the fraternity will always have a sense of being “on my own.”
Is this some unforeseen revelation that I’ve just now had? Am I beginning to question my life as a friar or fear what might be ahead? No. Not at all. As much as we can equate this life to being married or “having a new family,” I knew even before I joined that these things were meant analogically. Similar, but not the same. Fraternal life can never fully replace true family life; fraternal intimacy is simply not the same as exclusive one-to-one intimacy.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t need to be. As I grow in my life as a friar and prepare for my final vows, it’s even more obvious to me that some people are simply not called to such an intense, one-to-one relationship, that, even though such relationships are the norm in most cultures they are not necessarily the best way to love or build communities. Maybe some people, not for lack of love or ability but because of an abundance of both, are called and gifted in such a way to love whomever they are with, living intensely in the present moment without the longterm commitment of the future; maybe some people can live anywhere with anyone doing anything because their life is not defined by the intense love they find and share in one person, but rather by the desire to be in relationship with the source of love itself and to share it in a broad sense with all.
Are these people—am I—”on [their] own”? In a sense, yes: they will never have the unconditional one companion with which to share all their thoughts, fears, desires, and struggles. And maybe they can’t live without that. But in a sense, no: they will always be guided by the One who loved first, both in their relationship to that love and in making it present in the world. And maybe I can’t live without that.