The surprising joy of consecrated virginity

Smiling. Unborn babies have been caught on ultrasounds doing it, your 90-year-old grandmother does it when she wins a game of bingo, and you (hopefully) do it every day. The smile is the centerpiece of the face — it communicates love, joy and interest. Something as commonplace as a sincere smile can be a radical affirmation of someone’s God-given worth, for when we smile at someone, our entire being says to him or her, “I am glad that you exist.”

You may be asking yourself, “What does smiling have to do with consecrated virginity?” Perhaps examining the words of the pope can help us see the connection.

In his “Message to Consecrated Virgins” in 2020, Pope Francis said, “You have been called not because of your own merits, but by God’s mercy, to make your lives a reflection of the face of the Church, the Bride of Christ.”

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Recall the wedding you most recently attended, and you’ll probably remember seeing the bride grinning from ear to ear. Before you noticed her dress, hairstyle or taste in flowers, you were struck by her happy and glowing smile. As the “reflection of the face of the Church, the Bride of Christ,” the vocation to consecrated virginity mirrors the joyful face of a woman on her wedding day. Consecrated virgins are called to be like the smile of the Church, the mystical spouse of Christ.

At first glance, it may seem as if a consecrated virgin has very few reasons to smile. Even many devout Catholics might think that a consecrated virgin has renounced experiencing human love entirely. After all, isn’t she choosing to forego ever experiencing a husband’s love, and isn’t she missing out on knowing the joys of motherhood? Don’t consecrated virgins “friend zone” themselves for life, setting themselves up to be lonely women who lack deep, personal relationships? Put that way, it’s astonishing a consecrated virgin doesn’t spend her days frowning at her seven cats. Yet, a consecrated virgin isn’t renouncing love. She is embracing a universal love that encompasses every kind of love, from romantic love to friendship.

In order to understand the vocation to consecrated virginity, it is first necessary to recognize that a virgin is not simply someone who has “never had sex.” Katrina Zeno, a John Paul II scholar, defines a virgin as, “someone totally available for union.” This means that consecrated virginity is not reducible to a physical state. It is the disposition to be totally open to God’s love and fully receptive to his gift of self. Consecrated virgins abstain from sexual relationships so they can be living reminders that all people are called to be spiritual “virgins,” men and women receptive to God’s love.

In marriage, men and women are called to love a particular group of people in a very special way. Often, married people are not able to attend to the needs of those outside of their family. A consecrated virgin is called to transcend this limitation. She is free to love each person as if they were her spouse or child. What Pope Francis describes as her “chaste freedom” allows her to tenderly enter into the wounds of men, women and children, and gives her the ability to cultivate many close personal relationships. That is not to denigrate marriage; it is simply to point out a difference in purpose. No two people are called to love in the same way. Though the goal of every vocation is to rest in God’s love, each path takes us to heaven a little differently.

Consecrated virgins are not women who “didn’t want” to be married or have children. Instead, many consecrated virgins passionately desire a loving family and deeply recognize the beauty of motherhood. For her entire life, she has felt pricked by an insatiable yearning to love and to be loved. It is through her consecrated virginity that she finds wifehood, motherhood and an abyss of love. She sacrifices her natural yearnings for an earthly family, not so she can be a lonely curmudgeon, but so she can radically love every stranger she meets. She is not called to entrust herself to one man; she is called to give herself to all of mankind.

Nor is a consecrated virgin one who “couldn’t” live according to a nun’s vows of poverty and obedience. Unlike a nun, consecrated virgins are women who were never meant to live in an enclosed community, forgo careers or wear habits. A nun resembles a lily — conspicuous and glorious — whereas a consecrated virgin is like a common dandelion growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to the ordinary. She smells Christ in the sweat of the crowd, glimpses him in the blur of the highway, and hears him in the cashier’s voice. She works an ordinary job, she wears no outward sign of her call, and she sins like everyone else. She is easily overlooked, like a smile from a passing stranger.

A consecrated virgin is a living sign of Christ’s sacred love which pulses through the most mundane suburbs and boring country towns. She is the mystical wife of Christ and the spiritual mother to many. Though they may have ordinary careers, each consecrated virgin has a unique charism. Some dedicate their lives to serving the homeless, others minister to the drug-addicted, and still others are called to give spiritual strength to those who suffer from same-sex attraction. She becomes a mother to the societal orphans, whether they be the mentally ill or the hardened sinner. You might even say that she is a mystical working wife and mother. Consecrated virgins are not called to give up all their possessions or to renounce every kind of worldly comfort. They are simply called to embrace the crosses of love they encounter in everyday life. After all, even something as small as a smile can be a radical sacrifice.

In our dating-focused and sex-obsessed culture, a consecrated virgin’s existence makes little sense. Even some circles of the Church write her off as a “dud” who simply can’t find a husband. Perhaps she herself has felt that she belongs on the Island of Misfit Toys — a woman who is not fit for anything in particular. Yet, the Blessed Mother was a crazy woman according to her society’s standards: a married virgin, an outcast’s mother. A consecrated virgin is simply following in her Mother’s footsteps. For isn’t she, too, a mystically married virgin and the mother to the thrown-away?

A consecrated virgin smiles at you because she has set aside her entire life to be deeply interested in each person she encounters. You aren’t a stranger she’ll forget about in five seconds — you are her vocation. She smiles at her own reflection in the mirror because she knows she is Christ’s beloved. She grins because she has accepted her call to be the smile of the Church. Most of all, she smiles at Christ in the Eucharist, her husband, friend and creator. Yes, she smiles quite a bit.

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