I’m 24 years old, and next year I’m undergoing the “consecration of virgins” ceremony from Catholic tradition, where essentially I agree to give up romantic attatchments and “marry” myself to God, like halfway to being a nun. I’m very excited about this, and have already started plans for the ceremony, including dresses and rings and whatnot. Hurray for future fancy clothes day! \o/
My problem is with my family. None of my family are invited to the ceremony – I haven’t even told them that I’m undergoing it. I’m keeping the ceremony strictly in-faith, mainly because of the “woo” factor, but my family aren’t Catholic, and while my family are subscribed to the Big Man In The Sky idea, they’re not sold on the more “woo” aspects like divine intervention or godspousery. While they can believe what they like, freedom of faith and all that jazz, I’m not comfortable handling the spiritual disbelief of half my guests at my “wedding”. There’s also complicated history between us which I don’t want encroaching on what is a really important day for me. But I know they’re going to be hurt if I don’t invite them, and I feel horribly guilty about it, especially since this’ll be the closest thing they’ll get to a big white wedding for me!
How do I explain to my family about my upcoming “marriage” and why they’re not invited?
All The Lace
(ps: although I know you probably wouldn’t do this, I just want to make it clear that I’m not interested in any advice on finding “real” datemates to have a “real” marriage ❤ )
Dear All The Lace,
I confess, I had never heard of the consecration of virgins as a thing that’s distinct from becoming a nun until I read your letter. How interesting! I included your email subject line verbatim and while came in a while ago, something about the “invite people or don’t, but don’t mess with half-measures” bit from last week’s post about weddings shook something loose and gave me the framework to finally answer it, so it’s going with the wedding stuff.
As with a wedding, you can invite/not invite anybody you want to the ceremony. You can inform your folks about the ritual and its meaning to you, or you could frame it as “Please come to this special day at my church” and not spell out all details. You could send announcements after the fact, with an attitude of “Hey, check out my very happy news!” without justification, since you’re doing a thing you’re excited about. Tell your good news. You don’t have to manage everyone’s feelings about this.
My chief recommendation is to invite people in your family wholeheartedly and celebrate with the ones who come, or don’t invite them, but there’s no middle path where you get to say “You’re not invited to my very special party (but I also want you to care about it almost as much as I do)” and expect that to go well.
Furthermore, I would advise that invitations before or announcements after be positively geared to communicate your excitement about the specific event that is happening (vs. driving the By The Way, This is The Only Wedding You’ll Ever Get, Sorry If That Disappoints You message all the way home). I am not sure all life decisions – especially ones that you wish to firmly discourage people from giving input on – need to be formally announced or discussed in depth with the people you would prefer not to receive input from. I don’t have children, there was never a moment where I explained that to my family and they all nodded and said ‘Yes, we understand!’ or ‘No, you are cast out!’ My parents are quietly disappointed to not be grandparents, they have the grace to mostly keep that to themselves and not pressure me, and even if they didn’t I wouldn’t owe them updates. From their perspective, I either don’t want or can’t have children (Spoiler: It’s both!), every year that I don’t add a wee Awkward being to the world makes its own case for that being true. As long as you keep not marrying anybody your parents will have evidence that you are not marrying anybody, and if they’re the kind of parents who are determined that you should marry somebody anyway, I regret to inform you that even announcing your decision well in advance or explaining it perfectly won’t convince them or close the topic if they want it re-opened. That doesn’t mean it’s a negotiation. If “Remember when I converted to Catholicism and had a special ceremony where I publicly affirmed my plan to remain eternally celibate and single, do I need to run through all that again or are we good?” isn’t getting the point across, one alternative script that has a chance of inviting less – not zero, but less – back-and-forth commentary is something like “Oh, I don’t see myself ever doing that/Oh, you know that’s not a priority for me” + “But you’ll be the first to know if I change my mind!”
The last part, about changing your mind, is strategy, not capitulation. If you know you won’t change your mind, pre-empting the patronizing/concerned/surprised/disappointed “Oh, you’ll definitely change your mind!” crowd means that everyone gets to walk away feeling right, and you get to still be right since you’re the ultimate boss of your life. Making it very boring ends the discussion sooner, other people can imagine what they want about your future, you don’t have to debate each and every one of them in order to keep choosing what’s right for you. People who are more interested in being an authority about you than they are in listening to you are making a choice to prioritize their idea of you, you don’t have to feel guilty about fending them off with platitudes or letting them think what they want while you do what you know is best.
(“Do I want this person to understand & agree with me?” vs. “Do I want this person to change their behavior?” can simultaneously exist as deeply-desired outcomes and as real-world reminders to keep expectations low and prioritize changed actions over understanding. To say I think about this separation almost every waking moment of every day, both when sorting out interpersonal conflicts here and when reacting to the deteriorating political situation and growing human rights abuses in my country, would not be an understatement. As long as people do the right thing now, they can understand (or not) at their leisure.)
The problem in your letter isn’t just that “Hey, I’m doing this momentous huge important life-altering thing, by the way, you can’t come” is a message that could use some finesse, it’s that what I see in your letter is actually an enormous hunger to be seen and understood and to have this milestone celebrated and recognized the way a wedding or other big life moment would be recognized in the culture of your family. So I have to ask, what’s the worst thing that happens if you tell people what you’re doing and why and invite them to share it with you?
Our anxieties get so busy running all the most dramatic simulations that they never leave enough room for the possibility of anticlimax, but maybe they should. Remember the Bible story about when Jesus went back to his hometown and was all “Look at me, I’m the son of God, repent!” and the neighbors were like “Huh, that was an interesting service. Wasn’t that Joseph-The-Carpenter’s kid? Boy, he has some strange ideas but I still have the table he made me. Proper table, that. What’s for lunch?”
What if your big news went over like Young Jesus’s?
You: “Guess what I’ve converted to Catholicism!”
Family: “Nice! Can you pass the salt?”
You: “No, I mean I’ve REALLY converted, plus I’m going to do this extra special version where I pledge eternal virginity in service to the church. ”
Family: “So, you’re becoming a nun? Whoa! Intense!”
You: “Not a nun, exactly, I won’t be working for the church or living in a religious community, but kinda similar. There are vows, and a ceremony.”
Family: “Huh. Eternal virginity, haven’t heard of that before, but I guess that’s up to you, dear. Want some dessert? We’ve got lemon bars, or I think there’s still some Jello salad from the picnic.”
You: “Also, I’m not ever having a wedding. Would you like to come to a special party at my new church where I announce my commitment to God?”
Family: “When is it? We’ll have to check the calendar. What’s the dress code and do we need to bring anything?”
You: “You do understand that this is the only time I’ll wear a big white dress and make vows in a church, right? I won’t ever marry anyone?”
Family: “Huh, you never seemed all that interested in getting married, so this isn’t a shocker. Need help picking out your dress? Do you want to wear Great-Grandma’s veil?”
You know your family best, so your sense that they wouldn’t understand doesn’t come out of nowhere and I believe you if you predict this wouldn’t go over well, I believe you if you just don’t want them to know or come. But they aren’t a monolith and your letter didn’t say you’d ever discussed any of this with any of them before, so is it worth double-checking, especially with the people who are usually in your corner? Are you sure there’s nobody in your whole family who might say “You’re right, I don’t understand, but I want to. Can you tell me about it? Do you have to be Catholic to come? Wanna go dress shopping?”
Consider also that we can be uneasy about other people’s decisions and a) still be kind to the person about their choices and b) change our minds over time when we see how things turn out. Is our friend marrying the right person? Did our sibling pick the right career? Was smooth jazz the right genre for our sax-playing Dad or would he have been better off playing the be-bop? Who knows? Our worries are our own affair in the end as long as we don’t have to marry that dude or do that job or blow those riffs ourselves, we can just say “Ok, congratulations, good luck with all that!” and trust the other person’s happiness over time to be the deciding factor. I’d rather be a thousand times wrong in a prediction of doom and unhappiness if the alternative is the person who is actually affected being happy and well.
As you get closer to decision time, commit to the thing that you want and do it. Is doing this thing alone, or just with your chosen few Church-people, and staying very vague about the whole thing with your family worth it in exchange for the peace of months without arguments and stilted interactions between now and the big day? Possibly yes! (Wanting a wedding – or “wedding” day in your case – that’s free of judgment and just for the trusted people who are safe to be around is an okay thing to want, just ask any gay person related to a bunch of homophobes who are convinced that all non-straights go to Hell.)
Alternately, in your heart of hearts, is this big momentous occasion worth the risk of trying to include your family, worth giving them an opportunity to surprise you and hoping they’ll show up for you? You have time between now and next year, so if their initial reactions are less than enthused, there’s some room for them to rally. If this is what you truly want, your next step is probably to compose and send a letter with the history and practice of the ceremony, a brief explanation of what it means to you personally, maybe tuck in a “Save The Date” card, and trust that some people will want to be there for you. Your pastor and any sponsors for the event itself will have some guidance about the informing and inviting family (2,000+ years of ritual and obsessive documentation have gotta come in handy somewhere) so can you tell them your worries and your plan and let them advise you on how to share this news?
Inviting family into any big change means inviting some conversations, maybe some difficult ones, and your folks might not be supportive. If that happens, I am truly sorry. Just, from where I’m sitting, approaching this from a place of “You’re not invited to this intense and obscure religious ritual that you would have no possible frame of reference for and that we’ve never discussed until now (but please care about this like the momentous occasion that it is, though!)” place is kinda…doomed…to be self-fulfilling. Maybe your family won’t get it even if you do tell them about it, maybe they have concerns that go beyond “woo” (“But what about all the homophobia, misogyny, and rampant abuse?” isn’t exactly a ridiculous or dismissive question, honestly this might be my question if someone close to me who wasn’t brought up within the church told me they were joining on purpose from scratch). Bottom line is, if you know this is right for you, it’s your decision, if you don’t want to tell people why it’s important to you, how could they ever possibly understand? You have a story of what brought you here, is there a version of this story that you’d be comfortable telling your family? The Catholic Church as an institution and I are incredibly not on speaking terms anymore but I don’t have to be a believer to want to know your story, to root for you to be happy, or to find some of the stories I grew up with meaningful and beautiful. What is faith if not a commitment to try one’s best without any guarantees? What is the story of God’s love if not a story about giving humans a chance to do the right thing against all evidence and reasonable expectation that they will?
Does “love” mean that your family must understand, agree with, and believe all the same things you do in order to be present and support this step you’re taking? If so, you’re absolutely right, I could never meet you on those terms, better to send me an announcement card in the mail after the fact, I can have my “WTF?” reaction in private and be ready with a “Congratulations on your eternal virginity thing, Cousin Lace! Was it everything you hoped for and are there pictures of you in your pretty dress?” next time we cross paths.
If love doesn’t have to agree, believe, or understand, maybe it can be invitation, one that says “I love you and I want you here with me, no matter what, please come.” Where there are invitations, there can also be RSVPs, maybe yours has two boxes to check, the first one says “I love you, too, but I can’t make it that day” and the other one says “I love you too, and heck, I don’t understand any of this, but you asked me to come, so obviously I will be there.” An invitation isn’t a command, it’s just directions to a party that might be worth showing up for, a party where, as long as the guests are happy to be part of an important person’s important day, it might be okay to be full of doubt and awkward as all get out.