Marilla Cuthbert and the God Who Sets the Lonely in Families

What a new story of intimacy might look like.

By Anika Smith Published on February 13, 2015

In my community, there are a handful of homes with single individuals living with married couples who have, or are expecting, children. Having this gift during a season where we might be tempted to curve in on ourselves, takes us out of ourselves and involves us in the daily lives of the families we’ve become a part of. God gives us reason to rejoice. As Dawn Eden writes in The Thrill of the Chaste, the most challenging thing about celibacy isn’t temptation. It’s joyfully facing day-to-day life as a cultural outsider.

Q Ideas recently posted a talk by Julie Rodgers on sexual identity and the church. She spoke about celibacy as a person with same-sex attraction who lives according to Christian teaching, and what makes her witness compelling is the purpose she finds in her celibacy:

I believe one of the ways that you can begin to change this conversation about sexuality is by telling a different story of what it means to be known and to be loved and to belong. Telling a different story about the beauty of a life that’s sold out to passionately following Jesus and living out the vocation that He’s given to us. Celebrating the unique vocations He’s given to us, many of those being about service in the church and service to a hurting world that’s dying for love.

Meanwhile, we’re over here going, “Oh, nobody loves me, what’s wrong with me?” But there’s all these places that we can be giving our love away. And we need to be told more of those stories of how we can give our love away as single people, how we can love and be loved as celibate men and women in the church.

Finding a different story is not hard if you have the right books. While the opportunities single women have for vocation have expanded beyond schoolteacher or governess, a good story from a century ago can tell us more than all of Oprah’s book club today.

In my case, the right book is Anne of Green Gables (yes, I was homeschooled). I’m going through the series again, and while I usually focus on Anne Shirley and her pre-feminist vocation or her slowly dawning romance with Gilbert Blythe, what stands out on this reading is Marilla Cuthbert and the sweet way L. M. Montgomery develops her character.

Marilla is old when we meet her, an “old maid” living with her “old bachelor” brother, Matthew. We learn that she has been disappointed in life, having had and lost her only “beau” and choosing to live a secluded and orderly life under her own rule. She is stern and strict, though she also has the saving grace of common sense and a dry wit. Her experience of life is narrow until she opens her home to an orphaned child, first as a duty, then as her dearest joy.Anne_of_Avonlea

After many years, what had been Marilla’s duty becomes her salvation. When her brother dies, she nearly loses both her farm and her eyesight, but Anne sacrifices a college scholarship in order to spare Marilla and save her home.

A little later, a distant relative dies, leaving two children without a guardian. Though the claim of duty is weak, Marilla responds again and adopts a set of six-year-old twins who begin as nuisances but become comfort and support to her in her old age. Along with Anne, they become her family, the children she could not have as a spinster that Providence brought to her regardless. As her brother Matthew said:

She’s been a blessing to us, and there never was a luckier mistake than what Mrs. Spencer made — if it was luck. I don’t believe it was any such thing. It was Providence, because the Almighty saw we needed her, I reckon.

This is a story about trusting in a God who sets the lonely in families and makes the barren woman abide in the house as a joyful mother of children.

But we have to open our hearts. It’s a lesson that Marilla learns slowly because years of habit — including a failed romance —  have taught her to keep her guard up and expect the worst. The mercy God has on her is that she is saved from her empty life and filled with good things — with joy and sorrow, love and intimacy, and great comfort to her weary heart. Her story began with a profound lack of love and ended with a feast.

Which brings us back to Julie Rodgers, who shares in her own story how the loneliness of celibacy also has grace. In her case, people have offered her a room in their home and told her she could be “Aunt Julie” to their kids for the rest of her life.

That gives me so much hope and peace and comfort in the here and now. Because we can live without sex, y’all, but we can’t live without intimacy.

Rodgers continues with a call to sharing intimacy in the church across “societal pockets,” singles with married couples, the celibate with families: “I think it’s a gift to everybody. I believe that we single people can be a gift to the families in our communities when we just go do finger-painting with the kids and when we can bring some pizza and wine and ice cream at the end of a long day.” We all need that, she says.

We can be a gift to one another by changing our rhythms and sharing our lives with one another. The joys, the sorrows, all of it. And I believe in doing that, not only will we be a gift to one another within our communities, but we’ll be a testimony to a watching world. . . . That shouldn’t be a burden that anyone is bearing alone, that they might not find someone to marry and share life with. But we as a Christian community are bearing one another’s burdens in love.

It’s a beautiful call, but it might not have been so bold a century ago, when it was more common to have friends and relations living in the small rooms of large farmhouses. Lifelong celibacy — whether because of old-fashioned case of old bachelorhood or old maidenhood like Matthew’s and Marilla’s, or orientation and God’s command like Julie Rodgers’, or God’s call for your vocation like Dawn Eden — is not a death knell to the desire for love and belonging. It’s an invitation further up and further into the heart of the Father.

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