On June 30, I will profess first vows as a Sister of Providence. Three years in, and I get to make the commitment formal.
I will profess vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for a period of one year. After a year, I’ll renew these vows as needed for periods of 1-3 years at a time until I’m ready for final (or perpetual) vows.
Okay, so why? What is the purpose of these vows?
Well, much has been written on this very topic. The piece that most closely resembles my own attraction to the vows is an article by Tracy Kemme, SC, in the recently-published In Our Own Words: Religious Life in a Changing World. If you want a deeper dive, I highly suggest finding a copy of the book and reading that essay.
For now, though, a quick primer:
Poverty as lived in religious life is quite possibly the most elusive. Though it means material poverty in the sense that we no longer own anything personally, it also goes deeper. Poverty of spirit includes a willingness to let go of my own ways of approaching things, a willingness to give myself over for the greater good – for the Kindom of God. As our Constitutions says, it includes “detachment from material possessions and unreasonable adherence to personal opinions” (18). Ouch. That “personal opinions” part stings.
Though we recognize that we will never truly experience poverty, the vow of poverty frees us to work with those who are materially poor in our society as well as those who have been cast out in any number of ways. It calls us to get in touch with our own sense of dependence and inter-dependence. It invites us to understand in a deeper way at least pieces of the experiences of those living on the edge of despair – financially or otherwise.
The vow of poverty is both connected to and distinct from our use of the common fund (that pool of communal resources out of which we pay our bills and meet all of our needs). It’s about standing in solidarity with both the materially poor and the materially rich. It’s about recognizing our fundamental dependence on God. And it’s about sharing as gift in a world generously given to all by our loving God.
Whether this vow should be called “chastity” or “celibacy” is an ongoing debate. There’s a difference. Chastity is about right relationship and often understood as appropriate physical expression of that relationship. All people are called to chastity. Celibacy is about not getting married. Possibly the most correct phrasing of this vow in relation to religious life is “chastity in a life of consecrated celibacy,” but that’s pretty bulky.
Either way, though, chastity is about right relationship and freedom for mission. By giving up partners and families of our own, we are free to respond more wholly to the needs of the world in any given moment. This is not about self-sacrifice for the greater good. Marriage and family are holy vocations, too. Rather, this vow in this particular life form is about a way that I can best use and express my love and my creative energies. As Tracy Kemme says in the above-mentioned essay, “We have hearts made to hold everybody and spirits bent on creating a world that does, too.”
Possibly the vow whose understanding has transformed the most in the past 50-60 years, obedience is decidedly not about blind obedience or doing what the “superior” tells you to do just because the “superior” told you to do it. Current understandings of the vow of obedience take us back to the Latin roots of the word: ob-audiere. To listen.
In religious life today, we think of obedience as deep listening. We must listen deeply to the voice of the Spirit in ourselves, in others in our community, in our leadership teams, in our friends, and in the world around us. God speaks to us individually and communally in myriad ways. We practice the process of discernment to help us find the direction that God is calling us – and sometimes there isn’t a right answer. Obedience involves fidelity to the journey of discernment and to taking seriously the exploration, especially through your own resistances and the perspectives of those who might be deeply different than yours. It results in follow-through – the action itself.
As Tracy Kemme says, “When we vow obedience, we commit to a lifetime of pressing our ears earnestly to the heart of God to find out what piece of the great work is ours to do.”