AN INTRODUCTION TO THE VOWS:
THE PATH TO PERFECTION
Sr. Sara Marie Kowal, sctjm
The Essence of the Vows
The rich young man came to Jesus with a question: “What must I do?” (Mk 10:17). With this question, the rich young man reveals in his heart angst for “something more.” He asked Jesus this question because his heart was not satisfied with what he had been doing; he felt he needed “more.” “What must I do?...And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have and you will have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me” (Mark 10:17-22). This exchange in some ways reveals the very essence of the vows: they are a call to a higher perfection. Motivated by angst for “something more,” we too ask Jesus “what must I do?” His answer is an invitation of love – to perfect love: “sell all you have and come and follow me.” The invitation to follow Christ through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience is an invitation to a greater perfection, to a greater union with Love Incarnate. The vows are the means, the path, the road, through which we travel when we choose to “come and follow Him.”
What is a Vow?
Canon 1191.1 defines the vows as follows: “A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled but the reason of the virtue of religion.” This beautiful and concise definition is full of many important elements that are worth discussing one by one.
First, a vow is a “deliberate and free” promise. This means that a vow, in order to be valid, must be made with full knowledge (deliberate) and in total freedom (free). In other words, we must know what we are saying, and nothing and no one should force us to make it. We must know the vows and want to make them. This only makes sense, for many reasons. Foremost, we must remember that with these vows, we are marrying God, and just like any husband, He too desires that we marry Him because we know what it entails and because we want to do it. The Lord, like any spouse, desires a joyful and enthusiastic yes – not one based in compulsion, fear, or necessity.
Second, a vow is “made to God.” This is done through a representative, but ultimately the vow is made directly to God and His Body the Church. This gives it a great moral weight. We can think of this as a “double weight” for both the good and the bad. What does this mean? For example, normally, when we do something good, we earn merit for this good act. However, with the vow, we earn “double” the merit for every good act; first, because it was good, and second, because the act also fulfilled the vow we had taken. That good act was good for two reasons, making it a better act than the same act done without the vow. This is one of the reasons that religious life is so fecund and life-giving for the world. The simple act of doing the dishes out of love for God becomes even more fruitful when done under a vow – for we are doing the good act and fulfilling our vow by doing it. What a great gift this is! However, it is also a great responsibility. First, because any bad act has a “double” evil to it: it is bad in and of itself, and it is bad because, by it, one is breaking a vow. Therefore, sins by those who have taken vows are more harmful and have much greater consequences than sins done by those who have not taken vows. Very simply, the vows are a pledge to love God more perfectly, more fully. It “hurts” more when we fail to love God when we had formally promised to do so to a higher degree. From this, we can see that there is a great weight of moral responsibility placed upon those who have taken vows. This responsibility can seem overwhelming in the face of our misery, weakness and frailty. However, with the call comes the grace. “The one who calls us is faithful and he will do it” (cf. 1 Thes 5:24). Furthermore, not only is the weight of responsibility possible to bear with God’s grace, but it actually becomes our maturity, our joy, our salvation and what sustains us. In short, it is precisely the responsibility that leads us to holiness. The responsibility with which we have been entrusted calls us to constantly look beyond ourselves to the mission we have been entrusted with. Responsibility forces us to transcend ourselves and to see something greater – the call and plan of God for each one of His children. He desires for us to participate in this plan, and we do this accepting the responsibility of the mission with which He desires to entrust us. Far from crushing us, it actually leads to our heavenly glory. Our heavenly glory will be a direct result of the responsibility we have assumed and what we did with it because responsibility is a reward that reveals our dignity. Fr. Cantalamessa writes, “Before God, the spiritual greatness of a person in this life is not in fact measured so much by what God gives, as by what God asks of the person” (Mary: Mirror of the Church, p.82).
The fact that we make our vows to God opens us up to another reality – we also make our vows to the Church, which is the Body of Christ. The vows are a solemn promise to the Church that our lives will be given over as a complete sacrificial oblation to her as well. This offering of self to the Church is how we enflesh the vows, how we live them out. We fulfill our promise to God by living for the Church – and specifically the people that make up the Church – which is Christ’s tangible and visible Body here on earth. In some sense, the vows are a promise to each and every member of the Church to love them with Christ’s perfect love. This, in fact, is how we “measure” the living out of our vows. How do we know that we are fulfilling our promises of poverty, chastity and obedience to God? We know by the way we are living out poverty, chastity and obedience to the people in our lives. The way in which each of these is lived out “for the Church” will be discussed in detail when we examine each vow individually.
Furthermore, with the vows, religious consecrate themselves to the Church, to become the Church’s exclusive possession. The life of the religious becomes a complete holocaust to self; this holocaust is intimately united to the sacrifice of the Eucharist, in which they unite themselves to Christ’s total self-giving, and in which they become, with His Body, present in the Eucharistic species. Therefore, we can see again how the actions of religious under vows, due to their greater union with the Church, have a greater effect – for good and bad.
Finally, the charity or love that both motivates and flows from the vows unites the life of a religious in a unique way with the Church who is Love. We have heard it said that love is the heart and motor of the Church. Without love, our actions mean nothing and have no effect (1 Cor 13). Our actions are efficacious to the extent that they are motivated by and done in love. Only love gives value to what we do – no matter how seemingly great or small an act may be. Therefore, a religious, who has made a great act of love by her profession of the vows, lives in a special way in the “heart” of the Church. The love with which she lives her vows is the “fuel” for the Church. This love is what keeps the hearts of the Church beating, what sustains her. No matter how hidden or unseen is the life of the religious, her sacrificial and loving offering of self keeps the Church alive – because of her love. This is precisely the “greatness” of St. Therese of the Child Jesus who claimed, “In the heart of the Church, I will be love!” Though unseen and unknown to the world, she gave it life by “being” love. This love, lived in and for the Church, brings about the Church’s transformation. “John Paul II explains in Redemptoris donum that the transformation of the world will be brought about only from within, through the transformation of the human heart. Thus the evangelical counsels, being the most radical means for effecting this interior transformation, are the most radical means of transforming the world” (Revisiting the Vision, p. 88, citing RD 9). The vows transform the heart because they are acts of love, and love transforms the Church and the world.
Finally, the vows involve the choosing of a “possible and better good.” This good that we choose when we make the vows first of all is possible. Ultimately this “good” is God Himself, but it also implies a way of life that is an imitation of Christ’s life. It may seem obvious to say that it is a “possible good.” However, it is important to know that it is possible – otherwise, we should not do it, because we would be trying to reach something in vain. As well, it is important to understand that this conformity to the life of Christ, of living in union with God, is not humanly possible by our efforts and willpower. Only God, by giving us the gift of His Spirit, makes it possible to live this supernatural calling. We should remain perpetually grateful that it is, in fact, possible.
As well as being a “possible” good, it is also a “better” good. Again, this is important, because if it was not better good, choosing it would not be pleasing to the Lord. We should always seek the highest and greatest good – it makes no sense to do otherwise. Knowing that it is objectively a better and superior good should also help us to see what a great gift is the gift of a religious vocation. The call to the consecrated life is a call to something greater and better, a call to “the more.” This is why one of the tell-tale signs of a religious vocation is angst in the heart for something “more.” In choosing to follow the call to consecrated life, one gives up the good and the lawful to inherit the Eternal Good and the Eternal Law; it is trading an apple for a whole orchard. It is of utmost importance to always keep this vision on mind, for our vocation will be weakened to the extent that we cease to see it as a gift and a better good. A vocation will not be lived with generosity and joy if it is seen as a burden and a heavy renunciation of all good. Instead, joyful vocations are those that know that they have inherited the greatest Good and Treasure possible.
An Act of Worship
Not only are the vows an act of worship, but they are the highest form of worship. When we profess the vows, our whole self is handed over to the Lord and becomes a total living sacrifice: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren but the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1-2). When we profess the vows, we hold nothing back from the Lord, but instead offer our whole being as an act of spiritual worship to the Father. Beautifully, because the religious has given her entire self to God, this means that everything good that she does become a fruitful and efficacious offering to the Lord. No matter how small the act – sitting and reading a book, speaking to someone on the phone, doing the dishes, evening sleeping – it is fruitful. As long as a religious lives by her rule, she will be worshiping the Lord every moment of her life.
John Paul II wrote, “This is why, with St. Thomas, we come to understand the identity of the consecrated person, beginning with his or her complete self-offering, as being comparable to a genuine holocaust” (Vita Consecrata, 17). Holo- means total. In a holocaust, the offering is totally consumed. The consecrated life is a true martyrdom in which one offers oneself as a holocaust to the Lord. For example, imagine that your father gives you $100 to do with as you please. Legitimately, you can spend this money on anything good, invest it, etc. Or you could choose to use all the money to buy a gift for your father. Our lives are similar. We are given them as a gift to do with as we choose (always assuming it is something good). However, religious consecration, in a sense, is the giving back to the Father the whole $100. We place our lives completely in back in His hands to do with as He pleases – as a gift of gratitude for giving us the $100 in the first place. In religious consecration, we do not just give the Lord the fruit of our tree, but the entire tree. We do not give God only our good actions, but we give Him the will that wills the acts.
Beautifully, it is precisely this act of total surrender which brings about our union with God. Very simply, we place ourselves in God’s hands and vow to live in communion with Him always. Again, the word holocaust demonstrates this reality. The Hebrew word for holocaust is the word olah, which means elevation. In the burning of the holocaust or sacrifice, the thing being burned turns into smoke and begins to rise. It is elevated. It is transformed into a form that is able to rise up to God. A holocaust is a way to place the victim in God. Therefore, it is precisely through our self-offering, by making ourselves a holocaust, that we enable ourselves to be elevated to God and placed “in” Him.
What do the Vows Do?
Now that we have come to understand more fully what the vows are, it is important to also understand what the vows do. In other words, what effects to the vows bring about in our lives? First, they help to purify and order our wills. It is one thing to know something, and another to love it. Unfortunately, our wills are inordinately attached to many “false loves” that we place over and above the Lord. We do not love Him as we should. To use an analogy, these false loves tend to “steal” our love that should be reserved for God alone and to diminish its ardor and intensity. We have only so much “spiritual energy” with which to attach ourselves and to love. We often “waste” it on many other things. The vows remove these things so we can focus more freely and perfectly on the Lord.
There three particularly strong “loves” to which we are very susceptible to growing inordinately attached. The first of these is possessions. We have a deep desire to possess, which is rooted deeply in our hearts. Though this desire is not bad, because of concupiscence, it tends to be disordered – we desire to have too much, to have more than we need, and to have things more than to have God. The vow of poverty combats this desire to possess through a renunciation of possessions; the vow of poverty renounces personal possessions so that the heart can be free to receive and “possess” God. Another love to which we are inordinately attached is our own will. We want to do what we want and when we want. Again, this desire to be free creatures, to be able to choose, is a good desire. However, sin has distorted this desire so that this desire to choose our own path is often placed before God’s will, God’s desires, and at the expense of others. In other words, we try and become our own gods. This abuse of freedom – choosing something other than God’s will – is perhaps the gravest disorder of the human heart. True freedom is the ability to choose the good freely, not to choose what is contrary to God and men. Therefore, the vow of obedience combats this disordered inclination of the human heart through the free submission of our wills to the authority of our religious community. It helps to place our disordered wills in order. With the vow of obedience we freely hand over our wills in order to be able to find our true freedom in the following the Lord’s will. Finally, the vow of chastity helps to order our strong desire for sensual or bodily pleasure. Again, sensual and bodily pleasure is an authentically good gift of the Lord that flows forth from marital love. However, as is very often seen, we allow our desire for this pleasure to overcome us, and we choose to have it when we should not. This indulgence of bodily pleasure outside its proper context, this giving of bodily pleasure more importance than authentic love, is a disorder. Therefore, by making a vow of chastity, religious renounce this legitimate good of a physical marital relationship. Practically, this helps to focus one’s heart more easily on the Lord by renouncing a good that very easily consumes the heart, becomes disordered, and inclines our hearts to a deep attachment. More so, however, chastity is the renouncement of earthly marriage in order to have a heavenly one.
In summary, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the vows help to fix our attention steadfastly on the good and motivate the will to determinedly carry it out without getting distracted or giving up. They set our sights and hearts on the highest goods – perfect union with the Lord. They help the heart stay focused and clear about what and Who it is living for. Moreover and very beautifully, the vows themselves bring the graces that help to fulfill them. When we choose to respond to the Lord’s invitation of Love, the Lord rewards this election for Him with the necessary graces to carry it out. “He has called you is faithful and he will do it” (cf. 1 Thes 5:24).
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