On the Life of Vows
Talk originally given to a group of young people in November 2014
By Dom Benedict Hardy OSB, Prior of Pluscarden
St. Benedict writes a Chapter in his Rule on the reception of new brethren into the community (cf. Holy Rule ch 58). The Chapter takes the postulant and novice through the various stages of formation, until finally he is ready to commit the whole of his life, all he has and is, to God. He does that by taking vows.
St. Benedict’s three vows are Obedience, Stability and Conversion of life. Of course for him these only happen once. Following the Code of Canon law, we now first have a period of Temporary vows, for between three and nine years, followed by Final or Solemn vows at the end of that period.
The modern commentators tell us that probably St. Benedict didn’t think of monastic profession as the taking of three separate vows. But he does love the number three: especially prevalent in this Chapter! So he gives us a three-fold phrase to express what for him is essentially a single promise: simply to commit myself to monastic life (in this monastery, and this community) until I die. St. Benedict doesn’t speak - as such - of the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Obviously though each of these is present, and essential, in the life of a Benedictine monk. St. Benedict does of course speak of each of them at other places in his Rule. It was the friars of the 13th century who worked out that religious life can be defined as life according to these three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. We call them the “Evangelical Counsels”. They are what Jesus in the Gospel recommended for some, as opposed to what he commanded for all.
Still now the Catholic Church officially defines these three vows as the defining element of the Consecrated Life. One place she does so is the Code of Canon Law. The text of the 1983 Code is strongly rooted in the documents of Vatican II, especially Lumen gentium, the 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. I thought I’d speak very briefly now on some of what the Church says there about the life of vows.
The Evangelical Counsels, says the Code of Canon Law, Canon 575, based on the teaching and example of Christ the Master, are a divine gift which the Church received from the Lord, and which by his grace it preserves always.
To imitate Christ Poor, Chaste and Obedient is then above all a gift, and the gift is given in the first place to the Church herself. Clearly it’s beyond the capacity of any individual. Can I live this way? Obviously not! That is: I couldn’t possibly do it without a divine call, and divine help! But nothing is beyond the power of God’s grace to uphold and promote. And when he offers a gift like this, we can be certain he will ensure the person has all the helps he needs to accept the gift, with generosity and joy, both for his own good, and for the good of the whole Church.
But why make vows? Why not just stay as a devout lay person, and try to do good wherever one finds oneself?
The Code gives us one answer to that when, later on, it defines what a vow is. For this definition, it borrows directly the language of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God of a good that is possible, and better than its omission.” (Can. 1191, § 1.)
So: a vow is a promise, not a mere resolve. It’s made to God, and therefore it’s an act of religion, and of worship. It’s both deliberate and free. Deliberate implies sufficient knowledge and understanding; so there is always a lengthy period of formation leading up to the vow, without which the vow would be invalid in the eyes of the Church. It must also be free, of necessity. The person must wants it, and not be driven by fear, or external pressure of any sort, which also would nullify the vow.
The object of the vow has to be possible, and morally sound. So a vow to fly to the moon would be invalid; because that’s impossible. Also invalid would have been, for example, the vow of the Jews in Acts 23:14 to kill St. Paul. Obviously that would have been a sacrilege, in no way pleasing to God. Another example of invalidity would be, for example, a vow to walk to Jerusalem, if doing that would prevent me from fulfilling my duty to pay back a loan I owe, or to look after my children.
But the Code recognises that for those who are called, taking the vows of religion is better than not taking them. That might seem obvious, but it’s good to hear it spelled out. With my vows I am in a better place than I would be without: my life is more securely, more resolutely set in the direction in which it should go; my will is strengthened, and all I do is consecrated by my vow, in a way that is very pleasing to God, useful for the Church and the world, and good for my own sanctification and salvation.
The Code of Canon Law also beautifully and helpfully offers us a definition of the consecrated life itself: the life which people in vows live. Let me go through this definition phrase by phrase:
can. 573 § 1. Life consecrated through profession of the evangelical Counsels is a stable form of living...
That echoes St. Benedict’s vow of Stability. We’ve spoken a bit of this already. It’s of the essence of our life that it not be temporary. Our vows express total, life-long, unconditional commitment: just as the vows of married people do. People outside also need to know, and be able to trust, that we are not just going to give up and push off somewhere. If married people are expected to be faithful to their vows, how much more religious! Religious especially have to be images of God, of Christ, precisely in their fidelity. And it’s a fact that our way of life can be a reference point for lots of people; a sign of the solidity and permanence of the whole Church, and of the promise of salvation. We aren’t just playing games; this is serious.
Life consecrated through profession of the evangelical Counsels is a stable form of living: in which the faithful follow Christ more closely...
That is, we follow Christ more closely than we could if we weren’t in vows. It’s not at all a question of being better than people who aren’t in vows. It’s a question of our chosen state of life, of our vocation. An analogy would be the Twelve disciples of the Lord, who were called to leave all things and follow him. But Jesus also had friends and disciples, such as Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who were not called to leave their home. Their vocation, their state in life, was different from that of the twelve. They were faithful to Christ by staying at home, and practising hospitality. If any of the Twelve had done that, they would not have been faithful. They followed him all the time, even in his homelessness, his harassment by authorities, his going up to Jerusalem, and to his death, in obedience to the will of his Father.
Life consecrated through profession of the evangelical Counsels is a stable form of living: in which the faithful follow Christ more closely, under the action of the Holy Spirit...
So: the main one acting here is not so much the person who takes the vows, as the Holy Spirit who inspires him, works within him, leads him to act. The person concerned certainly has to be generous; but the initiative is the Lord’s, not his. That’s extremely consoling! Why am I here? Because the Lord called me; because he wants me here. No other reason! Why am I here? Is it because I’m better than other people? Not at all: the monk is bound to think of himself as precisely worse than other people. He’s a sinner! But the Lord chose a very small and strange band to fill Gideon’s army. With them Gideon defeated the Amalekites: precisely to show that the victory came not from Israel’s own strength, but only from the Lord.
Life consecrated through profession of the evangelical Counsels is a stable form of living: in which the faithful follow Christ more closely, under the action of the Holy Spirit: in order to be totally dedicated to God, who is supremely loved.
To love God supremely is what everyone should do. It’s not just a commandment: it’s the only rational thing to do. To fail in it is irrational. Who would love something less rather than something greater? That is madness and self destruction. So if we are enabled to direct the whole of our life to this end, then that’s our joy, and glory! To be totally dedicated to God, even here on this earth, is such a privilege! It’s what we will all be, of course, in heaven! The Code goes on:
By a new and special title they are dedicated to seek the perfection of charity in the service of God’s Kingdom, for the honour of God, the building up of the Church and the salvation of the world.
His consecration gives the monk a job to do, and it’s a big one. It’s one any Christian would want. According to the Code, it’s all directed outwards. We seek nothing less than perfect love, after the model of Jesus Christ, in all the circumstances of our life, bar none. That’s what our vows, of themselves, direct us towards. And why? Not in the first place for our own sake, or holiness, or salvation, but for the Kingdom, for God’s honour, for the Church and the world. How wonderful that so much power is put into our hands in this simple way! Here is the spiritual teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux. By doing little things in love, we can move the whole world; we can bring many souls to salvation. We might reflect that anyone’s life would be fulfilled if it conformed to these aims; they are what we are put on this earth to strive for. For us: nothing less will do. This is what we want, and now it’s specifically, officially given to us to accomplish!
They are a splendid sign in the Church, as they foretell the heavenly glory.
“Lumen gentium” discusses the consecrated life in its Chapter 6. That Chapter is sandwiched between Chapter 5, on the Universal Vocation to Holiness, and Chapter 7, on the Eschatological Nature of the Church. So our vows have a two fold dimension, or tension; the Ecclesial dimension, and the Eschatological one. Our life is with and for and in the Church, and it’s also all directed towards, points towards, foretells the heavenly glory. It also helps bring it about. We pray “Thy Kingdom come”, not just as a wish, but as a prayer, which we expect to be answered! The Kingdom will come, more fully, more truly, and sooner, than it would if we had not said this prayer: if we had not taken these vows!
All Christians are directed towards heaven; all Christians in communion with the Church are also thereby in communion with the Saints and Angels in heaven. For us, though, this is our life. We renounce the things this world values: marriage (chastity), property (poverty), freedom (obedience); for the sake of what is in store for us in the next world, in which we are already mystically inserted. So our vows impel us to live this truth explicitly, concretely, visibly. Far from being somehow contrary to the life or good of this world, such a commitment is on the contrary a shining light that gives it hope and direction. So the more of us there are, and the more the Christian faithful as a whole are aware of the sort of lives we try to lead, the better!
The Code goes on:
can. 574 § 1. The state of persons who profess the evangelical counsels ... belongs to the life and holiness of the Church. It is therefore to be fostered and promoted by everyone in the Church.
That’s one reason why we are holding this weekend, and why you are here. Everyone should know about our way of life. It doesn’t just belong to us: it belongs, in a real sense, to everyone! A person who takes monastic vows enters somehow the essence of the Church: by our vows we become identified with her. Already in the 6th century St. Benedict insisted that it’s in the interests of all the faithful that our life be lived well, in a fully authentic way. He says that if people outside become aware that the monastic life in the monastery is going all wrong, it’s their duty to intervene, to get it somehow back on track. It’s therefore in the interests of the whole Church that many new and good young people join us!
Here’s another one, from a bit later on in the Code. It’s all rather strong stuff.
Can 607 § 1. Religious life, as a consecration of the whole person...
This is very beautiful. People can consecrate various things - their spare time - their work - their prayer - their house - their charitable giving - their day off - etc. For us the whole person is consecrated; as Jesus said of himself, in his final prayer before the Passion: For their sake I sanctify myself (Jn 17:19). What he means is that in a few hours’ time he will be bathed in his own blood, all of which he will pour out for us. Of course by baptism each baptised person is sanctified, consecrated in Christ; but for us, our vows give us a very particular way of living out our baptism to the full.
Religious life, as a consecration of the whole person, manifests in the Church the marvellous marriage established by God as a sign of the world to come.
God married the human race through the Incarnation. He married his Bride the Church. That incidentally is the deepest reason why women can’t be priests: a woman cannot represent Jesus Christ specifically in his role as Bridegroom. (Similarly, a man can’t be consecrated as a virgin to Christ: because he can’t represent the Church specifically as Bride). Nevertheless, even a man in vows knows he belongs totally and exclusively to Christ, so he is no longer free to give either his heart or his body to another.
Of course you don’t have to take vows, and plenty of very good and very holy people don’t. So Oratorians remain radically free to leave their community any time. For people like St. Philip Neri and Bl. John Henry Newman, that, and no other, was the form of service they believed the Lord was calling them to. Vincentians take annually a vow that lasts for one year only. White Fathers, Mill Hill Missionaries etc. are Priestly Societies without any vows, beyond the obligations of their priesthood. Opus Dei numeraries don’t even make a promise, and continue to live a secular life in the world. Nevertheless, they are committed to following Christ very radically. So the lack of vows absolutely doesn’t mean these people are are less holy than us, or somehow on a lower grade, or less generous, or less heroic. I would say though that we have a privilege in Solemn Vows that they lack! We are given the fullness of the sign: and that’s something for which to be eternally grateful!
Religious thus consummate a full gift of themselves as a sacrifice offered to God
This echoes what St. Paul says to the Romans at the beginning of Chapter 12. He has unfolded, over 11 Chapters, in great depth the mystery of our salvation in Christ. So he starts Chapter 12 with the key word: Therefore! Therefore, he cries - since God in Christ has done so much for you - therefore you in turn should offer yourselves as a sacrifice to God!
Religious thus consummate a full gift of themselves as a sacrifice offered to God, so that their whole existence becomes a continuous worship of God in charity.
That’s true, so long as we don’t withdraw from it, and so long as we keep up the intention. This is our intention, our aim, our desire: to make the whole of our life a continuous worship of God in charity; a continuous prayer: prayer without ceasing. If God exists - -since God exists - since God has loved us so much - since he promises us such great things: this is really the only sensible way to live!
I end now by touching briefly on the question of discernment.
How do you discern if such a life could be for you?
How do you discern what to do with your life?
We need, of course, in the first place, to ask for the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need to ask also for the gift, the grace, the virtue of Prudence. We have to become aware of, and put aside, unworthy motivations. There could be lots of them, but maybe the most common, and insidious, and destructive, is fear! Also our attachments. Very small things can often hold people back from commitment to a vocation. Personally, I very nearly didn’t come here, because of my love of boats. I told myself that I couldn’t live without boats, and surely God would not ask such a thing of me... (Luckily a good and holy priest helped me to see the utter nonsense of such a line of thinking!) Yes: people can be attached to quite trivial things: like foreign holidays, or drinking beer, or watching football matches; none of which is wrong, but none of which is as good as the Kingdom of heaven. So St. John of the Cross has the image of a bird tied to its perch by a single hair. Even such a slight attachment can prevent us from flying; from taking wing and soaring up to heaven!
Anyway: apart from asking, one can seek advice. One can consult a trusted friend, or spiritual director. But in principle no one has the right to decide for us. We are alone with this one. Often our loved ones will put heavy pressure on us, because they don’t want to lose us. But what we do with our life is up to us, alone, not to them. It’s up to us, standing before God.
How then do we decide?
We follow the promptings of our heart. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in that way. A certain inner pull, a certain attraction can be a sign of his presence. According to the criteria of discernment offered by St. Ignatius Loyola, you can tell where the pull is coming from, if following it gives you inner peace; while leaving it aside gives an uneasy or bad conscience; if leaving it aside tends to make you leave aside also prayer, and God, and the life of upright virtue.
Then, if still in doubt, you can ask for a sign. If you don’t like the sign you get, you can ask for another. And another. The Lord will give them.
But if the signs point to a bold action: you should put aside fear. If the Lord is behind it, he will provide the strength you need, and the necessary means, and the opportunity, and he will support you, all the way, on our journey towards himself.