In a recent article on Religious Life in the Church, I was asked to clarify what vows signify in a religious community, especially in a contemporary one such as our own Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. The article touched on our Rule of Life as a distinguishing characteristic of religious witness, as opposed to lay and ordained ministry in the Church. Neither of which is mutually exclusive to religious life, but brothers and sisters in communities simply have a different paradigm by which we experience the Church and religious witness.
The vows taken up by religious in the church are one of the tools by which we seek to conform ourselves to God’s will, as witnessed in the life and teachings of Jesus – our Teacher. These vows differ from community to community – the Benedictine tradition holding to Stability, Conversion of Life, and Obedience. The Franciscan tradition follows the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. It is these latter three that I will offer in this reflection, being the three that my own community follows, and the most readily recognized when one speaks of religious vows. I also readily acknowledge that our community, being a contemporary expression of religious life, interprets these vows somewhat differently given our nature as a community that lives in the world – in diaspora – and that we allow for individuals regardless of marital status. So, I suppose a little history might be in order before we get started.
Out of This World!
During the long history of religious life, many more sisters and brothers were confined to the monastery or convent than were permitted to live in the world. Traditional Benedictine religious life was confined to the enclosure and many monastic traditions developed out of that way of life. Stability, Conversion, and Obedience were tools by which the personalities in a monastic setting were subsumed into the discipline and order of the house in which they lived together. Obedience to the Abbot or Abbess was required for discipline, and Stability and Conversion of Life referred to conforming to and accepting the manner of life required to maintain order. The spiritual significance of these vows in the lives of the women and men who took them up were explored and written about for centuries as being fruitful in their own right in also conforming the individual to a godly life, where the needs and concerns of others held precedence over the needs of individuals, and where pride, hubris, selfishness and vanity could be overcome by a life dedicated to principles intended to transform the individual into someone more becoming follower of Christ.
St. Francis gave new Counsels to his followers, intending as he did that they would not be confined to the monastery, but live in the world as itinerant preachers, teachers, and care-givers for the poor and outcast. For Francis, what was important is that his followers also be poor and live in solidarity among those they served. The admonition of Jesus to “sell all you have and come follow me” was taken quite literally by those Franciscans named for their visionary founder. These Franciscans relied on the hospitality of others and begging for alms to make their way through the world. Before his lifetime ended, the Church – in terror of the witness to Poverty among the followers of Francis – brought them under the authority of the church and then required them to live in common houses like their monastic predecessors. We call these houses “friaries.” Francis was not pleased.
Over centuries of witness, the shared life and teachings of religious who took these vows, and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience have come to be associated with very specific meanings and practices. Poverty signifying the giving up of possessions to enter the religious house, and the holding of all goods in common so that no one had anything more (or less) than any of the others. Personal possessions were a no no. Chastity signifying sexual abstinence – not only generally but also, quite particularly, abstaining from sex with others in the monastery! And Obedience signifying, again, obedience to the heads and masters (or mistresses) of the order for the purpose of discipline and self-conformity to the will of God, and obedience to God’s commands as taught by Jesus and interpreted by the particular manner and form of the community of followers.
One of the most startling, and in retrospect impactful, reforms of religious life since Francis happened in the 1960’s during the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church. And it was not entirely intentional. Married life was declared as an entirely equal, authentic, and spiritual value for the individual as was the celibate life of those religious who professed Chastity as one of their vows! No longer were religious brothers and sisters considered to have a better, more exalted, or more dear quest for godly life than those who were married, raising families and ministering as lay people in the Church.
There were two unexpected consequences to this pronouncement. One is that traditional religious left their communities in droves to get married! The other is that communities of religious were either forced to rethink what religious witness looked like, or other new communities were formed that began to bring religious life into this new modernity of the Church. The religious orders in the Episcopal Church were likewise affected.
The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, my own community, and many others can be said to fall squarely in the realm of this vision for new, modern expressions of religious witness.
Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience In The World
So, how do you explain to folks who ask – How do you have a vow of Poverty when you own your own home? How do you practice Chastity when you’re married? What does Obedience mean today when individuality is everything?
As with most things, the value of the vows is what they point to, and not in the particular ways that one or another community chooses to live them. This has always been the case even among the traditional orders that flourished over centuries, each of which had differing opinions, implementations, and practices around what the vows meant specifically. But, over time, the deeper meanings of the vows – and more importantly the spiritual value to which they pointed – got lost in the minutia of specific practice of the vows conflation with one and only one particular. Sure, Chastity meant celibacy for traditional religious. But the spiritual value of Chastity as embodied in the celibate life became less important than the specific practice, the discipline and struggle of maintaining it, and became weighed down by the suspicion of the body that accompanied it.
So, if we take up the vows in the world, in the context of communities that allow for married or partnered life, where we might no longer beg for bread or have to conform to the rigors and order of the common house, the vows need to return to their roots. What are the spiritual values to which the vows point, and what practices can be built up around them that conform to the world in which these new orders inhabit while still providing the means of spiritual transformation and discipline that are the hallmark of religious life?
A Gregorian Perspective
People have often asked me to distill the three evangelical counsels (our vows) into what we see as essential, in order that we might live them while being fully in the world. Far from being “simpler” than the traditional vows, they are in some ways more difficult in that they apply to every relationship that we encounter while being religious fully in the world.
Poverty - No matter what you have, it isn’t yours. Use everything in your possession for the benefit of God’s people and for God’s glory. It’s not about what you have, but what you do with what you have.
Chastity - People are ends and not means. They are not possessions. They have integrity and dignity and wholeness and so should you. Free yourself to love.
Obedience - Freedom is not about doing what you want. It’s about being released from the prison of selfish desires. Stop manipulating circumstances and people to get what you want.
Our vows are not ends in and of themselves. They are means. They force us to become aware of the idols we have erected in our lives that distract us from our responsibility to love and serve God and others. They are the means by which we learn to tear those idols down. What idols, or obsessions if you will, do the vows help us to recognize? Poverty points to our obsessions with security and safety. Chastity points to unhealthy pursuit of affection and the esteem of others.
Obedience to our desire for power and control. We are distracted from God when our inordinate attachment to these things warps our sense of perspective and proportion. The three vows provide starting points for dismantling the systems we have built up, culturally and individually, that draw our love inward towards the self and it’s desires rather than towards God and other.
When vows become an end rather than a means to an end, they turn quickly to false idols. When Poverty becomes just about money and possessions; Chastity merely about sex; Obedience solely about submission to authority; then we lose the opportunity to focus on what the vows are meant to accomplish. We miss the thing to which they point. Vows don’t lead to the relinquishment of the will, but our stretching of it so that it can be conformed to the will of God – which is to love God and neighbor.
The taking of vows is, in its essence, an act of love. It is a gift of the self to God and an acceptance of God’s gift of self to us. It is a costly gift, because it is predicated on the acceptance that the journey will transform us from what we are into what God intends for us to be. This means the laying aside of selfish assertions of the will, and the learning of its right use. This can only be accomplished by trusting the love of God to be the central defining locus of our identity, and the true measure of our value.
A Final Thought on Vows
There are many and varied new expressions of religious life coming into being all over the Church today. Each of them will undertake different forms of witness, require different vows or interpretations of those vows, and come up with increasingly creative ways to express religious witness while maintaining continuity with the long history of traditional religious life. Some will last for a long while, others only for a time. Most of them will be in the world rather than inside a monastery or other enclosure.
Each of them will have an opportunity to bear witness to what it means to love and serve God and others, whether through prayer or action. Each will have opportunity to build community using their Rule and vows to foster that community’s strengths and cohesion, while offering a vision of transformation into what it means to become a follower of Christ into the love of God.
The opportunity for these communities to do so as visible members of the Church is an extraordinary change and blessing. But ours is not to believe that we are the light, but only to “become messengers for the One who is the light.” To that end, whatever vows we take up, we ought to remember that it is not the specifics of practice that are the point, but only the spiritual benefit that they point to, and the fruit they bear in the lives of the individual and in the common life of the community that will lead the Church into its true calling to help usher in the Reign of God based on justice, mercy, truth and love.