Vows are for life, we say. True. Very true. In fact, true in two ways. “Vows are for life.” One might say, the first sense of the statement ought to be true. The second sense, must be true.
In the first sense, when we pronounce vows, make solemn promises about the future before God and community, we should intend them to last the very length of our lives. This first sense of the statement, “vows are for life” is known and honored, if not always observed, by most.
The second sense of the statement, “vows are for life” might not have occurred to some people. When I was a young man, it wasn’t obvious to me. When we say, “vows are for life,” we are doing more than determining their duration. We are also pinpointing their purpose: vows exist to foster life, to defend it, to allow it to flourish.
Normally—perhaps it would be better to say, ideally—these two senses of the statement, “vows are for life” align. We promise to stay true to death, because this fosters life itself, which is the deepest purpose of the vow. Sometimes—more often than we wish to admit—the two meanings of the phrase part company. Staying faithful to the vow doesn’t foster life. Indeed, it defeats the very purpose, the flourishing writ into our lives by the Creator. When that happens, it is life itself, not the vow, which demands our allegiance. The vow exists to serve life, not to diminish it.
Here’s how I first learned that lesson. A few months before my ordination, I was interviewed by the rector of our seminary. He was fulfilling a canonical requirement, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I liked, and greatly admired, our rector. Sometimes he and I would jog together through the Villa Doria Pamphili, above the Vatican and, afterwards, chat over a bottle of water.
This conversation didn’t seem all that different. It took place in his chambers, after a college banquet. He had taken off the Roman collar, but was still wearing his French cuffs. I think he was trying to get through the forty-five of members of my class with every opportunity that he had.
Here’s the question that changed my very understanding of a vow. He asked, “Terrance, if you are ordained, could you, under any circumstances, ever see yourself leaving the priesthood?”
I presumed that a zealous response was expected, and nobody does earnest like a Kansan. I hadn’t yet decided to be ordained, but I clearly understood what a vow meant. Or so I thought.
I answered, “Monsignor, my father and mother are married until death. My brother and sister are as well. I come from people who take their promises seriously. In fact, my mother told all three of us that she would die if any of us were ever to divorce.”
She had indeed said this. She had also told my brother and me, in her so-succinct “birds and bees” soliloquy, that she would die if we were ever responsible for a pregnancy outside of marriage. She added, for dramatic effect, which she could never resist, “So, if you want to kill your mom, you know how to do it.”
I only shared the first part with the Monsignor, about coming from a background where promises are for life. I closed with, “So, if I take the vow, it will be to the death.” Odd turn of phrase, “to the death.” And that was the problem the wise Monsignor wanted me to see.
“Terry, are you saying that there are absolutely no conditions under which you would leave the priesthood?”
“Not if I made a vow. A vow is a promise to God. With a vow, you promise God that you will remain faithful, even during the difficult times.”
“Yes, and that’s its purpose. When we are strong, and graced, we bind the will with vows so that those promises guide us when “the flesh is weak.” Every priest, every religious, every married couple can tell you that there comes a season, when nothing roots them in their vocation, in their chosen love, save the vow they took. Every emotion, every attraction offers a siren call away from their path. It’s then that the vow illumines the darkness, showing the way.”
“That’s why I would never abandon my vow.” I did have the sense to add, “I might fail at it, but I would never forsake it.”
Monsignor interjected, “I can promise that you will fail. If the vow is to be the very priest Christ desires and deserves, we all fall short of that. But I am asking, would you, if necessary, forsake your vow?”
“How could it be necessary? Why would God ever desire that?”
“Let me put it this way,” he proffered, with so much patience. “What if you learned, many years from now, that your priesthood was, let us say, killing you and hurting others? That it had plunged you into irremediable depression or addiction. That, simply by remaining a priest, you were hurting yourself and others. If, despite all your efforts, none of this could be changed, would you remain a priest only because of the vow?”
He added, “There’s a difference between a vow demanding sacrifice of us, and a promise that leads to our very disintegration as a person.” This was decades before the clergy abuse scandal. He could have used that as an example of how “a vow made for life” can become “a vow that doesn’t serve life.”
“I understand,” I admitted. “I would want to be faithful to my vows. I would continue to be faithful even after failure, but not at the cost of destroying others.”
Jesus is Lord of Life. Vows are for life. We make promises for a lifetime, but only so that life itself may flourish. God asks great sacrifices of us, but not the immolation of our lives. That sacrifice was borne, once-for-all, by the Christ. We make vows for life, not for death.
Christ didn’t choose the cross, as though it were something good in itself. He chose life, a life of fidelity to God and to his people. It was his choice for a full life in a fallen world that led to his death.
Even the martyrs are not allowed to choose their deaths, as though the immolation of the human somehow satiates a blood-thirsty divinity. (It is deeply offensive to Christian sensibility to call a suicide murderer a “martyr.” Martyrs offers witness to the Lord of life. They do not kill.)
We make vows for life. We aim at a long lifetime of love and service. If life ordains otherwise, and God in his mysterious wisdom allows great suffering, great sacrifice, then, even in the face of hell and of death itself, we chose life. We should presume that corresponds to the vow, but we should accept at least the possibility that it does not.
Vows are made to God. Vows are made for life, because life was made for God. If a vow begins to kill, yourself or another, then, even at the risk of appearing unfaithful, even a failure, in the eyes of others, choose life!
Genesis 2: 18-24 Hebrew 2: 9-11 Mark 10: 2-16