The Virtues of the Vows: Poverty, chastity and obedience are for everyone.
As an apostolic religious sister formed in the post-Vatican II style of religious life, I live my vowed life while engaged quite actively in the world rather than apart from it. Gone are the days of the separation of contemplative sisters by a cloister, which protected us from the temptations that put our vowed commitments at risk. Instead, we participate fully in our culture, working alongside others who do what we do, watching the same media, reading the same books, shopping in the same stores and even surfing the same Web. As individual sisters, we make choices about our lives based to a large extent on our personal tastes and interests. Of course these choices are grounded in the principles of our faith, but that is the same as other Christians who try to live each day making choices that are pleasing to God.
Living in our culture means we are all bombarded with messages telling us that money, sex and power are the keys to our happiness and fulfillment. Christians know that our happiness lies only in God and in living the kind of life that God desires for us. Like other Americans we hear the incessant messages extolling independence and freedom to such an extent that we, like others, often lose our ability to cope during times when we are limited by the ordinary vicissitudes of life.
So how do we love God above all else, and yet stay part of a world that influences us toward many values we do not espousesometimes in ways we do not even recognize? I believe that one answer to that question for all, even those who do not profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lies in practicing the virtues of those vows in our everyday lives. As extreme as they may seem, religious vows are simply the radical expression of fundamental Christian virtuesdependence on God, love for all of God’s people and attentive listening to God’s desires for usvirtues all Christians are called to live.
Because I am called as a sister to live those virtues radically by renouncing ownership of property, renouncing exclusive and sexual relationships, and sometimes by renouncing my own will to the will of another, I have many opportunities to experience and value the virtues of these vows for my life as a Christian. My experiences of trying to live simply in a consumer society, chastely in a society of sexual excess, and with acceptance of my personal powerlessness in so many situations of life are often no different than those of many others who are trying to do the same. But because I am a sister, I have the benefit of a life stance that finds meaning and value in these virtues in a very fundamental way, as well as the support and encouragement of others who have made the same commitment.
At our best, vowed religious communities serve as a reminder to everyonetheir own members includedthat our happiness lies only in God and in living the kind of life that God desires for us. By publicly professing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, we point to an aspect of God that is meant to be known by all: the reality that God is enough for us. Just as marriage vows give witness to God’s faithful and generative love, religious vows give witness to the sufficiency of God.
The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are not ends in themselves. Things, people and control over the conditions of our lives are often blessings. Poverty in itself is an evil to be eradicated. Chastity, living out one’s sexuality according to one’s state in life, can be cold and distancing if lived without love. Obedience without freedom is domination. And of course, for both marriage and religious vows, the virtues they contain are sometimes very difficult to live. Just as there are times when we experience estrangement or self-absorption in our lives rather than faithfulness and generativity, there are times when we do not experience the sufficiency of God. Sometimes God does not seem to be enough for us, and we are tempted to fill the void in any way that works. As people of faith, that is when we are most called to live out the paschal mystery and trust that all shall be well. We are called to exercise our virtue muscles and practice what we believe to be true, that God is enough for us.
When we can accept the limitations of our life and God’s saving power in it all, then our desire for this thing or this person or control in this area of our life, need not overwhelm us. When we can say that our fundamental security lies not in wealth, or another person, or power, but rather in God, then we are living the virtues of the religious vows, whether we have professed them or not. When we live in reliance on a provident God, with love and concern for all of God’s people and attentiveness to God’s direction in our lives, we live in the reign of God, present among us and filling our lives with everything we need.