Vows made to God are a human response to the loving and unbreakable covenant that God has made to all people, as witnessed in the Bible. They are promises to do something or live in a certain way. They can be for a specific period or for life.
They can take several forms. Some people make private vows, not perhaps known to anyone else but God, and hidden in their own hearts.
Others make public vows, when the commitment is made in the presence of others.
Religious make their vows in a community setting. The vows are to God – but also they are to one another. Both the community and the new member are promising to be bound to each other. It is essentially an act of love.
Vows are a powerful witness to society as a whole, recalling others in different way of life to the virtues of sharing, faithfulness and mutual respect.
Recognised communities usually take one of two forms of vows:
- Poverty, chastity and obedience, sometimes referred to as the Evangelical Counsels – see below.
- Stability, conversion of life and obedience, the form of vows usually taken by Benedictines – see below. Conversion of life encompasses a promise of celibacy.
Acknowledged communities take a variety of promises. Some echo the vows of recognised communities but have a different level of commitment. For example, a vow of celibacy is usually replaced by a promise that reinforces a person’s marriage vow of being faithful to their spouse. Also, poverty is more individually interpreted with members being responsible for themselves economically rather than having resources pooled. Others use their own version of the words, such as simplicity for poverty. Others ask dispersed members to write a ‘rhythm of life’ suited to their own situation, which they may promise to observe.
New communities usually take promises sometimes called ‘seasonal vows’, which are just as serious in intention but which are for a specified period, such as a year. What these may involve can vary considerably, depending on the charism and ministry of the group.
The Evangelical Counsels
This vow is about sharing resources, especially with those in need, and each person not using more than they need. In a world of great contrasts in wealth and in consumption, the witness of leading a life of simplicity and sharing is powerful. In a world where resources are being depleted and the threat of environmental degradation from pollution and climate change grows more threatening, the need to share and conserve is ever more urgent. Poverty expresses that awareness and points to a new pattern of living.
This vow is about loving people but without sexual intimacy or the ties of having a spouse and children. The focus is on loving God and being faithful to seeing God in all those you meet. This radical decision frees the Religious to be more open to making loving friendships in a wider circle. The Religious is also more available to reach out to the poor whose needs may be emotional as well as material.
Obedience is not a matter of ‘doing as you are told’ or of blind adherence to another’s instructions. The word obedience stems from words that mean ‘to listen’ and is essentially about respect. Jesus offered an offered authority to his followers, not an imposed power, and in the same spirit, members of a community follow the authority of those elected to lead.
The Benedictine vows
The vow of stability stems from the tradition of the early desert fathers who stayed for many years in a single hermitage. One indeed said: ‘stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything’. Stability therefore is about remaining within the same community, the same group of people, for the rest of one’s life; it can often involve staying in the same location for that time although communities can decide to move sometimes. It is, however, not just about staying still but also living with the same people for a lifetime. It is doing the everyday tasks of housekeeping with them, praying the psalms together, sometimes aggravating or disagreeing with each other, that leads us into that relationship of love. First, that is about becoming community and, secondly, becoming ourselves in God through that constant interaction with each other. The Rule of St Benedict speaks of ‘tools of good works’, which are the decalogue, the beatitudes and a number of other practical ways of ensuring peace in community. It speaks of the monastery being the workshop in which we apply these tools and so grow in love for one another. St Benedict recognises this as a long-term project so stability is crucial for enabling such building of love to take place.
Conversion of Life
Conversion of life is the constant effort to turn away from our own passions and desires, where we are at the centre, and instead turn towards God, turn towards the other in community, in the bond of selfless charity. It therefore encompasses the descriptions of poverty and chastity from the evangelical counsels to a certain degree. It is also about the openness to relinquish ideologies we may have previously held and move towards mutual respect and service. We allow our rough edges to be knocked off because we no longer live for ourselves but for each other. The psalmist speaks of how he ‘stumbled and fell’ and how he ‘had almost tripped and fallen’: monastic life is full of such falls, but then we get back up and try again. That is the essence of Conversion of Life: to keep trying to turn away from ourselves and turn towards the other. Our poverty therefore becomes more nuanced than literal and is about living as sustainably and simply as we can, understanding the needs and limitations of the community and of those dependent on us.
The first word of the Rule of St Benedict is ‘Listen’ and, as explained in the section about the vows from the evangelical counsels, this is the core of obedience. St Benedict speaks of two types of obedience, the obedience to the senior, the rule and the Abbot, and the obedience to each other. The obedience to the senior, rule and Abbot comes from the monastic tradition around following another’s will rather than your own, therefore imitating the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and encouraging growth in humility. This may be troublesome language for the modern reader but it speaks of the respect we must have for decisions that are made by due process. It also recognises the need to follow certain rules and disciplines otherwise there is no community to grow into and no growth in love. The obedience to one another is partly that respect, but also the growth in understanding of each other’s needs and temperaments, the desire to wish truly to know the other, and thereby to grow in love.
These are serious commitments to make and so communities do not allow a member to take vows until they are sure they are ready. This is why new members become novices by taking simple promises. They then might take vows for a specified period. Only after a considerable time in the community would someone be allowed to take life vows, received not just by the community but by a bishop on behalf of the whole Church.