Why Vows?

One of a series of short articles on ‘Why’ taken from the printed 2016-17 edition of the Anglican Religious Life Year Book

by Father George Guiver CR

Any thought of making vows for life to anybody or anything is an enormous challenge for anyone today and so it is worth probing into why they should be needed.

We can start by looking back in history. We find no mention of vows or profession amongst the Desert Fathers. Candidates would be admitted after sufficient entreaty and most of the formation for the monastic life followed after this. If the candidate was not a Christian, the preparation for baptism and monastic profession would be simultaneous and the two would be part of one ceremony. From this we can conclude that in the earliest period monastic profession was simply the giving of the whole self, without specific vows. Monastic profession amongst the Orthodox Churches even today has no vows as such. We might conclude from this that we could dispense with the business of making vows, but that does not get us anywhere in our modern situation, as the giving of your whole self for life is no less daunting.

Early Religious communities did begin to feel their way to something more structured in the act of profession. By the time Saint Benedict (c. 480-547) came to write his Rule the candidate was to promise obedience, stability, and conversion of life. These are not described as vows, and are mentioned almost in passing at the beginning of the rite. They also overlap, “conversion of life” summing up all of them. In the Rule of Benedict chapter 33 for instance we read:1 ‘no one may presume to give, receive or retain anything as his own … Monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills’ – there we have in effect the Evangelical Counsels of ‘poverty, chastity and obedience’. It was however only from the 12th/13th century onwards that the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience came to be spoken of explicitly as “vows”, something that has remained with us until today.

The main argument for having vows, whatever form they may take, is that such a formula, recited in the form of a solemn promise, greatly helps to concentrate the mind and bring out the deeper meaning of the profession rite. Obviously, we do not vow ourselves simply to three aspects of the life – it is presupposed that in a profession rite we also vow ourselves to our community, to love and service, to prayer, the daily liturgy, to silence and solitude, study, work, integrity (seeking to be our true self), responsibility, enclosure, prophetic living, and so on – all the aspects of the monastic way of living the gospel.

It is always good to look to the Scriptures for the foundation of what we believe and do, and it might be thought we should look to examples of vows, of which there are plenty in the Old Testament and quite a few references in the New. However, if the early tradition simply understood monastic profession as a total giving of ourselves for life, then a quest for scriptural foundations for the making of vows might be irrelevant. We should instead look for examples of total giving of ourselves in response to God’s call. Abraham is an obvious example, when he was prepared to sacrifice even his own son to obey God, and the disciples leaving their fishing nets to follow Christ is another. Monastic profession is a particular way of responding to Christ’s call to “leave everything and follow me”.

The second scriptural basis, just as important, is baptism. Monastic profession is baptismal, a re-entering into our baptismal commitment and transformation, in order to enable it to take us further. At Mirfield we now have a large total-immersion font in our church, and we begin profession rites at the font. Mediaeval monasteries often had an area called “Galilee” – an example can be found in Durham Cathedral. From ancient times until the modern era there was an Eastertide tradition in cathedrals and parish churches of a daily procession to the font after Vespers. The font was seen as Galilee – “there you will see him”. The monastic alternative was to process to the Galilee.

1 For modern people then, vows will require a conversion of our thinking. The first bit of the conversion is gaining the ability to give ourselves in faith. A second bit is about so growing into the community during the novitiate that the profession rite is part of a greater flow –at its best it should happen so naturally as almost to be unremarkable, simply a statement of what has become the case (rather than an “experience” which makes you swoon, which we can be tempted to want in worship today). The whole life is one continuous growth from the point where you started. Thirdly we have to un-learn our individualism. Religious profession is a big moment in the life of an individual, but it is a passing from being an individual to being individual-in-community. Monastic profession is first and foremost a corporate act. A further way in which it does not centre on the individual is that the main actor is God. It is not so much a difficult personal decision leading to my promise, as a difficult personal discernment of God’s promise.

The vows, then, are a powerful sign and seal of an act which is bigger than just them – the total giving of ourselves to the Love we have discerned to be calling us. Why vows? Why give yourself totally and utterly to the love at the heart of all things? Well – that’s what love is, and that’s what faith is.