Vows set you free
While the vows give shape to religious life, community members still find time to spend with family and friends. Here, Sister Renée Daigle, M.S.C. visits with four of her six godchildren. (Photos courtesy of Sister Renée Daigle, M.S.C.)
If you are reading this article, you probably have at least some interest in learning more about vowed life. While the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience are common to those who choose religious life, they are lived and experienced in a variety of ways. Like life in general, the experience of the vowed life is unique to each person who professes vows. I share here some of my own experience of living the vowed life for 33 years as a Marianite of Holy Cross sister in hopes that it may give you a glimpse into a lifestyle that is mysterious in some ways.
Building up, not giving up
The reason to choose a vowed life is to participate in the mission of Jesus in a radical way. While much is gained through this lifestyle, the initial “yes” to it comes from a deeply felt call to abandon everything and “follow me.” When I was 22 and graduating from college, I felt this call and so I entered the Marianite congregation before I could rationalize or talk my way out of it!
Most people, when they think of the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, tend to see them in terms of what we can’t do. Simply put, we have no money of our own, we can’t get married or date, and someone else tells us what we can and cannot do. While I suppose that’s technically true, if that were all it is about, who in their right mind would say yes to such a life? The vows are meant to free us rather than constrict us so that we can spend more of our time and energy building up the kingdom of God.
The vow of poverty: Enough is enough
Poverty to me means developing a healthy practice of using the word enough. Our society tells us that we constantly need more, bigger, the latest, and the best to be happy. The vow of poverty calls me to live simply, to be satisfied with what I have, and to share with others. The vow of poverty is not so much about being materially poor but rather avoiding the accrual of things and status, using in moderation the natural resources of the world, and following the example of Jesus and his first disciples. While I have everything I need and lots of things I want, I hope I have a healthy detachment toward those things and that neither my happiness nor my self-worth is dependent on what I do or do not have. That in itself is a huge freedom!
Vowing poverty, however, is not without its struggles. For me the hardest part monetarily is not having the means to give to people the way I’d like to. I know that’s my problem and that people do not expect huge gifts from me, but I suppose that’s an area where I still need to develop acceptance.
Desires to have things and to go places don’t vanish with religious profession, and while that could be considered a struggle of poverty, I think people in all walks of life have trouble in those areas from time to time.
Celibacy: Open your heart
Celibacy is probably the vow that causes the most consternation and hesitancy to those considering vowed life. How can one possibly live without marriage, sex, and children and be happy and fulfilled? Again, if my understanding of the vow is one-dimensional, I would never be able to live it. In choosing celibacy, we choose not to marry, which is very different from saying we can’t get married, the way most people describe the vow.
The best way I can explain my understanding of it is by sharing some phrases from my Marianite community’s constitution on the vow of celibate chastity: “We acknowledge our need to love and to be loved personally . . . we choose that the deepest of all our relationships will be our relationship to Christ . . . we free our hearts from all that might hinder this relationship in order that we might be more available to Christ and to others . . . by the joy which this commitment radiates and the quality of our presence . . . we become a dynamic source of Christ’s love . . . we announce what will be our resurrected state.”
When I reflect on these words, the vow of celibacy is much more a positive choice than a set of “cannots” and “don’t haves.” That is the frame of mind in which I choose to live, and my life is very full of people I love, some more deeply and intimately than others.
Vowing celibacy, though, has its difficulties. There are times when I ache for that life partner who is solely for me and I for him; when I wonder what my children would have been like; and let’s be honest, sex drive doesn’t go away with vows either. I need to find healthy ways to negotiate times when celibacy feels anything but freeing—honest conversations with good friends, healthy community life, and good-old-fashioned prayer and asceticism work wonders! I do admit that celibacy is the biggest “price” I have had to pay in receiving the incredible gift of religious life—but it is oh so worth it!
Obedience: Pay attention
Obedience is the vow by which I seek to follow God’s will for me as revealed through scripture, the events of my life, the inspiration of the Spirit, the demands of my community and my ministry, the Marianite constitutions, and the decisions of the leadership of my congregation. Communally we also discern God’s will for us as a congregation.
Obedience calls me to an authentic prayer life—how can I hear God speaking to me if I don’t make the time for that relationship that I profess is the deepest of all? Obedience calls me to pay attention to all aspects of my world and remember that by consecrating myself to God’s service, my life is not my own. Every major decision in my life is made with the consideration of how it fits with the mission God entrusted to the Marianites of Holy Cross. I am called to live my daily life attentive to this mission and to my part in it.
Vowing obedience, however, is not always easy (see a pattern?). There have been times when I felt certain about a decision but the sisters in leadership decided otherwise. The humility of living a decision that is not my own can be hard, but experience has taught me that God can work wonders in any circumstances. The gift of obedience for me is in the graces that have been mine in each ministry and living situation: By accepting changes and challenges I did not initially embrace, I have grown in ways I never could have imagined.
Missions in the Yucatán peninsula, Alaska, Nicaragua; teaching in schools, including the housing projects of New Orleans; vocation ministry; campus ministry; retreat ministry; wonderful educational opportunities; travels far and wide for formation, community, and ministry purposes (yes, and some vacations, too)—my experiences have been so rich and diverse, and while the circumstances and the pace can at times seem frenzied, I continue to look forward to what God has in store. The vowed life allows me the freedom to be available for whatever the future brings.
Living the vowed life is an adventure spent serving an extravagantly loving God who remains faithful and present to those who respond to God’s call. I am encouraged and blessed by the fact that I made (and renew daily at Mass) the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience within a loving community, and that I don’t live them alone. I pray for those of you who are discerning a call to the vowed life—that you will have the faith and trust necessary to abandon yourself wholeheartedly to the will of our all-loving God for your life!
A version of this article originally appeared in VISION 2013.
Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “Taking my vows to heart.”
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