What our vows mean

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During the pandemic, members of the Augustinian community in Chicago distributed food to those in need.

One of the main ways religious community members honor the vow of poverty is by directing their resources, especially time and talent, to serving others. During the pandemic, members of the Augustinian community in Chicago distributed food to those in need.  (Photo: Father Dominic Smith, O.S.A.)

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 experiences as a Marianite of Holy Cross sister, and I hope along the way to capture the meaning the vows have for many of us in this life.

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 embrace of 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 that’s technically true, if that were all the vows were 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 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 us to live simply, to be satisfied with what we 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 depends 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 is not having the means to give gifts 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 managing these desires from time to time.

Members of the Dominican Nuns of Summit, New Jersey play a board game during a community social time.
It’s important to develop friendships to live the vow of celibacy in a healthy way. Here members of the Dominican Nuns of Summit, New Jersey play a board game during a community social time. (Photo courtesy of the Dominican Nuns of Summit, New Jersey)

Celibacy: Open your heart

Celibacy is probably the vow that causes the most consternation and hesitancy to those considering vowed life. How can an adult possibly live without marriage, sex, and children and be happy and fulfilled? Again, if our understanding of the vow is one-dimensional, we 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 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 the 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 we seek to follow God’s will for us as revealed through scripture, the events of our lives, the inspiration of the Spirit, the demands of our community and ministry, our community constitution, and the decisions of our community leadership. Communally we also discern God’s will for us as a congregation.

Obedience calls us to an authentic prayer life. How can we hear God speaking to us if we don’t make time for the relationship that we profess is the deepest of all? Obedience calls us to pay attention to all aspects of our world and remember that by consecrating ourselves to God’s service, our lives are not our own. Every major decision in our lives is made with the consideration of how it fits with the mission God entrusted to our religious institute. We’re called to live our daily lives attentive to this mission and to our 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 circumstance. 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.

members of the Sisters of Divine Providence at a community assembly.
The vow of obedience has to do with making important personal decisions—such as what ministry to do—in consultation with elected leaders. Religious communities make most major decisions as a group. Above are members of the Sisters of Divine Providence at a community assembly. (Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Divine Providence)

Endless possibilities

Missions in Mexico, Alaska, Nicaragua; teaching in schools, including in the housing projects of New Orleans; vocation ministry; campus ministry; retreat ministry; congregational leadership; wonderful educational opportunities; travels far and wide for formation, community, and ministry purposes (yes, and some vacations, too)—my experiences as a sister have been rich and diverse. 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 and my brothers and sisters in consecrated life 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) 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 appeared in VISION 2019.

Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “What are religious vows?

Sister Renée Daigle, M.S.C.
By Sister Renée Daigle, M.S.C., who serves on the leadership team of her community, the Marianites of Holy Cross.




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