In the past quarter century you can hardly dimension of ministry unchanged. They have been changed, revaluated, redesigned and sometimes replaced to meet emerging needs. The vows and other bonds of consecration have been rearticulated as forms witness.
I am going to present to you today, a vision for the evangelical virtues that involve a fresh orientation.
As you know the evangelical virtues are the Gospel values of poverty, chastity and obedience. The religious take these as vows and they understand them and interpret them and practice them according to the understanding of their founder. (Fanciscans / Jesuits) what I am going to say is relevant for the religious as these ideas come from some of the thinking of reform advocated by the religious writers, on religious reform M Schneider… “Finding the treasure and selling all” , Barbara Fiand “Re-focusing the vision”, Diarmuid O’murchu, “Consecrated Religious Life” Ellen M.Leonard, “Contemporary Theologies for Vows”, few of the authors that are having a on this subject.
Diocesan clergy who do not vows have the task of adapting these Gospel values their lifestyle. Vat ll, indicate, in many ways the spirituality of the diocesan Priest is closer to the spirituality of the laity and vise Aversa. It is regrettable that we diocesan priests are often given the religious model to imitate. Literature on the spirituality of the diocesan Priest is not too abundant there are a few writers that address the issue. Some of them are: Donald B. Cozzens, Robert M. Shcwartz, Kenneth E. Untener, Frank Mc Nulty, (Hundred Fold Harvest-FABC,Etc. What I am going to present to you is a new way of looking at the vows, which I thought was very appropriate also for the diocesan allergy and laity.
If we want our action and behavior to effective we need to be relevant to the times. If our mission is to have some success we need to be contextual. In the context of new world vision we need to look at Gospel Values is this context. All religious orders who championed these gospel values as vows did so in the context in which they lived with their world vision. Now in a new radically changed context there is call to rethink, formulate, revise the understanding and the practice of vows.
I will be using the world Vows to represents the evangelical virtues. But you can interchange Vows and virtues as you see fit. “VOWS “ as appoint of departure as historically the evangelical virtues have been practiced by monks and religious as vows. And we have quite number religious here who have taken solemn Vows. Whether religious or not we can think of poverty chastity and obedience as Gospel values.
Re thinking the vows
We all realize that the world around us has changed. But we some times are not able to grasp how much the world has changed. Our knowledge about the world has gone from one world that consisted of earth and sun to an expanding galactic universe. Our science has gone from Newtonian observation of gravity to the quantum theory of physics. Our preoccupation with our immediate surrounding to the preoccupation with sustainability of our very planet. Our world view has completely changed and expended to limits unthinkable only a few years back. That is just our physical universe. What about our social universe? Our means of rapid transportation… Our ability of instant communication.. What about the ability of mass media.. to influence vast number of people in an instant.
That is our present world. But in many ways the religious sphere operatesin some past era. We are still in the stage of Newtonian physics and even our language is at a period where we were thinking that the world was flat. Heaven is up above and hell is down below. But the religious specially the women religious in some ways have shown initiative to confront present day problems. Some have done so with a certain urgency. Schneider has suggested that within a thirty year period women religious made the passage from middle ages to postmodernity, a transition which took western humanity nearly seven hundred years. We have moved from a unifies world view to a pluralistic one, from renouncing the world to one of embracing it. This is a move away from a dualistic and mechanistic way of thinking to a more holistic view that embraced an ecological vision. We went from being suspicious of the world to being in solidarity with it.( Gaudium et Spes )
What have all these got to do with the vows? If we want our actions and our behavior to be effective we need to be relevant to the times. If our mission is to have some success we need to contextual. In the context of a new world vision we need to look at the vows in new context. All the founders of religious orders did so in a context there is a call to rethink.. (reformulate, reframe, revise) the understanding of the vows.
As a secular priest and a very, very secular one at that, II do not in anyway claim to have understood or have done this rethinking my self. I can only reflect what I have gleamed from the current literature.
There was a time when Pierre Cotel’ s “Catechism of the vows”was the only standard by which observation of the vows was judge. It gave all the details of legal requirements of each vows, urging fidelity to its prescriptions. The observance of the spirit of course was implied..
In the current thinking there are two purposes for the vows. The first is a commitment to God in life long allegiance, seeking to be instruments of is a commitment to God, letting Him use us for the spreading of the kingdom and thereby pursuing growth in personal holiness. Second embodies a set of legal procedures instructing what could be done and what could be not done. Poverty regulates the use of goods and possessions according to the particular constitution. Celibacy requires abstinence from sexual intimacy. Obedience requires the following of the will of God mediated through superiors.
In the world of the vowed religious what is to go beyond the minimalist approach and to take the prophetical aspects of religious life seriously. There is a call to expend it’s meaning and context to the entire world embracing global and planetary meaning … perhaps even away from domesticating influence of the church. Diamuid O’ Murchu uses the concept of liminality to describe the vowed life. Liminality may be described as “a threshold experience of living on the edge or margins… people who shake up our staid institutions… small group who live a prophetic calling living the values that all people long for” or voluntarily embracing marginality to show solidarity with marginal people who have no choice about it. Therefore it is a witness to all of humanity and belongs to all of humanity.
In the old way of thinking one either keeps the vows infringes on them. Breaking the vows is exact opposite of keeping them. This kind of cut and dry distinction is in the world mold of dualistic thinking of which we have now a lot of reservation. This ‘either or’ thinking is often introduces forms of violence and confusion. If celibacy brings about alienation of self or of others and failure to relate warmly and lovingly, if poverty is equal to deprivation or degradation, or if obedience means bending of will that is oppressive not fitting the dignity and freedom of incarnational people, then keeping the vows will be harmful to people and society.
‘living them vows is quite a different invitation from keeping them. Living them implies engagement with the issues of real life , keeping connotes being at a distance from the world of reality, either away from it or superior to it. Keeping has strong moral connotations, Living them has personal and interpersonal and social implications. Keeping a vows carries connotations of holiness and individual salvation, whereas living them requires a very different spirituality.
Often the vows are thought as observance of the law. The change in thinking is to consider them more as values that we embrace. In this frame work vows are not thought as boundaries not meant to be crossed but as horizons to pursued. Poverty denotes detachment. But it could be taken as a negative attitude towards the material world in a dualistic dichotomy of spirit and matter. As a value one instead of renouncing befriends matter in good stewardship. You do not live in destitution has a lot of security… destitute but secure. The idea is to live simply so that all others could simply live. Holiness is sort not deprivation but in wholesome sharing.
Celibacy is observed not in denial of body but in full recognition of embodiment. Not denying one’s shadows but befriending the shadows. Not avoiding temptations but taking risks in good wholesome relationships.
Obedience is not blind obedience but shared responsibility and through independent discernment. Obedience comes from ‘ob-audiere’… owing to listening. It should be a consultative process after which a decision is take. Therefore obedience should not be demeaning bending of will which is humiliating to one party but mutual cooperation in mission through dignified mutual listening that begets understanding and good will.
To strengthen the value orientation it is suggested that we name the vows differently: not vows of poverty of chastity of obedience but vows for poverty for chastity and for obedience. There is even a call for total changes of names. Poverty to be called vow ‘for mutual sustainability’, Chastity to be called vows ‘for mutual relationship’, and obedience to be called vow’ for mutual collaboration’. Not all agree on the change of name. But most agree that even if we keep the traditional names that the meaning of the vows changes as the context changes.
However , with the change of name one can immediately noticed the positive spin such naming sense that the vows mean much more than just legal observances. They are primarily about values that affirm and celebrate and enhance growth of new reign of God on earth. The task of the religious is call to accountability the forces that undermine and desecrate the meaning in our world. Their work could be describe as value radiation.
Celibacy re-named vow ‘for relationship’ touches an area of human existence that deals with the core identity of man or of woman …as man and as women, namely the area of human sexuality. This aspect deals with much more than genitality associated with procreation. It is what empowers us to forge deep connections that beget fruitful relationships. It is a passion for connections that is associated with the theological notion of God as Trinity. It is the relational energy that God has placed in his creation seen even in the subatomic particles of quarks and leptons: these particles appear only in twos or threes, never in isolation. Creation at every level macro, human or non human is primed for relationality. Therefore sexuality which gives us the power relate symbolizes the spiritualized erotic energy that begets and nourishes all creation.
Direct and practical application of this vows has consequence for human and spiritual growth of religious living in community. Emotional distance is a thing of the past. Exploring nourishing friendship and human intimacy within and outside formal community will not only be a great asset but also a help in mission. Such friendships needless to say have to have integrity and appropriate transparency and may require enormous spiritual and psychological resourcefulness. Through their vow of relationship a religious will seek engagement with all who search for authentic intimacy and love in their lives. Such is possible only to people who are schooled in warm and loving ways.
In the vow for mutual sustainability (poverty) the concerns go much beyond ones immediate surroundings to gaze at the whole of creation and the material world and see it as a pure gift of God. This vow invites us to celebrate the giftedness of God in giving us the largest of galaxies to the least of microbes. In this his purpose was no only his revelation. This takes on greater importance in a world where people are fighting for scarce resources.
As this area has to do with material goods it also involves distribution of goods. That goes in to the area of justice. Issues of justice will involve a variety of traditional fields as ecology, politics and economics but may also involve more recent problems as globalization, Violence (terrorism) and human rights. Some congregations of nuns have invested in shares of companies so that they can have a voice in the corporate world insisting on socially responsible investment. The vow for mutual collaboration presently called obedience was modeled on example of Christ who was totally subject to the will of His father. This same kind of obedience is demanded from the religious. The superiors and ecclesiastical authority takes the place of God. The wisdom comes from high and follows down the line through various strata to the subject at the bottom. This model is facing a few problems these days. God in positioned in the mold of a patriarch. Although this idea is given almost unquestioned authenticity, studies in history of religious show that this view of God is only a human patriarchal projection. The mistake is that humans think that God too thinks and acts as they do. This from of governance has sexist overtones as the emphasis is on male qualities and masculine values of dominance and control. People today are moving towards a loving and tender, nourishing mother – God which seem to have been the prevalent idea for the larger part of the existence of human kind.
Further more St Benedict and others considered obedience to be attending in a more discerning way Gods’ s will for us, which St. Benedict and St. Ignatius took it to be a process primarily of communal undertaking. They gave due place to ‘ ob-audiere’. The idea is ‘co-disciples’ in ministry given to listening, communal discernment and a desire to follow the movement of spirit. (Fiand)
The idea of the vow for mutual collaboration is one that will take immense prophetic energy and engagement as it will be opposed by the vested interest in culture of the patriarchal mode. But the new reign of God demands that all structures be called to accountability in the name of more egalitarian and inclusive structures.
Sandra M. Schneiders ( Finding the treasure and selling all), Barbara Fiand (Re- focusing the vision) Diarmuid O’ Murchu (Consecrated religious life), Ellen M. Leonard ( contemporary theologies for vows, RFR, 2002) are few authors that have been having a conversation this subject. They all agree on the urgency in questions concerning the religious way of life and the understanding of the vows in a world that is different from the one in which the vows were made. They all passionately believe in the prophetic and the mystical dimension of vowed life. They also stress relationship and mutuality.
In summary: The vows have to do with three fundamental coordinates of human experience; sexuality and relationships, material goods and ownership, freedom and power. (Schneiders) The call is to live these Evangelical Values non violently, affirming non exploitive relationships, sharing mutual resources and living in collaboration for mission. (Leornard). The vows are to be thought in terms of in Values not Laws and in terms of living them and not keeping them………