28 October 2009

Vows: Oppressive or Liberating

When I was in grade school (primary school) and the talk of monastic life came up in class there was always a focus on the vows that a monk or a nun takes: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Now that I am in monastic formation I realize that those are not even the vows at all! Or at least a monk or nun in a monastery that follows the Rule of St. Benedict. Those vows are Obedience, Stability, and "Conversio Mores" (or a Changing of Ways).

I wrote a little bit about the Vow of Obedience before, and some people indicated that they would like to hear more. If I do not address what you are interested in, please feel free to post a comment or send me an email (address is on the Left side of the blog).

I want to address the vows as a whole. I wish to do that because I see a good life as an integrated whole.

A lot of people view the vows in the same light as the Ten Commandments. Not that they carry the same weight as God's laws for his people, but they are viewed as a list of "Thou Shall Nots."
Thou shall not Own Anything
Thou shall not Marry
Thou shall not Not Do Anything without my Permission.

While I have to admit that there is an element of Thou-shall-not-ishness to the vows, I think that we have to add the "Becauses" to the our understanding of the vows. There is also a two-fold dynamic to all of the vows: communal and personal. Whilst the not owning personal property (which would fall under "Conversio Mores") may have the practical application of redcing squabbling and in-fighting in the monastery (communal), not owning property helps us with the spirit of detachment -in deed all of the vows are geared towards detachment. The Vow of Stability attaches you to a particular monastery. In some institutes of religious life (orders [like Carmelites], congregations [like Redemptorits], Societies [like the Jesuits] etc.) you enter a province and can be moved to any house in that province. In monastic life you enter a single monastery. Whilst it is possible to move to another monastery in the order, it is not the norm. The communal aspect of this vow is that you help to form a "stable" community. The personal aspect is that you seek mental stability. You are not looking for greener pastures: you grow where you are planted. The Vow of Obedience one aims to foster a sense of unity among the brothers, and a sense of humility individually.

Detatchment, as I touched on earlier, is the goal of all of the vows. Not some imposition of destitution from above, but rather a personal offering up of all things that are not God. This is not a one time act; it is a life-long process. And the further one travels down the path of detachment, the more there is to be detached from. St. Rafael Arnaiz Baron ( a very recently canonized saint) wanted desperately to become a Trappist-Cistercian monk. He longed to take his vows and observantly live the Rule of St. Benedict. Whilst in the novitiate, he became quite ill and had to go back home. Among his illnesses was severe Type II Diabetes. At home he got treatment: corrected his diet and got medication. Because of his medical needs he could re-enter the novitiate. He had to give up his dream of being a monk, he wold not even be able to observe the Rule of St. Benedict strictly.

Instead of getting depressed about this situation, St. Rafael became detached from his desires. In doing this, he saw a way forward. He re-entered the Trappist Abbey as an oblate. St. Rafael was detached from his family with whom he was very close. He was detached from his will: as an oblate he did not take the vows of a monk, and he did not have a place in choir to sing the Divine Office. Though his family was quite wealthy, he was detatched from possessions, status, influence,and authority.

The more detached we are the freer we are. The more we get rid of the "stuff" from our lives (possessions, willfulness, selfish desires) the more room there is for God in our lives. And having the God in our life is the goal of all Christians, not just monks and nuns. St. Rafael himelf summed it up in the expression "Solo Dios Basta" or "God alone is enough!"

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