12 October 2016

Religious Profession: Challenges to one vow are a Challenge to all of Them

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I saw your vows from the first part of last month. Could I ask you which of these is the most difficult to live?]]

Thanks for your question. I am honestly not sure which single vow is most difficult because I rarely think of them as entirely separate from one another. You see, they overlap substantially and in fact, the way they are written is meant to create a single profession in which they build on and contribute to one another in a way which allows me to give my whole self. What I would like to do is indicate how this is so and provide an example of how personal challenges make ANY vow difficult from time to time. Please note that my focus in not on external elements so much as it is on the elements of my inner life that may distort the way I use or turn to those things outside myself whether these are material possessions (poverty) or involve the distortion of relationships (obedience and chastity).

Religious poverty:

I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.

There are definitely times when this vow is the most difficult. It is ALWAYS the most fundamental one for me though I see consecrated celibacy as the vow which defines the goal and purpose of my life. Poverty demands a way of approaching and seeing reality which is counter intuitive; it is a sacramental way of seeing reality even when it is painful, terrifying, dark, distorted, and destructive. You see, it demands I truly trust in the God who comes to us in both brokenness and wholeness, the God who is with us precisely when we are experiencing those things which are terrifying, dark, distorted, and even potentially destructive as well as when we are experiencing their opposite.  It is easy (or at least it is easier I think) to close up or shut down at these times, easy to make ourselves less vulnerable, less stripped of those personal defenses which close our hearts and smother the pain or stifle the fear or terror we might otherwise experience.

It is easier to turn to things which distract and in some ways numb or deflect attention from  the pain and therefore from the challenging act of faith and the commitment to God I am called to make in such moments. (I think that is true for all of us. At these times especially I can understand why some people become shopaholics, watch TV 10 hours a day, immerse themselves in mystery novels or computer games, or even turn to drugs, etc.) Thus, while it is true that poverty requires letting go of many things and while it is true most folks think of poverty primarily in these terms I see the letting go of things or distractions as a means to an end (a faithful vulnerability) and I see the vow primarily in terms of that end more than I do the means.

In all of this my vow of poverty also overlaps significantly with a commitment to obedience. I am vowed to allow God to be the sole source of strength and validation in order to be a gift to others so while that means letting myself stand with a kind of nakedness psychologically or emotionally as well as materially it also demands an openness to the One who is the ground of existence and meaning (this openness is the very essence of obedience). Still, in order to hear and to orient my life around the commitment to seek God, to listen to and for God in the silence of solitude, to embrace God's call in the myriad ways it comes to me every day and to see everything as a sacramental source or mediator of grace, a certain personal, material, and emotional or psychological poverty, stripping, or breaking open is required. 

In this context, vulnerability is another word for the poverty I am vowed to embrace. Whether the value is cast in terms of simplicity, poverty, or any of the other contemporary formulations which are common today the real heart of the vow is vulnerability. This means vulnerability on a number of levels: to my inner life and to my personal history, vulnerability to the work it takes to move through any pain or trauma associated with this history and each present moment as well --- whether this is done alone or with assistance --- vulnerability to the even deeper and richer truth I carry within myself which may have gone unrecognized and undeveloped, and at all times a vulnerability to the God who summons me to more and more abundant life and wholeness in union with him. Sometimes I don't think I am capable of it, sometimes I do find it really terrifying and demanding of more courage, trust, energy and persistence than I believe I can muster. At  these times poverty (and the faith which it requires, calls for, and in some ways makes possible) is the most challenging counsel for me.

Religious Obedience:
I acknowledge and accept that God is the author of my life and that through his Word, spoken in Jesus Christ, I have been called by name to be. I affirm that in this Word, a singular identity has been conferred upon me, a specifically ecclesial identity which I accept and for which I am forever accountable. Under the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, I vow to be obedient: to be attentive and responsible to Him who is the foundation of my being, to his solitary Word of whom I am called to be an expression, and to the whole of His People to whom it is my privilege to belong and serve.

While poverty is challenging at times obedience is so closely related to poverty that it tends to  become challenging at the same times. Poverty means saying no to those things which keep us buffered, shielded, or otherwise protected from the demands of reality and especially from the call to life which comes to us from within as well as without. But poverty is something we embrace for the sake of obedience, that is, so that we might be truly open and responsive to God and God's call. We say no to some things and live that no in a general way so that we can say and live out a yes to the One who is far more important and in fact is (or is meant to be) the center of our lives. We allow ourselves to become and remain vulnerable in order to hear and to commit ourselves to the God who is the source of all life and meaning. Unfortunately, (or at least it seems unfortunate at times) our God's primary language is silence and additionally (he) often dwells in darkness --- or a light which is so bright as to seem as darkness to us. To embrace the vulnerability of poverty for the sake of obedience (responsiveness) in the silence of solitude can be painful, and thus terribly challenging as we desire something or someone to comfort us in more usual ways --- with a word or a touch or at least a gesture of recognition and affection. Obedience to God does not always allow this.

In my own life, obedience means learning to listen and respond to the God who speaks primarily in the silence of solitude and I find that especially difficult when I am challenged by vulnerability or am, for whatever reason, frightened by the circumstances of my life. The exact same things that I may sometimes use to distract myself from poverty are the things which can shield me from obedience: things --- especially new (neos) things which give the immediate but very temporary and sometimes false  sense of a newness (kainete) which only God can give (here books, which are often a means of genuine obedience, are instead an important culprit), activities which are meant to fill the silence or blunt the solitude rather than to be part of an environment which truly leads to recreation in Christ. Similarly, it seems to me that obedience per se is not a problem unless poverty in the sense noted above (poverty as vulnerability) is also problematical. At the same time obedience overlaps substantially with chastity (consecrated celibacy) because it is the fundamental attitude of one who is open to truly loving God and others.

Consecrated Celibacy or Chastity:

Acknowledging that I have been called to obedient service in and of the Word of God, and acknowledging that Jesus’ gift of self to me is clearly nuptial in character, I affirm as well that I am called to be receptive and responsive to this compassionate and singular redemptive intimacy as a consecrated celibate. I do therefore vow chastity, this last definitive aspect of my vocation with care and fidelity, forsaking all else for the completion that is mine in Christ, and claiming as mine to cherish all that is cherished by Him.

I think it is clear from the first sentence of this vow that I see consecrated celibacy as building on both poverty and obedience. The capacity to love as this vow calls me (or anyone else) to is predicated on the capacity to let myself be vulnerable, open to, and responsive to God. Likewise it is grounded in God's love sufficiently to meet others with that same love. For me the vulnerability and responsiveness called for and empowered by religious poverty and obedience are matched by a vulnerability rooted in a personal security one knows only because she is loved with an everlasting love by God. It is a bit of an irony: a creative vulnerability is possible only because of this transcendently grounded security. This security is the fruit of being loved and held securely by God which is only known in faith. In light of this it is possible to see that celibate love is the compassionate love made possible by all that poverty and obedience opens us to. Similarly it can and often will be hampered by the same things that hamper either poverty or obedience.

If the vulnerability which characterizes true poverty is difficult for me for some reason  I will generally be far less able to be present and truly responsive to others --- beginning with God. Even more, that failure in responsiveness will lead to and represent a failure to love generously and selflessly. It might well cause (or at least tempt) me to withdraw in ways which are unhealthy rather than being expressions of eremitical anachoresis. In each vow then there are symptoms of a more serious dis-ease and disorder. With poverty the most common symptom of underlying dis-ease or disorder is an unhealthy attachment to things which numb and distract as they claim (or maybe consume is the better word) our capacities for giving ourselves in love; I find the same tends to be true of obedience though willfulness or an insistence on controlling reality are also common symptoms of a disorder here. As just noted with consecrated celibacy the most common symptom (for me anyway) is an unhealthy withdrawal though the distortions of healthy relatedness, sexuality, and intimacy may also occur and are what we usually think of as violations of chastity or consecrated celibacy.

I hope this is helpful for you. I realize I can't simply say one of these vows is more difficult for me because of the way I understand them. I can say that they are each expressions of faith. For that reason any significant challenge to faith, any challenge, that is, to my capacity to be vulnerable or trust and thus too to be open, or to love generously and selflessly is a challenge to my vows and may affect my ability to live each and all of them in the same way pulling a single thread affects other threads and, in fact, the integrity of the entire fabric.