Living a fruitful vowed life
This article is reprinted from the fall 2007 issue of HOPE.
Almighty and eternal God, wishing to consecrate myself to your service, under the special protection of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, of my full and deliberate will, I, Sister N.N., take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience according to the Constitutions approved by the Holy See for this Congregation of the Sisters of Providence. Grant me, O my God, the grace to be faithful to them until death. Amen.
Throughout its 166-year history each Sister of Providence has stood before an assembled faith community and used these words to publicly proclaim her intention to live her life in keeping with these specific gospel values and to work toward furthering the mission of Jesus in the world. What, we might ask, is the gospel value at the heart of each vow and how can it be expressed today in a world characterized by so many relationships distorted by greed for money, sex and power?
Since the Second Vatican Council directed religious congregations all over the world to examine and renew every aspect of their lives in order to better meet the needs of the contemporary world, the Sisters of Providence have been asking themselves what would Saint Mother Theodore do if she were here now? How would she live her commitment to her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? Over the years since the council, we have examined our lives in light of the Gospel, our Constitutions, and the life and mission of our foundress. We have reflected and prayed — alone and together. We have dialogued with one another and have met in General Chapters to make decisions about how we might better live our lives together and bring new life to our mission. In this process, our vows have taken on new and deeper meanings. We now better understand them not merely as rules to follow but as gospel values to be made an integral part of our lives.
Someone has said the vow of poverty might better be named the vow for justice-making because at its heart is the value of helping others who are deprived of receiving their fair share of God’s bounty. The Constitutions of the Sisters of Providence continue to call us to witness to the gospel value of sharing with others, contributing what we earn to a common fund and receiving from that fund what we need for ourselves. Our times also call us to pay attention to the “common fund” of creation from which we have already taken far more than our share. This contemporary understanding of poverty may ask us to make room in our lives for practices like conserving energy, recycling, changing our driving habits to help reduce greenhouse gasses, patronizing organic farmers’ markets, or working for systemic change so that this common fund of creation will be available to future generations.
A sister professing a vow of chastity in the Congregation today, a vow which she will live out within a celibate community, understands that she commits herself to strive to bring about the reign of God through her efforts to live in right relationship — with God, herself, others and the whole of creation. She commits herself to find appropriate ways to do this, learning to be more loving, more compassionate in her relationships with others, more willing to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, to work toward reconciliation, to deliberately choose to make non-violence a way of life not only in her manner of thinking, but also in her way of speaking, acting and re-acting in the various relationships of her life.
The gospel value at the heart of the vow of obedience is Jesus’ desire to do always the will of his Father. While in the past we thought following laws and blindly obeying people in authority was an expression of this value, we have come to recognize that it also embraces our responsibility to contribute to informed choices made by our community, to participate in the decision-making that affects our own lives and the lives of others and to integrate into our own lives decisions made by the community at large. The word obedience comes from a Latin root meaning “to listen attentively.”
While the vow of obedience today continues to challenge us to recognize the voice of the Spirit in legitimate authority, it is not a matter of just blindly obeying the Congregation-elected leader’s command. Rather the leader and sister enter into dialogue so that in listening attentively to each other’s point of view, we may come to recognize where the Spirit is really speaking and thereby arrive at a mutually agreed upon decision. This new understanding of the vow of obedience calls us to really listen to the wisdom of others, to let go of our own preconceived notions, to search for truth no matter where or by whom it is spoken.
True obedience calls us to be contemplative, discerning women who recognize the voice of the Holy One speaking from deep within ourselves, in others and in the ordinary events of our lives. Only then will we know how we are called to respond.
It is important to recognize that a fruitful vowed life cannot be lived in isolation. We depend on God’s grace and we also need to be part of a loving, supportive and prayerful community. Even though distance often separates us, Sisters of Providence have found many creative ways to stay connected with one another and to make community the reality that Saint Mother Theodore had in mind when she prayed, “Grant, O my God, that all who dwell in this house may love thee much, may love one another and may never forget why they came here!”