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A reflection for first vows

If I didn’t know better, I would say that the people who created the Lectionary of Catholic Readings must have known that Emily TeKolste was going to profess first vows today (Sunday, June 29). The Scripture passages chosen by them for this 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time offer a rather clear message of what God expects:

Follow me and don’t look back. Give your whole self in love and service.

General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski offers her reflection during Sister Emily’s vow ceremony

This is a pretty strong message for all Catholic church-goers who will hear these words of scripture proclaimed this weekend. But for you, Emily, on the verge of professing the vows of OBEDIENCE, POVERTY and CHASTITY, I would say these scriptures are PROVIDENTIAL.

In the first reading, Elijah is told by God to place his mantle upon Elisha as a sign of the divine call. Elisha is called to share in the prophetic mission of Elijah. Now Elisha does hedge a bit. He lets Elijah know that he needs to go and kiss his father and mother before he follows him.

Once accomplished, Elisha then destroys his plow and oxen as an example of total obedience and detachment from his manner of living in order to arise and go after Elijah. Elisha does give his whole self to follow God’s call. Obedience in response to God’s call of discipleship.

It is Jesus who issues the invitations in the Gospel reading that we just heard. Not unlike Elijah’s words to Elisha, he tells those who would follow him to “leave the dead to bury their own dead; and those who put their hands to the plow and look back are not fit for the reign of God.” I hear Jesus saying, “Stop making excuses. The reign of God is at hand. I need your whole self.” Jesus provides insight into the unconditional nature of Christian discipleship – not even family ties and filial obligations should distract us from proclaiming the realm of God. Detachment in response to God’s call to discipleship.

And in between those two readings, we heard Paul tell the Galatians that they have been set free from the old ways of the law. Followers of Jesus the Christ are called now to fulfill the law by being servants of one another, by loving their neighbor as themselves, by walking by the Spirit. Love in response to God’s call to discipleship.

Sister Emily Smiles while listening to Sister Dawn’s reflection

Theologian Philip Sheldrake says that discipleship has two main elements – the call to both personal AND social transformation. For Christian disciples, social transformation is the call to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love.

I would suggest that for the Sisters of Providence, an important guide for Christian discipleship, and thus a way to this personal and social transformation, is the living of the vows. Our vow formula begins, “Wishing to consecrate myself.” Wishing to give my whole self to God, who is love, in love and service to each other and to all of creation. The world needs us for this./ Emily, we need you for this.

As a little aside here, let me tell you that our sisters in initial formation, and there are 10 of them right now and another one soon to join us, decided at their last gathering together that they would like for us, the Congregation, to no longer refer to them as sisters in initial formation but as sisters in initial transformation. My response to this news was, “Of course, they do.”

This first profession of vows is meant to help that transformation, is a sign of the transformation already begun. And I believe Emily’s presence here today represents her deep desire for continuing transformation. In her letter requesting vows, she wrote, “I hope for a life lived toward being the best version of myself that I can be, led by and guided of these vows.”

Recently, Emily offered reflections on the meaning of the vows in two separate blogs. In fact, I toyed with the idea of just passing out her blogs for you to read in lieu of offering these reflections.

And though neither she nor I can fully capture in words the deep meaning of each vow, I think there are a few sentences worth repeating. In writing about obedience, Emily said:

Sister Emily receives her SP cross from Sister Dawn

“We think of obedience as deep listening. We must listen deeply to the voice of the Spirit in ourselves, in others in our community, in our leadership teams, in our friends, and in the world around us. … to find out what piece of the great work is ours to do.”

As for the vow of poverty, Emily reflected on the poverty of spirit that includes a “willingness to let go of my own ways of approaching things, a willingness to give myself over for the greater good – for the Kingdom of God.”

She also quotes the SP Constitutions: “the vow of poverty includes detachment from material possessions and unreasonable adherence to personal opinions” (Art. 18). Emily continued, “Ouch. That ‘personal opinions’ part stings.”

Chastity, explained Emily, “is about right relationship and freedom for mission. By giving up partners and families of our own, we are free to respond more wholly to the needs of the world in any given moment. … It is about a way that I can best use and express my love and my creative energies.” May it be so, Emily.

I hope we also hear in these sentences of Emily’s an echo of today’s Scriptures calling all of us as disciples to obedience, detachment, love – to give our whole selves in love and service.

All of us who share the charism of Providence have no better guide in this quest than our Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. Her obedience to listen to God’s call, to detach herself from all she knew and loved and to abandon herself in love to the God of love for the sake of God’s mission is her legacy to all of us who claim membership in this Providence Community.

What we make of Saint Mother Theodore’s legacy will be our legacy — will we follow and not look back? Will we give our whole selves in love and service? Will we follow that path traced by Providence that demands our commitment to both personal and social transformation?

Mother Theodore’s own words help us know what she would have us do: “This is the path traced by Providence. And I follow it.”

It is now my privilege, Emily, to call you forth, to that Path Marked Out for you.

See the photo album from Sister Emily’s profession of first vows here.

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Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski was elected General Superior of the Sisters of Providence in 2016. She has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. Previously she ministered as a teacher, as communication and development director for the sisters and their ministries and as a member of elected leadership on the general council of the Sisters of Providence.

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