Saturday, August 13, 2011

Vows.

Later this morning, I will be watching as the nine second-year novices of the Chicago-Detroit and Wisconsin Provinces of the Society of Jesus profess First Vows at St. Thomas More Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. As I do so, I will be mindful of the fact that I made my own first profession in Detroit five years ago on this date. The Society tends not to make much of vow anniversaries – the anniversary of the date that one entered the novitiate gets a lot more attention – and five years of Jesuit life would seem to count for little when one considers that many more Jesuits have spent fifty, sixty, seventy, or even eighty years in the Society. Even so, I can’t help but reflect on the course of my own Jesuit vocation as I watch nine of my brothers make the same commitment that I made five years ago.

The words of the Jesuit vow formula are incredibly powerful, whether one recites them aloud, reads or prays over them silently, or listens to others recite them. Elegant and poignant in equal measure, the words of the vow formula are also bracing and frankly challenging. Of all the words in the formula, the ones that invariably strike me with the greatest force come at the end of the following sentence: "I promise that I will enter this same Society to spend my life in it forever."

To spend my life in it forever. Forever? No matter what? Even if something that seems better (whatever that might mean) happens to come along? Yes, "forever" means remaining faithful to the existential commitment that one has made even when something "better" seems to present itself. Living out my Jesuit vocation day by day, I tend not to worry much about the permanent nature of this commitment; I'm at peace with this "forever," even if many of the details (i.e., where I'll be and what I'll be doing five, or ten, or fifty years from now) remain uncertain. Of course, this kind of uncertainty is hardly unique to Jesuit life, or religious life in general - it's a part of every human life, whether we care to admit it or not.

In a very real sense, the acceptance of uncertainty is part of what makes commitments of the "forever" kind so meaningful. Whether one is promising to spend the rest of one's life in a religious order or promising to spend the rest of one's life with a particular person in marriage, one must embrace much that is unknown. In effect, one must be able and willing to say that one loves the other (whether that "other" is a human individual or an institution) so much that all other considerations are secondary, if they even matter at all.

Making permanently-binding promises isn't easy. The stakes involved are high, not simply in terms of accepting the uncertainty that comes with "forever" but also in recognizing what such promises mean for one's own sense of personal integrity. In A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt has Thomas More say that "[w]hen a man takes an oath . . . he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn't hope to find himself again." I think that many would affirm the point that More (or rather Bolt) is making here. Of course, we also know how very difficult it is to remain faithful to oaths, vows, and other promises once they've been made; each of us knows people who have made such promises in good faith and with the best of intentions - in the context of religious vows, in marriage, and so on - but have later found themselves unable to keep them forever.

"What is an oath, then, but words we say to God?" This is another line spoken by Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. The vows that we Jesuits profess - whether recited publicly before friends and family, or taken secretly in times of persecution, or repeated silently during private prayer - are fundamentally "words we say to God," even if others happen to be listening as we say them. To say "forever" to God is to do something very courageous, as I hope the foregoing reflections have shown. Thus, when the nine vovendi profess First Vows later this morning, they will have not simply my prayers but also my respect and admiration. I hope they have yours as well. AMDG.

3 Comments:

At 8/13/2011 8:27 AM, Blogger Robin said...

For those of us who have been profoundly influenced by Jesuits and their gift of Ignatian spirituality to us, this is very moving. I went to my spiritual director's final vow mass a few years ago and his joy was palpable.

 
At 8/22/2011 10:36 PM, Anonymous Tony said...

Although the path Christ had planned for me included a vow of a different kind, I can say with all sincerity that Ignatius follows us every step of the way, from the first day of entering the novitiate, until 15 minutes after our journey has come to an end. What's wonderful about milestones like anniversaries are that they remove us from the busy distractions of life and frame the greater context of our own journey in a light that gives us greater perspective. Congrats to you and all the guys from Loyola House who continue to shine bright with the light of Christ.

 
At 8/23/2011 1:59 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for that, Tony - prayers and good wishes for you, Lauren, and Oliver!

 

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