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A vow is a sacred promise or commitment made publicly with the approval of the Church. Through her vows, a Sister responds with her whole life to God’s invitation to love Him completely and without reserve. This free response is a fuller expression of her baptismal call and is, for one who is genuinely called to the consecrated life, a means to greater holiness. All Christians are called to live the virtues of chastity, poverty and obedience; these vows provide for a purification of heart and spiritual freedom that uniquely mark the life of the consecrated woman religious. Living these vows enables her to focus her entire being on God and His people.
While all women religious profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, some communities take an additional vow. Some monastic communities profess a fourth vow of stability by which the monastery they enter remains their home for life unless they are called to be part of a new foundation. Other communities take a fourth vow of hospitality or service to the poor.
The vows of consecrated life are means by which a woman religious seeks to be more closely configured to the One she loves. Living these vows draws her into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. She embraces a transforming love who gives meaning to all suffering and sacrifice.
A woman religious cannot help but respond with a total life gift to the God who has first loved her. When a woman religious falls in love with Jesus Christ and commits her life to Him completely, this determines the other facets of her life. Her choice to make Jesus the primary relationship in her life calls her to live a celibate lifestyle. The vow of celibacy means so much more than “not getting married.”
As a woman religious pledges her life in spousal love to God alone, her life of celibacy mirrors the beauty of the union alive in the Trinity. It is a reflection of intimate love to the point of giving one’s life for another.
A genuinely happy woman religious knows the joy of true intimacy. Intimate union with God gives meaning and credibility to her lifestyle. An ever deepening prayer life is essential to growing in knowledge and love for the One to whom she has pledged her life. A woman religious is drawn to give priority to prayer and communion with God.
The witness of genuine friendships with others both inside and outside of her religious community and with both women and men is one of the many gifts a woman religious can offer to the Church and society today. In a culture that teaches that the meaning of life depends almost exclusively on sexual activity, a woman religious points to the importance of a deeper level of relating.
Celibacy is not about self-absorption and selfishness. One who lives a life committed to Jesus Christ will come to know, love, and serve Him in the people she encounters each day. Rather than turning her in on herself, celibacy expands the heart of the woman religious and frees her to love everyone with a generous love.
The call to live a chaste and celibate lifestyle is a strong affirmation of one’s sexuality. A woman religious does not deny or repress her sexuality. She lives her womanhood deeply and fruitfully by nurturing life wherever she goes, by developing rich and intimate relationships, and by being drawn out of herself in service, friendship and family.
The vow of poverty professed by a woman religious is a radical call to freedom. Unrestricted by the accumulation of wealth and material possessions, she is free to focus on relationships and service.
The vow of poverty does not mean a woman religious is called to live in destitution. God desires that she live simply, living from her needs rather than her wants. Keeping her life simple helps eliminate distractions that could draw the woman religious away from God. A woman head over heels in love with God does not fix her attention on material things.
Called to serve those most in need, the woman religious recognizes the face of Jesus in those who are poor and less fortunate. She responds to the call of Jesus in the Gospel, “Whatever you did to the least of my people, you did to me” (Mt 25). Her service goes beyond a condescending charity and stretches her to live in solidarity with those she encounters.
This solidarity with people who are struggling challenges the woman religious to an honest and humble awareness and acknowledgment of her failings. She recognizes that “in power, weakness reaches perfection,” and she trusts God to use her personal poverty to share His message of salvation and redeeming love.
All creation is from God and the good things of this earth are to be celebrated and enjoyed. A significant part of the profession of poverty is care for the earth and all that has been given to us. The woman religious respects all of creation realizing these gifts are not hers to possess but to care for and use in service of others. The recognition that all is gift helps the woman religious understand that she owns and is entitled to nothing. She is grateful she has what she needs for life and ministry and seeks to share these gifts with others. This sharing begins in her own religious community as she shares not only material goods but her time and talents with her sisters.
The vow of poverty invites the woman religious to focus her entire life on God and God’s people. Because she is unencumbered with material possessions, she is able to go wherever she is needed. This availability for mission calls her to live in a spirit of trust and abandonment, following in the footsteps of Jesus.
In her vow of obedience, a woman religious strives to live her life in a stance of listening and responding to God’s will. This listening is a daily call to take on the mind and heart of Jesus as St. Paul writes: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2: 5).
This configuring oneself to Jesus Christ affects all aspects of one’s being. A woman religious comes to know that everything she is and does flows from her striving to pattern her life after the One who calls her. No aspect of her life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can be excluded from her obedient response.
The role of prayer in a life of obedience is central. It is in nurturing an ever deeper relationship with Jesus that the woman religious comes to take on His mind and heart. Daily, she comes before God asking in the spirit of John the Baptist that she “might decrease and He might increase.”
The woman religious also comes to realize that a fully embraced obedience involves not only what she does but the motives and intent behind her actions. The call for a lifelong process of purification and renewal allows her to leave behind selfish attitudes and motives and entrust her whole being to the God who calls her.
In obedience, the woman religious listens for the way she can best use her God-given talents and abilities to serve the needs of today’s Church and world. Contrary to the prevalent culture, obedience calls forth a selflessness and desire to live for others. At times, this may necessitate going above and beyond her own desires and interests. The grace of obedience supports one in doing this and is reflected in a graced growth in her life.
The role of the community is integral to the obedience professed by a woman religious. Far from being a “blind obedience” in which one simply does what she is told, the obedience of a disciple stretches her to take an active role in sifting through the various influences and calls in her life. Together with the community, she looks reverently at her gifts and talents as well as the needs of the world and strives to know how God is calling her to respond. Truly, the grace of community in this process is to have an extra set of ears with which to hear God’s call and invitation in the broader context.
In obedience, the woman religious daily comes with open hands and an open heart, begging to be formed as a disciple that she might better serve others. She recognizes that her vocational call is never given for herself alone but for the good of the Church and the world.
Compliments of the Diocese of Toledo
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