The Vows: A Church's Rebellion Against Our Culture

Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's quiet in the house. Then again, it's almost always quiet here - a result of living with all introverts. But today it's especially quiet - not a footstep is heard, not any snippet of a conversation, not a creaking of the stairs.

Today, the four Sisters I live with are in retreat in preparation for renewing their vows next Monday. Usually these retreats, since they are universal for everyone in the house, are made in the house rather than a retreat center. Not a word is spoken out of respect for the contemplative nature of the retreat, which explains why our little house on Ward Street is so still today.

If you were observant, you noticed I said something that is not typical of other religious communities - "...for renewing their vows next Monday" Religious orders only renew their vows in the juniorate -otherwise, there are first vows and final/perpetual vows. The Daughters of Charity are not a religious order. Rather, we're a Society of Apostolic Life, one of St Vincent de Paul's genius inventions for us. Unlike the description on Wikipedia, the Daughters do take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, just like any other religious order.  The difference is they renew them every year (with the intent of forever) instead of making one perpetual vow.

This retreat allows the Sisters to mentally, emotionally and spiritually prepare themselves for their renewal of the commitment to poverty, chastity, obedience and service to the poor (that being the fourth vow). The silence allows myself, not technically on retreat, to reflect on the vows that I hope to one day make.
I believe that my generation longs to rebel against our current culture. We're sick of the materialism, sick of the sex and violence blared at us 24/7, sick of the judgment. I believe that that's why Catholicism has seen a burst of vocations to the contemplative and cloistered life, indeed a beautiful thing. The 20-somethings, such as myself, maybe not even just those in the Catholic world, are aching for something different.

Each of the four vows the Daughters of Charity take - poverty, chastity, obedience, and service of the poor - screams against our modern culture. Poverty is at odds with the materialism of the world, chastity at odds with our sex-centered culture, obedience at odds with individualism and egoism, and service of the poor contrary to our society's need to materialism and comfort. I am, in no way, rejecting the world. There are positive things in our culture, such as our need to keep learning, a need for every voice to be heard and a continuous effort to be tolerant of all races and religions. There are good people in the world and I believe there are more counter-cultural people (against the negative aspects) out there than we realize, maybe even more counter-cultural people than "cultural". Taking these four vows is something truly radical and not easy. It never has been, not even back in the 1600s when the community started. I have a real admiration for those who make these vows, Daughters of Charity and other religious orders alike. The vows are a way the Church rebels against our current culture. In that way, we try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who is counter-cultural both in His time and ours.

When I think of the Sisters I live with as 'rebels', it makes me chuckle because these are women who (seemingly) quietly live out their lives as school principals, pastoral associates, homeless shelter directors, etc. Yet the truth is they are rebels. Our culture tells them they shouldn't be working for free, tells them they shouldn't be living on a simple monthly "allowance", tells them they should be with husbands or boyfriends. But these four Sisters - ranging from ages 79 to 51 - say "no, thanks", make a yearly promise to go the opposite direction and, by doing so, rebel against what our culture is constantly telling them to do. It truly is an audacious thing to do.

Not all of us are being called to make these radical vows - poverty, chastity, obedience and service to the poor - but each of us is called to rebel against our culture in Christ's name. We are called to rebel against the negative things of our culture, even if it's simply showing the world our rebellion by something like the vows all religious take. The question is - how do you rebel? How do you embrace the positive things in our culture and reject the negative? How do you follow in the footsteps of the counter-cultural Jesus?

(Picture from the Vincentian image gallery, believed to be a French vow day card)

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