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The Second Commandment and the Vows

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


(?)…of to use the verb glory to God, but in the Church’s understanding, vows are to be somehow expressed in speech, in spoken or written or otherwise sensibly perceptible form; vows are to be witnessed. Vows are to be somehow expressed and there will be a permanent record of the vows having been taken. And that is why we place vows under the second precept of the Decalogue.

The Old Testament has many examples of vows being taken, including some rash vows, like the vow of Jefter a leader in war who vowed that, if he were victorious in battle he would offer as a holocaust to God the first person who would come through the doors of his house. Poor man. The first person to come through the door was his only daughter. And he sacrificed her. And elsewhere in the Old Testament we are told God was not pleased.

With the coming of Christ, the taking of vows became almost characteristic of Christianity. And since the apostolic age, the Church has elevated, and extended and explained vows to such a degree that Catholicism can almost be called the religion of vows. Catholics take vows others may but it is not part of their faith. Our scope for the present meditation is again the familiar triad of what, why and how. So we ask ourselves what is a vow? Why are vows pleasing to God? And how are vows to be observed?

Our first question therefore, what is a vow?

A vow is a promise made to God to do something which is possible, good, and better than it’s opposite. Possible, good, and better than it’s opposite. In order for a promise to become a vow it should be something more than a mere resolution. We can make resolutions to ourselves but when we make a vow it is no mere resolution. We resolve indeed within yourself but then you promise God that you will observe and remain faithful to your resolution.

In order then for a promise to become a vow it is not merely something that we resolve on our own -- call it a promise we make to ourselves. No. It is not even a promise made to another person. It is a promise made to God, made to God under oath.

A good theological definition of a vow is, it is a promise or an oath, a vow is then a promise made to God and not just - though we sometime read about people making vows to the saints or to the angels. Not quite. We may take vows in honor of the angels and saints. But a vow properly speaking is made only to God. A vow then is a promise made to God to do something better than it’s opposite or its omission. That word better is critical to the understanding of what a vow is.

Let’s explain a little more. This something better it not be, need not be, objectively better. It is enough if considering all the circumstances, it is better for the person who is taking the vow. To illustrate objectively, the married state is not better than celibacy or consecrated chastity, objectively. For the obvious reason that celibacy or consecrated chastity imply a greater sacrifice-- the sacrifice of marriage, of family and all the wonderful things that God promises those who enter the married state. Yet in any given case marriage can be better for a particular individual. And over the years of my priesthood I’ve told many people, look I think it is God’s will for you to marry. I don’t think I’ve ever told a person to bind him or herself under vow to get married. But I could.

The observance of a lifetime consecrated chastity calls for extraordinary grace. Some people just don’t have the grace. Back again. A vow then is always a promise made to God to do something which is either objectively better in itself or at least subjectively better for the individual who makes the vow.

In the Catholic Church we recognize two levels of the divine will in our regard. And to understand what vows are we must make clear in our minds that God’s will is manifested to the human race in two different ways. First, the divine will is manifested imperatively binding on all persons or in the church or on all Christians or even more specifically on all Catholics. We call these divine precepts. But secondly, the divine will is also manifest invitationally. Where God’s will is manifested, needless to say, not on everyone or to everyone. Where the divine will, which is perceptive; is binding under sin. But God’s will is also manifested to some people, that word some, is crucial to some people to them whom God gives them the grace, inviting them to observe what we call the evangelical councils of which the three principle councils are consecrated chastity, poverty, and obedience.

I don’t want to let go of this crucial subject. Except for God becoming man we’d have no idea because He would not exist of God inviting people, offering people, not the obligation which you don’t offer, but the opportunity of doing what it would not be a sin if the person did not do it. That’s precept. But because God became man, and that is what councils mean at their root, fundamental understanding.

When God became man, we cannot, we could not without blasphemy say that Christ then the Incarnate God did His Father’s will under pain of sin. Impossible. God became man, and as man I hope I’ll be clear, and as man chose to do the will of His heavenly Father. Living a lifetime of what we might call the practice of the evangelical councils which He not only preached but which God became man to practice.

On the behavioral side of Jesus Christ, in the moral order we can say that God became man in order to practice evangelical councils. Because by the most fundamental presupposition of our faith Christ as man was not bound under pain of sin to do everything which he did during His life on earth from the moment of His conception in Mary’s womb until He expired on the cross.

As St. Paul tells us, having joy set before him, he chose the cross. In my theology a very good definition of the consecrated life, having joy set before one, those who have the grace choose the cross. That is why on the premises we’ve just described the most familiar kind of vows are those taken to follow Christ in His own words, the whole way as Jesus told the rich young man by binding oneself for life to the practice of what by now we know are the evangelical councils, a choice to do what you are not bound under sin to do unless God became man, who could not sin, chose what He chose, those who bind themselves under the evangelical councils choose. Why? Because Christ did so and Christ invites some people to follow His example. But He better, He better provide the grace. Not surprisingly, during the upheaval in the sixteenth century the founders of Protestantism to a man, no exception, every leader of what we now call Protestantism every one discarded the taking of vows. And not coincidentally, not coincidentally, and the founder of Protestantism had been under vows. And that caused by then the worst upheaval in Christianity. And that’s what is going on in the twentieth century. The Church’s crisis is historically traceable to those who having bound themselves under vow discarded devout commitment and the consequences in millions of once dedicated Christians as a matter of historic record in the past and a contemporary record right now. So much for part one.

Why, why are vows pleasing to God? Needless to say this is no trifling question. That for many reasons, but one reason, the one that I just touched on our century is witnessing the most widespread discarding of devout commitment and then the inevitable consequence the most widespread opposition in Christian history against the taking or keeping of vows. One papal statement after another, including for the first time in the Church’s history, a whole document never before and I hope never again will it be necessary. A whole document of a general council of the Church exclusively on the vowed consecrated life. In Latin Perfectae Caritatis. I repeat one papal statement, especially in our century, after another explains, bemoans the widespread breakdown of the vowed life and defends the vowed life in the evangelical councils as; hear it, as actually necessary for the Church. And since the document of Vatican II was published how many lectures I’ve given on just this subject. The necessity of a vowed life for the Church. Necessity. As we say in Latin, not necessary for the (?esa) of the Church-- for the existence of the church what is necessary is the priesthood and the episcopate under the Bishop of Rome. But for the (?bena esa)-- not for the existence but for the well-being, for the welfare of the Church’s existence.

All the Church could survive- a scattered remnant flock here and there without people living a faithful vowed life. But the Church as a witness to Christ’s life on earth for the Church’s well-being, for the Church’s supernatural prosperity, for her growth and stability and her sanctity. The vowed life we are told by the Church’s highest authority the vowed life is necessary. As a consecrated life goes so goes the Church in any period or place in the Church’s history.

We return to our question. Why are vows so pleasing to God? And notice we add not just pleasing to God, doing His will by avoiding sin is pleasing to God, but so pleasing to God, they are so pleasing to the divine majesty and then a series of becauses:

  • First, because in taking vows to observe the evangelical councils we are most closely imitating the life of Christ. Jesus Christ lived a life of consecrated chastity. Jesus Christ lived a life of consecrated poverty. Jesus Christ lived a life of consecrated obedience. Those who live the vowed life are living the life of Christ on earth until the end of time. Need I say and we’ll have to pay the price that Christ paid. In case nobody ever told you those of the psychological sciences I know them, I read their books, those living a vowed consecrated life are psychotics. My dear fellow psychotics, a Merry Christmas.

  • Why? Why is the vowed life so pleasing to God? Because in taking these vows we are witnessing to the power of divine grace to do the humanly impossible. That for me is one of the clearest definitions of grace. The power that God gives to do what is humanly impossible. And to do so not only for a short period or sporadically but faithfully and constantly and consistently for a whole lifetime. That by the way is what a vocation is. A vocation is the promise from God of grace to live a humanly impossible life.

  • Third because. Why is the vowed life so pleasing to God? Because in taking these vows we witness to eternal life and heavenly beatitude. How do we do that? Our faith in life after bodily death, after all I don’t say no intelligent or educated person but no sane person would bind him or herself to a lifetime commitment to the practice of the councils unless that, and has to be sane person, believes in life after this valley of tears.

    Of course there are compensations already in this life of fidelity in living a vowed life but it is faith and eternal life and hope of attaining that heavenly beatitude that underlies the motivation of those who vow themselves to follow Jesus Christ in a consecrated life and thus witness to faith in eternal life and how our world, how it needs the witness of faith beyond this life which modern science is extending, stretching in the United States, science has added twenty eight years to the average lifespan of every American. Thanks. Maybe by the year twenty-one hundred the lifespan of the average American will be increased by fifty-six years over what it had been in nineteen hundred.

    I tell people, and I can say this with experience, the longer you live the less you want to stay in this life. That to me is the perfect definition of insanity. Everyone who wants to stay here - its madness. That’s because number three. Witnessing to eternal life.

  • The fourth because. Because in taking these vows we become more fruitful in generating souls for heaven. More fruitful than what? More fruitful than as history shows, we could ever be. If we had not so vowed ourselves who had been the great apostles of history? Who? Oh, they had many followers. But the leaders of apostolic life from the first century and I dare say to the last century of world history are men and women who have vowed themselves to live lives of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience. It is part of our very nature to reproduce ourselves. And if St. Paul can say it, so can we. Speaking to his own first century Christians, in Christ Jesus I have begotten you. The vows guarantee a fertility, a reproductivity, that no one else has now two thousand years of the Church’s history proves that no one else can duplicate. And after all as I’ve told so many married people, look you fathers and mothers your purpose in getting married - which by the way was why I was two days delayed in coming to Jemez Springs. They just had to have the wedding in Washington and I had to officiate at the wedding and they had the date set months ago. They told me kind of late. All right, all right, I’ll be there for the wedding. But I’ll be late in coming to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood.

    In my wedding homily I told them and they blinked, good sign. You’re getting married Robert and Anne Marie to bring children, not into this world; you don’t even have to marry to have children. You are receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony to procreate children for heaven. And that is the glory of the vowed life. Other people can do their part. Physically reproduce themselves and they are also, but sadly, how many often not even through their own fault reproduce themselves in body but tragically do not reproduce themselves in spirit which is the privilege and the glory of the vowed life.

  • Fifth because. In taking these vows we become channels of extraordinary grace to everyone and the word is everyone whose life in any way we touch. Even to people we shall never know here on earth or meet this side of eternity. The vowed life makes those who remain faithful in the vowed commitment conduits of extraordinary grace to the world. We dare say, “sacraments to others.”

  • Sixth and finally why we are asking ourselves, is the vowed life so pleasing to God? Because as history shows in taking these vows we can become holy, holy in our union with Christ, grow in sanctity, and thus verify the Church’s claim to being the one holy Catholic Church and therefore the true Church founded by Christ.

    Why finally is the vowed life so pleasing to God? Because the vowed life testifies to the existence of the one true church on earth. The one true church in the church in which vows are taken, vows are lived, and vows are faithfully observed testifying that the Church founded by Christ really exists and we can exactly say where that Church is. The vowed life is necessary for the credibility of Catholic Christianity.

So much for number two! How are the vows to be observed? As experience tells us it is one thing for a person to take vows including what we call the vows of religion. It is something else to live the vowed life as Christ wants us to. To do this for a lifetime commitment calls as we’ve been saying for extraordinary grace from God. But it also requires extraordinary, extraordinary generosity from those who assume this kind of vowed life time fidelity. We repeat our question. How, how are the vows to be observed? And our answer will have to be in three parts.

The vows are to be observed prayerfully, confidently and cheerfully. Those who bind themselves to following Christ in His practice of evangelical councils must do so prayerfully. Christ being the living God in human form, He prayed, but His prayer was not necessary. He prayed to teach us, inspire us to pray, but those who vow themselves had better pray.

Ordinary prayer is not sufficient. Ordinary time for prayer is not adequate. The lives of those who vow themselves to a lifetime of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience, their lives must be literally lives of prayerful union with God. This is not only a matter of amount of prayer or the period of time spent in prayer or the frequency in engaging in prayer. It means that the mind, the mind is to be united in thinking of God. And the most perfect example is that of the mother of God. She under extraordinary divine inspiration began her vowed life even before she conceived Jesus Christ, and surely with His eternal prevision God inspired His mother to undertake what the Jewish people never did, to undertake a vowed commitment so that when God became man He would be conceived by a mother under vows.

On the level of prayer to which we are addressing ourselves, can we imagine that her divine Son from the moment He was conceived in her womb was ever out of Mary’s mind? In other words this, living the vowed life prayerfully means thinking of God. Let me say it, most people don’t realize that our free will has the power of choice the power of command over not just our body. We want to lift this glass, I lift it. I want to lift my hand. I lift it. Voluntary muscles. I want to lower my hand; my will says lower your right hand. I said lower your right hand. Lower your right hand. All right, all right. But this will of ours has command over our mind. I hope you hear this again. I’ve taught too many people for too many years not to know that those who want to think think and those who want to stop thinking stop thinking.

We have the power not only to think or not think we’ve got the power to think of well, either A, or B, or C. We don’t even have to make an act of the will to decide I’m going to start, it’s hard, I’m going to start thinking about myself. Spontaneously, constantly, the vowed life is to be a prayerful life. I use my will to tell my mind now, my dear mind, I want you to start thinking about God, inevitably, the mind begins to drift, the will comes back and we mind the mind.

Remember what I told you. Yes I heard you. This prayerful life in the vowed life means that I am united in will by always conforming my freedom to the will of God. Of course this means an alertness. It means that I don’t go around like a somnambulist, walking in a dream. Whatever else the vowed life should be, it ought to be a conscious life, a wide awake life. How should the vowed life be lived? Prayerfully. We go on. Those who bind themselves to the vowed life must do so confidentially. This is no cheap encouragement. Listen. The vows that people take and bind themselves for all life to follow Jesus Christ in His practice of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience--their vows are a covenant, a bilateral contract, we may say it. They take a vow and so does God.

How many times in the Old Testament remember, Yahweh speaks of the covenant He entered into with His people. Time and again they were unfaithful to Him; He punished them to bring them back to their senses. But I’ll not go back on my covenant. The vowed life is a covenanted life. Those who vow themselves promise God to remain faithful unto death. But Christ binds Himself to provide those who vow themselves with a lifetime grace of remaining faithful to their promise. And that is why there must be that is what a vocation is, there must be, the vocation and the assurance of grace from Christ so that a person does not just make the vows bind him or herself and then be left stranded. But then the reminder. Christ will never be wanting with His supernatural light and strength. We can always be sure that He will be faithful to His part of the covenant to His keeping of His vows provided we do our part in keeping ours.

Finally, those who undertake a vowed life should live this life cheerfully. Cheerfulness is the external witness of interior joy. I think I should repeat. Cheerfulness is the external witness of interior joy. And so much of the modern world is playing games, pretending to be happy. But it’s really, and we can safely say in millions of human hearts is pathetically sad. Observing the vows is not easy. So what. But it should be enjoyable. Come, come. You mean, you can’t mean, you mean I can be happy in doing what I don’t like? Well, that contradicts everything in Webster’s dictionary. So much for words in Webster’s dictionary- including the unabridged. Ah, there is happiness and there is happiness. There is true joy and the true joy is reserved only and that adverb is really revealed. True joy is reserved only for those who sincerely strive to conform their wills to the will of God. And the key word is wills. My body may complain. Well, tell the body, keep complaining. Emotions will be upset. Wake up. Tell the emotions, this is the will speaking I am in charge.

However, it is not enough to experience interior joy; those who undertake to live a vowed life are also to manifest their interior happiness. Otherwise what happens? Well, people seeing this, oh, oh, she’s a vowed religious all right, holding on, they hear themselves, Lord spare me. In other words those who live the vowed life are not only to be happy but to be cheerful, give evidence of their interior happiness. This cheerfulness is a powerful testimony to everyone who sees us that true joy comes from total self-sacrifice to Jesus Christ. Every day in my priesthood, every soul that God puts into my life keeps adding to the evidence, incontestable evidence, our happiness depends on the measure of our giving ourselves to God. And nobody, nobody either cheats or deceives anyone. Living then, a vowed life with cheerfulness provides, I mean it, a foretaste of heaven here on earth. God wants us to be happy. That’s why He gave us the Eight Beatitudes. But then you finish each Beatitude, and you sigh, yes Lord, I want to be happy, but Lord, did you see the price tag? Yes. Not only did I see the price tag, I made the price tag. It’s high. And the price is self-sacrifice.

Lord Jesus, the vowed life is the highest testimony to your presence on earth, those who live this vowed life according to your will are the most powerful witnesses to what your grace can do and weak fallen human nature. We ask you dear Jesus, those of us who have vowed ourselves to follow you the whole way, to give us the light to see and the strength to do everything that you tell us to do so that following your mother’s directive in doing everything which you tell us our lives might be a lifetime miracle, Cana shown and seen by our world that needs, needs dear Jesus, our witness to you, our God. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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