Before I got to know the Christian faith I always thought the three religious vows were an abomination. Why would anyone deliberately choose the masochistic way of a life in “poverty, chastity and obedience”? Only after I saw a documentary on the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York and only after I delved into the Gospels more carefully I discovered that these vows were not ends in themselves, but should actually be understood as means to seeming antitheses of those very vows. It turns out that the three religious vows are anything but masochistic. They should be based on the paradox of the Gospel:
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24a-25).
In other words: there is a certain way of life we should get rid of to gain or regain ourselves. Again, to lose your old life is not an end in itself, but a means to gain a truer or more authentic new life. To gain social recognition often means that you’re accepted not for who you are, but for the image you’re presenting of yourself. Indeed, you’re losing your life while trying to “gain the whole world”. This process might also imply that you’re sacrificing others to protect that socially acceptable image. The apostle Peter denies knowing Jesus when the latter is arrested. Fearing that his association with Jesus will make him socially unacceptable as well, Peter presents an untruthful image of himself. From this angle Jesus rightfully says: “But whoever loses their life for me will save it…” (Luke 9:24b). If you lose your socially acceptable image to defend the one who is socially deprived, you will gain a truer identity as an unexpected and surprising consequence. To (re)establish relationships with the excluded is to take part in the dynamic of agape (love for one’s neighbor). It is making the “Body of Christ” – which is a body of Love – transparent.
The three religious vows can be helpful in actually settling the paradox of the Gospel:
- THE VOW OF POVERTY LEADS TO RICHES
- THE VOW OF CHASTITY LEADS TO INTIMACY
- THE VOW OF OBEDIENCE LEADS TO FREEDOM
I’ll try to explain this by means of examples.
1. THE VOW OF POVERTY.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… translates to For whoever wants to become rich will become poor… Indeed. Ever met those people who “wanted it all” – perhaps in the mirror? Those who want to enjoy as much parties as possible? If you want all the clothes in the world and go out shopping all the time you won’t ever fully enjoy any of your clothes. If you want to attend ten parties in just one night you will not have enjoyed any of them, because you will constantly worry about the next party you might be missing. If you want to love all the women in the world, you won’t have loved any of them in the end.
The challenge is to choose life where it’s present. As a present. To quote John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The challenge is to live in the here and the now. To choose quality instead of worrying about quantity. Intensity. NON MULTA SED MULTUM. Epicurus (BC 341-270) already warns against discomposing desires: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” If you stop trying to possess what others have (which is the same as no longer surrendering to mimetic desire), you will become aware of the things you do have and discover that there’s a world of plenty in one single moment, at one place. Jesus expresses this quite beautifully (Matthew 6:25-34):
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Imagine what this attitude of “having enough” could mean for the natural environment! It’s no surprise Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) deeply respected and enjoyed the riches of nature… If only we could follow his example a little better.
But whoever loses their life for me will save it… True, as explained earlier. It’s like imitating the good Samaritan. He is prepared to stop worrying about his plans and to free himself for the uninvited neighbor – right here, right now.
2. THE VOW OF CHASTITY.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… translates to For whoever wants to love everyone will not be able to love anyone… If you are a heterosexual bachelor who tries to develop a friendly relationship with a woman, you might soon find out that the woman herself or others fear you’re friendly because you want “something more”. This fear might prevent the possibility of more intimate relationships. On the other hand, when people know you’re married or that you took another vow of chastity, they will not have to fear you’re “after something more than friendship”. This opens up the possibility of more authentic and intimate relationships. It opens up the possibility of meeting the other as “other”, of true personal care – CURA PERSONALIS. Of course, we all know that in human relationships there is no black and white. There’s lots of colors in between the limits of a “grey zone”.
3. THE VOW OF OBEDIENCE.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… translates to For whoever wants to be free will be imprisoned… Oh yes, we tend to listen to the ones who are promising us a great future, a beautiful career, happiness etc. – in one word: “paradise”. But if a workaholic keeps on listening to his boss, he will remain a puppet of a degrading work ethic. If a drug addict keeps on believing the drug dealer who tells him that he doesn’t really have any problem, he will remain an enslaved human being for the rest of his life… In contrast, the vow of obedience means that you will try to obey to the Voice of a Love that wants what’s best for you. It means listening to a Voice that liberates you and enables you to be who you are… Only if you’re capable of accepting and loving yourself, you will be capable of loving others as well. The drug addict is so in need of drugs that he will approach others out of this need. He will use others to satisfy his needs and he won’t be able to approach them as ends in themselves. But if he frees himself from these needs and takes responsibility for himself he will be able to take responsibility for others as well. FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY are twin brothers, or sisters…
Poverty leads to riches, chastity to intimacy, obedience to freedom. All three outcomes are surprising consequences of the transformative power of the Gospel paradox. The imitation of Christ changes yourself, here and now, and by that you change the world.
I could only write this post after seeing an inspiring documentary on the life of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. It’s really worthwhile to catch a glimpse of their life and vocation. Here’s how they explain the three religious vows.
CLICK TO WATCH:
Een Nederlandstalige versie hiervan verscheen in de vorm van een artikel in het weekblad Tertio – klik op de afbeelding om ze te vergroten:
A blogpost in light of looking Lent? … Alas, monastic vocabulary doesn’t appeal to me any more. Okay, “poverty” translates for me as “Everything I need is here, is present.”
But what you said about chastity sounds as if sexuality can never be authentic or intimate. “Friendship is authentic and deep and intimate. Having sex is superficial.” Certainly you don’t mean that.
Obedience translates for me as: “I know what my way is and which direction / idea / voice of love I am following. I’ll try to stick to this way.” But I think I also should be open to the possibility that the direction / idea / voice can change.
I don’t really understand why what I said about chastity sounds as if having sex is superficial. On the contrary, I’d say, the vow of chastity is a different way of experiencing yourself as a sexual being. There is no dualism between “friendship” and “sexuality”. Cultivating friendship implies cultivating your sexuality. It means integrating sexuality in order to develop an embodied tenderness or an embodied, non-destructive intimacy. Precisely because sexuality is not something superficial you don’t just go around to have sexual intercourse with who-knows-who. The vow of chastity honors the principle that sex is something important, and tries to create a space wherein that (sacred) importance is felt and experienced, precisely by the abstinence of the most intimate forms of sexuality. It’s like “passing it on” or “giving it” to others…
On obedience: sure, I agree with you. Different contexts allow for different “vocations” of one and the same individual. Apart from being sexual beings we’re also historical creatures. We cannot take that away.
In short, the vow of chastity doesn’t mean that you deny sexuality – that’s also what the Franciscan says in the documentary -, nor does the vow of obedience mean that you should stick to one decision once and for all – contexts do change, and being a Franciscan in New York is different from being a Franciscan in Johannesburg, South Africa.
I read your new post last night and had to think about it on my way to work this morning. It was like stepping out of the daily routine for a moment, and it felt really good. You saved my day 😉 Thanks, Erik!
You’re welcome! 🙂 You know, “it’s them Franciscans”!