What the Pledge and Vow Mean
When we think of vocations, we may think either of those that arise in childhood and perdure throughout life or of those, like St. Paul’s, that bring a man to his knees despite a contrary disposition.
Discernment is often encapsulated in a statement like, “I knew God was calling me to [Priesthood/Religious life/the Catholic Church] because I didn’t want anything to do with it.” Less often do we consider vocations of attraction. Possibly because attractions seem to arise from one’s own heart, we tend to dismiss them as gauzy velleities rather than true callings.
Yet the very first apostle came to Jesus by attraction.* St. Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, responds to John’s declaration that Jesus is “the Lamb of God” by turning immediately to follow Jesus (Jn 1:35-39). As Andrew follows the Lord, Jesus must turn around and look back in order to address him, asking, “What do you seek?” Andrew has been seeking the Messiah (v. 41). Yet his puzzling response is, “Teacher, where are you staying?” (v. 38) Perhaps the question, “Where are you staying?” is an acknowledgement that he has, indeed, found what he was looking for and wants to be sure he knows where it “stays.” So Andrew’s vocation of attraction is neither a lightning bolt hurled at an unsuspecting target nor a subpoena. Rather, it is our Lord’s engagement with a searching heart.**
Desire and Judgment
Augustine observes, “The entire life of a Christian is, in fact, an exercise of holy desire.”*** In his letter to Proba he writes, “Enlarge your desires . . . The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive [what the Lord is preparing to give us].” (Ep 130, 8)
Like Andrew, I come with a searching heart but also with desires enlarged by the passage of time. Unlike Andrew, for many years I self-judged my desires and was deeply skeptical – deprecatory – of my bourgeois, female fear of rejection and need for approval, my great desire for God, and the vulnerability associated with the fear of losing it. “Look at your record! Who do you think you are that God would actually call you? The timing is absurd! You are too old!” Yet dispassionately assessing the facts, I saw that the longevity of the desire and what I have experienced in prayer and in graces of life were absolutely and unquestionably beyond self-instigation, self-propagation, and self-propulsion. This life-long, bottomless desire for God constituted a mandate of some kind – whatever it might be. Could I respond otherwise than to say, "Here I am. Send me! Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."? (Is 6:8, 1 Sam 3:9)
In approaching the CFP four-and-a-half years ago, I had reached the point where, with Paul, I had to say, “I do not even judge myself!” (I Cor 4:3) It was needful just to do something. By “doing” I would learn whether this was of the Lord – and risk being disappointed to learn that it was not.
At the end of these years of CFP formation, frankly confronting my own real faults, self-criticisms and depreciative doubts, I was struck by the recognition that, along with actual talents and strengths, our Lord himself had given me inadequacies, liabilities, vulnerabilities, desires, and needs not only so that he could use them but specifically so that he could take pleasure in satisfying them for me. Even by such tardy acceptance of a ‘vocation of attraction,’ along with accepting my own needs as gifts from his hand, I allow him that pleasure.
It was a defining moment to comprehend that not only is it reasonable that God should meet my need by drawing me to this life but, in fact, that is his plan. Generosity is our Lord's trump card; there is no way that anything I bring can match it. The very desire is his gift. The ability to say yes is his gift.
I had finally worked past the illusion that I was supposed to be doing the giving. Peter had the same problem: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:35). Peter only grasped the meaning when he was able to say: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17).****
Yet even after these years of methodical formation and participation in the life of the Confraternity, I still sought an unmistakable answer to Saul's question: "Who are you, Sir?" (Acts 9:5) Was this truly Jesus? Or was it just my own hungry voice? Brazenly, I demanded: "Lord, like Gideon, I am laying out the fleece. If this is really you, send the dew."
And it fell: literally overnight. Then again and again over a period of two weeks – in appointed readings from Scripture, in ‘coincidences’ and unsolicited affirmation from others: "make your call and election permanent, for in doing so, you will never stumble" 1 Pet 1:10). I had to trust him. This would be a life pledge.
O God, My Heart Is Ready
Six years ago, before the CFP, or vows, or taking a new name in association with a vow were even on my horizon, a Carmelite friend in the process of choosing her vowed name explained to me that these names reflect the personal spirituality of each Carmelite. Recognizing the didactic possibilities of the exercise – as a semi-serious game – I pondered what my ‘Carmelite’ name might be.
Since coming into the Church, I have seen Naaman the leper as my alter ego: Naaman, the outsider. The man from a place with better rivers than the Jordan. The man with a truckload of treasure, who wanted Elisha to make a big fuss over him but didn't even rate a handshake. The man who didn't want to do the simple, simple thing that would make him whole. But he did. Proud Naaman: a walking dead man in need of healing – a convert, who ultimately yielded to the truth. I was definitely Naaman. And because of a gentle miracle obtained for me by Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, I would take her name: Mary. I joke that I hold the mortgage on the Fourteenth Station of the Cross because of a preoccupation with its key place in the mystery of the Incarnation. No contest: my title would be “of the Holy Sepulchre.” Naaman Mary of the Holy Sepulchre. An instructive exercise; I buried it in the blind pages of my journal and forgot about it.
Then, just before this Lent, when third-year novices begin to discern in earnest the form our CFP pledge will take – pledge or pledge with vow – I asked for one last dewfall on my fleece. Before the tabernacle I prayed: Lord: put my doubts to rest. Don’t make this an exercise in dubiety. Lord: don't make me guess. Lord: show me clearly. If this is you, if you are inviting me to the vow, send the dew again.
I sat down in a pew to preview the readings for the next day’s Mass and read: "There were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian." (Lk 4:27)
Binding under Pain of Sin
An important consideration in making a vow is the pain of sin. Aside from the forbidding language of threat, how does a vow transform something not inherently sinful into sin? For example, in itself, eating meat on a Monday can in no way be construed as sinful. Yet under a vow, it is. How?
We vow to live the CFP Rule of life. Because a vow is made to God, it places the matter of the vow under the virtue of Religion. Under the virtue of Religion, the points of our Rule thus become acts of worship. Since worship is properly rendered only to God, faults against the Rule constitute an injustice to God, hence the pain of sin. To put this in perspective, however, the pain of mortal sin can apply only to grave matter.
Some ask why one would choose to incur the pain of even venial sin when a life pledge accomplishes much the same end as a vow but without that risk. That question comes from the wrong end of the telescope. We offer our vow in generosity, with openhearted love. And we come in trust. When I make a vow, intending to keep it, even while knowing that there must be times when I shall fail, I am trusting with my whole heart that our Lord will meet me when I step forward. Risk comes with failure of trust.
When Peter stepped out onto the water and walked towards the Lord, he did not sink until he “saw the wind” (Mt 14:30). Peter sank when he “saw” a thing that cannot be seen and took his eyes off the Lord. To focus on the sin attendant to the vow is like Peter’s seeing the wind. Should we fear the wind or trust the Master of the wind? Should I now fail in love because I fear sin? For my sake our Lord ‘was made to be sin’ (2Cor 5:21) – and conquered sin with power far greater than the power that conquered the wind. What does it say of my faith if I fear my Lord’s judgment more than I love his mercy?
Knowing that I cannot live this Rule purely by the grit of my own determination but only with the grace of God, believing that Our Lord has invited me to the threshold of this commitment, I come forward in faith to receive his faith. Our loving God does not invite us to walk more closely with him in order to mock our failure. He stands amid the wind, upon the water, ready to reach out his hand at my cry: “Lord save me!” (Mt. 14:30)
Beyond my intimate, personal motivations for vowed commitment to this life and to the CFP mission to “rebuild my house,” one further consideration specifically relates both to the mission and to the necessity of the vow in my case. I am drawn to pray for Priests, for all Priests, of course: to pray for their needs. But I especially dedicate my prayer – the Divine Office, Masses, devotions, meditations, our fasting – on behalf Priests who do not meet the prayer requirements of their condition of life, whether by fault or by willful dissent. To be a comparable offering, my vow is required.
Consolidating all of the points covered in this essay has brought me an indescribable sense of assurance and peace. Ultimately and emphatically, however, none of this relies solely on my sense of assurance. Objective confirmation by legitimate authority is absolutely essential to the validation of my personal discernment. An old Carthusian aphorism says that it is better if one’s obedience is a brake rather than a goad. In that spirit, I have placed my declaration for a vow forthrightly, without trepidation, willing to accept the judgment of the Confraternity and of my spiritual director should either decline the petition or judge it wiser for me to wait.
Finally Answering the Question: What Will the Vow Mean for Me?
All of my Christian life I have heard what the Second Vatican Council describes as “The Universal Call to Holiness.” Christ is a vocation from which no one is exempt. Because he is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6), only a radical commitment to his Person can satisfy the human heart. The vow concretizes the commitment and removes desire from the realm of wishful thinking into the realm of reality. The Rule, as the structure of our vow, stabilizes and directs our commitment to Christ. It helps to pattern the will towards holiness through corporal and spiritual discipline. The vow firmly holds the trajectory of our life on its true course. It seals our fellowship in fraternal charity for mutual support in common witness to Christ before the world.
In the end, for me, the vow will mean simply: I love you, Lord. Ευχαριςτω!
Jesus, I thank you for your self.
Jesus, I thank you for the goodness you have given me.
Jesus, I thank you for the goodness you desire for me.
Jesus, I trust you.
Jesus, I trust your mercy.
Feast of St. George
April 23, 2007
(Note: Saint Thomas Aquinas discusses vows on this link.)
* Jn 1:35-42: The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus.
**It is worth noting that Andrew did not fret over “discerning” his calling: he followed the Lord by simply following the desire of his own heart.
***Tractates on the First Letter of John (Tract. 4: PL 35, 2008-2009). Particularly germane to my own situation, coming to this late in life, is Augustine’s observation in the same place: “Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul to receive what is to be given to us.”
****Though never given to Petrine exaggerations, it is embarrassing not to have recognized this fundamental point until such a late date.