Thursday, February 08, 2007

Where Does Chastity Fit In?

“Receive this ring, for you are
betrothed to the Eternal King;
keep faith with your bridegroom
so that you may come to the
wedding feast of eternal joy.”

Rite of Solemn Religious Profession

All Redemptoristine Nuns receive a ring at Solemn (final) profession. The Rite of Solemn Profession is replete with spousal imagery. Thus the ring and its unusual design. I will save its complete history for another time. In keeping with the pledge of life-long fidelity, the ring symbolizes the committed relationship. Originally a Roman betrothal ring, the design was re-appropriated during the Renaissance and remained popular for that purpose through the 18th century. The design is called "mani in fedi", hands in faith; for us, the clasped hands of the Spouse and the Beloved.

Receiving the ring is the seal on our promise for life, a promise to cling to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The first and the last vows in this customary sequence make sense for older women. One can begin to live a simple life spare in material goods and pledge obedience to a superior at any time. But that vow of chastity has a funny sound to it when we are talking about women who have known married love and given birth to children. Surely these women cannot be numbered with the spotless virgins whose monastic prayer was seen in the past as more efficacious than any others! Today it is possible to find vestiges of this thinking in the Church's governance of male versus female monastic orders. We need to put this permanently aside in the 21st century.

Chastity has everything to do with relationship. Primarily it is a commitment to the centrality and exclusivity of the nun's relationship with Jesus Christ. To opt for this relationship above and beyond all others is possible at any time. And it is around consequences of this choice that discussion of the particular meaning of the vow of chastity for older women must revolve. For any woman who has had considerable life experience, the choice for committed chastity as a contemplative nun takes on a particularly deep dimension of detachment from human intimacy. It is played out not only in deliberately walking away from any future intimate sexual relationship but also in some other and possibly more problematic or challenging movements of the heart. Far more demanding in her case may be to absent herself from the intimacy of living within a related family, from engaging in deep personal friendship, and from the irreplaceable and unrepeatable reciprocal intimacy of parent and child. It is an asceticism that few grasp.

It is necessary for me to remember that the older sisters with whom I live entered religious life in their early twenties. Over fifty years ago and at that tender age they fore swore the possibility of ever experiencing married love or the birth of a child. Some did not fully realize what would be demanded of them as time moved on and they matured as women or as they watched their sisters raise large families. How much more we must admire and reverence their perseverence flowing out of pure love. Now these same women have to live with women like me who talk of past lives as wives and mothers, some with careers along with it, and are even asked to join in celebrating the arrival of a new grandchild! Their long and faithful lives, their continuing effort to nurture new vocations regardless of personal cost is to be admired and imitated.

Whoever we are, young or old, worldly-wise or not, vowed religious or lay person , we can never fool ourselves into thinking that we know the place of the deepest asceticism in any person. God seems to know the perfect one for each of us; potent territory and fertile land with greatest potential for God's revelation and our conversion.

1 comment:

Candice said...

That was such a beautiful commentary. Thank you, Sister.