Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Vow of Chasity in Contemplative Life

Sr. Angela Liota, OSsR and Sr. Margaret Banville, OSsR

“Love Changes Everything”
The Vow of Chastity: A Promise of Radical Availability

Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR 2009 Part One

Back in April I posted some commentary and a slide show of our Region Formation Workshop which drew sisters from North America, Thailand, Philippines, Slovakia and Ireland. The following talk (published in two parts) is very much oriented to that audience but I thought tit might be of interest to others and have application to other types of groups trying to make a life together in accord with Gospel values.

The challenge of this topic has been roaming around inside of me for weeks. Books with little post-it notes sticking out at various places have been piling up in my room. I have filled scraps of paper with notes and ideas while waiting in doctors’ offices. I’ve pondered and meditated on the vow of chastity while lying in the tube of an MRI machine or just taking a shower. And I’ve prayed about it. I’ve prayed not just because I wanted to do you and the topic justice but also because thinking about it soon turned into my own examination of conscience and an examination of my consciousness. I began to think I had some nerve in trying to present this material to others.

Then the Spirit stepped in and by some divine synchronicity I came across notes of a presentation made here in 1991 by Sr. Vilma Seelaus, Carmelite of Barrington, RI. She began her presentation with the words, “Contemplation demands conversion; openness to radical conversion of heart. And the need for conversion is most felt in the Divine Presence.” I knew then that this assignment was gift because it called me to my own conversion. What I offer comes therefore from my own weaknesses and struggles. I hope that what I offer will put some flesh on the bones of the psychological and spiritual material that we have already received in this workshop.

The vows of obedience, poverty and chastity are usually associated with specific juridic or legal limitations. Obey lawful institutional authority. Put aside the right to ownership. Forswear the right to contract a marriage or engage in sexual intercourse. It is as simple as that, all very black and white, and legalistic. It is our blessing that the second chapter of our Rule, The Constitutions and Statutes, puts flesh on these stark legal admonitions. The opening section of the Chapter speaks immediately of our transformation in Jesus Christ, of incarnating the vows in the flesh of humanity. This section imparts all the relational meaning that brings the vows into the realm of our commitment to Jesus alone and in him to all of creation and to our fellow human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

Our Rule incarnates the vows and gives them human flesh by introducing them in the context of “union of hearts and mutual charity.” In this context of love and relationship the stark prohibitions present in a legalistic interpretation of the vows are translated into invitations to enter into the deep waters of relationship with Jesus Christ and through him to relate to others in such a way that our personal conversion is fostered.

By this application obedience becomes cooperation with the will of God, docility to the Spirit, loyalty to the common good, responsible conscious decision-making and the commitment to ongoing discernment and conversion.

The vow of poverty becomes a right attitude and relationship to the material world. It is about ‘living simply, so that others may simply live.’ It becomes a commitment to share, to care for the tools with which we work and the house in which we live, and to do all that we can to conserve the natural resources which bless our lives.

And by this incarnation of the vows into their human expression, chastity becomes, at least in my mind, a promise for radical availability to God and to others. It invites a capacity to cultivate relationship without attachment, without expectation, without a thought to the ‘quid pro quo’ or ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude so present in the surrounding culture. And it definitely denies any territory to the abusive use of power in our interpersonal relationships.

In this philosophy of the evangelical counsels, the vows are not merely promises to turn off natural human instincts – individual autonomy squelched by obedience; the instinct to promote personal well-being and survival trounced by rules of poverty; or the human instinct for life promoting intimacy and generativity completely turned off by the vow of chastity. Rather, as Sr. Barbara Fiand, SSNdeN said in her video talk on the vows, “celibacy is not freedom from but freedom for.” Following her lead, the philosophy I present today interprets the vows as instruments for both promoting and redirecting these instincts for the sake of the Kingdom, for personal conversion, for a return to the true self, our original goodness. The vows become the means by which we lower ourselves into the depths of the living water Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman.

Too often our culture sees these promises as destructive of the self. As religious in vows, we are called to see them as life-giving, life-promoting sources of light. I see them as opportunities for a great personal opening, for availability to God and our sisters and brothers, especially our sisters in community, in which we are true witnesses to the redeeming love of God, and through which we will gradually, very gradually, be transformed into the living memory of Jesus Christ. Isn’t this why we wear a red habit and put it on our bodies each day with the words, “Clothe me O Lord, with the robe of charity and by the merits of your holy and beloved Son, fill me with your divine Spirit.” It is an extremely counter-cultural understanding of vows which we express from a liminal position, a place at the edge, at the fringes of society. By our choices and our behavior we can create a model for another way of being with each other, another way in which cultures and religions may co-exist, another way in which countries may share the planet in peace. We witness to this way of being and relating for the love of God and in doing so we make a social, cultural and moral comment to the society surrounding us.

In the second part of this presentation I will further explore the vow of chastity as a promise for radical availability. However, we cannot ignore the component of the vow directly related to our human sexuality. While every vocational choice of the baptized person requires obedience to faithfulness and the poverty of simplicity, the call to celibacy is unique to religious vocation. Chastity appears first in the list of vows in our Rule. One of the most prominent scholars of religious life today, Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, sees this vow as primary to religious life, a symbol of the call to exclusive relationship to Jesus Christ. She defines consecrated celibacy as “the freely chosen response to a charismatically grounded, religiously motivated, sexually abstinent, lifelong commitment to Christ, externally symbolized by remaining unmarried.” So it is freely chosen. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a promise freely made because I choose to make the relationship with Jesus primary in my life.

But the kicker is that, even with the call, even with the freely chosen response and with years of living the celibate life, we remain sexual beings. The vow does not turn that off. Not only do our bodies continue to act and respond in ways appropriate to our sexuality and gender, our minds and our psyches may have to revisit, from time to time, the hard reality of saying “No,” to sexual intimacy and procreation. In our inter-novitiate class on the vows, Sr. Kitty Hanley, CSJ told us, “It is not a question of what you will do if you fall in love but rather what you will do WHEN you fall in love.” You might say, “Oh well, that doesn’t apply to us cloistered nuns. We don’t have the access to people that active religious do.” Well, I don’t believe that. We see priests, spiritual directors, doctors and physical therapists among others. We also live with other women on whom we can develop a teenage crush kind of thing. I have not had the experience of living with much younger new members but I imagine that adding them into the community mix can make for some interesting feelings in either direction – an older sister drawn to a younger one or a younger one idolizing her role model.

And then there is the physical reminder that can come now and then or more often; a physical sensation that serves to announce that I am still a female, a normal woman, embodied in the flesh and hard-wired for physical intimacy, mother nature’s way to preserve the species and give joy to the heart. Having the sensation does not sully my promise. Having the sensation is not a sin. It is as value neutral as any emotion. The real issue is “What do I do with this?” Is it an opportunity to put myself down or to feel guilty? Or is it an opportunity for awe and wonder at how beautifully we are made? And is it another chance to reverence my promise, the exclusivity of my relationship with Jesus Christ?
How can we help ourselves to remain committed to the promise, to that exclusive relationship with Jesus Christ? How can we avoid or, at least cope, with the sometimes feelings of loneliness or isolation? What kind of attitudes and action steps would be helpful?

(Discussion of SKILLS for CELIBATE LIVING Rev. Ray Carey, priest and psychologist adapted by Sr. Kitty Hanley, CSJ)

Earlier someone raised the issue of on-going connection with ones primary family. Since I am a woman who has been married and who has children one could say that the vow of chastity, in terms of its sexual implications doesn’t have much meaning. I have found, however, that although I am not giving up something I never had, the vow asks me to give up something I could have as a result of my marriage, that is, a particular kind of relationship with my children and now my grandchildren. When I hear that the children are sick; when I hear that my son and his wife are in a bind for child care, I think about how, if I were not a nun, I could jump right in and help out as all of my friends do who are grandparents. There is no doubt the relationship with your children is going to have to be different. Some people can do this and others cannot. We had a novice who could not understand why we felt that it should not be a necessity for her to speak with her grown daughter every day. We had a postulant who wisely realized very quickly that contemplative monastic life would not allow that kind of free wheeling, hanging out together quality of time she wanted to spend with her grown children. When I meet with vocation directors or formators I recommend that they explore the nature and texture of the relationship an applicant mother or father has with their children. Another novice we had was incredulous when we said that we did not give Christmas presents to our family members.

A new relationship with the pre-existing family has to be carved out and this is not done without pain. There may even come a time when one has to say to a family member, “I cannot help you with this matter but I will pray for you.” The incorporating community needs to appreciate that process going on in its new members. All of us have the continuing struggle of cultivating a manner of relationship with family members that allows us to be present to them but does not interfere with our ability to be present to our primary community which is now the monastic community. Doing this in a conscious way may mean that we have to consider how much time we spend on the phone with them or how much we become preoccupied by their ups and downs of which, in reality, we are not a part and cannot fix.

Break for discussion:

Questions for Novices:

What has challenged to you while living as if you had already taken this vow?
What has been your experience of friendship in community?
What has helped you to live the celibate life?
What is the relationship between solitude and creative relationship?

For Sisters in Vows:

How have you experienced the reality of living this vow?
What have been your challenges?
What has supported you along the way?

For Sisters in Vows for over 25 years:
How have you experienced the reality of living this vow?
How have the changes in the theology of this vow and changes in attitudes concerning sexuality affected you?

Part Two to follow.

1 comment:

Sr. Hildegard said...

Hildegard, this was so beautiful, I forwarded this to a couple of my friends who are religious.

Sent to me by Elizabeth...

In my experience, cloistered religious are some of the most fecund individuals whom I've been blessed to encounter thus far on my journey.

Sending prayers, thanks for your daily fiat, and peace to all our sisters at Esopus --