The Vow of Chastity: A Promise of Radical Availability
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 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.
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.
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 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:
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?