Tomorrow morning I will profess my Temporary, or “Simple,” Vows as a Franciscan Friar. What’s that mean, you ask? It means that starting tomorrow I am bound by canon law and the Order of Friars Minor to live the Rule of 1223, as interpreted by the General Constitutions and Statutes of the Order, “in obedience, without anything of my own and in chastity,” for a period of one year. For the next four years, I will have to renew them each year until I am ready to take Solemn, or “Final,” vows.
For some, especially in my commitment-fearing generation, the idea of taking vows such as these seems binding and suffocating. You mean you have to share everything? You can’t have sex? You have to do what other people tell you to do the rest of your life? That’s one way of looking at it. I, on the other hand, see it as a liberating experience.
For the rest of my life I will have a form of life to guide me. By this, I don’t mean to say that all of the sudden I will be a changed individual, completely others-centered and sinless the rest of my life, free from worry and inhibition. Rather, I mean to say that vows before God are serious reminders, inspirations, blueprints, and even excuses to act a certain way, and that, though there will not be a noticeable conversion from one day to the next, it is impossible to stay steadfast to them and also hold onto the worries of the world. What I accomplish, my career, how well I’m liked, how comfortable I am, having the right clothes, the reputation that proceeds me, and how much control I have over my life, are all worries that will eventually fade away when I recognize the significance of what I’m doing: I am consecrating my life to God. Sure, I’ll still bear the mark of a sinful human wanting to fill myself with things that do not last, but there is a part of me, if I let it out, that will never have to worry about anything more than pleasing God.
That’s why, while there are many good reasons to enter a religious order, the primary reason absolutely has to be a longing to be in deeper relationship with God. Fraternity, poverty, humility, ministry, and really cool 12th century clothing are all great, but they are not ends in themselves. Even the vows themselves, poverty, chastity, and obedience, are merely disciplines that hope to find something greater. The true end, the purpose for this life, is to love God more deeply and to seek greater communion/reconciliation with him.
When one begins to look at the vows from this perspective, there is nothing “binding” or “suffocating” about them; they’re simply liberating. Sure, financial liberty, private assets, sex, family life, independence, and professional success can all be very good things. But for me, these are all things that could distract me from giving myself fully to God. In this way, the vows are a means by which I keep unwanted distractions, although good things for others, out of my life so that I am more free to do what I really desire. Trust me when I say that taking vows is the most liberating thing that I will do in my life.
With that, I ask you to please pray for me tomorrow as I take a big step forward in my religious formation and tie the temporary knot(s) in my relationship with God. I will be away on vacation until August 19, but look for a few reflections from Novitiate while I’m gone!