Young people are notorious for fearing commitment. Or at least that’s what the media has led me to believe.
To be honest, I’m not convinced. I’m not saying that because I myself am a Millennial. No, I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we would see that we live in an age when this is true overall: we are part of a culture that is afraid of commitment. That fear can’t be pinpointed to one generation; there isn’t an age limit to it or a socio-economic slant dictating who can commit and who can’t. We simply (or not so simply) live in a world that is in constant flux, and so the prospect of making any life choice, a deep-seated commitment to something or someone, can be terrifying.
What if something better comes along? What if my talents could be put to better use elsewhere? What if I make the wrong choice? What if I’m trapped in a relationship I can’t get out of? What if what I think is right for me now turns out to be wrong? What if I fall out of love?
As we face a future that is unknown, it’s hard to make decisions that will impact what we can’t yet see, let alone know or understand. That is perhaps the hardest part of commitment. Just as rapidly as the world progresses, it seems that the rules of living change, too. How can one be expected to hold hard and fast to a choice made today when the circumstances in which that choice will be lived out are bound to change tomorrow?
I know that question all too well. As both a young person and a young woman religious, that is the question that plagues me as I look at what my future holds. It’s not a question of if the circumstance of life will change or even a question of when they will. They will and they are. Even the question of how the circumstances of religious life are changing and will change in the years ahead is an enigma that, while fascinating and pertinent to my life, is not my primary concern.
The true question I find myself fixated on is why . . . why would I choose to make a vowed commitment to a religious congregation at this time in my life and at this time in the life of the church?
Having just been approved to make first vows this August, it is the language and the understanding of what it means to make a commitment that floods my reality these days. In order to be considered by my congregation for admittance as a vowed member (not just a novice) I needed to formally request permission to make first vows. This meant writing to our congregational president to explain why I feel called to vowed religious life as a Sister of Saint Joseph and why the Philadelphia congregation was where I feel drawn to make such a commitment. From there, I interviewed with our leadership, continued conversations with my formation director, and ultimately, was presented to our General Council, the leadership council/ governing group of our congregation, for consideration to make first vows.
Such preparations have made the commitment I am actively choosing much more real. It is a commitment that has been years in the making, a commitment made for a temporary period of time with the intent of giving a lifetime. The actuality of that commitment is still hitting me.
Years have led to this point and still, those questions around commitment– the what-if’s – have returned to me over and over in the months leading up to my approval to make vows. And lest you think getting approval would dismiss them, those questions and the question of why still persists with the prospect of vows on the horizon.
Whereas commitment in general is perceived as uncommon in our world today, commitment of this sort – to a vowed life of chastity, poverty and obedience – is even rarer. This struck me as I strolled onto the campus of my alma mater a few weeks ago for my five-year college reunion.
There among copious amount of school spirit, memories shared with dear friends, meeting peoples’ significant others and renewed connections with old acquaintances, I realized all that can happen over the course of five years.
In that time, I’ve become “sister.” Some of my former classmates were aware; others had no clue. I knew this would be the case, and I had prepared myself to have to explain the decision I’ve made since we parted ways. To my surprise though, the topic didn’t come up all that much. In fact, as I would tell people that I was “with” the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Philadelphia, I more often than not received blank stares.
“Oh, what do you do for them?” gracious questioners would ask.
“I am one of them” I would just-as-graciously respond. From there, most conversations quickly came to a close or returned to the careers the questioner had begun since graduation. I soon realized that it wasn’t a matter of not wanting to understand but rather that my peers had no context in which to understand my decision. Commitment of this sort is foreign.
Friends who are engaged, who are making commitments of their own, are perhaps the most apt to understand the nature of such commitment. In giving their lives to another person, they know the cost of sacrifice, the weight of doubt and the persistent call to pursue what the heart is bound to in love.
This call dominates. It is the tireless pull of a heart’s deepest desire. It is love lived out and embodied in the total gift of self solely for Love’s sake. Often times, it doesn’t make sense. And yet, in your heart . . . in my heart, I know it to be true. It is the call of God – deep and sweet, divine and mystifying.
When I return to the question of why – why I would choose to make a vowed commitment now – my heart cries out – Love! That is what I am committing myself to. Sure, it comes in the midst of turmoil and strife. Religious congregations are facing the realities of aging and the call to authentic, intentional living of the Gospel. The constant evolution of our world drives an ever-deepening need for us to adjust to the times in which we live, to discover how we’re being called to bring Christ’s love to the world and in what ways we are being challenged to embrace and be embraced by that love in ways new and old. I have to trust in the love that cries out in my heart though and trust in Love’s deep call to be most truly who God has made me to be. For me, that call takes the form of a vowed religious commitment.
My love for and with Christ is what calls me to such a gift of self. That is the only thing that can justify such an action. In time, all other reasons will fall away; they will morph and change, transforming just as surely as I will. What will remain constant is love, and that is what I feel called to give myself to.
As with any commitment, there is no knowing what tomorrow will bring, what love will call me to or how the circumstances of life will change. I could choose to be afraid of that fact. I could let fear keep me from giving what I have to give. I could nominalize love to the point that it simply sits at the surface rather than acting as an anchor of the heart.
I could do all these things and, at one point or another, I guarantee I have and will. After all, a commitment is not something you make once: it is a yes repeated over and over for a lifetime.
For now I can say, I commit myself to love – to the same love that has been committed to me from the very beginning. And of all the things I could commit myself to, I think that’s a pretty good start.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, who is currently completing her second year of novitiate. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she has published work in various periodicals.]