Vows that wake up the world

The snow began falling steadily just before prayers Monday morning, and Tuesday we awoke to a world completely covered in white. It was a gentle snow, albeit persistent. My housemate Maureen commented, “It looks like nothing is happening!” But before we knew it, schools were closed, appointments were canceled and the plows were hard at work.

It’s quite remarkable to consider that the culprits of this topsy-turvy day are snowflakes. Each one is a tiny, delicate crystal of ice, or cluster of ice crystals, that may be just a fraction of a centimeter and melts instantly upon contact. On its own, it doesn’t pack much punch. However, when this teensy snowflake gets together with millions of other teensy snowflakes, everything changes. Nothing quite wakes up the world like a snowstorm! The power of snowflakes is in their togetherness.

And so it is in the Christian life. We are stronger together. In religious life, this is particularly central. We are sisters because of our shared life. The title we are blessed to assume implies that our primary identity is one of relationship. As “sister” indicates originating from the same parent, my call invites me to live knowing deeply that all people are family. Community and relationship are what breathe life into being “Sister.”

Sr. Andrea and I have spent the last months praying and reflecting in preparation to profess first vows this upcoming June. (Read Andrea’s beautiful thoughts on the vows here). Perhaps most striking to me are the insights I’ve gained into the centrality of community in our vows. Although community is largely what draws me to this vocation, I did not previously understand how deeply woven it is into poverty, celibacy and obedience. Of course, these vows could technically be lived out in isolation and be of some value. But it is living the vows out in community that gives them their real power. Described as “evangelical,” our vows preach the Gospel in a distinctive way. Perhaps in the current reality, community is the most profound and urgently needed witness we can offer.

I had some sense of community’s role in the vow of celibacy. I knew that choosing to forgo romantic relationship would open me to a wide variety of relationships and offer me freedom to respond to the needs of the world. I knew that community would enrich my life and be essential for healthy living of the vow. But I did not comprehend the expansive nature of the kind of community contained in this vow. I was pleasantly surprised that the word “love” popped up everywhere in our vow conversations. Celibacy is actually a vow to love, not one person as in marriage, but to love God and all that flows from God. Through celibacy, we affirm the dignity of all creation. When I give my heart to God through this vow, I give my heart to all that is.

Cornel West says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” My vow of celibacy, then, is a commitment to building a more just world. In The Holy Longing, Ronald Rohleiser suggests that Jesus’ celibacy was a “key part of his solidarity with the poor.” When Jesus went to bed alone at night, he was placing himself in communion with the many people in society who “sleep alone” – who feel the agony of being on the margins, oppressed, abused, unwanted, etc. Celibacy leads us to communion and action.

When we vow this together, things change.

My earliest considerations of the vow of poverty presumed a personal practice of detachment, simplicity and frugality. While these elements serve a purpose, the vow has been broken open to something much bigger. Sandra Schneiders said in 2006 that the vow of poverty urges us to create a gift economy in which the goal is not accumulation of goods but rather the common good. It is a fascinating concept for me that women religious actually try to create an alternate world, not just a different way of living in the world. The commitment to “shared possessionlessness” is counter-cultural and offers a witness that society desperately needs. Our hope for solidarity is central here as well; we attempt to align our worldviews with those of people who are oppressed. The vow of poverty impels us to work to abolish the barriers that separate members of our world community.

I’m also intrigued that the word interdependence arose in several conversations. Living and sharing with others can be challenging, but it enriches the dynamism of the vow. Owning our poverty in community drives us to vulnerability and reliance on our sisters. It is humbling to allow others to be so intimately involved in our lives, seeing our weaknesses and pain as well as gifts and often challenging us to stretch further than we thought we could.

When we vow this together, things change.

The vow of obedience is the one I had thought about least before entering the Sisters of Charity. My childhood idea of obedience came from watching Maria kneel before the Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music.” When I began spending time with sisters as an adult, I was overjoyed to learn that today’s integrated interpretation recognizes the voice of God speaking to and through each person. Beyond the idea of mutual discernment about individual sisters’ ministries, however, I hadn’t considered the communal complexities of the vow.

A fellow sister shared with me that, for her, obedience is a consideration of “the whole.” And this “whole” is not just the congregation but the world. The attentive listening called for by the vow of obedience is echoed in a principle of liberation theology: It takes everybody’s truth to make truth. This kind of obedience invites accountability and responsibility. In any decision, we know that we are not simply ourselves; we carry a greater identity and a connection to all life.

Gary Riebe-Estrella says, “Obedience is foremost an orientation of the heart . . . to the values which incarnate God’s reign.” Beautiful! Our vow of obedience, at its core, is individual and communal fidelity to mission. Our way of being in the world should enflesh the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we attempt to carry on. We are open to that which allows community to flourish in the congregation, in the church, and in society as a whole. As my congregation approaches our Chapter, this vow is crucial. In obedience, we press our ears gently to the heart of God and respond to what we hear beating there.

When we vow this together, things change.

Living the vows this way is not something to be taken lightly. When I profess poverty, celibacy and obedience as a Sister of Charity, I open my life in a quite final and decisive way to the promptings of the Spirit and the kingdom-incarnate. I am inviting my sisters intimately into my life and promising to enter theirs. This can be risky. I think of people like martyr Dorothy Stang or the women religious ministering in the Middle East despite danger. But in the risk, there is electrifying power for good.

Our vows, lived out in community, can change things. When we come together, we find our true strength, like tiny snowflakes generating an astounding snowstorm. This is what I will commit my life to in a few short months. Through poverty, celibacy and obedience, I vow the kind of community that wakes up the world.

[Tracy Kemme is a novice with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She has a background in Hispanic ministry, having served both in Ecuador and at the U.S.-Mexico border prior to novitiate.]