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Reflection on Solemn Vows - by Br. Peter Hannah, OP
Marriage is in the news today. The push to redefine the nature of this union in civil law is not going away anytime soon, and different sides have staked out positions in the so-called “culture wars.” The bishops have exhorted Catholics to defend traditional marriage, and indeed we should muster our energies in bringing the richness of the Church's understanding of the institution – both its natural and sacramental dimensions – to the public debate. I would propose, however, that the push for “gay marriage” is not at the root of the problem. Such a push would never have arisen if there had not been a prior failure in our culture in the institution of heterosexual marriage, and the family life that extends naturally from it. In the early 1980s, John Paul II put his finger on a number of the particular problems in this area, which have become more pressing since that time: misconceptions of the relationship of authority between parents and children, difficulties in transmitting values, widespread divorce, recourse to abortion, sterilization, and contraception (see Familiaris Consortio 6). One can, however, step back and identify a single problem behind all of these particular issues, and that is a failure to grasp the vocation to love to which each of us is called.
I bring up here this very public and controversial issue from a unique angle. Last month I was blessed to have been able to make “solemn profession” within the Dominican Order, my “final” profession where I vowed publicly to serve God and the Church “until death,” according to the Dominican charism. I have been to many friends' and relatives' weddings, and am always especially moved at the moment of the vows. The bride and groom look directly into each other's eyes and vow before God to love one another in good times and bad, in sickness and health, until “death do them part.” Tremendous words! Tremendous moment! The couple does not know where life will take them. They do not know how each will grow in different ways in the years ahead. They do not know what prosperity, or adversity, what joys or what suffering, awaits. Yet they speak words in that single instant, gazing into each other's eyes, to journey together in love until death, in spite of this uncertainty.
So too my vocation has involved (and involves) a great deal of uncertainty. In the weeks and months leading up to my solemn vows, when I began to reflect on the course of my own life – its blessings and graces, its trials and difficulties – very quickly I realized I had no ultimate explanation for why the Lord had led me to this place. How I got from being raised a Presbyterian, to a somewhat typical “fraternity guy” in college aspiring to play professional golf, to a conversion at the end of my undergraduate years which led me to practice Christianity seriously, to journeying into the Catholic Church, to discerning a vocation to the priesthood, to joining the Western Dominican Province under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – how I got to where I am, I have no explanation for other than the unpredictable, perplexing, invigorating, wonderful, trying, and mysterious grace of God.
I realized that at the time of taking vows I would be, as it were, taking my entire life into my hands in that single moment. As I would kneel before the Provincial and swear before God to serve Him and serve the Church through the Dominican charism, everything that I had been to that point, everything I was at that moment, and everything I would become, would be dramatically, mysteriously, and palpably, present. Though solemn vows is not considered by the Church a sacrament (the issue was debated in the Middle Ages!), I am tempted to apply St. Paul's words on marriage to my own vows: “This mystery is a profound one”(Eph. 5:32).
Why is it such a deep mystery? Since it involves the highest and deepest mystery of the universe, one evident on a natural level in every human society and experience, yet also traceable into the very nature of God Himself: love. In a vow, the individual binds himself in the most definitive way possible to love God and neighbor in ways that – within his particular vocation, be it marriage or religious life – will stretch him and tax him and call him to places (geographical, emotional, spiritual) he could never guess or plan or “make secure” beforehand. Each of us is called above all to this vocation of love by Christ's two-fold commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37.39).
This love, moreover, is one that must transcend our own particular emotional affinities, our own likes and dislikes, our own limited experiences, our own weak and self-inclined human nature. Following these as “love” apart from a respect for the natural (and supernatural) laws God has inscribed into the universe, results in the numerous problems with human love mentioned at the beginning. To follow Christ's way, however, is to begin to understand what John Paul II has called the “law of the gift”: that true and authentic happiness is found only in giving ourselves totally and sacrificially to others. Such a love is anything but self-centered, but begins to imitate the outpouring of sacrificial love Our Lord showed us on the Cross. I know I am weak in my ability to imitate such love. Which is why I joyfully – yet with a healthy admixture of fear and trembling! – offered myself to God alone in solemn profession last month. I know that I will be stretched to love within this vocation the Lord has given me, in ways that I could never invent on my own. I am thankful and humbled by the call I received, and I pray that the Lord will give me the grace to be faithful to the mysterious path of love to which he has called me. In our own lives, too, may we be willing to love God and neighbor in a way that will truly answer the gospel call, and renew the face of the earth.