Saturday, January 27, 2018

A Strange Set of Vows

The community to which I belong is bound by three vows: Simplicity, Listening and Stewardship. These are not the traditional monastic vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, but are important to our community in the same way that the more traditional vows are honored by other monastic orders.

Our vow of listening begins and ends in being able to observe silence and holy solitude. This vow dictates that we listen for the will of our Creator in our lives, that we listen to our own consciences, and that we listen earnestly to those who are in need of a friendly ear.

The last part of this vow is especially important to us. Being able to listen with sincerity instead of simply remaining silent in wait for our turn to speak is counter-cultural in this day and age. Authentically hearing someone who is in distress builds trust between those involved in the conversation, and it can alleviate suffering in a small way. The first word of the Rule of St. Benedict is "listen", and I believe that this is no accident. The act of listening is a good and holy thing for all monastics as well as secular people, and is largely a lost art in the age of smart phones and "me, my, I" attitudes.

The vow of simplicity is similar to the vow of poverty, however I feel is it a little more practical for a dispersed community. When our homes become our hermitages, we go through a process of simplifying our lives in order that we may focus on prayer and action rather than things. We keep what is practical for our day to day needs, but we declutter things that are not needed such as a large amount of secular clothing for those that choose to wear the monastic habit. When our environments are free from clutter, we are able to focus our attention to prayer, meditation, or service to others rather than objects which distract us from our work as monastics.

The vow of stewardship is one that is a bit more complicated. This vow dictates that we care for the people in our lives, our personal health, and the environment in which we live. Actions such as reducing the amount of garbage we generate is one example; caring for a sick friend or relative is another. Stewardship keeps us accountable for our actions or for inaction, and demands that we act with care for ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.

Lastly, there is an unspoken custom of obedience in the community to which I belong. This means obedience to our Creator, to our Abbot and to our consciences. While obedience is not a vow in and of itself, it is a monastic discipline that has been around as long as there have been monks and nuns.

For example, in "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers", there is a tale of an Abbot who tells one of his monks to go and water a dead branch. The monk does so day after day, and eventually the branch bears fruit, which the monk brings back to share with his fellow monks. The Abbot invites them to eat it by saying "come and eat the fruit of obedience".

We do not blindly follow the orders of a controlling overlord. We rely heavily on the practice of discernment and community dialogue. Fairness is an important factor when the Abbot makes a decision to be followed. The same can not be said for the will of our creator and our own consciences; there is very little gray area involving obedience in these ways.

I invite you to reflect on how these vows might impact your life were you to profess them, and to comment below with your findings.