Some little girls imagine their wedding days from an early age. They primp and plan and pretend what that day will be like. As they grow, those ideas grow with them. Plans become implanted, dreams become part of a life experience imagined, and everything points towards the moment of “I do.”
Those two small words can come to define a lifetime. They hold firm to an expectation in society, they promise the beginning of a beautiful life together, and they influence who you’ll even consider as a significant other. Is this the person I will spend the rest of my life with? Can I see myself looking into their eyes and saying ‘I do’?
Some little girls imagine that special moment decades before it comes. I was not one of those little girls.
It was not that marriage didn’t appeal to me or that I didn’t see the significance of that moment. It did and I do. Of all the things I could imagine, though, it seemed like two little words were the least of my worries. They would come in due time if they were meant to, bringing all of the significance of a deeply meaningful relationship with them and as I spoke them, I would commit to all the promises, vows, challenges and intentions implicit in them.
For all the thinking I never did about marriage, I found myself taken off guard when I began considering religious life. It wasn’t so much the thought that caught me off guard (though let’s be honest, the thought of becoming a sister was pretty surprising), but the fact that, as I seriously considered this call,I found myself imagining what it would be like to make vows.
Not just what it meant to take religious vows, but literally how it would feel to do so.
And so, for the last four years I have thought about what it would be like to make vows. I watched as sisters I knew made their first professions and as others made their final professions. Each year brought a new chance to observe. I took in the music, the atmosphere, the decorations and the spirit of the place . . . and pictured myself in the midst of it all.
Each profession liturgy was as unique as the woman making vows.Yet there was a thread of similarity that sewed all of the celebrations together.
At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was the standard format of the Mass, a flow that I have known all my life; there was a joy so palpable in the room and the community, it overflowed in song and celebration, drawing all together in common commitment. There was all that and yet there was more.
It wasn’t until I got ready to make my first profession of vows last month that it hit me. For all I had imagined and all I had experienced, it wasn’t until the prospect of making vows was imminent that I realized what I had missed in all my ponderings of this big day – the words.
That’s right, the words. The months and years I had spent preparing for and discerning the decision to make profession in a religious congregation had focused on the meaning of the vows – why we take them and what it means to live chastity, poverty and obedience. In the process of that discernment, I came to understand these vows on a felt level. They weren’t just concepts to be comprehended or rules to adhere to, the vows were meant to be lived. Beyond any study or formal instruction, they came to truly be known through object lessons. Professing these vows means making them part of your life. They aren’t just conditions to apostolic religious life – superfluous hoops to be jumped through – they are the very heart and soul of this life.
That essential characteristic led me back to the words. For all my study and prayer in the novitiate, I seldom considered the words I would say at my profession. As I came to the place of considering commitment, I prayerfully discerned my call to make a vowed commitment to a specific congregation. Time had heightened my desire to commit myself to this way of life, lived in chastity, poverty and obedience in loving commitment to God. I knew what those vows meant to me, and I knew they were already a part of me. It was only a matter of professing them publically that made the difference.
Public profession is no small feat. After being approved to make vows by my congregation, I seriously immersed myself in the actual words I would say on the day of my profession. The first thing that struck me was the immensity of what I was doing.
Studying vows is one thing. When you do that, you can agree quietly, you can find your own space in the vows, you can make them your own. Publicly professing vows, on the other hand, means taking all of that and declaring it to the world. Saying words like that witnesses to something greater, to the power and love of God at work in your life and the world. Being such a witness is not comfortable. Yet, it is what our faith calls us to and, at the same time, it is an act completely reliant on faith.
Saying the words of profession I declare: I believe in the call I feel. I believe in the love I experience. I believe in the living Word of God, a word I am in relationship with and that calls me into relationship with others.
And for this reason, beyond any shadow of a doubt, I can say words matter. We live out the words we speak. Otherwise there would be no reason to speak them. August 10, 2014 is the day I spoke these words for myself and for the many I will encounter as a vowed woman religious. Publicly they declared my desire and commitment to be one with all people and all creation by a life consecrated in chastity, poverty and obedience to God.
Saying those words, through the vow formula of my congregation, I echo the vows taken by each of my sisters throughout the years. In that, what might seem like a solitary act of saying words is transformed into a communal act.I find myself united to them in our commitment to Christ, the church, our congregation and the world. And because of that, in a time and space in religious life that can feel isolated or solitary, I know that I am not alone. We live out the words we speak together.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to adequately describe the sensation of taking vows, of saying those words. Yet, I will probably spend my whole life trying . . . not necessarily to capture the moment but to live the transformation that it embodies, the life promised in that moment, and the utter joy and commitment of witnessing to and falling in love with God both intimately and publicly.
I may have never dreamt of saying “I do” but somehow I ended up doing it anyway. Saying words and living love in a way I never could have imagined and I vow never to forget.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]