Life of vows

Fr Dermot Preston SJ reflects on the place of the vows in the life of a Jesuit. He has worked as a Jesuit in Britain,  South Africa and Guyana and is now Provincial of the Jesuits in Britain.

Dermot Preston SJ giving a Faith matters talk for the diocese of westminster

When I was a novice we used to recite this helpful little meditation:
“Poverty – to be free, as He was free
Chastity – to love generously, as He loved
Obedience – to live a life of service, as He served.”

As these words illustrate, the contours of the vows are not narrowly defined. Indeed, through the history of the Church, charismatic individuals have stepped centre-stage and (like St Benedict, St Bridget of Sweden, St John of the Cross, Mother Teresa of Calcutta etc…) they have given fresh life to the vows, sometimes as radically as Mozart stepped into the history of culture and re-defined the parameters of music. They reveal through their living of the vows a very particular and wonderful way of following Christ.

One such charismatic visionary was St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Just as St Francis of Assisi saw the vow of Poverty as the touchstone of Franciscan fidelity to the other Vows, so St Ignatius (300 years later) saw that his vocation was best highlighted by his faithfulness to the vow of Obedience. This insight became the anchor for himself and his followers in their vowed life & ministry – so much so, in fact, that some members of the Society of Jesus take a 4th specialised Vow of Obedience to the Pope regarding Mission. Jesuits are to be available to be sent to wherever the need is greatest.

The Jesuit vows can be viewed in two ways:
Firstly the Vows are a SHIELD which I can use to safeguard some of the precious things in my life;
Secondly (and more importantly) the Vows allow me to make a CREATIVE RESPONSE to the invitation of God in my life.
Let me say a few words about both of these dimensions.

As a SHIELD, the three vows of Poverty, Chastity & Obedience stand face-against-face with three of the greatest energising forces in human experience – Wealth, Sex & Power. These forces are God-given, but the fallen world has a tendency to unhook them from the still-deeper, subtle dynamics of life to which they are related. We all ‘live & breathe & have our being’ in this fallen world, and the unharnessed forces (pulsing & hypnotic as they are) have an unmatched ability to entice and attract those who show ability & potential. From these three treasure-chests untold riches lie tantalisingly on offer and many promises are made to those who gaze longingly into their depths…

However, as mundane experience has shown through human history, the unhooked forces of Wealth, Sex and Power invariably do considerable damage to the delicate foundations on which True Life is built;  the promises given are never fulfilled, and my relationship with God, my relationship with other people and my relationship with myself all suffer as a consequence.

Dermot Preston SJ says mass for the Young adult Magis group

In taking vows as a Jesuit, I become part of (in a rather fumbling, imperfect way) a community that helps me to hold out against the influences of the ‘unhooked’ forces in my life. Very practically, the community structures & common life with my fellow Jesuits assist me to ration   my use of money & material goods; to sensitise me to my interactions with other people; and to moderate my use of personal authority.But the vows are not only meant to be grimly defensive. If lived as fully as Ignatius would have hoped, they are meant to help me to stride forward creatively & joyfully into our world radiating a CREATIVE RESPONSE to life. In this positive way the three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience no longer find themselves facing-down primeval destructive forces, but cultivating the three deepest roots in the human soul – Giftedness, Love and Generosity. These roots are fragile, but they are Good News because they hold the key to life and, as such, they are essential for the life of the World. It is the task of religious to cultivate, harvest and distribute the fruit which comes from this Good News and to teach others how to do likewise.

Although for Ignatius the vow of Obedience is the point of orientation for fidelity in co-ordinated mission, there is no doubt in my mind that, as love is the fundamental dynamic of Christianity, so the vow of Chastity is the engine of my vocation to the religious life. Without this engine everything is useless; without the engine the vehicle is going nowhere; without the engine, the machine is an empty-shell and a sick-joke. It is the engine that sits in the deepest chamber of my being and I have learnt through searing experience that I neglect it at my peril.

Occasionally I have come across a religious who appears to have been entranced by peripheral issues, (these can include the other vows), and their focus indicates to me that they are missing the axis of their vocation as a religious – and that axis is the frightening and very real sacrifice of heart to God. In an extended meditation on vocation, Fr Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit, wrote a short, telling phrase which (when I first read it) stopped me dead-in-my-tracks: “Lord,” he prayed, “your lamp burns with the oil of my life.” It is so true.

Every day (occasionally happily, sometimes reluctantly, often hesitantly) I find I need to consciously re-present my heart to God in an act of trust and sacrifice. It is only in doing this that I become aware of the preciousness of the gift He has given …. and the gamble that I have taken. 

poverty, chastity, obedience, vows, dermot preston, life of a jesuit, Calling, creative response