Rash Vows

Rash Vows

Ordinations, Installations & Professions. Fr Allan White preaches at the Solemn Profession of frs. David Goodill and Benjamin Earl.

I was recently leafing through some books in our library in London whilst I was thinking of what I would say to you today. I quickly came across an essay of G.K. Chesterton, which seemed to give me a clue as to how I should begin. It was called ‘A Defence of Rash Vows’.

I am only just becoming familiar with Chesterton and I am astonished at how contemporary some of his writing is. What is a rash vow? What is it to be rash? It is to be hasty, impetuous or reckless. You, David and Ben, could not reasonably be accused of that. You have been thinking of this day, implicitly or explicitly for some time.

Indeed a substantial portion of my e-mail correspondence over the past couple of months has been taken up with its arrangement. I have, of course, done exactly what Ben has told me to do with regard to the ceremony. I know better than to do otherwise. I know what it is to be obedient.

So, you are not being rash, but many people in the world would think you were being just that. How can anybody make a promise of obedience, throw their life away, gamble on salvation through a very rickety institution populated by the flotsam and jetsam of the Catholic Church: the English province of the Order of Preachers?

In many ways, over the past years you have been looking at us and we have been looking at you. After considerable thought, we have judged you of a sufficient degree of eccentricity to shine in our monochrome ranks and to work for the remission of your sins in the rich and exotic garden that is the Dominican Order. So all of this has been done with due consideration. But still, is there not an element of rashness about it?

Another meaning of the word ‘rash’ is to undertake an action without due regard for the consequences. You cannot know with certainty what will happen to you in the Order from this day forth. You will promise obedience to the Master of the Order, but in a few years time there will be another. You will promise obedience to me, but my gentle yoke and mild manner, my patience, forbearance, geniality and serenity, will be removed from you at some point in the future, and I shall be replaced by another who may give us all cause to tremble. Nothing is certain.

You cannot have due regard for the consequences because you do not know what they will be. If we bind ourselves, it is to be constant in this way, in this tradition and in this company, to the intensity of the search for God. Look around you at these choir stalls, you see only the more presentable members of the province, some of the others are locked away in other houses and could not make an appearance here. Do not think that you will be able to convert us or change us. It is in this company that you will live your vows, it is not going to change very much, except possibly for the worse.

Today you bind yourself to convert you. You bind yourself to seek God.

It is your face O Lord that I seek. Hide not your face.

Let that be your prayer. Your vow makes this commitment explicit, it will shape the rest of your lives amongst us. You are not throwing your lives away; you will pour them out, as His life-blood was poured out for us and for our salvation.

The drier the ground, the more barren the desert, the more eager it is to soak up the life-giving water of love. Our world has something of the desert about it. Chesterton, when writing about vows, says that the man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger is that he may not keep that appointment.

At some time, perhaps more than once, you will feel the tug on your collar of the leash with which the Lord will bind you today. You will be drawn in moments of aridity, of disenchantment, of exhaustion or bitterness to other joys, other satisfactions. The Lord will allow you some freedom, he wants joyful apostles not surly bondservants, but at times you will be reminded by the tug on the leash that you are a dog of the Lord.

These times often seem to be a threat, but as the struggle fades we come to see them as moments of grace. I have learned more from my failures than from my successes, which is just as well because I am only too aware of my failures: the brethren, in their infinite charity, are very kind in pointing them out. I have had few similar notifications of success, but then I am still young and I have only been in the Order for twenty-eight years. I live in hope!

More often I suppose, I have made the prayer of Peter, the failed fisherman:

Depart from me O Lord for I am a sinful man.

But then that was the beginning of Peter’s call. After that he left everything and followed Jesus. He made the equivalent of a rash vow; heedless of the consequences he followed Jesus. The Lord chooses sinful men to work his miracles, he chooses them precisely to show the greatness of his power.

Vows are not very much in fashion these days. Why is that? Again, Chesterton said that it is through fear of one’s self. When people are frightened to make a vow, they are really frightened of themselves, they are inhibited by a deep distrust of themselves. We are all brought up to question motives, we are all post-Freudians now, we are all accustomed in this world of spin and hype to believe that everybody has an angle, and that nothing and nobody is what appears to be the case.

There is a more fundamental terror, a terror of one’s own weakness, and the inconstancy and mutability that are in each one of us. We cannot make a promise because we believe our lives and the world are constantly changing; in a world in flux it does not make sense to promise to be constant. Constancy, the binding of a vow, limits our freedom to be always changing, to operate in different roles, to be our own persons, to choose who we want to be. Constancy, so some people believe, is a chain imposed on us by the devil, instead of what it really is, a yoke consistently imposed on all lovers by themselves.

It is in the nature of love to bind itself. Our world is a restless world, it is always looking for a certain exhilaration, a thrill, which we can only really have when we have the courage to cease our wandering and say, “Here is my resting place for ever, here have I chosen to live.” Today this is what you will say in your vow: “Here is my resting place for ever, here have I chosen to dwell.” Our world is not a world that is a stranger to the idea of self-giving, but what it says is, “Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves without the danger of commitment.”

So, why do it? The answer lies in the Constitutions.

Through this profession, we imitate Christ in a special manner, Christ who always obeyed the Father, for the life of the world ? we are dedicated, given for the common good of the Church and of the Order.

We imitate Christ by delivering ourselves into the hands of sinful men, as he did, to fulfill our purpose of obedience for the good of the Church, the people of God. What we do when we make a vow to pour out our lives is to imitate Christ in his magnificence. That same Christ who, as St Paul tells us,

though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)

Magnificence is part of courage; it leads us to be brave enough to risk great expense, to prompt us to forget our fear of losing all, to carry out a great project. We hazard what is precious to us in a great enterprise. What is most precious to us other than our own life, our own will, our own security and our own way? You cannot be obedient unless you our courageous. You cannot make a vow unless you are drawn by the virtue of magnificence.

What is the opposite of magnificence, what is the opposing vice? It is stinginess or meanness. Stinginess prompts us to hold back, to reckon the expense and not the project. It causes us to try and hoard our resources, to protect our territory and to try to tailor providence to the cut of our own insecurities. You can only be a good religious if you have a taste for magnificence. If you have no taste for magnificence, be like me, acquire one !

When we make a vow, we surrender any claim we have on the territory of our lives. It is a moment of great risk, but of infinite promise. The temptation is always there to try and defend or win back the territory we have publicly surrendered; to have the splendour of self-offering without the peril of committing ourselves, but it is not possible in the end. If we try to defend the little house of our lives, we gain a certain kind of security, but it is the safety of the maximum-security prisoner.

You have chosen as your Gospel text the genealogy of the Lord. It shows how he was part of the warp and woof of humanity. It is, if you like, the Lord’s pedigree according to the flesh. You will shortly make your vows. You will make a promise. The Latin word from which our word promise comes has a variety of nuances: it means to engage, to allow to go forward, to send or put forth, to let grow and to give hope of. By engaging yourself in the self-giving ministry of the preacher, you will grow in the image of Him who created you, in being sent you will return to Him, and in returning to Him you will give hope to others whose faith is frailer.

You will promise to be true in a tradition, the tradition of Mary, the Mother of God, Blessed Dominic, our Father, St Augustine, our Grandfather: this is your genealogy, your pedigree, you are to be pedigree ‘dogs of the Lord’! This is the authority for our way of life.

It seems to me, as I have often said before, that in out post-modern world, people are always bewailing the crisis of authority which marks our time. I believe that we do not experience a crisis of authority so much as a crisis of authenticity.

If you do not keep your vows, if you cheat, nobody will know, but you will know and that knowledge will destroy your hope and wound your faith. It is important that we are true for those who have lost the belief that it is possible. We cannot compel people to be Catholics; we cannot force them to believe. All we can do is show them what we believe, and let them see the beauty of how we live. As William Wordsworth said,

What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.

Meister Eckhart tells us that a holy life encourages more people and in a greater way than words do. Do not be afraid to be holy. What you promise today is to give up all claim to your lives, so that the Lord may make them into his own work of art.

As Eckhart says:

The place on which I stand is very small. Yet however small it may be, it has to disappear if one is to seek God.

It has to disappear if we are to seek God. All hiding places reveal God. If you want to escape God he runs into your lap.

What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.’

Maybe there is something to be said for a rash vow.

Readings: Micah 5:1-4 | Rom 8:28-30 | Matt 1:1-16,18-23

Fr Allan White was formerly Prior Provincial of the English Province of the Order of Preachers. He is currently Principal of St Mary’s School, El Centro, California and priest in residence at St Mary’s Parish, El Centro.