When you make religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, you are giving your life a real purpose. CNS photo/courtesy Global Sisters Report

Poverty, chastity, obedience give meaning

  • March 18, 2021

At 93 Sr. Norah Burns struggles to understand the lives of people who haven’t lived the last 75 years under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In her life the vows have been “Everything, really.”

The vows gave Burns a sense of purpose and the assurance of a community there with her and for her. As she considers working people who have lost their health, jobs and businesses over the long months of COVID, she wishes they had the same sort of security and the same sure sense of purpose she has lived with as a Loretto Sister.

“It relieves you of a lot of tension,” she said. “Look at the poor people who have lost their jobs and they were sick. You know, that’s very sad. I can pray for these people. It’s all I can do, really.”

Poverty, chastity and obedience — known as the “evangelical counsels” in the tradition of the Church — are mostly misunderstood by people outside of religious life as a regime of self-sacrifice and suffering, said Burns. They just don’t get it.

“You don’t suffer. I don’t suffer at all,” she said.

Burns took her final vows in 1955. Through the decades that followed, Burns can’t remember a single occasion that the vow of poverty denied her anything that she really needed.

“You can’t have everything you want. Nobody can,” she points out.

As for chastity, she looks back on a life of many friendships and life-long relationships because she never made the singular commitment inherent in a sexual relationship. Stepping back from sexual commitment opened up other possibilities.

“You have to resist. Everybody does, even married couples,” she said.

“The hardest for us is obedience,” said Burns.

She spent a good number of years in schools, teaching every grade from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Obedience meant a lot of July moving dates, as her superiors shuffled her from one school to another.

“When you’re in one school and you love it, then you’re told at the end of July you’re going to another school. … That’s the hard part,” she said.

But she always made the adjustment, fell into new routines, made new friends.

When her community needed a nurse, obedience gave Burns a new set of skills and a new career.

“Oh, I loved it. I’ve loved everything,” she said.

Looking at the vows from the other side, Sr. Michelle Langlois also sees how the vows are misunderstood most of the time.

“Certainly, commitment is not a hugely attractive word, necessarily, in our society,” she observed.

As a Faithful Companion of Jesus who may take her final vows as early as next year, Langlois understands that fear of commitment.

“If I think of it as ‘I am making this commitment for the rest of my life’ — let’s say I’m around for another 40 years, which is possible — it doesn’t really help,” she told The Catholic Register. “I find it more helpful when I get up each morning to say, ‘I’m making the commitment for today.’ … It’s just a more helpful way of looking at it. I’m committing to the life that I believe God has called me to, and living that out to the best of my ability, today. I’m letting tomorrow take care of itself.”

Like Burns, Langlois wishes people understood poverty, chastity and obedience in the context of a life seeking to grow closer to God.

“For me, all three of those vows are about making God the centre of my life,” she said. “There would have been a time when that would have made me very fearful. It would have sounded a lot like: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to do anything I want; I’m not going to have anything I want.’ ”

She thinks of poverty as primarily an antidote to a culture obsessed with possession and possessions.

“I might think things belong to me, but the reality is I’m not taking anything with me. When I die, there’s nothing coming with me,” she said. “Poverty is just allowing me to see the truth of that now — to live the truth of that now. It’s freeing. Poverty is not destitution. For us, poverty is about, ‘What are the things I really own and what are the things I’m called to be a caretaker for right now and what are the things I’m called to release right now?’ It’s putting that in its proper place.”

If chastity is understood as a life of lonely self-denial, then it has no religious or spiritual value for Langlois.

“It’s about being free to be in relationship with whoever God is calling me to be in relationship with now, at this time. And then potentially recognizing when those relationships need to be let go of, so I can move on to the next place that God is calling me to,” she said.

Obedience does sometimes require sacrifice, Langlois concedes.

The image people have of fearsome mother superiors ordering frightened young nuns around makes Langlois laugh. Collective discernment rules religious life as she has known it over the last six and a half years.

“There is a dialogue that happens between us and our leadership. We recognize that we are part of a greater body of women that is trying to bring the kingdom of God to the world,” she said.

This does not rule out the possibility that sometimes a sister has to go somewhere she would rather not and take on a job she would rather not.

“We might say yes to something because we see that it is necessary to say yes, at least for now, even though it might not be the favourite thing,” she said. “It might not be what we initially would have been really excited to do.”

As chaplain, religion teacher, science and social studies teacher in an Edmonton junior high school, Langlois finds she has just enough challenges and joys to fill her days.

“If you can find God in a junior high school, it’s a great training ground for finding God everywhere,” said the 46-year-old.

For Langlois, what those three little words really mean is yes.

“As anyone deepens in their relationship with Jesus through prayer and through a living relationship with God, what you begin to understand about saying yes to God and saying yes to what God wants for you, is that what God wants for you is actually, in your deepest self, what you want for yourself. They’re not different things,” she said.

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