Our Holy Vows
The vows bring a marvelous enrichment. One is truly bound to Christ with a fourfold and very dear covenant. The cloistered Poor Clare promises to live in obedience, without anything of her own, and in chastity; and to these three ordinary vows of religion, she adds a fourth, that of enclosure. In this way our Order, born into the Church through the divine inspiration given to St. Francis and St. Clare, serves the best interests of the Church by developing its own special characteristics, preserving the spirit and ideals of our founders and building on our sound traditions (cf. our Constitutions).
We would like to share with you some excerpts from our Constitutions, written by our dear Mother Mary Francis and approved by Holy Church in 1981, which give a description of our form of life founded by St. Clare of Assisi in 1212.
The Gospel Form of Life
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave to his Church the wonderful divine gift of the evangelical counsels which spring from his own life since they are founded on his words and example. Thus our religious state of life, which strives to imitate the form of life which the Son of God took upon himself and to make it clearly visible, belongs inseparably to the life and holiness of the Church. Our Order is an institute of the contemplative life ordained in a special way for the praise and worship of God. It strives to give witness to Christ praying on the mountain and to share in the most universal way the hardships, miseries, and hopes of all mankind.
That we may enlarge our hearts for this vocation which corresponds so fully with the deepest aspirations of human nature, we ought to attend to the integral imitation of Christ by emphasizing those virtues which St. Clare lived in her characteristic way: the spirit of prayer and devotion, the pursuit of the spirit of God and his holy operation, seraphic obedience and charity, a spirit of community, apostolic zeal poverty, humility, simplicity, penitence, and persevering joy of heart.
Religious profession is an act of adoration of God which shows forth splendidly the Paschal mystery, impelling us to lose our life that we may find it. It draws its sacrificial strength from the sacrifice of Christ. By our religious consecration we are totally set apart for God in a personal covenant of love, surrendered with Christ through the Spirit to the Eternal Father. We are entrusted with a new responsibility for the salvation of the world and set to foster the holiness of our sisters by this engagement to our Order and our community in which we ought generously to expend all our energies.
Our Mother St. Clare clearly saw that those who withdraw from worldly pursuits are more intimately consecrated to God. Our religious profession is the seal of this consecration and will be for us the enduring source of profound joy which not only leads us to eternal salvation but fully integrates our human personality if we respond to its totality of grace. For religious profession so orders our whole life to God and neighbor that it is a sign of the unity of the Trinity reflected in our unity and our outpouring love for God, our sisters, and all mankind. It is this loving kenosis which produces perfect human fulfillment.
By our vow of obedience, we are gathered into the mystery of the Redemption by a special title. St. Francis and St. Clare always rendered the primacy to this vow, since Christ came down from heaven to do the will of his Father, being subject to the legitimate superiors of this world and finally becoming obedient even to the acceptance of death on the Cross, and since it was for his obedience that the Father exalted Christ and gave Him a name which is above all other names.
Religious obedience is a continual response to the divine call in a daily and hourly conforming to the designs of God. It exalts the dignity of human nature, for it demands the highest exercise of personal responsibility in the use of our free will, and each sister alone can decide on the quality of her obedience within her vow.
Our obedience should be characterized by promptness and joy, as we remember that it is “infinitely better to renounce one’s own will, own ideas, own counsel for the love of God than to possess all the riches of the world in holding fast to one’s own will, own ideas, own counsel. There is no shorter way, nor one which leads more directly to heaven, than to renounce one’s own will for God’s love. And there is no sacrifice in all this world that pleases our Lord so much as true obedience” (St. Colette).
Perfect chastity in virginal consecration is a precious gift of God which infuses into our hearts an unparalleled freedom to love. Our vow of virginal chastity is the special seal of our bridal surrender to Christ. Its external signs are the veil upon our head and the ring of espousals upon our finger. Its spiritual manifestations are expansiveness of spirit and tenderness of heart.
Our Mother St. Clare understood that virginal chastity should be a living witness to the profound significance of the virginal maternity of the Mother of God in salvation history. For she said, “Cling to His most sweet Mother who bore a Son whom the heavens could not contain, and yet she carried Him in the little cloister of her holy womb and held Him on her lap. As, therefore, the glorious Virgin of virgins carried Him in her body, so without shadow of doubt you can carry Him in a spiritual way in your chaste and virginal body, if you follow the footsteps of her humility and especially of her poverty.” And this same virginal chastity endows life with a remarkable spiritual fruitfulness in relationship to the kingdom of heaven. We are destined by this vow to be the mothers of the souls of men, gathering their needs into the embrace of sacrificial love.
By the profession of poverty, we “share in the poverty of Christ who became poor for our sake when before He had been rich, that we might be enriched by his poverty.” The imitation of this self-emptying of Christ finds a particular and progressively liberating form of expression in our Franciscan concept of poverty and expropriation which will always be characterized by joy and lightness of heart.
According to the thinking of St. Clare, evangelical poverty goes far beyond the renunciation of earthly possessions, extending to the whole of life. For in the Franciscan concept, the surrender of temporal goods is intimately bound up with the profession of obedience and chastity and also with enclosure and communion in the spirit.
The Vow of Enclosure
Withdrawal from the world for the sake of leading a more intense life of prayer in the solitude of the papal enclosure is our very particular way of living and expressing the Paschal mystery of Christ which is death ordained toward resurrection. The gifts of the Spirit are diverse. The liberating gift of enclosure leads those who receive it over that threshold which opens upon a life of profound union with God. Thus enclosed nuns are called to give clear witness that man belongs entirely to God, and so to keep green among the human family the desire for a heavenly home. We recognize and cherish our vow of enclosure as a personal expression of our withdrawal from the world and our desire to consecrate ourselves wholly to a life of intimate union with God for love of Him and on behalf of all souls redeemed by Christ.
Unity in Charity
The end of all human life is union with God in love and worship, and the vows are a particularly effective means for reaching that goal. Blessed John Paul II has said that “the purpose of religious vows is to scale the heights of love” – a perfect love of God from which flows the love of neighbor. And so our vows as Poor Clares unite us not only to God but to our community with strong and stable bonds. Our Constitutions express it as follows:
The sisters’ respect for one another should manifest itself in the acceptance of diversity, receptive openness to one another, and by joy in one another’s special gifts of grace and nature which can be completely unveiled only in an atmosphere of reverential love.
Sisters who live in love that intense form of religious family which is an enclosed community bear a valuable witness to Christ and are a sign of hope and healing to a torn and fragmented world. The continual building of community is possible only with that realistic patience which springs out of deep faith enlivened by ardent hope and manifested in persevering charity, and which is preconditioned by humble self-knowledge.
Let the sisters be ever more deeply aware that unity in charity not only binds us to the members of our community and Order, our families and benefactors, but also gives us a heart for the world. And we shall be to the world just what we are to each other in the intense family living of the enclosure.