The Other I

January 29, 2008

A nun’s final vows

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 5:28 pm

It’s a little embarrassing to look back and see what was so obviously going on when I made my final vows as a Maryknoll nun.  Final vows are supposed to mean final commitment, no going back, no changing your mind, no breaking the promise.  So it takes some fancy footwork to explain how I managed to take final vows, and why I am sitting here now a very married and thoroughly non-nun for more than 40 years.

I will start  with the more ego-enhancing part of the explanation which, I admit, I’ve only recently thought up.  It is that the Catholic Church itself sees final vows as less irrevocable than getting married or becoming a priest.  In fact, women outside of marriage don’t have a commitment that the Church sees as irreversible.  Men do but not women.  I think it makes it just that little less significant, that little less binding.

Baptism, and marriage, and ordination to the priesthood can’t be undone, even by the Pope.  I can’t go to Rome and say I want my original sin back, that it was removed from my soul when I was baptized and before I was old enough to give my consent and that it’s not good enough to say I can easily produce many more sins of my own.  This was my first sin and it was an original. 

I can’t go to Rome and say I don’t want to be married to X anymore either.  If I have enough money, I might be able to convince the powers in Rome that it was never a valid marriage in the first place, but if I can’t achieve that, I’m irrevocably married until one of us dies.  Likewise, priests can be unfrocked and relieved of their priestly responsibilities, but they can’t be un-ordained.  Being made a priest is a permanent state for life.

Becoming a nun, even taking final vows after many years on probation, never becomes irreversibly permanent in that way.  Rome reserves the power to release nuns from their vows. 

So perhaps the fact that I took my relationship with Peter more seriously from the start than in retrospect I took my final vows at Maryknoll was in part the result of a subtle socialization.  I always knew it didn’t really have to be for keeps.

But there are other explanations, too, for which I must take a greater share of personal responsibility.  About which, more on another post.

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16 Comments »

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    Comment by comet tail — May 31, 2013 @ 3:07 am | Reply

  4. I always thought, when one takes a VOW before GOD, whether, married, single or religious, public or private, it can NOT be undone, revoked, expired etc. Vows and Oaths made to God, whether in marriage, religious life or a Chaste Virgin single life, that are broken, will be accountable for in the next life, as they are ALL BINDING! Just as those whom God has called to take VOWS, to marry/ religious/ or the Chaste Virgin single life, and do their OWN WILL, instead of God’s WILL!
    It works both ways…

    Comment by Joyce — September 23, 2013 @ 9:27 pm | Reply

    • Yes, many people think that vows are binding and irrevocable, but that is theologically incorrect. Interestingly, a priest’s ordination, and the vows of marriage are irrevocable, and even Rome cannot revoke them. According to Rome, only death can end a marriage or bring a man’s priesthood to a close, whether or not he has technically left the priesthood and even been defrocked. But one can be released by Rome from many vows, including those taken by nuns. The night before I took my final vows, I asked my spiritual adviser if I could take them legitimately, because I wasn’t sure I belonged in the convent for life. He told me I should take them. Rome released me from the vows before I left.

      But to me you sound a little eager to remind me that not doing God’s will will result in my ultimately being punished. But I think the mark of a true Christian is not one concerned with punishment but with forgiveness. Jesus, in the midst of the excruciating agony of crucifixion prayed “Father, forgive them.” He didn’t call for vengeance, or punishment, or remind his persecutors that it works both ways…

      Comment by theotheri — September 24, 2013 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  5. Having been a nun myself for five years. I made temporary, not final vows. before I decided it was not the life for me.
    After going to Thailand several years ago with my husband I learned that Buddist monks and nuns make temporary vows too, all the time, (though some decide to make it permanent) and live an itinerant prayerful life for a while then return to normal, secular life.

    Culturally, there is no stigma attached to this temporary experience, as there was when I left “in secret” according to “the rule” back then, many decades ago. I mention this in my book, THE CHOSEN SHELL, and strangely enough, I had to go to a couple happy ex nun reunions before it dawned on me that I’d never said goodbye many years before to many of these talented and caring women with whom I’d become friends. Consequently, it was wonderful to renew these friendships many decades later.

    So I think this Buddist practice should be adopted for any nun or priest or minister who truly wants to try a contemplative life for a while, knowing they freely can leave at any time without sad consequences or judgement from others.

    Comment by Kas Sartori — July 6, 2014 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

    • I agree. I too remember people being forced to leave without any farewells and no contact with them after they were gone. What a strange concept of community. I don’t know about the community of which you were a member, but I know that the Maryknoll sisters not only no longer secret people out the door in the dark, but have apologized to those to whom it happened, and every year there is a reunion at the motherhouse in which all nuns and ex-nuns are welcome. It is hugely healing for some.

      I also agree with the Buddhist practice that recognizes that a contemplative life does not have to be for all of one’s life in order to be immensely valuable. It’s not a failure to return to the active life, anymore than going on a weekend retreat and then going back home is a failure.

      I am familiar with your book The Chosen Shell and recognize many of the themes. I think it can help a lot of people understand the angst of convent life, especially in the 1960’s, when we were both nuns.

      Comment by theotheri — July 7, 2014 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

      • I am surprised you already knew about my book, since I’ve never mentioned it until this previous comment. May I ask how you heard about it?

        Comment by Kas Sartori — July 9, 2014 @ 12:58 am

      • Sometime ago, someone asked me if I thought your story was an authentic reflection of convent life and its aftermath. I have not read your book, but they told me much of the story line, and I said that although sex is not the primary problem for all celibate religious, it certainly was a frequent conflict. Not everyone dealt with it in the same way, as I am sure you would agree. Some, both men and women, stayed faithful to their religious vows, some stayed within the confines of the religious institution while establishing sometimes quite long-term sexual relationships, others left, some continuing their mission together to serve the poor, often in foreign countries, others establishing new relationships. One of the things that surprises me is how many people of my acquaintance have married fellow ex-religious – ex-nuns marrying ex-priests.

        I do see now that your book is available on Kindle. I hope you are having success in marketing it. Although perhaps the most valuable part of writing it was for you as the writer. I know that is true for myself in relation to my most recent book, The Big Bang to Now.

        Best of luck. Terry

        On Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 1:58 AM, The Other I wrote:

        >

        Comment by Terry Sissons — July 9, 2014 @ 2:32 pm

  6. Sexual relations that nuns were having! Please explain.

    Comment by barbara Morris — August 8, 2014 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

    • Barbara – I do not refer in this post to any sexual relations that nuns were having. I do know now that there have been nuns (as well as priests) who have engaged in sexual relationships over the years. I was not aware of this during the 9 years I was in the convent, however, nor did I have any overt sexual relationships during that time. There are others, however, who have written about this age-old topic. It is, I believe, something which has occurred for as long as there have been priests and nuns.

      Comment by theotheri — August 9, 2014 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

      • Thank you for your reply. I had a second cousin who was a F.S.P.A., for 40 years. I am aware how strict her community was, of course that was in the day. Sister passed away in 1959, gives you a idea about that timeline. I am so happy to read about what has gone on inside convent walls, as we really have no idea, in “reality” . It is good to read about reasons some sisters have left the convent. I have the utmost respect for religious in and ones who have left. Some of what I am hearing about that is going on in this era is very upsetting to me. I am glad to be able to have someone listen to me. God Bless, Barbara

        Comment by barbara Morris — August 9, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

      • The way I see it, religious, ex-religious, and those who were never religious are all of us human. That means we all are incomplete. And in every group there are those whose generosity and love are outstanding, and those who are caught in a web of their own weakness. Putting on a habit or a Roman collar doesn’t make us more virtuous. Maybe it suggests that we would like to be, but virtue, as you and I know, takes more than changing one’s clothes.

        But you know, when I was a nun, I really did think that I was more “saintly” than those who weren’t nuns. I hope I have outgrown this great delusion. But people treated me as if I was something special, and I thought I deserved it! not that they were the ones who were worthy of praise.

        Comment by theotheri — August 10, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

      • I consider it a privilege to be able to communicate to you. It is refreshing to hear a honest opinion for once. I have never heard of any misconduct in that area about nuns ever in my life. The other clergy, now much different. I do hope in the future it will be taken care of swiftly!
        I am so happy to of found this blog. I remember a close friend of the family telling a story about the time she was on a plane and a little boy asked her if she had hair under her hat, she replied why yes young man and eyebrows to match. I still giggle.

        Comment by barbara Morris — August 11, 2014 @ 4:18 am

      • Wonderful!

        Comment by theotheri — August 12, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  7. Thank
    you for your reply.

    Comment by barbara Morris — August 10, 2014 @ 7:12 pm | Reply


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