Subtitle: Vows Matter
Over forty years ago, at my ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests in the Episcopal Church, in response to the bishop’s question, “Do you now in the presence of the Church commit yourself to this trust and responsibility?” I vowed, “I do.”
Nearly thirty-two years ago, I said, “In the Name of God, I, Paul, take you, Pontheolla, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”
Vow. Pledge. Promise. Swear.
By whatever word and declared by whomever, a vow is an expression of an intention to be and to do something or, perhaps, better, more truly said, to be the kind of person who has the ambition to commit to doing something.
Therefore, a vow, by its very nature, always regarding future performance, in the instant moment of its utterance, is not and cannot be a guarantee of fulfillment.
Yes, a vow may have a sacramental element as an outward sign (in audible speech and visible symbols) of an inward and spiritual grace. However, a vow is not magical. Saying the words (even in the form of mystical incantations!) without then doing something (and I don’t mean by sleight-of-hand!) yields nothing.
Therefore, a vow, by its very nature, must be enacted in word and deed in each and every subsequent moment after its utterance in order to attempt (though never to assure) its achievement.
Therefore, now, circling back to that initial moment of the declaration of the vow, the vow-giver (or vow-maker or vow-taker) cannot know in any complete sense what s/he is vowing, pledging, promising, or swearing.
Foremost, because none can know what tomorrow holds in terms of uncontrollable circumstance. The experience of life in this world, our own and that of others, testifies that the future (because, as future, it always is a then-and-not-a-now-time), by the necessity of that reality, harbors unforeseen conditions and, at times, unimaginable situations.
Even more, equally real (and, regarding one’s vow, perhaps in its own way, more importantly), none can know what changes in ambition or attitude might, indeed, will occur in the future, which might, indeed, will require the review and, perhaps, the revision, and then, necessarily, the renewal of the vow.
Still more, truth is, we humans, who give, make, or take vows, are imperfect. Even with the best of intentions, we, finding our vow, in any given circumstance, difficult to do, fail. We nullify our pledge. We break our promise. We forswear our swearing.
Therefore, in each and all of these vow matters, vows matter. This is why, I think, as hard as vows are to fulfill, we keep giving, making, taking them. Because, at its heart and in its soul, to give, make, take a vow is all about offering, sacrificing ourselves, heart and soul, to someone through whom or to something through which we can become far greater, grander individuals than we are or can be alone.
It is this truth, I think, that is the heart and soul of Jesus’ word: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.34b-35).