The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers speaks about the mystery of religious consecration from a number of different angles: the common life, the three religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and a diversity of regular observances from the habit to cloister, silence, and penance.
Considered together, these seemingly dissimilar elements yield one certain conclusion: consecration by the three vows is an irreducible mystery, an event that sums up a person’s entire life and gives it a definitive new direction, beginning afresh from the person’s self-offering to the Father in the Son through the life of the Holy Spirit.
Religious vows are made directly to God, and so they have something of the infinite about them. The Dominican profession formula directs the man’s life by obedience to “God, to blessed Mary, to blessed Dominic,” and to the Master of the Order. This litany places the Dominican in the whole context of salvation history: God, the author and end of all things; Mary, the mediatrix of all grace and mother of the Church; Dominic, the founder of the Order and the Holy Spirit’s chosen instrument for the building-up of the Church; and the Master of the Order, the sign of the Order’s unity and the present life and work of the friars. To this great symphony the man adds the sound of his own life, offering himself to the mercy of God and his fellow Dominicans in the service of the Gospel.
The Dominican professes only one vow explicitly: obedience. The Constitutions of the order explains that this practice arises from the example of St. Dominic, who both required and gave obedience when due, and from the Order’s essential goal of unity in charity (see the Rule of Saint Augustine, chapter one): “if a community is to remain true to its spirit and its mission, it needs that unity achieved through obedience” (LCO 17).
Obedience achieves a unity among men because it first achieves a unity between the man and Christ, who in his humanity was obedient to the Father, “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). As the Constitutions go on to explain,
Obedience is pre-eminent among the vows relevant to the evangelical counsels. By obedience a person dedicates himself totally to God and his actions approximate to the goal of profession, which is the perfection of charity. Everything else too in the apostolic life is included under obedience.
Since we are united to Christ and to the Church through obedience, whatever labour and hardship we sustain in putting it into practice is, as it were, a prolongation of Christ’s self-offering. It takes on a sacrificial character for ourselves and for the Church, in whose completion the entire work of creation is perfected (LCO 19, §I,II).
Thus obedience is in itself an evangelical work, allowing God to rectify his creation one fragile, wounded human heart at a time, both bringing about graces that transform the world and giving witness to God’s grace in its healing and elevating dimensions.
Obedience is at root a positive act, a supreme act of freedom. Obedience is the renunciation of self-direction, self-will, a concrete and determining expression of the desire to be directed by God, to follow his will. As the Constitutions put it:
Because obedience ‘plants the roots of self-discipline in our hearts’ it is of the greatest benefit to that freedom of spirit characteristic of the children of God, and disposes us to self-giving charity (LCO 19, §III).
The very “self-giving charity” that is the fruit of obedience reveals the inner meaning and necessity of the vow of chastity as a fulfillment of vowed obedience. The Constitutions open directly to the mysterious heart of this vow:
The brothers who promise chastity ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ follow in the footsteps of Saint Dominic who for the love of God preserved unblemished virginity throughout his life. Dominic was so much on fire with zeal for souls that ‘he received all in a broad embrace of charity and since he loved them all he was loved by all in return, spending himself fully in the service of his neighbour and with compassion for the afflicted” (LCO 25).
The vow of chastity is an overflow of the heart in love with God that desires to travel to the Father more immediately in the footsteps of the chaste Christ. It is a self-offering and thus has sacrificial dimensions that can only be fully and fruitfully lived by grace, but as a gift of grace it is also expansive and liberating:
The practice of chastity leads effectively to a gradual purification of heart, to liberty of soul and fervent charity. Furthermore, we gain greater command of soul and body, and achieve a personal integrity which enables us to maintain a tranquil and salutary relationship with everybody (LCO 26, §II)
The vow of chastity enables the man to discover his humanity in a different mode, to live out the fulness of his masculinity and his fatherhood from the stance of celibacy. For this, St. Dominic is a powerful patron and example, as his contemporaries never tired of praising the bountiful life that poured from him in charity to all, and in the divine fruitfulness of the Order, his children who still carry out his work in the world. St. Joseph as well reveals to us how perfect chastity wells up from and flows into perfect love, as the tender husband and loving father of Mary and Jesus.
Poverty as well springs up from the obedient and chaste heart as a continuation of the same charity that moves the other vows. Poverty arises again from contemplation of Jesus Christ and his mission in the world; those who desire to be obedient as he was and chaste as he was also find themselves drawn to poverty he showed by having “nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20).
The Constitutions speak of poverty in the context of two modes of imitation: first, St. Dominic’s imitation of the apostles, and second the imitation of Christ himself. The imitation of the apostles is one of evangelical expansiveness: “Conscious of the demands of the apostolate of their time, they decided not to have any possessions, neither income nor money, but to beg their daily bread while preaching the Gospel” (LCO 30). Dominican poverty arises from a desire to spread the Gospel, to allow other people to be transformed by the love of Christ unto the kingdom of heaven.
But even more deeply, the practice of poverty arises from the love of the Gospel, which is to say, the love of Jesus Christ:
Keeping in mind the words of the Lord who said, ‘Go sell what you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me,’ we have decided to be poor both in fact and in spirit, so that while we endeavour to free people from domination by wealth and direct them toward the things of the spirit, we ourselves may also conquer greed, imitating Christ, ‘who for our sake became poor, that by his poverty we might become rich’ (LCO 31, §I).
As with all the vows, poverty has internally directed meanings and externally directed meanings that are powerfully intertwined: the vow of poverty purifies the individual friar of worldly loves, and teaches him to long for the heart of Christ; the vow also makes the friar and his community a living witness to the insufficiency of the world and the radical fulness of God. These two basic meanings interweave and effect each other, directing the Dominican’s life to the purification of charity by a gradual process of living.
The preceding was a brief exposition of the three evangelical counsels of obedience, chastity, and poverty, in the order and the spirit of their presentation in the Constitutions of the Order of Preachers. There are, of course, endless ways to explain on the vows. Those looking for further reflections on the vows in a Dominican context can read Br. Bonaventure Chapman, O.P.’s phenomenological discussion of the vows, to be found here:
Introduction to the Phenomenology of the Vows