Solemn vows: Not ‘maybe’ but ‘forever yes’

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde at the Solemn Profession of Sister Mary Damiana of the King of Glory, the Order of Saint Clare, at the Monastery of Mary, Mother of the Church in Alexandria.

Some years ago, I was struck by this statement: "The disciples of the Lord have crossed out all 'maybes' from their lexicons and their lives." This morning, we are witnessing a very unusual event, an event which is foreign to the culture in which we live: A woman is pledging her commitment to live as a vowed cloistered religious, to serve for the rest of her life. The culture around us speaks of "temporary," "for a while," "maybe," but this woman, Sister Mary Damiana is proclaiming "permanent," "for the rest of my life," "forever yes!" This disciple of the Lord has crossed out "all maybes" from her lexicon and her life.

Yes, within a short time, Sister Mary Damiana will proclaim before God, and her cloistered community of Poor Clares, and all gathered here, a reflection of the Church Universal, that she is resolved to give herself totally to God and to the service of His Church through her solemn profession of chastity, poverty, obedience and enclosure, to persevere forever in this perpetual profession, giving her life permanently as a Poor Clare and living as a witness to holiness and fullness of life experienced in the Spousal relationship of Christ with His Church.

How encouraged we are - and strengthened as well - by the definitive "yes" which Sister Mary Damiana will proclaim in our midst. Pronounced in the present, this definitive "yes" embraces both the past and the future. From the past, we can trace this history of this "yes." Sister Mary Damiana's "yes" is her response to God's choice and call.

As with each one of us, God chose and called her at Baptism to live the new life of faith as a member of His family, the Church. As with each one of us, God gave her at Baptism a new dignity and a new destiny. Why does God choose and call us? Because freely and without any merit on our part, He has set His heart on each one of us. He loves us beyond our imagining.

The response to God's choice and call, to His love, is the "yes" of faith and trust, which empowers us to live in love. We spend our entire human journey renewing that "yes" in so many ways.

The consecration we experience at Baptism is primary, rooted in God's choice and call. As we grow, God invites us to live our baptismal consecration in a specific and concrete manner. He gives to each one of us our own individual unique vocation, what Pope Saint John Paul II often referred to as our "life project." For many, that invitation is to marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the Church. For others, that invitation is to the priesthood through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. For still others, that invitation is to the consecrated life, wherein men and women, through living out the evangelical counsels, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God more fully and to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 916). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The religious state is thus one way of experiencing a 'more intimate' consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God" (No. 916).

At a certain point in her life-journey, Sister Mary Damiana heard the Lord's call to come closer, not only to serve Him and His people as His disciple but to be espoused to Him as a cloistered contemplative Poor Clare. She heard the Lord speaking to her heart the words proclaimed in our hearing this morning from the Book of the Prophet Hosea: "I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart." Then, even more directly, He says: "I will espouse to me forever. I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy. I will espouse you in fidelity … "

Sister Mary Damiana heard His call and she responded to His invitation, coming here to this Monastery in order to discern further her specific vocation as a Poor Clare. She has been formed here to live as a devoted daughter of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, led more fully into understanding this cloistered contemplative life by the Holy Spirit and strengthened to pursue this life by the encouragement and witness of her sisters here in community. Here, in this place, within this enclosure, she has learned with each passing day that living as Poor Clare embraces a deeply personal and intimate relationship and union with Jesus Christ, a truly spousal union. She is His and He is hers. What the Lord Jesus teaches us in the parable of the Vine and the Branches, proclaimed in today's Gospel account, is clearly the fact that, only when we are rooted in Him, inserted into Him as branches on the vine, do we have life that is truly nourishing and strengthening. While every disciple has life only in this closely interpersonal relationship with Jesus Christ, so much more so for one who is uniquely espoused to Him. I repeat, she is His and He is hers. Sister Mary Damiana understands from experience His invitation: "Remain in me, as I remain in you."

Today, Sister Mary Damiana seals in a solemn way this spousal union to which she has been called by the Lord Jesus. Today, through this solemn profession, she publicly manifests her resolve, in response to divine grace, to spend her whole life in the generous service of God and His people by the complete surrender of herself to Him in the hidden penitential life of the cloister.

This spousal union, made now perpetually, is life-giving for Sister Mary Damiana because spousal love is in itself life-giving to those embracing such a unique union. She has experienced the Lord's life-giving presence in the past and will do so now and in the future in yet even deeper ways.

And this spousal union, made now perpetually, will be life-giving for the Church of God: for the community of Poor Clares here, for all who form this diocesan Church of Arlington, for the Universal Church as well as for all those gathered here: her parents, family and other relatives, her friends, and the benefactors of this monastery. Why do I say that her spousal union will be life-giving in the future beyond this monastery? Because Jesus tells us in today's Gospel: "Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing."

The fruit of Sister Mary Damiana's spousal union with Christ, solemnly professed today, will be the salvation of countless people. Of course, there is only One Savior Jesus Christ, the Son of God Who became one life us in all things except sin. Of course, salvation is His and His alone to give to those whose hearts are open to His merciful embrace.

But, the Lord Jesus chooses to use human beings as partners in His saving action of loving mercy. He uses human beings, through their prayer and penance, through their witness and actions to attract people to Him, to hear His call, to step forward to encounter Him.

The life of the cloistered contemplatives, like the Poor Clares, is a life of prayer and penance, which becomes, in God's providential care, the lever to move people to come to Him, the only Savior of the world. This monastery is the powerhouse of grace. How blessed we are in this diocese and beyond!

Our culture does not understand how the life of a cloistered contemplative woman, a Poor Clare, can be fruitful, meaningful, worthwhile, successful. Sister Mary Damiana's life here will, in fact, be very fruitful. Though hidden away and enclosed, her life will produce energy and strength; though unknown to most, her witness will influence the wider community; though seemingly barren, her spousal union will be fruitful; though lacking in prestige and power, her presence will be effective: though outwardly limited, she will be a source of support and hope; though dying to self daily, she will be living more fully with Christ her Spouse.

I was struck by the Scripture verse printed in Sister Mary Damiana's invitation. Taken from the Prophet Ezekiel, chapter 37, verse 14, it reads "I have promised and I will do it, says the Lord." The context of this verse is the Vision of Dry Bones. Those dry bones represented the people of Israel, defeated and in exile; they seemed dead, without hope. But the Lord promised to restore Israel, to lead His people back to their homeland, to new hope, to new life. He has promised and He will do it.

I see in this verse what the Lord desires to do through the spousal union that Sister Mary Damiana is entering into with Him this day. She will be His partner, as are all the cloistered contemplative religious, in restoring life-giving salvation, His salvation of love and mercy, to His people. Her prayer and penance here will indeed bear much fruit, fruit that will last.

Sister Mary Damiana, we rejoice with you as you make this Solemn Profession of Vows. We thank you for saying "yes" to the Lord's call to live as a Poor Clare in this monastery. We seek your intercessory prayer for all of us, that we, like you, in our individual vocations, will cross out all "maybes" from our lives and instead live "yes" - to Him and to the specific calling He has given each one of us - for His glory, for our salvation, and for the salvation of His people. Amen. Alleluia!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016