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The Danger of the Vows

An encounter with
earth, woman, and spirit

John Courtney Murray, S.J.


[p. 421]


Many conferences are given about the obligations of the religious life, the beauties of it, the graces one receives in it. Perhaps one aspect is a bit neglected—the risks of the religious life, the dangers inherent in it because it is religious. Let me speak of them.


Actually you run one supremely perilous risk—that of losing your manhood—impoverishment, diminution, deformation (if true, a serious threat to our Holy Orders). If you doubt, look about. How many take the risk and lose . . . so many men of diminished manhood, of incomplete virility . . . not necessarily more than in the world. To be a man in any walk of life is not easy; few achieve full virility, full womanhood either . . . but for reasons that do not entirely operate among us. The world puts obstacles in the way of manhood; religion does, too. And there are those who succumb to the obstacles.


Recognize them by certain marks: men who are at least in some greater or lesser degree irresponsible, whose manhood has something lacking, who have been damaged because of the way they have reacted to the vow of poverty . . . men who are dispersed, energyless, because unorganized and immature intellectually and emotionally . . . their manhood has been changed by the vow of chastity . . . men who to a degree are purposeless, their lives not consciously and strongly patterned, not inwardly directed toward a determined goal with all the organized power of the whole self.


Lack of responsibility, lack of integrity, lack of purpose—all somehow relate to the three vows. All are indicative of diminished manhood.


[p. 422]


Man becomes a man by the encounter with three elemental forces, and by the mastery of them—the encounter with the earth, with woman, and with his own spirit.


First encounter

The first encounter is with the earth, the material creation. The prize is food, man's sustenance, his very bodily life. The encounter is a bitter conflict with a rude antagonist. "Cursed is the earth in thy work . . . with labor and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life . . . in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread."


Earth is man's proud primal antagonist, and its conquest is his initial necessary purpose. It is the earth that man must work in order to create for himself the very conditions of manhood, of human existence. And the earth is cursed in his work. It is insubordinate to his purposes; it resists him; only reluctantly does it yield bread to him. It is insecure beneath his feet; its fruits elude his grasp. It is a composite of vital forces wherein there is a promise of life for him, but which are difficult to harness and are able to sweep away all that he laboriously plants and grows or builds—and in the ruin to wreck also man himself, to destroy his material life, to defeat his efforts, or so to permeate him with its own insecurity that he gives up and flees to other dependencies, depends on those more successful in their wrestling with earth than he has been. If he fails in this struggle, he dies as a man; either he starves or flees to dependency, and in this flight loses his dignity. He has shirked his initial responsibility, fallen short of the initial creative purposes that must be his—the purpose of creating for himself those material conditions of life that are the indispensable support of his human dignity. Thus he falls short of his own dignity, which is that of being master, by his own work, of material creation.


Admittedly, the elemental character of this human struggle is dimmed in our industrial civilization, wherein so few work on the earth itself and are in contact with its elemental vitality and destructiveness. But though the arena has changed, the struggle itself is essentially unchanged. Men must still work, if they are to be men, and by their work win for themselves material security, their initial dignity, the condition of manhood. This is the primal law.


[p. 423]


And when one escapes from obedience to it, one imperils one's manhood. Man is not man until by his own hard work he has bent stubborn earth to his own purposes.


Second encounter

Man's second encounter is with woman. Woman is Eve, Zoe, life, the life-giving principle, without whom man cannot live, without whom it is not "good" for man to be, for without her he cannot be man. (St. Paul's law: "Vir per mulierem.") She is the second earth, out of which man must live, and through whom, as Milton saw, "all things live for man."


She offers two things to man; one is possibility of procreation, hence of manhood, of realizing himself as, under God, the creator, the active principle of generation. Without her, his own manly life-giving powers are condemned to frustration and sterility. It is she who must draw out from him the seed of life resident in him; and in her must it be deposited, because only in her can it grow and take on human form, and only from her can it come forth, the image of the father, the image of God. Through woman, man becomes father, and therefore man to the maximum, because more fully like to God, who is Father, whose eternal act is generation of a Son. It is woman who puts within the reach of man the act of man, and therefore the integrity of his manhood.


More importantly, it is woman who offers man the possibility of headship, of entering into his native inheritance of rule—of realizing himself as head, Logos, the principle of order, which by ordering life rules it. Woman is life, but not Logos, not the principle of order. In St. Paul's metaphor, woman has no head of her own: "caput mulieris vir." She is not her own ruler; man is to govern her. All this because she is simply Eve—life. And life is not its own law; it must have the law given it by reason, by Logos, and by administering this law, man becomes man. This is the primal fact that Adam mistook. He mistook the role of Eve, and therefore the meaning of life, and so did not know himself. His failure and his sin was in not being a man—not only betraying God, but violating his own nature. And it is this sin with which God reproaches him in Milton's Paradise Lost. Adam had pleaded that it was the woman who gave him the fruit of the tree; somehow through her he had


[p. 424]


glimpsed a vision of life, a higher life than he believed himself to have. And because she offered it, and because what she offered looked like life, he took it. And God said:

'Was she thy God, that her thou didst obey
Before his voice, or was she made thy guide,
Superior, or but equal, that to her
Thou didst resign thy manhood, and the place
Wherein God set thee above her made of thee,
And for thee, whose perfection far excelled
Hers in all real dignity: Adorned
She was indeed, and lovely to attract
Thy love, and not thy subjection, and her gifts
Were such as under government well seemed,
Unseemly to bear rule, which was thy part
And person, hadst thou known thyself aright.'
(X, 145–56)

Man does not know himself aright until he knows he is the head of woman, set above her, having her under his government. This is his part and person; and if he resigns it, he resigns his manhood. In other terms, it is in his encounter with woman, with life, that man knows himself, achieves himself as Logos, who is to rule life and not be ruled by it. Through his encounter with woman there is offered him the possibility of achieving the triumph of reason over life (or the marriage of reason with life). Out of this encounter comes life that is human—untamed life in the bones of man is disciplined unto integrity, which is chastity, which is in turn the freeing of all the forces of life by their subordination to reason. Again it is woman who puts within the reach of man the act of man—the act of self-rule, through rule of her. It is she who lets him become man.



Third encounter


The third great encounter in which man becomes a man is the encounter with his own spirit. Meeting his own spirit, he meets a power within him that can give purpose to his life—the power to choose a destiny, and to summon all his energies for its pursuit. Meeting his own spirit, he meets the responsibility for the choice of purpose, and for the success or failure in the achievement of his chosen purpose in this world and in the next.


[p. 425]


"What, think you, shall this child be?" is the question put by the relatives of John the Baptist. It is put about every child coming into the world. And no one can answer it save the child himself, when he grows old enough to put it to himself: What shall I be? And what shall I do that I may be myself —that I may exploit all the energy and virtue there is in me —that I may thus achieve my own uniqueness, my integral manhood? The questions are answered by a whole series of choices —of acceptances and refusals, of aggressions and submissions. I shall do this, not that; I shall take this path, not that. Here I choose to stand and fight; there I choose to give way. This gift I will use, that one I shall not. This will be my first task, that my second, that other I shall not attempt. This man will be my friend, that one my enemy. This I will destroy, that I shall build. Thus, in a word, I choose to live, in this path, for this purpose. This is my choice, made independently, freely, in the loneliness of my own soul; and I shall abide by all its consequences, good or ill.


In this wrestling with his own spirit, and with all the alternatives presented to it by circumstances and his own desires, a man becomes a man. He enters into possession of his powers, and of himself —becomes self-directed, self-controlled, able to think his own thoughts, feel his own feelings, meet his own friends with love, and his enemies without fear. By choosing his purposes, he becomes purposeful, and to that extent a man, strong and gentle, clear in mind, able to mobilize his energies; such a man, in his own degree, as our Lord was when he emerged from his lonely desert struggle, in which he had encountered the alternatives that life would have to offer him, and made his choice. Through his life runs that thread of purpose, which is the mark of virility: I am come for this, I am not come for that.


These, then, are the three encounters wherein a man becomes a man—with the earth, with which man struggles for security, the conditions of life; with woman, with whom man struggles for the ascendancy of reason and law over Zoe and Eros; with his own soul, with which man struggles for the ultimate victory, over himself—the disciplining of himself to inward, strong purposefulness.



Our problem


You see now our problem. On entering religion, we avoid this triple encounter, we step aside from the struggle with these ele-


[p. 426]


mental forces. By the vow of poverty, we are redeemed from the struggle with earth; security is given to us without a struggle; we do not know want nor the fear of want. We are no longer responsible for creating the conditions of our life; they are created for us. We free ourselves from the heritage of work. The collectivity assumes a responsibility for each of us; we vow to depend on it, and we do. And that is a terribly risky thing to do—seemingly it amounts to a violation of the law of nature. No man may depend on another for livelihood—a child may, because he is a child; but a man should assume responsibility for himself. And if he does not, he risks remaining an irresponsible child. He risks the destruction of living an inert, parasitic life—living off the collectivity. He has taken out of his life one of the elemental forces, motives that drive a man to the achievement of his manhood. And unless it is replaced by a comparable drive, he will inevitably be less a man—diminished, impoverished.


By the vow of chastity, we decline the encounter with woman. We make the radical refusal to enter the world of Eve—that strange, elemental world of life, wherein is offered to man the possibility of being the principle of man, the head of woman, and therefore himself (caput mulieris . . . vir per mulierem). Again there seems to be a violation of a law of nature. And the risk is manifold (adolescent senility; sex is dead). The Fathers pointed to pride as the danger one runs in choosing virginity—a certain hardness of spirit, a withdrawal of reason into a world of unreality because it is isolated from the facts and forces of life, and therefore unable to be integral. Man risks becoming a disembodied head, that fancies itself a whole thing when it is not; when it denies its dependence on the body and all that the body stands for; and therefore risks denying its dependence on God who made it dependent on the body. The pure spirit can readily be the proud spirit—whose hardness makes it poor material for priestly consecration.


This is the danger of false integrity. There is the opposite danger of a failure to reach any integrity—of a relapse into softness and dispersion of an immature emotionality, that has never grown up, been strongly polarized, and therefore wanders into sentimentality, wasting itself, and draining off the psychic energies. In a word, there is again the danger of childishness. Your typical bachelor is pro-


[p. 427]


verbially crotchety, emotionally unstable, petulant, and self-enclosed—small and childish in the emotional life. Your religious risks being the same. The chaste spirit risks being also the childish spirit.


Finally, by the vow of obedience one declines the most bruising encounter of all—that of a man with himself, with his own spirit and its power of choice, with his own powers and the problem of their full exercise, towards the achievement of a determined purpose.


Here again one throws oneself on the collectivity, and on the will of another. One ceases to be self-directed. One's choices are made; and there is the comfortable feeling that one does not have to assume the responsibility for them—that falls on the superior. One need go through no particular agonies of decision; one need only follow the crowd, and obey the principle, "munere suo fungi mediocriter." There need be no greatly earnest searching of heart, to discover if there are powers not yet exploited. And hence there can be an end both to aspiration and conflict. In a word, one can live through one's public life, and spare oneself the lonely agony of the desert struggle. In eliminating alternatives and the stern necessity for choice, obedience eliminates also the necessity for self-assertion and the assertion of one's own purposes. And thus it subtracts from one of the elemental disciplines that make for manhood. Your obedient man can become relatively inert, purposeless, and to that extent less a man.


These are the dangers; this is our problem. We have no time here for a solution, but such a solution as we need is founded on a paradox. By taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, we risk irresponsibility, childish immaturity, and purposelessness. We avoid the risks by keeping them integrally. Any chipping off in their observance is a blow, light or heavy, on one's manhood. Truly poor equals responsible; integrally chaste equals mature; absolutely obedient equals enterprising and purposeful.