Legalism and the Love of God

It needs be said that I am one of those brothers who just made my solemn vows, alongside my two brothers Wesley and Patrick. During the recent ceremony (this past Saturday) - specifically as I lay face-down in the middle of St. Pius V church and listened as the congregation recited the litany - I was struck by one of my favorite little phrases on the nature of religious vows which comes from Hilare Belloc's Path to Rome. 


But it is critical for the reader to understand, before all else that follows, that Hilarie Belloc was, if nothing else, a bit of a character. It might briefly illustrate his character to call to the reader's attention certain famous poems from Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, among which are found such treasures of children's poesy as "Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion" and "Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death." So I believe one begins, from this, to form an adequate picture of his writing style and sense of humour. 


Path to Rome, while both quite funny and satirical, is nevertheless quite serious at the core (as much of Belloc's humour was). The book is essentially excerpts from a journal he wrote in attempting a grand pilgrimage between France and Rome, attempting to depict the glories of the ancient Christendom, with its remnants still alive in the soil and blood of the common people of Europe and awaiting merely the dew of the Spirit to awaken their full potential. Despite his apologetic aims and its rhetorical workmanship, the book became quite famous after his death more so because, after the destruction of the first World War, it described the small villages and hamlets of the pristine pre-war splendour of the European countryside which had since ceased to exist. It hearkened back to an age more innocent and pure.


But the religious character is very clearly present on each page, from the first few lines where, in a fit of religious devotion at a shrine, he describes a vow he made to the statue of the Blessed Virgin in his home parish. He made it unthinkingly, filled with a spirit to reclaim the soul of Europe from paganism and the ghost of the age. He promised to Our Lady:


I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear mass every morning; and I will be present at high mass in St. Peter's on the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.


Or, in short, go to Rome on pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith had saved.


While the rest of the book is an obvious gem, my favorite phase of his quest happens within the first 150 pages, when Belloc discovers he lacks the strength to do exactly what he vowed to do at the beginning. After having realized both that he is not as young as he was, and that his feet are beginning to swell and he can no longer walk, he makes a bit of a compromise on his solemn vow to the Virgin:


While I was occupied sketching [some nearby] slabs of limestone, I heard wheels coming up behind me, and a boy in a wagon stopped and hailed me.... I was greatly tempted to get into his cart, but though I had broken so many of my vows one remained yet whole ad sound, which was that I would ride upon no wheeled thing.


Remembering this, therefore, and considering that the Faith is rich in interpretation, I clung on to the waggon in such a manner that it did all my work for me, and yet could not be said to be actually carrying me. Distinguo. The essence of a vow is its literal meaning.


The spirit and intention are for the major morality, and concern Natural Religion, but when upon a point of ritual or of dedication or special worship a man talks to you of the Spirit and Intention, and complains of the dryness of the Word, look at him askance. He is not far removed from Heresy.


"The essence of a vow is its literal meaning" was precisely what went through my head as I lay facedown on the pavement, waiting to place my hands in those of my provincial and say the critical words, which for us Dominicans go something like: "I promise and profess obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic, and to you, [fill in name of current Master here], Master General of the Friars Preachers, and to your successors according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers, that I will be obedient to you and to your successors until death." 


In Latin, the final three words are as succinct and stoic as they are clear: usque ad mortem.  What immediately strikes one is the seriousness and gravity of them. Placing one's self into the hands of another is very literally the meaning of our vows, even "ad mortem." However, I find three additional significant elements in their concrete and literal meaning. 


First, I am placing my life in the hands of precisely those people, according to the Rule and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers, who are my superiors in the Order and, ultimately, through the way of life entrusted to the Church by St. Dominic, I profess obedience directly to our God and Saviour who inspired Dominic and his sons to be His preachers. The vows are intensely and exclusively personal. We make no attempt to profess some high moral ideal or a set of precepts (as occurs, by the way, in Buddhist monasticism). Nor is there a profession to an abstract entity, like "Humanity." All that we profess is to be obedient to a few people: God, Mary, Dominic, the Master and his successors. 


Second, the vows are also legal entities. They are not merely promises or nice thoughts or beautiful dreams. They are legally-binding and effective statements which, as soon as we speak them publicly in the appropriate situations, bind us under a solemn obligation. I encountered this in a quite surreal moment as I came down for breakfast the day before the profession and, as I was attempting to find the creamer for my tea, was informed that the time had come to sit down with a notary and sign my Last Will and Testament in the presence of three witnesses. In a flash of ink, I had made a legal contract to turn over all of my future income and earnings, to never claim anything in my own name, and to essentially die to much of the rights of the world. It was, to say the least, a productive morning for the provincial lawyers. 


Thirdly, the vows are definitive in a way very little else is. They might be made for a certain period of time, in the case of simple vows, but are always ordered toward a total and definitive self-giving. One cannot renew simple vows forever. As our Constitutions rather directly state: "When the time of simple profession has been completed, a brother should either make solemn profession or return to the world." And when they are finally made, they are made in such a way that they are total: celibacy, complete renunciation of every possession and right to possession, obligation to our Rule and Constitutions, and, certainly not least, to live all that until death.


But what one sees in that definitiveness and personalism and legality is quite clear: the Dominican is supposed to live in radical dependence on God Himself. Love holds nothing back, has nothing in reserve, but gives itself totally. I give myself totally to the man sitting in the chair ahead of me, to this way of life, and without any other earthly support. There's no pre-nup in religious life, just as there isn't one in sacramental marriage. 


Belloc was quite correct. Legalism is the essence of religion. In a word, this follows because the Law is the other side of Love (my saying of which should cause Martin Luther turn over in his grave). If I did not sign a contract, if I did not get rid of my bank account, if I left myself some little room to maneuver, it would not be total and definitive. It would not be a vow. The vows we Dominicans make are, rather simply, intended to be a complete oblation of our selves toward one cause and one alone: living a charity fervent and effective for the salvation of the souls of those around us. Our obedience is the closest virtue to charity, as it requires us to slay our own wills and place our lives directly into the hands of God. The Law is something I obey not because it sits outside of me and makes me follow it by force, but because it has become incarnated and dwells in my heart - in the Spirit of Love who pushes me to give everything I am for that goal. This is why, in our religious obedience, we obey not the person speaking, whether he be someone we like or not, but, through him, the voice to which we hearken in obedience is always that of our Heavenly Father and Lord. 


Further, my legalistic vows are not some broken kind of slavish liberty, but the beginning of the path to a complete and total freedom - my decision is more my own than many other people make in their lives, I would think. This is, naturally, the selfsame dedication and consecration that other people make in marriage - a dedication that makes them free to love that other person with everything they are and can be. It is, as the Church Fathers like to call it, another baptism because it renews our baptismal dedication to God. It is both a death and a rising: a death to my former way of life, but, in doing so, setting out on the greatest adventure of all. 


Getting up off the floor and shaking off the dust, I looked up at the crucifix above the altar as the provincial closed the prayers after the litany. I waited my turn in the line behind the other two brothers. Wesley finishing; one vow down, and two to go. As Patrick went up to say the words, I closed my eyes and asked God to help me keep my vows as best as I could, following the inspiration of the pilgrim to Rome:


Lord, I need not the flowery "Spirit and Intention" of ways to avoid living what I profess in these simple words. My pilgrimage will not be the most direct, I will need to rely on your aid when it is too much for me and I must lean to bear the load, but I beg that you give me, instead of consolations or shortcuts, the grace always to live my vows according to their dryness and simplicity, to their most literal and clear meaning, and thereby to love you more simply, even until the hour of my death. 


With that said, I made my vows.