First Vows

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture
Filed under: 

This past week, the Western Dominican Province was privledged to hear the first vows of two of our newest brothers. It was an occasion for me to reflect, first upon the awesome privledge of living this life of prayer, study, and contemplation, but moreover, upon the very meaning of making a religious vow.

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether or not it is actually fitting or expedient to take a religious vow. The first objection goes as follows: "It would seem that it is not expedient to take vows. It is not expedient to anyone to deprive himself of the good that God has given him. Now one of the greatest goods that God has given man is liberty whereof he seems to be deprived by the necessity implicated in a vow. Therefore it would seem inexpedient for man to take vows" (ST, IIaIIae, Q88, a4, Obj 1).


Simply put, is not the binding of oneself through religious vows an inhibition to one's freedom? If so, would it not be better to perform acts of prayer, preaching, and devotion to God out of pure human freedom rather than performing these acts through the bonds of a vow?


St. Thomas answers: Even as one’s liberty is not lessened by one being unable to sin, so, too, the necessity resulting from a will firmly fixed to good does not lessen the liberty, as instanced in God and the blessed. Such is the necessity implied by a vow, bearing a certain resemblance to the confirmation of the blessed. Hence, Augustine says that “happy is the necessity that compels us to do the better things" (ST, IIaIIae, Q88, a4, Reply ObJ 1).


Being vowed to God, the highest good and the end of human life, could never be a corruption of freedom. It is, on the contrary, the full flowering of human freedom, the highest expression of a mature human being acting as a true self-director of his own actions and fixing his will on that which is good. St. Thomas distinguishes between a mere "act of a human being" and a true "human action." True "human action" is always free and self-directed. Good human action is that which brings us closer to our final end, that is, union with God.

St. Thomas explains:"...one makes a promise to a man under one aspect, and to God under another. Because we promise something to a man for his own profit; since it profits him that we should be of service to him, and that we should at first assure him of the future fulfillment of that service: whereas we make promises to God not for His but for our own profit. Hence Augustine says: “He is a kind and not a needy exactor, for he does not grow rich on our payments, but makes those who pay Him grow rich in Him.” And just as what we give God is useful not to Him but to us, since “what is given Him is added to the giver,” as Augustine says, so also a promise whereby we vow something to God, does not conduce to His profit, nor does He need to be assured by us, but it conduces to our profit, in so far as by vowing we fix our wills immovably on that which it is expedient to do. Hence it is expedient to take vows" (ST, IIaIIae, Q88, a4).

Praise God for the witness of these two brothers, who have so firmly fixed their wills on God. May they continue to inspire us with their fidelity and may we all continue to pray for them.