Jesuit Vows: Why such a fuss about obedience?

On Saturday 20 June, I had the opportunity to attend the profession of First Vows of my very good friend Wicus Barnard who has joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The ceremony took place at Xavier House in Lusaka, Zambia, where Wicus together with his fellow-novices from Southern Africa spent two years learning and experiencing day by day what the life of vows is all about.

It is commonly known that Jesuits do things their own way. So it is with the religious vows they take. The three vows that Wicus has taken recently – poverty, chastity and obedience – are called ‘First and Perpetual’ Vows. They express a life commitment to the service of God in the Society of Jesus; but these are not the only vows that Jesuits make. The ‘Final Vows’ that follow the final stage of their training, called ‘tertianship’, are taken by those deemed worthy of ‘full incorporation’ into the Jesuits — usually more or less 20 years later. The way Wicus explained this to me is that at First Vows, you accept the Society, whereas at Final Vows, the Society accepts you, ‘for better or worse’. That is when the famous ‘fourth vow’ to the pope is taken; because, as every good Jesuit will tell you, obedience is essential! Scary, isn’t it?

That was the first thing that drew my attention when I met Wicus after a two year break: he was talking a lot about obedience being the core of a Jesuit life. ‘How well they indoctrinated him!’ – I thought. A few years earlier, I happened to teach Wicus Philosophy of God at St Augustine College of South Africa. An absolutely brilliant student with terrible handwriting (once I had to ask him to read his exam script to me, for I simply could not mark it!).

We became friends, indeed brothers. He always occurred to me as a person of broad horizons and a great internal freedom.

Not to mention his Trevor-Noah-like sense of humour, which I love! And here he was, after the two years of brainwash, apparently ready to consider ‘what seems to him white to be black, if the hierarchical Church so defines’ (St Ignatius). However, after spending some time with Wicus and his Jesuit brothers I had to revise my initial view. Believe it or not, there is a wisdom in that madness!

On Sunday morning, the day after the vows, before leaving the Novitiate House, Wicus had an informal chat with the five new novices who just started their term at Xavier House. I stood there silently, to witness what turned out to be the highlight and the most moving moment during my stay in Lusaka. He told them to trust the process, to trust their formators and, above all, to trust God as they go through their novitiate. He shared his own experience of being humbled and liberated by fulfilling the most mundane daily tasks, challenged to grow by his brothers, inspired them to serve more generously through his apostolate at the orphanage and at the hospital and encouraged them to receivepractical wisdom from old Jesuits who stay next door and for whom novices often do not have time. He encouraged them in a most personal and brotherly way. As a matter of fact, after listening to Wicus, I felt like staying there and experiencing all those things for myself…

Needless to say, obedience is not a value in itself. For Jesuits, it is a critical means to an end which enables them to remain available (‘free to serve’) and always ready to adapt to the changing circumstances. A mission, God’s mission, is what really matters to them. Their motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam (‘For the greater glory of God’). In ordinary speak this means that all we have and all we are is to be creatively engaged as we fulfil our ultimate goal: which is to praise, reverence and serve God. Insofar as the created things can help us grow in our discipleship, we should make use of them; and insofar as they prevent us from such growth, we should be ready to rid ourselves of them. Hence, the indifference to all created things recommended by Ignatius (refer: ‘Principle and Foundation’ in Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius).

What I personally find to be the most powerful aspect of the Ignatian spirituality and worldview is the underlying insight that God can be found and glorified in all things. God allows us to find God’s own self in our own experience, in our deepest desires, in our suffering and desolation, in our relationships, be they wholesome or broken, even in our death. That’s the God with whom Pedro Arrupe, Wicus and so many other Jesuits around the world fell in love ‘in a quite absolute, final way’. Obedience merely enables them to be efficient messengers of that God. The life of vows is geared towards maximal availability, adaptability, and worldwide mobility (cf. John W. O’Malley, S.J.). Even the famous ‘fourth vow’ is regarding ‘the missions’. This, reflecting Ignatius’ understanding that the pope had a better view of where in the world the Jesuits were needed.

Wicus’ ‘promised land’ is China. He has always dreamed about the ministry in that country. Once, during his novitiate, I asked him whether he was still thinking about China. He replied, ‘Oh yes, my beloved one is always on my mind! “If I forget you oh Shanghai, let my right hand wither and my tongue cleave to my palate!”‘ In a few weeks, Wicus will move to Taipei in Taiwan where he will be learning Chinese and doing his apostolate (ministry). He will be missed dearly by his friends in South Africa…

But, condors are not meant to stay in their nests.
Their destiny is to fly, to glide on the thermals and soar high into the sky. Fly high, my friend!