Of the various homages given this past week for Queen Elizabeth’s life of service to her country, foremost was the repeated honoring of her commitment to faithfully, graciously uphold the titular role her heritage and tradition required. Within the enormous privileges of her life, she remained above all a “servant leader” whose duty seemed to supersede her own personal preferences and needs. I am particularly impressed with her initial speech after her ascension to the throne when she spoke so earnestly about her vow of commitment and service, and I believe she humbly and honorably remained true to that vow. And for that I add my deepest appreciation for the exemplary model of grace and leadership she provided for England and for all of us.
And now King Charles III has followed with his vow of service, and I wonder what that commitment actually means to him. Will he also provide a similar level of selfless dedication as Queen Elizabeth? We can only wish him well.
The ritual of vows has stirred my interest this week in what it means to make a vow and why it is so rare we do so. Vows are different than pledges or oaths. They are meant to have a sacred quality as a solemn promise or assertion. We mostly associate the word vow with marriage ceremonies and monastic commitments, or, in military parlance, a sworn oath. They imply a bond that transcends self. They are meant to be enduring. They are intended to provide stability for the sake of oneself as well as for the others to whom a vow is made. As I write this I am filled with admiration for those willing to take what is often a courageous commitment of long-standing faithfulness even in our wedding vows. Vows are big deal commitments, and I understand why couples may be so reluctant to make this commitment - even often omitting the traditional part of “until death do us part” from contemporary vows!.
It is relatively easy to explain why making a vow is so difficult. A prevailing mindset in contemporary culture is to keep our options open and commitments to a minimum. Although there may be a number of reasons to maintain our “fluidity” during these times of incredible social flux, I wonder what it means for us personally and as a society to be so untethered, so reluctant to enter into the “sacred” space of a covenant with those we love and with the environment and life in general.
Perhaps we are actually making vows but not calling them that. We tell our children, for example, that we will always be there for them, and we may assume our children make that same commitment to us. And informally at least most of us who work for climate justice and peace and justice issues in general do so out of a sacred commitment to honor and protect “that of God” in all we love.
But the shadow side of making a public vow is our deeply entrenched cultural bias toward individualism. We consciously or subconsciously protect our personal freedom and choice, often above most all else. We are wary of subjecting ourselves to accommodating others and sacrificing or loosing our individual rights. We too easily equate maintaining our liberty with happiness.
But I wonder if that is wise. When we enjoy deeply committed marriages, for example, we realize how profoundly important they are to our overall well being when they offer us mutual commitment for love and life-long support. And for many of us a deeply committed life of faith also provides us with a reliable basis for hope as we honor the power of an ultimate source of compassionate justice .
But, yes, we are essentially a skeptical and questioning people as we cope with so many lies and uncertainty in these chaotic days. Long term commitments in the form of sacred vows will be difficult for us. But maybe it would be good for us to at least test ourselves about whether we need to pay closer attention to opportunities for sacred commitments and vows in our lives, even public ones. You can explore how that might be so in your personal life. For me that means I want to live each day, each moment, with a vow to honor all that touches my life with profound reverence.
I close by referring back to how much I admire the faithfully upheld vow of Queen Elizabeth to serve her country with grace, discipline and love for her people. May our lives be as faithful in our vows to a commitment of service to life and others.