But we live in a world marked by infidelity, each of us debilitated in our incapacity to do what we say we will do. While we may suspect others of simply lying when they do not keep their promises, we each know from our own experience that we often fail to do things that we fully intended to do when we said we would do them. Indeed, we may have never consciously chosen not to do them. We just forgot. Or got distracted by other things. Yet these broken promises add up, creating walls of mistrust on the already fragmented landscape of our shared existence. We learn to confess both the evil we've done and "the things we have left undone" because we know our will is weak from the start.

Infidelity is a tendency deep within us. But it is also encouraged by the constant barrage of powers at work in this world's broken systems. Because sex sells we are inundated daily by the suggestive poses of women and men to whom we're not only not committed but whom we do not even know. Their images come to our senses not as icons in which we might glimpse the divine but as products to be consumed. This pornographic imagination is extended to real estate, destinations, entertainment events, and even educational opportunities. Our broken economy does not invite us to ask how we might be faithful to our people and place but rather how we might use them to satisfy our base desires. Infidelity is sold to us as a good.

St. Augustine of Hippo made an important distinction between something that is to be enjoyed for its own sake and something that is to be used for the sake of enjoying something else. Unlike the modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that human beings are ends in themselves, Augustine claimed that all creatures—even fellow humans—are to be "used" for the sake of enjoying God. Everything God has made is good, and people are very good, according to the creation story. But every good thing is meant to point us toward the greatest Good, the Giver of all good things.

We defile the holy when we love good things for our own sake, deadening our sense of intimacy and connection with God. When we use people and places to serve ourselves, we are not only untrue to our fellow creatures. We also distance ourselves from the Creator and from the part of ourselves that cries out for connection with the divine. Infidelity unravels the intricate fabric of the universe.

To make promises is to proclaim that a culture of mistrust has been interrupted by One whom we can trust. It is to live as a sign of God's faithfulness, even as we struggle to grown into fidelity ourselves. We make promises because we've glimpsed a picture of hope and know that it points us toward the life we were made for.

The ring I wear on the fourth finger of my left hand is a public sign of the promises my wife, Leah, and I made in marriage. When I turn it with my thumb, as I often do by habit, I think of Leah, our kids, and the commitments that make our shared life possible.

In traditional monasticism, there have likewise been signs to mark the commitments of those who make vows. As early as the Egyptian desert, the habit was worn by monks as a sign charged with meaning. In his Praktikos, the desert father Evagrius Ponticus explains how the cowl (or hood) symbolizes God's charity; the cross-shaped scapular, faith; the monk's belt marks rejection of impurity; and his staff is to lean on as he leans on the Lord.