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The Awakening of Hope: Read an Excerpt
"We see then," Evagrius concludes, "that the monk's habit is a kind of compendious symbol of all that we have described." In a sense, it sums up his life. As the mark of monastic vocation, a habit points beyond itself to a way of life that finds its end in God.
We make promises because they mark us as people who are turning from the rebellion of original sin to life with God in the membership of a new creation. To say "I do" in a world marked by infidelity is to stand out as a living sign that faithfulness is possible. It is possible because we know a God who makes promises and keeps them. We know this because we know the story of this God's relationship with the people called Israel.
The tradition of vows in monastic community has always been tied to a Rule of Life. Monks and nuns do not promise poverty, chastity, and obedience in the abstract as ideals that they would like to live out in whatever circumstances they happen to find themselves. Monastic vows are always promises made to God and a community under a particular Rule. These promises have concrete meaning within a way of life that is shared by a people. Poverty doesn't mean holding money loosely or owning things without letting them own you. It means giving the money and possessions you have inherited and earned away, joining a group of others who have done the same, and trusting God to provide for you in that particular community for the rest of your life.
In the same way, the promises that Christians make in marriage only make sense within the way of life we learn by being part of a people called church. We know what it means to give our body to another only to the extent that we have learned what it means for a community to claim our bodies in baptism. This will be a journey filled with joy as husband and wife delight in one another's bodies and welcome children as a fruit of that delight.
But Christian marriage is about more than what feels natural and good. Because we have died with Christ, we know that giving our body to another will mean bearing with them through afflictions—"in sickness and in health," as the traditional vows have it. Because we are members of God's family by adoption, we know we may have children who do not look like us. Because we follow a Lord who was executed, we know that we won't be able to make everything work out alright for our families in this world.
We know these things, as the monastic witness reminds us, because we are the spiritual descendents of the people called Israel. Both God's promises and ours in return find their content in the particularities of a shared way of life. We cannot find our way with God alone. While intimacy with God is always deeply personal, it cannot be private. "Me and Jesus" will not work. We're in this together, or we're not in it at all.
Since September 11, 2001, we in the West have become painfully aware of the fact that Islamic extremists do not make a distinction between personal convictions and political imagination. But if we listen to the millions of Muslims who are not extremists but fellow children of Abraham with whom we have much in common, we will learn that they are equally confused by the separation of faith and politics in the West. "My personal religion," makes no sense to them. They know it is a contradiction of faith to say, "Let's live together and keep our faith to ourselves."
We can learn from our Muslim neighbors what Israel learned at Sinai: to trust God is to join a community of people who make promises. Our promises find their meaning in the patterns and habits of the way of life we share together. Because this Way has been revealed to us, it is as much a gift as the promise that first inspired our faith. But because it is what makes us a people, this Way is not optional. To trust our God is to pay attention and keep the commandments that make us a people set apart in this world.
Jonathan Wilson-Hargove is a member of Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina. This article is excerpted from The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice A Common Faith, just published by Zondervan.