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On making too much of vows II

On making too much of vows II

This is the second of a two-part article. Daily Episcopalian will return on Monday.

By Donald Schell

My alarm goes off at 5 or 5:30 weekday mornings. I get up quickly to leave my wife sleeping and go downstairs to make us breakfast before our prayers together. Seeing her sleeping as I leave our room, my thoughts are not a rehearsal of promises made long ago. I offer the briefest prayer, “Thank you, Jesus,” and cherish a first moment of wonder at love.

The promises we make at a wedding mark a beginning for faithful love, but the path forward is something else. Walking forward from promise comes in finding the grateful freedom of a path chosen newly each day. That freedom feels truer and readier to suffer if need be than trying to hang tightly to, ‘I gave my word so it’s settled.’

Full disclosure – a long time ago, for a handful of years I tried walking that path the other way, dealing with a mutual failure, confusion, not knowing each other in a first marriage that became, for both of us in its way, a dogged attempt to hang on to the vows.

So when I said wedding vows to Ellen thirty-six years ago, it was my second time saying them. I leaned hard on my own spiritual director and a priest mentor for prayer and counsel to sort out how I could make the promises again. It was additionally heavy in 1975 because I was already ordained. I know only one priest who was divorced and remembered. Remember patterning our lives after Christ? Today the number clergy we know who are divorced and remarried or divorced and now in a same-sex partnership feels comparable to the once married or celibate. But in 1975, at least one good clergy friend and one very close lay friend told me they could not be present to witness my second speaking of those vows because my first marriage had ended in divorce. The friendships weathered that absence – both of them are glad that Ellen’s my wife.

Now I love hearing those vows again at a wedding. It gives me deep pleasure to wonder and hope and dare along with a couple speaking those words to each other and feeling that they mean everything they’re saying even though they know they can’t know what such unreserved commitment will mean for them. I love hearing them, love that moment of beginning, but feel no desire to speak those words to renew the moment.

When Ellen and I got to twenty-five years we threw a bit party and invited family and friends, but we didn’t renew our vows; we asked a good priest friend to pray the nuptial blessing over us again and welcomed the hearty toast of family and friends. To me vows feel like a workable, holy beginning, but we’d traveled on. In time the path becomes clearer and holier even than the wonder of its beginning. Living in faithfulness is all discernment and as those vows come close to saying, it’s full of unknowing.

In the film Of Gods and Men, we watch two terrified monks veer toward losing their faith as they’re itching to flee back to safety in France. Grace overtakes them as they find their old love.

I have a small taste of the clarity of such love emerging for the Trappists in the film when I open my eyes to the wonder of someone I know so well and am still getting to know a third of a century later. I thank God for morning light and another day we can share. So I’m remembering and hoping in the life together the vows launched, but not thinking of the vows.

No, I’m not saying the promises we made don’t matter. They’re pointing somewhere, or better, they’re pointing toward someone. At this Eastertide, I want to come stand by Peter and have Jesus challenge and question me too. Rumi supplies the music as Jesus asks me, you, and us again, ‘Do you love me?’

“Come, come whoever you are, worshiper, wanderer, lover of leaving, ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows as thousand times, come, come again, come.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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Donald Schell


I neglected to respond to this useful question and accurate observation:

“So, Donald, when you all renew your priestly vows, are you all standing in straight lines with pews behind your knees? Golly Ned! I can’t imagine why that might feel flat and boring!”

My first and sustained experience of the annual chrism mass and renewal was that the clergy of our diocese were gathered in the Cathedral Choir, in the choir seating, facing each other and in extra seats, set up between the permanent choir seats facing each other. In that setting I noticed how much I looked forward to being with my ordained colleagues in Holy Week, even though the parish schedule was really full. A couple of years ago, the gathering got moved out into the nave, solid ranks of pews all facing the stone altar rail barrier between us and the high altar. Suddenly the bishop wasn’t with us and we weren’t with each other. That’s when I began to notice the leaden sound of our voice. This year (maybe last year too, I was off leading the renewal day for another diocese last year) we were back in the choir. The temporary fill-in seating is no longer facing the central axis, but a good portion of the group are in the choir seating. It feels better, yes, even truer. But the experience of being exiled to the nave (as it felt for this liturgy) got me listening to the common voice of congregations making vows or reciting the creed, and the difference in voice between things we say about ourselves because we’re supposed to and the things we pray.

I think ‘how we do this’ does shape our experience. I’m glad to hear from people for whom the vows or promising in whatever form are meaningful and alive. And I think re-vowing isn’t the liveliest we we share and support our loving commitment to one another and to Christ.

Actually though, outside the liturgical setting, one of the things that does feel like real sharing and real support is talking about experience and hearing the breadth and variety of experience of our sisters and brothers.

Again thanks.



Donald Schell


Thanks for finely tuned observations and comparisons that focus on the shape of the community in the moment of vowing and the body gesture of the people vowing. I’ve been thinking about your response and wondering how the ordination vows or baptismal promises might feel different if we actually said them – perhaps ideally lined out by a leader – rather than simply offered lines of assent, even ‘I will with God’s help.’

I’m more and more convinced that imitatio is the core of our spiritual practice – Paul’s daring instruction to the people in Corinth that they should imitate him as he imitates Christ. But the immediately recognizable experience that the imitation of Christ makes us not clones or robots, but more fully who each of us is called to be.

The heaviness I feel sometimes in the reiteration (yes, often described as ‘renewing’) of vows is that I don’t sense a heart engagement (mine or in the group) that’s longing to imitate what I’m seeing/hearing or what’s held up to me. The joy I feel in witnessing the vows (wedding, ordination or baptism) is that my heart is doing exactly that – leaping forward with a ‘yes.’ Yes, you’re naming the one we’re following. Yes, we know that path. Yes, whatever comes, it’s the path we’ve chosen together.



Baba Yaga

Sorry, Jim! Baba Yaga is Pamela Grenfell Smith in Bloomington, Indiana, busy today dyeing eggs, making hot cross buns, and practicing her Vigil reading.

Baba Yaga

Tonight at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, a couple dozen of us will stand around the font to affirm our baptismal covenant. It is a graduated experience in that each of us chooses where we stand; people who don’t want to be part of it can drift to the back of the crowd. It is a shared experience as we crowd next to one another in the chaotic warmth of a small and loving community. And it is a wet experience – we say what we say but then we are splashed with water, grace made visible and tangible on our faces and clothes. “The People, as each is refreshed, may respond Amen.”

Embodiment makes a difference. Wedding vows are spoken hand-fasted. Priestly vows are first offered in a complex, weighty dance of body and community. Godparents’ vows often are made with a child in one’s arms – holding the Holy in the most direct and awe-filled way.

So, Donald, when you all renew your priestly vows, are you all standing in straight lines with pews behind your knees? Golly Ned! I can’t imagine why that might feel flat and boring!

Here in Bean Blossom, an unheralded but authentic locus for thoughtful praxis, we affirm our baptismal covenant at the Great Vigil and at All Saints – liturgies filled with deep shadow and wild light, inviting/leading us to the raw edge of the Holy. There’s nothing yadda-yadda-yadda about it. And we affirm – not renew. I think the distinction is important – to me, “renew” implies some degree of dilapidation.

Donald Schell


I’m so grateful for the conversation this piece is generating. Together we’re speaking something bigger than what I wrote and I love that.

I particularly like this in your response:

“common contemporary usages of both love and comfort default to a passive role for the recipient,”


“…disciplines of prayer and liturgical practice (built upon initial vows) can help us to hear the call and allow our hearts to be drawn to it.”

Amen and thank you.

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