Before meeting Sarah the three vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience ruled my life as a Jesuit. Each vow held a sacred significance for religious life that went much deeper than its face value. Chastity wasn’t just about not having sex, but about having meaningful and intimate (not sexual) relationships with others. Poverty wasn’t just about material poverty, but about freedom in sharing with others. Obedience, often the toughest of the three, ultimately meant obedience to God and freedom from the attachments that hold us back from serving God.
Sarah had briefly considered religious life, and so as we approached marriage we often talked about how the two of us would form a “mini religious community.” What we meant was we wanted to let our faith and spirituality inform how we lived. While the marriage vows Sarah and I professed were different than the three religious vows I professed as a Jesuit, chastity, poverty, and obedience are actually ways of life all Christians are called to put into practice.
But how does that play out in marriage?
We’re culturally programmed to think that chastity = no sex. To be chaste in a marriage certainly does not mean avoiding sexual intimacy but allowing it to be healthy and life-giving. It means there’s no room for infidelity. Married couples have challenges in sexual intimacy, and the cultural and religious taboos around sex we’ve grown up with certainly don’t help. Chastity in marriage means growing in honesty and transparency with each other about any issues and fears that arise. We also look to cultivate other kinds of intimacy together including quality time, date nights, sharing about our day, and praying together. And if chastity means healthy relationships, Sarah and I make sure to cultivate solid friendships outside of marriage, too.
During our first year of marriage, Sarah and I have had to live primarily on one income. Our weekly budget meetings have required us to make compromises and shift money at times from wants to needs. But finances aside, one joy we both discovered at the beginning of marriage was that we now got to share things. My car and her car became our cars, her books were now mine too. I even remember a moment of excitement when I realized that I ran out of dental floss and could open Sarah’s drawer and use some of hers. (It’s the little things.) The spirit of Christian poverty comes from the lifestyle of the early Christian community, which avoided the idea of private ownership and instead shared possessions with one another.
Another element of poverty is having to truly rely on the community for what you need. When I was in religious life and I needed a new pair of shoes I would have to go to my superior and ask. He may ask if my old shoes were worn out and how much I expected to spend and then would give permission based on the circumstances. Similarly, when Sarah and I need something we’ll bring it up in our budget meeting, and if it’s a true need, we’ll figure out a way to work it into our budget. Marriage, I’ve found, is not always about equality, but about trusting and depending on one another for what we need. Sarah may have to buy new shoes this month but it doesn’t mean that I automatically get a new pair, too. I may need to buy a new computer because my old one is breaking down, but it doesn’t mean Sarah is “owed” a new computer as well.
Just as in religious life, this may seem, at face value, a strange vow. In marriage our obedience is to the relationship. This means decisions for our future are not made on our own but in concert with our partner. Just as with poverty, Sarah and I need to rely on one another for certain decisions. And as people of faith, we ultimately need to rely on God. This is why in our discernment on where to move and what jobs to apply for and whether or not to have a child, we include prayer. We’ll often ask the question, “How does this decision serve God?” And then we come together and figure out the best decision for our family. In religious life I found that the benefit of obedience was that I wasn’t alone in making decisions. There was always someone else trying to determine what was best for me in the context of the community. If our marriage is like a religious community in miniature, then any decision we make ought to be not just for the benefit of Sarah and me as individuals, but for Sarah and me as a community, as partners, and as a family.
Practicing chastity, poverty, and obedience may seem constraining, but there’s actually much freedom when they’re lived out genuinely. Yes, I may not always have the ability to buy anything I want or travel wherever I want, but marriage frees us from personal attachments that may hold us back from a happy and life-giving relationship. It’s a paradox. Being chaste, poor, and obedient brings freedom. Not a freedom to do whatever you want, but a freedom from things that hold us back or weigh us down.
Chastity, poverty, and obedience in our context of marriage helps Sarah and me communicate better, rely on each other, have a healthier friendship, and give more of ourselves to the world.