God is a god of promises and these promises are expressed by covenants—from the covenant with Noah and the sign of the rainbow, through the covenants with Abraham and David through to the new covenant sealed with the blood of Christ, God has worked out his purpose with humanity through promises and vows. When we make promises, and especially when we make solemn vows, we are being drawn into the purposes of God. Taking myself as an example, I am bound to God by the promises and vows made at my baptism and strengthened at confirmation. I am also bound to God and to my wife by marriage vows, and also by the vows and promises made at my ordinations. These provide both a framework and landscape in which I work out my own salvation in fear and trembling.
In spiritual direction I have found that reminding individuals of the vows and covenants they have made in their lives can be a profound help and guide. The vows we have made, and the grace that God provides in his response to those vows, have created the spiritual heart of our lives. They have bound us to God and to others and shaped our relationships, both human and divine. It would appear that once ‘absorbed’ into our general consciousness these vital bonds can lose vitality and cease to be a source of strength and direction.
In the marriage rite when the rings are blessed the priest prays that the rings may ‘remind them of the vow and covenant they have made this day.’ The wedding ring is a constant physical reminder and connection. The Eucharist is, of course, the cause (as the Prayer Book teaches) of ‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death until he comes again.’ The key to living a covenanted life is to live a life with remembrance at its heart. The vows and their power to guide and enliven only diminish when they are forgotten.
This remembrance is the engine of the liturgical year, driving back into consciousness all that God has done and all that he has promised. Cherishing the anniversaries of our own vows brings back to the forefront of memory and imagination these well-springs of our life in Christ.
It is so simple and obvious when presented in this way, and yet we so often forget. Remembrance—the renewing of our knowledge of God through our faith history—is an important element in our spiritual life. It is important to distinguish this recalling of covenant and vow from nostalgia. Prayerful remembrance and thanksgiving connects us to our spiritual well-springs. Nostalgia chooses to prefer and remain in the past—that is spiritual death. It is the meaning of the covenant and the vow in the present that counts, for in this present time they still bind us to God and one another. Our prayer must always be that God will enable us to be faithful to our promises, for as we recognise in making many of them, ‘the Lord is our helper.’ In keeping them we are constantly open to God’s grace; in forgetting them we are in danger of forgetting God.
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House