How this Catholic Sister Used Art to Prepare for Taking Vows

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Sr. Bethany J. Welch, PhD, SSJ, professed initial vows in the congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, at the age of 45, in February 2024.

During my novitiate with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia — a period of study, prayer and ministry in preparation for professing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience — we novices were asked to prepare semi-weekly reflections that expressed our understanding of content presented in workshops and classes.

We could write papers or do something different. One novice wrote short poetry. I ended up painting on scraps of paper and cutting them into shapes. In one case, I used these bits to create a mandala on the vow of celibate chastity. The exercise was so fruitful that I kept turning to this medium throughout the novitiate.

Making and Making Sense

I was a studio art major in undergrad, worked as a graphic designer, and often turned to art to make sense of the world. However, my initial inclination in the novitiate was to choose writing reflection papers over making art. It felt safer. It felt like school. In my estimation, I had already been vulnerable enough to enter the novitiate. I sold my house. I gave away my car and most of my belongings. I closed my bank accounts. I, gulp, moved to the suburbs. Writing a paper was a controlled, measured way to report back to my formators.

Yet, as we sunk deeper and deeper into the interior examination of our own relationship with God and the ideas that shape the vowed life, I realized I needed to see, touch and physically deconstruct and reconstruct the substance of what was shifting within. I stepped away from the laptop and picked up a paint brush and scissors.

I chose mandala making because, like icons, these ancient symbols help focus one’s attention and are often associated with unity and wholeness, which are at the heart of my congregation’s charism of unioning love. The mandalas I created reflect my current understanding of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that each Catholic religious professes. (I am sure this will evolve with time as any relationship and commitment does.) I included them in the order of worship at my vow liturgy last month.

Vow of Poverty

Each of the vows that comprise the “evangelical counsels” are rooted in attributes of Jesus. All three invite self-emptying — that is, the giving up of something for the purpose of something else. The vow of poverty asks me to rely on God for what I need.

For example, in the Gospels, we hear Jesus asking his followers to rest in the abundance of each day, rather than worrying about what will be available in the weeks and months to come. This also reminded me of the mother at my homestay in Guatemala some years back who went out and bought masa each day to make our daily bread: enough tortillas for each family member for three meals.

We know that the early church, those who identified as followers of Christ practiced a form of mutual care that gathered resources from among themselves and redeployed them to ensure that everyone had what they needed, especially the most vulnerable who couldn’t earn their own living. That interdependence invites solidarity through intentionality.

The mandala pictured seeks to visually capture some of those elements of this way of living. I put my labor, skills and gifts toward the collective of the sisters in my congregation and the larger world. I seek what I need for the day with as little negative impact on others and on the earth as possible. I share from all abundance.

Vow of Celibate Chastity

As I said, the mandala for the vow of celibate chastity was the first one I created. I had been praying all semester with a heart lotus image that beautifully captured the dynamic energy at the heart of human love and presence, which includes many expressions, such as sexuality. The person professing the vow of celibate chastity does not deny this energy, but rather identifies ways to integrate the energy for the purpose of giving their full self to God.

All Christians are called to aspects of chastity. But as a sister, my primary commitment is different now than when I was in romantic relationships. My priorities and way of proceeding flow from the example of Jesus, who was fully free and available to those around him, yet still deeply attentive to cultivating his relationship with his father through prayer and contemplative space away from the crowds.

The images in this mandala point to movement, expansiveness, generativity and wholeness. The healthiest expression of this commitment of celibate chastity is one that integrates head, heart, body, soul and spirit. It invites tremendous inner work to practice embodiment and intentionality and interdependence. I live this vow best in community with similarly committed persons and in my larger community of friends, family and companions.

Vow of Obedience

The image of the labyrinth might seem a curious choice for this vow. However, in the two months prior to professing obedience, I walked a labyrinth almost daily. I came to see it as a container that holds my commitment to living my life in relationship with the congregation.

The vow of obedience centers interdependence, which asks me to listen, pray, discern and act in ways that may take more twists and turns than my life did previously. Yet, unlike a maze that has dead ends, the labyrinth ensures you will always move towards fullness and freedom.

The process of following the path, though — that can pinch. Especially on days when my previous life experience suggests I could make a more efficient decision without consultation and contemplation. Or, when I am invited to consider an option that would benefit many rather than satisfy an immediate want of mine. The bee at the heart of the labyrinth points to the internal integrity or fidelity that honeybees demonstrate within the hive that leads to their collective thriving.