The promises we make to ourselves and others

Last Sunday in New York City, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts hosted a “(Re)Wedding” ceremony, primarily for those whose weddings were cancelled, postponed or compromised during the pandemic. A reverend, an imam and a rabbi were present for the hundreds of couples who gathered to share their vows with one another, and with the larger community. I watched snippets of the event on social media, and found myself smiling as couples hugged and danced, some with small children hanging off their hips. Living in the hard-edged world that we do, any gesture towards love or hope is compelling.

The following day, I was at a Benedictine monastery celebrating the feast day of Saint Benedict, the 6th-century founder of the western monastic movement. At the mass, one young monk made his first profession, saying aloud his vows to stability, obedience and the pursuit of charity through a monastic life. As he spoke, a room full of men and women from all places, of all ages, stretched our hands towards the altar to join in a blessing as vows were spoken. I was struck by the gesture, an unspoken understanding that we are meant to be aided in the fulfilment of our promises to one another. The efficacy of a vow made public is ensured by the community that surrounds us, a group that can remind us of who we promised we would be.

Making a vow is a practice we mostly consider in relation to weddings or religious ceremonies but all of us make vows, both spoken and unspoken, committing ourselves to trying to live in certain ways, within certain relationships and through certain convictions. What can help us as we try to live into the commitments we make, to ourselves and to one another?

The 19th-century French painter, printmaker and illustrator Gustave Doré was renowned for his detailed illustrations of the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Don Quixote. But in his painting “The Neophyte (First Experience of the Monastery)”, the subject matter is a young man on the cusp of a promise. A light shines in the middle of a dour-looking canvas on a young novice who has seemingly just taken his vows. He sits upright and alert in the middle of a row of older monks, some reading and praying dutifully, some slumbering and slouching.

The novice stares directly at us, a concerned look in his eye, as though with newly realised questions about what he has just committed himself to. The only other person attentive to the watching world is an old monk with a white beard, his eyes fixed beyond the canvas, his expression somewhere between recognition and concern, as if he knows something the young monk will inevitably have to find out.

There is much we don’t know when we first take a vow. Our promises are made without any knowledge of what the future holds, of what life might call us to face, and who we might become in the process. But, despite the varying states of the monks in this painting, they have journeyed together.

In some way, Doré’s novice has a perfectly appropriate expression on his face for a person who has promised to pursue a life that calls for a commitment to community, vocation and deepened relationships. It is bound to have its struggles, its aches, its big and small failures. Our vows are bound to test us.

It makes me wonder why we think that only certain types of promises should be made publicly, that only certain vows are worthy of ceremonies at which others bear witness to our aspirations. Whether it’s in raising children or committing to a creative existence, many of us imagine that we are supposed to bear the challenge of promise-keeping alone, by our own sheer will. I wonder what our lives would look like if we were trained to see one another as helpmates for keeping our promises; if we journeyed more communally with people, with less shame and more transparency about the vows we struggle with or have begun to question.

Firs Zhuravlev was a 19th-century Russian realist, and in his 1874 painting “Before the Crown”, he brings us to the centre of an emotional drama unfolding before our eyes. A young bride on the verge of taking her vows is kneeling on the floor in a state of distress. Her confused parents stand to her right; behind her is the groom, displeased, with his hands behind his back. The bride has buried her face in her hands, in a mixture, perhaps, of both shame and despair.

Firs Zhuravlev, ‘Before the Crown’ (1874) © Bridgeman Images

Zhuravlev often depicted the practice of marriages that were economically or socially beneficial for the family but often painful for the bride. In “Before the Crown”, icons hang on the walls, suggesting a religious family. The father holds an icon in one hand, symbolic of having made appropriate wedding preparations.

I am struck by two things in this image. First, how it offers the perspective that not all vows are made with a sense of freedom. Sometimes we promise ourselves to people or to situations because we feel bound, consciously or not, to please others, to live into others’ expectations of who we should be. Second, I notice how isolated the bride appears in a room full of family members, those who are supposed to care for, protect and support the development of our most expansive selves. The mothers of both the groom and the bride are standing back, highlighting the emotional isolation of the bride even further.

To refuse to take these vows will probably further alienate her from those who are supposed to care for her. The painful but seemingly necessary realisation here is that sometimes the most important vow one must make is to oneself, to try to honour one’s own sense of purpose or being.

I have just discovered the work of Arizona-based artist Larry Madrigal. The 36-year-old paints bold, colourful scenes of daily life. His paintings seem to celebrate the fact that even when life is messy, figuratively and literally, there are still ways to rejoice, to delight and to slip a sense of the sacred across the threshold of the mundane. His recent work, “Supplications”, is part of a current solo show at Nicodim Gallery in New York.

A shirtless man kneels before a pregnant woman on a bed, while a mirror shows his hands are clasped together
Larry Madrigal, ‘Supplications’ (2022)

In the painting, a young couple is in their bedroom. The pregnant wife sleeps soundly, naked on the simple bed, with a pink blanket falling off the mattress. The man kneels beside the bed, his head directly bent in front of his partner’s stomach. In the mirror on the opposite side of the bed, we catch his reflection and see his head resting on his clasped hands. He is praying. A cat in the front left corner of the canvas cleans itself.

I love this painting because it suggests to me that one of the ways we can learn to keep our promises is by remembering that they are not neatly tied up in one-time ceremonial declarations. By locating the powerful act of vow-making in the quotidian setting of a messy bedroom, I’m reminded that our vows are enacted and remade in the habits, choices and practices we weave into the hours of each day. The man is facing his unborn child. It makes me think again of how our promises, prayers and pledges are not just relevant for the present. They are also an act of reaching towards a hoped-for future.

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