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1. He who aspires to a higher degree of perfection must follow the three evangelical counsels: Perfect obedience, perpetual chastity, and voluntary poverty.
These three virtues are called counsels because they were not en joined upon us by Our Lord as a command, but as a counsel. There is no sin incurred in not following them. It befits the law of the New Testament to contain counsels as well as precepts, for in it God makes Himself the Friend of man, and in this character He does not command but commend. The New Law is a law of liberty, the Old Law was one of servitude. By following the evangelical counsels we offer an oblation to God of our will, our body, our property. They are the three arms of the cross on which we are crucified with Christ. To follow them is a lifelong martyrdom – a martyrdom less terrible than that of the sword, but more painful because of its duration. Those who follow these counsels will attain a higher degree of glory. That which is done voluntarily, not under compulsion, deserves a greater reward.
1. Perfect obedience consists in the complete subjection of one’s will to that of a superior.
Christian obedience, that is, obedience to the ecclesiastical and secular authorities, is binding upon every man. But this obligation does not extend to all our actions; it leaves us free in many respects. For instance, the spiritual authority requires us to hear Mass on Sundays and holy-days, to approach the sacraments at Easter, etc.; but it leaves us at liberty to fulfil our duty in what church and at what hour we please. Perfect obedience, on the contrary, requires us to obey in everything. This voluntary obedience is the greatest sacrifice we can make for God; if we fast, give alms, or sacrifice our reputation for God’s sake, we give to God only a part of ourselves. But he who sacrifices his will has nothing more to give; he immolates himself to God. Obedience to a superior is neither irrational nor degrading to man, for he subjects himself voluntarily once and for ever to the will of one who is placed over him by the will of almighty God; he is like a traveller who unquestioningly proceeds in the direction to which the signpost points. It is a difficult matter to know one’s self, but it is easy for another to know and guide one.
2. Lifelong chastity consists in abstaining from marriage and from all unclean desires.
The Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue obliges every one to subdue his evil concupiscences. This counsel requires those who follow it to abstain from wedlock; they lead on earth an angel’s life. In fact in this respect man surpasses the angels in excellence, for the latter have no carnal impulses to combat. The Council of Trent (C. 24, 10), declares the single state to be higher than the married state; it is therefore better to be unmarried (1 Cor. vii. 38). The reason of this is because conjugal intercourse fosters man’s lower nature, and the care of providing for a family engrosses him in material interests.
3. Voluntary poverty consists in the renunciation of all earthly possessions.
To give of one’s own to the needy is the bounden duty of all. But it is an immeasurably greater sacrifice if, for the love of God, we renounce all earthly possessions and voluntarily embrace poverty, to which so many hardships are attached. The voluntary poverty of the Christian bears no resemblance to the voluntary poverty of the pagan philosophers. The latter despised riches from earthly considerations; they wished to be quit of the cares attending them. The Christian on the other hand makes himself poor in order to serve God better, and thus attain more surely to the possession of eternal treasures. There is, besides, involuntary poverty, when a man is destitute, or in straitened circumstances. Again there is poverty of spirit, which is required of all men; it consists in acknowledging that whatever wealth, distinctions, or learning we may possess, we are poor in the sight of God. But now we are speaking of voluntary poverty; he who is poor for Christ’s sake is exceeding rich (St. Jerome).
2. These three counsels are called the evangelical counsels; because Our Lord gave them to us when He preached the Gospel, and followed them Himself.
Our Lord counseled perfect obedience in His conversation with the rich young man; perpetual chastity in His discourse on the indissolubility of marriage; voluntary poverty in the afore-mentioned conversation with the rich young man.
We read that Christ said to the rich young man: “Come and follow Me” (Matt. xix. 21); i.e., come and let your conduct be guided by Me completely. This is perfect obedience. And when He was speaking about the indissolubility of marriage, He said that there were some who remained unmarried for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; adding: “He that can take it let him take it” (Matt. xix. 12). By these words He counselled perpetual chastity. Finally He said to the young man: “If thou will be perfect, go, sell what thou hast and give to the poor” (Matt. xix. 21). This was voluntary poverty.
Our Lord Himself practiced the counsels; for He sought not His own will but did the will of Him that sent Him (John v. 30). He led a life of celibacy and extreme poverty.
The poverty of Christ was perfect; He chose a stable for His birth place, a poor virgin for His Mother, a lowly artisan for His foster- father; He had nowhere to lay His head (Matt. viii. 20).
3. The evangelical counsels lead to higher perfection, because by their means the three evil concupiscences in man are completely destroyed and the chief obstacles in the way of his salvation are removed.
In following the evangelical counsels, we do not combat this or that evil tendency; we tear up all bad passions by the root, and lay a solid foundation for the edifice of virtue. All sins spring from the threefold concupiscence: The concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life; i.e., the inordinate long ing for riches, for sensual gratifications, and for honor (1 John ii. 16). As in medicine some remedies are drastic and others mild, so it is with the remedies for these evil concupiscences. Prayer is a cure for pride, fasting for sensuality, almsgiving for avarice; these are mild remedies. But let him who desires a radical cure adopt the three evangelical counsels. By obedience pride will be thoroughly subdued: concupiscence of the flesh by chastity, concupiscence of the eyes by poverty. The counsels are a means of removing the chief obstacles in the way of our salvation. By following them we shake off the fetters of earth, and thus advance more swiftly towards our final end. That earthly possessions are a formidable hindrance to those who would follow Christ, we gather from the story of the rich young man (Matt. xix.). Socrates compares riches to a long robe, which prevents one from walking quickly because one’s feet get en tangled in it. The traveller proceeds on his way much more rapidly if he has nothing to carry. What is said about riches is equally true in reference to wedlock. He that is married is solicitous for the things of the world, that he may please men; he that is unmarried is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God (1 Cor. vii. 32). He who is detached from earthly things can fix his eyes on heaven and contemplate the Sun of justice with unclouded vision, and gain a more profound knowledge of divine things. Let no one say that the wealthy can do more good to his fellow-men, and gain more merit, than one who embraces voluntary poverty. The former gives but a part, the latter gives the whole. And consider what immense good has been done, in spite of their poverty, by those who have given up all.
The evangelical counsels are, however, not in themselves perfection, they are but a means towards its attainment.
The highest perfection is the highest degree of charity towards God. To adopt the counsels does not make a man perfect, for it is possible to pledge one’s self solemnly to do something and then not fulfil one’s promise. A certain man sent his two sons to work in his vineyard. The one said: “I will not,” but afterwards being moved with repentance he went. The other said: “I go, sir,” and he went not (Matt. xxi. 28-30). There are many in a state of perfection who are very much the reverse of perfect. And those who profess to follow the counsels, and yet give way to love of eating, to anger, avarice, love of ease, or other sins, are all the more culpable; just as a messenger would be who, although he had no weight to carry, dallied on his way, and made no attempt to reach his destination.
4. Not every one is called of God to follow the evangelical counsels; for Our Lord says: “All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given” (Matt. xix. 11).
Those are called to whom God gives the desire of this grace, and who are ready to make any effort to obtain it. Let not those who are not called to follow them hold the evangelical counsels in contempt. “If the ring does not fit thy finger,” says St. Francis of Sales, “do not on that account cast it into the mire.”
5. The members of religious Orders are bound to follow the evangelical counsels, and likewise all persons living in the world who have taken a vow to do so.
As a servant has to serve his master by reason of the duties he has taken upon himself, so the Religious is bound to strive after the highest perfection by following the counsels, by reason of the vows he has made. The religious Orders originated in this wise: St. Anthony the Great assembled around him in the Thebaid a number of disciples, who lived in separate cells, and occupied themselves with prayer and manual work, and followed the evangelical counsels. St. Pachomius (348 A.D.) collected these anchorites under one roof, and gave them a fixed rule. Thus the first cloister was established upon an island near the mouth of the Nile. The monastic life was introduced into Palestine and Syria by the Abbot Hilarion, whose disciples numbered some three thousand, and into Asia Minor by St. Basil (379 A.D.), Archbishop of Caesarea. St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, and St. Benedict, were the founders of monasticism in the West in the fifth and sixth centuries. Thus the Orders arose for men and women; communities who led a regular life in accordance with the teaching of Christ. The men were called monks, from the Greek monachoi, hermits; the women nuns, i.e., virgins. The principal Orders are: The Franciscans, founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1226); the Dominicans, by St. Dominic (1216); the Jesuits, by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1556); the Order of Mercy, by St. John of God (1550); the Lazarists, by St. Vincent of Paul (1660); the Redemptorists, by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1787), besides many others. Each Order has its special mission: the care of the sick, the instruction of youth, foreign missions, etc. Religious are under the obligation of remain ing in one place, either in a particular house (monastery) or a part of a house (enclosure). They are all subject to a superior, who is generally elected for three years. Each Order has a habit peculiar to itself. Admission to the Order is by profession, i.e., taking the vows; previous to being professed, a novitiate of at least one year has to be passed through. The religious Orders are very numerous at the present time in America and still more in Europe, excepting Germany, whence they are banished for the most part. It is an act of tyranny on the part of the State to forbid community life; it is depriving subjects of their natural rights. Besides, the religious Orders are not merely an ornament to the Church, they are an essential part of the Christian commonwealth. The suppression of the religious Orders by the secular power is a mutilation of the body corporate. The religious state affords more security of salvation than a secular life; the means of grace can be employed more easily, more regularly; the religious are safeguarded from many occasions of sin which cannot be avoided in the world, through the supervision of the superior and also by the habit they wear. But those who do not live up to their religious profession, nor keep their vows, fall into a disorderly life and go swiftly to perdition. It is a mortal sin not to keep the vows. This causes St. Augustine to say: “As I have never met with a better man than a really good monk, so I have never seen a more wicked man upon earth than a bad Religious.” Most of the Orders have, as history proves, done great work for humanity, especially by works of mercy and the encouragement of learning. The Benedictines in the Middle Ages cut down the primeval forests and cultivated the untilled soil. The contemplative Orders also contributed much to the furtherance of godliness and piety by their valuable writings. All the monastic houses were noted for their liberality to the poor. It cannot be denied that in some conventual houses in the Middle Ages laxity and self-indulgence prevailed, but on these the scourge of God fell. Persons living in the world often take a vow of chastity. Remember the example of St. Agnes; she suffered torture and martyrdom rather than break her vow by marry ing the son of the Proconsul. The other two evangelical counsels are not suited for those who live in the world.
The secular clergy are pledged to obey their bishop and lead a life of celibacy.
The secular clergy are bound to obey their bishop; this obligation is imposed on them when they are admitted to the sub-diaconate; as also is the obligation of reciting the Breviary. The celibacy of the clergy was first made obligatory at the Synod of Elvira, in 306. During the three first centuries there was no need of this law, because priests voluntarily abjured marriage, out of respect for the sacredness of their office. Only at times when the lack of priests was most keenly felt, were married men admitted to the priesthood; but after ordination no one was permitted to marry. Only in isolated and very rare instances, for weighty reasons, has the Pope been known to dispense priests from their vow; and then they had to give up their benefices, and were debarred from all exercise of their sacerdotal functions. Yet they were required to recite the Breviary until death. In the Middle Ages Pope Gregory VII. made a determined stand against the marriage of priests, prohibiting those who had wives from performing any ministerial work. The Council of Trent (24, 9), declared the marriage of priests to be invalid. The apostles, after their vocation, left all they had; the great prophets, Elias, Eliseus, Jeremias, St. John Baptist, lived a celibate life. A parish priest must devote himself wholly to the salvation of souls; he must administer the sacraments to the sick at the risk of his life, he must assist the poor, admonish his flock, and offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass with n pure heart.
This article, III. SPECIAL MEANS FOR THE ATTAINMENT OF PERFECTION is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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