It is perhaps a piece of important wisdom to realize that one should never write anything important in a book’s introduction—for many a reader will omit it and plunge into the text itself (and perhaps into the middle of the book, or even its end!). I have therefore made this first chapter a kind of introduction-in-disguise. Nonetheless, the “meat” of this book lies in chapters 3 through 6 (and then in everything that follows), and my fear is actually that someone will pick up this book and read either the first chapter or two, and then put it down before giving the later chapters a chance.
So feel free to jump ahead, to jump around, to do whatever you please (though you will probably understand best—and have an easier read—if you read from start to finish). I only ask that you give me a chance and read what I have written. It is my hope and my prayer that it will help you to encounter God and his love more deeply—and even help to bring about a profound change in your life, as the realities of which I am speaking have done for me.
Let me, before I begin, do what one should do in an introduction: introduce. We live in a society which neglects introductions, not only in our reading habits, but in our life. What does this mean? We neglect truly meeting others, truly entering into a process of mutual recognition and affirmation—this personal encounter that is symbolized by the sharing of names. It is quite easy for us just to brush shoulders with others without taking the effort to engage in a one-to-one dialogue with them. But if this “first-look” never occurs, one of two things happens: 1) either we never look again, and a person becomes for all practical purposes “invisible” to us, or merely a means to our own ends; 2) we jump from the introductory phase to the “I-already-know-you” phase, where we think we already know all there is to know about them. In other words, I don’t need to make the effort to really understand you and get to know you, because you are as transparent to me as a pane of glass.
Why in a book about the so-called “evangelical counsels,” about poverty, obedience, and chastity, are we beginning by speaking about our interpersonal habits? Perhaps you will have to read this book to find out—though the “introduction” may give you a glimpse. Simply said, the evangelical counsels are often a much misunderstood or ignored reality in our contemporary world (within and outside of the Church). But I have also come to see them as the most deeply needed “remedy” for the ills of our current culture, which is burdened by their opposite: a false conception of freedom, a deep unchastity, and a materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle. Therefore, the mystery of obedience, chastity, and poverty needs to be “reintroduced” in all of its beauty, so that it can be seen with new eyes and embraced with joy. In this book I am trying in some small way to do this.
Beautiful things have indeed been written about the evangelical counsels, especially in the documents and teaching of the Church, which are luminous in this matter. But still, some see them as merely the “vows” that consecrated persons and religious take—their obedience to a superior, their celibacy, and their renunciation of property. Their importance to the life of the Church and of the ordinary believer goes no further than this. They do not seem to trickle down from the life of consecrated persons into the hearts and the existence of all the baptized—who, by the way, are in no way called to a merely ordinary, mediocre life, but rather to the same radical love as priests and religious.
In addition to this misunderstanding, I also believe there is much more that can be said about the evangelical counsels that has not been said—or at least not emphasized. In this work, above all, I will try to trace our way back to the very foundational experiences of our human existence as they flow from the love of the Trinity. In this way, I believe, we can find a depth and meaning to poverty, obedience, and chastity which is often overlooked. Often the focus is on their external expression, on the particular ways of practicing them—and as important as this is, it will not be my concern here. Though I must admit that it seems to me that the most practical thing we can do is precisely to trace them back to their deepest origin and meaning.
I have come to understand that the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, obedience, and chastity are really simply three aspects of a single reality. They are, in their inmost essence, the single, undivided reality of love, which is: openness in acceptance and self-giving, which blossoms in interpersonal intimacy. Thus, I would prefer to speak of the mystery of “evangelical love” rather than the evangelical counsels—at least when speaking about them in their deep and universal significance. I will also refer to them, in this book, as the “threefold form of love,” for love is always inherently poor, obedient, and chaste. These three dispositions (or elements of a single disposition) are the form of love’s openness, in which our hearts may receive the gift that ceaselessly comes to us from the outside, and respond to it by the gift of ourselves in return. Such acceptance and reciprocal gift blossoms in a beautiful and joy-filled intimacy. In turn, this intimacy is itself inherently fruitful—the most fruitful thing there is and indeed the source of the only ultimate and abiding fruit. For the fruit of intimacy is ultimately intimacy. It is the expansion and sharing of this mystery of love and communion with others, so that they also may be taken up into its peace and joy, into the embrace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who eternally live a life of poverty, receptivity, and chastity in perfect openness, complete self-giving, and total communion.
+ + +
All of the above being said, in this book I will try to show that the evangelical counsels are something profoundly universal—significant for the life and happiness of every person in this world. Sure, not everyone is called to their “literal” expression as incarnated in the consecrated life within the Church (though this is an inestimable gift of great beauty). Jesus himself did not call every person to “follow him” literally by forsaking their family and home and joining the band of his immediate disciples. But he did—he absolutely did!—call every person to conversion and to a transformation of life through walking in his footsteps in faith, hope, and love. He did call every person, and still calls each of us today, to a profound intimacy with him and with his Father that surpasses all that we can hope for or imagine.
In the history of the Church, there have arisen movements which tried to separate the Christian life into “obligations” on the one hand, and “counsels” on the other. The former would be binding on all believers; they would be necessary for fidelity to God and to Christ. But the latter would be totally optional, “supererogatory” as the formal term says, that is, over-and-above-what-is-obliged. Does this sound familiar? There has been a tendency, especially since the 13th Century, to have a legalistic view of religion, the moral life, and our relationship with God. But this is not God’s intention! All law finds its meaning only in being our acceptance of the gift of life and existence from God, and our living according to this gift. When we do so, our lives blossom in beauty, in freedom, and in the happiness for which we thirst—and which God thirsts to give us.
How many people in the pews of our Churches today are “bottom-line” Christians? How many do what is necessary to, so to speak, stay out of hell (our out of Confession!) and no more than this? We could compare this to a marriage or deep friendship in order to illuminate the inadequacy of such an attitude. If a husband only does what is “necessary” to avoid a divorce, is his marriage really alive? If he only spends time with his wife and his children when they ask him to, is this a sign of his love or the lack of his love?
Saint Augustine spoke about the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, as the “charter of the Christian life.” In other words, the whole of the Gospel vocation is summarized within this great sermon of Jesus. But this sermon begins not with commandments and obligations, but with a pronunciation of blessing: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Happy are you who are poor! Happy are you who weep! Happy are you who are meek! Happy are you who hunger and thirst—who are merciful—who are pure of heart—who make peace—who suffer for my sake! What kind of commandments are these? No, they are rather a sign of the inner beauty hidden in the lowliness of our lives, the flame of intimacy that burns at the heart of an existence that is vulnerable and open to God and neighbor. Shortly after the Beatitudes, Jesus begins to speak about transcending, surpassing, and exceeding the “law,” not as a work of “supererogation,” but as a simple matter of necessity. In a word: if love does not ceaselessly surpass itself it dies. And yet this very thirst to immerse oneself ever deeper into love is enveloped in a primary gratitude, a primary gift, and therefore in a primary repose. The thirst of love, in other words, is cradled within the restfulness of love, and unfolds within it. Anyone who has fallen in love knows this dynamic between grateful rest and ardent thirst. The mystery of the beloved person which is unveiled before our eyes is so deep, so profound, that it is a continual invitation to go ever deeper in relationship with them and in love for them—and yet this yearning springs from the sense of awe at the gratuitous gift that this person is, just as they are, bathed in the light and beauty of God. And God is the most lovable of all lovers and beloveds, the One in whom we can rest in peace at every moment, and the One for whom we can thirst with every fiber of our being. As Saint John Vianney so beautifully said:
I love you, O my God, and my only desire is to love you until the last breath of my life. I love you, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving you, than live without loving you. I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love you eternally. … My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love you, I want my heart to repeat it to you as often as I draw breath.i
Later in the Gospel of Matthew we encounter something similar to what we have seen in the Sermon on the Mount—namely, the radical call to ever deeper love, a love that is enveloped in gift, is a response to gift, and blossoms only into deeper gift, into a blessed and joy-filled intimacy. Chapter 19 can be seen as a kind of icon of the reality of the evangelical counsels: of obedience, chastity, and poverty. (And indeed it has been selected here among many other possible places in which the same mystery is manifested, for the thread of this truth is woven throughout the whole of Scripture.) At the start of this chapter, Jesus enters into dialogue with the Pharisees, who ask him a question about divorce: whether it is lawful, as Moses said, for a man to divorce his wife.
Christ immediately turns their attention beyond “obligation,” the bare minimum, to what he refers to as “the beginning.” He points them back to the very meaning of marriage, relationship, and love as inscribed in human heart and flesh at the dawn of creation. It is this primal and original truth that reveals God the Father’s loving intention for humanity. “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (+Mt 19:4-5). The obligation of marital fidelity in not imposed on a man and a woman from the outside, but rather arises from the heart of their mutual self-giving, from the very nature of love itself. The obligation exists simply for the good of their relationship and the happiness of them both, for they will truly be happy only in living according to the inner law of love written into their very being. Further, this love of man and woman, from the beginning, has been fashioned “in the image and likeness of God”—in the image of the Trinity who is a Community of Love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and traces its way back to its Source.
The importance of this reference to the beginning cannot be underestimated. Saint John Paul II took it as the very foundation of his Theology of the Body, which is a profound gift of the Spirit to the Church at the beginning of this new Millennium. Only by looking at the Creator’s original intention for our lives—and by trying to access our “original experience” of the Father’s hand impressed upon our being—can we understand the path to happiness, freedom, and joy. Jesus came to us, not to impose obligations upon us, but to address himself to our thirst for happiness, for intimacy, for liberty. He came, indeed, to grant us, through the gift of his Spirit who would fill our hearts, the ability to fulfill the truth of every obligation—which, in the last analysis, is but a call to live according to the Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Love that is inscribed into our very being and existence. But once we say this, the artificial separation between what is necessary and what is optional dissolves. Yes, in human life there are still “commands” and there are still “counsels;” the two are still distinct. But to the heart thirsting for love, the question is not what must I do, but what may I do—how can I love in the deepest and freest way?
But to understand this properly, we must emphasize that not everyone is called to everything, and a part of humble fidelity to God, and freedom within his love, is to walk the unique path that is my own, and not an abstract path or that of another. Precisely this is the greatest love that I can offer—to receive the unique gift that God gives me in every moment, and to live according to this gift, according to the story that he writes in his tender love for me. Within the general way of the commands, of moral law, there is the unique story that belongs to me alone, and which God writes—which, indeed, he desires me to write, with my hand sheltered within and guided by his own.
After speaking about marriage, Christ turns to his apostles, who are startled by the strictness of his affirmation regarding divorce and remarriage, and proposes to them a still more elevated way: the way of voluntary celibacy or virginity for the kingdom of heaven. “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (+Mt 19:12). Here Jesus invites them to raise their eyes above their narrow horizons and fears toward the expanse of eternal Love, which invites them to a freedom and intimacy that is unimaginable to the human heart alone. And he affirms that this invitation, and the possibility of accepting it, is a “gift.”
Gift… This will be the central, recurring theme throughout this book. All, in the last analysis, is a gift and a grace—both command and counsel, both marriage and celibacy, both nature and grace—for all flows from the Father’s loving hands and is ordained to enable our hearts to receive and to reciprocate this love, and thus to enter into intimate communion with him. To live, each of us, according to the unique gift we have from God—or rather the unique gift that we are from him as his beloved child—is to find our hearts blossoming in freedom and joy, and becoming a gift for others too, within his all-enveloping Love and Truth which bind us together as one.
The Christian life cannot be lived without unceasing reliance upon the gift of God’s sustaining grace in every moment—in which we surrender all of our own efforts at self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, and yield ourselves up to the mercy which alone can carry us where we cannot go by our own efforts. Living in chastity is impossible without opening ourselves to obedience to God, and obedience is impossible without the spirit of childlike poverty, by which we lay our hearts bare as a “little one,” as a beloved child, to the gratuitous gift of God’ s sustaining and enveloping Love. This is what immediately follows in Matthew’s account: the little children come to Jesus, and he says boldly: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (+Mt 19:14). Only the dependency, docility, and obedience of a child makes one susceptible to the gift of the kingdom of heaven. Only the little ones, who lay down their defenses in childlike simplicity and trust can welcome the gift of redemption and enter into its mystery—the mystery of a beloved child before the Father, and of all people joined together in this love.
Finally, a rich young man approaches Jesus, thirsting for eternal life. Jesus says to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good” (+Mt 19:17). He then offers him the “commandments” as pathways to happiness; but the man himself, by probing further, acknowledges that he senses that there must be more. More than external commandments. He carries in himself the seed of love’s infinite desire, the desire for ever greater self-gift, for ever greater ardor, for ever greater intimacy, which will be a true renovation of the interior mind and heart beyond what human effort itself can achieve. Jesus replies, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (+Mt 19:21-22).
We would be missing the point if we simply said this is an example of someone being called to consecrated life, and therefore it does not apply to the rest of us. This is part of it, to be sure, for not all are called to this literal form of material poverty to which Jesus invited this man. But there is something much deeper being revealed here. Before our eyes is being revealed the mystery of spiritual poverty—that letting go of the need to possess and control before God, in order to receive from him the righteousness, the peace, and the rest which can come only as his gift.
This man approached Jesus with a deep thirst, a yearning for something impossible to adequately express in words: the mystery of “eternal life.” The man’s longing is a recognition of the “infinite horizon” that lies at the background (or rather at the heart) of every human life. We are restless with all limited and earthly things, and we necessarily yearn for more—whether we seek that only in the multiplication of earthly experiences, or in flight from reality, or in striving to attain a better state through our efforts. This young man hoped attain to eternal life through his own efforts, through what he could do or achieve—but Jesus makes it very clear to him that “One alone is good,” God himself, and sharing in his goodness above all means opening oneself in poverty to receive the gift that he so ardently desires to give. Only then can the path toward holiness, happiness, and transformation unfold—cradled on all sides by gift and sustained by it at every instant.
What is this path? Jesus makes it very clear—and here is the universal message that ties together these succeeding scenes from Matthew’s narrative: it is the path of childlike poverty, of utter dependency upon the Father in obedience, and of loving and chaste openness, in him, to every person. In other words, it is simply the path of love, in which the enclosed heart is re-opened to relationship, to the vulnerability of acceptance and self-surrender between persons, which allows intimacy to truly blossom and mature. This loving openness, this openness of love, bears a “threefold form” in its inmost essence: it is inherently poor, obedient, and chaste. Therefore, the inner reality of poverty, obedience, and chastity is not an option for some but a necessity for all. It is simply the threefold movement by which our hearts, narrowed and isolated by sin, are re-opened to the communion that we have lost.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst… Blessed are the pure of heart…” (Cf. Mt 5:3-8). In other words: Blessed are those who, in poverty, have the spirit of childhood. Blessed are those who, full of trust in God, receive his gift and obey its inner truth, allowing him thus to live in them his own life of love and happiness. Blessed are those whose love is ardent and satisfied with nothing on this earth, and with nothing less than total gift of self for God and for every person. Blessed are those whose hearts, through love, are pure and chaste, for they will know the happiness for which they long…in the embrace of the Love that already cradles the world.
+ + +
Let us return now to our starting point. We spoke of the meaning of “introductions,” the importance of a first encounter, which then leads to ever renewed and deepened encounters. Perhaps there are so many people in our pews who embrace the bare minimum—not to mention those who never enter a church or cast a thought toward God—simply because they have never truly been introduced to the beauty of the Gospel message. Every human heart thirsts for radical love, for perfect intimacy, for undimmed and eternal happiness. Perhaps people don’t embrace the fullness of the faith, and the awesome liberation it brings, because they have never really seen and encountered its ravishing beauty. Above all, perhaps they have never been told, and made to experience, that God loves them—ardently, passionately, uniquely, and intimately—and that he seeks simply to unite them intimately to himself in the joy of his own divine life.
The beauty of true Gospel morality is often seen as a “damper” on human freedom, a mere obligation imposed from outside and above. But in truth it is the secret that unlocks our deepest desires for freedom, and therefore it needs to be “re-introduced” as the Answer to the deepest longings of the human heart for happiness, for love, for relationship. Yes, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God—and the Father whom he reveals—needs to be re-introduced to our thirsty world, and precisely as the One who is ardently thirsting for every one of us, yearning to give us the gift we most deeply desire to receive.
But we cannot share what we have not ourselves received. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to open our lives to the radiance of the beauty which shines from the face of Christ—and to allow him to lead us along the path of authentic love, which is poor, obedient, and chaste. The first gift that we can offer to our world, and the very heart of the “New Evangelization,” is sanctity, the radiance of holiness which allows the unspeakable beauty of the Trinity to shine through the humility and lowliness of our lives. Only then, when we ourselves abide in the truth of God’s love for us—in the truth of his all-enveloping embrace that cradles us in itself—can we also present to others the joy of the encounter that we have had with God. This is the joy of his love which shelters us, carries us, and enkindles in us an ardent movement which plunges ever deeper into the mystery of the One who will be our eternal happiness and our infinite gladness.
i Prayer of Saint John Vianney, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2658.