The MOST Theological Collection: The Holy Spirit and the Church

"Chapter 5: Universal Call to Holiness"


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§§39-42. We will treat this chapter, sections 39-42 in one unit, since there is much repetition in it, and since it praises so specially the three counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, and says that their spirit is essential to all, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity.

The Church as such is unfailingly holy, since Christ gave her all the means of holiness, joined her to Himself, gave her the Holy Spirit, the Mass, the Sacraments. We recall the OT sense of holy = qadosh, set aside for God. The Church is of course that. This state calls for holiness in the sense of moral perfection. In regard to the first meaning, that of qadosh, St. Paul in 1 Cor 7:14 says that in a marriage of a pagan and a Christian: "The unbelieving man is made holy by the woman, and the unbelieving wife is made holy by the brother. If it were otherwise, your children would be unclean, but really, they are holy."

Very special means of holiness are found in the three evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience. This is important, because for some years now there has been a great error running, which is sometimes called the New Spirituality - though more often it has no name, but is simply taught as the only way to live - which OFP cap 20 calls GUN spirituality, i.e., Give Up Nothing. We explained this in comments on LG § 9.

In Mt 5. 48, Jesus said: "Be you perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect." As we saw above in LG §32 Pius XI, in his Encyclical for the third centenary of St. Francis de Sales commented on Mt 5:. 48: "Let no one think that this invitation is addressed to a small, very select number, and that all others are allowed to stay in a lower degree of virtue. This law obliges everyone, without exception." In Introduction to the Devout Life 1. 3 the Saint wrote brilliantly on this theme, and also pointed out that the form of holiness varies with the different states of life. It is most essential that each should fulfill the duties of his own state, and not try to live in a different state. For to be holy in the moral sense means simply to do the will of the Father completely, perfectly. That will includes doing the duties of our state in life.

Are the counsels only for religious? No, at the end of section §42 refers us to St. John Chrysostom, Homily 7, 7 on Matthew. St. John takes up the objection: We are not all monks, and so need not follow these counsels. He replies: "All the divine laws are common to us and the monks, except marriage."

Jesus inculcated a spirit of poverty in the first beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." That is, those who are not attached to the things of this world (more on attachment presently). The phrase poor in spirit occurs at Qumran aniye ruach to refer to the poor who trust in God. But the Fathers of the Church saw that mere physical poverty is not to be praised, it is rather detachment, which can be found even in those who do have money. But even though it is possible to practice detachment while having much money, it is far easier if one does not have a lot, hence, the famous saying of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. (This is Semitic exaggeration - there is no gate in Jerusalem called the camel's eye).

The second counsel chastity is practiced fully by those who abstain from marriage. Yet even within marriage, there is need of chastity - in fidelity to one's mate, and in avoiding contraception.

The third counsel is obedience - everyone has to obey at least to some extent. I saw a survey in a Sunday magazine that asserted that if the boss in a business gives an order, it is obeyed only about half of the time. Some of the disobedience is just carelessness, some of it is the attitude: "Nobody can tell me anything" - not even if he is paying me to do a thing!

St. Paul speaks strongly on the need for detachment for all in 1 Cor 7. 29-31: "The time is short. As for the rest, I urge that those who have wives be as though not having them, and those who weep, as though not weeping, and those who rejoice as though not rejoicing, and those who buy as though not having, and those who use the world, as though not using it. For the appearance that this world is passing." In saying time is short, Paul means all time is so brief - it is not a mistaken notion that the end was near, as many commentators think. In Haggai 2. 6. written in 520 B.C. we find God saying, "Yet a moment, a little while, and I will move heaven and earth, and the one desired by the nations shall come in." We are following St. Jerome's translation, and he in turn was following a tradition he received from the rabbis of his time that the sense was messianic. Many today translate instead, "and the treasures of the nations will come in," that would seem to mean, into Jerusalem -- this would likely refer to the messianic age. So Haggai referred to the Messiah's coming, which was still 520 years in the future. Ps. 90:4 says: "For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday, when it is past, or as a watch in the night." Also, we are now in the eschaton, the last period of God's dealings with the human race - for there is not to be anything to replace the Christian dispensation. (Cf. DV §4).

To help explain detachment, we think of Mt 6. 21: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." One can put his treasure not only in a box of coins under the floor, but in anything at all, e.g., huge meals, gourmet meals, sex, travel, study, even study of theology. All these are below God, some farther than others. The farther below God that thing is, and the more one allows himself to be pulled by it, the harder it is for thoughts and heart to rise up to God. Some are so little attached that they do no more than commit imperfection - some go even into habitual mortal sin. Detachment can be had both in and outside of marriage.

A supplementary comparison will help. We think of a galvanometer, a compass needle on its pivot with a coil of wire around it. We send a current into the coil, and the needle swings the right direction, and the right amount. It will register exactly if there is no competition from outside pulls, such as 30, 000 volt power lines, or a lot of magnetic steel. If the outside pulls are very strong, and the current in the coil is mild, the current in the coil may have no effect. That current in the coil stands for grace, and the meter is my mind. Grace is gentle, it respects my freedom - outside pulls, if I let them hold me greatly, do not respect my freedom, can damage it, and can make it hard if not impossible to perceive the gentle inspirations of grace sent into the coil. Detachment aims at making one free to be guided by the Spirit. (Cf. OFP chapters 19-20, and add the thoughts on the need of reparation, which can come from accepting the will of God, as explained in OFP chapter 4. )

We said that all are called to spiritual perfection. So some ask: How then can St. Paul in 1 Cor 7 say that celibacy/virginity is a better state than the married state? Does not that indicate that those who marry are deficient in generosity to God, and so cannot reach perfection? But we know that they can, for the Church so teaches as we saw above from the words of Pius XI, and there are some canonized married Saints. - Some even go so far as to reject the teaching of St. Paul. But Paul does say that celibacy/virginity is better, and we must not listen to people wiping it out today.

The key is this: We are not all called to the same form of life, the same graces. It is not enough to draw up a scale, as it were, on the wall, with the highest form of life at the top, and lower forms below it - and then measure and see how much generosity one has, and that will decide the place he takes. That impression used to be given by some vocational literature from religious orders, and it has done so much harm. The essential thing to remember is this: We cannot charge someone with a lack of generosity for following that form of life which the Father wills for Him. For many, the Father wills marriage. We saw above that it can and should be a long road to sanctification.

There is a major distinction needed here: when one says celibacy/virginity is a higher state, he does not imply that others cannot attain perfection, what is true is this: the state of abstention from marriage in itself provides objectively more powerful means for holiness. But what is objectively more effective may not be more effective for this particular person, and certainly not, if the Father wills that the person in question embrace a particular state. To choose a state different from what the Father wills would be wrong, and very dangerous to spiritual growth, even dangerous to salvation.

How can these things be true? Because in marriage one does not have just a long picnic filled with sex - rather, the psychology of male and female are so utterly different that each one, even in a fine pairing, will be able to say: "I have to give in most of the time to make this work". There we may see great self-denial, and if it is taken as the will of God, it is greatly sanctifying. And babies are very cute part of the time, very pesky at other times. To take the whole package of their behavior, and use it as the will of God - that is very highly sanctifying. A religious may get up in the middle of the night to make a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of the hour, he can surely go back to bed. But a parent may have to get up at just any hour when baby needs help, and the parent is not sure of being free to go back to sleep when 60 minutes have passed. Let us recall the Father's plan for sex as a means of bringing maturity (OFP cap 16), sincere interest in the other for the other's sake. If all this be taken as the will of the Father, someone in this state, even though it has objectively less powerful means for growth than does celibacy/virginity, yet the person may wind up higher on the scale of moral perfection than the one who has given up marriage.

Also, the married person has a powerful, even though sugar- coated means of being interested in another for the other's sake. Those who abstain from marriage lack this. If they are not careful to compensate for the lack, they can become selfish. Our Father so greatly loves objective goodness - in this case, the objective goodness of being sincerely interested in the other for the other's sake - that He is pleased to get it even if sugar- coating is needed to bring it about.

We will see more on the relation of religious life to married life in the next chapter.

(A misleading impression used to be common when literature for religious orders spoke of that life as a "state of perfection." Really, this was an abbreviation - the full expression was: "A state of acquiring perfection by means of the three counsels." Without the full wording, it could seem to mean all religious are already perfect, and so all others are imperfect and in a state of imperfection).

In § 41 LG said that if bishops strongly exercise their ministry it is for them an outstanding means of sanctification. Quite true. But the statement could be misunderstood so as to mean that bishops need do nothing but their routine work - need not cultivate the spirit of detachment and prayer and use other means which are common to all in the Church. §41 made the same comment about priests.