A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The sources of the interior life and its end (cont)


Ch 13: Perfection and the Evangelical Counsels

We have seen that in virtue of the supreme precept all the faithful must tend to the perfection of charity, each according to his condition or state in life. In addition, we have seen that no one can reach Christian perfection without having the spirit of the evangelical counsels, which is the spirit of detachment spoken of by St. Paul when he says that we should use the goods of this world as though not using them: in other words, without fixing our affections on them, without settling ourselves on this earth as if we were going to live here forever. We must not forget that we are all travelers on the road to eternity, and that we must all grow in charity until we reach the end of our journey. This is a general obligation springing from the first precept. Moreover, by reason of a particular vocation, certain souls have a special obligation to tend toward perfection according to a particular kind of life. This is the case with the priest, that he may be the worthy minister of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is also the case with religious who are not priests, because of their vows or promises not only to live according to the spirit of the counsels, but effectively to practice the counsels of poverty, absolute chastity, and obedience. We shall now discuss the effective practice of these three counsels in relation to Christian perfection and to the healing of our moral wounds.


Christ said to the rich young man mentioned in St. Matthew's Gospel: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven. And come, follow Me." (1) The Evangelist adds: "When the young man had heard this word, he went away sad, for he had great possessions."

The effective practice of the three evangelical counsels is not obligatory nor is it indispensable to reach the perfection toward which we must all tend, but it is a most suitable means more surely and rapidly to reach the end and not run the danger of stopping halfway. We have said that a soul cannot reach perfection without having the spirit of the counsels, or the spirit of detachment. Now, it is difficult truly to have this spirit without the effective practice of this detachment, which seemed too hard to the rich young man. Sanctity can be attained in the married state, as we see from the lives of St. Clotilde, St. Louis, and Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, but it is more difficult and more rare to reach it by this common road. It is not easy to have the spirit of detachment in regard to worldly goods, permitted pleasures, and our own will, if, in reality, we do not effectively detach ourselves from them. The Christian who lives in the world is often exposed to excessive absorption and preoccupation about a situation to be acquired or maintained for himself and his family. He is also in danger of forgetting to some extent that he must advance toward another life, another fatherland, and that to reach it, something is needed quite different from the understanding of worldly affairs: in other words, the help of God, which should be sought through prayer, and the fruit of grace, which is merit. In family life he is also inclined to dwell on affections in which he finds a legitimate satisfaction for his need of loving. He is also led to forget that he must above all things love God with his whole heart, with his whole soul, with all his strength, and with his whole mind. Frequently charity is not in him a living flame which rises toward God while vivifying all other affections; instead, it is like a burning coal which slowly dies out under the ashes. This explains the ease with which a number of these Christians sin, scarcely reflecting that their sin is an infidelity to the divine friendship, which should be the most profound sentiment in their hearts.

Lastly, the Christian living in the world is often exposed to doing his own will, side by side, so to speak, with the will of God. After giving a few moments to prayer on Sundays and weekdays, he may organize his life from the simple, natural point of view in accordance with his reason which is more or less deformed by self-love and the prejudices or conventions of his environment. Then faith seems at times reduced to a number of sacred truths that have been memorized, but have not become truths of life. The understanding is then too much preoccupied with earthly interests, sometimes with diversions; should difficulties demanding great moral energy arise, the spirit of faith is often found wanting. The great truths about the future life, about the helps that come to us from Christ, remain practically inefficacious, like distant truths that have never been assimilated and are lost in the depths of the heavens. Practical faith is lacking then, a faith that would cause the light of the mysteries of salvation to descend into the midst of the difficulties of daily life.

Such are evidently the dangers which the Christian encounters when he does not seek to practice effectively the evangelical counsels in the measure possible to him. If he fails in this matter, he will go astray and fall progressively into three moral maladies radically opposed to the three counsels. St. John speaks of these evils when he says: "For all that is in the world (or according to its spirit) is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but is of the world." (2) They are three purulent wounds which ravage souls and bring death to them by turning them away from God.

These three moral wounds appeared in the world after the sin of the first man and our repeated personal sins. To understand their gravity, we should recall the fact that they replace in many souls the triple harmony that existed in the state of original justice. It is this triple harmony that Christ wishes precisely to re-establish by the three evangelical counsels. Originally, on the first day of creation there was perfect harmony between God and the soul, between the soul and the body, between the body of man and exterior goods. Harmony existed between God and the soul, since it is created to know God, to love Him, to serve Him, and by this means to obtain eternal life.

The first man, who was created in "the state of sanctity and original justice," was a contemplative who conversed familiarly with God, as we read in the first chapters of Genesis. His soul found its principal nourishment in divine things, "a little less than the angels." (3). In the light of God, he considered all things, and he obeyed the Lord.

From this superior harmony came that which existed between the soul and the body, which was made to serve the soul. Since the soul was perfectly subordinated to God, it had dominion over its body. The passions or movements of the sensible appetites followed with docility the direction of right reason enlightened by faith and the impelling force of the will vivified by charity.

Finally, there was harmony between the body and exterior goods. The earth produced its fruits spontaneously without the necessity of being worked painfully; the animals were docile, or at least did no harm to man, who had received dominion over them.

Sin disturbed this triple harmony by destroying the highest of the three; it introduced the triple disorder, called by St. John "the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life."

Man revolted against the law of God; and the human soul, thenceforth inclined to pride, has often repeated: "I will not serve." The soul has ceased to nourish itself with divine truth, and instead conceives its own narrow, false, ever-changing, little ideas. It wished to make for itself its own truths and principles, and to direct itself alone, limiting as far as possible the authority of God, instead of receiving from Him the salutary direction which alone leads to true life. Refusing to submit to the dominion of God, the soul has lost control over its body and its passions, which were made to obey the reason and will. What is more, the soul has often made itself the slave of the body, of its lower instincts: this is the concupiscence of the flesh. Many people so far forget their divine destiny as to be occupied from morning to night with their bodies, which become their idols. Their passions reign as masters; the soul becomes their slave, for passions that are antithetic, love, jealousy, anger, hatred, follow each other in the soul in spite of it. Instead of directing these passions, the soul is carried away by them as by wild horses which no longer know the bit.

Finally, the body, instead of making use of exterior goods, becomes their slave; it overtaxes itself at times to obtain an abundance of these exterior goods. It surrounds itself with useless luxury, to the detriment of the poor who are hungry. It must have all that glitters and makes a man seem important: this is the concupiscence of the eyes. After accumulating a fortune, many men are wholly absorbed in the care of maintaining and increasing it. Slaves to their business, they never find time to pray, to read a page of the Gospel, to feed their souls. They settle down here on earth as if they were going to stay here always, with hardly any concern for their salvation.

This triple slavery, which replaces the original triple harmony, is order overthrown. Christ came to restore the order that had been destroyed; with this end in view, He gave us the three evangelical counsels.


Divine Providence sent our Lord to restore the primitive order. This restoration appeared first in the very person of Jesus, and should continue in the Church, which ought to shine with the splendor of the mark of sanctity. In His humanity Jesus was the model of all the virtues, the eminent exemplar of all sanctity. His humanity was consecrated to God in the first instant of His conception by substantial union with the Word, and thus received an innate, substantial, uncreated sanctity. It is impossible to think of a more intimate, more indissoluble union with God than the personal, hypostatic union of the human nature and the divine nature in the person of the Word made flesh. As a result, the humanity of the Savior is consecrated to God in all its faculties and acts, to such an extent that His intellect is infallible and can see things only in the divine light, to such a degree that His will is absolutely impeccable, and that His most pure sensibility cannot know any disorder. All the acts of the holy soul of Christ are of God, come from God, go to God; nowhere is the sovereign domain of the Most High exercised with so absolute a plenitude.

Because the humanity of Christ is thus radically consecrated to God, it is separated from the spirit of the world and is given to the world to save it and deliver it from its spirit of blindness, concupiscence, and pride. Christ's very elevation separates Him from the spirit of the world, from all that is evil or less good. By this innate elevation, Christ is detached from worldly goods, honors, and mundane affairs; the model of poverty, He had not "whereon to rest His head." By the elevation of His spirit, Christ is also detached from the pleasures of the world, free from the demands of a family, that He may found a universal family, the Church. In this He is the model of religious chastity, which is the condition of His universal, spiritual paternity. Finally, by His supernatural elevation, Christ is detached from all self-will. At the age of twelve He declares that He must be about His Father's business, and He is "obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross."

Because the Savior comes from above, His very elevation separates Him from all that is inferior. It separates Him thus, not that He may be isolated but that He may act on the world from a great height, and that His action may be more universal and more profound. It is like that of the sun when it reaches its zenith. Because Jesus was free from all the bonds which attach man to his individual goods, to his family, to his petty personal ideas, He could act, not only on the men of one country or one period, but on the entire human race to which He brings eternal life. The Gospel has not grown old; it is of the present time, belonging to the very actuality of God. It is a sign that Jesus was not of the world, but was given to the world to save it.

We see thus in our Lord the restoration of the original harmony, a restoration so splendid indeed that it considerably surpasses the perfection of the first man. There "where sin abounded, grace did more abound." This restoration of the primitive order should continue in the Church, which should shine with the splendor of the mark of sanctity. Christ willed that His Church should be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Its sanctity must be striking and manifest, not only at great intervals in certain heroic souls like the martyrs and the great canonized saints, but in a permanent manner in religious institutions and families, where a great number of souls go for training in sanctity, and make profession to imitate Christ, His spirit of detachment from the things of the world and of union with God. Nevertheless, no matter how generous these souls are, there is a great difference between them and our Lord. He came from above, and was separated from the spirit of the world by His very elevation; they come from below, from the region of sin and falsehood. They must gradually detach themselves from it in order to consecrate themselves ever more intimately to God.

To souls which have received this special vocation, Christ proposes not only that they live according to the spirit of the three evangelical counsels, but that they practice them effectively, and He promises them the hundredfold in return. He invites them to a triple separation in view of a triple consecration which will more and more assure in them the growth of the highest virtues: of faith, hope, and charity; in other words, of union with God.

In the use of worldly goods, He counsels restraint that they may not be led into excess. He invites them to practice poverty, to separate themselves from the free use and even from the possession of exterior goods, and to consecrate these goods to God that they may no longer be an obstacle, but a means in the journey towards eternity. He invites them to absolute chastity, that is, to renounce completely the pleasures of the senses, and to consecrate their bodies and hearts to God that these may no longer be an obstacle, but a means vivified by grace. He invites them, finally, to holy obedience, to free themselves from all self-will, so easily capricious and rebellious, in order that their wills may no longer be an obstacle but a means more and more supernaturalized by charity, with a view to union with God which will daily grow closer and stronger.

The practice of these three virtues and of the corresponding vows is not exempt from difficulties, but it suppresses many others. The bird bears its wings, but still more the wings support the bird. In like manner, the religious virtues and the three vows impose special obligations, it is true; but, above all, they bear souls toward the perfection of charity over a more rapid and a more sure road.

The three virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience are called religious or holy virtues because they are subordinated to the virtue of religion, which renders to God the worship that is due Him. By reason of its object, the worship due to the Lord, the virtue of religion is the first of the moral virtues; it takes its place immediately after the three theological virtues and infused prudence which directs it. It offers to God the acts of the three religious virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience. To make certain of not turning back, the religious binds himself by the three corresponding vows, a triple engagement or promise to practice these three virtues, first for a time, then until death, following the example of Christ, who was obedient "unto death, even to the death of the cross." As the Savior offered Himself, the religious offers himself also in union with Him, giving his entire life as an oblation or sacrifice. Since the religious ought to offer everything, - exterior goods, body, heart, will, personal judgment - this sacrifice, if well made and not revoked as time goes on, truly deserves the title of holocaust. It ought to be lived daily in an ever more intimate manner; then it obtains the hundredfold promised by the Savior, who declared: "Amen, I say to you, there is no man who hath left house or brethren or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for My sake and for the gospel, who shall not receive a hundred times as much, now in this time, houses and brethren and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come, life everlasting." (5)

We shall see farther on that faith is the soul of holy obedience and that the practice of this virtue makes the spirit of faith grow. We shall likewise see that hope or trust in God is the soul of holy poverty, which obliges us to rely on the help of God, and that charity is the soul of holy chastity, which, when practiced in all its delicacy, makes the love of God and of souls in God flourish in us.



1. Matt. 19:21.

2. See I John 2: 16.

3. Ps. 8:6

4. St. Thomas, Summa, Ia IIae, q. 108, a.4; IIa IIae, q. 186, a.3, 4, 5, 7.

5. Mark 10:29 f.