The goal of Christian life, and indeed of all human life, is union with God, which is realized in this life by charity; for by charity we no longer live our own life, but God lives in us, and we live in God (Cf. 1 John 4:16; Eph 3:17; Gal. 2:20). For this reason, our life will be more perfect, to the extent that our love is greater. “The greatness of each soul is judged by the measure of love that it has, so that, for instance, he who has great love, is great, he who has little love, is little, while he who has no love at all, is nothing, as St. Paul says: ‘If I have not love, I am nothing.’”1
We will love God in the fullest way in heaven, when seeing him face to face, our heart will always be actually moved towards him in love, and all that we think and do will be referred to him. This perfect way of loving God is impossible to us in this life; for since we do not see God as he is in himself, our heart is not at every moment animated with love for him, and we are attracted to other good things without consciously referring them to him as their source and exemplar.
But even in this life we can love God perfectly in two ways. First, when everything we love, and everything we do, we refer at least implicitly to God as their end and goal. We will do this if, having chosen God as the ultimate end of our life, we do not love or choose anything that is incompatible with God’s being the last end. For the power of the choice by which we choose God carries over into the further things we do, even when we do not explicitly refer them to God as an end.2 Perfect love in this sense is required of all. For since God is the perfect good, he who does not love God perfectly in the sense of somehow referring all things to him, does not really love God.
Secondly, we can possess the perfect love of God in this life in the sense that we are moving towards such a perfect love as we will possess in heaven, i.e., inasmuch as we are always growing in love. This perfection is not absolutely required—it is possible to love God without growing in the love of God. However, the objective tendency of the love of God, who is the infinite good, is such that one either grows in that love, or somehow opposes it, and comes into danger of losing that love altogether. “Not to go forwards in the way of life, is to go backwards.”3 One who does not even wish to grow in the love of God, does not meet the demands of love. “All are bound to tend to the perfection [that consists in the love of God and neighbor], since if someone did not want to love God more, he would not be doing what charity demands.”4 Thus growth in the love of God is necessary for the well-being of the love of God, and for its surer preservation.
We will grow in the love of God to the extent that all of our strength is given to this love. “Man stands between the things of this world and spiritual goods, in which eternal happiness consists, so that to the degree he clings more to one of them, so much does he draw back from the other.”5 The reason for this is that we are finite beings, with finite powers. To the extent that we attend to many things and our love is drawn to them, it is less focused on any one of them. St. Thomas explains how emotions can hinder the activity of the will, due to the fact that we are unified beings.
Every power dispersed among many things becomes less; hence, conversely, when a power is applied intensely to one thing, it can be less dispersed among other things. Moreover, a certain attention is required in the soul’s works, so that when it is powerfully focused on one thing, it cannot powerfully attend to another.6
For this reason, to the extent that our love is less dispersed, and is focused more entirely on God, we will be enabled to love God more intensely. And in this way, by a fervent practice of the love of God, our love for God will grow more and more.
Christian perfection consists essentially in charity, which unites us to God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:37–40). The other commandments are for the sake of charity, either prescribing things that are required by charity, as “Honor your father and your mother” (Dt 5:16), or prohibiting things that are incompatible with charity, as “You shall not kill” (Dt 5:17). Because all the other commandments are ordered to charity, St. Paul describes charity as the “fulfilling of the law.”
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:8–10).
So charity is the goal, and the commandments are means to reach this goal. If we do not keep the commandments, we do not truly love God or neighbor, at least not with supernatural love. St. John goes so far as to say, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”7 Moreover, the love of God and of neighbor is included in the commandments insofar as this love is the end of the commandments. Hence our perfection consists essentially in the fulfillment of the commandments and the attainment of their end, which is love.8 Pope John Paul II notes that since all the commandments are ordered to love, they themselves indicate not only the conditions we must fulfil, but also the goal for which we are to aim.
Jesus shows that the commandments cannot be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path that opens up to a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, the heart of which is love.9
In addition to the commandments, we are given the counsels, which are not necessary in order to attain the goal, which is love of God and neighbor, but are means useful for attaining this goal more surely and completely. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, adopting St. Thomas’ description of the difference between the commandments and counsels, distinguishes them on the basis of their different relationship to love:
Besides its precepts, the New Law also includes the evangelical counsels. The traditional distinction between God's precepts and the evangelical counsels is drawn in relation to charity, the perfection of Christian life. The precepts are intended to remove whatever is incompatible with charity. The aim of the counsels is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity, even if it is not contrary to it.10
Now our attention should be turned to God in two ways. First, we should trust in God for all we need, relying on him as a loving Father. All that happens or may happen to us we should see as coming from his loving and wise providence. “It is Christ’s hand that guides everything. We must see Him alone in everything.”11 Secondly, we should always make God our last end. All that we do, we should do for the sake of God. “The littlest things done out of love are those that charm our Lord’s Heart”;12 “Jesus looks neither at the greatness of our actions, nor at their difficulty, but at the love that makes us do these acts.”13 The more consistently we actually place our confidence in God, and actually direct our love to him, not just implicitly, the more surely we will grow in confidence and in love. This practice of actual trust in God and this way of constantly loving God are the goal of the counsels, and in a certain way may themselves be considered as two universal counsels, which present us with the aim for which we are to strive in the practice of the other counsels, just as love is both the end of the other commandments, and is itself commanded inasmuch as we are to strive for love.14 St. Paul instructs us to “do all things for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). As St. Thomas explains, we can understand this instruction as a precept, to do nothing contrary to God’s glory, and to refer everything at least implicitly to God. Or we can understand it a more direct sense: “[It can also be understood to mean], whatever you do, it is better if you actually refer it to God; and in this sense it is a counsel.”15
The means by which the counsels accomplish this aim are simple: the counsels take away those material and temporal goods that tend to distract or weaken our focus on God, or to make us rely upon such temporal goods. Unlike the commandments, the counsels do not separate us from bad things that are incompatible with love of God. Rather, they separate us from things that are in themselves good, even very good, but that are not the greatest good, and thus can hinder a direct focus on the greatest goods, and on the giver of all good things.
The reason why separating ourselves from things that are good is helpful for focusing on the highest good and source of all goods, on God himself, is that as was said above, we are finite beings with finite capacities for attention and love. Therefore, by removing our attention and love from worldly and temporal goods, the counsels help us to fix them more fully on spiritual and eternal goods, on God himself. St. Thomas describes this well in his work De Perfectione Spiritualis Vitae:
It is manifest that the human heart is given over more intensely to one thing, to the extent that it is withdrawn from a multiplicity of things. Thus man’s mind is given over more perfectly to loving God to the extent that it is removed from love for temporal things... Therefore all the counsels, by which we are invited to perfection, have as their aim the turning away of man’s mind from love for temporal things, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating, loving, and fulfilling his will.16
In the present climate, it is important to emphasize that the counsels are not proposed as good because the things we give up by following the counsels are bad, but because there is a better way to grow in love than the use of these things. Giving up marriage, for example, enables one to grow more in the love of God and neighbor, not because marriage is bad, but because the direct and complete dedication of our heart and mind to God is a better means for growing in love than marriage is, whether considered in itself or as a sacrament.17 Pope John Paul II beautifully describes this superiority that virginity or celibacy consecrated to God possesses over marriage.
The reference to the nuptial union of Christ and the Church gives marriage itself its highest dignity: in particular, the sacrament of matrimony makes the spouses enter into the mystery of Christ's union with the Church. However, the profession of virginity or celibacy enables consecrated persons to share more directly in the mystery of this marriage. While conjugal love goes to Christ the Bridegroom through a human union, virginal love goes directly to the person of Christ through an immediate union with him, without intermediaries: a truly complete and decisive spiritual espousal. Thus in the person of those who profess and live consecrated chastity, the Church expresses her union as Bride with Christ the Bridegroom to the greatest extent. For this reason it must be said that the virginal life is found at the heart of the Church.18
The three counsels traditionally called evangelical have here a special place. They in a certain way contain all the other counsels within themselves: chastity is the most radical way of putting one’s body at the service of the Lord, poverty the most radical way of putting external goods at this service, and obedience the most radical way of putting one’s own self at this service, inasmuch as it is by one’s will that one possesses and is master of oneself. This traditional understanding is summed up by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on religious life, Redemptionis Donum.
If, in accordance with Tradition, the profession of the evangelical counsels is centered on the three points of chastity, poverty and obedience, this usage seems to emphasize sufficiently clearly their importance as key elements and in a certain sense as a “summing up” of the entire economy of salvation.... “The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” are present deep within man as the inheritance of original sin, as a result of which the relationship with the world, created by God and given to man to be ruled by him (Cf. Gen 1:28), was disfigured in man’s heart in many ways. In the economy of the Redemption the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience constitute the most efficacious means for transforming in man’s heart this relationship with “the world.”...
In the context of these words taken from the first letter of St. John, it is easy to see the extreme importance of the three evangelical counsels in the whole economy of Redemption. For evangelical chastity helps us to transform in our interior life everything that arises from the lust of the flesh; evangelical poverty, everything that is born from the lust of the eyes; and evangelical obedience enables us wholly to reform that which in the human heart proceeds from the pride of life.19
The commandments and the counsels are the objective means for attaining holiness—the commandments are necessary means, and the counsels, though not necessary, are better and useful means. Does it then follow that it is always better to follow the counsels? It does not, for two reasons. First, as St. Francis de Sales notes, the counsels are at the service of charity, and charity may sometimes demand that we not follow the counsels.
God does not want each person to observe all the counsels, but only those that are appropriate to the diversity of persons, times, occasions, and abilities, as charity requires; for it is charity, as queen of all virtues, all commandments, all counsels, and in short, of all laws and all Christian actions, that gives to all of them their rank, order, time, and value.20
Secondly, even if one is able to follow a counsel legitimately, i.e., if he is not bound by charity to do something else, it may not be most beneficial for him to embrace that counsel. If he is not going to make use of the counsel for the sake of love, it will be at best a pointless rejection of something good, and at worst an occasion for some vice. Thus St. Thomas says that poverty is beneficial as a means for spiritual freedom, if one uses this freedom well, but it is harmful if it is not used well.
Insofar as it takes away the anxiety which arises from wealth, poverty is useful for some, namely those who are disposed so as to be occupied with better things, while harmful to those, who, freed from this anxiety, fall into worse occupations.21
Similarly one who gives up marriage will not be any better off for doing so, if he does not use the freedom of his heart that not being married gives him, to devote himself more fully to God and to the service of the Church, or to some greater good of this kind. In fact, he will be worse off, since he will lack the great good of marriage as well as the greater good of virginity or celibacy. In his audiences on the theology of the body, Pope John Paul II notes that the single state, if it is not chosen, or at least used for higher purposes, leads not to a dedication of the heart, but to a kind of division of heart—i.e., it makes there be no truly unifying central goal of one’s heart and life.
Paul observes that the man who is bound by the marriage bond “finds himself divided” (1 Cor 7:34) because of his family duties (see 1 Cor 7:34). From this observation, it seems thus to follow that the unmarried person should be characterized by an inner integration, by a unification that would allow him to devote himself completely to the service of the kingdom of God in all its dimensions. This attitude presupposes abstention from marriage, exclusively “for the kingdom of God,” and a life directed uniquely to this goal. Otherwise “division” can secretly enter also the life of an unmarried person, who, being deprived, on the one hand, of married life and, on the other hand, of a clear goal for which he should renounce marriage, could find himself faced with a certain emptiness.22
The intention and purpose with which one embraces the counsels is therefore absolutely essential. Just as one should not enter marriage merely for the sake of money or pleasure, but should seek in marriage the goods proper to marriage, so one who follows the counsels should seek the goods for the sake of which the counsels were given. Accordingly, Pope John Paul II notes the necessity of the proper motivation for embracing the counsel of continence.
If someone chooses marriage, he must choose it exactly as it was instituted by the Creator “from the beginning”; he must seek in it those values that correspond to the plan of God. If on the other hand someone decides to follow continence for the kingdom of heaven, he must seek in it the values proper to such a vocation. In other words, he must act in conformity with his chosen vocation.23
Moreover, granting in each case the right intention, then the intensity and steadfastness of one’s resolve to pursue the goal of holiness using the means one chooses, is of greater importance than the means that one chooses for oneself. It is better to seek holiness in marriage wholeheartedly, than to seek holiness in religious life halfheartedly. St. Alphonsus goes so far as to say that one who is not ready to serve God wholeheartedly in religious life, should not enter at all.
A final caution to him who wishes to enter religious life: let him resolve to become holy, and to suffer every exterior and interior pain, in order to be faithful to God, and not to abandon his vocation. And if he is not so resolved, I exhort him not to deceive the superiors and himself, and not to enter; for this is a sign that he is not called, or else what is even worse, that he does not want to respond to the call as he ought. Hence, with so bad a disposition it is better for him to remain outside, in order to dispose himself better, and to resolve to give himself entirely to God, and to suffer all for God.24
Karol Wojtyła similarly notes that the difference of means for attaining perfection, i.e., for growing in the love of God, is less important than the attitude one takes towards this pursuit of perfection, i.e., to what extent one is committed to seeking to grow in love.
According to the consistent teaching and practice of the Church, virginity realized as a deliberately chosen life-vocation, based on a vow of chastity, and in combination with the two other vows of poverty and obedience, creates particularly favorable conditions for attaining evangelical perfection. The combination of conditions that results from applying the evangelical counsels in the lives of particular men, and especially in communal life, is called the state of perfection. The “state of perfection,” however, is not the same as perfection itself, which is realized by every man through striving in the manner proper to his vocation to fulfill the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. It may happen that a a man who is outside the “state of perfection,” is, by observing this greatest commandment, effectively more perfect than someone who chose that state. In the light of the Gospel, every man solves the problem of his vocation in practice above all by adopting a conscious personal attitude towards the supreme demand contained in the commandment of love. This attitude is above all a function of a person; the state (marriage, celibacy, even virginity understood only as the “state” or an element of the state) plays in it a secondary role.25
For this reason, some should not live the religious life, even if they are capable of living it. As St. Paul says, “Each has his own gift from God, one of one kind, and another of another” (1 Cor 7:7). Some discover after entering a religious community and living the religious life for a time, that they are incapable of putting their whole heart into it. They usually experience this in some form of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or lack of inner peace. These things are not, however, always due to a basic incapacity of their heart to give itself to such a way of life. They can also be due to a culpable negligence, a failure to be substantially faithful to the tasks and attitudes required by this way of life. Or again, unhappiness or dissatisfaction can be the result of personal or psychological problems that will surface and be an obstacle to peace in any way of life. Neither religious life nor marriage is an automatic cure for one’s psychological problems. Therefore, in such a case, one must discern whether such an experience of not feeling happy, or lacking peace, is due to one’s having been mistaken in one’s choice of a state of life, or whether it is due to some personal problem that can be overcome.
On the other hand, pursuing holiness wholeheartedly does not necessarily require that one be attracted to the way of life that one chooses, or that one lack attraction for another way of life. And indeed, if one puts one’s whole heart into pursuing holiness in the religious life despite a lack of attraction to it, one’s intention will tend to be even purer and more intense. To her Sister Céline, who plans to enter the Carmelite monastery, St. Thérèse of Lisieux writes as follows:
I am very happy, my dear little sister, that you do not feel a sensible attraction to come to the Carmel; that is a treat from Jesus, who wants to receive a gift from you. He knows that it is much sweeter to give than to receive. We have only the brief moment of our life to give to the good God.26
St. Teresa of Avila similarly says that God shows great favor to those who give themselves entirely to his service despite their own disinclination.
Though I did not succeed to incline my will to being a nun, I saw that this was the best and safest state, and so, little by little, I determined to force myself to embrace it....
When I took the habit, the Lord soon made me understand how greatly he favors those who use force with themselves in serving him.27
In summary, because we attain the true end of our lives to the extent that we grow in love, the decisive factor in our vocation is our dedication to pursuing constant growth in love. But subordinate to this, and also of significance, are the objective means we choose for pursuing this goal. Given an equal dedication on our part, we will attain the goal more perfectly if we employ means which are in themselves more suited to reaching this goal, as for example, the evangelical counsels.
1St. Bernard, Sermones in Cantica Canticorum, Sermo 27, n. 10, PL 183:919
2See In II Sent., d. 40, q. 1, a. 5, ad 6 & 7; In IV Sent., d. 15, q. 4, a. 2, qa. 4; ST I-II 1:6 ad 3.
3St. Bernard, Second Sermon for the Feast of the Purification, PL 183:369; Cf. Epistle 385, n. 1, PL 182:588; St. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, Part III, Admonition 35, PL 77:118
4Super Hebraeos, Ch. 6, Lec. 1
5ST I II 108:4
6ST I-II 77:1; Cf. ST I-II 37:1, and St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. 5, Ch. 7
71 John 5:3 (emphasis added)
8See ST II-II 184:3, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1974.
9Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor n. 15
10Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1973. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II 184:3
11St. Thérèse of Lisieux, LT 149, October 20, 1893, Œuvres Complètes (De Brouwer: Éditions du Cerf & Desclée, 1992), 477–78
12St. Thérèse, LT 191, July 12, 1896, Œuvres Complètes, 543
13St. Thérèse, LT 65, October 20, 1888, Œuvres Complètes, 360
14The basic lines of this comparison can be found in many sources. See, among others, St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussions of the counsels in Quodlibetal 4, q. 12, a. 12, and Quodlibetal 5, q. 10, a. 1; Contra Doctrinam Retrahentium, Ch. 6; Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ; Br. Lawrence, Practice of the Presence of God; St. Thérèse of Lisieux, autobiography and letters; de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence.
15In II Sent., d. 40, q. 1, a. 5, ad 7
16St. Thomas Aquinas, De perfectione spiritualis vitae, Ch. 7
17See Sacra Virginitas, by Pope Pius XII, nn. 37–39.
18Pope John Paul II, General Audience of November 23, 1994
19Pope John Paul II, Redemptionis Donum, Chapter IV, n. 9; see ST II:II 186:7.
20St. Francis de Sales, Traitté de l’amour de Dieu, Book 8, Ch. 6, Œuvres de S. François de Sales, vol. 5, 75
21St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Ch. 133
22Pope John Paul II, General Audience, July 7, 1982
23Pope John Paul II, General Audience, April 21, 1982; See also his General Audience of March 31, 1982.
24St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Avvisi spettanti alla vocazione religiosa,” Opere Ascetiche, in Opere di S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori vol. 4 (Torino: Marietti, 1880), 411–12; Italian texts of St. Alphonsus and references to his works published in Italian have been taken from the website: https://www.intratext.com/
25Karol Wojtyła, Miłość i odpowiedzialność [Love and Responsibility]. (Lublin: Towarzystwo Naukowe KUL, 2001), 230–31
26St. Thérèse of Lisieux, LT 169, August 19, 1894; Œuvres Complètes, 507
27St. Teresa of Avila, Autobiography, Ch. 3–4
Table of Contents
Introduction: Two Approaches to Vocation
Chapter 1: Principles of Christian Life
Chapter 2: Aquinas and Ignatius
Chapter 3: Comparison of Aquinas and Ignatius
Chapter 4: Pope John Paul II on Vocation
Chapter 4, Part II: Pope Benedict XVI on vocation
Chapter 5: Conclusions for Vocation Discernment