In the church tradition, we have something like “going above and beyond” in life. It’s called living the “evangelical counsels,” or the “counsels of perfection.”
We know the evangelical counsels as “poverty, chastity and obedience” and we are used to them being practiced by vowed members of religious communities. (Feb. 5 is World Day for Consecrated Life.) In fact, we might tend to think the evangelical counsels apply mostly to people who take religious vows. But the counsels belong to many other people.
Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, a Carmelite priest who is provincial delegate for secular Carmelites in Houston, Texas, said, “The fact that one lives the evangelical counsels as part of a vocation does not mean that they (the counsels) are not relevant and perhaps deeply significant for life in this world …”
He added that the evangelical counsels can aid “the task of our secular existence — namely, the task of living humanly, spiritually, morally good lives.”
It’s true that the counsels are not required — unless we take vows. Even then, they are not technically “required”. They are called “counsels,” as in “advice.”
Precepts, on the other hand, are required. “Precept” comes from the Latin word præcipere, meaning “to command.” And we do have commandments:
- From the Old Testament, we have the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
- From the New Testament, we have the commands of Christ: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.
A grade “C” Christian can follow these and do very well. The world would be wonderful, in fact, if everyone aimed for the “grade C” level.
However, the more we know and love God, the more we will want to do. We will want to go above and beyond that “C.”
Falling in love is like that — you want to go above and beyond to show your love. Evangelical counsels do that — allow us to draw closer to God in love.
So where did the evangelical counsels come from? From Jesus.
One was given — advised — in Mark’s Gospel (chap. 10): the story of the rich young man. He was a good man. He followed the commandments. We could say he was a “solid C.” But he wanted to do more. So he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Remember, he was already doing enough and that the Lord loved him for it. But, when asked, Jesus advised the young man to sell all he had, give it to the poor and “follow me.”
But the young man could not. He was just too attached to the things of this world. So he went away, sad. Does that mean he failed?
No. The Lord loved this man already, remember? It’s just that the young man wasn’t able to give up the things of this world (counsel of poverty) completely, for the things of God. Who knows, maybe he did later.
And the other counsels? Well, Matthew’s version of the story of the rich young man is preceded by this advice from Jesus: “Some are incapable of marriage … because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12).
Here Jesus is speaking about living chastely (and singly) “for the sake of the kingdom.” (Yes, married people live chastely by offering faithful love to their spouses.) This saying of Jesus is sometimes used to refer to the evangelical counsel of chastity.
The one who lives a single and chaste life for God directs their love first and foremost to the person of Jesus. But they also, in turn, direct their love toward others in a special way because of Jesus. This is what Blessed Mother Teresa was able to do — see her beloved Lord’s face in his suffering children and love them because of him.
Many people — even those who are not in religious life — offer that same type of love to the sick, lonely and poor, as well as to friends, families and colleagues.
The evangelical counsel of obedience is not as easily linked to a particular saying of Jesus. However, the Lord’s own single-hearted obedience to the will of his Father is certainly an example.
The ability to focus more and more on things of eternity — where God is — helps those who practice the evangelical counsels focus less on the things of this world. It helps them be more alert — and instantly obedient — whenever they hear their beloved Lord’s voice.
And we all benefit.
As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council said in their document on the church (Lumen Gentium), “This practice of the counsels, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, undertaken by many Christians, either privately or in a church-approved condition or state of life, gives and must give in the world an outstanding witness and example of … holiness.”
Those who follow the evangelical counsels — whether through public vows or private commitment — can more easily focus on the things to come. As the rich young man could not, they can more freely give things away and live in poverty. The same is true of living chastely and obediently.
So anyone — single, married, ordained or in religious life — who practices the evangelical counsels strives for an A. But not out of ambition or desire for success in the world. No, they do it out of a deeply personal love of God.
Sources: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church;” documents of Vatican II at vatican.va; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; St. Therese Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars at carmelitefriarsocd.com.