What are the Three Counsels?

In a previous post, I was writing about the possibility of living a contemplative life in marriage.  I got to a point where I wanted to talk about adapting something that religious people do for practice in the married life.  These are the three evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity and obedience.  What are they and how are they practiced?  How can I adapt them to my life?

The Three Evangelical Counsels

In Chapter 13 of Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s book on the interior life, he makes the case for why the three evangelical counsels are very difficult to observe in the married life.  The three counsels are poverty (cf. Mt 19:21), chastity (cf. Mt 19:11-12) and obedience.  As Jesus said in Matthew 19, the counsels of poverty and chastity are voluntary.  Obedience to God, of course, is a given.  However, the evangelical counsel of obedience means something different.  Obedience, in this context, is the voluntary submission to a person, like a spiritual director or the Superior General of a religious order.

These three counsels specifically counter the three concupiscences (cf. 1 Jn 2:16) that we all suffer from as a result of Original Sin: concupiscence of the eyes (greed), concupiscence of the flesh (sensuality), and vanity of life (power; independence from God and from each other).

Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange is careful to emphasize that these three counsels are not obligatory to all Christians to obtain eternal life, but “it is a most suitable means more surely and rapidly to reach the end and not run the danger of stopping halfway.”  So, while my justification for eternal life is made through my belief in Jesus Christ, Christian perfection is another matter.  If we seek Christian perfection in this life (in order to reach the Beatific Vision faster in the next life), then the quickest route is by observing these three counsels.  Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange contends that it’s easier to follow these counsels when a person lives in a monastery or convent.

While he concedes that some saints managed Christian perfection in the married state, they are the exceptions that prove the rule:

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.

His next statement was difficult to read because I can see how I am often guilty of it:

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.

The dagger of his words go deeper still:

The Christian living in the world is often exposed to doing his own will, side by side… with the will of God….  Then faith seems at times reduced to a number of sacred truths that have been memorized, but have not become truths of life….  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.

While I don’t disagree that it would be difficult, it is important to know that it’s possible and that there are couples who have succeeded.  My journey, then, consists in finding out how I can progressively grow in holiness without abandoning my wife and children.  Next question to answer: How can I adapt the three counsels to my life?

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