Image: Heinrich Hofmann, Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, 1889 [Public Domain]
One of the most challenging passages in the Gospels is Jesus’ preaching about anxiety from the Sermon on the Mount. As we read in Matthew 6:24–33:
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
Such an outlook could not be more polar opposite than the materialistic worldview prevalent in our culture today, wherein material goods are a—if not the—focal point to life. Then again, sainthood has always been a counter-cultural phenomenon.
Sainthood demands of us the practice of heroic virtue, which is ordinarily an arduous task. To aid in attaining this heroism, though, are what the Church calls the “Evangelical Counsels.”
In Matthew 19:16–22 we read the story of a rich young man who asks Jesus what he needs to do for eternal life. Jesus replies that he must follow the Ten Commandments. When the young man presses further, Jesus calls him to sell his riches if he desires perfection. The rich man, very sad because he loves his riches, abandons Jesus. This exchange with the rich man serves not just as a commentary on the danger of riches and the need to love God above all things, but also as an introduction in Scripture to these Evangelical Counsels.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the matter:
“Christ in the Gospels laid down certain rules of life and conduct which must be practiced by every one of His followers as the necessary condition for attaining to everlasting life. These precepts of the Gospel practically consist of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, of the Old Law, interpreted in the sense of the New. Besides these precepts which must be observed by all under pain of eternal damnation, He also taught certain principles which He expressly stated were not to be considered as binding upon all, or as necessary conditions without which heaven could not be attained, but rather as counsels for those who desired to do more than the minimum and to aim at Christian perfection, so far as that can be obtained here upon earth.”
What we see here, then, is the basic distinction the Church has always made between a “precept” and a “counsel.” Precepts are matters that are essential to attaining eternal life. Counsels, on the other hand, are the means by which the same eternal life can be reached more certainly, even if they are not necessary for the attainment of such. Jesus tells the rich man that he must keep the Ten Commandments in order to attain eternal life—following the Ten Commandments is strictly necessary for salvation. Yet Jesus also invites the rich man to seek perfection by selling what he has and giving it to the poor, which serves as a counsel, not a precept.
Threefold path to perfection
The next distinction to make is to the number of Evangelical Counsels that we are invited to practice. We can divide the principal goods of this world into three classes: material riches (namely, money); the pleasures of the flesh (namely, sex); and honors or positions of authority (namely, power). Essentially, these three goods of the world— money, sex, power—are most frequently those worldly goods that turn us away from God more than any others.
All three goods are in themselves good things, which are not forbidden per se to the Christian. But even without the sinful use of these goods, they can often hold us back from sainthood, preventing our perfection in uniting our will with God’s. For a heart turned to the world is a heart that is turned away from God. Thus, it falls to three Evangelical Counsels to perfect us in relation to these goods, given that these three goods are the main hindrances to the higher life: the love of riches is opposed by the Counsel of poverty; the pleasures of the flesh are opposed by the Counsel of chastity; and the desire for worldly power and honor is opposed by the Counsel of obedience.
Read Part 2 on living the Evangelical Counsels as lay people here.
Read Part 3 on Saint Joseph’s model of the Counsel of poverty here.