Evangelical counsels, Plugging yourself to the Holy Spirit

vowsBefore you proceed with this module that introduces evangelical counsels, you are invited to pause for a while and reflect on the following questions and write down in your journal or take to your personal prayer what it means to you to live the evangelical counsels.

  • What does poverty mean for you? What do you enjoy most about it? What are the concrete ways do you live the renunciation involved in it? How is your life more challenging and different from the average people of your culture because of poverty?
  • What is consecrated celibacy for you? What gives you joy about living consecrated celibacy? What are the challenges do you face in living celibate life?
  • What is religious obedience for you? How do you live it concretely in your present context? What are the joys and challenges do you face in living religious obedience?

Each consecrated person has his/her own personal synthesis of what each vow means to him/her in the light of one’s lived experience. your personal meaning of evangelical counsels affects the way you live your vows. At times lived life can be far removed from what the vows are supposed to be, rendering a consecrated person to live as if he/she is in chains.

Consecrated life makes sense only when you live the evangelical counsels at the level of consciousness which renders you free and capable to live them joyfully. You cannot live chastity, poverty and obedience at a lower mindset at which one makes an idol of wealth, power and pleasure. The life of the evangelical counsels makes the characteristic features of Jesus – the chaste, poor and obedient one- constantly visible in the midst of the world so that the people of God are able to perceive the mystery of the Kingdom of God at work in history, even as it awaits its full realization in heaven (VC 1). You need the mindset of Christ to live like him. The three evangelical counsels touch the person at the level of the three essential spheres of his existence and relationships: affectivity, possession and power and the practice of them foster spiritual freedom, purification of the heart, fervor of charity and commitment to mission (PI 12). The three vows are three ways of pledging oneself to live as Christ lived in the three areas which cover the whole person (EE 29).

A personal Copernican revolution in one’s worldview

Consecrated life marks a revolutionary change in one’s world vision and meaning of life, something similar to the Copernican revolution in the conception of the world. That is why many people gasp in astonishment when they spot a beautiful and joyful young nun in a cloister, “Wow! She is wasting her beauty within the four walls of a monastery!”. Some try to explain it away as a result of a love failure or some religious pathology. A normal human being endowed with wealth, beauty and potential for social positions would be considered a fool to think of giving them up because these are exactly what the whole world is running after. It is the desire for property, power and pleasure that drive humans to wage wars and undertake risky feats, though eventually they fall to the folly of forfeiting the spoils of their adventure at the altar of their own death. Still, no one would normally bother to covet a life of celibacy, poverty and obedience like that of a consecrated person. Our hormonal drives and dynamics of desires, at their peripheral level, point to a direction opposite to what evangelical counsels lead to. It needs a Copernican revolution in one’s value system to appreciate and embrace a life of evangelical counsels. Without that change of mind, profession of evangelical counsels become a lip service, but one’s heart and soul are enchained to things, power and affective entanglements. Then a consecrated person may compromise for the “insidiousness of mediocrity in the spiritual life, of the progressive taking on of middle class values and of a consumer mentality” (SAFC 12).light

By their very nature the evangelical counsels involve an inevitable tension between values promoted by the market world and values of the Gospel. They provide the ground for the tension which St. Paul speaks of the law of “flesh” and the law of the spirit at war with each other (Cf. Rom 7: 14-25).

There is an inevitable tension of values as we plod through the uneven roads of life as a consecrated person.

The wisdom of the world and the folly of the Spirit

The wisdom of the world would laugh at the folly of the Spirit which proposes the evangelical councils as an authentic way to true freedom, real power and pure love. Reason unaided by grace will not comprehend what the heart flooded by God’s love knows about the unmerited treasures hidden in the field of consecrated life.

Social sciences would be more at home with any hypothesis that explains that the choice of consecrated life is motivated by human desire for social security and status, search for opportunities for better education, escape from neurotic guilt, or developmental issues such as insufficient individuation (inability to take decisions for oneself and face the challenges of life by oneself). One could point to statistical data to show abundance of vocations from lower strata of the society and the dearth of vocations from the “first world”. Fortunately, it was similar in Jesus’ time and he did not bother (or did not succeed) to attract disciples from the court of Herod, nor from among the scribes, nor from the upper class of his time. Indeed, it is threatening to the intelligence of the world to recognize the wisdom of God in the folly of evangelical counsels which paradoxically fulfills the deepest human aspirations.

The vows offer a marvelous witness of the values of the Gospel and speak forcefully and clearly in today’s world which is suffering from consumerism and discrimination, eroticism and hatred, violence and oppression (EE17).

Walking the narrow path

A good number of religious begin their consecrated life with very unrealistic expectations and naïve views about profession of vows. Some who have trouble managing their aggressiveness or affective fragility hope to be healed of their struggles through their public profession and prepare the ground for future frustrations. There are others who ignore or rationalize issues related to vows and heads towards living double life or eventual giving up of religious life.

A healthier way to live the evangelical counsels is to learn to walk the narrow path that leads to fullness of life (Mt 7.14). It involves a realistic approach to the normal struggles in living values of life and discover the joys proper to the form of life. Most religious who find joy and meaning in consecrated life tell the story of how they progressively discovered the freedom and joy of living vows and how they dropped the naïve ideas about vows as they found deeper and genuine meaning in the practice of vows. Paradoxically, the trials related to vows opened up the treasures hidden in the field of consecrated life.

Heart has reasons which reason may fail to grasp

It is almost impossible to convince anyone with reasons that chastity, poverty and obedience are meaningful today. The only convincing evidence is the presence of joyful religious who go about serving the Church and the people of God with an amazing sense of freedom and generosity. When it comes to your own consecrated life, you will have to grapple with the trials of life and stay at times with questions of meaningfulness about your choice of life. But your heart will know that you have the treasure that you always longed for. When your reason comprehends the wisdom of the heart, you will be convinced of the truth of the promise of the hundredfold for his followers already in this world.

In the next few modules, we shall seek to understand the meaning and challenges of the evangelical counsels.

Exercise: Story
Read the following story and reflect on what this story tells you about the theme we are discussing?

The beggar and the diamond
(An oriental story retold by Stephen King in his story collection titled Nightmares & Dreamscapes, 1993)

Once there was an old beggar named Ramu who led a miserable life. He was dressed in rags, scorned by passersby and pitied by those who knew him. One day Ramu was walking along Chandrapur road, thinking about his unhappy existence and feeling annoyed at God, “God, I am unlucky,” he said. “I do not hate You, but I fear You are not my friend, nor any man’s friend.”

ramuArchangel Uriel, seeing Ramu’s plight, felt pity for him and pleaded to God to offer him something to live a better life. God dropped a diamond as big as a peacock’s egg on his path in plain sight. The diamond was worth so much that it could feed him and all his descendants for several generations.

On the ground Ramu walked forward thinking positively “I do have a few things to be grateful for. The day is extraordinarily beautiful and my vision remains keen. Think how terrible it would be if I were blind!” To prove this to himself, Ramu closed his eyes tightly and shuffled along with his broken staff stretched out in front of him, as a blind man uses his cane. He walked past the beautiful diamond which lay glowing in the dust; his left foot missed it by less than two inches. Ramu then opened his eyes. Bright summer sunshine flooded them, and seemed to flood his mind, as well. He looked with gladness at the blue sky, the green fields and the dusty road. He plodded ahead smiling and singing.

God took back the diamond and dropped an ironwood branch further up the path. God then said to the Archangel, “The difference is that Ramu shall find the branch and It shall serve him as a walking stick until the last of his days.” The archangel asks God, “Have you just taught me a lesson, God?” God answers, “I don’t know. Have I?”

Don’t we walk past the diamond of joy and fullness when we go blind walking through the road of consecrated life? What are the props have you found on the way to support you live the evangelical counsels?

–       Mathew Vattamattam cmf