Commandments and Counsels

Are we obliged not only to do good, but to do what is best?

As I remarked in a previous post on Fr. Peter's article on discerning one's personal vocation, he gives as the first (and least) reason for discernment, that we are obliged to discern what is best.

If God has a preference, am I not obliged to try to discover what it is? After all, his preference is for whatever is best for me… Even though I am only considering morally good options, I should try to find out which one of them is best. Why is this reason the least helpful as a motivation? Since we are considering only morally good options, any failure to discover and choose the best one would not be the matter of a mortal sin [but only a venial sin].

Is it really true, though, that we are obliged to do what is most perfect, so that it is a venial sin to fail to do so? Isn't the difference between a commandment and a counsel, precisely that the commandment obliges us to do some good (or to refrain from some evil), while a counsel invites us to do something good. "A commandment makes the transgressors of it culpable; counsel only makes such as do not follow it less worthy of praise; those who violate commandments deserve damnation, those who neglect counsels deserve only to be less glorified." (St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God VIII, ch. 6) Of course in a particular situation it may not be appropriate to follow a particular counsel. "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." But supposing that in a particular situation a counsel is more in keeping with love, it seems that then it is still necessary to keep it. If love is commanded without limit, it seems that once we recognize that something is truly the better thing to do, more in keeping with love in a concrete situation, we are obliged to do it.

St. Thomas takes up this difficulty in his commentary on Matthew 19:10, "He who can take it, let him take it" (referring to the counsel of continence). He says, "Isn't every one bound to keep virginity? It seems so, since man is bound to what is better. In response it should be said that it is not a precept, but a counsel, as the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 7:25, 'Concerning virgins I do not have a precept from the Lord, but I give counsel.' But what is this? Isn't man bound to what is better? I say that one must distinguish that which is better in regard to act, and in regard to affection. Man is not bound to what is better in regard to act, but in regard to affection, since every rule and ever act is determined to something definite and certain; but if a man were bound to what is better, he would be bound to something uncertain. Hence with regard to external acts, since he is not bound to something uncertain, he is not bound to what is better. But as regards affection, he is bound to what is better. Hence one cannot not wish to be always better, without falling into contempt."

But if someone knowingly fails to do what is better, doesn't that show a lack of will to become better, to grow in love? St. Thomas says in Quodlibetal I, q. 7, a. 2, "those who are perfect in the sense of having perfect charity are bound by an interior law to do that which is better, a law that binds by way of inclination." To this we must admit that it does show a weakness of the will to grow in love, but weakness of that will does not mean a simple absence of it. As St. Francis de Sales says, "we may indeed without sin not follow the counsels, on account of the affection we may have to other things… it is lawful for a man not to sell what he possesses to give to the poor, because he has not hte courage to make so complete a renunciation."

Mortal sin, venial sin, and imperfection

There is a difference, then, between mortal sin, venial sin, and imperfection. A mortal sin means turning away from God, loving something else in a manner incompatible with the love of God above all things, so that one's life becomes totally directed to something other than God (e.g., pleasure, power, fame) or at least dispersed and no longer centered on God; a venial sin means loving something in a manner that doesn't quite fit with the love of God, yet is compatible with it–one's final end remains God, but one is too much attached to something which is a means to God. An imperfection means only choosing something that is not as well directed towards God as something else would have been, choosing something that is a longer and slower way, as it were, towards God–but still a good choice, act, and way towards God.

Universal Call to Holiness

"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call" (Eph. 4:4).

St. Francis de Sales, whose feast we celebrate today, is known for his teaching that all Christians are called to holiness. The teaching of the universal call to holiness did not originate with the Second Vatican Council, but was also taught before. "Universal call," means, quite simply, that all men and women and called to holiness. And in Casti Connubii, for example, Pope Pius XI says precisely that: "All men of every condition," in whatever state of life they are, "can and ought to imitate that most perfect example of holiness," Christ himself, "and by God's grace to arrive at the summit of perfection." (n. 23) Nevertheless the universal call to holiness is a particularly special emphasis of the Second Vatican Council; it is taken up expressly in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, which we look at today. The following is an attempt to draw out briefly some of the basic important points made in this chapter on this universal vocation of all Christians.

The Fathers of Vatican II see the call to holiness as deriving from two sources: the mystery of the Church, and more fundamentally, the mystery of Christ himself.

The Church and Holiness
"The Church is believed to be indefectibly holy" (n. 39), for Christ gave himself up for her "that he might sanctify her," uniting her to himself as his body and perfecting her by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because the Church is holy, all members of the Church are called to be holy, "to become what they are," and to manifest this holiness in their lives, by faithfulness to the movement of the Spirit, by the practice of charity.

Christ and Holiness
Christ himself preached holiness of life to all. "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." He provided the means for holiness, sending the Spirit, who pours love into men's hearts, that they might love God above all, and love each other as Christ loves them. Moreover, in baptism the faithful put on Christ, becoming sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. Thus they are made holy by the grace of God. They must then hold on to this holiness and live it out in their concrete lives, they must live in a manner that is fitting to those who are holy.

The Council concludes then, that all members of the Church, all Christ's faithful, whatever their rank or status, are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity.

Attainment of Holiness
The concrete way of attaining holiness and the perfection of charity depends on one's situation and duties, yet some things can be said in general:
(1) we should use our strengths and talents as a gift from Christ.
(2) We should follow Christ and become like him, seeking the Father's will in all things, the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
(3) We should use our personal gifts and fulfill our duties in the spirit of faith working through love.
(4) We should receive all things with faith from the hand of the heavenly Father.

These four means of attaining holiness can be grouped into two basic attitudes: the spirit to accept all things as coming from the loving hand of God, and the aim to do all things in accordance with God's will out of love for him.

The Council in the following paragraphs makes a number of particular remarks on the paths to holiness of bishops, priests, clerics, married persons, and those who suffer. It then returns to the theme of holiness as the common pursuit of all. Holiness is first of all a gift of grace, the gift of love by which we love God above all things and our neighbor for God's sake. But in order for love to grow, we must cooperate with this grace, completing what God has begun in us. (n. 42)

Some actions flowing from grace are common to all Christians: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, participation in the liturgy, prayer, self-denial, service of our brothers and sisters, and the practice of all the virtues. All such actions are to be ruled by charity, enlivened by charity, and expressions of charity.

Some exceptional expressions of love, which are not actually common to all Christians, are given particular mention by the Council.

The greatest proof of love is martyrdom. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for Christ and one's brethren. Not all will be faced with martyrdom, but all must be prepared to confess Christ, whatever may come, whether it means losing one's job, one's reputation, or even one's life.

Virginity, Poverty, and Obedience
The evangelical counsels of virginity/celibacy, poverty, and obedience are special means for fostering the holiness of the Church, each being in its own way a particular imitation of Christ.

The chapter closes with the summary statement: "all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive."

Call to Holiness in Marriage
See also the article on the call to holiness in Christian marriage.

Universal Call to Poverty?
The spirit of poverty, and even a degree of actual poverty, is a invitation and call not only to religious, but to all Christians. A very worth-while book on the gospel call to poverty is Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom by Thomas Dubay. This book is written for all Catholics (not just for those considering or discerning a religious vocation!) and seeks to present the Gospel challenge simply and directly, and thus help them to live their Christian vocation.

Commentary on the Song of Songs

The first half (sermons 1-43) of the Commentary on the Song of Songs by St. Bernard of Clairvaux is now available on this website. Thanks to the Internet Archive and Br. Sean (a monk) for the text–the text of the Song of Songs Commentary here is identical to that on the Internet Archive, except for the correction of a few typographical errors and some formatting changes. Each sermon is given as a unit.

Discerning Your Personal Vocation

I came across an interesting article by Fr. Peter Ryan, How to Discern Elements of Your Personal Vocation. [No longer accessible at the original address].

The article is a bit disorganized, jumping back and forth between points, but it is thought provoking, and raises some interesting questions, which I'll address in upcoming blogposts.

He gives several points to bear in mind when preparing to discern your vocation (or anything else for that matter), which I'll summarize here:

(1) Discernment pertains to morally acceptable options, so we should eliminate options that are simply wrong, before making discernment. (this is not strictly true; the most important discernment we do is to discern or distinguish good options from bad options, in order to choose the good. See the post on the object of discernment: what do we discern – JB.)
(2) It is possible to discern one's personal vocation. God has a preference regarding what he wants us to do: he wants us to do the very best thing. God would not have a plan for us, yet keep us from discovering it, so it must be possible to discern this plan.
(3) One must be motivated to discern one's personal vocation. He gives three reasons for discerning one's vocation: (1) the first and least helpful reason, is that we are morally obliged to do so (I comment on this statement in a later post: Commandments and Counsels – JB); (2) it is in our own interest to discern; (3) discerning our vocation is pleasing to God.
(4) The proper disposition for discerning one's vocation presupposes that one is detached from any agenda of one's own. Having such an agenda hinders the discernment of God's plan, and also the acceptance of that plan. (See the post Detachment and Discernment – JB)
(5) As regards the future, we cannot discern whether we should do something, but only whether we should try to do it.
(6) Nothing is wasted in God's providence. Even when what we judged God was calling us to seek does not work out, this attempt has a place in God's plan.
(7) Discerning one's personal vocation is not accomplished once and for all, but is ongoing. Even a major commitment such as that of marriage or religious life does not settle or eliminate all future questions and discernment.

The process of discernment of vocation Fr. Peter gives is based on the third time for discernment given by St. Ignatius Loyola.

(1) We should seek only what God wants, and ask him to make us see what he wants us to do.
(2) We should look at our gifts and experience, and relate them to the world around us, considering all our options, and the pros and cons of each option. If one option remains as clearly the best, the discernment may end there.
(3) If several options remain, and are not settled by the consideration of pros and cons, then we should look at our affective response to them, our how heart moves in regard to them. We must distinguish those movements that are in us, but are not really integrated into our "converted selves", from those which arise from our converted hearts, and be moved in our discernment only by the latter kind of desires.

Questions for those discerning a religious vocation

Fr. Philip Powell gives some good practical points, and questions that those discerning a religious vocation should ask themselves. These questions to ask when discerning a vocation may be found, together with comments on the Anti-Christ, and the difference between magic and prayer, at his blog Domine, da mihi hanc aquam!