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.

Christmas poem

Waiting and watching, in my inner heart's room–
Vigils and silence, let troubled thoughts cease.
For soon he shall come, as the heavenly groom.
And I must decrease, that he may increase.

At this great mystery, my heart fails within me;
What all-surpassing, wondrous love is this:
Greater than the mountains, deeper than the sea,
When by God's own word, heaven the earth does kiss.

Mightiest of angels, bearing a great sword
To clear the darkness, darkness of our sin,
Your grace and mercy, upon the world you poured;
From a fallen race, lovers you did win.

Still with the Father, in your Divinity,
Here on this earth, with human feet you trod.
We praise and worship Incarnate Majesty,
Wholly man like us, and yet wholly God!

Have no anxiety about anything

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4:4-6).

Most of the time anxiety is not particularly helpful. The purpose of anxiety is to make us alert and ready to avoid some danger. But when there's nothing we can do to avoid the evil we're afraid of, when it's not reasonable for us to take many steps to avoid it, or in general when this being-on-guard against danger is useless, there's no point in being anxious. It takes away peace, and hinders us from a wholehearted and joyful pursuit of the good we are about. An recent example occurred, in which someone on a pilgrimage was anxious about reaching a Mass on time. The judgment that they should walk more quickly might be a reasonable one, but after making such a judgment, and increasing the pace, there is no point in worrying more about the matter.

But how to avoid such anxiety? One important step is to mentally accept the potential bad outcome about which one is tending to worry. If there is nothing more one can to do avoid it, it is perfectly legitimate to accept it as if it already happened. Another step, more relevant to the passage quoted from St. Paul, is to look at the matter in light of God's providence. The present situation is within God's providence, as well as the outcome, whether that turn out to be what one is hoping for, or the contrary. St. Francis de Sales states, as a general principle, that we should do what we can to attain good results, but leave the result in God's hand, as in fact it is. As we accustom ourselves to seeing God's hand in everything, this reliance on God will naturally lessen worry and anxiety, without in any way diminishing our care to fulfill our duties.

See also sayings of St. Therese on love

Welcome to this blog

I've made this blog to present my reflections on Christian life, vocation, and love, in a more ongoing manner, and not only by way of articles. My hope is that this blog will become a place for an exchange of thoughts on these topics, which until now has mostly taken place by way of e-mail. Comments and questions are most welcome.