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Perfection and the Evangelical Counsels

St. Paul speaks of the spirit of evangelical counsels—poverty, chastity, and obedience—when he says that we should use the goods of this world as though not using them, avoiding a spirit of affection for them or living as though we will be on this earth forever. It is necessary, Garrigou-Lagrange (1) cautions us, to always remember that we are merely on a journey, during which we are obligated to grow in charity until we reach the end.

"Allegory of Poverty," GIOTTO di Bondone, c. 1330 // Fresco // Lower Church,  San Francesco, Assisi Photo: -allegory-of-poverty.html
"Allegory of Poverty," GIOTTO di Bondone, c. 1330 // Fresco // Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi Photo: -allegory-of-poverty.html
"Allegory of Poverty," GIOTTO di Bondone, c. 1330 // Fresco // Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi Photo: -allegory-of-poverty.html

There are those who, because of their vocation in life, have a special obligation to tend toward perfection. This applies most particularly to priests, in order that they may be worthy ministers of Christ.

It also includes other religious bound by vows of poverty, absolute chastity, and obedience. In this chapter, Garrigou-Lagrange discusses the practice of these three counsels as they relate to Christian perfection and the healing of our moral wounds.

"For all that is in the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but is of the world." (2)

Garrigou-Lagrange writes that the three moral wounds: concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes, and pride of life, are grave because they replace the triple harmony (between God and the soul, the soul and the body, and the body and exterior goods), that exists in the state of original justice. It is through the three evangelical counsels that Christ desires to reestablish this harmony.

Originally, on the first day of creation there was perfect harmony between God and the soul, between the soul and the body, between the body of man and exterior goods. Harmony existed between God and the soul, since it is created to know God, to love Him, to serve Him, and by this means to obtain eternal life.

The first man, who was created in “the state of sanctity and original justice,” was a contemplative who conversed familiarly with God, as we read in the first chapters of Genesis. His soul found its principal nourishment in divine things, “a little less than the angels” (Ps. 8:6). In the light of God, he considered all things, and he obeyed the Lord.

From this superior harmony came that which existed between the soul and the body, which was made to serve the soul. Since the soul was perfectly subordinated to God, it had dominion over its body. The passions or movements of the sensible appetites followed with docility the direction of right reason enlightened by faith and the impelling force of the will vivified by charity.

Finally, there was harmony between the body and exterior goods. The earth produced its fruits spontaneously without the necessity of being worked painfully; the animals were docile, or at least did no harm to man, who had received dominion over them.

Sin disturbed this triple harmony by destroying the highest of the three; it introduced the triple disorder, called by St. John “the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life." (3)

Through concupiscence of the flesh, the soul loses control of its body and passions. The reason and the will no longer control these passions, thus making the soul their slave. This bondage causes the soul to become preoccupied with idolatry of the body. As the soul becomes increasingly enslaved, the passions of love, jealousy, anger, and hatred increase.

The body, as master, demands the use of exterior goods to satisfy its desires. This, in turn, evolves into a continual pursuit of useless luxury. Concupiscence of the eyes encourages an attraction to all that glitters. Many, after accumulating fortune, develop a pride for life and become obsessed with its maintenance and growth. These slaves have no time for prayer or spiritual sustenance, approaching life on earth as eternal, with little concern for salvation.

It is only through advancement in the three evangelical counsels that this triple slavery can be overcome and once again be replaced with the triple harmony between God and the soul, between the soul and the body, and between the body of man and exterior goods

At the precise moment of conception, Christ became consecrated to God and united to the Word in an uncreated sanctity. This hypostatic union of human and divine nature created an infallible intellect, an impeccable will, and a pure sensibility incapable of knowing any disorder. Every act comes from God, and returns to God.

Because the humanity of Christ is thus radically consecrated to God, it is separated from the spirit of the world and is given to the world to save it and deliver it from its spirit of blindness, concupiscence, and pride.

Christ’s very elevation separates Him from the spirit of the world, from all that is evil or less good. By this innate elevation, Christ is detached from worldly goods, honors, and mundane affairs; the model of poverty, He had not “whereon to rest His head."

By the elevation of His spirit, Christ is also detached from the pleasures of the world, free from the demands of a family, that He may found a universal family, the Church. In this He is the model of religious chastity, which is the condition of His universal, spiritual paternity.

Finally, by His supernatural elevation, Christ is detached from all self-will. At the age of twelve He declares that He must be about His Father’s business, and He is “obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross." (4)

This elevation separates Christ from everything that is inferior, allowing him to act on the world from a great height in a more universal and profound way. This "height" enables him to bring eternal life to the entire human race, and not be limited to any particular place or time. This is a confirmation that Christ was not of this world but rather, was given to the world for its salvation.

God commands, then, that this renewed harmony continue to shine in the light of its sanctity through the example of the saints, heroic souls still on this earth, in families and most notably, through religious institutions.

Thus, Christ encourages those with a religious vocation to align their lives with the spirit of the three evangelical counsels and to practice them effectively. Not only must they embrace a triple consecration to these counsels, but a triple separation, as well. It is this triple separation from the world that assures them growth of the highest virtues of faith, hope and charity, culminating in a more complete union with God.

In the use of worldly goods, He counsels restraint that they may not be led into excess. He invites them to practice poverty, to separate themselves from the free use and even from the possession of exterior goods, and to consecrate these goods to God that they may no longer be an obstacle, but a means in the journey towards eternity.

He invites them to absolute chastity, that is, to renounce completely the pleasures of the senses, and to consecrate their bodies and hearts to God that these may no longer be an obstacle, but a means vivified by grace.

He invites them, finally, to holy obedience, to free themselves from all self-will, so easily capricious and rebellious, in order that their wills may no longer be an obstacle but a means more and more supernaturalized by charity, with a view to union with God which will daily grow closer and stronger. (5)

There is no guarantee of freedom from temptations while practicing these virtues—only suppression and a strengthening of resistance to them. The effort exercised in gaining control of the three wounds guarantees a more rapid and sure road toward the perfection of charity.

The rendering to God of the worship due him causes the virtues of poverty, chastity , and obedience to be called religious or holy virtues. Because its object is worship due to God, the virtue of religion is considered the first of the moral virtues, immediately following faith, hope, and charity and infused prudence, which in turn, offers to God the virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience.

When the religious binds himself to God through these three vows, promising to practice them until death, he is following Christ's example of obedience even to the death of the cross. The religious offers himself in union with Christ as an oblation or sacrifice in the same way that Christ offered himself, truly deserving of the title "holocaust."

Amen I say to you, there is no man who hath left house or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, Who shall not receive an hundred times as much, now in this time; houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions: and in the world to come life everlasting. (6)

Next: The Special Obligation of the Priest and the Religious to Tend to Perfection


(1) Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P., "The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I," trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P., Illinois: Tan Books, 1989
(2) 1 John 2:16
(3) Garrigou-Lagrange, p208-9
(4) Ibid., p. 210-211
(5) Ibid., p. 212
(6) Mark 10:29-30