Poverty, Chastity and Obedience…For Us
This week I had the opportunity to be part of a Year of Faith speaker series at a local parish. It was totally flattering to be asked and totally intimidating once I received my topic: Lumen Gentium.
Lumen Gentium (LG) is the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” one of the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council. It is also fairly long – 95 pages with 69 numbered “paragraphs” in 8 chapters.
To get my intellectual juices flowing I perused notes from grad school class discussions on the document and found an interesting thought. Our professor, a religious priest, in introducing the document had said that each time he went back to it, he came to a greater and deeper appreciation for it.
That was definitely my experience. This document is awesome – and there is so much in it.
Of the many elements that particularly struck me in this reading were the comments on the evangelical counsels. The evangelical counsels are poverty, chastity and obedience – essentially the vows that religious profess.
What is striking about their presentation in LG is that they are included in the chapter on “The Universal Call to Holiness.” That means they apply to you and me.
“All the faithful are invited and obliged to try to achieve holiness and the perfection of their own state of life” (42).
LG puts forward the idea that we are ALL called to live out the evangelical counsels. We are all called to live out a commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience.
“[The holiness of the Church] appears in a way especially suited to it in the practice of those counsels which are usually called evangelical. This practice of the counsels prompted by the Holy Spirit, undertaken by many Christians whether privately or in a form or state sanctioned by the Church, provides in the world, as it should, a striking witness and example of that holiness” (39).
This is the point at which my parish audience gave me some pretty surprised, confused, incredulous, and doubting looks, which was alternatively fun (because clearly I had caught their attention) and daunting (because now I had to make sense of what I just proclaimed).
Why are we all called to live the evangelical counsels? As a classmate of mine once pointed out: because they put limits and boundaries on basic human drives and desires, specifically the drive for money, sex, and power.
Poverty allows lay folks to keep relationships at the center of our lives instead of the drive for wealth and material possessions. Choosing an orientation toward intentional or voluntary simplicity enables us to focus on people rather than possessions; on those elements in our lives (relationship with God, ourselves, and others) that hold real lasting value rather than transitory or passing value.
Chastity can often be misunderstood as “celibacy.” They are not the same. Chastity is sexual purity, and that looks different depending on our state of life. For a single lay person, observing chastity means refraining from sex before marriage. For married couples, it means monogamy, of course, but also keeping our sexual relationship free from lust or objectification. For the celibate priest or religious, it means a vowed commitment to abstinence.
Obedience is about submission of our will to an appropriate authority. For a lay person this looks slightly different than it does for a priest or religious. In taking a vow of obedience, consecrated folks place themselves in particular relationship with the bishop or their religious superior.
At first glance, lay folks may not have the same “structure” for obedience in place. As Christians we have a vow of obedience to God as Lord of our lives. We have an obligation in the vicissitudes of life to actively discern God’s will for us. Sometimes that is easier than others. Sometimes it is clearer than others. But if we can see what it is, we are called to act in obedience to it.
Regarding obedience in married life: it doesn’t always seem like the most popular topic among Catholics to discuss obedience to one’s spouse. Especially when readings from Saint Paul about “wives be submissive to your husbands” come around the lectionary cycle.
In our marriage, I think Joshua and I begin to “achieve the perfection of our state of life” when each of us submits our strong wills to each other. Oftentimes, Joshua serves as the voice of God speaking into my life. That is not surprising considering he knows me more intimately than any other person. He, more than anyone else, has my wellbeing and thriving – as well as that of our family – as his number one priority. Sometimes “obedience” in this context simply looks like his assistance in orienting my priorities.
And that is what the evangelical counsels are all about: the correct orientation of our priorities as Catholic Christians and children of God. We are “universally called” to choose boundaries on our basic human drives and desires so that we are able to focus more clearly and intentionally on the divine and align ourselves with what is holy.