That the Perfection of a Religious Consists in the Perfect Observance of the Three Vows That He Makes of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience

by admin on April 24, 2011

BEFORE we come to speak in particular of each of these vows, we will make some observations on them in gen­eral. Let this be the first, that these three vows are the principal means which religious life offers for the attain­ment of perfection. St. Thomas says that a religious is in a state of perfection; and such is the common doctrine of the doctors and saints, taken from St. Denis the Areopagite. They do not mean to say that, being a religious, a man is at once perfect, says the glorious St. Thomas, but that he professes to travel on the road to perfection. Non quasi profitentes se ipsos perfectos, sect, profitentes se ad perfectionem tendere. The religious does not profess to be already perfect, as the bishop professes, because the state of episcopacy requires perfection going before; but for the religious state it is not necessary that it should go before— it is enough if it comes after. St. Thomas well gathers this difference between the episcopal and the religious state from the words of Christ our Redeemer in the Gospel. In giving the counsel of voluntary poverty, which the religious professes, He does not suppose the person to whom He gives it to be perfect, but that he will be perfect if he observes those counsels. He did not say: If thou art perfect, go sell what thou hast, but: If thou wilt lie perfect (Matt. xix. 21). But to make St. Peter a prelate, He asks him not only if he loves Him, but if he loves Him more than the rest do, and that not only once, but a second and third time, to give us to understand the great charity and perfec­tion that is required for such an office. Thus both the epis­copal state and the religious state are states of perfection, but in different ways; for the former presupposes perfection, and does not give it; while the rejligious state does not suppose perfection, but gives it. You are not bound at once to be perfect on being a religious, but you are bound to aspire after perfection, and make it your business and try for it. They allege for this that saying of St. Jerome: Monachum perfectum in patria sua esse non posse, perfec-tumautem esse nolle delinquere est—”A religious cannot be perfect, living at home in his native place”—a religious very fond of his native place and much attached to his relations is not taking the right road to perfection—”and not to seek perfection, or try for it, or aim at it, is a breach of duty in him,” since he fails in what is due and obligatory in his state. And St. Eusebius of Ernessa says: “It is a great thing to enter religion; but he who after entering upon this state does not aim at perfection, runs great dan­ger and risk of incurring damnation.” And so St. Thomas says that a religious who makes no effort to attain perfec­tion, nor concerns himself about it, is a mockery in reli­gion, since he does not aim at nor try for that which he professes and for which he came into religion. Our life must be in agreement with the name that we bear.

Now the chief means that religion offers for the attain­ment of perfection are the three essential vows that we make of poverty, chastity, and obedience. St. Thomas explains this very well. The religious state, he says, may be considered in three ways. First, as it is an exercise of traveling to perfection; and for that it is necessary to get rid of those things that might hinder and hold back the heart from being wholly taken up with the love of God, in which perfection consists. These things are mainly three. The first is the coveting of exterior goods, and that obsta­cle is got rid of by the vow of poverty; the second is the craving after sensual pleasures, and that obstacle is got rid of by the vow of chastity; the third is the disorder of our will, and that is removed by the vow of obedience.

Secondly, the religious state may be considered as a state of great quiet and freedom from the things of the world, according to the saying of the Apostle St. Paul: I would have you be without anxiety (I Cor. vii. 32). This is very well secured by the three vows, since this anxiety and rest­lessness proceed chiefly from three things: property, which is removed by the vow of poverty; management of chil­dren and household, which is removed by the vow of chas­tity; disposal of one’s self, of one’s own acts and occupa­tions—for example, “What shall I do to fill.up my time? What office or place will suit me?”—and that care is removed by the vow of obedience, whereby a man puts him­self in the hands of his superior, who holds the place of God, to do with him what he sees fit.

Thirdly, the religious state may be considered as a holo­caust, whereby a man offers himself and all his belongings entirely to God. This he does completely by the three vows, because all that we hold here on earth is reducible to three heads—exterior goods of property and riches, and these we renounce and offer to God by the vow of poverty; bodily goods and pleasures, and these we renounce and offer by the vow of chastity; interior goods of the soul, and these we offer by the vow of obedience, whereby we renounce our will and understanding, handing them over and subjecting them to the superior in place of God. Thus, whatever way we look at it, we shall find that these three vows which we offer to God are the chief means that reli­gion supplies for the attainment of perfection.

It is related in the chronicles of the Friars Minor that Christ our Redeemer once appeared to St. Francis and bade him make Him three offerings. “Thou knowest, O Lord,” answered the saint, “that I have already offered Thee all that I have, and that I am all Thine, and that I have nothing left in the world but this habit and cord, which are Thine also. What, therefore, can I offer to Thine Infinite Majesty ? I would I had another heart and another soul to offer Thee. But since Thou biddest me make an offering, give it me, O Lord, that therewith I may serve and obey Thee.” The Lord said to him: “Put thy hand into thy bosom and offer Me what thou findest.” He did so, and found in his bosom a piece of gold so large and beautiful that he had never seen the like. He stretched out his arm at once, and offered it to the Lord. He was bidden do the same a second and a third time; and each time he drew out another piece of gold and offered it. And the Lord told him that these three offerings signified golden obedience, precious poverty, and fair chastity. These things, says the saint, the Lord has given me the grace of offering to Him so perfectly that my conscience reproaches me on no point of the observance of them. Oh, that we could offer to God these three vows in such sort that our conscience should reproach us on no point of the observance of them! Oh, that we could say, not with St. Francis alone, but with holy Job: Mine heart hath not reproached nor rebuked me in the whole course of my life (Job xxvii. 6).

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