Chastity, Poverty and Obedience

Divine wisdom or strait-jacket?
by Br Andrew Dalton, LC | Source:

"By the profession of the evangelical counsels the characteristic features of Jesus the chaste, poor and obedient one are made constantly "visible" in the midst of the world"  (John Paul II, On Consecrated Life, n. 1).

When was the last time you heard the phrase “evangelical counsels”?  If you think it must refer to a fundamentalist law firm, you’re probably not alone.

The truth of the matter is that the three evangelical counsels are a key concept for Christian life, because they’re the lifestyle that Jesus chose for himself: chastity, poverty, and obedience. But it’s no secret that these three vows continue their long plunge in popularity in today’s society. 

Perhaps you are a young person contemplating a vocation to religious life as a consecrated brother or sister.   If you haven’t heard it already, it won’t be long until you come across the idea that chastity, poverty and obedience are three suffocating strait-jackets for the sanctimonious: “No money! No honey!  And you got a boss!”

But for those of us who are called to this way of life, there is something magnetic and majestic about this threesome.  It hurts to hear them scoffed at as naïve idealism. 

I speak from personal experience. 

One sunny day in Bordeaux, France, a group of teenagers started heckling me light-heartedly during their cigarette break.  It is safe to wager that they weren’t accustomed to seeing young men dressed in black praying the rosary in the middle of an open lawn.  (Go figure!)

They happened to be taking a career placement course at the diocesan center where I was living at the time.  It didn’t take long to find out that the loudmouth with the spiky hair wanted to be a nightclub bouncer and had the brazen tongue he was going to need for it.

He got to his point quickly.  “So you and the ladies don’t, you know, mix?  No?  Never?  Come on!”

The skinny girl at his side gave me a look that said something like, “Yuck, there really are aliens on earth!”

What could I do?  In the few minutes I had with them, I tried to convey simply and enthusiastically the joy I find in consecrated life.

Maybe I should have gone out and bought each of them a copy of Vita Consecrata by Pope John Paul II.  But something tells me they wouldn’t read it.  Well, at least I can recommend the Pope’s letter to you, a letter from which I have gleaned phrases for this article in they hope that they may help you ward off the world’s verbal hand grenades.  And let us not forget that antagonistic voices sometimes even come from inside our own heads.

In short, you are inclined to think that chastity, poverty and obedience might be something splendid and saintly. What do you tell the friends who just don’t get it?  What do you tell yourself?

"The counsels, more than a simple renunciation, are a specific acceptance of the mystery of Christ, lived within the Church" (John Paul II, On Consecrated Life, n. 16).



No Honey or the Highest Love?

No honey:  this is the world’s definition of chastity.  How can it possibly see the attraction of Evangelical Strait-Jacket Number One?  And might it be right?  What’s the use of giving up the benefits of married life?  Isn’t that kind of like trampling on spring flowers or pouring fine French wine down the drain? 

If you are a teenager or young adult, chastity is probably the vow that stands out most.  Celibacy is the ultimate sacrifice in a world that ceaselessly glorifies (and exploits) sensual passion.  But let’s tie the knot even tighter:  celibacy does not refer to giving up sin; rather, it entails giving up something good, glorious and holy! 

But wait!  Where is the beauty in that?

Yes, in Christ it is possible to love God with all one’s heart, putting him above every other love, and thus to love every creature with the freedom of God! (John Paul II, On Consecrated Life, n. 88)


The maxim, “no honey,” is not merely a twisting of the truth but its exact opposite.  To choose celibacy is to choose the highest love, the sweetest honey.  It is love for that which is most lovable.  It is total and definitive love for him who gave love its definition.  Ask those who live it generously how sweet it is!

Here are three marvelous reasons to choose celibacy. 

First, because God is worthy of all our love. 

Second, because in dedicating our whole life and heart to God, we become totally available – temporally and emotionally – for the mission of saving souls and glorifying the Father.

Third – and this one’s my favorite – because the one who lives celibacy becomes a walking billboard that heaven is real and already on the way.  A celibate man’s “chastity expresses the yearning of a heart unsatisfied by any finite love” (On Consecrated Life, n. 36) and gives living witness that the love of God alone is enough to fill his heart.  He need not forage for love with limits, already having in this life a foretaste of heaven where God will be all in all.

"It has constantly been taught that the consecrated life is a foreshadowing of the future Kingdom" (John Paul II, On Consecrated Life, n. 26).

Even if I could give a hundred reasons why celibacy is possible and beautiful, they alone would not suffice at the hour of decision.  We can only choose this narrow path once we have heard Christ inviting us personally.  “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:12).  



No Money or Hidden Treasure?

No money: this is the definition of poverty the world will give you.  How can it possibly see the attraction of Evangelical Strait-Jacket Number Two?  It seems no more than renunciation and sacrifice.

But for those of us who have faith in Jesus, can we put a positive spin on poverty?

If faith is alive, then, yes!  Where the world sees a strait-jacket, we see a hidden treasure.  Yes, we give things up, but for the sake of clinging to God.  Poverty, in the first place, doesn’t mean I spend no money.  It means I spend all my “money” on him.  I spend all my resources on him.  All my faculties and possessions, even my time, become his property and my free gift.  And because every free choice necessarily implies a renunciation of what I don’t choose, poverty entails sacrifice.  But wouldn’t we be foolish to miss the treasure and see nothing but the price tag?

"Poverty proclaims that God is man’s only real treasure" (John Paul II, On Consecrated Life, n. 21).

Ultimately, it is faith in Jesus’ word and example that unveil this hidden treasure.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3).

“So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’  All these things the pagans seek.  Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides” (Mt 6:31-33).

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Mt 13:44).



Boss or Guide?

I got a boss: this is the world’s definition of obedience.  It pictures a hangdog hermit enslaving himself to the whims of his superior, mortifying the desires and dreams of his spirit, snuffing out everything that suggests individuality, spontaneity or creativity.  How can he possibly feel the allure of Evangelical Strait-Jacket Number Three?

Until we plunge deep into the mystery of Christ, we simply cannot be drawn to this sublime virtue.  We must not forget that we have fallen and that humanity is still bruised and broken.  Yet, if we pause before the humbling fact that an all-powerful God, who had nothing to gain and everything to lose, robed himself in human flesh, shouldered a cross, and shed his blood upon it – and all this as an act of loving obedience to the Father in order to purchase our salvation – then the scales that blind our eyes begin to fall away.

Motivated by the desire to save souls and achieve union with the one who offered the perfect sacrifice, those who make a vow of obedience join voices with Jesus who once summed up his entire life in this simple prayer:  “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Have you ever noticed that obedience has the marvelous power of exalting the most ignorant above the most brilliant?  We may not be able to figure out our multiplication tables, but if we figure that God, who fashioned the stars and set them in their orbits, is a smidgeon smarter than we are, then, by obeying his commandments and heeding his counsels, we act with divine intelligence! 

For example, take St. Joseph .  Now for all I know, he may well have been the sharpest tool in the shed.  Nevertheless, we don’t remember him for being brilliant. That’s secondary.  Instead, we celebrate St. Joseph ’s obedience to God through his messenger. 

Each year on his solemn feast day, we commemorate St. Joseph ’s part in salvation history.  Even Einstein’s scientific achievements pale in comparison.

There is yet a deeper reason to feel attracted to evangelical obedience.  Lovers look for the loveliest gifts to give their beloved.  We are not obedient to men because we enjoy punishing ourselves, but in the faith that in imitating Christ by subjecting our will and judgment to God-instituted authority, we make an offering to our Creator of the noblest things we have, the highest faculties of our spirit. 

"Obedience is the source of true freedom" (John Paul II, On Consecrated Life, n. 36).

Ironically, we find a liberating treasure just where the world expects us to find enslaving chains.  For those who live obedience, every moment of life becomes an opportunity to show love.  The spirit comes alive with joy, clings to the treasure and exclaims, “I know how to give God my love!  I know how to do the will of God and please him!  I know how to be holy!”



Truth Shall Set You Free

"[Jesus’] way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine, for it was embraced by him, God and man... This is why Christian tradition has always spoken of the objective superiority of the consecrated life" (John Paul II, On Consecrated Life, n. 18).

Don’t let the world get you down.  Be strong and know that if you long to give yourself fully to God through chastity, poverty and obedience, you aspire to a noble way.  Such was the path chosen by Our Lord.  Such is the way he chooses for many privileged souls who come after him.

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me (Mt 19:21).


Br Andrew Dalton, of the Legionaries of Christ, writes from Paris.





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