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    illustration of a lily

    The Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience

    Those who enter religious communities accept these counsels literally. But, in one way or another, they apply to everyone who desires to follow Christ.

    By Evelyn Underhill

    June 11, 2023

    No discipline will be any use to us unless we keep in mind the reason why we are doing this – for the glory of God, and not just for the sake of our own self-improvement or other self-regarding purpose. Our object is to be what God wants of us not what we want of him – though indeed we want and receive everything of him. So all that we do must be grounded in worship. First lift up our eyes to the hills, then turn to our own potato field and lightly fork in the manure.

    All this suggests that though this outer discipline is very important for us, there is something deeper and more secret that God asks of us, if we really desire to give our lives to him. Our Lord demanded great renunciation of those who wanted to follow him. He never suggested that the Christian life was an easy or comfortable affair. The substance of what he asked is summed up in what are called the “evangelical counsels” – poverty, chastity, and obedience. We know that those who enter religious communities accept these counsels in their most literal form. They do give up all their possessions, their natural and human relationships, the freedom of their wills. But in one way or another, something of their spirit is needed by everyone who really desires to follow Christ. The New Testament means what it says when it demands poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and filial obedience from all who would do this. And the reason is, that each of these qualities in a different way detaches us from the unreal and self-regarding interests with which (almost without knowing it) we usually fill up our lives. They simplify us, clear the ground for God; so that our relation of utter dependence on him stands out as the one reality of our existence. So it might be profitable for us this Lent to meditate on the three counsels and see what light they cast on our own lives.

    illustration of a lily

    Leonardo da Vinci, Lily

    First, think of poverty. Even outward poverty, a hard and simple life, the dropping for love’s sake of the many things we feel we “must have” is a great help in the way of the Spirit. Far more precious is that inward poverty of which it is the sacrament; which frees us from possessions and possessiveness and does away with the clutch of “the I, the me and the mine” upon our souls. We can all strive for this internal grace, this attitude of soul, and it is a very important part of the life of prayer. The Holy Spirit is called the giver of gifts and the father of the poor; but his cherishing action is only really felt by those who acknowledge their own deep poverty – who realize that we have literally nothing of our own, but are totally dependent on God and on that natural world in which God has placed us and which is the sacramental vehicle of his action. When we grasp this we are ready to receive his gifts. Some souls are so full of pious furniture and ornaments, that there is no room for him. All the correct things have been crammed into the poor little villa, but none of the best quality. They need to pull down the curtains, get rid of the knick-knacks, and throw their premises open to the great simplicity of God. Our prayers, too, should be stripped and simplified so that they become a reaching up, a free response to the self-giving of God.

    Some souls are so full of pious furniture and ornaments that there is no room for God. All the correct things have been crammed into the poor little villa, but none of the best quality.

    Chastity. The counsel of chastity does not, of course, mean giving up marriage but something much more subtle and penetrating. It really means the spirit of poverty applied to our emotional life – all the clutch and feverishness of desire, the “I want” and “I must have” taken away and replaced by absolute single-mindedness, purity of heart. This may involve a deliberate rationing of the time and energy we give to absorbing personal relationships with others – unnecessary meetings, talks and letters – to special tastes and interests, or, worst of all, self-occupied daydreams and broodings about ourselves, cravings for sympathy and interest. We have to be very firm with ourselves about all this, making war on every kind of possessiveness, self-centeredness and clutch. From all these entanglements Christ’s spirit of chaste love will set us free; for it is a selfless, all-embracing charity – friendship with God, and with all his creatures for his sake. The innocence of eye which can see God in his creatures belongs to those who love but do not want to possess; and so do not adulterate the vision of the heavenly beauty by their own self-centered longings. A selfish craving to enjoy him for ourselves can even poison our love of God. It is the wrong kind of devotion – it wants to get as well as to give. So the spirit of chastity must transform and unself all our feelings and desires even the most sacred; steadying and tranquillizing us, and so placing us wholly at the disposition of God’s love.

    Obedience. This means the total surrender of our wills, which are the great obstacles to our real self-giving to God. The more we get rid of self-chosen aims, however good, the more supple we are to his pressure, the nearer we get to the pattern of the Christian life which is summed up in “not my will but thine be done.” Then, not before, we are ready to be used as God’s tools and contribute to his purpose. Since God is the true doer of all that is done, it is always for him to initiate and for us to respond, and this willing response is the essence of obedience. Obedience means more freedom not less, for it lifts the burden of perpetual choice, and in so doing actually increases our power of effective action by making us the instruments of God’s unlimited action. When the whole Church is thus obedient to him it will be what it is meant to be, “a fellowship of creative heaven-led souls” with power to fulfill its vocation of transforming the world. There is an obligation laid on each of us to do our best to contribute to this great end, and ready obedience to the human beings among whom he has placed us is a very good way of learning obedience to God.

    Source: Evelyn Underhill, Fruits of the Spirit; Light of Christ; Abba (London: Longmans, 1956), 65–68.

    Contributed By portrait of Evelyn Underhill Evelyn Underhill

    Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) was a prolific English writer known for her works on religion and spiritual practice, especially Christian mysticism.

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