Chastity, Poverty and Obedience

Three well known vows of commitment in the church, also known as the three evangelical counsels or three counsels of perfection, are: chastity, poverty, and obedience.   This arose from Jesus’ advice to the rich person who was already following the commandments, which was enough to get into heaven. Jesus said: if you wish to be “perfect” (τελειος) sell all your things, give the money to the poor and come follow me.  [Matt 19:21]

Chastity is applicable to persons in all states, single or married, clerical or lay, and has implications beyond sexual temperance. Some of these implications reach back to the word’s Latin root, the adjective castus or ‘pure.’   In the Abrahamic traditions, sexuality is associated with marriage and a commitment which calls for fidelity and does not allow for sexual intimacy with others.  Customs vary by denomination regarding ‘chaste living’ during and after intercourse, pregnancy, menstruation, childbirth and mourning periods.  Some lines allow for clergy to marry, others (notably the Shakers) do not even allow for sexuality among anyone, and still others encourage vows of chastity as part of an ascetic lifestyle of contemplation.  Some denomination allow for marriage among clergy, or even favor it, others require strict celibacy, and others offer double cloisters for married people entering monastic life. In Hinduism, brahmacharya or abstinence is seen as appropriate before marriage, when sexuality is associated with marriage and seen as a sacred act of procreation. Hindu ascetic practices include celibacy. Kindness in sexual conduct is covered by the general Jain code of ethics:  do no harm to any living being in thought, action, or word.  The teachings of Buddhism prohibit sexual misconduct and many orders of monks and nuns maintain celibacy as part of their practice.

Poverty (or perfect charity) can be avowed in many ways. It can mean the renunciation of individual ownership – of land, wealth, and other real property. Or it can mean self-denial, placing oneself at the service of others. And this service can be taken to various extremes, dangers, and sufferings. It may be necessary or desirable to separate oneself from too many earthly cares and distractions—the thorns that choke the good seed, [Matt 13:22]—so as not to be too busy when called to the feast.

Obedience is the last of the three vows. In Catholic orders, this would refer to the Code of Canon Law which states “obedience, undertaken in a spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ, who was obedient even unto death requires a submission of the will to legitimate superiors, who stand in the place of God when they command according to the proper constitutions”and the specific community (Benedictines would vow to follow St. Benedict’s Rule, for example).

Categories Edify, Featured Articles | Tags: | Posted on December 16, 2009

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