Consecrated Life vs. Marriage
Is one really more holy than the other?
There was a time when I believed that a vocation to the consecrated life was superior to, and holier than, the state of matrimony. After all, St. Paul stated “An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” (1 Cor:34)
However, the older I get and the more I witness the life of sacrifice of faithful couples, the more I realize how skewed were my perceptions of what made a vocation “holy.” Recently I was reading that familiar scripture passage from St. Paul. Then I noticed the reason why he recommended celibate chastity: “I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.” (1Cor: 35)
When I was in college I had two friends. “Steve” was studying to be a medical doctor. “Sandy” was pursuing a doctorate in Nutrition Science. Steve was fortunate to have his tuition paid for by his parents, who were very well-off, financially. This allowed him to focus on his studies without the distraction of a part time job, and he excelled as a medical student. Sandy, on the other hand, struggled through her undergrad, graduate and doctoral studies after her husband left her to raise their six children! Needless to say, she had far more distractions to deal with than Steve, yet attained her goal as well. And so it is with marriage. It is not without distractions, notes St. Paul, yet perfection is attainable with grace.
I sing in our parish choir, so during the Eucharistic prayers I am able to see the congregation below me as I kneel in prayer. From the railing I have a beautiful and clear view of the sanctuary and can soak in the elements of Mass without distraction. I feel like I have the best seat in the house. Meanwhile, in the pews below me where most of the young families park their strollers, car seats, and diaper bags, I see young mothers and fathers trying to keep one eye on the altar and the other on their restless children. I can hear muffled toddler babbling and wailing coming from behind the closed doors of the nave below me, where parents escape to with a child going into meltdown mode. How much easier it would be for parents to skip Mass altogether, yet these couples work hard to put spiritual food on the table for their families.
How can I view my vocation as a greater sacrifice than theirs? I have it so much easier. Poverty, chastity and obedience are a cakewalk compared to marriage as far as I’m concerned. Money and “stuff” can be a headache, chastity is a gift from God and obedience, while the most challenging of the vows, is a part of married life as well. Ever been in a house with a newborn? That’s the real commander and chief. Everyone in the house is obedient to the demanding needs of the newcomer: mother, father, siblings, guests, the dog. And that’s just the beginning for those who vow “until death do us part.”
The person who really opened my eyes to the concept of marriage as a vocation is St. Francis de Sales, bishop and doctor of the church. He was a champion of the “Universal Call to Holiness” centuries before it was spelled out in Vatican II. He wrote a book on spiritual direction for the laity entitled The Introduction to the Devout Life, first published in 1609 and a spiritual classic to this day. In it he describes marriage as “…a great Sacrament both in Jesus Christ and His Church, and one to be honoured to all, by all and in all. To all, for even those who do not enter upon it should honour it in all humility. By all, for it is holy alike to poor as to rich. In all, for its origin, its end, its form and matter are holy. It is the nursery of Christianity…”
And while poverty, chastity and obedience are the defining characteristics of consecrated life, St. Francis de Sales reminds us that Jesus calls all of us to surrender to Him. “LOVE alone leads to perfection, but the three chief means for acquiring it are obedience, chastity, and poverty. Obedience is a consecration of the heart, chastity of the body, and poverty of all worldly goods to the Love and Service of God…The three vows solemnly taken put a man into the state of perfection, whereas a diligent observance thereof brings him to perfection. For, observe, there is a great difference between the state of perfection and perfection itself, inasmuch as all prelates and religious are in the former, although unfortunately it is too obvious that by no means all attain to the latter. Let us then endeavour to practise these three virtues, according to our several vocations, for although we are not thereby called to a state of perfection, we may attain through them to perfection itself, and of a truth we are all bound to practise them, although not all after the same manner.”
So just as it is ideal for a student to concentrate on their studies without distractions, so it is ideal to leave the world “for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.” But the standard of perfection is commanded of all of us, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48),” says the Lord. Married couples can, and do attain the same levels of holiness as a consecrated person, but it takes an incredible sacramental grace and personal generosity to help them get there. So let us look with great respect upon the vocation they have been called to and learn from their beautiful life of sacrifice.
DeSales Secular Institute