In chapters nine and ten of Part 4 of The Lord, Guardini talks about two kinds of orders of virtue: an order of common virtue and an order of exceptional virtue. Both of these kinds of orders are good (they are “virtuous”), and both can lead to eternal life. And neither can be achieved by man through any purely natural means—both require the help of grace and that they be lived out in faith. But one stands above the other in terms of its perfection. To illustrate these two kinds of orders, he uses two pairs of examples of Christian vocations.
In the first pair, in chapter nine, we see a reflection on marriage. Marriage is a tremendous good, in its own right. Two people become one flesh, initially paired together out of passion and an almost infantile love that ebbs and flows and sometimes beats faster and slower like a heart being exercised. Two people joined in a union chosen by themselves, but consecrated before God. The union is not their union at all. It is God’s. That is why Christ speaks against divorce; this is not man’s institution which can be discarded at his own will—man has no claim to authority over it. A Christian marriage properly has Christ at its center. We’ve heard the old joke about two young people dancing a bit too closely when someone walks up and pulls them apart saying “Make room for Jesus!” It’s silly, but it has a ring of truth. A Christian marriage does not succeed in its vocation if Christ is not in the midst of the couple. When it does, the love the two have for each other grows ever more real, far beyond fleeting passions. The two look upon each other as fellow children of God, they work to help and correct and guide each other on the path of sanctification. Their shared faith contributes to each other’s holiness in a way far deeper than even a mother with her child. It is truly a good thing.
However, there is another thing Jesus mentions which stands on the higher order: virginity. He mentions it immediately after talking about marriage in Matthew. The disciples are aghast at what Jesus has just said concerning divorce (and combining what they have already heard him say about lustful glances already being adultery, you can imagine their panic on the subject). It would be better to never marry at all, if that is what marriage is! Jesus responds that there is, indeed, another order of virtue for the Christian sexual life.
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Eunuchs who have made themselves such “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” That is, voluntary celibates—those who have chosen to devote the entirety of their love to God alone. This is a hard thing to do, and Jesus acknowledges it. “Let anyone accept this who can.” It is not something to be done lightly, and it is reserved for those “who can.” It is reserved for those who are called to that particular vocation. But certainly it stands on a higher order of perfection. The voluntary celibate devotes the entirety of himself to God. That is a tremendously virtuous thing! That is not saying that marriage isn’t “good” or indeed even “less good.” Both are good and holy, and both lead to eternal life. But one, for those who are called to it, does more perfectly emulate what beatified life will be like. Many are called to marriage, while few are called to celibacy. Hence why we might call these the “common virtue” and “extraordinary virtue,” respectively.
In chapter ten, Guardini takes on another pair of virtues: responsible management of property, and poverty (that is, voluntary poverty). In the first, man still retains ownership of things. But he always manages and dispenses his property in accordance with justice, and mercy, and generosity. He is not ravenously chasing down his debtors out of greed, he is not profiting off the misery of others, he is not hoarding wealth for himself. With Christ as his guide and teacher, he is able to manage his estate in a fair and just manner. This is a good and virtuous thing, and the vocation most of us are called to. But there is another, higher vocation: poverty.
We see this in the same chapter, in Matthew 19:16-26. A young rich man comes to Jesus and he asks what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus lists a few commandments. The man says “I have already done those things all my life! What more can I do?” Jesus perhaps senses the man has earnestly tried to keep the commandments, but that the man is desperately yearning for a higher, more challenging calling. He gives it to him. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man is struck by the difficulty of this calling. He weeps and leaves—it is too difficult a thing. Indeed, voluntary poverty is a tremendous burden. But like the responsible property owner must learn to release his ties to his property, in order to truly manage them in a just and fair manner, one who is called to poverty must do so even more radically. He must release all claims to ownership whatsoever. He must acknowledge that everything, ultimately, belongs to God, and view everything from that perspective. He gives up the things that rule him in order that God alone may take ownership of him. Again, just as with celibacy, this is a more perfect reflection of the beatified life. But it is tremendously difficult, and only a few are called to it.
We must be clear when talking about these things that none of these are possible without grace. Common virtues or extraordinary virtues, it makes no difference. They all require Christ at their center, and the help of grace in order to be lived at all. So, no matter your vocation, whether you feel called to something as extraordinary as celibacy or something as beautiful and “common” as marriage, pray diligently. No matter your vocation, keep Christ as your center.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.