There are two – and only two – forms of life in the Church. One is consecration in the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience: a living embodiment of the pure form of ecclesial existence. The other is marriage, which lives out a good of the created order – the family – according to the spirit and pattern of ecclesial existence. One could say that in the consecrated life the form (which is ecclesial existence) is also a matter, whereas in marriage the matter is creation and the form comes from ecclesial existence. 

The two forms of life cannot be combined. The division doesn’t start with poverty (all Christians regard their possessions as loans), or even with obedience (all Christians owe obedience to God; that’s part of their life in Christ and the Church), but with the nuptial dimension of Christianity. For spouses, nuptiality takes flesh in marriage, the faithful covenant of a man and a woman united in God according the spirit of Christ’s Bride. For consecrated people, however, nuptiality takes flesh in the virginal heart of Mary. It plunges them directly into the Church’s faithful covenant with her incarnate Lord.

The contrast between the two forms, then, isn’t that the married live for the world while the consecrated live for God: Such an either-or is foreign to Christianity. Nor is the contrast that the married are more oriented toward loving neighbor while the consecrated are more oriented toward loving God: That, too, makes no Christian sense, since love of God and love of neighbor grow together. Finally, the contrast isn’t that the married place more emphasis on eros while the consecrated place more emphasis on agape. In Christianity, love demands the whole heart, and both forms of love require some sort of renunciation, inasmuch as both involve exclusivity and both are schools of Christian selflessness. The real contrast is this: Marriage definitively binds love to the particular, whereas consecrated virginity binds it to the universality of the eucharistic relation – at once spiritual and physical – between Christ and redeemed humanity.

The consecrated state is characterized by a literal observance of Christ’s call to leave everything and follow him. In this sense, it is the visible, quasi-sacramental sign of the vow proper to the Church herself. This vow is already a reality in Mary; thanks to her Yes, the Church possesses inward substance and its outward expression – a res and sacramentum. This is why the presence of men and women who have surrendered their lives wholly to Christ is not merely desirable for the Church, but also necessary. It’s also why their function lies more in their being than in their “apostolate.” For their being itself is a consecration. It is existence in an ontological – and therefore conscious – devotion expressed through prayer and the vows. 

The Gospels themselves already present us with a “state” in a qualified sense invested with a curious visibility. The distinction between the disciples and the crowds is so clear that it generates two opposite movements of existence. On the one hand, the disciples, who have definitively left the world they knew and now stand with Christ, describe the same circle again and again: Christ sends them out into the world and they return to find their rest in him. The crowds represent the opposite movement: Again and again, they set out from the world in search of the Lord, experience the grace of contact or encounter with him – healing or forgiveness, feeding or instruction – and are then sent back to their respective places in the world.

It is Christ, the Lord of the Church, who differentiates the two ways and states. The call to consecration comes from him alone; no one has the right to choose this form of discipleship without clear call from the Lord. Nevertheless, every human being is at his best in the state God chooses for him to fulfill the divine will. Consequently, those not called to follow the Lord in the consecrated life shouldn’t feel disadvantaged in comparison with those who are. 

The Church watches jealously over the authentic spirit of her orders and communities, and her appreciation of their variegated abundance is matched by her desire to find the genuine spirit of the Gospel in all and each of them. Drawing on two millennia’s worth of experience, she knows today – despite the seeming forgetfulness of many Christians – that all organization, all propaganda fidei in the Church, ultimately remains sterile unless it is backed up by the vital force of a sacrificial life: the obedient, poor, and chaste love that draws its sustenance from the crucified love of God’s Son.

Texts by Hans Urs von Balthasar, from the anthology Verkaufe alles und folge mir nach

Further Reading
  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Christian State of Life. Ignatius Press, 1983. | Original: Christlicher Stand. Johannes Verlag, 1977. [Description in english]
  • ―. The Laity and the Life of the Counsels. The Church’s Mission in the World. Gracewing Publishing, 2004. | Original: Gottbereites Leben. Der Laie und der Rätestand. Nachfolge Christi in der heutigen Welt. Johannes Verlag Einsiedeln, 1993. [Description in english]
  • ―. “The Poverty of Christ.” Communio International Catholic Review, vol. 13, Fall, 1986, pp. 196–98.
  • ―. “Vocation.” Communio International Catholic Review, vol. 37, Spring, 2010.
  • Speyr, Adrienne von. Availability for the Spirit. (typewritten), Johannesgemeinschaft-Archiv, Basel.
  • ―. The Christian State of Life. Edited by Hans Urs Balthasar, Ignatius Press, 1986. | Original: Christlicher Stand. Edited by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Johannes Verlag, 1956. [Description in english]
  • ―. They followed His call: Vocation and asceticism. Ignatius Press, 1986. | Original: Sie folgten seinem Ruf. Berufung und Askese. Johannes Verlag, 1955. [Description in english]