St. Paul, who among the apostles was the last to be converted to Jesus Christ, embraced evangelical perfection immediately after his marvellous conversion. Many new converts to the faith of the Church enter the religious state soon after their reception into the fold of Christ. Who would be so bad an adviser as to recommend them to remain in the world rather than seek in a monastery a shelter for their baptismal grace? Who but a silly man would attempt to make them alter their holy resolves ? This suffices, then, to show how ridiculous it is to pretend that we should keep away from the religious life all those who have not for a long time observed the commandments of God. "
As to repentant sinners, it is plain that, even after the most grievous sins, they may enter the path of the counsels. Furthermore, to speak properly, it is especially befitting for them to undertake the life of the counsels. For one has all the more reason to refuse himself what is allowable, because he often indulged in what was forbidden. And the more grievous the harm we have done to ourselves by sin, the more we ought to increase our gains by repentance. For this reason Pope Stephen, writing to one Astolphus, who had been guilty of heinous crimes, said to him : " Follow our counsel : enter a monastery." We might adduce, in support of this doctrine, many examples of the saints. Several of them, after a life of terrible sin, began immediately to practise the counsels, and shut themselves up in the most austere monasteries, without devoting any previous time to the commandments. " When people tell us that, before entering on the counsels, one should have a habit of keeping the commandments, it is as if they said that we should first keep the commandments imperfectly before trying to observe them fully which is a foolish assertion. Who, then, is senseless enough to stop one that wishes to love God and his neighbor perfectly, and first restrict him to imperfect charity ? Have we to fear lest a man should reach too soon perfect love for God ?
" Again, who will bid him that seeks to observe continence or virginity, begin by living chastely in the married state? Who would dare to advise a person desirous of embracing poverty for the sake of Jesus Christ, first to live amid riches and observe the laws of justice, as if the possession of wealth were a preparation for the practice of poverty, whereas, on the contrary, wealth throws many obstacles in its way? Are we bound to say to a young man : Live among persons of the opposite sex or among libertines, so as to form yourself to chastity , which you will afterward observe in religion as if it were easier to cultivate that virtue in the world than in the cloister? Those who parade such a doctrine resemble generals that, at the very outset, would expose to the severest shocks of war raw recruits that have only recently been drafted into the army.
" Yet we are willing to grant that those who, in the world, have faithfully kept the commandments will afterward be able to make greater spiritual progress in religion ; but if, on the one side, the observance of the commandments in a secular life makes a man fitter for the practice of the counsels, on the other, the habit of secular life is an obstacle to the practice of perfection. The religious state is a school that draws us away from evil, and conducts us more easily to perfection. Persons of feeble virtue, and but little versed in the fulfilment of God's law, have greater need than others of the means of preservation which the religious life affords : it is easier for them to shun sin in religion than it would be were they living under the freedom of the world. Religious observance, at the same time that it removes the hindrances to perfect charity, also does away with the occasions of sin ; for it is evident that fasting, watching, obedience, and other exercises of the same nature, keep a man from the excesses of intemperance, from failing in chastity, and from every other kind of sin. Entering religion, therefore, is an advantage, not only to those who have long fulfilled the commandments, since it leads them to far greater perfection, but for those also who have not done so, because, thereby, it is easier for them to keep from sin and acquire perfection. Holy orders demand previous holiness ; but the religious state is a means to holiness. The superstructure of holy orders can be laid only on foundations dried and solidified by virtue; the burden of religion of itself dries its own foundations, and relieves man from the moisture and vitiating influences of passion. " These last words of the Angelic Doctor are worthy of remark; and they show that we must never confound the conditions requisite for entering religion with those that are indispensable for taking holy orders. Deception on this point would expose us to exclude from the religious state persons who are exceedingly in need of it, and for whom that life may be strictly obligatory, as we have already stated in the fifth chapter of this section. For there are souls guilty only because they are cast among occasions, or because they have not in the world sufficient means of preservation. Give them the shelter and resources of the religious life, and they will pass their days without difficulty in the grace of God.