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He was a new eye doctor, and a good one at that. My exam had been pleasant so far, and seemed more like an enjoyable conversation than a typical eye appointment. Although it wasn’t the first time I’d been asked about celibacy, I found myself particularly interested in my doctor’s choice of words. “Well, yes…I guess if you put it that way, we do have restrictions.” As I drove home that afternoon, I couldn’t suppress an amused smile. Conveniently, my eye doctor had provided me with valuable insight, and summarized in one word the modern view of consecrated chastity: restriction.
For our modern world, chastity consistently proves a stumbling block. Questions like “You mean you can’t get married?” “Don’t you want to have kids?” and “Seriously?” are typical responses to an explanation of celibacy. It’s such a radical concept that questions seem built into the explanation. We say that we are dedicated body and soul to God…but there is a question that has to follow. “Why?” To really understand the authentic dynamism of consecrated chastity, we have to understand the vital motivation behind assuming a life of celibacy. Perhaps no one offers greater insight in this regard than John Paul II, when he asserts that, “virginity is not restricted to a mere ‘no’, but contains a profound ‘yes’ in the spousal order: the gift of self for love.” (John Paul II, MD 21)
A woman’s heart isn’t given lightly…and if you’re a woman, you know it. When we love, we love with all of our heart. So, for a woman to consciously give herself, body and soul to a man, she has to have the certainty that he loves her. The concept remains the same for a woman who is called to celibacy. Just like a woman considering marriage, a consecrated woman must have the absolute certainty that she is loved before she can hand herself over, body and soul to the Lord. We are meant to be loved, and John Paul II puts it well when he affirms that women, “…in a vocation to virginity find Christ first of all as the Redeemer who ‘loved until the end’…and they respond to this gift with a ‘sincere gift’ of their whole lives”. (John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem 20) If we who are virgins can surrender the strong desire for a family of our own, it is only because we have stumbled upon a love that is so attractive that it eclipses all other loves. For a woman to give herself to the Lord in consecrated chastity, it takes a genuine falling in love with Jesus Christ. She has to experience the magnetism of his humility… the charm of his carpenter-simplicity. To totally surrender herself, a woman has to let herself be won over by the Redeemer. When she does, she discovers that breathtaking truth sealed deep in her own soul: she was created to drink in droughts from the infinite love of God. And in discovering this, from her still soul come the words “Drink deeply, O lovers…drink deeply.”(Song of Songs 4:1)
It’s with this understanding that consecrated women embrace their call to celibacy: not as an isolated renunciation, but as a deeply affectionate expression of their thirst for the living God. (Psalm 63:1) Far from being just a denial of one good, chastity is a stride towards that Eternal Love without which the consecrated heart cannot be satisfied. It is the profound “yes” John Paul II speaks of: a “yes” to the gentle invitation of the Lord to love Him with all the love of her heart.
However, this is not her only “yes”. In fact, there lies at the core of a consecrated vocation another “yes” that flows freely from that mutual surrender of Lord and lover: a “yes” to mother an orphaned world. In opening her soul to the Father of humanity, the consecrated woman hollows out a space inside of her to receive humanity, in the name of her Love. By falling in love with the Redeemer, she throws herself into the mystery of Redemption, and finds herself willing to “gather into one fold” (John 10:1) that thirsting world that so desperately searches for the Love she has found. True, consecrated chastity requires a renunciation of motherhood in the physical order, but only in order to embrace more fully the throngs of spiritually starving children stranded all over the world. It is true that the virgin says “no”…but only for a greater “yes”.
This is the profound affirmation that is inherent of the consecrated woman. It is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is worth all of her uniquely feminine love, and an affirmation that the world is loved by the Father. In this light, consecrated life takes on new force. No longer a mere ascetical ideal, consecrated life becomes a model of love. With her unconditional opening to God, the consecrated woman opens up her soul to receive every child of God who searches for him helplessly, to hold him close to her heart where God dwells.
Of course, Dr. Pugliese couldn’t have known how theologically relevant his comment had been. But, you know what?
I’m glad he asked.