A miscellany of freedom.
Today, most of us try to find personal and individual freedom even as we remain inside of structural boxes and a system of consumption that we are then unable or unwilling to critique. Our mortgages, luxuries, and privileged lifestyles control our whole future. Whoever is paying our bills and giving us security and status determines what we can and cannot say or even think. Self-serving institutions that give us our security, status, or identity are considered “too big to fail” and are invariably beyond judgment from the vast majority of people. Evil can hide in systems much more readily than in individuals.
As the Christian church moved from bottom to top, protected and pampered by the Roman Empire, people like Anthony of the Desert (c. 250-c. 356), John Cassian (c. 360-c. 435), Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399), Syncletica (c. 270-c. 350) and other early Christians went off to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to find spiritual freedom, live out Jesus’ teachings, and continue growing in the Spirit. It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was taught, which is significantly different than that taught by “the world.”
When Jesus and John’s Gospel used the term “the world,” they did not mean the earth, creation, or civilization, which Jesus clearly came to love and save (see John 12:47). They were referring to idolatrous systems and institutions that are invariably self-referential and “always passing away” (see 1 Corinthians 7:31). It is possible to change the system not by negative attacks (which tend to inflate the ego), but simply by quietly moving to the side and doing it better!
Thomas Merton quotes Meister Eckhart as saying, “For God to be is to give being, and for man to be is to receive being.” Our true self is a received self. At each moment, we exist to the extent we receive existence from God who is existence.
Our deepest freedom rests not in our freedom to do what we want to do but rather in our freedom to become who God wills us to be. (To pray for God’s will is to pray that loving thought, loving-kindness, and the power of the indwelling presence is that which guides action at this moment.) This person, this ultimate self God wills us to be, is not a predetermined, static mold to which we must conform. Rather, it is an infinite possibility of growth. It is our true self; that is, a secret self hidden in and one with the divine freedom. In obeying God, in turning to do God’s will, God wills us to be free. God created us for freedom; that is to say, God created us for God’s self.
Phrased differently, we can say that God cannot hear the prayer of someone who does not exist. The self constructed of ideologies and social principles, the self that defines itself and proclaims its own worthiness is most unworthy of the claim to reality before God. Our freedom from the prison of our own illusions comes in realizing that in the end everything is a gift. Above all, we ourselves are gifts that we must first accept before we can become who we are by returning who we are to the Father. This is accomplished in a daily death to self, in a compassionate reaching out to those in need, and in a detached desire for the silent, ineffable surrender of contemplative prayer. It is accomplished in making Jesus’ prayer our own: “Father, . . . not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
We must break free from the lie that we are separate from God and the misguided desire to lay hold of God as a possession. In Merton’s words:
Only when we are able to “let go” of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life.
This letting-go in the moral order is the living out of the Beatitudes. In the order of prayer, it is in-depth kenosis, an emptying out of the contents of awareness so that one becomes oneself an empty vessel, a broken vessel, a void that lies open before God and finds itself filled with God’s own life. This gift of God is revealed to be the ground and root of our very existence. It is our own true self.
In order to be free for life, we must quite simply be free from our small selves. Saint Francis knew that Jesus was not at all interested in the usual “sin management” task that clergy love to think is their job. He saw that Jesus was neither surprised nor upset at what we usually call sin. Jesus was upset at human pain and suffering. What else do all the healing stories mean? They are half of the Gospel! Jesus did not focus on sin. Jesus went where the pain was. Wherever he found human pain, there he went, there he touched, and there he healed. Saint Francis, who only wanted to do one thing—imitate Jesus—did the same. But you cannot do that, or even see it, unless your first question is something other than “What do I want?” “What do I prefer?” or “What pleases me?” In the great scheme of things, it really does not matter what I want. We are not free at all until we are free from ourselves. Freedom is that simple and that hard.