Monday, June 28, 2010
At this morning’s Mass we welcomed and congratulated our graduates. I was trying to think of something memorable to say to them on this special occasion when it struck me that the story I told at the final school Mass on Friday went over so well that it might strike a chord with older students as well.
It’s an old story about a king in the jungle and his closest friend.
The friend had a remarkable habit: whatever happened to him, good or bad, he would always say “This is good!”
One day the king and his friend were out hunting. It was the friend’s job to load the guns for the king. But the king’s friend did something wrong in preparing one of the guns. When the king fired it, he blew off his thumb.
True to form, his lifelong friend looked up and said as usual, “This is good!” To which the angry king replied, “No, this is NOT good!” and proceeded to send his friend to jail.
About a year later, the king was hunting in an area that he should have avoided. Cannibals captured him and took him to their village. They tied him up, stacked some wood, and tied him to a stake.
But just as they came near to set fire to the wood, these cannibals noticed that the king was missing his thumb. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone that was less than whole. So right away they untied the king, and sent him on his way.
On the way home, the king started to think about how he lost his thumb, and he felt very bad about how he’d treated his pal. He headed straight to the jail to speak with him.
“You were right,” he said, “it was good that my thumb was blown off.” After he told his friend all that had happened, the king said “And so I am I very sorry for sending you to jail for so long. It was bad for me to do this.”
“No,” his friend replied, “This is good!”
“What do you mean, ‘This is good? How could it be good that I sent my friend to jail for a year?”
“If I had NOT been in jail, I would have been with you.
The story provides a good laugh, but also some important lessons. Yesterday, I showed the students how it reminds us that God works for good in all things for those who love him.
Today, I’m using the story in a different way: as an example of true freedom. Going to jail seems quite the opposite of being free, and yet Christian history is full of people—from St. Paul to St. Thomas More to St. Maximilian Kolbe—who were perfectly free even when they were in prison.
The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev says we are free “when we unbind ourselves from slavery within.”
Freedom, like happiness itself, is an inside job.
And yet for many people today, “freedom” means doing what you want, where you want, when you want. We hear about freedom of speech, freedom 55, freedom of information. It’s one of those words that’s been hijacked by the world.
But freedom is Christ’s word. Freedom is Christ’s promise. St. Paul tells us so in today’s second reading: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
If these words don’t send a shiver up your spine—if they don’t make you want to jump up and shout like a soccer fan in a South African stadium—then maybe it’s time we took a serious look at what freedom means for the Christian.
The New Testament’s promise of freedom is specific and clear.
We have Our Lord’s own words in the eighth chapter of St. John’s gospel: “Jesus then said to those Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him ‘We are descendents of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’
“Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8: 31-36)
Three key points are easy to see: truth leads to freedom, sin leads to slavery, but the Son sets free.
The conclusion is obvious: to be called to life in Christ is to be called to freedom.
But what does this word ‘freedom’ mean?
Most of us have only a sketchy idea of what it means to be free. There is a host of ways to understand spiritual freedom, but I want to use a definition from St. Teresa of Avila: detachment from all things apart from and not centered on God.
That’s a mouthful, but what she means is that nothing should own me but my owner, and that is God.
What Teresa calls detachment, St. Ignatius calls indifference. In his Spiritual Exercises he invites the retreatants to make themselves “indifferent to all created things,” not preferring health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to humiliation, a long life to a short one.
Ignatius says what matters is to desire and choose only what leads us to the goal for which God created us—salvation. Imagine the freedom possessed by the woman or man who wants only what will lead most directly to the ultimate and only eternal goal.
There’s a hymn we occasionally sing—maybe the choir will sing it today, if they’re listening closely to my homily!—called “How Can I Keep From Singing.” We don’t know who wrote the words, but since it first appeared in 1868, and slavery in the US was abolished only three years before, I sometimes wonder if the unknown author could have been a slave.
Whatever the truth of that, he or she was obviously free! The verses are written by someone whose “life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.”
The chorus celebrates freedom—a freedom that can’t be shaken by circumstances: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
Such is the reward of detachment from our agenda, of indifference to everything that isn’t part of God’s saving will.
Freedom means being free to be my best self, my highest self—the self God wants me to be—and not being the slave to anything or anybody else.
Freedom’s what we are called to and made for. But of course it’s not free! Like everything precious, freedom has a cost. In fact, becoming free and staying free takes two things.
I’ve already mentioned the first thing: we must let go.
We must let go of the things we cling to as our security blankets. First on the list, of course, is sin. I’ve already quoted where Jesus telling us that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
[St. Paul tells us that the stakes are high: “…now you have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit that you have leads to sanctification, and its end is eternal life.” (Romans 6: 22)]
Tackling addiction and bad habits is next on the list: Paul also says “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” Sometimes we need to let go of even smaller things like craving too much comfort, or too much praise. The obstacle to our freedom can be something as common as overeating—which can be a real slavery—or procrastination.
And today’s Gospel tells us that sometimes we must even let go of perfectly legitimate things, like the desire to please our parents or to have financial security. St. Benedict tells his monks “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” But that’s not just for monks: every serious Christian must put Christ first in every decision. That’s what Jesus means when he tells us not to look back once we have become his disciples.
And once we’ve let go, we must hang on—to Christ. We can’t be like the man hanging over the cliff who asks “isn’t there anyone else up there?” when God tells him to let go of his handhold. We must build a relationship of trust if we’re to stay free from the obsessions and drives that can take over our lives.
This advice doesn’t apply only to those who are trying to escape bondage; it’s also for those who have found freedom: we all must hang on. As Paul says, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
So let’s say that I have convinced you of two things: 1) Christians are called to be free, and 2) that detachment from the things we cling to is a big step towards achieving that freedom.
What’s next? For many of us, our thoughts turn immediately to the weaknesses of the flesh—to things that make us feel out of control, even powerless. Nothing wrong with that; I’ve tried to make it clear that overcoming these things is a big part of getting free.
But that’s not the priority we find in the epistle we heard. Paul certainly talks about the desires of the flesh—but only after he’s talked about love. “Through love be slaves to one another,” he says, and then he quotes Christ’s second commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
The subject of freedom is too big for one homily. But I think this point is crucial. What is our freedom for? What are we free to do?
The answer is love. Christ frees us from selfishness, egoism, fear, anger, resentment, obsession, addiction, compulsion, laziness, and much more for one main purpose—that we might be able freely to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves.
For freedom we have been set free—free to love, and to grow daily in love.