On this first Friday of July, having celebrated our nation’s independence yesterday, it seems appropriate today to explore the topic of freedom. [Freedom is what makes human beings human. Freedom is what distinguishes humanity from the rest of visible reality—sun, moon, stars, elements, plants and animals. On the natural level, freedom is our greatest gift or quality.
What is freedom? Freedom is the ability to choose between various goods; it means that man is not determined to one way of acting—the way elements, plants and animals are. Atheists and believers disagree on many important points, but they agree on the value and importance of freedom.]
Yet there are two distinct kinds of freedom. Our nation’s founding was motivated by a desire to be free of the external oppression of colonial masters. The civil rights movement of the last century strove to free people from the external constraints of institutionalized prejudice and discrimination. Even today, our Bishop’s conference continues to stress the external dangers to our religious freedom posed by government policies that do not respect the conscience of believers.
[Yet all of these things, important as they are, deal with exterior, physical freedoms.
Of course, a person’s exterior, physical freedom can be limited by prison, confinement, sickness, but such limitation does not take away one’s interior freedom, if one knows what to love and what to hate. A good example of this is Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was in a Russian concentration camp for many years. The Communists controlled his body, but they were not able to deprive him of his interior freedom. Because of his faith in God and love of truth, they were never able to control his mind and his heart.
Jesus said that it is knowledge of the truth that makes one free (John 8:31-32). God is absolute truth and goodness and freedom. He created each one of us as an act of love, and he has destined us for a future of love—to be united to him in love in heaven for all eternity. From this perspective, the human person who is most free is the one who loves God with his whole heart, and mind, and strength. No human person, whether king or emperor or billionaire, has been as free as Jesus was. When his hour came, he freely offered himself in sacrifice to the Father for the salvation of all mankind. He did that because he loves us and loves his Father in heaven.
It seems paradoxical, but for Christians, true freedom can be found only by submitting oneself to God in what St. Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). The reason for this is that God is absolute freedom. By serving him, we achieve the purpose for which we were created. Sharing in his life by grace, we also share in his freedom.]
St. Ignatius gives as the ‘principle and foundation’ of his spiritual exercises:
“The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save his or her soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end. To do this we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no prohibition. Thus as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.”
This is the kind of freedom to which Jesus calls the rich young man in our Gospel reading. It is a call to new life, new hope, and new courage. It is, in fact, this interior freedom that will allow us to have the strength and courage required to battle the oppressive forces of this world that threaten the exterior freedoms of ourselves and others.
In our own spiritual lives, however, we often find it difficult to achieve this interior freedom of which Ignatius speaks. There is a kind of stumbling block that prevents us from fully embracing God and his plan for our lives. Even for those who desire to make real progress in their spiritual lives, there is often a kind of subtle fear that causes us to draw back from fully embracing God: a fear that by embracing God’s will in all things and freeing ourselves of attachments we will somehow lose our individual free will.
The Catechism, however, points out that this perceived conflict between grace and free will that lies at the root of our failure to embrace God’s will fully in our lives is an illusion:
“The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart. On the contrary, as Christian experience attests especially in prayer, the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world.” (CCC 1742)
And this illusion of conflict between grace and free will is no less than diabolical. It is the same lie with which the serpent snares Adam and Eve in the garden: the fear that God’s grace may be holding us back in some way and that we can provide better for our own happiness.
This illusion persists because we think of grace as merely one cause among many. The reality is that God’s grace is not one cause among many, but rather the single cause that underlies all created things: in every moment it is God’s grace and God’s providence which holds all of reality—including our human freedom—in existence.
To borrow the image of the river from our first reading: our entire lives are submerged and flowing in the great river of God’s grace. “In him we live and move and have our being” says St. Paul to the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:28). Like a river, God’s providence pushes us onward. It is when we swim against the current that we encounter resistance and waste our energy going nowhere. If we allow ourselves to flow with that current, we find ourselves at peace and experience a sense of freedom. Of course, the journey is not always a smooth one—obstacles and rapids often lay in the path of that flow. Yet, God’s grace allows us to flow around and through these difficult spots.
The greatest challenge is to resist the urge to cling on to the rocks as we pass—to cling on to the comfortable things of this world for support instead of allowing God’s plan to fully unfold. If we cling, we will spend all of our efforts holding on and never be free!
So, where do we find the strength to trust God more fully in our lives and gain that true interior freedom that we seek? It is in our personal communion with Him, especially through the Holy Eucharist, that we can gain the confidence required to disbelieve the lies of the evil one and embrace our new freedom in Christ. It does not require high theology or subtle reasoning—only a willingness to accept the love that God desires to give us in the Sacrament.
A number of years ago, I was talking to a young man who was incarcerated at one of the local youth detention facilities. He was preparing for his First Holy Communion there in the camp and he expressed a hesitation that I had heard from many others over the years: “I’m not sure I should make my first communion,” he said. “I am afraid that I won’t have the strength to keep living the right life after I get out of here.” He was afraid that he was unworthy of the sacrament, that all of the negative influences that he was going back home to in a few weeks still had too much of a hold on him and that they would overcome all of his good resolutions.
I explained that the Eucharist is not for the perfect but rather for the sinner who desires to become perfect—that this gift of God was precisely the source of the strength he required to remain a good disciple. I asked him to pray about it. A couple weeks later he went through with his sacrament—devoutly receiving the Eucharist for the first time just before being released.
Less than a month later, he was dead: killed in a drive-by shooting. A seemingly senseless act of violence. When I first heard the news, my first reaction was to wonder whether or not our efforts had borne any fruit. Had he simply returned to his old life of drugs, gangs and violence?
We began to piece together the story. The camp chaplain had gone out to visit the boy’s mother to deliver his First Communion certificate and offer his condolences. She took him to the little shrine the family had set up where he had been gunned down that fateful afternoon, walking from the bus stop back to his house after going to see a movie with a friend. There, among the pictures and candles, were the rosary and holy card he had been given at his first communion mass. He had been carrying them in his pocket at the time of his death.
According to his mother, he was only a week or so away from staring a new life: they had been saving money to send him out of the country to live with an uncle where he could continue his education away from the crime and violence of which he had been a part. However it wasn’t until a couple of months later that I would learn the rest of the story.
It was the Feast of St. Scholastica, my birthday, and I had used this young man’s example in a sermon at the camp. After our service, one of the young men asked if I wanted to know the rest of story. The cousin of the deceased boy had just been locked up there and had revealed to them what really happened.
It had not been a senseless act of violence that occurred that day. The young man had indeed made a resolution to change his life and leave the country. Unfortunately, his ‘friends’—his gang associates—let him know that this was unacceptable. One a member, always a member. He had explained to them his desire to change his life. They offered him an ultimatum: return to the old life of face dire consequences. The young man refused.
So, on that afternoon, a car full of people that he had once considered hid closest friends pulled up as he walked along the street from the bus stop and gunned him down. He died because he refused to give up his hope and his freedom—a freedom he in Jesus through the Holy Eucharist. The same young man who had been afraid that he would not have the strength to stand firm in his convictions had, with the grace of Christ, stood firm even unto the shedding of his blood. God had taken a scared young criminal and transformed him into one of the holy martyrs.
He has the power to transform us, as well.
So today, as we gather here in the presence of the Most High God, the same God who came among us in the humble form of a child and who continues to come among us cloaked in the appearances of bread and wine, let us ask Him that, through the grace of the Eucharist, he may remove any obstacles that we still have in fully accepting the freedom that he offers us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.