Sunday, June 27, 2010

Love Slaves for Jesus

Rembrandt, Paul in prison

“Freedom” is on everybody’s lips, especially this week between Pride Sunday and Independence Day. Like motherhood and apple pie, we are all for it. Some even die for the sake of freedom. But what is freedom and how do we experience it?

I like St. Paul’s take: Freedom is not the capacity to choose between this and that desire, but rather the capacity to choose love. We experience freedom by becoming a love slave for Jesus. Jesus has given us his Spirit so that we might be free – “It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free” might be a better translation.(1) Freedom is life in the Spirit, living completely transparent to God so that love can flow through us.

Julian of Norwich describes free persons as those “who are so attached to God that there can be no created thing between God and themselves.”(2) We recognize this freedom when we become aware that our desire for God is greater than our desire for anything else. This freedom is intrinsic to our being; as we come to live more and more in this realm of freedom we are grasped by love, and love gradually determines all of our choices. We become aware of the invitations to love and of our desire to respond to them with our whole heart.

But as Blessed Julian recognized, we can become attached to other things to the detriment of our freedom. It doesn’t really matter if the things are good or bad in themselves; it is our attachment to them that can get in the way of love. I’ve known parents who are deeply attached to their children such that they can’t bear for them to be hurt or to fail. Their children are perfectly fine – and quite lovable. It is the attachment, the inability to differentiate themselves from their children that obscures their perceptions and renders them unfree and unable to respond to the promptings of love. Instead they smother them and pressure them to succeed, all the while convinced that they are protecting them and securing their future.

We see the results of our attachment to the fossil-fuel based economy unfolding in the expanding swath of death-dealing oil covering the Gulf of Mexico. In our addiction to this form of energy and the lifestyle it affords us, we are no longer free to love – to choose a sustainable form of economy that preserves and nurtures the natural and cultural bases of both freedom and health upon which all life depends. Fossil fuel is neither good nor bad in itself. It is our attachment to it that obscures our desire for God and the freedom of life in the Spirit.

At the very least, our desire for God can help us to acknowledge the areas of unfreedom in our lives. Sr. Rose Mary Dougherty writes that “At times we may need to acknowledge that we don’t even want to consider the possibility of freedom in a particular choice. We may recognize that we are ‘hooked’ in a particular way and prefer to stay that way. This acknowledgement of our unfree self to God may be our greatest act of trust.”(3) At such times as this, perhaps the most we can do is pray for the willingness to become free.

When we are vulnerable with God in this way, our desire for God eventually brings us into the realm of freedom so that we can risk the changes that love demands. Sr. Rose Mary tells two stories that beautifully illustrate this. She recalls a woman who shared with her about her addiction to smoking. “It got so bad that this addiction began to dictate most of her decisions – whom she would spend her time with, where she would travel, and so on. Then her sister became very ill and was dying in a hospital. The woman wanted to be with her sister every minute but she constantly found herself leaving the room and spending a lot of time getting to a place where she could smoke. Finally she said to herself, ‘That’s enough; this smoking is taking me away from what I want most.’ And she quit.”

“Then there is the story of Dr. Annalena Tonelli, who has dedicated her life to the health of the people of Somalia. She is quoted as saying, ‘I am desperately in love with TB patients . . . I want to be poor up to the last day of my life . . . I would never be able to render service if I had clothes and furniture and all the things which are normal for our society.’ These are seemingly very different examples with very different consequences. The point is, however, that a very particular love in a concrete circumstance evoked a specific face of freedom for each of these women.”(4)

In both of these instances, we see how freedom is ordered toward the good of others and brings us more deeply into connection with them, into community. Our desire for God brings us into the realm of freedom, not simply as an interior receptivity to love but into a communal space in which love shapes action. Through love we become slaves of one another and create a community of the free.

St. Paul describes the tension between freedom and unfreedom as life in the Spirit vs. life in the Flesh. The contrast that Paul develops between the Spirit and the Flesh – “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” – is a contrast between the community of the free, those whose lives are vivified by the Spirit of Christ, and those whose lives are enslaved by self-interest without regard for the common good. The “flesh” here is not understood as the body, but rather is reified as a cosmic force or disruptive energy that undermines the health of the community.

Paul is addressing a community – not individuals – and when he speaks of virtues such as love, joy, peace, generosity, etc. and vices such as enmity, strife, jealousy, quarrels, dissensions and factions, he is speaking about characteristics that indicate whether freedom or self-interest is operative at the level of community. More than that, he is arguing that such vices render community impossible: “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”(5)

Spirit and flesh are not abstract, disembodied entities, but vital energies that give shape to our collective endeavors. For St. Paul, freedom is not a matter of individuals choosing a way of life but rather the realm of existence determined by the Spirit of Christ; only within that realm can we be truly free, and authentic community is possible only when animated by such freedom. Freedom is life in the Spirit.

To put it another way, we might say that individual freedom is possible only in such a community, where self-giving love for the sake of the common good triumphs over self-interested exploitation. “For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another; take care that you are not consumed by one another.”(6)

If we wish to avoid consuming one another – and the planet – we must have the courage to acknowledge our attachments, the barriers to love that bind us. The trick with attachments is not to deny them or to renounce them; both these strategies only bind us more tightly to them. What we must do is see them for what they are in light of our deeper and more profound desire for God.

Sr. Rose Mary again: “We cannot make ourselves free. We can only pray to live into freedom, seeking God even in the midst of our attachments. In the process we may realize that John of the Cross is right when he says that we come to God through what we love and desire. We may find that our attachments are the vehicles of God’s purifying love in our lives. They are the means through which God burns away the impurities of lesser loves until we are but one pure flame . . . We live in the ashes of our freedom.”(7)

The ashes of our freedom are the ego-centric attachments that burn away in the heat of our desire for God. What remains is a passionate engagement with love’s work in the world, the world that God loved so much that he sent his son, Jesus, to set us free to share in this love. In the realm of freedom, we desire as God desires and act as agents of God’s love. St. Paul described his own experience of this state when he wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”(8)

The realm of freedom can be thought of as the querencia. “In bull fighting there is a place in the ring where the bull feels safe. If he can reach this place, he stops running and gathers his full strength. He is no longer afraid . . . It is the job of the matador to know where this sanctuary lies, to be sure the bull does not have time to occupy his place of wholeness.”

“This safe place for a bull is called the querencia. For humans the querencia is the safe place in our inner world . . . When a person finds their querencia, in full view of the matador, they are calm and peaceful. Wise. They have gathered their strength around them.”(9) Our attachments are like the matador, driving us to and fro so that we cannot claim the realm of freedom in our lives. When we realize that freedom, we can look the matador in the eye without fear. We can choose to live from the deep center of our being, where the living water of love wells up spontaneously and overflows into our lives.

I would agree with St. Paul, however, that the querencia is not only the experience of interior freedom, but is also a realm of freedom in history. The querencia is the community of the free who engage love’s work together for the common good. We need the dynamic interaction of contemplation and communion, interior freedom and communal action, to realize the gifts of the Spirit in our world.

The querencia for human beings is an integrative experience of the spiritual and material, individual and communal, dimensions of life. It is not a private or personal experience, but a profoundly shared realization of the radical interdependence of the whole creation. It is an awakening of the heart to compassion (for ourselves and others) and a quickening of the feet to march for justice (for all).

In my own experience, I have found it much easier to look the matador in the eye with the help of others. One of the great blessings of being the rector of St. John’s is that you have been the querencia for me, the realm of freedom, the place where I can gather my strength, calm my nerves, and realize again love’s claim upon me and the world. You have invited me again and again to let go the attachments that inhibit freedom, and to commit them to the living flame of our desire for God. You have taught me what it is to be a love slave for Jesus.

As I prepare to leave you, my only wish is that you continue to experience the querencia in your life together, and find the inspiration to extend it in an ever widening circle of love until the Spirit God renews the face of the whole earth. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”(10) Amen.

(1) See J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 446-447 for this translation of Gal. 5:1.
(2) Quoted in Rose Mary Dougherty, Discernment: a path to spiritual awakening (New York: Paulist Press, 2009), p. 29.
(3) Dougherty, p. 31
(4) Dougherty, p. 32
(5) Galatians 5:16-21.
(6) Galatians 5:13-15.
(7) Dougherty, Discernment, p. 38.
(8) Galatians 2:20.
(9) Quoted in Dougherty, pp. 23-24.
(10) Galatians 5:1.

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