Ahh, July. Right smack dab in the middle of summer. It’s hot, baseball season is in full swing (could this really be the year the Cubs win the World Series?!), and meals of hot dogs, margaritas, and s’mores are perfectly acceptable. The month, of course, kicks off with the celebration of the founding of the United States of America on July 4, which hopefully gives us a chance to reflect on and give thanks for the many gifts of political freedom we enjoy in our nation.
July also happens to be the month when I celebrate my birthday, which at this point in my life lacks the lustre it had in earlier years. That being said, it does give me the great opportunity to take stock of my life a bit. I find myself thinking: ‘Who am I today compared to a year ago? 5 years ago? 10 years ago?’ ‘Am I any closer to becoming the person I have been created and called to be?’ ‘Am I entering more deeply into the destiny Christ is inviting me to live with Him?’ And I submit to you, dear reader, that while at first blush it may not be apparent, these questions have as much to do with freedom as the celebration of Independence Day. In fact, more. Much more.
Freedom From or Freedom For?
In today’s day and age, I believe that ‘freedom’ – construed as the individual’s ability to choose whatever he so desires in any given situation – is viewed and celebrated as the highest good by a vast majority of society. There are a whole host of historical reasons for that development that we don’t have the time to get into now, but I would like to at least briefly explore how the modern definition of freedom differs greatly from the classic tradition of human freedom which finds its fullness in Christianity.
The modern emphasis of freedom seems to be on ‘freedom from’. Freedom from constraint, freedom from any external power restricting my choices, freedom from anyone else telling me what to do, etc. While freedom certainly entails a person’s power to genuinely choose between alternatives, ‘freedom from’ does not tell the whole story. For in this vision of freedom we as humans are reduced to raw choosing machines. We have no common human nature, no brotherhood among us, no shared destiny. At best, we are using each other to achieve our own particular will; at worst, we are sworn enemies. For we are all just in a battle of wills with one another where no one is truly ‘right’, but where whoever has the most power prevails. That goes for God too – He is just another player in the game of competing wills and in the end I will probably have to conquer Him to be ultimately ‘free’.
The reality of human freedom is far more rich, beautiful, and fulfilling than that telling of freedom, I daresay. In the classical Western tradition human freedom was not so much about the person’s raw ability to choose, but more about a person developing the character to be a flourishing, fulfilled, joyful man or woman. It was all about a ‘freedom for excellence’. For in this vision of freedom, being human means something more than simply being able to choose between a multitude of options. Authentic freedom rests not only in the will (our power to choose) but first of all in the intellect (our ability to think), for true freedom entails grasping the truth about the deepest realities and living in harmony with them, thereby reaching fulfillment.
Think of it this way: I surely can insist on my ‘freedom’ to compete in the upcoming Rio Olympics without having to concern myself with training, nutrition, and other activities that are part and parcel of Olympian preparation. For I am free! I want to be an Olympian, but I would rather not endure all the pesky preparation, so let’s just make that happen, m’kay? Well, both you and I know that’s little more than a pipe dream. If I was serious about competing in the Olympics I would need to subject myself to a certain regimen of nutrition, exercise, practice, etc. in order to become excellent enough to qualify and compete in the Olympics. True freedom is willingly, lovingly, joyfully mastering a craft so that we may flourish in it! The person who has practiced piano for thousands of hours so that she can play any masterpiece she like is free. The swimmer who has mastered his stroke over many years of hard work – he is free. People who have mastered the arts of faith, hope, and love (a.k.a. the saints) – they are truly free!
Jesus, Icon & Animator of the Free Man
While the ancient philosophers (like Aristotle) hinted at the highest potential of human beings (namely, living the virtuous life), it wasn’t until God entered into a unique relationship with His people (Israel), that we really discovered the fullness of what it means to be human. For it is in the Hebrew Scriptures that we discover the truth that human life is fundamentally about living our relationships – with God and one another – with excellence. Though there are over 600 laws enumerated in the pages of the Old Testament, they all somehow come back to the twofold commandment to love God and our neighbor. These commands are not arbitrary, but are intended to show us the way to our ultimate fulfillment. God gives us these laws because we will achieve our destiny – develop our freedom to be excellent – by learning to love Him and one another evermore and evermore!
With all of this in mind, we can see how Jesus Christ is the ultimate free man. He was the master of the art of human living, excelling in the highest potentials of humanity at every moment. He lived love of God and love of his neighbor to the fullest all the way to the Cross, even to the point of surrendering his life to the Father and begging the forgiveness of his murderers. He was, is, and always will be the true Icon of Freedom, showing us how to be free, giving ourselves away in love.
Not only that, but He in fact enables us to develop our freedom. For he knows how difficult it can be for us who are weak and broken to live life excellently in love of God and one another. This is why He draws near to us in prayer and the sacraments, which are nothing less than reservoirs of grace enabling us to become like Jesus in our every thought, word, and action. He desires that each of us live the full freedom of the children of God, loving the Father and one another just as He does at every moment. Let us thank Him for showing us the way to true freedom and giving us His very self in the Eucharist to empower us in our quest to be free for excellence!
Director of Evangelization and Catechesis