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  • Father David M. Knight

The Courage to Be Free

I am writing this on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, who could claim to be one of the most free women who ever lived. Teresa dared to come “out of the box” and spend her life confronting the infinite Truth and Goodness of God. It brought her into an experienced Oneness with God beyond all description. But she tried to describe it anyway, especially in her book The Interior Castle.

I am not going to write about Teresa. She wrote for herself. I want to write about freedom, arguing that a great gift of Christianity is that we don’t have to spend our lives enclosed in the tiny box of merely human experiences and culture, but are free to open ourselves to the infinite Being, Truth, Goodness, and Oneness of God.

We could get very philosophical here and explain that freedom calls us to be human, and humanity implies unstable adaptability in contrast to the stable immutability of God. The scribes and Pharisees rejected Jesus because they wanted religion to be as immutable as God, with inflexible and unchanging rules, and fixed expressions of doctrine. But Jesus, in his humanity, adapted everything to the reality of time, place, and circumstances. So they killed him.

Pope Francis could be called “the Pope of freedom.” He preached in a homily at Santa Marta, “The rigid do not know how to enlarge their heart like the Lord. They forget that God's righteousness has become flesh in His Son…. It became mercy and forgiveness.”

He said in his famous America Magazine interview:

The Christian who is a restorationist, a legalist, who wants everything clear and safe, will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies….

After all, in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better. So human beings in time change the way they perceive themselves…. Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.

When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself.…The thinking of the Church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the Church’s teaching.”

Francis is calling us to be human, to be free, to open our minds, expand our hearts, and break our wills out of bondage. Let’s face it; we are afraid to do this. But God enables us to be free through the gift of the Holy Spirit we call Fortitude, or Courage.

To be very concrete about it, just to ask what it means to be Christian already takes us out of the box of human limitations. The true—and very simple—definition of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” is “the gift of sharing in the divine life of God.” If we ask ourselves what it means to live out in practice the divine life of God, we are immediately freed from enclosure in the deceptive “religious” security of conformity to a pseudo-Christian culture defined by rules and practices based on the conventional understanding of Christian doctrine.

We are empowered to step out of the box and declare boldly with St. Augustine that by Baptism we “became Christ” (quoted but largely unread in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 795). Every one of us proclaims with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me!” (Galatians 2:20). We dare to say we are divine! That we are living the divine life of God! Why not? The Church says we are.

By the gift of Courage we dare to confront the changes it calls for in our life when we say that. This the courage to be free, free to open ourselves to the mystery of the infinite Being, Truth, Goodness, and Oneness of God is sharing with us.

By the gift of Courage—and it takes more courage than we might suspect—we dare to read the Gospels, asking how Jesus says a Christian ought to live. We don’t settle for the Ten Commandments we learned as children—rules for living a good human life—but expose ourselves to the New Law of Christ, made up of guidelines for living on the level of God. Courage gives us the freedom to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew, chapters 5 to 7)

We dare to be disciples—not “followers,” but students—of Jesus Christ. We dare to reflect seriously and regularly on his words

When is the last time you changed something in your life because of words you yourself read in the Bible?

Be honest. Don’t say you don’t have time. Could it be you are afraid to face the challenge? Are you free enough to look for a way you can live out in practice words that are not meant to be taken literally, but are meant to be taken seriously Words that would revolutionize your life?

We may—or may not—have learned that at Baptism we were solemnly anointed with sacred chrism and consecrated to continue the mission of Jesus-Messiah as Prophet, Priest, and King. So let’s confront the first obvious question: “Do we dare to ask what it means to be and live as prophet?”

What is a prophet? Someone who dares to think out-of-the-box. Someone with a message for the people. Someone with a new and different take on things. A non-conformist. Someone who doesn’t fit in. Someone who sees how the abstract words of the Gospel apply to the concrete circumstances of our particular time and place.

Someone who is not afraid to read Scripture and think in practical terms. Are you free enough to do that? Do you make known what you see? Do you embody it in your lifestyle? Do you live in a way that raises eyebrows?

Does the “world”—those who live according to the norms accepted in society—hate you? Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own… but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19). What in your way of living is a shock, a scandal, a reproach to those around you? Are you free to be different?

A clarification: some claim the freedom of non-conformism because they don’t keep society’s rules, including the law of God. For example, both religion and—decreasingly—society frown on drugs and sexual promiscuity, among other things that are essentially gratifications of appetite. But it is not freedom to accept enslavement to physical appetites or emotional compulsions. This is to be less human, not more. It is not thinking outside of the box so much as outside of rationality itself.

If we accept our baptismal consecration as priests, it takes away something else that takes away our freedom: the fear of of self-expression. This is not the freedom of speech protected by the Constitution. It is the interior freedom that lets us express our deep convictions and ideals, and above all our emotions, when we are not sure how others will accept them. Self exposure is vulnerability. Most of us hide our true selves under layers of formality and reserve. Spontaneity takes guts.

This lack of freedom shows itself in our reluctance to express our religious beliefs, ideals, and emotions. We seldom tell others what we think about God, and almost never what we feel about God. When is the last time you saw anyone show any emotion in church? Are you one of those who refuses to sing? When you join in the prayers out loud, do you carefully suppress all enthusiasm?

Think about it. In the Mass, Catholics say, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of hosts! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” We write the words with exclamation points. Do we say them in a way that would suggest that? Do we shout them, or just recite them? Doesn’t the medium contradict the message when we put no emotion into words like that? And if it is true that “the medium is the message,” does it surprise anyone that so few seem to get the point at Mass?

Mass is called the “Eucharistic celebration.” Is it? Does it look like a celebration? Feel like one? Excite people the way a celebration should? In Africa, people dance into Mass and dance out; dance up to Communion. Isn’t it inhuman not to dance to some of the music we play? Isn’t it an implicit denial of the faith not to sit altogether at Mass, shoulder to shoulder like a cheering section? Even the priest sometimes recites the words of the Mass as if he were reading out of the telephone book! Does the congregation do any better? Is this a celebration? A real expression of faith?

What this might reveal is that we are afraid to face the meaning of our baptismal consecration as priests. Have you thought about what it means to be a priest by Baptism? What it commits you to do? How it should be visible in your lifestyle? Are you afraid to?

Priesthood—whether we have it through Holy Orders or through Baptism—saves us from self-enclosedness. It commits us to ministry. That should be obvious. It should be equally obvious that ministry is above all self-expression—or better, letting Jesus within us express his truth, his goodness, his love, in and through our human words and actions. If we are free to do that, free to give visible expression to the invisible faith, hope, and love in our hearts, we are mediators of the Life of God to others.

Jesus calls us to be fearless and free: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)

Silence can be denial. Not to show enthusiasm at Mass is to “damn with faint praise.” Both are a refusal—out of fear—to accept our baptismal priesthood. That consecration invites us to have the courage to be free.

Finally, we were anointed at Baptism to share in Christ’s messianic anointing as King. We were consecrated and committed to act as a faithful “stewards of his kingship.” Christianity is call and empowerment to accept responsibility.

Pope Francis tells us our “identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him a kingdom of love, justice and universal peace.” And that we “grow in holiness by committing ourselves, body and soul, to give our best to this endeavor?” (Rejoice and Be Glad, no. 25)

It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. We know that God wants his children to be happy in this world too, even though they are called to fulfilment in eternity, for he has created all things “for our enjoyment” (1Timothy 6:17); that is, the enjoyment of everyone. It follows that Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life “related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good” (Joy of the Gospel, 183).

Do we exult in taking responsibility for transforming society? Family and social life? Business and politics? Does it excite us to step out of our comfort zone and get involved in the problems of the human race? Christopher Fry wrote (A Sleep of Prisoners):

The human heart can go the lengths of God… Dark and cold we may be, but this Is no winter now. The frozen misery Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move; The thunder is the thunder of the floes, The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

Thank God our time is now when wrong Comes up to face us everywhere, Never to leave us till we take The longest stride of soul men ever took.

Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise is exploration into God.

This is freedom. This is breaking out of the box.

Teresa of Avila, cloistered nun in a convent, had the courage to take that stride of soul. Her exploration into God took her into “the breadth and length and height and depth… to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, to be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18). In that love she faced the problems of her time and place, and did her part to transform the society in which she was involved. The question is, will we, with the same faithful stewardship, confront the problems that need to be faced in our time? Are we free enough? Do we have the courage to do it? Do we have enough faith to hope? Enough love to work for what we hope for?

Christianity gives us the courage to be free. Do we appreciate that? Are we eager to accept it?

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