Once a month I go down to Massachusetts to see my spiritual director. He’s one of the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a quiet, cheerful man who always exudes a great sense of centeredness and peace. We sit together for an hour or so while I talk about what’s on my soul. Br. James listens. When I have laid myself bare before him he is silent for a long time, and then he’ll come out with a question – a deceptively simple question usually, but one which unlocks a new door, gives a new insight, invites me to consider a new possibility.
This last week I went down to Emery House perplexed about a problem I faced, not knowing what I should do. It had me waking up in the middle of the night fretting about the alternatives, none of which seemed good. So I laid it out for Br. James and then there was the usual long silence, followed by the question: “Where do you feel free in this? And where do you feel unfree, bound?” See what I mean by a new perspective: I hadn’t thought at all about my dilemma in terms of feeling free. And that’s what I told him. In fact, I told him that his question made me realize that I felt very little freedom in my life. I felt as though I were constantly serving others, trying to fulfill their expectations, and usually coming up short.
James listened and smiled, his quiet, calm monk’s smile. “Do you remember how Mass started?” he asked. (My pattern is to arrive at the monastery in time for the noon Mass, then to join the community for lunch, and then have spiritual direction.) Well, I remembered how the Mass had started; the same way it began this morning: “Blessed are you, holy and living One. You come to your people and set them free.” I’d never focused on those words. I’d never thought that Advent is about Jesus coming to us and setting us free. It’s that simple. And, for many of us, that difficult.
We know so little about this freedom that Christ brings. It isn’t the “live free or die” kind of freedom the world holds out to us. It isn’t freedom to do your own thing and everyone else be damned. Yes, we have liberty in that sense, liberty to sin as the Church says; but acting out that kind of liberty is going to end up making us less free, less at peace. That’s the wisdom of experience, the wisdom conveyed in Scripture and tradition.
I thought about Br. James and the other monks. To an outsider, to someone in the world, the monks are incredibly unfree. Their days are ordered by routines of prayer, work, recreation. They aren’t free to come and go without the Superior’s permission. They have almost no personal possessions and aren’t free to make or spend money. And yet, those called to this life seem to have a deeper and truer sense of personal freedom than anyone I know.
As James pointed out, while I am not a monk, my freedom too exits within limits – as does yours, as does all of ours. As a priest, I can only do what my Church empowers me to do. As a human being, I can only do what my time and abilities and energy permit me to do. I cannot work miracles. I cannot make everyone happy. I cannot solve all the problems of the world or the Church or my family – or even all my own problems. We each exist within limits. Accepting our limitations is, paradoxically, the beginning of finding freedom.
Think about your baptism. In baptism we say we are “freed from sin” and “raised to newness of life.” We are reborn, but we are still particular, individual human beings. We receive a name, but it is our individual name – John, Mary – the limitation of our particularity. In baptism too we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Our little particularity is part of the greater whole of God’s community. So we are limited by responsibility to this greater community. But these limitations are part of the very freedom given us in baptism – not contradictions of that freedom. Baptism is absolute and irrevocable, a freedom given, not earned. We are home free, baptism says, thanks to Christ. The rest of our life is about living this freedom out.
I talk about freedom – freedom in Christ – because these readings today are so rich and full of things that they can seem overwhelming without a common thread like freedom to pull them together. They’re about judgment – that great Advent message – reminding us that freedom in Christ is not libertarianism. We’re not free to do exceed our personal limits and do what hurts ourselves. We’re not free to exceed our communal limitations and do what hurts others. And in using our freedom we’re not to be hypocritical, as the gospel tells us. We’re not to try to fool ourselves and God by saying one thing and doing another. We’re to truly repent and live a life worthy of the gift of Christ.
All of this is true, but all of this can seem like a heavy moralistic burden if we don’t remember that it’s supposed to be about protecting our God-given, baptism-confirmed freedom. After Br. James and I had talked about freedom and dissected the ways in which I was and was not free to act in the situation I had brought to him, I found myself in the car driving home singing with happiness. My way forward was clear. (And it worked out just fine!) I suggest you bring that test of freedom to the places in your own life where you feel bound or burdened. It would be a great way to celebrate this wonderful and important time of Advent.