The Freedom of the Children of God

At Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

Today’s first reading at Mass (Latin Rite) includes Saint Paul’s reference to the freedom of the children of God. What does that mean? Surely there are many ways to approach the topic, such as Saint Augustine’s famous sentence: “Love, and do what you want.” Is there, however, a broad, encompassing view of different kinds of freedom and what Saint Paul is urging us, with the gentleness of a father, towards? I think so.

Saint Francis de Sales wrote a letter about this to his friend Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. Here is what he said. It’s very closely related to the themes of this blog.

Every good person is free of committing mortal sins and has no willing attachment to them. Such freedom is necessary for salvation, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. The freedom I’m referring to is the “freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21) who know they are loved.

Not that those who are set free from mortal sin are not children of God or are not free or do not know they are loved. But rather that this is an initial freedom. It is the first (and very important) step of the unlocking of the door. The door, however creaky and painful to move, but be nudged further ajar.

The freedom I’m referring to is the “freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21) who know they are loved. And what is that? It’s the detachment of a Christian heart from all things so that it is free to follow the known will of God.

Francis’ illustration is from the Our Father:

We pray to God above all, that His name may be hallowed, that His kingdom come, that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. All this is nothing other than the spirit of freedom; for, provided that the name of God is hallowed, that His kingdom is coming in us, that His will is being done, a free spirit has no other concern.

This is a true freedom, founded in God, or, from another point of view, resting in the height of the spirit where God dwells, rather than in our own preferences for meditative prayer practices or (worse) in our sins regarding instability and inconstancy in keeping to good resolutions. This true freedom, in other words, is the wings of the little birds of the Holy Spirit, soaring where he leads by his winds and through his sevenfold Gift of inspiration which gives us wings to catch the gusts and breezes. It is a freedom of height into God and depth into our soul, rather than a freedom of flitting, erratic, unruly, scattered, and frightful changes and inconstancy on the periphery of the spiritual life. Francis himself gives these notes of the progressive freedom of the children of God:

This freedom opposes two vices: instability and constraint or, in the extreme, dissoluteness and slavishness. Instability is a kind of excessive freedom which makes us want to change our practices or our state of life for no good reason or without knowing if to do so is God’s will. The least pretext is enough to make us change a plan, a rule, a practice… Before we know it, our heart is scattered and loses its way; it becomes like an orchard open on all sides, where the fruit is not for the true owner but for all who pass by.

Constraint or slavishness is a certain lack of freedom that causes the soul to be unduly anxious or angry when it cannot carry out what it had intended to do, even though it could now do something better.

For example: suppose I have decided to make my daily meditation in the morning. If I an unstable, then for the slightest excuse I will put off until evening, e.g., the dog kept me awake, or I have a letter to write (not an urgent one). On the other hand, if I have a spirit of constraint or slavishness I wouldn’t give up my meditation even if a sick person had great need of my help at that very moment or if I had some pressing obligation which should not be postponed.

Instability resides as a sin at the periphery of the spiritual life; excessive constraint lies along the path a bit further, but is clearly (at least) an imperfection holding us back, for the ultimate goal is transformation and transfiguration in Christ, which entails a handing over of our own preferences even in good things like prayer. This is, traditionally understood, the role of contemplation: greater docility to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, plunging us into the deep end of mental prayer, strengthening in the virtues, an infused ability to be led more directly by God rather than by second causes (when this is useful). It is one thing to find a place for a beautiful lake; it is another thing to pour water into the lake; it is a third thing to, being detached from the outer forms of the lake, see the rain fill the lake and then, in a beautiful sunrise, see its colours transfigured… and to let God do such work without pining for the days of water supplied and coloured according to our taste!

In contrast to a twofold error, we have a freedom of obedience: obedience to the motions of the Holy Spirit, a director, and even “yielding to the wishes of our neighbour in whatever is not contrary to the commandments of God” and “subjecting ourselves to every least creature through God”. At the summit and depth of the freedom of the children of God, which progresses steadily from initial detachment from mortal sin to soaring more and more by the Spirit, we have constancy founded in God: it is constancy, but not in ourselves, in God. The heart which enjoys this kind of freedom, to which we must all aspire, is not attached to spiritual consolations (it likes them but is not attached); it is not emotionally bound to any spiritual exercises or meditations it may make (though it may like them), so that if another cause intervenes, such as illness or just an inability to meditate, there is no deep worry; and it keeps joy at all times, for without attachments to things less than God, it can always have what it desires: to do and be in the will of God. And how could we not call this the greatest freedom: to always have what one desires? Freedom indeed!

This ultimate or penultimate freedom of the children of God is described in various ways in the Abandonment to Divine Providence of Jean-Pierre de Caussade SJ and the Practice of the Presence of God of Brother Lawrence OCD. It is a freedom, a lightness, an abandon that they describe. And in this they are attractive. They do make clear a state of goal, in a certain respect. But what it far more important is the sketch of the journey. The perspective of Saint Francis, Doctor of the Church, is deeper here. He tells us how this freedom develops and in what direction it tends, particularly in regards to the virtues and the forms our prayer takes (meditation, contemplation, quasi-continual contemplation).

In this freedom of the children of God we see very clearly major themes of contemplative life. There is detachment. There is joy. There is the unmistakable conclusion that we must not be attached to our forms of prayer, for our neighbours, providence, or more “direct” action from God may strip us of this with the goal of drawing us closer to him. There is the notion of progress from spiritual beginners to spiritual intermediates to a further “free” stage of life in the Spirit. And there is the Gospel truth that our way and our end are in abandoning ourselves to God in his concrete will, manifested in the commandments, in our neighbours, in his providence, in (as far as we are able to keep them in our circumstances) the counsels, and in his direct inspirations via the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

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