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Freedom and Religious Life

On the freedom of obedience.


Because the time I set aside for writing this article has unexpectedly been spent at the bedside of a dying sister, the original opening I had planned—eye-catching, articulate, and witty to a fault, as you can well imagine—rings a little hollow now. Put briefly, my thesis is that freedom, not love, is the foundational witness of consecrated religious life. I had assumed that when the time came to write down my thoughts in an ordered manner, I would do so on a laptop in the quiet and privacy of my cell. Instead, I found myself doing it on scrap paper beside a deathbed. Religious life, I have found, is a typically Catholic “both-and” of high ideals and unpoetic realities, and I have become used to reflecting on such weighty matters as the three evangelical counsels and conformity to Christ in and through the everyday cycle of floor-scrubbing, essay-writing and spreadsheet-adjusting. Thus it has been simply a welcome and fitting variation on a theme to reflect on freedom while unable to leave the bedside of a sister incapable of anything much at all.

For the most part, she is asleep. I must admit I am asleep some of the time as well. What I dream—as I believe is fairly common for religious—is lines from the Divine Office. In particular, I return to a line from a hymn we sing at Lauds: Father of Christ, of Him whose work was done. The religious life, as Saint John Paul II wrote in Vita Consecrata, is a life of “conforming one’s whole existence to Christ.” There are many ways to understand this and to live it out, for His depths are great, but what has struck me in the past few days is that the Christ to Whom we are conformed is the Christ who had a work: a work which was carried out in obedience to the Father and, crucially, in perfect freedom. “No one takes [my life] from me,” Jesus proclaims in John’s Gospel, “but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

Christ is both totally free and truly obedient as He carries out His work. As Christians, we are called to share in that freedom; as religious, we are called to share in it fully and profoundly, without limit or compromise. It is this true freedom, which cannot be stymied by physical frailty or suffering, which my sister has preached in her last days, and on which I wish to offer some thoughts to you now.

Consecrated religious are witnesses. “To bear witness to Christ by one’s life, works and words,” Saint John Paul II tells us, “is the particular mission of the consecrated life in the Church and in the world.” In the popular Catholic imagination, this witness to Christ is pre-eminently a witness to Christ’s love. After all, it is by love that the Christian life is known—“by this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus tells us, “if you have love for one another”—and the religious life is intended to be nothing other than the fullness of Christian life itself. It is not separate from or opposed to the calling that each of us receives at baptism; it is instead, as the Catechism tells us, “rooted in” that baptism and intended to be the deepest and most radical expression of its grace.

In the Church’s teaching, the life of the baptized Christian is indeed characterized by love. But it is also quite clearly characterized by freedom. To be incorporated into Christ by baptism is to be “brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God,” which is “true freedom.” Just as God gives faith as “an entirely free gift,” so human beings, made in His image and likeness make their response of faith in “a free act.” “It is for freedom,” Saint Paul says, “that Christ has set us free”—and “if the Son sets you free,” we read in John, “you will be free indeed.”

God acts freely and, by His grace, draws from us a free response. The freedom which inheres in us by virtue of our human nature is not destroyed by that grace, but brought to its perfection and completion by it. This fundamental compatibility between human freedom and the divine nature, and its preciousness in the eyes of God, we see fully and most clearly in the life of the Word made flesh. To be a witness to Christ, living in the fullness of baptismal grace, is therefore to live in Christian freedom in witness to the freedom of Christ.

As a Dominican sister, I have spent the last five years living by the Rule of Saint Augustine. The final paragraph of the Rule exhorts us to follow not only “with love,” but also “as free women under grace.” My dying sister has ably witnessed not only to the love, but also to the graced freedom of which Augustine writes. When various physical disabilities removed many of her external choices—the choice of when to get out of bed, of where to move, of what to say—her interior freedom enabled her to respond to these challenges with regular gestures of thanks, an attitude of patient acceptance, and a keen perception of small joys, unfettered by the interior bonds of despair, anger, or resentment. Thus, in various subtle ways, she demonstrates that freedom is the seed-bed of authentic love: a freedom that could be practiced even in the absence of external choice. When the two of us are side by side in her cell—the frail elderly woman in bed, using each minute to accept her Savior; the young able-bodied woman in the chair next to her, bound up in distractions, tied up in worry—it is clear which one of us is living in greater freedom. 

In Orientale Lumen the religious is described as one who “learns detachment from externals, from the tumult of the senses, from all that keeps man from that freedom which allows him to be grasped by the Spirit.” All the external observances of our religious life—cloister, silence, and so on—are intended to be a school of interior detachment and recollection in which we come to know and to desire what is truly good and to fix our eyes upon it. This interplay of the intellect and the will and the resulting movement of the human person towards God is what the Christian tradition terms freedom.

It is worth drawing a little more attention to the fact—especially since it is now so profoundly misunderstood—that freedom in this view does not depend on the conscious possession of external choice. In fact the great paradox of freedom is that the more one lives in it, the less one perceives life as a series of choices—box A or box B—from which one must coldly and disinterestedly select. The piano virtuoso does not “choose” for a right note against a bum note, nor does the archer ‘choose’ between the bullseye and the outer ring, nor the dancer “choose” whether to pirouette or to trip over her own ankles. Yet it would be absurd to see these people as piteously trapped in narrow, restricted lives. They are free in their particular sphere of excellence: they know and desire the good and they simply move towards it, and the alternatives are no longer serious alternatives at all. So it is with the religious, whose life seems narrow and restricted only because it is free of the clutter of lesser goods, excessive attachments, and false promises of happiness which cloud the human desire for God.

I am probably the fifth Catholic author you have read today quoting Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, but I feel Father Jacques Philippe’s observations on one particular (and perhaps underappreciated) aspect of her spiritual writing are relevant here. In his book Interior Freedom, Father Philippe calls attention to “the unlimited dimensions of the spiritual universe [Thérèse] inhabits: ‘infinite horizons,’ ‘immense desires,’ ‘oceans of graces,’ ‘abysses of love,’ ‘torrents of mercy,’ and so on.” He goes on to ask: “Why does Thérèse’s world—humanly speaking, such a narrow and poor one—give the sense of being so ample and spacious?” The answer is that this is quite simply what it is. The grandeur of Thérèse’s spatial analogies speaks directly of the grandeur of an interior life characterized by freedom. The little cell and cramped choir stall of the religious hide vaulted cathedrals of liberty which rise above the external restrictions in which they operate.

The religious witness to Christian freedom comes from a group of people who, by the lights of modern culture, cannot be anything but hopelessly oppressed. We live in a time when being your best self and you doing you (and all the other slogan-friendly worldviews I’ve missed out on in my half-decade off the Internet) require a plethora of choice untethered from any object but the actualization of one’s own entirely personal sense of self—and so who honestly thinks he can learn anything from an impoverished, obedient celibate? Who seriously wants to entertain the possibility that there might be more freedom within a convent’s walls than outside of them?

One way to do it—and I have been at the receiving end of this kind of thing myself—is simply to recast religious life as another means of self-expression among the many. You want to be a nun? That’s great! Don’t let anybody stop you! Your life is your life. These comments, though almost always meant well, speak to a view of the religious life which is just as pernicious as the idea that we are all brainwashed victims of tyranny. The freedom of the consecrated religious cannot be whitewashed and repackaged to the world as a quirky lifestyle choice. It is a freedom which has as both its object and its impetus a reality outside ourselves, one which we do not control and did not create—namely, God. It is a freedom which reveals human life to be a journey ordered towards an objective truth, in which we are called to be co-operators rather than instigators. When religious grow in freedom, they “show that they are growing in the full truth about themselves, remaining in touch with the source of their existence.” Such freedom, when spoken forth to the modern world, should be intriguing and unsettling in equal measure; but if it can be dismissed as just a nice thing to choose to do with your life, then either the world is not paying attention or we are not living it properly.

Do you feel, good Catholic reader of this publication, that you can pass by this witness to freedom unscathed? You shouldn’t. By preaching a freedom that is rooted in God, the religious is a witness also to the rest of the Church. After all, the apparent paradox of the freedom of religious—that we are free and yet also obedient—is, or at least should be, simply the ordinary state of all baptized Christians. The “obedience of faith” which Saint Paul speaks of in Romans, and to which all members of the Body of Christ are called, is “to submit freely to the word that has been heard” through the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. Hence religious live by the evangelical counsel of obedience not to remove ourselves from ordinary Christian life, but to live it more fully.

The idea that Christian life is one of freedom and obedience in equal measure might sound like disingenuous theological acrobatics to some, but for me it is a straightforward description of everyday life. Religious obedience is simply not true or real unless it is sought and lived out in the state of human maturity and self-possession that freedom brings. Otherwise it is nothing more than a morally neutral submissiveness. The Rule calls us free “women” under grace—not little girls. Obedience is not a retreat into childish dependency but a mature acknowledgement of the fundamental truth of our creation: all that we are, even our free will, has God as its origin and finality. Like the other two evangelical counsels, obedience proceeds from a recognition of this truth—and the truth, as we know from John’s Gospel, “will make you free.”

This is a lesson for the whole Church. Taking one’s own, bespoke view of the Catholic faith, whether expressed as outright rejection of Church teaching or as subtly arch I-know-better skepticism regarding valid hierarchical decisions, can seem like an expression of freedom. In fact, without obedience to the truth to which freedom orders us—the truth of who we are as Christians, and the truth of how God has chosen to communicate with us and mediate his grace to us—it is merely a flashy parody of freedom. To live in the free obedience of faith is the call of every Christian—but if anyone us needs example or encouragement, he should be able to find it in the witness to free obedience given by consecrated religious.

Father of Christ, of Him whose work was done. My sister is still here; the work which the Father has given her—the work of a lifetime of obedience, freely accepted and freely carried out—is, in some mysterious way, still ongoing. That she has witnessed to love in her sixty years of religious profession is undeniable; anybody who knew her could attest to that. But living under the same roof and the same Rule with her, for however short a time, has convinced me that her love grew from a foundation of authentic freedom. Of all the ways which religious life witnesses to Christ, the witness of freedom is certainly one of the most theologically significant—but for today’s world and today’s Church, it is also one of the most practically necessary.

Sister Carino Hodder is a Dominican Sister of Saint Joseph based in the New Forest in England. 

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