Taking No For an Answer

Today’s Inward/Outward post, which was in my inbox this morning, was a quote by Parker Palmer that I think is right on target.  Parker writes:

One of our problems as Americans—at least, among my race and gender—is that we resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives. Our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people on the moon, discovering ‘cyberspace’ at the very moment when we have filled old-fashioned space with so much junk that we can barely move. We refuse to take no for an answer. Part of me treasures the hopefulness of this American legacy. But when I consistently refuse to take no for an answer, I miss the vital clues to my identity that arise when way closes—and I am more likely both to exceed my limits and to do harm to others in the process.

The secular theory underlying the mindset of which Parker speaks understands freedom exclusively as “freedom from,” that is, a freedom from interference to follow individual pursuits, whatever they may be. This is freedom as individual autonomy, with no objective ranking or judgments about individual preferences. Prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger characterized this understanding as a “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

The Christian understanding of freedom, what is sometimes referred to as “authentic freedom,” is very different. In contrast with an understanding of freedom that admits of no judgments about individual preferences, authentic freedom is not unlimited; it is bounded by moral truth. Authentic freedom is the freedom to make choices that accord with truth. As Pope John Paul II observed, in Centesiumus Annus, that “freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth.”

Authentic freedom understands that there are limits and that sometimes “no” may be the right answer.


Consenting to What We Did Not Choose

One of the books I’m currently reading is Interior Freedom, by Rev. Jacques Philippe, a member of the Community of the Beatitudes, founded in France. The book had been recommended to me some time ago by the pastor of a parish to which I used to belong, but had been sitting in my frighteningly high “to be read” pile.

The title of the book pretty much gives away the books basic theme. Philippe seeks to help us understand the true meaning of freedom and how to grow in that freedom. Apart from the fact that there is a lot of repetition in the part of the book I’ve read thus far (about half of the book), I am finding it a very worthwhile read.

Early on, Philippe talks about what freedom is and what it is not. Many people tend to have a limited understanding of freedom, seeing it as simply the ability to choose among options. While not denigrating the importance of that type of freedom, Philippe insists on our need to understand that “there is another way of exercising freedom: less immediately exciting, poor, humbler, but much more common, and one immensely fruitful, both humanly and spiritually. It is consenting to what we did not originally choose.

Obviously going along with pleasant things that occur without our choosing them is easy. An unexpected boon, you might say. But it is much far less natural and easy to go along with things that are unpleasant. Yet, says Philippe,

it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price. There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free!

To achieve true interior freedom we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powerlessness, this or that situation life imposes on us, and so on.

Consent is not the same as resignation. Resignation is a “declaration of powerlessness that goes not further.” Consent may look like resignation from the outside, but carries hope with it. “We say yes to a reality we initially saw as negative, because we realize that something positive may arise from it.” The attitude of heart of consent is very different from that of resignation.

Philippe is clear that consent is not a prescription for laziness or passivity. It does not mean we don’t to improve ourselves and the world. But it means we begin with an attitude of acceptance of reality.

A God of Allowing

One of the books I’m currently reading is Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (although, given various distractions, he’ll have his next book out before I’m finished reading this one).

In his book, Rohr calls God “the Great Allower.” God allows us to make mistakes and God allows acts of great evil to take place. And this is not something anyone likes. Rohr writes

God’s total allowing of everything has in fact become humanity’s major complaint. Conservatives so want God to smite sinners that they find every natural disaster to be a proof of just that, and then they invent some of their own smiting besides. Liberals reject God because God allows holocausts and tortures and does not fit inside their seeming logic.

Rohr goes on to suggests that if we were being honest, we would admit that “God is both a scandal and a supreme disappointment to most of us.” Despite our professed love and desire for autonomy, “we would prefer a God of domination and control to a God of allowing.”

This was something I struggled with in the first weeks of my prayer when I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. ignatius. I couldn’t see why God couldn’t just “force” me into doing the right thing, rather than risking that I would blow it. It took me quite some time to accept that allowing us our freedom was a great gift.

Rohr speaks of “allowing the Great Allower to allow us, even at our worst.” If we do, he suggests, we learn, as I did during the Exericises, “to share in the divine freedom” and to “forgive God for being too generous.”

Happy Passover

Passover begins at sundown this evening.

Last week, our Jewish Law Students Association sponsored an “Educational Passover Sedar,” designed to introduce non-Jewish students to the holiday. We went through a modified (truncated) Passover Haggadah, led by a Rabbi who did a wonderful job of explaning the various parts of the Sedar.

Although I’ve been to Sedar meals before, two things struck me during this one. First, was the invitation to the needy to join the meal. Early in the Sedar, the door is opened and an invitation is extended to anyone who is hungy to come and eat. The rabbi explained that there were times when this was done in Israel and, indeed, people would come in and join the Sedar. The invitation extended at the Sedar reminds us that it is always our obligation to feed those in need – all year around and not just at the celebration of Passover. The invitation in the Haggadah version we used says

We do not live to satisfy ourselves alone but also live to sustain those in need. Let us make every efort to feed those in immediate need in our land and to increase ways to end world hunger.

The second thing that struck me was the tension inherent in the celebration, symbolized in the mixing of the bitter and the sweet (bitter herbs mixed with sweet mortar). Passover is a celebration of freedom – in a world where many are in slavery. We celebrate freedom in a world in which there is still bloodshed and suffering, reminding us that we are tasked to help bring peace to the land and freedom to those enslaved.

Finally, the rabbi talked about the difference between our understanding of slavery and the understanding that existed in Biblical times. We see slavery as an unfortunate condition anyone could find themselves in. Then, people viewed slaves as inherently slaves – as being fundamentally different than free people (as less than human). God’s freedom of the Israelites changes our understanding, helping us to see that those enslaved and us are no different in our personhood (and in God’s love of us). We are also, by such understanding, invited to reflect on the ways in which we are enslaved – what are the things we are enslaved by or slaves to?

My gratitude to the students in our Jewish Law Students Association for their organization of this event. It was blessing to all of us who attended.

And Happy Passover to all of my Jewish friends.

What We Gain By Letting Go

The participants in the Fall Reflection Series I’m giving at St. Hubert’s are praying this week on the subject of letting go of the things that we cling to, things that threaten to remove God from the central place in our lives. The various prayer exercises they are engaging in this week are designed to help them identify what are the things that they cling to, what are the things that distract them from discipleship.

The difficulty for us is that the things we cling to can look very attractive to us, so attractive that we can fail to see how our attachment binds us, how it prevents us from being free. Buddhist thought on this subject is very developed; Buddhists identify attachment as one of the root delusions.

There is a story that captures well the danger of clinging. It is one I first heard many years ago, but I read it again recently in a newsletter and so thought to share it. It is a story that explains how monkeys in Africa are captured alive with a simple trap. The “trap” is a heavy bottle with a long neck, inside of which are placed some sweets that are attractive to the monkey. The neck is wide enough for an open hand to go in and out, but not side enough for a fist to enter or exit.

You can guess what happens. Attracted by the scent of the sweets, the monkey reaches its open hand into the bottle and grabs the object of its desire. Once it closes its fist around the sweets, it cannot remove its hand from the bottle. Because the bottle is heavy, the monkey cannot run away with it. All the monkey has to do to get away is let go of the sweets. However, the monkey clings to the object of its desire, unwilling to let it go, even though that means captivity.

We do the same. We cling to things that cannot bring us ultimate happiness, to things that keep us from being free. And all we have to do to gain greater interior freedom is to let go.

I Have a Dream

On this day in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered what I still think is one of the greatest speeches in history – his I Have a Dream speech.

Martin Luther King III, president and chief executive of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, described his father’s vision and view of religion in this way:

[Martin Luther King] said that any religion that is not concerned about the poor and disadvantaged, ‘the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them[,] is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.’ In his ‘Dream’ speech, my father paraphrased the prophet Amos, saying, ‘We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’

By the standards of Amos we still can not be satisfied. The dream King envisioned has not yet been realized. And that means there is still work for all of us. And we have no business calling ourselves religious people unless we do our part.

If you have never watched or listened to the speech, take the time to do so today. If you have – do so again. The message is one we still need to hear. A youtube video of the speech is here.

The Risk of Pursuing Freedom

One of the final things I did before leaving the Buffalo area was to see an exhibit on the Underground Railroad at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University. The surrounding towns in that area of New York State served as a convenient crossing into Canada for runaway slaves after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act made staying in the northern “free” states too dangerous.

I was struck by the courage it took for so many slaves to make their way north via the Underground Railroad. Although they benefitted from the kindness (and courage) of the “conductors” along the way, the slaves still had to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles with great difficulty, always facing the danger of capture and physical punishment or death. So strong was their drive and courage that they took tremendous risk to obtain their freedom.

My guess is that many other slaves stayed behind out of fear, their own drive for freedom overshadowed by the fear of what they would face if they tried to escape. As painful as slavery was, the pain of lack of freedom seemed preferable to the risks that seeking freedom would entail.

So it often is in our spiritual lives. Growth is painful. Our movement toward freedom from the shackles that bind us is on the one hand spurred by our natural drive for union with God and on the other, hampered by our fears of the pain and difficulty we face along the way. As I’ve said in other contexts, our false self is a delusion, but it is a delusion we’ve grown comfortable with. Giving up the false self and replacing it with our true self requires a painful awakening and therefore great courage. Let us pray for that courage to move constantly toward freedom from our false self and union with God.

An Invitation to Partnership in Creation

One of the things I brought home with me from my visit to New York this past week is a booklet of songs composed by my friend Frank some years ago. Looking through the booklet on my flight back to Minneapolis yesterday, I was struck by the introductory note he wrote to his songs. His approach to his composition was inspired by a note Liszt included on one of his pieces: “intelligent use of the pedal implied throughout,” a designation Frank characterized as “at once flattering, challenging, and inviting.”

In composing his own songs in this booklet, a copy of which he gave me to bring to my daughter, Frank noted that he omitted indications of tempo, dynamics and the like, leaving the notes “stark and uncluttered with interpretive demands.” Evoking Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, he wrote, “This is my outstretched hand, my invitation and wish that you become a partner in their creation.”

How very much like God with us, I thought as soon as I read the words. God doesn’t micromanage. God doesn’t give us a full set of detailed instructions that determine our every move. Instead, God gives us the broad strokes of what he would like from us, expecting “intelligent use” of the gifts he has given us, inviting each of us to “become a partner in…creation.”

That is not something everyone finds all that comfortable. Just as I’m sure some pianists would prefer that a composer tell them exactly what the phrasing and dynamics of a song should be, many people would prefer that God tell us exactly what it is God wants us to do in every situation so that we can simply follow his instructions. And I admit, I have found myself on occasion saying to God, “Just tell me what you want from me and I’ll do it.”

But what an invitation in the freedom we are given! God’s wish for us is “at once flattering, challenging and inviting.” And there is a risk in it to the creator. Frank takes the risk that some pianist will take his creation and play it in a way completely discordant with how he thinks it should be. Likewise does God take a risk. Like the pianists playing Frank’s songs, we at times may not do things exactly as God might have if he were making all the decisions without our participation. (And sometimes we mangle it quite badly.) Nonetheless, God says, be my partner in creation. Help determine what it will look like.

Frank ends his introductory note with an allusion to an old Zen proverb, likening musical notation to “a finger pointing at the moon,” suggesting that “[i]f you look, you may find flecks of light shimmering here and there, between and behind the ciphers and signposts in what follows.” God might say much the same – find those shimmering flecks and, with my guidance, my love and presence, make of them what you will.

Ultimate Freedom

One of the great gifts God gives us as humans is free choice. I marveled anew at the extent of the gift of free choice as I read an article someone recommended to me in connection with one of my academic writing projects. In a piece called The Concept of “Gift” as Hermeneutical Key to the Dignity of the Human Person, Damien Fedoryka writes:

“It is the vocation of a person to give him-or herself to another out of love for the other that constitutes the mystery of such a power that has the character of an absolute in a contingent being. Not even God can take possession of the human person unless he or she freely gives him- or herself to God.”

What a risk God is willing to take on us! God could have decided to give us freedom with limits – could have let us have freedom over the little (or even medium) things, but kept for control over the big decisions for God’s self. (And, of course, God didn’t have to give us any free will at all; as I sometimes joke with people, God could have just decided to make us all goldfish.)

Instead, God gave us ultimate freedom – we get to choose whether to accept God’s love and to love in return. Not even God can force our love.

One of the graces we pray for during the early phase of the Spritiual Exercises of St. Ignatius is acceptance of the fact that I am free to respond or not to God’s call and to accept that that freedom is part of God’s plan. It is a pretty amazing thing to really grab hold of and appreciate this reality.