By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
There is a contradiction in our culture which crosses all divides. It has to do with freedom. On the one hand, we are all taught to cherish freedom, whatever our social, religious or political background. But on the other hand, we tend to run from freedom as far as we possibly can.
What do I mean? Do you notice the irony of a society that insists upon free expression and then, when given the microphone, often parrots the same things as everyone else – or whatever is at the moment being preached in our pop culture?
Then there are those who reject God because they see his laws as a threat to their freedom. But then, in a strange twist, many try to justify their atheism with scientific materialism, that is, with the faith that we are totally determined by abstract laws of nature. After snatching their freedom from God, they throw it to physics and insist our free will is only an illusion.
But Christians too can run from freedom.
For example, as we try to discern the will of God, sometimes we throw our hands up and exclaim, “Oh, I wish God would just tell me what he wants!” Many aspects of his will are clear (like the Ten Commandments), but there are innumerable things left to our discernment, such as, for example, whether God wants me to accept some new initiative or sacrifice, or whether he wants me to embrace a particular vocation. When the challenge of discerning feels burdensome, we are tempted to make marching orders our spiritual ideal. We begin to long for God as for a taskmaster, and for ourselves as slaves.
Thankfully, this ideal is easily brought to a crisis because God does not boss us around like slaves. He does not “part the clouds” and shout from heaven. He hides, whispers and thus engages our freedom. He certainly has plans for our lives, and Jesus, along with the whole Bible, makes quite clear that our health and happiness depend upon our docility to him. He wants us to follow his will; but he wants us to follow his will in union with our own – that is, in freedom.
St. Bernard says that God’s goal for human beings “is not to save the unwilling, but to make them willing.” God wants to help us desire his plans spontaneously. For that reason, he does not give us marching orders or shout at us like a drill sergeant; instead, he often whispers to us through the “still small voice” of conscience (cf. 1 Kgs 19:13). By shouting, a parent may get her child to do what she wants. But she will not get the child to want what she wants. God does not just want us to do what he wants. He wants us to want what he wants. Because when we want what he wants, his plans became our own plans – and then together, as creature and Creator, we work for the beauty of all things. God loves to speak softly, like a parent helping her child to grow step by step in desire for what is true and good. He loves to speak tenderly, patiently shaping our hearts so that his great plans become, as it were, our own idea – what we spontaneously want to do.
We just celebrated Epiphany, which is the great unveiling of the Word made flesh to the world. When the magi arrived at Bethlehem, they heard this almighty Word in the cooing of a baby. In each gospel reading this liturgical year, we will see that as this baby grows his cooing never stops – he remains ever a child living obediently and lovingly before the gaze of his Father. With every prayer and action, he docilely unites his human will to his divine will. And he invites us all to join him.
Let us engage God in the way he asks – in freedom. In this new year, let us learn patiently to discern his will, and to love it as our own. If today we chafe at a commandment, then let us study it seriously and prayerfully: “meditate upon it day and night” (Ps 1:2). God, our loving Father, never asks us anything unless it is for our health and happiness. Let us follow him with child-like trust, believing in the day when we will all sing together with the saints, “Lord how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97). “I will run the way of your commands. You give freedom to my heart!” (Ps 119:32).
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.