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A Meditation on Liberty - Choice, Love and Sacrifice

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I suggest that we reflect on the subject of liberty in the religious life-the last thing I think you would expect for a meditation. I doubt if there is any single subject on which more has been written in recent years than the subject of freedom. It is, so the analysts of the Church’s problems tell us, at the root of the crisis that is affecting Christianity in our day.

In popular literature and in so many of our songs, the young sing about the freedom to be, to be themselves, to do what they want . . . just to be free. Hence, the value of a meditation on freedom, the kind of freedom that God evidently wants us to practice, the freedom of the children of God.

I would like to address myself to the subject of liberty or freedom under three aspects which, if you wish, can be three points: liberty as choice, liberty as love, and liberty as sacrifice. Then, as we go along, I will make some short but, I hope, practical applications to our spiritual life.

The first and most obvious meaning of liberty is the ability to choose, to have options offered by the mind. And the more options the mind offers, the more free we are-which is one reason why affluent societies can be in such a crisis: there are so many options among which to choose! Freedom, then, whatever else it means, first means that I select and am not constrained to do something.

So we ask ourselves: how important is this liberty of choice for us as human beings, before we address ourselves to being religious? So important is this element of choice that it most distinctively characterizes us as human beings. What is a human being? A human being is one who has the ability to choose. This is so true that in moral theology we simply identify two adjectives: free and human. And those actions which we do not perform freely we do not even call human. Human acts, theologically speaking, are free acts. Thus, we could redefine morality as the exercise of freedom.

Liberty as Choice

But now, for us as religious, what is the highest function of this liberty of choice that we can exercise, and thereby be most pleasing to God? After all is said and done, the highest function of our freedom of choice as revealed to us by God is the freedom to choose to pray. Honest!

Why is this the highest and most important function? Because unless we choose to pray, no matter how gifted we may be naturally, we shall not reach our destiny. Unless we choose to pray-and we must choose to do so-we shall not obtain that indispensable gift of freedom which comes with grace, so that we are able to do what God wants us to do. Otherwise we shall not be saved. Those who pray will be saved; those who do not pray will not be saved. And those who pray will be holy; those who do not pray will not be holy.

Why are we so secure in saying this? Nine months, more or less, before we were born, we didn’t exist. Except for God’s goodness, none of us would be here. Having received so much from God without our doing anything about it-with no choice on our part to come into existence - we shall not reach the goal for which we were made unless we choose. And the first and most important exercise of this liberty is to pray and to ask for that grace which we need.

Liberty as Love

Quite obviously, it is not enough for us merely to have the ability to choose. Important as the liberty of choice is, it is not its own ultimate purpose. We are given liberty not merely to choose, but in order that having chosen, we may love the object of our choice. This is so true that if after having chosen something, we discover sadly that we chose the wrong thing, we are not to love it. We are to make another choice and let go of the first thing we chose, so that we may not merely choose but may be able to love what we chose.

And here we ask: what is the highest object of our love? Need we say it? It is God. So if the highest function of our liberty is to choose to be in spiritual contact with God-one of my many definitions of prayer-then our highest function in loving is to love the God who made us for the sole purpose that we might love Him.

Meditations should be practical. If I meditate, and I’ve made a good meditation, then I do something about that on which I have meditated. A meditation which stops in the mind is speculation; it is not prayer. So how do we exercise this love of the highest object of our love, namely, our God? Let’s backtrack for just a moment to get our bearings.

There is so much said and written and sung these days about love, to a point where I think in English, the word “love” should have two spellings: one, l-o-v-e, and the other, l-u-v. How do we love? Judging by so much of what the world is saying around us about love, you would think that we love with our feelings, and that the more exalted are our emotions, the more in love we are. Or, for other people, you would think that we love with our minds, and the more learned the books that we write or read on the nature of love, the more we love. No. We love with our wills.

Christ made sure that He was very plain about who really loves Him, and that adverb is important. A lot of people say they love, but saying they love is not the same as loving. Who, on Christ’s premises, really loves Him? The one who does His will. When I do what faith and my reason tell me is God’s will, I love Him, no matter what my feelings may tell me to the contrary. If I had my emotional choice, this might be the last thing I’d be doing right now. But as long as I believe this is what God wants and I do it - that’s it!

Feelings don’t count, and I don’t mean just the negative feelings. There are certain things I do not like to do, yet if I do them because I am sure that God wants me to do them, I love Him!.

“But there’s no warm feeling around my heart!” So there isn’t. So what!? “But I just read a book that said I’m to fulfill myself and that God wants me to…well, to satisfy my desires, and that I am most pleasing to God when I satisfy my own desires.” That’s the way some are writing lately, but they use much larger, sesquipedalian words! The fact is, however, that if faith tells me God wants me to do something and I do it, in spite of negative feelings, I love Him.

The same principle holds for exalted feelings. Some people, depending on how sentimental they are (and all of us, thank God have some sentiment), can make the mistake of somehow equating their sense of spiritual well-being - the kind of satisfaction you get after a good meal - with doing Gods will, so that the more consoled they are, the more spiritual satisfaction they get and the more surely they think they are making progress in the spiritual life.

I confess I used to think so. I’ve learned. Faith tells us that, as members of the Catholic Church following a way of life approved by the Church, whose directives have been given to us by those whom faith tells us hold the place of God for us, we are doing God’s will and we are loving Him! This is true despite all learned palaver to the contrary. Is it any wonder that religious life is such a sure way to sanctity, provided it is real religious life?

Liberty as Sacrifice

We have one more question, then, to ask ourselves. Having spoken briefly about the liberty of choice and the liberty of love, we ask: are there different levels or, from another viewpoint, different degrees to loving? Yes, there are. The highest is to sacrifice.

What does it mean to sacrifice? To sacrifice means to surrender something precious for someone whom we love. It must be something precious. If we give away what is not precious, that may be good business or good riddance, but it is not sacrifice. And it must be surrendered.

We must let go, give up! And let us remember, we let go with our hearts; it’s not enough to let go with our hands.

Sacrifice, then, means surrender of something precious for the one whom we love. As just described, sacrifice is the language of love. It is the proof of love. It is the food of love. It is the atmosphere of love. It is especially the source of our growth in love. We let go of what we like, and thus, this is precious to God, this is sacrifice. But notice, not only must it be something precious - otherwise, we’re not even making a sacrifice - but we must be deeply in love. And as every wife knows, in spite of all the romanticism of her husband, we sacrifice only to the degree to which we are in love. We are only as willing to surrender as we are in love with the one for whom we make the sacrifice.

We have one more question to ask. If sacrifice is the highest level of love, within sacrifice itself is there some highest and deepest surrender we can make? What is the most precious thing we have which we are most reluctant to surrender...? The most difficult surrender we all have to make is the surrender of self. Hence, that casual expression, self-sacrifice, is at the heart of Christian sanctity. “Self” is not just a casual prefix: it says everything.

It is sacrifice by the self. We freely make the sacrifice. Indeed, unless we do so freely, it’s not even a sacrifice. Sacrifice can only be motivated by love. And we’ve already said that we love only when we want to. So self-sacrifice means that we choose to make the surrender.

A large part of our spiritual formation, which should go on through life, is to motivate ourselves to want to make the surrender. We don’t do so simply because others are doing it, or because “it’s something I’ve read about and it’s a good thing,” or because “I’m going to get something out of it.” We motivate ourselves to want to sacrifice because we love the one for whom alone we make it.

Self-sacrifice is not only by the self, but also, what is so important, of the self. It is we who make the sacrifice; hence, the priestly function of our religious life-for a priest is one who offers sacrifice. But our sacrifice is also of the self, and that is the victim side of our religious life. It is we who make the surrender, and it is ourselves whom we surrender.

Needless to say, this is a lifetime task. After years in the religious life, we may think, “Well, I suppose this is it.” Then we discover that there are whole areas of ourselves which we have not yet surrendered completely to God.

Sometimes God’s demands seem very heavy. He is a very jealous and demanding lover. Sometimes we may want to tell Him, “Lord, aren’t You satisfied?” And He will say, “Not yet.”

But here’s the beauty of it. We know that God is grateful (strange words to use about God). We give ourselves to Him, and He gives Himself to us. To experience this response of God’s love for us in return for our self-surrender to Him is worth all the sacrifice we make.

Even in this life, as I like to repeat, we should have a foretaste of heaven. We’d better! Otherwise, unless we knew what we were getting into, who would even want to go there? God wants us to be happy, not just in that distant, eschatological future, but here.

And He always comes through. He gives a joy that only He can give to those who surrender themselves to Him.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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