Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Different Kind of Freedom

Monday, on Memorial Day in the U.S., admonitions from a variety of sources were cast out via the internet and various media outlets, all encouraging our gratitude for those who paid for freedom with their lives. It was a day to remember those whose lives were given for our nation's freedom. Several persons in my extended family and circle of relationship came to mind as I thought of what Memorial Day stands for. Certainly, the freedom to express oneself, the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness are important and not to be taken for granted. The freedom Americans often take as a given is not enjoyed by everyone in the world. The day reminded us of the sobriety and gratitude such freedom demands.

In the spiritual realm, there is another freedom that is even more crucial, a freedom that transcends a nation's freedom or any person's liberties. Freedom in the outer world is no guarantee of freedom in the inner world. Outward freedom, that provided by governments and social structures provides us with the liberty to move about, to seek the common good, to pursue our own happiness, and to seek (or not seek) fullness of life in a way that is mutually beneficial to others within society.

Inward freedom, though, is an entirely different matter, having little to do with outward structures or circumstance, almost nothing to do with the particular political system or social arrangement in which one lives. Inner freedom is a matter of soul . . . so much a matter of soul that a person may live in a setting in which there is little or no outer freedom, and yet have an immense sense of interior freedom. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned unjustly in South Africa, comes to mind as someone who was outwardly imprisoned with almost no outer freedom, yet who lived with an amazingly high sense of interior freedom. Mandela's body could be confined for 27 years on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor Prison, but never could his soul be imprisoned.

I'm thinking today of the ways you and I live imprisoned by the things that we've gathered to ourselves in hopes they would bring us happiness. And I'm thinking of this in terms of the Gospel reading that was appointed for Monday, May 28, Memorial Day in the United States.

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

(Mark 10:17 - 27, NIV)

I don't know myself very well. Most of us don't. Day after day we busily collect to ourselves the things we think will make us happy and fulfilled . . . . the diplomas, bank account balances, job titles, houses, accolades, and much more that we cling to, hoping for a life of meaning.

Ignatius of Loyola called these things attachments, because not only do I attach them to my own sense of self, but I also attach significance to them in a way that is out of proportion to what they can actually give me.

Day to day, I tend not to be aware of those things I cling to for happiness -- they dwell in such a deeply interiorized part of me -- but when I'm seen all the way through -- "Jesus looked at him and loved him" -- by one with eyes to see my interior, the things I've clutched to myself are named for what they are.

Inner freedom begins with the grace to see or identify the things to which I cling, the things that keep me from walking the path of my unique life wholeheartedly. This seeing means I must begin to notice where I am NOT free inwardly, the places in my interior landscape in which my own compulsions or "inordinate attachments" dwell (desires that are blown out of proportion, that are beyond "ordinary" and thus "inordinate"). These attachments to which I cling are usually the people, roles, and things I cannot imagine living without. When clinging to them, I am not free, but rather tied to something in which I have invested my happiness. Think "addiction," because we are all addicts, all addicted to something, even to many things . . . praise, status, affirmation, security, money, pleasure, even to our own sickness.

The extent to which we cling to anything which is not God -- even to our own ideas or notions of God, even to our own idea of what "faith" is -- we're not truly free.

With the young man in the Gospel story, Jesus simply put his finger on the place where the man was not free. For him, the issue was money, possessions, clinging to them and holding them in a way that tied him down and prevented him from making decisions apart from his belongings.

Like all attachments, his possessions were heavy. They weighed him down and held him in place, so that he could not move on down the path in a life-giving way. He was essentially paralyzed by the things he held onto, the things he could not let go. It really didn't matter that he was a good man, a moral man, a religious man who kept commandments, because his clinging held him in place and prevented him from moving on. He was stuck.

Whatever my attachments are -- and whatever yours are -- they weigh us down. They are heavy, cumbersome. Attachments don't travel well.

Maybe a couple of practical exercises will help us.

First, seeing what is within you. In order to reflect on your own inner freedom, consider something important in your life, perhaps a person or a car or a piece of furniture. Ask yourself, "What would I be without _______?" Do the same thing with a job title or role you carry out in life: "Who would I be if I were not ______?"

Of course there are people, pets, and roles that are important to us, which we do not want to do without. Remember, though, Ignatius felt that the guideline for considering inner freedom is "inordinate attachment," in other words, attachments beyond what is ordinary and healthy, beyond what falls into the realm of "addictive behavior." (In 12-step work, the key question is often, "Is my attachment to this substance, behavior, or person 'unmanageable'?")

"Has my attachment to this person or thing become unmanageable?"

Second, NO judgement. When you begin to see yourself and the degree to which you are inwardly free or unfree, do not judge yourself as good or bad. Leave judgment at the door. It is a great grace, perhaps the greatest grace, to be able to see yourself as you truly are and to withhold judging what you see in yourself. (By the way, not judging yourself is also the first step in not judging others . . . "Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF".)

When he looked at the young man, "Jesus loved him." The phrase should not be missed and is included in the text intentionally. You and I are seen all the way through in love, not judgement.

God has seen already all your attachments, all the ways you are not inwardly free . . . and God still loves you completely. Just because you see something about yourself for the first time does not mean that part of you just arrived. It has been there all along. You are just now seeing it. So resist judging yourself. See it, name it, but don't judge it.

Third, the prayer for freedom. Once you notice an interior area in which you are not inwardly free, pray this simple prayer: "God, free me from the need to cling to ________" . . . or "God, free me from the need to be _______." That's it. You don't have to fix your lack of inner freedom. You only have to be aware of your attachment and then be willing to pray for inner freedom. Then repeat the short prayer whenever you notice an attachment weighing you down in daily life.

[I picked up this short prayer for inner freedom from Jesuit priest and missionary Max Oliva (I believe the book was Free to Pray, Free to Love), who calls this short method the "Freedom Prayer."]

We, like the man in the Gospel, are often held in place by our lack of inner freedom. We are stuck where we are. In my own life, I seem to hear regularly an invitation to awareness, to become more and more aware of my own lack of inner freedom, and to do so without judgement.

[If you are interested in a simple, yet lovingly blunt, approach to attachments and inner freedom, try Anthony de Mello's The Way to Love. In the areas of spirituality and personal unfolding, it's a top 10 Must-Read in my opinion. De Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, could be both gentle and in-your-face within the same paragraph. He's the contemporary master when it comes to inner freedom and attachments.]

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