The words of G.K. Chesterton with which we concluded the previous reflection indeed unveil in large part the intentions of this book. They help connect us with that great mystery at the heart of the life of Christ, buried under the surface and yet continually reappearing, subtle and yet true, in every one of his encounters and words: namely, his joy. The joy of the Trinity alive in the heart of Jesus Christ, and pouring forth in an ever expanding breadth and ever deepening intensity as it reaches out to permeate every fiber of our created world—even through the Passion where joy pierces deepest sadness and light pierces profoundest darkness, and unto the undying joy of the Resurrection—this is the throbbing heartbeat of Christianity. It is God’s joy revealed and given to us, and inviting us to become partakers in it. To become partakers in it through the fullness of personal relationship, of communion born of love.

Love, therefore, is the fullfillment of humanity, and the capacity to love is the standard by which humanity is judged. The “freedom of the gift,” John Paul II calls it, the freedom to correspond with love to the love of God, to reciprocate with the total gift of oneself the prior and abiding gift of the Trinity which gives life to all things, to me in my own unique and precious existence, and seeks to draw all back into the wellspring of gift once again: into the innermost embrace, in mutual self-giving, of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Indeed, it is precisely and only God’s Love poured out in Christ Crucified and Risen, God’s Love given to us, that can touch, heal, and liberate us to love authentically in response, to be set free to love as we have been loved. Yes, we are invited to cooperate with vigorous readiness, with radical devotion, and this lived and daily affirmed “yes” of our own cooperation is necessary; but the deepest truth is that this very “yes” of ours is perpetually awakened and sustained by the “Yes” of God to us. Saint Augustine understood this well in speaking against the heresy of Pelagianism: he insisted that even our very response to grace is grace, that the slightest good and holy movements of our hearts are first God’s own activity within us, which awakens and sustains our response.

What a liberating truth this is! It is liberating because deep down we know that we cannot live in the freedom that we desire, or can even adequately desire it, without God’s gift active within us. In fact, those who think that they are strong and capable are actually blind, whereas those who see know that they are weak, needy, and dependent. Even virtue, defined as a kind of innate capacity for goodness, for freedom of action in integrity, is best understood not as a self-enclosed ability in the human heart, but as an abiding state of reliance, of dependency, of responsiveness, to God’s sustaining love and grace, and to his “word” spoken in each moment and each thing. But this grace really does set us free, grafting us into itself and operating so fully within us that it also becomes truly ours, truly proper to our own humanity as redeemed and sanctified by God. But it becomes ours not as a possession in the normal sense of the word—since in God there is no such thing as “possession,” no “mine” as opposed to “yours,” but all is permeated by the non-possession of love—but rather as a form of being-possessed, of being so totally surrendered to the energies of divine love that flow within us, of being permeated and transformed within them, that their activity becomes truly natural to us, truly spontaneous and free born of the deepest harmony of the heart, indeed of all of the energies of our body and spirit, joined with the movements of the heart of God in the Spirit.

We have gotten quite far from commenting on the verses of the biblical text, even as our reflections have been spurred on by the Word. Allow one more digression, and then we will return explicitly to the verses. God’s grace, totally transcending our innate human capacity and coming to us as a gratuitous gift from the outside, nonetheless seeks to touch and sanctify us, not in some “intermediate” sphere where we leave behind our frail nature and our concrete humanity, but rather right in the heart of our incarnate human experience and life in all of its richness. This is the great paradox: that the gift that so far surpasses us, and which we can only experience through pure and virginal receptivity, is also the reality that our heart, and our whole human nature, needs so deeply to be authentically itself.

And thus grace truly teaches us to live, down to the smallest movements of our hearts and the most intimate details of our life. It permeates everything, sweeping everything up into itself, until all is love is total transparency to the Trinity. But even so, we remain poor, utterly reliant in open hands and heart upon the sustaining love of the Trinity, just as the Son, at the heart of the abundance of his own life, is pure relationship with God, pure filial receptivity and responsiveness to the gift and love of his Father, his Abba. Our sanctity consists precisely in this: participating in the Son’s own filial intimacy with the Father, and doing this through an intimacy with him, in the Spirit, that is both fraternal and spousal. In other words, united to Christ through the gift of redemption, we become brothers and sisters of the one who became a Brother to all of us, and, as siblings, we are espoused to him as divine Bridegroom, united in an intimacy far deeper than human nuptial love while super-fulfilling it. And in this union with Jesus Christ, espoused in the kiss and breath of the Holy Spirit, we are lifted to the Father, to be, with the Son and in him, caught up into the innermost embrace that the Son shares with the Father, to breathe with them the single Breath of eternity and the single Kiss of everlasting bliss.

A final concrete note. If grace truly meets us and sanctifies us at the heart of our humanity, then it is also true that divorcing ourselves from grace leads to the collapse of our authentic humanity. We see this very vividly in our culture today (I refer to those cultures where Christianity has been relegated to the past or to the merely subjective, private sphere, not to those cultures where it is growing and flourishing). We see that, divorced from the profound depth and breadth of reality, of love, revealed to us in divine revelation, our lives are becoming narrower and narrower. We are so used to skimming across the surface of reality, from impression to impression, from experience to experience, from achievement to achievement, without ever sinking down to the throbbing heartbeat that lies underneath all and alone gives meaning to it. Our explicit rejection of divine grace given in Christ has desensitized us even to the “natural grace” present in created realities, to God’s presence at work in our lives through the humblest of things, making them a kind of sacrament of encounter with him and of union with him.

A rediscovery of the Gospel will also be a rediscovery of the natural sacramentality of the whole of reality; and a rediscovery of the true nature of reality will help prepare the way for a deepened discovery and understanding of the Gospel. Thus in fostering the healing of our culture, every thing is important, however small it may appear. Every little way of fostering beauty, of cherishing vulnerability and littleness, of caring for the suffering, of manifesting meaning through art—whether visual, or music, or written word—of living true loving relationship between persons: all of this helps to prepare the soil for the gift of the Gospel anew, just as the Gospel also restores and elevates these things to their full transparency and beauty.

And perhaps in American culture, the dividing line between a Christian culture and an atheistic culture, between a culture of objective truth, goodness, and beauty and a culture of relativism, lies in the question of authentic freedom. Actually, the dividing line goes deeper: into the nature of our relation to God, to the Origin and Consummation of our existence, to our heavenly Father. Having rejected him, we have also lost ourselves. Thus only in finding him anew can we also find ourselves, and the true blossoming of our freedom. The question of humanity depends entirely upon the question of God. The fullness of humanity depends entirely upon sharing in the fullness of God. For we are, in our innermost being and in every fiber of our humanity, God-oriented persons. To turn these arrows directed towards God somewhere else destroys us, inverts us upon ourselves and leads to the collapse of our nature, the narrowing of what was meant to be expansive, the suffocation of what was meant to breathe, the isolation of what was meant to be pure communion.

But we have become quite proficient at living in suffocation and narrowness, and many of us have all but forgotten what it is like to breathe deeply of the true air. As Chesterton pointed out, the profound despair at the heart of our existence, the abyss of absurdity, can (at least temporarily) be forgotten if one engages enough in peripheral and superficial diversions, substituting small and petty joys for the incredible and all-pervading joy of reality permeated by the life and love of the Trinity.

So what does the rehabilitation of freedom look like? We can start small. Indeed, everything true starts small, and grows like a tiny mustard seed to full maturity, in which littleness and humility reveals itself as that which is truly great, with a greatness that reflects and shares in the little-greatness of God. Here I will just give a few very short points, of which I have spoken in detail elsewhere, and which I may revisit as later Scripture texts call for them. The three points to be unfolded are: 1) sinking below the periphery to the depth, into the fullness of the present moment; 2) the unification of our being and its energies in a single “yes” to reality, virginal and total because liberated from the forces that enslave it; 3) the full-flowering of freedom in synergy, in co-living and co-operation with God, living with the Persons of the Trinity a single life of love.

1) In our culture we tend to “skim across the surface,” not only responding to superficial forms of entertainment and leisure, or striving toward success and achievement in the future through unhealthy busyness, or in our understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like, but in so many other ways. The first step, therefore, is to learn to live deeply again, to stop skimming and to sink. This occurs by ceasing to live so much in the realm of the mind and its obsessions, in its preoccupations, and to abide rather in concrete contact with the fullness of the present moment, with the here and now received through our senses and also present as an abundance in the depths of our hearts, known in silence, poverty, and receptivity. It also consists in sinking underneath the “loud flashiness” of our culture, full of media that continually steals our attention and fractures our minds with titillating sights and sounds, and learning to see a deeper beauty, and to be moved by this beauty, as it addresses us. For true beauty is not flashy, it is not superficial, it does not overwhelm the senses and the mind; it is rather sober, subtle, quiet, and draws all of our senses into a unity and harmony in a simple presence to what is real.

Age quod agis, as the old Latin saying goes: “Do what you are doing.” Live in the fullness of the present moment with all the attention of your mind, heart, will, emotions, and body. Be present. And this presence to reality will grow and grow, stilling the restlessness that is ours due to original and personal sin, and allow grace to gather us together into the unity of heart that makes us capable of responding freely to the unity of God’s own gift. Or perhaps better: grace, present and at work in each and every moment, will gather us together in responding to the perpetual voice of beauty, goodness, and truth, to the voice of God, and, in this very responsiveness, will enable us to respond more deeply still.

2) In this process, we are set free from those many impersonal forces that sway us this way and that, hindering our freedom and the true expression of our unique being, our true personal dignity. And gradually all the energies of our spirit and body, from the deepest to the most superficial, will be harmonized and unified in the core of our unique “I,” our heart, and enabled to pronounce a single “yes” of undivided love. This is the rediscovery of the “virginity” or “virginal state” of the heart (and body) corresponding with the love of the eternally virginal God given to us in each moment and each thing. Our whole being shall be enabled, more and more, to respond in undivided attention to the call of the reality, and to be present to it in affirming and cherishing love and tenderness, and to God who lives and speaks within it, from its deepest aspects to its most ordinary, everyday expressions.

3) Here in this space, the “freedom of the gift” is rediscovered, and we are enabled to live as our true selves set free by love, by God’s love. This is the freedom of synergy between ourselves and the Spirit of God, the freedom of co-operation, co-living with the Persons of the Trinity: “I in you and you in me” (cf. Jn 15-17). This is the true freedom that our contemporary culture has all but forgotten about, even explicitly rejected. For freedom does not consist in self-assertion, but in docility to the gift, in responsiveness to love, in cooperation with the energies of God’s grace that seek to touch, permeate, heal, liberate, and transform us, uniting us to the Trinity’s own way of living and loving, already in this life and in perfect fullness for all eternity. And it is only God’s own way of living and loving that adequately corresponds even with the very sacredness of created reality fashioned by him, and lifting it up, in human heart and life, to participate fully and explicitly in the everlasting life of God, which is the destiny of all things at the end of time, in the eternal joy of the new creation.