In the modern world, freedom is thought to be a complete autonomy from any external forces that would impinge upon a person’s ability to assert the power of their will and to choose things that they desire. However, this understanding of freedom leads not to liberation, but to slavery—to the will’s slavery to bad habit, to sin, to evil—and to the collapse of the individual upon himself in such a way that he loses the ability to truly and meaningfully engage with reality in all of its richness and depth. Because freedom and the activity of human life has been divorced from a greater reality—the all-enveloping love of God—which determines and directs its exercise, and from any commitment to this reality, it leads not to the expansion of a heart into life-giving relationship, but to a profound loneliness and collapse of existence upon itself.
On the other hand, we can understand authentic freedom, the true liberty of the children of God, precisely as the ability to live, to act, and to love in response to the reality which always precedes, envelops, and sustains us. At the fount of all truly free activity is not mere human will-power, but rather contemplative receptivity before the Mystery that approaches us from without: the mystery of God’s Beauty, Goodness, and Truth approaching us through every moment and every thing. Freedom lies in the humble docility of our affectivity, mind, and will before the Beauty that approaches and invites us, joining us to itself in a loving relationship and drawing us into intimacy with itself. It is docility before the Goodness that draws us through the touch of Beauty, a Goodness that awakens and sustains our receptive activity, awakening in us an “ecstasy” of self-giving love by which we abandon ourselves to that which beckons to us. Finally, this freedom-in-docility is consummated in the espousal of our whole being with the depths of Truth, both the concrete truth of particular realities created by God in their inner essence, and the Truth that lies as the horizon enfolding and sustaining all being…this Truth which is ultimately the Trinity, who as Love contains Beauty, Goodness, and Truth as One within his innermost Mystery, the Mystery of the eternal Communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Freedom lies in a moment-by-moment responsiveness to the call of God both in and beyond created reality, a docility to the voice of his Beauty, Goodness, and Truth addressing us at every moment. But we can affirm that this freedom blossoms, not merely in a spontaneous and unfixed choice re-determined at every moment, but in a form of self-abandonment which is a binding of oneself to God and to the voice of his call. This “giving-away-of-self” is the foundation of true maturity in love and the full blossoming of freedom. The primal giving away of self in this way occurs in Baptism, which marks us forevermore as belonging radically to God. As a pure gift of his love and his grace, taking us up into filial and nuptial intimacy with the Trinity, the grace of Baptism is simultaneously a pure reception of a gift coming from God, and our own reciprocal self-abandonment which is awakened and sustained by this gift.
Further, this mutual acceptance and self-surrender is precisely what the evangelical counsels realize in a particularly pointed way. They are simply a way of “binding” oneself anew to God in love—of opening one’s existence wide, in a solemn and “liturgical” act, to complete childlike receptivity before the ceaseless gift of his love, to the gift of our very being and existence flowing from him, and to the reciprocal gift of ourselves to him (in which our freedom blossoms and comes to maturity).
This gift, each time it is given and received, bears a particular character—as a docile acceptance of the voice of God that is heard all around us and echoes in the depths of our being. In a word, it is our acquiescence to the mysterious plan of God that from all eternity envelops our life within itself, an expression of his fidelity to us in which he chooses us for himself. The primary belonging always remains that of childhood, that of pure intimacy sought and embraced for its own sake, but it also unfolds in all the concreteness of our life in this world, in which the reality of this intimacy and mutual belonging blossoms in the incarnate reality of our human existence. This is where the mystery of vocation, of charism, and of mission finds its meaning and its place. In our case, God’s call invites us to commit ourselves to a particular way of life, to a particular charism, vocation, and service in the Church. Just as married persons find their freedom unfolding concretely along the way of their mutual and lifelong commitment, the same is true for us (and even more so) in our surrender of ourselves to God in the eremitic monastic life.
While, before God and others, we always remain more than our vocation and our particular way of life—as his unique and unrepeatable child, abiding before him in a nakedness that transcends all things—he also leads us down a particular path of self-giving, such that this truth of childhood becomes incarnate in all the details of our human existence, and in this way becomes a living gift back to him and to our brothers and sisters. We discover a mystery here, at the intersection of the spirit of childhood and the concrete day to day unfolding of our life. This is the paradoxical truth that lies as an essential element of the enclosed contemplative life, and in a real way of all human life: profound and childlike wonder remains alive, and grows, not through the pursuit of continual novelty (new attractions, experiences, and relationships, which keep us always on the surface), but through stability in the place into which God has called us, through abiding fidelity in the simplicity and humility of our life.
It is precisely constancy which allows us to become rooted in truth, goodness, and beauty, and to expand our hearts into an abiding receptivity to reality, in such a way that it never “grows old” but rather is continually new and full of awe and mystery. In other words, we can be tempted to think that true newness lies in a movement to “somewhere else” precisely because we have grown old through sin; but the truth is that the liberty of childhood grows precisely in the soil of humility, littleness, and constancy. For in this way every little thing is filled with a radiant meaning, and the veil of this life is stretched thin to reveal the Love that tenderly enfolds us on every side, and sustains us without ceasing.
In the light of all of this we can understand the vow of stability that binds us as cloistered contemplatives, and the whole mystery of “binding-for-the-sake-of-freedom” that characterizes our life of consecrated poverty, obedience, and chastity. Such a surrender of ourselves and of our whole life to God is only possible in a profound trust and an ardent love—the desire, in response to his invitation, to find our liberty not in a form of non-commitment, of idealized “availability,” but precisely in lifelong fidelity in the way to which God has called us. Indeed, this stability in the way of contemplative life finds its deepest meaning in that it joins us intimately to Jesus Christ in his own obedient love and trusting fidelity, in his enduring and total gift of self, in which he loved his own “to the end,” through Gethsemane and the Cross, to the radiant glory and liberty of the Resurrection. This abiding fidelity in love and obedient receptivity is, also, a profound sharing in the mystery of Mary and her life. A Carthusian Father has spoken beautifully of this:
From the human point of view, the person is subject to time in the sense that time is linear and progressive and is not complete. But the person prevails over time, is able to disengage from it and through thought to link past and future, and in this way to commit to the future. Human beings transcend the mere movement of becoming and give it meaning. A person’s faithfulness gives coherence and meaning to a moment of time. Its truth is not necessarily in the spontaneity of the present instant, frozen exactly as it is, isolated, but in what proceeds from the choice and the engagement of deepest being: an engagement that triumphs over the parcelling out of time and that gives unity and coherence to each life. Such that the unfolding of Mary’s Fiat; it matured in her like the Word himself through the long years of hidden and simple life in Nazareth, through her pondering of the often enigmatic events of the life of Jesus (the presentation in the temple, the three days that he stayed among the teachers there, Cana); through being entirely receptive to the growing illumination during her Son’s public ministry; through her faithful presence at the foot of the Cross; through her place at the heart of the Church as it awaited the Spirit. It is only when the fruit is entirely ripened that the Lord places it next to him in his glory. (In The Call of Silent Love, “The Yes in Time”, p. 80)
This mystery of stability and constancy, which immerses our hearts already now in the timelessness of eternity, in the restfulness of the Trinity’s all-enveloping embrace, is actually, paradoxically, the very space in which true spontaneity, true responsiveness to the meaning of each moment blossoms. On the other hand, and even more deeply, true constancy and the blossoming of true freedom occurs within the all-enveloping playfulness that sees the beauty and wonder of life, and welcomes it anew as a gift. Each unique moment is intersected with the fullness of God’s eternity, pierced through with his presence and the fullness of his life. Yet each moment is also bound together, through this surrender to God’s eternal plan, to the past and the future, woven together as a single and undivided fabric of receptivity and reciprocal gift. It is, in other words, an expression of the abiding covenant love that God has for us, binding himself to us irrevocably as his own in eternal fidelity, in a love that encompasses and awakens our own love in response, and sustains it until the very end, when the union between us will be consummated in the fullness of the new creation.