Thirteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Dominic White finds that the Spirit frees him to discover who he really is.
My friend Robert Enoch is an all-too-rare combination of a committed Christian and a serious artist. Recently he published his work ‘Free’ on the internet. As http://photosoffree.blogspot.com/. As you’ll see, it’s eight years of photos of the word ‘free’. There’s step-free tube guides, a Freedom Pass, a place called Freeland, a smoking- and mobile-free zone, free thinking and ‘Judges free four terror suspects’. And a few photos of ‘free’ in the Bible…
As is often the way with art, Robert’s blog gallery touches on something deep. Freedom is very important to us, which is why we speak of it in many ways. Perhaps, above all, personal freedom, not being bossed around, being able to live our lives as we wish. The recent crises with terrorism have also made us ask what the limits of personal freedom are.
So how free does the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, make us? The blameless Elisha obviously expected a day like any other with his oxen, but on God’s orders, Elijah anoints him prophet. St. Paul’s teaching on freedom seems to contain rather a lot of orders! And the expression ‘the time came for Jesus to be taken up to heaven’ might make us ask how much say he had, humanly, in this vocation. Furthermore, at least Elijah let Elisha go back and say goodbye to his parents: Jesus will not even let a prospective follower bury his dead parents or even say goodbye to living family members.
You could say that none of us is really free as long as we have obligations. Leaving aside work, there are family and friends, who can be very demanding. But abandon them and we’re left completely isolated with no one to care for us. Our freedom from bother, having ‘personal space’ as the number one priority, would have come at a terrible price, the price of a less than human life.
So how free are we? Perhaps as free as our outlook and our decisions. Do I feel pushed into doing things? Either by myself or by others? I wonder if this is what Jesus was getting at. Did he see that, deep down, the man who said he had to go back to bury his dead parents was in fact refusing to live his own life? And the one who wanted to say goodbye to his family, would he just be drawn back into a tangle of unreasonable demands? Was it just excuses, excuses? Often we can internalise other people’s demands (or what we imagine their demands to be), and either be enslaved to them, or just over-react (such as altogether abandoning them). Then there is the hell which is oneself, as T.S. Eliot, living so self-centredly that we’re imprisoned in self-consciousness.
For St. Paul, we find our freedom in loving our neighbour, above all ‘one another’, that is, our common life in the Body of Christ. In serving and being served, we are freed from the prison of self and at the same time receive the free gift of love, which is often surprising, sometimes not what we think we need… Yes, with Christ’s love there is such a thing as a free lunch. I receive myself back, rather surprised to find out who I am.
I suggest this is the key to understanding ‘guidance by the Spirit’, the same Spirit that guided Elijah and made Jesus so completely free as to be able to speak radically to people’s hearts. Isn’t it the measure of a really good relationship that, should the need arise, you can challenge or confide in your friend without fear of rejection?
Freedom to commit, and not to be pushed; freedom to be, and not to fear love; freedom to love, knowing that love is God in us, and therefore always greater than the pain. The freedom of Saint Edith Stein, travelling to martyrdom at Auschwitz; the freedom of Christians who for centuries danced the Resurrection in the great French cathedrals on Easter afternoon.