Inner freedom is put to the test by its predators: evil, sin, passion...
Updated: Mar 31
WORD FROM THE FOUNDER
Deacon Georges Bonneval
On February 17th, the liturgical season of Lent will begin. Every year, through biblical texts, the Church offers us remedies that help us fight against the destructive agents that threaten our personal and common freedom. At this time of year, we can also easily recall that it has been one year since the coronavirus pandemic began in China, which then spread to Europe, Korea and Iran, and has now invaded all the countries of the world.
Let us also remember to take with us the spiritual antidotes which have proved their worth over the centuries, and which the Liturgy presents to us every year at the beginning of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Mt 6: 1-18). These three antitoxins are certainly challenging to apply and practice, but are effective against the agents of evil – both external and internal – that attack our dignity and freedom as children of God. After all, threats of evil and sin do exist in this world; though that which is good, true and beautiful is far more important.
As St. Thomas Aquinas, heir of the Neoplatonists, points out, evil is an absence of good and sin is a denial of good. In Greek, the biblical word for “sin” is “ hamartia” , which means “to aim at a target and miss it, to pass by”. To be in a state of sin, therefore, in a sense means to be off the axis, to miss the target. It is a lack of being, or a being that is lost in off -centered desires.
What else can be harmful to our freedom as children of God? While explaining the parable of the sower (Mk 4: 13-20), Jesus cautions us against three toxic adversaries: “Satan, our superficial self and the spirit of the world.” He warns us against the risk of allowing these adversaries to rob us of the gifts we have received from the Creator.
St. John the Evangelist also recalls three concupiscence's at work in this world, which can thwart and interfere with the gifts we have received: “The desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches - comes not from the Father but from the world." (1 Jn 2: 16)
In the face of these three concupiscence's, the three Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience are lived and professed in the living tradition of consecrated life. They are three positive Christian virtues of spiritual warfare and interior freedom.
“'All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not
all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (1 Cor 10: 23-24)
The first obstacle that seems to stand in the way of ideal human freedom is not always external, but is simply the interior limits of our own being. That is why each person must align their will to the reality around them. Without this attention to harmony, the person, while imposing their own freedom, will inevitably begin to notice certain dysfunctions around them.
Pope Francis uncovered a "little Judas" in each of us: “Let us think about the little Judas that each of us has within ourselves. Each of us has the ability to choose between loyalty and self-interest. Each of us has the ability to betray, to sell, to choose for our own interest. 'Judas, where are you?'” 1.
Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
When faced with difficulties, the temptation to give upon the present or to flee reality is frequently the initial reaction, creating great obstacles in relational life in any environment.
Is the human person always able to know what they want, deep down? Can he or she, in truth, come to live out all that he or she desires and conceives? The passing will of the moment does not always turn out to be lasting and future-oriented. There can also be contradictory desires in the same person. It may happen that the person wants more than what they can handle. “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach”, my mother used to remind me, if I was overindulging in childish gluttony.
We can therefore speak of deceiving oneself, and even of self-abuse. Especially when a person wants everything and also its opposite – to choose what he or she wants without any constraints, and at the same time follow Jesus and be His disciple. However, this is impossible. The Lord Himself warned: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mk 8: 34).
The beautiful and vast original freedom of humankind quickly proves to be limited and fallible
in the crucible of reality. Thus, when someone directs their desire towards some false good, choosing it, they end up failing in their profound vocation to freedom. We therefore recognize that, through free will, the human person can certainly direct themself – but that they can do this in positive as well as in destructive ways.
The concept of personal freedom is decidedly very mysterious. Each person we meet, according to their own socio-cultural situation, sets his or her own rules on the subject. Some focus on their quest for independence and originality. Others are concerned about their desire to please others and their reputation. Still others are eager to enjoy life and the riches of this world.
How can we live freely when so many factors – both external and internal – prevent us from living and exercising our personal freedom? Sometimes it will be necessary to practice discernment, taking recourse to the advice of one’s spiritual director. They can help us verify whether or not our reactions to these "impediments" to our freedom are in line with God’s will.
How do we live with the external factors that hinder our personal freedom?
Indeed, at times we act like capricious children who demand everything at once, and risk hurting ourselves by insisting on bumping into a door that will remain closed. It is therefore necessary to verify how we are reading and interpreting the circumstances.
What can we do – with the help of our personal creative freedom – in the face of all the exterior uncertainties in our lives? Certainly, the challenges we face today are opportunities for new creativity. For example, who could have foreseen the pandemic that passed over our planet like a wave this past year? This disease will certainly leave a "before and after" in its wake, in our ways of life and in the losses it caused, but also in the changes it will have on behaviors and mentalities.
As we see all too often, the simple act of not accepting negative circumstances can also cause a great deal of suffering, which in turn can last a lifetime. We rebel against the unacceptable, against that which never should have happened, against what displeases us and against everything that threatens the "sacred" space of our personal freedom.
This is a healthy response, to the extent that the adversity becomes a challenge to overcome, helping us to correct a particular situation.
But what happens when we can’t change it; when fate is irreversible?
As we will see, our emotions can be a good warning sign, but they can also do us a disservice by provoking exaggerated or inappropriate reactions.
Certain temperaments can have extreme difficulty in accepting hardships. These can be sudden and unexpected circumstances, a serious illness, an accident, a trauma, a shock, abuse or bereavement.. This difficulty can sometimes lead to severe depression. A past marked by negativity, if we dwell on it, becomes a ball and chain that we drag with difficulty.
In the life of a couple, for example, the first "external" factor that is directly and permanently within sight is inevitably "the spouse". In community life, it will inevitably be "this-or-that community member" as well as "the community". The people who are closest to us will, unavoidably, eventually appear to be the main "adversary" of our personal fulfillment and our
insatiable thirst for freedom. When this happens, we all know the natural inclination we have of making pointless and defensive accusations and complaints.
Do we want to live as capricious children, or as sons and daughters of the King?
We cannot be capricious children indefinitely, living according to our subjective tendencies which are full of self-love and self-will, always wanting to be right. Our subjectivity is permanently inclined towards negatively biased information, and because of all the introspections, exasperations, anxieties, resentments and bitterness that accompanies this, it incrementally becomes a "time bomb".
Ultimately, one must learn to surrender their "superficial self"! God’s Word is of great assistance in this regard. Th is Lent, let us learn to pray with the Psalms, especially with those (anti-depressant) psalms that help us object and declare: "That’s enough, my soul!" (Cf. Ps 42: 5, 11; 43: 5).
Subsequently, we discover that it is more useful and advantageous to learn to lose by taking the first steps towards self-denial and away from justifications for self-love. This first small step will then become a passageway (a "Passover"!), acting as the key that opens the door to inner freedom – which can then be considerably enlarged!
It is obvious that this movement towards denying one’s own ego is neither easy nor automatic. Each of us must one day realize that we will never be in the constant company of people so perfect as to allow us to experience only pleasant emotions; people who guess all of our needs and never impose any obstacle that could make us suffer!
The Apostle Paul is a sure guide on this path, as he states: “For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4: 11-13)
Certain philosophies can also help us; that is, those which exhort our personal freedom to focus on things that depend on us and our responsibility, not giving too much importance to those things that do not depend on us.
For example, Epictetus first century A.D., considered all things in the world to fi t under two categories: those things which are under our exclusive power (thoughts, opinions, decisions, movements, desires, inclinations, aversions... in a word, all our actions); and those things which are not in our power. “First tell yourself who you want to be, then act accordingly.”
“What disturbs men are not things, but the judgments they make about things”.2
Viktor Frankl, a young Jewish psychologist who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, was a great witness to the ability to learn, through one’s inner life, how to accept situations that are impossible to change. In his memoir, "Man’s Search for Meaning", he remarked: “[Some people] were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature".3
"The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp.” 4
Long before Viktor Frankl, the great Schools of Spirituality 5 stressed the importance of practicing "Abandonment to Divine Providence". This abandonment cannot be confused with indifference or resigned passivity, and even less with a neglectful attitude. On the contrary, it often takes courage and even violence against our own will to abandon ourselves to God’s will; to unite our will to His! True spiritual abandonment can be verified by whether or not a person corresponds, in a good and healthy way, to the reality of the present moment.
From the moment we accept the events that happen to us outside of our power and control, we stop fighting against them. This helps us to understand them, tame them, welcome them and integrate them – if possible, with thanksgiving – into our view of human history.
The internal factors that hinder our personal freedom
All psychologists agree that the most difficult thing to contend with, in relation to personal freedom, are our own inner obstacles. Inner obstacles are held primarily responsible for poisoning our life, whether it be in our life a couple, as a member of a family or as a member of a community – in short, they poison our relationship life. What are these more-or-less conscious forces at work within us, which we find so very difficult to control?
The list is large and cannot be exhaustive: fears and limitations created by our emotional system (certainly these come first); suffering; the unhealed wounds of childhood and adolescence; the role of passions and vices; different forms of violence; addictions; certain pathologies; vicious tendencies; idolatry; demonic infestations; etc... We can complete this list with the one cited by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5: 19-21.
That being said, we must also beware the temptation of repressing emotional responses for fear of reacting in a disproportionate way.
It is normal and legitimate to express sadness in relation to grief or loss; to express fear of abandonment and rejection or fear of not being loved, etc.
It may be that, in some families, a person was forbidden to cry in the presence of their parents or father. Since childhood, they learned to block the physical and emotional manifestations that accompany sadness. Others, throughout childhood, did not allow themselves the "right" to show sadness because of their family responsibilities.
Still others believe that if one is a Christian, you should never show sadness or disappointment; it would be a lack of faith! Most psychologists say that you make suffering or depression worse when you fight to suppress your emotions.
Emotional reactions can also be triggered by one’s interpretation of events. For example, people who were abused as children necessarily develop automatic reflexes, which make them more alert and hypersensitive in some relational situations.
By accepting our own emotions, we are better able to separate emotion from action.
For example, feeling anger rise within you does not necessarily mean that you are going to kill the other person. Feeling sad and desperate does not mean you are going to commit suicide. Nor is it necessary, in order to be relieved of one’s emotions, to dump the emotional burden on the loved one you live with – like a garbage can.
Sin and passion wound our inner freedom.
Each person, as the subject of their freedom, cannot allow themself to be deluded by self-sufficiency. To be self-sufficient has no other end than to satisfy one’s own interests and enjoy earthly goods. In this egocentric mindset, God Himself becomes an obstacle – even to the point of considering God to be the source of man’s estrangement, because of His radical incompatibility with their concept of freedom.
The ancient Greeks spoke of "hubris", which is translated as "excess". The "hubris" refers to our inner tendencies that are driven by passions, especially that of pride. The Greeks contrast it with temperance and moderation.
Should only scientific progress, progress in technology and progress in the economy serve as the basis for our pursuit of freedom?
According to Enlightenment6 philosophy, man would become truly free by rejecting faith in God. The Enlightenment intended for reason to triumph over faith and belief, as well as for the bourgeoisie to triumph over the nobility and the clergy.
For us Christians, our freedom is certainly rational, but its origin and foundation is transcendent: God, since the beginning of creation, has wanted us to be free. Every human being carries within them the innate will to be free. But for the person of faith, sin has caused a rupture with God, and this sin is the cause of the tragedies that mark freedom’s history. To the extent that we serve "the law of sin", we are still slaves.
“Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8: 24)
We can notice the following two tendencies and frailties in our modern world: a) The perversion of the sense of our own freedom, and b) Loss of the sense of sin.
a) In the first tendency, the person wishes to escape the truth, putting their own will above all else. By wanting to be free from God and desiring to be god themself, they want to be capable of wanting anything and doing anything. In doing this, they deceive, alienate and destroy themself. This is the first and principal temptation, which led to original sin and which continues to be a temptation today: “You will be like God” (Gen 3: 5).
b) The second tendency in our modern world is to allow oneself to be overcome by indifference to, and a loss of sense to, sin. “The sin of the twentieth century is the loss of the sense of sin” Pope Pius XII7 declared as early as October 26th, 1946.
Pope Francis, commenting on the double sin of King David, said: “He assumed a 'worldly' attitude, an omnipotent outlook that says: 'I can do anything!'. The same thing can happen to us when we lose the sense of the kingdom of God and as a consequence also lose the sense
of sin.” 8
Is personal sin a free act? It is in that each one of us is responsible for our part in it. “We sin alone, as we die alone” says the Catholic writer George Bernanos. Man’s freedom, oriented towards the knowledge of good, is disoriented by the experience of evil.
The Apostle Paul, conscious of his state as a sinner, declares: “Wretched man that I am! (Rom 7: 24) Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7: 19)
The French philosopher Jacques Maritain described sin in these terms: “A nothingness 'in' the existent. It is the crack in the existent: the insensibility of freedom.”
Only God’s grace is capable of transforming the root of evil in us – which begets sin – into the root of that which is good:
“The church feels an obligation to go to the roots of that original wound of sin in order to bring healing and to re-establish, so to speak, an equally original reconciliation which will be the effective principle of all true reconciliation.” 9
The passions that dwell in us cause great damage to our original freedom.
Not unlike idolatry, disordered passions are an extreme form of disorder caused by sin. When the worship of God is substituted with the worship of creatures, the result is disfigured relationships between individuals and various kinds of oppression.
Distance from and ignorance of God unleashes these passions, which are the cause of many imbalances and inner personal conflicts. As the Letter of St. James states: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so, you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so, you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (Jas 4: 1-2).
Having become the center of their own life, a person who has been won over by their passions tends to assert themself and satisfy their desire for infinity by making use of created things: wealth, power, pleasure. Driven and dominated by these passions, they can even go so far as to despise others, treating them as objects or instruments for their service.
“In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we need to cultivate a strong sense of justice, to discern and to do God’s will. Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy.” 10
St. Ephrem, a deacon and Doctor of the Church (4th century), described with remarkable precision the war to be waged against enslavement to, and the habit of, inner passions11. At the beginning of Lent, these words are stunningly realistic about the situation of the sinner. Instead of grieving us, they can help us return to the metanoia of penance:
“Yes, the habit of passion is a cruel and disastrous thing; for it squeezes the spirit with almost indissoluble ties, and these bonds I love. I stretch out my hands to them, because I like to receive them. The enemy renews my chains every day, for he sees that their variety charms me. But the deceitful one is careful not to bind me with those who displease me; it is always with those whom I love that he chains me. He knows, indeed, all the impetuosity of my desires, all the liveliness of my passions, and, quicker than a glance, his hand throws me the bonds he wants.
Then I sigh, I cry, I groan! O shame! O confusion! These chains that press me, it is my own will that has riveted them. I could break them; I could, in a moment, tear myself from their embrace. I don’t want to. Cowardice, which has broken all of the energy in me, holds me under the yoke of passions that have become a willful natural habit. But what is most annoying, most unbearable, what adds to my shame and pain, is that I lend my will to my enemy. Th e chains that bind me, I have received them from him; these passions that kill me are his joy and his pleasure. I could free myself from this servitude, and I do not want to do so; it is easy for me to regain my freedom, and I am not in any hurry to do so...
... Yes, I affirm, of all conditions, the most deplorable, the most degrading is that of a man forced to do the will of his enemy... Indeed, I know my bonds, I feel them; and yet every hour I work to conceal the spectacle from the eyes of others, hiding it under the mantle of piety; but my conscience accuses me and reproaches me every day for my weakness:
Woe to you! Why are you neither sober nor vigilant? Do you not know that the terrible day of Judgment is near; that that dreadful moment when all the veils must fall has finally come? Rise up in your strength, break your chains; you have within you the power to bind and unbind. I cast upon my body a beautiful garment of religion and piety, and my soul is withered with shameful thoughts that bind it. Outside, before the eyes of other men, I affect a fiery zeal for virtue; inside, a fierce beast seems to roar, a sad image of my disorders. I have on my lips affectionate and sweet words, and yet there is in my will only sourness, bitterness and perversity.
No, penance has not yet put down deep roots in me; there is still in my heart a pernicious softness; I am a slave to my cowardice, and, docile to the will of my enemy, I hasten to accomplish all that may please him...
... but the hope of penance, that’s what I’m waiting for.” 12
1. Pope Francis, Mass at Saint Marta, Holy Wednesday, April 8, 2020.
2. Another quote by Epictetus, who, according to Stoic Tradition, had to accept that he was physically lame.
3. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946.
4. Ibid., p. 34-35.
5. cf. The Masters of Carmel, The Spirituality of the French School in the 18th century, with Fénelon, Caussade.
6. Cultural, Philosophical and intellectual movement that began in the mid-seventeenth century.
7. cf. Pope Pius XII, Radio message at the conclusion of the United States Eucharistic Congress in Boston, October 26th, 1946
8. Pope Francis, Homily at St Marta's, January 31, 2014.
9. Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.
10. Pope Francis, Homily, December 24, 2015.
11. cf. The Writings, chapter on vices and virtues.
12. St. Ephrem, The Writings, chapter on vices and virtues.