When Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, of Subiaco Monastery in Subiaco, Ark., got up to speak to the Oblates and Sisters gathered to share and reflect together at St. Mary Monastery on a chilly – and sometimes snowy – October morning, he challenged us to consider our state of freedom. Interior freedom, he said, is quite different from independence, and as such is the goal of our spiritual lives.
To be independent, Abbot Jerome said, is a function of mobility and choice. It is the ability to make our own decisions about where and when and what to eat, say, or whether to watch television or read a book. Independence is the state of not being held back by external sources. You are not in jail, you are not in chains.
Freedom is an internal state that can be preserved even if you are in jail.
“Freedom is the prize of human maturity,” Abbot Jerome said. “It is not ‘nobody telling me what to do.’”
Indeed, there are many such false freedoms. The conceit that we are in charge of ourselves and our world is chief among them.
“Everyone wants to be free but desire doesn’t make us so,” Abbot Jerome said. “We are often unaware of the unseen masters of past hurts and prejudices, and the outer masters of culture, mores and the esteem of other people. If you’re not free, you’ll be enslaved by these masters. Slavery is being controlled by a master you haven’t chosen.”
Choosing your master – and as human beings we must have a master – means choosing God, if we want to be free.
“If you want to be in charge of yourself – and not blame things on your parents or your environment or your bad spouse or job – choose God,” Abbot Jerome said.
In so doing, you’ll live your life from within yourself, as did Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Jesus himself. They were fundamentally free, having chosen to follow God, regardless of what happened to their bodies.
Abbot Jerome offered a present-day example.
“There’s a law in Oklahoma that says it’s a felony – a felony – to assist anyone who is an undocumented immigrant,” he said. “The Bishops there said, It’s our job to reach out to the poor and we will continue to do so. By not following the law, they are free. But may not remain independent.”
The Stages of Freedom
As children, we believe freedom to be an absence of restrictions on our mobility. We have no internal or external prohibitions, much like the instinct of animals. As we grow, we begin to acknowledge and obey the external laws of our parents and culture. This behavior allows us to live in peace, but does not represent true freedom. It is only when we choose the third stage of freedom, God, that we are able to establish our own internal norm.
St. Benedict had a strategy for reaching that third stage of freedom, Abbot Jerome said, and it’s found in his Rule.
“Only a person who is humble and obedient can live out of his center,” he said. “Benedict said we must welcome everyone as Christ by showing unhesitating obedience. That means Listen! Be alert! Benedict said we must stay on this track every day with other human beings who are as weak as we are.”
In the monastery, in our families, in our communities, we stay on this freedom track by living out our promises. In fact, a sign of unfreedom is the inability to keep a hard-chosen commitment, whether to a spouse or a religious community.
“If you can’t live out what you intended to do, that’s a sign of unfreedom,” Abbot Jerome said. “Other signs are insecurity – grasping for attention and being jealous of others – and avarice, or living in a big spider web of possessions.
“Freedom is the ability to be and do what you want from deep within yourself. You have to know what that is. You’re not free until you do. St. Benedict gets you down to your real self, which is where God is. The more we know who we are, the more we know God.”
Foreground vs. Background
As human beings we will be dominated by something, whether of our own choosing or not. The great danger lies in being dominated by our foreground rather than our background.
“Our foreground is what is in front of us right now,” Abbot Jerome said. “It is Oblate Day for us, and good at the moment. But tomorrow our house might burn down, or we might be in a car wreck. If we don’t have a background to deal with a bad foreground, we will fall apart. We need faith and values. We need the ability to recognize the flow of good and bad. There will be a better day.
“Bad things – worrisome things – happen all the time. Tsunamis happen. Our team loses. The spirit of the world is very negative. The world without God is hopeless. If we are dominated by that foreground we will be in a constant state of unrest. We must build up the resources of freedom within ourselves.”
By following the Rule of Benedict, we follow a 1500-year-old strategy for building those resources and ultimately knowing true freedom. And that, according to spiritual masters from Evagrius to Cassian and St. James to Benedict is the purpose of life.