Tuesday of the Twenty-Eighth Week
Gal 5: 1-6; Lk 11:37-41
Born in a small town in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania in 1904, Walter Ciszek knew by the 8th grade that he wanted to be a priest and later joined the Jesuits. Following his ordination in 1937 in Rome, Fr. Ciszek first went to Poland and from there sought a way into Russia so that he could minister there. After slipping into Russia, he was arrested, accused of being a spy and spent the next 23 years in prison camps in Siberia.
He tells his story in a volume entitled With God in Russia, first published in 1964. Nearly ten years later, he published a second book with the title He Leadeth Me (1973). In that second work, Fr. Ciszek revisits his harrowing ordeal and puts together an account of how he survived the grueling isolation and confinement. He has this to say about freedom:
It is in choosing to serve God, to do his will, that man achieves his
highest and fullest freedom. It may seem paradoxical to say our
highest and fullest freedom comes when we follow to the least
detail the will of another, but it is true nonetheless when that other
For more than a week now at daily mass, we have been listening to passages from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The apostle has been treating issues like the origin of the Gospel, his travels as an evangelist, his relationship with Peter, the role of the Holy Spirit and the place of the law in relation to faith. And we can’t help but notice that yesterday’s first reading ends with the same verse that begins today’s first reading. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1)
Tomorrow, the apostle will take up what happens when we misuse our freedom. Today, however, Paul emphasizes the source of our freedom. It is Christ, he says, who is the source of it; we have not given freedom to ourselves. We would only be deceiving ourselves if we thought that we train the light of freedom on ourselves. We surely don’t; we do, however, enter into darkness on our own as when we separate ourselves from Christ. (cf. Gal 5:4) But liberation comes through the work of Another.
Christ is not just the cause of our freedom. He also is the state of freedom. What, though, does this freedom look like? Is there a way we can distinguish it from counterfeit claims?
Before her death from an illegal drug overdose in 1970, Janis Joplin sang a song called “Me and Bobby McGee.” A lyric in that song goes as follows: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” It was misconstrued by many who heard it, though. Some thought they heard: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing else to do.”
It is not my aim here to rehabilitate the reputation of Janis Joplin. But she may have gotten something right in her lyrics. She is wrong in suggesting that freedom is a default position. That is, it’s what you have when everything else is exhausted and used up. But she is right in suggesting that freedom entails loss.
In His public ministry, Jesus stipulates, “[W]hoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Lk 9:24) Renunciation is an integral part of our discipleship. We can’t follow the Lord if we aren’t ready to give up things we cherish.
We would not be reading the Martha and Mary story in an entirely correct way if we see it merely as a matter of Mary having more of something. She must give up helping her sister to have the better part of conversing with the Lord. (cf. Lk 10:38-42)
That we give up things which are bad for us is one thing. However, we remain unfree until we give up some things which are good for us. This could mean having to sacrifice doing things in the company of others, things that are enjoyable in order to concentrate on the one thing that really matters.
During the course of our lives, we make countless decisions – all of them constituting our freedom. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), Pope John Paul II warns against “[preferring] to choose finite, limited and ephemeral goods.” (86) He says further: “Contemplation of Jesus Crucified is . . . the high road which the Church must [take] every day if she wishes to understand the full meaning of freedom: the gift of self in service to God and [others].” (87)
Deprivation has a way of training us to choose goods which are absolute and transcendent. And thus it passes without elaboration now that self-denial is a constitutive element in the formation of future priests. We cannot dispense ourselves from what Jesus Himself says is essential for following Him. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mk 8:34)
It is not that Fr. Ciszek grew to like his captivity; no, in every moment of the detention against his will, he yearned to be set free. The experience of physical confinement did convince him, though, that God’s will can be sought in every circumstance no matter how foreboding.
Before us now and always is the example of Jesus Who states at the outset of His public ministry: “I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (Jn 5:30) Late in His ministry, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is undeterred: “[N]ot my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42)
In the Holy Eucharist we celebrate together, we find a school for freedom. It cannot be any other way. The Lord sets us free here. No other freedom compares with the freedom from sin and death He gives us by hanging on the tree of life. This is our high road. Let us not cease taking it.
Praised be Jesus Christ!
Msgr Robert Batule
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