The two freedoms

Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help (12 March 2016)

Imagine children playing at a school playground. The children are almost always supervised by their teachers and have to adhere to a set of rules laid down by the teachers and principal. “No fighting, no pushing and shoving, no shouting, everyone gets a turn” may be some of the rules for students to follow. This seems quite normal for most of us teachers or parents as order needs to be maintained, especially among the younger ones. Without rules, there would probably be chaos with children getting hurt and parents getting quite upset. The rules are there for a reason – to teach the students self-restraint and respect for each other.

Playgrounds and rules. How much freedom can we have if we have rules? How free would we really be without them?

The same set of rules would undoubtedly chafe on us as adults as we would feel that we have no freedom. That’s quite easy to say but have we thought about what freedom really is? Freedom seems to be a gift to all of us and so we might want to consider how God gives us freedom. The short answer to this is that we receive freedom through the love of God. God’s love is freeing because we’re loved so much that we’re given the free will to choose our paths in life. We can do anything we want and that leads us to one of the more important questions in life – how do we use this freedom that is given to us?

If we take another look at the rules governing the children in the playground, we realise that the children are not as constrained as we think they are. In following the rules, they are actually free from getting hurt because that’s what the rules are aimed at. If everyone adheres to the rules, nobody gets hurt and the fun goes on uninterrupted. Though the children don’t realise it, by agreeing to abide by the rules, they also agree that they would be free from interference from each other. They are free in a sense but not as free as we might like to be. This sense of freedom is sometimes referred to as negative freedom. This is defined as freedom from external interference of others or the freedom from getting hurt due to the actions of others. Negative freedom is sometimes also called ‘freedom from’ (the interference of others).

Negative freedom is great but it doesn’t quite satisfy us as much. It’s often referred to as the basic kind of freedom that allows a human person to flourish but then again, it’s also quite minimal. We might not get hurt by others but we want the freedom to do a little more. As adults, we want the ability to do what we will, to learn all about what’s good and how to do good things. We also realise that God gives us the intellect and will to discern and then to choose to act well. The freedom to choose our actions based on what we know to be good and from good characterises what is sometimes known as positive freedom. This is also referred to as ‘freedom to’ (do what we chose to).

An example of how this plays out can be seen in the Annunciation. When faced with the difficulty of the question and the need to exercise her free will, our Blessed Mother must have weighed the choices. Should she say ‘yes’ and encounter a world of difficulties or ‘no’ and just lead her normal peaceful life. She had the ability and the intellect to respond in any way but she said ‘yes’ because she had a experience of God’s love and followed that feeling to where God might be leading her. She followed the Lord in freedom and humility.

How about us? This Lent, the readings remind us of both kinds of freedom. The readings remind us to try to free ourselves from sin so that we can act freely in love. The last lines from the readings from this weekend (5th Sunday of Lent) show the Lord telling the woman who was caught in adultery but subsequently freed ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go away, and do not sin any more.’ This simple line demonstrates both kinds of freedom. We see the Lord freeing us from sin and condemnation as he tells the woman and us that we’re not condemned, no matter what’s been done before. This is the first step to conversion as we receive the freedom from sin which allows us to feel less encumbered in our relationship with God and others. As we avail ourselves of the Lord’s loving mercy and forgiveness, we’re invited to take this a step further. We don’t just stay in the state of acceptance of mercy but go out and try to bring others into the Lord’s merciful fold. This is the freedom to do more of the Lord’s work by spreading mercy. We don’t have to do this but we choose to do so because we’re free to be the Lord’s instruments of mercy. The question is, do we choose to?

A reflection for the week: what have we felt the Lord freeing us to do this week?

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about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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