The Extraordinary Adventure: Real Love Is the Gift of Ourselves to One Another | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | April 2, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
"And this journey of coming to know God, of loving relationship with God is the extraordinary adventure of our Christian life; for in Christ we know the face of God, the face of God that loves us even unto the Cross, unto the gift of himself." -- Benedict XVI, "True Freedom," Discourse at St. John at the Lateran, February 20, 2009.
The Feast of Our Lady of Trust is February 20. Our Lady, under this title, is the Patroness of the Roman Major Seminary. Somehow, I do not recall having heard of this feast before. It seems that Carlo Maratta, the court painter of Louis XIV, gave a painting with that title to a noble woman, Clair Isabel Fornari. She was the Abbess of the Poor Claire Convent in the Umbrian city of Todi. The painting was carried about Italy. Eventually a copy of it was made and given to the Major Seminary.
When Italian seminarians were inducted into the Army in World War I, Our Lady of Trust, or Confidence, became their patroness. Evidently both paintings still exist. This painting at the Lateran is but another of the worthy things that Schall missed seeing in his Roman days. I was also in Todi and did not see the original there either. Life is full of things we never saw when they were right there before us. A glimpse of eternity may be found in this fact.
The Holy Father was invited to the Seminary on this occasion. There, he delivered a short but profound discourse based on Galatians 5:13-16. It is probably best for us to begin by citing this Pauline text. As this is the Year of St. Paul, the Pope loves to cite and comment on him. This passage contains another of those profound short glimpses in Paul that illuminates everything else by explaining the most basic concepts, in this occasion "freedom." Freedom, in its meaning, is perhaps the most perplexing enigma to the modern mind, the one principle, when abused, that causes more hurt to others than any other single idea once its essence is misunderstood.
The passage in St. Paul reads: "For you were called to freedom, brethren, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another. But I say walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh."
As I read that passage in the Pope's citation of it, I kept thinking that these words about "biting and devouring one another" reminded me of something. As I thought of it, I said: "This is Hobbes!" This is implicitly his famous phrase, "Homo homini lupus est," from the Leviathan. On investigation, the phrase might also have come from a play of the Roman writer Plautus, in his Asinaria. "Man is a wolf to man" is Hobbes' description of the condition of human nature in its original form. Paul himself juxtaposes this "biting one another" over against the law that is fulfilled in one word.
The Pope begins with a brief history of the idea of freedom. "Since the beginning and throughout all time—but especially in the modern age—freedom has been the great dream of humanity." The question, however, is: "Freedom from or for what?" Freedom for freedom's own sake hardly seems coherent., since my freedom can mean its opposite tomorrow if there is only freedom. By itself it seems to be vague and limitless. The freedom of yesterday is denied today. Nothing is stable. There is no place of rest, only constant change.
Benedict mentions that Luther was inspired by this passage in Galatians. He concluded that "the monastic Rule, the hierarchy, the Magisterium seemed to him as a yoke of slavery from which it was necessary to liberate oneself." One cannot but be amused with the twinkle Benedict must have had in his eyes as he, the current holder of these very offices, cited these reasonings of the monk Luther to modern seminarians. They probably all know that Luther himself had lived in an Augustinian house over by Piazza del Popolo when he was in Rome, before deciding these momentous things about what caused his "yoke of slavery." (This convent was one place Schall did see.)
Liberty next shows up in the Enlightenment, which considered that it had finally reached real freedom. At this point, Benedict comes to his main point. "We ask ourselves this evening: What is freedom? How can we be free?" These are classic questions without the asking of which we cannot really be rational beings. Paul is a help in putting this idea into an "anthropological and theological" context. Freedom is not, Paul says, to be used for an excuse for "self-indulgence." Its proper meaning is that we should choose to serve others in love.
The usage of the word "flesh" in Scripture always has to be clarified. Rejecting the "flesh" does not mean that "I am really sorry I have a body." The whole greatness of Christianity is only understood when we see the glory of "the Word made flesh." We are intended to be and are enfleshed beings. This is what we are. All being is good, including what we are.
Rather in St. Paul, "flesh" can be a technical word that means "the absolutization of self, of the self that wants to be all and to take all for its own." In its own way, this very absolutization was what the Fall in Genesis was about, the desire to have no other law but one's own will, to be oneself the cause of the distinction between good and evil, as the name of the Tree in the Garden indicated.
Benedict, in further explanation of what this "self" means, lapses, as it were, into German philosophy. "The absolute 'I' who depends on nothing and on no one seems to possess freedom truly and definitively. I am free if I depend on no one, if I can do anything I want." Obviously, as in the case of Luther, Benedict knows what theories are out there being propagated as "freedom."
But is this latter sort of freedom that attractive? "This absolutization of the 'I' is 'flesh,' that is, a degradation of man. It is not the conquest of freedom: libertinism is not freedom, but rather freedom's failure." Such blunt passages remind us that we have a Pope who knows exactly what we are talking about and where we got the ideas we think so radical or new. If everything serves me, if everything centers on me, on my "I", and if everyone else does the same, how can this possibly be anything but a radical isolation of everyone from everyone else?
So what is the alternative? What is a better understanding of freedom? Following Paul, Benedict says that freedom is "achieved in service. We are free if we become servants of one another." That is, we do not sit around waiting for everyone else to acknowledge his respective "I". Rather we see what we can do for someone else. We soften things.
At this point, Benedict brings in the question of truth to be the context of this love and service. If we really think our own "I" is absolute, we make ourselves almost divine. "I alone am the man." Again, if everyone says this of himself, but not of others, we have a world full of "I alones." That is a terrible thought, for sure, "a deception." We principally deceive ourselves about ourselves, the worst kind of deception. We "lie" to ourselves about ourselves, as Plato put it. "Man is not an absolute, as if the 'I' can isolate itself and behave only according to his own will." Benedict almost seems to tell us, "Try it and see." But we can see others who have tried it. The sight is not pretty. We do not really need to try it out just to see if absolute selfishness is really that bad. It is.
To think that "I" am an absolute determiner of everything about me is "contrary to the truth of our being." What then is this "truth of our being?" This is a great question. The response is: "Our truth is that above all we are creatures, creatures of God, and we live in relationship with the Creator. We are relational beings." It is worthwhile noting that in the Trinity, the existence of the three Persons is "relational." The one being in three divine persons has its reflection here. We are intended to be friends together.
Since it is true that we are in principle "relational beings," it follows that only "by accepting our responsibility can we enter into the truth." The truth is that the kind of beings we are is not solitary, even if we try to make it so. Self-deception means that we convince ourselves that we are autonomous, that we need only ourselves.
Since we are "created" that "being created" defines what we are. We really do not establish what we are by ourselves. We find it already existing in us. But God is not a tyrant. He is essentially a "good Being." The only reason why we exist is not because God "needed" us to complete himself, since he didn't. He made us out of the generosity of his love. This love caused to be what was not God. It did so out of the abundance of his being, not out of his need.
From these premises three points follow: The first is, "To be a creature means to be loved by a Creator." We are created to love. The second is to know God is to enter first into His "truth." That is, we must know our grounding in being as not creating ourselves. The "extraordinary adventure of our Christian life" begins here. This is a remarkable sentence. The adventure is rooted in the love and service of another, not ourselves. How far does such love potentially go to? To the Cross, this is based in the "gift of oneself."
Love of God also implies that we are made in his image. Loving him means also loving what he has created. "There is no freedom in opposing the other." When I become the sole interest of my deeds, I am not free to love another. "We can no longer live together and the whole of life becomes cruelty ..."
The final point is that "only in the acceptance of the other, accepting also the apparent limitations on my freedom that derive from respect for that of the other ... am I on the path to communal freedom." We understand that "We see that man needs order, laws so that he can realize his freedom which is a freedom lived in common." This "freedom lived in common" is by no means an "absolute" freedom of the self to do whatever it wants.
"If there is no common truth of man as it appears in the vision of God, only positivism remains." The only remaining reality is what we "posit" ourselves. Any truth in this context of our making our own laws will seem as something imposed from the outside. Freedom can now appear as rebellion against existing laws.
The order of our nature, however, already exists within us. With order and law, we can resist selfishness. "To serve one another becomes the instrument of freedom and hence we could add a whole philosophy of politics ... which helps us to find this common order that gives each one his place in the common life of humanity." Politics is the locus, the place of law and order where freedom to serve others and hence to be ourselves related to others is possible. This is what Aristotle's man is "by nature a political animal" ultimately means.
"The first reality meriting respect, therefore, is the truth: freedom opposed to truth is not freedom." The Pope adds something here that is not often considered. Authority is presented in the New Testament as not "being served" but as "serving," serving others. This understanding leads him to say that "to serve one another creates the common space of freedom." Benedict does not say just "serve another," but "serve one another." It is this reciprocity that provides the space, the relationship. This realization is why the "whole law" is contained in this one principle, "to love thy neighbor as thyself."
Behind this affirmation appears the mystery of God Incarnate. Here is the mystery of Christ who in his life, in his death, in his Resurrection becomes the living law. This is the "law" to which we are called "in freedom." The freedom refers to what Christ has stood for and taught us. If baptism means, as it does, the participation in "the death and Resurrection" of Christ, it teaches us that our freedom is, in principle, "sacrificial." It is not just for ourselves but for the laying down our lives for our friends, even for our enemies.
Benedict cites the famous Latin saying of Augustine that reads, "Love God, and do what you will"—"Ama, et fac quod vis." He adds that Augustine speaks the truth if we know the extent of what this "love" means. The "divine law" that guides our will is precisely this law of love. It means serving one another. This is the truth of our being.
The famous French writer and wit, Rabelais, once put on the door of his famous monastery of unruly monks the following motto: "Fac quod vis." This motto, of course, was intended as a parody of Augustine's "Ama, et fac quod vis." One can say that Rabelais' dropping of the "ama," the love, so that we do whatever we will, whatever it is, brings out precisely the Pope's point. The doing what we want, whatever it is, absolutizes ourselves. The "love" and "do what we wish" means rather that we serve one another, that the reciprocity of love that gives its space of freedom and limits it to what it is for.
We wish to let God's will be done. And thus what God is becomes incarnate. It dwells amongst us in the "flesh," as John said. This is why Mary is central, for without her "Fiat," this incarnation as we know it could not have happened. To be ourselves, we must let ourselves be more than ourselves.
Benedict then returns to the Pauline phrase that reminds us of Hobbes, about the "biting and devouring one another." Beware of being "consumed" by one another. Homo homini lupus. "You have become wild beasts to one another." The Pope in this context warns us of a spirit in which everyone wants to be "better than everyone else." This attitude leads to a community with exactly the opposite of the spirit to that which should suffuse the Church. "The great space of truth and freedom in love" opens before us when we see that the love we are to live is the sacrificial love that Christ showed us in his death and resurrection.
Often in modern philosophy we see references to the importance of the human face. We want to see one another "face to face." Paul even says that we want to see God "face to face." Love seeks the face of the beloved. Everyone knows that. But sometimes we wonder, "Why?" It is because we do not want to live in the terrible loneliness of ourselves alone. One of the classic definitions of hell is precisely this understanding of man who is totally autonomous, totally absolute, totally himself such that nothing else matters to him.
At first sight it seems absurd to talk of seeking the face of God. Yet, as Benedict puts it, God has "shown us his face in Christ." We see this face in our Scriptures. It is not an abstraction any longer. "This is eternal life: to know you, the one true god, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent," as John put it.
Basil the Great wrote, in one of his homilies, "Here is man's greatness, here is man's glory and majesty: to know in truth what is great, to hold fast to it, and to seek glory from the Lord of glory."
"And this journey of coming to know God, of loving relationship with God is the extraordinary adventure of our Christian life, for in Christ we know the face of God, that loves us even unto the Cross, unto the gift of himself."
The extraordinary adventure does not begin when we place ourselves at the center. It begins when we serve others. And we serve them best, as Basil said, when we "know in truth what is great." We know what is great when we see the face of him who died on the Cross, when we realize that in this act he was defining our freedom, our truth, and our glory.
We only become ourselves when we do not absolutize ourselves. When there is only ourselves, we can have no adventure. A life with no adventure, no adventure in loving others, serving them, is, to use a famous phrase of Socrates, "not worth living." Indeed, when we try it, it is not living at all. We soon find that we can indeed, with Rabelais' monks, "do what we will." But, in the same act, we also find that we love nothing but ourselves, the most boring kind of love that anyone can imagine.
The patroness of the Major Seminary of St. John's at the Lateran is "Our Lady of Trust." All real love is based on trust, on promise, on the gift of ourselves to one another. This is the "extraordinary adventure." It we do not actually experience it in trust and love, we really are not human in the kind of being that is given to us, the kind that constitutes what we are.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Columns, Essays, and Book Excerpts:
Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"The Dignity of the Person Must Be Recognized..." | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"Always More Than Is Seen": Benedict XVI on the Meaning of Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.
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