The British Province of Carmelite Friars


Freedom Under Authority

"For freedom you have been set free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery." (Gal. 5,1). The desire to be free is not a modern invention. It has always existed in the hearts of men and women. The mission of Jesus was to set people free, to give them the freedom of the children of God.

If we see authority as the enemy of our freedom, then clearly we are going to have difficulties. The vow of obedience and the exercise of Christian authority are supposed to help all of us to be truly free. In the mendicant tradition, the prior, at every level, local prior, prior provincial, prior general, is the one who reminds the brothers of their common vocation; who constantly calls them to fidelity. He of course must first of all remind himself.

In the late sixties and early seventies, many changes were made in religious life in the wake of Vatican II. I never knew the pre-Vatican II religious life but I have heard many of the stories. Religious life was in need of a radical overhaul and many people responded with vigour. There was a great deal of confusion and many left religious life. The changes requested by the Council were very far reaching and perhaps many people thought that they had complied by dropping the habit and so on. However the fundamental change in religious life requested by the Council was that each religious order go back to its sources and rediscover its raison-d'être so that it could be re-interpreted for a new era.

After years of darkness and confusion, of uncertainty, debate and scholarly work, the Order returned to our sources and has managed to restate the Carmelite charism in modern terms. We seek to live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve him faithfully. We do this by committing ourselves to the search for the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of the Gospel), to fraternity and to service in the midst of the people (art 14). The experience of the desert is the unifying factor of these values (art. 15). The prophet Elijah and Our Lady are especially inspirational to us (art.25 ff). Of course the supreme norm for us and for every religious Order is the Gospel.

The charism is a gift which God has entrusted to the Carmelite Family and which has been handed down throughout the centuries. It is rather like a ball of wax which bears the impression of all who have handled it. We too will leave an impression of our hands and it is our duty to pass the ball on to others. This charism has inspired thousands of people throughout the ages and continues to inspire thousands today. The charism is not a narrow and restrictive thing but a life giving inspiration which has a great deal of room for all sorts of possibilities.

The vitality of the Rule has been rediscovered in the past twenty years or so as a fundamental inspiration for our way of life. The Constitutions, passed at the 1995 General Chapter, are the authentic expression of the charism as it is understood in our day. Most Provinces of the Order have organised days so that the members can deepen their understanding of the charism as expressed in the Constitutions. At the General Chapter, it was felt that we have done enough agonising over who we are. We have grown beyond that stage and now our task is to look at how we must incarnate this charism in each culture.

In the Constitutions we are reminded that Jesus lived his freedom not in self-sufficiency but in obedience to the Father. Jesus obeyed because he loved the Father and because he loved us (45). Therefore the context of obedience is love. Religious obedience is understood by the same article of the Constitutions as a surrender of our will fully to God. As we follow the obedient, poor and chaste Christ, we become less focused on ourselves (43). Article 46 tells us that following Christ in his obedience means listening together to the word of God and reading the signs of the times in order to discern the will of God today. Doing this, however, involves a constant and profound process of transformation.

Undergoing the process of transformation is not easy. Our freedom has been won at great cost - Christ's death on the cross - and he tells all those who follow him, that they too must be prepared to die - for those who wish to save their life, will lose it but those who lose their life for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel will keep it for the eternal life. To become truly free we need to follow Christ to the cross and beyond. For many, freedom comes at too great a cost and they find slavery more congenial. To be free involves letting go of the old self which is self absorbed in order to receive our true self as a gift from God. We are slaves when we are driven by our hidden needs and desires and when these become absolute demands brooking no interference from the legitimate needs and rights of others.

What is crucial is our motivation. All the writings of John of the Cross about the dark nights refers to the transformation process whereby an individual grows from selfishness to pure love. The word which John uses for good people, good religious, who say their prayers and live good lives is "beginners" and he paints a devastating picture of them. He points out that though on the surface they appear to be very good in fact their motivation is all wrong and you just have to scratch the surface and you will see a different side to their character.

So in relation to the exercise of our freedom, what is our motivation? If our motivation is to adhere totally to Christ and consent to God's will in our lives, then we are free. A problem arises when an unfree individual desires to exercise his freedom and this brings him into conflict with another unfree individual who has authority. Could it be that we are driven by our own needs and are not in fact inspired by the pure love of God? Could it be that some selfishness creeps in to our exercise of freedom and authority? Could it be that we are not free at all?

This is why the Constitutions speak of the necessity of transformation in order to live out our vow of obedience (46). If we want to continue doing our own thing undisturbed and have no interest in consenting to God's purifying action in our lives, then we really are wasting our time discussing this because nothing is going to change.

We show that we consent to God's purifying action in our lives by doing our part to dismantle the false and selfish part of us. We cannot accomplish this work on our own; it does require God's power because our selfishness is so deep rooted. The first step towards dismantling the selfish part of us which enslaves us is to try to get below the surface and examine our motives for our actions. Our emotions are our greatest friends in that they infallibly point to our true values despite what we may say or think. They tell us what is really going on inside us.

If I am asked to be assistant pastor in a parish and I angrily refuse it, I need to examine the reasons for my anger. Why did I react to a simple request by becoming angry? Did I feel insulted that I was not asked to be the pastor? Did I feel neglected and rejected by the whole Province and therefore reacted by refusing to countenance the request? There is nothing at all wrong with those feelings. It is normal and human to feel things like that. I exercise maturity and freedom when I can look at my motives honestly, accept what I feel and then make a rational decision based on the evidence. I am a slave when my feelings force me to act in a particular way and then I use my rational powers to find reasons to back up my childish stance.

It should be obvious that simply because I do or do not want to do something, it does not necessarily follow that God must want the same thing. If Jesus had followed that principle, he would have run as fast as he could from the garden of Gethsemane. If you are determined to do your own thing come what may then again you are wasting time looking at this subject. It is only worthwhile discussing this if you really are searching for God's will and willing to examine your motives.

What is the point of offering God one thing when He is asking something completely different from us? How do we know what God's will is for us? This is obviously a very complex issue and we can never be certain that we have got it right either as individuals or as communities. However God writes straight with crooked lines and can use our mistakes and even our sins to bring about something good. We can only do our best and try to discern what is God's will. If we genuinely try to discern, then I do not believe we will go far wrong.

Discernment of course involves taking account of what God puts in front of our faces. We cannot claim to be discerning if we pay no attention to the Gospel, which is the supreme norm for all Christians, or the Rule and Constitutions, which are the authentic inspiration of Carmelite life in our day.

The exercise of freedom is Christian when it is not driven by selfish motives but when we make decisions taking into account not just how we feel and what we want but also all the other relevant circumstances and then make decisions which we believe are for the building up of the Kingdom of God and not our own little kingdom. The crucial factor is our motivation - what really lies behind our decisions.

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