Daily Meditations

Why Are We Free?

In many ancient traditions, as still today in India, salvation is understood as dissolution into the vastness of the universe, re-absorption into an impersonal divinity; but the Fathers insist that humanity must ‘personalize’ the universe; not save itself by means of the universe, but save it by communicating grace to it. And all the while human beings must also humbly decipher the ‘Bible of the world’; they elevate themselves above all life in order to bring it to fruition, giving voice to and encouraging its secret surge of praise. The modern will to dominate nature as if it were something mechanical, an assemblage of things and forces which we use without respect, is just as foreign to true Christianity as it is to the impersonal cosmization of the East. Might not the loveless power of the West today be the obverse of a Christianity which has become an individualistic religion of the ‘soul’ – ‘God and my soul’ – unable to assume the depths of the nature within and around humankind?

In an Eastern garden or engraving, nature is dissolved subtly in waters and mists, in which a faceless eternity is condensed and hidden. In a Western megalopolis, nature is devoured by technology; the human race, in its power and its pleasures, reigns supreme; God’s heaven, the vastness of the sky, is riddled with noise, obscured by fog; God’s night, of suffering and of faith, is abolished by lights.

A Romanesque or Byzantine church is at the same time an expression of the earth and a benediction; surrounding nature has been humanized by the patient love of humankind, the blood of the martyrs, the tombs signed with the cross of victory; this mastery does not obliterate, but releases prayer from things. In the silence of the crypt, holy water and the Black Virgin intensify the womblike holiness of the earth. In the apse or in the dome, benediction shines from heaven in a face – the human face of God, the Icon of the risen Lord.

Then the question arises: Why has God created us tragically free, tragically responsible – so heavy a burden that we constantly lay it down at the feet of idols and inquisitors? To which the great Christian Tradition replies unanimously: God created us free because he summons us to deification – to a divine-human condition in which our transformed humanity will find its fulfillment. This call demands a free response. Union that resulted from mere magnetic force would be automatic, instinctive, unworthy of a personal existence which, even in its wish for union, requires complete responsibility.

That is why Adam had to undergo the test of freedom, to grow in maturity towards a conscious love. That is why sacrificial Love could not be revealed until Abraham’s knife had glinted in the eyes of Isaac or until Job’s cry had resounded, calling on God to transcend his own power. That is why the chosen people were a stiff- necked people, who got their name – Israel – after wrestling in the dark with the unnamed Stranger. That is why, finally, when God took on himself the destiny of Isaac and of Job, he came in secret, so that only by the free love of humankind could he be recognized in a crucified slave, defiled with blood and spittle. Even the risen Lord does not force himself on our presence; it was with a cry of faith and love that Mary Magdalen recognized him in the garden, and the beloved disciple on the lake shore. Our God comes in secret, and the Church herself, where we are united by the Spirit to the eucharistic body of the risen Christ, is a secret whose holiness is hidden from us by all the detritus of history. We can really love God only because we can refuse him. The book in the Bible which most clearly expresses this truth is possibly the Song of Songs, where the one painstakingly seeks the other. God seeks us more than we seek God.

Adapted from Olivier Clement, On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology