The greatest freedom we have is to choose the good. I know, it’s not very sexy as far as freedoms go. But there you have it.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Paul writes to the Galatians (5:22). For years, anytime I read or heard that passage I stopped after joy and peace. What else could I want? Perhaps it’s a matter of getting a little older, or having prayed a little longer, or of having healed a little more. Now I long most for self-control.
I don’t mean that I didn’t want self-control when I was younger. I certainly did. When I was a teenager, I would have loved to have control over the rapid shift of my emotions. In my twenties I strove to craft a successful, beautiful, “perfect” life for myself and often felt that the ability to control my desires, feelings, and human impulses would have made that process infinitely easier. But I don’t think an iron self-will is what Paul has in mind.
For the last few years, I’ve felt myself drawn to a quieter, simpler, more traditional Christian spirituality. I use the word sin more than I would ever have imagined a decade ago. I pray with true feeling the prayer of the Centurian: O Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under the roof of my house, but only speak your Word in me, and my soul shall be healed. I welcome compunction when it comes–that wound that heals. I understand why the saints and sages encourage us to focus only on our own sins and not those of our brothers and sisters.
I recognize that this sort of spirituality has been harmful to many people. So many have been forced into a spirituality of humiliation. This process is a violent one, so different from the Spirit’s gentle leading in the ways that bring peace to our souls. What we might call doctrine or dogma, some sort of official pronouncement of the The Truth, is grounded first in prayerful experience of God and God’s work in a person’s life. These truths can only be understood when the Spirit reveals them to us in prayer. They can’t be foisted on us by an institution that requires our intellectual assent.
So it has been with my understanding of sin, contrition, and forgiveness. My life and my prayer have thrown me up against the wall enough times that I am finally starting to understand that I have no real power in myself to help myself. I don’t mean I can’t consent to God’s work in my life. I can, and often I do. But I also have a deep-seated resistance to grace, a strong desire to have things my own way, and a collection of very comfortable methods of self-sabotage. No amount of effort on my part has yet unseated these challenges.
I have, though, begun to notice that a space often opens between impulse and action. With patience and attention, I’m learning to notice that space. Someone says something that stings my pride, and I want immediately to build a resentment. I used to do so and enjoy it. Today, I can sometimes pause and notice that I actually do have a choice–I can focus on the affront, or I can walk the untrod way that leads I know not where.
Life is much easier when I choose the good way, the new way. That’s real freedom. It isn’t flashy. Despite my having written however many words about it, it doesn’t allow for much examination. Because the way of freedom is the way of less–less resentment, less compulsion, less self-fixation. And of course, that’s the whole point of the spiritual life–that there be less of us so that the life of Christ within us has more room.
Sometimes this less feels like a diminishment of the self. My whole life I wanted to shine like the stars in the sky. I wanted to be adored. When I live into this way of less, I also have to live into the real fear–sometimes as strong as terror–and grief of what it means for me to let go the urge to adulation. Do I even exist if I’m not being praised? I know that that isn’t everyone’s struggle. But it is mine.
The only thing that gives me courage to face into that fear is the small taste of freedom I have had when I do choose this way of less. I feel lighter, which tells me the urge to adulation is really a rope tied tight round my neck. There is so much air to breathe, if I let God gently unwind the cord.
I know where self-will gets me. I know where my way leads. And frankly, I’m just tired of it. I want the life that really is life, and I haven’t found it by blowing myself up like a parade float. Today I’d rather have the gift of self-control, which is the freedom to choose God rather than myself, over a mystical vision or a paroxysm of rapture. Because, as Theresa of Avila reminds us, God alone is sufficient.