Friday, November 07, 2008

Freedom and Authority

The oddest things can spark me to pondering. Here's something that happened today.

I was at Mass, and as is becoming the standard around here, the announcements were read beforehand. It is common that the announcements end with these two: something to the effect of "calling all extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion", and something about people scooting together to make room for those still coming in. These are read by the lector.

Today the lector ended with the first standard, but not the second. So the leader of music ministry, who happened to have a working microphone in front of him, and who noticed that it was one of those full house days requiring this little reminder, spoke up and asked everyone to move to the center to free up room.

This little nondescript act, which has probably already been forgotten by the one who did it, has had me thinking all day. I find this a lovely illustration of freedom (as I wrote about the other day) and also something I am calling "ownership," but I'm sure there is a better term for it. One aspect of freedom is seeing a need and acting to fill the need, regardless of whose need it is. And it demonstrates ownership, or perhaps belonging is a better term, because the need is perceived as important, motivating, for me, even though the need does not affect my person. The music minister had his seat! But he saw the standers, saw the disorganized sitters, saw the extra space. So without worrying about protocol (that the music minister is not usually the one to say this) or something dorky like what people would think of him, he, just as naturally as scratching an itch, facilitated the situation.

I remembered a situation from my own experience. I was a mid-teen, and was in my (Lutheran) church narthex either for a Sunday service or some other event. I was standing near the guest register (why is it that Catholic churches don't have guest registers?) and noticed that the page was filled. The book used large ledger-type pages that slid into and out of a sort of frame that opened on the top and bottom. Not wanting any visitor to leave without signing, I removed the full page and placed it on the shelf below, revealing the next blank sheet. I vividly recall a person who was with me, who was significantly older than myself, looking about with a sense of embarrassment. This was not my property, it was the church's! What made me think I should go messing with the church's guest registery! Did anyone see you do that? What would the pastor say about this?

This response seems to typify a lack of freedom, or the paganism that Rose Wilder Lane talks about (in her book which I am shamelessly plugging every chance I get!) Freedom, as I am contemplating this term, tells me that that was my church, my desire for guests to be welcomed and reached out to, and as long as I was acting within reason (and not throwing the filled sheet in the garbage or hiding it) then I was acting out of my sense of being a member of this community. I was animated by Christ to care in this small way for the needs of my brothers and sisters.

I've been thinking about what a third option might look like. If there is freedom, expressed in service, and paganism expressed in fear of some Authority whose job it is to control our actions, turning them on and off, it would seem there is a third sort of way. I guess it is just a variation on paganism. This would be the person who feels s/he IS the Authority who controls other people, "allowing" them to serve in some capacity, or being the sole source of the good coming toward another. Ooh... I hadn't articulated this third option to myself until just now, but I see how tricky this one is, because this is precisely what many of us actually look for. It is how I see myself sometimes, especially when I think I will be giving a secure feeling to other people by acting this way. But you know, when you look at how the Church operates, her authority really doesn't have this flavor. She knows she is not the source of the good, she is the sacrament of the Good. She does not "allow," for example, people to be canonized or orders to be founded or private revelations to be followed, she discerns and acknowledges the work of God made evident. One of the biggest frustrations I had when I was new to the Catholic Church was the complete lack of authoritarian details for me to follow. I was convicted that the Church had divinely inspired authority to speak for Christ, but walking into the Church was like walking into a huge, open, cavernous.... freedom. It was a bit unnerving, emerging from the significantly more cramped quarters that I had previously known.

And try to put this to practice in parenting! Oy vey! Radical unschoolers (an even less defined subsection of the already definition-defying unschooling crowd) have as an ideal to eschew this form of authoritarianism with their children in every aspect of their lives together. As one who has lived experience of trying this, I can testify that the difficulties with it have far less to do with children and their behavior and far more to do with parents and their behavior. It is actually somewhat rare that even my children will attempt things that are truly dangerous, and if they do, they actually have a vested interest in their own safety. They will listen to reason. There are things that I tend to get all authoritarian over -- allowing or disallowing -- simply because of my irritation or impatience. As the radical unschoolers will say, imagine if it was your mother-in-law doing that thing which irritates you, instead of your child. How would you respond? How many of us believe we can control our mothers-in-law? How many of us believe it is our God-given duty to control our children?

This reminds me of a post I wrote a year and a half ago. The gist of this is that the true authority in my life is the one who loves my soul and my life most powerfully, not one who makes her life feel better by telling others what to do.

And if you had a day with your kids today like I had with mine, you know it is a very difficult sacrifice to give up just a few of those "ordering people around to make me feel better" occasions!

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