Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Integrity and Liberty

Once again today I heard a homily that was particularly striking. I wish I knew the priest's name to credit him properly; if anyone who reads happens to have been at the Noon Mass at Franciscan University, perhaps you could clue me in.

There were actually two separate points that he made that struck me. One pertained to the matter of integrity. He talked about a testimony given in his parish where this man spoke of how he was given an urgent desire to break out of a prayer life that amounted to empty, meaningless ritual. That really piqued my curiosity, because oddly enough it was that very desire that ignited my search that ultimately led me out of the charismatic fellowship to which I belonged, into the Catholic Church. That desire was a key catalyst, even though it seems ironic, because "empty, meaningless ritual" was something I, at that time, strongly associated with Catholic worship, not the "free, spontaneous" style I was experiencing. But why then did it begin to seem so "same," so empty? It hadn't, always. What did it mean?

This priest went on to explain exactly how one breaks out of empty, meaningless prayer. (And I would add that I think "prayer" can be used in a very broad sense here, to encompass just about anything in life that is an expression of one's soul.) He said we break of it when every part of our lives is connected with every other part of our lives, and all of it is drawing its life from Christ. This is integrity. So how I pray, what I eat, how I treat my husband and children, how I think about political questions, how I manage money and my time -- none of these things gets a separate compartment that is yanked out from the rest, and all draws its life from Christ. That's the aim of integrity.

Though what he said sounded great, at first the connection between vital prayer and personal integrity was not blatantly obvious to me. But as I swished it around some more, I saw the wisdom in what he said. If prayer, or my duties, or my job, or my parenting, or my whatever starts to feel like a dry chore, could it be that there is some area in which I am either not conscious of drawing my life from Christ, or I simply am not doing it, apart from subjective awareness? So the need is either for obedience, that is for adherence to Christ, or for awakening of my consciousness to see Christ's presence. The need is for integrity. The need is for all of me to get on the same page as the Lord. In my case in the past moment I referenced, my need was to seek out what page the Lord was actually on before I could obey Him there. And what a surprise that was.

The second point that struck me was nearly an aside in the homily, though it fits with this notion of integrity as I'm thinking about it now. He commented that when people's hearts are far from God, they need lots of laws. Perhaps "need" here is two-edged: there is both the objective need for behavior to be reigned in for safety of self and others, and "need" is also a felt need. People feel lost and so they feel the need for more and more laws and rules to give them a sense of security, identity and direction.

I see this reality playing out in both parenting and politics in ways that I think are more similar than dissimilar. Because all of life is about the human desire for God expressed, wrestled with, nurtured, denied, and/or celebrated, laws of the State or rules of the family have everything to do with our relationship with God. I don't think it is accurate to say that a 3-year-old's heart is far from God, but her intellect has not matured to the point where she can freely access and choose from all the options of the world what is best for her. She needs someone to provide the goods, and then offer her toast or fruit, pink pants or orange skirt. She needs to learn to freely choose from options, and this in turn nurtures her ability to freely respond to all the choices in her life. The grace of Christ can make its gentle presence felt in this process, and virtue can develop.

But what if the tutor of freedom is overpowered by the taskmaster of laws? You must do this, you must do that, you have no choice, and don't bother to understand why you are doing it. One possible response to this taskmaster is rebellion: I will have my way; I don't care what you say. Another possibility is compliance: Ok, I'm not allowed. Just keep telling me what to do. I was very sad when I overheard a grown woman (a mother of a newborn) tell someone recently "I was told I wasn't allowed to have kids." A heart dominated by rebellion or compliance provides fertile ground for the development of slavery, not freedom and virtue.

Government (and the parent) does have a proper role to play in protecting the goods of life, property, defending from fraud, that sort of thing. But I believe there is a degree to which government (and parents) can deaden the conscience's yearning for God by the imposition of too many restrictions and rules that have nothing to do with justice. We have enough of a propensity for feeling lost due to our sin; I don't believe we need it compounded by accepting a cultural load that chants in a hopeless, constant drone "Our hearts are far from God... our hearts are far from God..." We human beings desperately need mentors; we need to see love in the faces of others in our lives who are showing us how to live. Parents generally know this, even if we don't always practice it. Rules and laws are a poor substitute for a person who teaches us how to live, or how to succeed in our trade or business.

I think because I personally have been far more influenced by the tendency to comply with any silly thing that is demanded of me, I see the liberty movement as one necessary wheel on a bicycle. (Maybe it is my bicycle, and yours operates differently. I can dig that.) I want others with this need to awaken to the reality that excessive rules, regulations, taxations, punishment schedules and centralized control in government and society can lead to a demeaning and erosion of human dignity. But this can become nothing more than I will have my way; I don't care what you say if the other wheel is not also in place: our hearts are only truly free when we are drawing our life from Christ. The liberty movement is like an alert, waking people up to remember the dignity for which they were created, which is the ability to choose the good freely. But no political system or thought can give that ability. It comes from Christ alone. We cannot buy goods of society with human dignity as the price, and we must protest when that bargain is proposed. But the only way to keep a culture or a nation from devolving into totalitarianism is to evangelize, bringing Christ to the hearts of all.

He alone brings healing, integrity, wholeness, meaning, vitality, and freedom.

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