On Being Free
Published: March 15, 2012
A group of high school seniors came here to the monastery a while back. I was asked to speak with them on what it means to be free. We met in our new Welcome Center, where there is a large and comfortable conference room.
I enjoy it when young people come here. They are just starting out in the years that will soon stretch into adulthood. Many roads await them. And there will be choices to make.
I began by sharing with them a few memories of when I was their age. I graduated from high school in 1966, from Essex Catholic High School in Newark, N.J. The 1960s were, I told them, a time of upheaval on many fronts. There were race riots, assassinations, the Vietnam War, protests. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were among the banners of the decade. There were peace demonstrations galore. It was a time when the seemingly placid era of the 1950s gave way to the explosive convulsions of the 1960s. I was too young, I told them, to realize the momentous reach of that time.
Cries for freedom were seemingly everywhere. The demands for freedom rocked institutions all across the spectrum. The Roman Catholic Church shifted and swayed from the increasing swell of demands for change. The laity demanded the right to have a voice in the church. Civil rights called for full and equal rights for all. Students amassed on campuses all over the country, demanding the right to protest war and injustice.
Women demanded equal rights. Artists demanded the right of uncensored expression. Beneath it all there was the common denominator of the demand to be free, free to express, free to participate, free to join in the enormous swells that rose high on the seas of American society.
Not all of that freedom was discerned and used wisely. There were gluts of excess. Drugs derailed many lives. There were murders in the name of freedom. Human rights led some to make choices that snuffed out the lives of others. Freedom in many quarters became a word that was really a license to follow one’s appetites, no matter what the consequences.
A word came to mind as I looked at the young faces of the students in front of me. That word was “excess.” Excess bloated the meaning of freedom. It unmoored it from its true and effective base—which is service to others. The abuse of freedom led people to expand their appetites for more of seemingly everything. We all wanted to be free to get high on everything—and in so doing lost sight of our neighbor in the smoke and thrills of the time.
The quest for freedom awakens in the human heart an awareness that a life driven by the appetites of self-centered living is a life of closure.
It gradually chokes and kills the heart. Freedom is what prompts one to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Freedom is embracive of the good—and what that goodness means for all—not just for “me.” Freedom leads one to be self-forgetful in the quest to lay down one’s life for a spouse, a child, a neighbor, a country. It involves a discipline that moves one to be vigilantly involved in the nitty-gritty business of being with and loving with others. Freedom does not isolate. Freedom bonds. It forms communion. It is Eucharist.
During the 1960s, amidst all the upheavals, there were giants among us who occupied small places from which they moved mountains. Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day were two of many. They were gifts from God.
Their lives spoke eloquently of the beauty and clarity that is human freedom and what freedom calls us to be and do.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery online store at www.abbeystore.com.