A remarkable thing happened about an hour before my wedding. One of my groomsmen ushered the best man and me into an empty room of the house we were using to dress. Then he held out his hands, bowed his head, and led the three of us in prayer. He was and is a dear friend, but it was the first time I’d ever seen him pray. A fallen-away Evangelical, his voice shook with sweet uncertainty as he asked for God’s blessing. It was an unforgettable moment.
We said the Our Father and broke for the car that would take us to the church. I sat in the passenger seat and watched the farms and meadows of rural New England pass under a silver sky. The momentousness of the ride – the last of my bachelor life – set the colors of the fields ablaze.
It occurred to me that I was totally and utterly free. It was an odd and funny feeling, since it was the opposite of what culture had conditioned me to expect in that moment. As the groom en route to the altar, I was supposed to be in the grip of apprehension over the prospect of losing my “freedom.” But as I was being driven to the occasion of marital captivity – at which I’d be forever shackled to my “ball and chain” – all I felt was the purest liberation.
Having been raised in late-20th century America, I’d been predominantly influenced by the secular-liberal interpretation of the word “freedom,” which is not simply different from the Catholic understanding, but antithetical to it. It’s a common joke that our secular-liberal brothers and sisters are speaking a different language from ours. But on closer inspection, it turns out we truly are, even when we’re using the very same words.
This phenomenon is famously demonstrated near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s great novel Brideshead Revisited. The narrator, an agnostic artist named Charles Ryder, scoffs at the idea of a priest being summoned to visit Lord Marchmain on his deathbed: “Can’t they even let him die in peace?” Marchmain’s daughter Julia, with whom Ryder has been having an adulterous affair, replies sadly: “They mean something so different by peace.” The secular view of “peace” as expressed by Ryder means little more than to be left alone. But for Catholics, “peace” is an objective state, not a fleeting emotion.
Similar examples abound. But there is perhaps no wider split than over the meaning of the word “freedom.” According to the secular-liberal interpretation, to be free is to have a maximum of options and a minimum of personal responsibility. Freedom is thus achieved by escaping the confines of ordinary life imposed by the need to earn money and raise a family. Only then can time and energy can be devoted to ostensibly more satisfying pursuits.
This vision was boldly advanced by progressive comedienne Chelsea Handler in a recently released video that went viral on social media. The roughly two-minute sketch details a day in the life of a childless woman whose “freedom” is dependent upon not having a child to drive to school or chase around the grocery store. As such, Handler’s character is “free” to sleep until noon, do drugs, have anonymous sex, and “meditate.”
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to express the opposite of the Catholic understanding of freedom.
That’s because, counterintuitively to the modern mind, the Catholic conception of freedom is rooted in accepting ever-greater responsibility, not in shedding responsibility altogether. In the secular vision, ultimate freedom is found on a remote, tropical island, where ”free” people sip Coronas like Snoop Dog until the end of time.
In contrast, for Catholics, ultimate freedom is found in the slums of Calcutta, where the Missionaries of Charity freely give every ounce of themselves to the poorest souls on earth. Suffice it to say, the difference isn’t small.
To be sure, a remote island and cocktails is fine for a Catholic vacation, but not for a Catholic life. That’s not because committed Catholics are prudes, but because they’d be bored to death by such a life. Where there is no responsibility, there is no freedom to pursue life’s most meaningful aspects.
The inner life of a committed Catholic – one who has heroically acquiesced in the adventure of sanctification – is a non-stop, action-packed thrill ride of the soul.
In contrast, the hedonistic life, in which there is nothing to do but satisfy the self, seems empty and sad. More like an illusion than a life.
In retrospect, it’s obvious why I experienced liberation on the way to my wedding: in choosing to offer myself fully (and recklessly), I experienced the thrill of a great adventure. The journey would be challenging – my spiritual director, the great Father Peter Mussett of Boulder, Colorado, assured me on multiple occasions that marriage would take “everything I’ve got.”
But this only made it more attractive. I wanted to give my all to something higher than myself, because I wanted to be free. It is perhaps the most natural human desire to give oneself away in love. Anything less frustrates the soul.
This is the great truth of the Cross, which, in modern times, is a tragically obscured secret: that our freedom is directly related to the extent to which we give ourselves away.
To any young person who is searching for true freedom with ears to hear, may your Catholic elders speak in one voice: To feel free, find someone to love with all your heart who is capable of loving you in return. And once you have, pour yourself out recklessly, give everything to marriage and family, or to a vocation, and miraculously, your cup will forever overflow.
It doesn’t make sense, but it’s not supposed to. It’s only supposed to be true. It is. And it will set you free.
*Image: The Sacrament of Marriage (center, with Holy Orders, left, and Anointing of the Sick, right) by Rogier van der Weyden and workshop, 1444-45 [Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp]. This is the right panel of van der Weyden’s The Seven Sacraments triptych.