Today I feel such hope. The feeling caught me off guard. It appeared in the most unlikely of places. I was reading an article on Russian Orthodox ministers who were martyred under Stalin. I know, right? The title of the article was ‘Spiritual Freedom’ (from First Things) and it included two photographs, mugshots, of a man and woman moments before their execution. The expressions on their faces are profound. The author, John Burgess, writes,
“I stop and contemplate their faces. They seem to look through and beyond this world into eternity. I see terror yet peace, exhaustion yet ecstatic anticipation of another life. And there is spiritual defiance. These men and women had been stripped of every legal and political right, yet are strangely confident that a righteous God holds them safely in his hands. Under the most awful circumstances of persecution, Butovo’s victims discovered what Christians really mean by freedom.”
It is such an odd paradox in Christianity that somehow, through the giving up of one’s rights and freedoms, we are set free. In the laying down of life, we gain life. This isn’t to dismiss the significance of civil liberties, nor is it to suggest that the defense of them isn’t biblical. It just means that, at our core, liberation isn’t ultimately something that happens outwardly, but inwardly. The freedoms of the heart cannot be restrained by any form of external control, nor can their allowance by government provide any sort of guarantee of a heart truly free.
“When the church is socially acceptable and when religious affiliation is more a matter of custom than faith, those who call themselves Christians are easily tempted to sell their inheritance of spiritual freedom for the pottage of social privilege and material wealth. This temptation is, perhaps, also ours in America today. A legally guaranteed right to religious freedom may too easily be mistaken for true Christian freedom.”
This is comforting, because I’m afraid right now for our country and world. I’m afraid for us and for my children’s future. I used to say, “Don’t worry, that will never happen.” It was usually followed by a justifying statement like “People are smarter than this.” “People are better than this.” “We’ve grown.” “We’ve progressed.”
It isn’t the loss of religious freedoms that I fear. It is the loss of human decency. We have lost sight of the ends and have become entangled in the means. The optimism I once felt has been replaced by a weight; a heaviness of inevitability. There are forces at work in the world that feel beyond our ability to restrain. Selfishness, deception, violence, fear, discrimination, greed. I feel weighed down by their gravity.
Newton’s second law of thermodynamics seems to have a moral corollary. As our universe expands and grows more cold and less complex, so our morality seems to be degenerating, becoming more and more base. We are sliding backwards and losing ground. How will this story end?
One of my favorite philosophers, Simone Weil, writes, “All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity unless there is supernatural intervention.”
This intervention is what gives me hope. Without this injection of grace into our system our plight is desperate. But with it…with it our fear and anxiety can be transformed. There is still a card that hasn’t yet been played.
Many of you are familiar with the revelation received by Julian of Norwich when Christ told her again and again ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Julian cautiously questioned this reality. And Christ’s response? “all that (her concern) is true, but the secret grand deed will make even that ‘very well’. ‘With you this is impossible, but not with Me.’”
The secret grand deed. That phrase makes my heart lift. I don’t even know what that deed is. We’re not supposed to. But what I hear God saying is, “trust me.” Those words speak to my dismay and despair. They tell me not to give up. Those words give me hope and break me free from this downward spiral of hopelessness.
Julian was shown a tiny hazelnut in the palm of God’s hand and was told that ‘this is all that is made.’ She feared that ‘it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness.’ This little world where we live can feel so immense, incomprehensible, overwhelming. I draw such comfort from the picture of this little nut resting in the palm of a strong hand.
It gives me courage to push against darkness. To fight back with selflessness and generosity instead of clutching and hiding. To respond with soft words to others’ wrath. To speak truth. To love my enemies. To seek out the ones in need.
This is what freedom feels like. True spiritual freedom is freedom of the heart. Freedom to be my true self. Freedom to live a life of grace. It must first be received. I can’t muster it on my own. Like Simone said, it requires intervention.
And this means humility. It means sacrifice. It requires me to trust and accept. It means laying down my rights instead of insisting on them. It stands strong against oppression, but by turning the other cheek, not by striking back. It requires restraint.
Simone says, “I must necessarily turn to something other than myself since it is a question of being delivered from self.”
Because my heart, like all the rest of my brothers and sisters, is still broken and in need of healing. I need you and you need me. As we receive this intervening grace from heaven, we share it. We give it away. And the effect is contagious. It grows. It spreads like a fire. Once lit, it becomes impossible to contain.