“Humility and the Freedom of the Children of God” (7/7/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
We have been celebrating freedom this past week with the 4th of July. We celebrate because we are grateful for all the freedoms we enjoy in America. In our Gospel today, we hear “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And what about the freedom that belongs to the Kingdom of God? Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but the creature finds its highest freedom when it is subject to its Creator, subject to the reign of God. When we live according to God’s ways, when we live according to what we were made for, when we live according to God’s plan for us. When we surrender everything over to God in trust, then “the Kingdom of God is at hand” for us.
However great the freedom is in America, we have a higher freedom as adopted children of God. A freedom from the slavery of sin, a freedom from addiction, a freedom from self-centered living, a freedom from a life without meaning, a freedom from excessive fear, a freedom from anxiety. Not a freedom to do whatever we want. It’s a freedom to live as an adopted child of God, in joy and peace.
Yet freedom is never free, as they say. It’s usually difficult to establish. And so it is with the freedom of the children of God. So I wish to give you two images today. The first shows the difficulty. It’s what it’s like not to trust in God. This is to experience bondage, not freedom. Unless you’re already a Saint, we all struggle with this to some degree. The second image is from our first reading today, it is that of the child in the arms of a loving parent. It shows us what it’s like to trust in God and so enjoy the freedom of being his child.
The first image is from Dante, the medieval Catholic poet. It’s from his Divine Comedy. This image is what we’re like when we don’t trust in the Lord and we think everything is riding on us. It’s what things are like when we don’t surrender to God’s will.
In the architecture of Dante’s day, you would sometimes find, in large buildings, pillars shaped like men. You had these pillars supporting the whole weight of the building above. But they looked like men straining with all their might to keep the roof lifted up. These figures looked almost like weight-lifters squatting a lot of weight. You could say they looked as if they bore the whole weight of the world on their shoulders, so much did the tension show in their faces and backs. Do you get the image?
Here’s the lesson: These are really not men supporting the weight of the building, but they think they are. They think they are supporting the weight of it all. And this is a source of torment. And so we too sometimes think we have to support the full weight of life on our own, when in fact we don’t. And this stress torments us.
Dante uses this image in the 10th Canto of the Purgatorio. Here the souls in purgatory are being purified of pride. Here are Dante’s words:
“Sometimes to prop a roof or ceiling up
you’ll see the pillar sculpted like a man
bearing the weight, knees crushed against his chest,
Producing agony in those who see—
what’s not real makes you feel really oppressed—
so I saw them, when I looked carefully.”
So it is for us sometimes, and the many burdens that we bear. It appears to us, that so much is riding on our shoulders and that we must bear the full weight ourselves. Yet often times, after the fact, we find that this really wasn’t the case. What so worried us or caused anxiety, ends up working out fine. Because God is in charge.
Why, in Dante’s words, did we let what’s not real, make us feel really oppressed? Why did we get so bent out of shape, like those contorted figures from Dante, trying to bear the weight of the building? This is not true freedom, even if we’re in America—even if we’re living the American dream.
I admit Dante’s image is sobering. Yet this image of not trusting in God will make a good contrast with the image the Lord gives us. God’s life-giving word will show us the path to true life and the freedom of the children of God.
So our second image. In our first reading we find the image of being a child in its mother’s arms. The prophet Isaiah gives us this marvelous image of true freedom. Speaking of Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place, the Lord says, “As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.”
What an image! What freedom! Think of the freedom a baby enjoys in its mother’s lap. He’s free of all worries and anxieties. For, his mother provides and cares for him. We often say things like, “Ah, the life of a baby, it must be nice.” They just guh and gah all day, play a little bit, fall asleep in the peace of their mother’s arms. Not a care in the world. What a life!
Well, God wants us to enjoy something of this same peace and freedom through our trust in him. Freedom from excessive anxiety, worry, tension. The Lord gives us this image because this is the kind of trust we can have in him, like a child in its mother’s arms. We can have this peace and rest. We need only to surrender ourselves into God’s arms in trust. He won’t let us down. God is faithful.
Yet it doesn’t always seem to us like this is the case. Does it? But neither does it for the child. The child is not always comfortable with what his mother is doing. He’s not happy when she weans him, when she potty-trains him, when she says: No more dessert, when she gives him bitter medicine for his sickness. There are many times when the child feels like things are not going well.
But these are for the child’s good, even when he doesn’t realize it. And so God seeks our good, even when we don’t realize it. We need to surrender to God’s will. For, God wants our highest happiness, and our long-term happiness, and not the lesser happiness we are often willing to settle for.
We need to relinquish control, to not need to be in control of every little thing, to surrender to the Lord in trust. The Kingdom is God’s and not our own.
Enjoying the peace and freedom of a child in its mother’s arms, this belongs to the freedom of the children of God. We need to do our work, take care of our business, plan for the future, and work hard. We need to share in God’s work. Trusting the Lord is not testing the Lord. Adults need to act like adults. We are to be childlike, not childish.
Yet in our hard work, we need to remember who’s really in charge: God. Only God has to bear the weight of the world, and He can do it. We do what is given to us to do, but we hand everything over to God in surrender and trust. Before, during, and after our work, we find peace in our trust in God, as a child finds rest in its mother’s arms.
Perhaps praying with an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary with Child can help us. God knows how hard it is for us to surrender in trust so he gives Mary to be our mother as well, so through her we might surrender to Him in trust.
In the end, I’m not saying this is easy. It’s a challenge. We often feel like we have to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders. We are often like Dante’s image of the men squatting under a weight they need not really bear. This is not freedom.
What the Lord wants for us is the freedom of the child in its mother’s arms. This freedom from undue worry, anxiety, and tension. This freedom of surrender and trust. This is part of growing in the life of prayer. So we make the words of Psalm 131 our own, “Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a weaned child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord both now and forever.” Amen.