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What is the Role of Freedom in the Pursuit of Holiness?

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We might begin by observing that there are so many elements in the pursuit of sanctity that we are liable to overlook the most important one on our side. The most important element on God’s side is obviously His grace. The most important on our side is our liberty. My purpose in this class is to look at certain aspect of the subject and while saying just a few words about each aspect to gradually pull things together in such a way that we will have at least a broad overview and an appreciation of the importance of our freedom in the pursuit of holiness.

There are mainly three parts that I wish to address myself to. First, what is the contemporary attitude towards freedom which has affected all of us? Then briefly ask ourselves what is this freedom that everybody is for and everybody wants. What is it? And then more practically, how is freedom related to our faith, to our life of prayer, to our avoidance of sin, and our response to grace. So that collectively we can say that if we use all our freedom rightly, we shall be holy.

Contemporary Attitude Towards Freedom

The contemporary attitude no one really knows why there is so much concern about freedom in today’s world. However, as far as we can judge, perhaps the fundamental reason whatever so much concern and desire for freedom is because there is so little of it in the modern world. Whole societies are not only those behind the iron curtain are suffering from the most extensive and deep denial of even the most basic human liberty that I think human history has ever known. We assume that in tyrannical societies, like say Red China, or the countries that are under communist domination in Europe, we assume that the people who are living under such tyranny will have many of their liberties denied them. We are not so liable to admit that even in so-called free countries, like America, freedom is widely and gravely denied.

What freedom for example does the average Catholic couple have in the United States today to even bring into the world the children that they honestly believe God wants them to have. How free are they? My first convert was a young woman, who shortly after entering the church was married, wrote to me from the hospital where she had her first child, very happy over her motherhood, but very sad it happened to be in Detroit. John, she said, her husband just visited me and told me that we cannot come back to out apartment. We did not know when we rented the apartment that no children are allowed in those apartments.

So there is widespread denial in practice and in principle of real human freedom. The psychological and social sciences, not quite universally, but pretty close, hold that human actions are the result of the famous triad that every psychologist has memorized of heredity, environment and education. We do what we do because of our genes, because of the environment and situation in which we were reared and the education we have had. So that one of my Jesuit conferee, who had been teaching criminology for some years, tells me he does not know of a single textbook in American criminology which still recognizes human freedom, not one. That when people do wrong, it is not because they freely choose to do wrong, but because of their background, because of their upbringing, their education, the slums they come from as though - how fast our social sciences are learning that not all crime is in the slums.

Yet, the myth goes on that human beings are not really responsible for what they do. This has affected the thinking of many people in the Catholic Church. It has affected many aspects of religious life. I put it in large measure at the base of the convulsion in religious communities today that people are not really responsible it’s because of this or that, with Shakespeare it’s always the stars we blame.

When in the airports I glance over the paperback offerings and see the huge spread of books in horoscopy. Millions believe in horoscopes. To me this symbolizes the abdication of their own responsibility for their future. Given them this contemporary attitude which is one of either neglect or even positive denial that we are really free to be either good, or bad, or in between, it behooves us as religious to ask ourselves, well, if we are free and we keep saying we are, what does it mean, or should it mean, for us in the pursuit of holiness. Now before we get into that, we’ve got to ask ourselves, what this freedom that we hold really is.

Relationship of Freedom to Faith

Human freedom is very difficult to define; in fact it cannot really be defined. It is one of those ultimates of our existence. The best we can do is describe it. The ultimates you experience, and you describe the experience. Human freedom is the ability we have to choose what we want, even when there is no external constraint to do so, no force, no compulsion, no threat, deeply interior. This power of choice is therefore a power that is within us, residing in our wills. The expression free will is not one word it’s two words. The will can do many things but the first and most important thing that will can do is to choose. And this is the object of our reflection.

Free will means we are describing a quality of the will. It is free. Now this power of choice residing on our wills is a power by which we can then I’ll have all kinds of choose and chose coming by which we can choose to act or not act. You see we can choose not to act. I might have chosen not to come to Jemez Springs. Well, I did. The power by which we can choose this course of action over another. So we first choose to either act or not act. A lot of people during life choose not to act. By the way, not an unremarkable statement. Having chosen to act we can act in a variety of ways. Again, the power by which we can choose to accept what we have chosen or reject it after we’ve made the first choice. Need saying. It’s one thing to choose, it’s another thing to keep choosing. We hardly have words to express it but that really is constantly active. And I can either having chosen decide, well, that was a bad move. So I un-choose, that too is freedom to un-choose what I have through perfect tense chosen. If we choose to accept what we had first chosen, we are then free to continue accepting as long as we want to and what bears emphasis, just because we want to. Where every word counts, just because we want to. No one else, not even the omnipotent God, will force us. And we want to; if we don’t want to, we will un-choose what we have chosen.

Free Will to Choose

Implicit then in our liberty, in this is not so obvious, is the ability to choose to think. Now if you have any doubt that some people choose not to think, all you’ve got to do is teach. Some people choose not to think. Nice people, very pleasant to meet, very companionable, they just don’t want to think. And it is their privilege, fine minds, at least a mediocre teacher, but they don’t want to think. So implicit in this liberty of ours, is the ability to choose to think of reasons why we want something. Some of you people take more time than others; we all need some time to choose to think of reasons why when we finally decide to choose something we will, well, choose it. Because we know we’ve got to have reasons unless we stultify our reason and we can do that too. But if we want reasons, we’ve got to use our minds and the mind if it doesn’t, the mind has no choice. The mind is not the will. The will has got to talk to the mind, now look here, whatever name you have for your minds. Start thinking! You’re kidding? No, start thinking! Well you never told me this before! Well I’m telling you now!

There is something which we want, we need reasons to choose it and above all we need reasons to continue choosing it. For that the mind must be turned on by the will. So the mind under the will’s influence will give reasons to the will, why the will should choose in the first place and maintain its choice even through a lifetime. Or, either reasons why we want something or to think for reasons why we should give up something else because in case we don’t know we do. The trouble is, we don’t always look at our minds to see the reason the mind tells us. Every choice of one thing means the choice of giving up that which contradicts that which we choose, so then reasons why we should give up something else or reject something else which is incompatible with the object of our choice.

Some people get married already young wives or husbands have told me. Wives, for example, they chose to marry, but they didn’t realize that part of that choice of marriage was well like cooking for a husband, but she can’t cook. She never learned. Well now, she really has no choice if she wants to keep that man, if he’s normal. The mind then must shore up reasons why having chosen something I must then sacrifice something else, give it up, reject it, because if I want this, if I want A and A and B are incompatible then I cannot have B, and by now I don’t know how many religious and priests I have struggled with where this is their problem. They want A, but they would also like to have at least a piece of B. No, and the will can tell the mind, now look, you so and so, if you really want A, you’ve got to start thinking why you must give up B, that’s something about the meaning of this human freedom. Know the various relationships just illustrative of the ways in which our freedom lies at the heart of our life as Christians and as religious.

Regarding the faith, we know that the virtue of faith, if you did once, say when we were baptized, if you were baptized, in infancy, is a virtue of the mind. We believe when we reach sufficient maturity, to be able to make acts of the virtue of faith, we believe with the mind, not with the emotions, not even with the will, we believe with the mind. Because faith is the ascent, mind, to God’s revelation. Or as I tell my students, faith is man’s response to God’s revelation. God speaks, when man listens, he believes. That’s faith.

Reasons For Our Faith

Nevertheless, affirming that, that we believe with the mind but without the wills entering the picture and specifically, the free will, we may have been baptized in infancy but as you know we all know so many people we may have had to struggle ourselves, we must want to believe and this covers every step of the way. Thus we must want to see reasons why we should believe. So I’ve been baptized into the Catholic Church. So some teachers, say in the fifth or sixth grade, are telling me that some of these youngsters, are not sure whether it’s precocious or something else, these kids will stand up to the sister and say, well you’re telling us because we’re Catholics we’re supposed to go to Mass, we’re obliged. We got to do this and we’ve got to do that because we’re Catholics, but I didn’t choose to be baptized. So who’s telling me now, that I’m supposed to go to Mass or do whatever the church expects me to be. Now the answer that the teacher should told this bright young genius, now look, Jimmy, that’s right, when you were baptized you were carried in someone else’s arms, both physically and spiritually. Somebody did the profession of faith for you. Well, now that you’ve reached this remarkable degree of maturity, that you see you did not choose to be baptized, you better choose real quick, real quick, because unless you do, the character of baptism may remain in you, but that’s all. Unless you want to believe your baptism won’t help. You’re just going to stop believing.

So we must want to see reasons why we should believe, and it’s reasons. We must want to see reasons why we should accept the consequences of our faith, or say for religious, the consequences of our religious commitment. It’s one thing to have chosen the religious life; it’s another thing to also choose its consequences. The Lord spares us. Oh, how kind He is. He doesn’t let us see the consequences of our choices. Dear Lord, thanks. So trusting in His providence, we did make choices. But we’ve got to continue wanting to see reasons why those consequences of the choices we’ve made should be accepted.

And finally on this level of faith, not really finally, this is just the bearer’s beginning, the relationship of freedom to faith is a huge subject. Most of what we believe is mystery. Meaning that we cannot really comprehend or understand why and consequently it means that we’ve got to keep telling that mind, “Now look here, I know you’re asking for more reasons” - that’s the will talking to the mind. “I appreciate you’re concern, but look, what I’m telling you to believe in is mysteries. I want you to accept what you cannot comprehend.”

The mind objects. “Are you telling me to accept what I cannot really fully understand? – the Real Presence, God’s providence, the primacy of the vicarof Christ, the indwelling, the after life which none of us has experienced?” This is the mind objecting to the will. “Are you ordering me around?” Yes, dear mind I am ordering you around. Now stop your complaining. I am telling you, believe. And the mind has no choice once the will makes its choice. And it’s remarkable how that mind, the proud human mind that is asking for reasons for everything will when it sees the will, that’s a strange sentence, when it sees the will adamant will say to itself, this is the mind soliloquizing, will come to think of it most things I accept I don’t understand anyhow so I guess I better go along because without this partnership, a corporation can’t go on, maybe the mind and the will. So much for the relationship of freedom to faith, to prayer.

Our Need For Grace

Faith tells us are incomplete beings, or depending on the writer, he can camouflage the words in nicer language. I like this, we’re incomplete, period. We have nature but we need grace. In fact, we could almost drop the word nature. Because what we have is nature. That’s what we’re born with. That’s another name for nature and we sure need much more.

All that we need beyond what we have that we we’re born into the world with is grace. And we need it. And faith tells us, as much as we need this grace to reach the destiny for which we were made we won’t get it unless we ask for it. So a good, a very good, theological definition of prayer is asking for grace.

Now we can ask in a thousand ways. We don’t have to move a muscle or speak a word. This grace then requires the prayer of sacrifice, the prayer of action, the prayer of suffering, the prayer of ritual in the sacraments, and always the prayer of words, but long before we articulate in words what we need, there are so many ways of non-verbal communication with God. Which are our ways of telling him, “Lord, I need you.”

And, and this is the important conjunction, we shall pray if we want to, so that I don’t hesitate saying that the most sublime function of our free will is the choice to pray. Some choose to do so, others don’t. Those who choose to pray obtain what they ask for, those who do not choose to pray will not obtain what they need and, as the church has told us, even some of them will not be saved. Who will be saved? Those who pray. Who will be lost? Those who do not pray.

Teaching as I do, the various religious systems apart from Christianity, I can assure you most of the human race prays. The tragedy is, that some who call themselves Christians, and may God forgive them, even religious have lost the vision that even the Muslims and the Hindus have, they know they must pray. But this necessity of praying is a conditional necessity. And the condition is, whether we choose to do so, because we are not obliged to pray and God then in his mysterious providence is not obliged to give us. That’s the essence of grace. What God is not obliged to give us, unless we pray. Then we bind him by his own fidelity. Only if we pray.

Regarding sin, sin is essentially a deliberate choice that a creature makes, somehow in preference to choosing the Creator. If the choice is a complete rejection of the creator, that is of certain things which God says if you choose this you reject me, then they call is grave sin. When it’s less than that, we call it venial.

To be stressed and I cannot stress it too much is that sin is in the will. We don’t sin with the mind. We don’t sin with our feelings or emotions. They can be very powerful and they’re always seductive. Sin always comes to us under the guise of good, some pleasure, which then tempts the will and the will, if it sins gives into. Whenever we sin then, we choose something or someone that we want even though we know that God does not want this thing or this person for us. And we cannot comfort ourselves by saying well, but she has it. That’s not the point. God has a different providence for each one of us. Sin then is a conscious conflict of two freedoms, God’s and ours. Every time we sin, we cross our will with the will of God.

Relationship of Freedom to Grace

The last dimension of our reflection of this relationship of freedom to various aspects of our spiritual life is the relationship of freedom to grace.

Holiness we know is more than just avoiding sin. It assumes that we try to become more and more sinless. Essentially holiness is the practice of virtue beyond what we are obliged to, to avoid God’s punishments. There are many ways in which the avoidance of sin, which is basically morality, can be contrasted with holiness, which is spirituality.

But one comparison that is I think very easy to grasp is that morality is that practice of virtue to which we are bound under penalty of God’s punishments. It is then obedience to God’s justice, respecting his divine rights over us, his rights over us as our Creator and Master. Certain things He tells us, do this or don’t do that. And if you do, you will displease me and I will punish you.

A vast field, that’s the whole mortal order, but holiness begins where morality leaves off. It assumes the moral order. It assumes that a person for us be religious, is seriously intent on avoiding sin.  But wants to, oh that’s the freedom, wants to go beyond.

This holiness then consists by now we’ve heard and read a thousand and more then a thousand times, consists in the following of Christ. Which can mean many things, this following of Christ. You follow somebody when you walk behind a person. Well, I suppose that figure of speech could be used too but it doesn’t quite mean that Christ is tracking in front and we’re tracking behind, it must mean something much deeper. This following then means that we follow Him in the practice of what He practiced. It’s as simple and as demanding as that. What He did because He became man to show us how to really please God. We try to do the same.

The attributes of God are infinite. Therefore the imitability of Christ is literally infinite. On the other hand, there are certain things which Christ did, which we in the pursuit of holiness are to commit ourselves to trying to reduplicate in our own lives that stand out in Christian spirituality. And they are especially four.


The first is imitating Christ in His practice of charity. Hence, for us as religious, we enter a community. Unless we have any misconceptions about what the purpose of community life is, this is it. The purpose of community life is to imitate Jesus Christ in the practice of charity. And you find out very soon, and if you thought you were practicing charity before you became a religious, Lord, not this. Yes, this. People you never thought you would meet, and you discover you’ve got to live with. So the practice of charity.


The sacrifice of possessions. There are some explicit, many implicit passages in the Gospels in which the property of Christ is dramatically revealed and it couldn’t be more dramatically revealed than in the those two scenes, Bethlehem, a child lying in a manager and a man condemned as a criminal on the cross and buried in a strangers tomb. It means a sacrifice of marital joys and pleasures. And that’s the way I like to put it. Any other way it can be either twisted to mean what it doesn’t mean. is the sacrifice of something great, of something good, of something that you satisfy otherwise, by now I know I’ve told you at least a dozen times, sacrifice means that I surrender what I like. If I don’t like it you can’t even make a sacrifice.


So as the joys and pleasures of marriage, and this business of chastity is not only a sacrifice of venereal pleasure in the reproduction organs of our body, it means so many sacrifices of the kind of things that we as people who have bound ourselves to this life are meant to give up. And give up especially where the giving up is hardest, inside. We might have enjoyed it. Christ might have. It’s Jesus that we are imitating.


And finally the sacrifice of our autonomous use of our talents, of our time, of our skill, of our education. Capitalized under that very prosaic word, obedience. Notice it is not the sacrifice of our talents, I didn’t say that, or our time, or our skills, or abilities. It is a sacrifice of the autonomous use of these talents, time, skills. And that we should be just as indeed more eager to use our talent and time.

According to the directives of obedience as we would have been had we had the autonomous choice of how to use what we had, but all we’re talking about freedom, we must choose to do these things. And I’ve got three words underlined, we must choose, nobody else. And being in the religious life twenty or twenty five years doesn’t change the picture. The choice is still ours. We must choose. And we must choose, otherwise the moment we start, pardon me, the moment we stop choosing to live beyond the requirements of the moral law, we have thereby chosen to elapse from the pursuit of holiness.

And we must choose, which means, we must choose not to have the opposite of what the choice of the imitation of Christ requires. We must then choose to rise above sin. We must choose to see the value of Christian perfection and expose the mind and tell the mind, now look here; you haven’t been doing much thinking these days. I’m telling you what to think about. And the mind may rebel, at least complain, who are you to be bossing me around? Well now look, you’ve only got one boss, that’s me. To see the value of Christian perfection, to see the importance of becoming Christ-like. To appreciate and to be willing to admit the means necessary to fulfill our hopes.

It’s not enough to choose something which we hope for, the goal. We must also choose the means. Otherwise we can really be frustrated. And the more we hear about the beauties of sanctity, the worse it’s going to get, because then having chosen an end, we will not reach that goal. We shall not become holy unless we also choose and keep choosing the necessary means. This means we must choose to sacrifice self in order to put on Christ and of course the hardest choice we can ever make is the choice to choose Him in preference to self. And we’ve got to choose to persevere in these choices until death, when, won’t that be wonderful, we won’t have to be making these difficult choices anymore. We will keep our freedom, of course, but then there will be no possibly of ever making a wrong choice.

Conference Transcription from a retreat that Fr. Hardon
gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

Copyright © 2005 by Inter Mirifica

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