Let the Free Man Through or, Hope for a Consenting Heart


Check here for the first entry in this series.

This week, I’m taking the first chapter of Interior Freedom (“The Search for Freedom”). For those of you following along at home, that’s pages 9-31.

Over my years of teaching, I’ve become something of an uncompromising tyrant a conscientious objector to the notion of Sparknotes. So let’s keep the fact that I’m about to give you the Sparknotes version of one of the most perspective-altering texts I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever, just between us. It’s a necessary evil, unfortunately, since my first draft of this post was 2,000 words and Fr. Matt suggested I revise. To avoid such an epic, I’ve decided to focus on a few particular moments of insight from the chapter and devote my reflections to those.

The first and most fundamental moment of clarity that Fr. Philippe offers is the relationship between freedom and happiness. While the relationship seems to be clear (“I am the happiest when I have the most options before me, when I am the least limited, when I am the most free”), Philippe inserts a significant causal component here:

The kind of love that is the result of constraint, or self-interest, or the mere satisfaction of a need, does not deserve the name love…there is true love, and therefore happiness, only between people who freely yield possession of the self in order to give themselves to another…Freedom gives value to love, and love is the precondition of happiness.

This seems like a simple point, but the elegance of the nearly mathematical treatment of the road to happiness via love sustains the more abstract points yet to be made. Which brings me to my next moment of revelation:

You were within me, and I was outside myself, and sought you outside myself!

That moment of spiritual brilliance is courtesy of St. Augustine and relays Fr. Philippe’s argument that the greatest and truest freedom exists not in the number of paint colors you might select or the job opportunities you have before you, but in the quiet yet monumental choice that happens everyday within the human heart – the choice to  love or to fear.

With this in mind, Fr. Philippe ends his first chapter with an account of the three possible attitudes one may adopt in the face of perceived lack of freedom: rebellion, resignation, and consent. Of the first two, I will only say that they are gradations of the same sterile response to imposition (though Philippe does note the appropriate use of rebellion and resignation, respectively). It is in this last moment that I am most interested. The notion of consent implies the ideal response to limitations and restrictions upon ourselves. Compared to resignation (an essentially passive response) consent at once establishes the significance of the one who gives consent, while at the same time, the consenter embraces his own limitations with the joyfulness of Christian hope. The difference between resignation and consent is important here: it’s the difference between being carried away to your undesired path, fearful of the dark way ahead, and walking there of your own accord, embracing with hope the potential for a good end.

This. Changes. Everything.

The personality faults you’ve labored under and resented within your own heart? The resigned suffer under the weight of their inadequacy; the consenting moves forward in spite of their failings, knowing that God can move beyond deficiencies to make something beautiful. The financial burdens that daily overwhelm you? The resigned are lost within their fear; the consenting are able to trust in the providence of God with the confident abandonment of the saints. Our freedom is restored to us in the moment we make the free decision to choose that which we would not have chosen. And, in that way,

The act of consent, therefore, contains faith in God, confidence toward him, and hence also love, since trusting someone is already a way of loving him. For wherever faith, hope, or love are, openness to God’s grace, acceptance of grace, and, sooner or later, the positive effects of grace are necessarily present. Where grace is accepted, it is never in vain, but always extraordinarily fruitful.

As an aside, a friend offered this clip from Of Gods and Men which illustrates Fr. Philippe’s point nicely.

Next week, a real doozie: “Chapter 2: Accepting Ourselves.” Challenge accepted.