When we insist on self-will, the result is unfreedom.
It was hardly enough for the French revolutionaries to behead just one king. Nine months later, in October 1793, anti-royalists tore down twenty-eight statues of Judean kings mistaken for French monarchs from the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral and guillotined them in the Cathedral Square. Doubtless these monuments were obnoxious to the crude libertarian sentiments of the budding republic and required definitive action.
Perhaps to their minds, as long as these symbols stood, they were a threat. By introducing these monuments to the guillotine, perhaps they thought they would throw down the perceived authority these statues wielded over their executioners. Surely such measures appeared necessary to citizens in an increasingly fruitless revolution unable to establish anything but chaos and unrest. It must have seemed to these anti-royalists that there were too few kings to behead and too little tyranny to overthrow in order to establish to themselves even the perception that they were free.
So it often is with us. When someone wields power over us, be it a government, a parent, a boss, or God, we sometimes give way to cynicism. These people wield power over me, but my well-being does not seem to matter to them. Their power makes me vulnerable and dependant, but they merely want to use my subjection and suffering to seek their own interests. On and on this thinking goes. Sadly, the abuse of power, which is a real thread running through all facets of human history, can easily confirm this thinking. Sometimes we should think this way, and we should stand up for ourselves.
Yet sometimes we’re led to suppose that no one should wield power over us, or that this power should be minimal and only for our physical and mental safety. No one should abridge my freedom. Who knows better than I do about how I can live a good life in the community? Thus, we may entertain a desire akin to what the French revolutionaries experienced in beheading the statues of kings—to efface what we think abridges our freedom.
Nevertheless, life requires order, which means that individual members must die to some of their independence to receive life from the whole. The inert tendency of members in a group, such as in an orchestra, to do their “own thing” at their own time produces chaos. In an individual organism, this tendency is death. It is easy for a thing to die; it is not easy to live. To live requires periodic nourishment, harmonic movement, and order among the an organism’s members. To behead it collapses this order, and its members dissociated from each other and themselves decay.
Similarly, we need this ordering within societies and also within ourselves, since in our own persons we so often and without relief experience the tension of conflicting desires. When we “decapitate” order within society and within ourselves, insisting on self-will, the result is unfreedom. Like the revolutionaries beheading regal statues, the experience of our unfreedom can lead us to frustratingly and obstinately continue insisting upon our self-will, resulting in more and more chaos. Instead, we need the ability to know and govern ourselves well. We need also to be governed, not by someone who takes advantage of us but by someone who gives us life and frees us.
We prepare this Advent to receive our king as a child. His reign provides order and rest. The much celebrated Psalm 23 heard at today’s Mass styles our king as a shepherd. He is a shepherd whose rod and staff “comfort us,” and he prepares a banquet and an overflowing cup. The psalmist peacefully concludes by relating how he will dwell in the Lord’s house for all his life.
This king’s coming merits more than the unruly cynicism generated by our own frustrated self-will. His coming should be met with joyful invitation: yes, reign here. Free me from the tyrants within. Establish peace in my soul. Grant me self-mastery in my life so I may conform my life to your will. Establish me in love with my neighbor. Let me dwell in your kingdom. Let me see your face, which is to live eternally in perfect happiness.
This article was written by Br. Nicholas Hartman, O.P.