Real Freedom. To live, to laugh, to love.
I was coming out of Stop and Shop the other night, and at the car right next to mine there was a young couple with a newborn baby crying in her mama’s arms. Her father was struggling with the car seat in the back. I couldn’t get into my car because of the doors, but I also thought he might need some help, so I asked. “Yes, please”, he said, his head emerging from the car. “They call this a freedom seat, but it’s just a pain in the butt to use.” The baby was now crying hysterically—the kind of a cry that comes from some fundamental need or desire deep down inside of her, for which she had no other way of expressing. Her mother held her crying face to her own cheek, bare skin to bare skin, the tears shared on both their faces. She took her crying child away to another part of the parking lot, and her father and I worked to adjust the complicated car seat and get it secured. When we finally managed, his wife brought the baby back. I said that she had probably worn herself out from all that crying. Her mother smiled, and the father laughed and said, “Yeah. We just have another 18 years of this!” They thanked me for helping, and we got into our respective cars. I was reminded that raising a child is a pretty big commitment. Maybe in 20 years you are free. But probably not.
I kept thinking about that little girl all the way home. The years of her dependency—for food, clothing, education, and of course, love. And I know too well--from my years of working with college students--the natural urge to be independent from their parents at the far end of the cycle. The great struggle of freedom for all of us: to be who we want to be, to do what we want to do, to believe what we want to believe, to love who we want to love. And that’s the ultimate goal for the parent as well—to help their child to become truly free and independent and self-sufficient.
I suddenly remembered a song from a long time ago. Richie Havens was the first performer on stage at the legendary Woodstock music festival, and because there was a massive traffic jam getting to the festival site, he was forced to play a lot longer than he was scheduled. After he went through all his songs, he looked out at the crowd and he started improvising. What came out was a rhythmic acoustic strumming and a single lyric, “Freedom” sung to the melody of "Motherless Child," a spiritual he'd sung as a kid. "I think the word 'freedom' came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me," he said. "I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person was sharing it, and so that word came out." The song made him instantly iconic, an emblem of the festival and the whole era.
There’s been a lot of talk about freedom in Cleveland and Philadelphia these past two weeks. Freedom from fear. Freedom from terrorism. Freedom for all genders, races, beliefs. The Republican convention even had a Freedom Plaza, where you could grab a drink, indulge in food from all regions of the country, listen to some great music, and mix and mingle in the hours before and after each Convention session. In our political world, each party tries to claim they have the best roadmap to the promise of our Declaration of Independence: the way for all of us to enjoy our “right to be Free and Independent”.
There is another kind of freedom, a more noble freedom than even the one embraced by our founding fathers. It is freedom of the soul--spiritual freedom-- that offers fulfillment for everyone is this room, for everyone everywhere. It is what Ecclesiastes is alluding to: “Vanities of vanities! All things are vanity!”. Everything we think is important—money, good looks, fame or celebrity, sports triumphs, positions of power in the corporate world or even as President of the United States---none of that really matters, it is vain and egotistical and does not bring us the freedom that we have been struggling to achieve since we were screaming babies in the parking lot. Jesus says the same thing in the Gospel parable about the rich man who had so much wealth he had to build more barns to hold it all. “Take care to guard against all greed…one’s life does not consist of possessions”. All the treasures we are storing in our lockers at Cubesmart self storage, or in our attics or basements, all the stuff we surround ourselves with from the Mall or Amazon: instead of making our lives easier and more free, it burdens us in a physical way—and with monthly storage fees---but even more profoundly in a spiritual way. And inside our souls we scream like a hysterical baby seeking freedom that our money or our political system can never buy for us.
July 31st is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius was all about finding the real freedom that even babies scream for. He had a prayer that spoke to how we possess that freedom.
Take, O Lord, all my liberty.
Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
Whatever I have or hold, You have given me;
I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace, that’s enough for me.
To achieve real freedom, to become truly independent, we have to give it all away, everything, including our freedom itself.
Take a look at Jesus up there on his throne of wood. He is stripped of everything. Take a look. Go ahead, look at him. Where are his possessions, where are his treasures? This was the finale to a whole life of letting everything and everyone go, a stripping away of everything that wasn't needed, except for the one thing that was there in the beginning, that remained in the end. His mama took him down from that cross and held him in her arms, tears streaming down her face, bare skin to bare skin. The only thing that remained was, of course, is his love. For his mama, for his world, and even for me and for you.
The wind blows—whhhhh—morning goes, evening comes—whhh—the glass is filled, the glass is emptied, all things are scattered to the wind. I look around my room. Who will fight over my great treasures if I die? If I die, what are they going to do with all this junk? If I die? If ? Who am I kidding?
On a trip to Manhattan I picked an old book off a table on a sidewalk. I looked at it for a moment, flipping through the pages. Suddenly I began to tear up. There were notes in the margins: "yes", "man versus nature", " I disagree", a question mark or two beside some dense passages. But then I turned a page and saw a few greasy smears, and next to them, written in soft pencil, by a beautiful girl, I could tell, whom I would never meet—"Please excuse the coffee stains, but I'm in love". And it made an instant lump in my throat, tears to my eyes, these words from some long ago lover, probably long dead.
The wind blows—whhhh—morning goes, evening comes—whhh—the glass is filled, the glass is emptied, all things are scattered to the wind. Bare skin to bare skin. But love remains. "Please excuse the coffee stains, but I'm in love."
Vanity of vanities. The wind blows—whhhh—morning goes, evening comes—whhh—the glass is filled, the glass is emptied, all things are scattered to the wind. Bare skin to bare skin. But love remains. The only thing that ever really remains, is, of course, love. And that love is the true freedom we are all crying for. That love.
Take Lord, all my liberty. Give me only your love and your grace, that’s enough for me.