In this Easter season, examples of freedom have been all around me. In attending my first Easter Vigil since I had children, I was powerfully reminded of the spiritual freedom that Easter brings. The Exsultet, proclaimed at the beginning of the vigil, reminds the congregation that the fulfillment of the freedom of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt is Christ’s resurrection, which secures our freedom from the bondage of sin and death. The symbolic manifestation of this freedom appears throughout Eastertide, in the return of Alleluia in the liturgy, in the unveiling of crosses, and in the physical freedom from Lenten obligations.
In our home, freedom is being expressed with great vigor, in the form of our one-year-old son beginning to walk. Seeing the joy that this freedom to experience the world brings reminds me both of the gift and the dangers of freedom. For my son, walking has offered a great wealth of new experiences: seeing into cabinets he couldn’t reach before, new toys to play with, and, most importantly, the hope of catching up with his big sister.
In his important essay, “Freedom for Excellence,” Fr. Servais Pinckaers contrasts the Thomistic understanding of freedom for excellence with what he describes as the nominalist understanding of freedom of indifference. In this approach to freedom “founded on a natural sense of goodness and truth, freedom is no longer characterized by indifference but rather the spontaneous attraction and interest experienced in regard to all that is true and good” (Servais Pinckaers, OP, “Freedom for Excellence,” in Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. by Mary Noble [Catholic University of America Press, 1993], p. 359).
Each of these new elements of life, accessible because of my son’s new skills and constantly drawing his attention, offer goodness appropriate for his stage of life. In exploring the new horizons offered by his mobility, he learns more of the world, expanding his eager and open toddler’s mind. In climbing atop his new toy fire engine, he experiences the thrill of speed and, perhaps, the first glimmers of imaginative play. In catching up with his older sister, he is pursuing the community and social engagement that is no longer physically out of his reach whenever she decides to leave the room, leaving him to crawl frantically behind her.
Fr. Pinckaers is clear that freedom for excellence does not assume we enjoy what he calls the “freedom of indifference.” Freedom for excellence does not mean we select from among unlimited choices, the modern autonomous understanding of freedom, but rather that we are able to pursue what is most appropriate for our good. This type of freedom for excellence is not something we can achieve “whole and entire” immediately, but rather requires “the slow patient work of moral education in order to develop.”
Pinckaers outlines three stages through which each person must pass through to achieve true freedom for excellence. The first, which he calls the moral childhood, is the time in which the potential for freedom is developed through discipline necessary to understand excellence and to lay the foundation for the virtues necessary to achieve it. The second stage is that of moral adolescence in which the virtues necessary for this freedom are integrated into identity, and then moral adulthood, which is characterized by both mastery and creativity. This idea that freedom is developed in stages and especially that freedom can only be properly exercised when accompanied by discipline initially seems contradictory, Pinckaers acknowledges, to everything we mean when we discuss freedom.
This understanding of freedom is very similar to what we see in a child’s development. In learning to walk, my son was not given an unlimited range of choices about where he can go and what he can do. With this new freedom have come new opportunities for danger. New cabinets that he reaches ahead of his frantically child-proofing parents contain potential dangers or at least fragile items to destroy. New riding toys offer danger, as he fails to understand how to control their speed. (They also endanger the paint on our walls, as he slams his new fire truck into them). And while he finds keeping up with his big sister most satisfying, his desire to run often exceeds his newfound ability to balance, resulting in tears and bloody lips or noses.
As his parents, our job requires both that we encourage our son to use his new freedom to explore and experience, but also provide the proper direction and guidance in the appropriate use of that freedom. In watching my son walk, I experience along with him the beginning of this first stage. Although he is naturally oriented to this type of freedom for excellence, he still requires direction and training in how to use that freedom appropriately, and sometimes even a parent’s guiding and steadying hands. Other, more experienced parents assure me that the day for freedom for excellence will come sooner than I imagine, when his stumbling steps will be turned into mastery of some sport or game, and stumbles will be replaced by creative jumps and agile dodges.
As I contemplate my son’s stumbles toward freedom, I am reminded of stumbles in pursuing freedom for excellence in my life. My Lenten disciplines always serve as a helpful reminder of how much my bad habits and desires impede my pursuit of the freedom for excellence in Christ. Choosing to live a life in the freedom of Eastertide does not mean that I no longer need spiritual disciplines and Scripture and the Church’s reorientation and reshaping of my inclinations and desires. Rather, Easter reorients and reminds me of the true freedom I am pursuing.
As St. Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). This pursuit of freedom for excellence requires discipline, as in Lent, but the presence of discipline does not negate the joy of the journey and of stumbling toward freedom. Even as he falls, or when I swoop in to carry him away from things that might hurt him, my son still laughs. A proper understanding of the kind of freedom we are pursuing together not only shapes our Christian life here, but provides glimpses of Easter always ahead — although the full freedom of Easter is always yet to come. Our pursuit of freedom has an end, a goal, the time when we enter into the Sabbath rest of God, which “has no evening, for it bring us into the creative rest of God, who is our ‘end without end’” (Pinckaers, p. 373).