Monotony and Freedom

Only given the nature and principles upon which this blog is established do I assume that you care what’s “happening” in Rome. Let me give you a quick recap of the last few weeks:

…my little Roman courtyard…

I wake up in my 2-room Roman suite, and, after getting ready in the morning – the details of which need not be rehashed – I walk through my little Roman courtyard, to a little 17th-Century chapel covering from top to bottom with stunning marble – a chapel in which, by the way, Pope Pius VII celebrated Mass for the Dominican sisters who originally lived in the property, when he lived just down the street. The server was, of course, a young boy named Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, whom we know as Pius IX.  After Mass and holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament (not always necessarily in that order), I proceed to breakfast in a refectory (Catholic word for “cafeteria” in a religious house).

This morning routine may or may not be proceeded by a morning run which, depending on the day, may take me past the Colosseum, through an ancient Roman villa of one of the city’s prominent families, in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, or out past the ancient walls of the city to a church believed to be a site where our Lord appeared to St. Peter and encouraged him to endure persecution and eventually death by crucifixion.

Our little 17th-Century Chapel

Following breakfast, I either read a bit of St. Thomas Aquinas…or other philosophers (but really, are there any others?), or I head off to class at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas “in Urbe” (in the City), also known as the Angelicum.  Sometimes my courses are held in the same lecture hall where St. John Paul II defended his doctoral thesis on the doctrine of faith in St. John of the Cross. After classes, I walk back home to the Casa Santa Maria where lunch and/or dinner is held. After perhaps some reading and/or socializing with other priests, I head off to bed only to start the same routine over again day after day after day after day after day after (okay, you get the idea).

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself: “Is he complaining about the fact that he lives in one of the top travel destinations, not only in the secular world, but, more importantly, in the religious world?” The direct answer is: “No.”  While, however, (I hope) a very limited number of people really (there are plenty who, tongue-in-cheek have suggested this might be a vacation) think this is just a 3-year vacation, this place, too, can easily become as ordinary as any other “home” in the world.

I think we can all easily fall into the following trap: if I were just in a cooler place (ie. any place but where I am), life would be better/more exciting/more interesting. I will admit, however, that the routine of the crowds, the smog, and the motorini can become surprisingly monotonous, even in this seemingly-always-exciting location. This begs the question of “monotony.” Our natural (I might argue it’s a conditioned) response to this monotony is to seek “freedom.”  In fact, I just saw a commercial while watching a college football game the other day that seemed to imply this division between monotony and freedom; the idea is that true freedom is achieved precisely by escaping the monotony of my daily routine. This problem is wider than just one company, but this video seemed to concretize what is lying just under the surface of our culture: if I can just escape the monotony, I will be free!

I would argue – with the weight of Catholic teaching behind me – that the opposite of monotony is not, in fact, freedom; off the cuff, I’m not exactly sure what I’d say the opposite of monotony would be (maybe a life of constant change, chaos, continual lack of order and routine), but I’m not really interested in that right now. The Church, time and time again, has re-iterated that freedom is not merely the ability to escape monotony so as to do whatever one wishes; this would, more accurately, be a secular or modernist notion of freedom.  The Church distinguishes “freedom from” from “freedom for.”  To quickly explain the two, “freedom from” is what has been briefly discussed above, namely, the ability to be able to do whatever I want; the Church would call this “license” rather than “freedom.” True freedom, on the other hand, is “freedom for” the purpose of choosing the good.  Going back to the source of freedom, God gave Adam and Eve freedom for the purpose of freely choosing to love and serve Him through their every personal choice; this is the authentic notion of freedom.

Contrary to the modern/secular notion of “freedom”, the Church would see this “monotony” in which every Christian finds him or herself as events through which (not: outside of which) one can authentically exercise freedom. I don’t have to wake up when my alarm goes off; I don’t have to pray or celebrate Mass everyday; I don’t have to go for a run everyday; I don’t even have to go to class everyday; I don’t have to eat everyday (…as long as I’m willing to accept the consequences that come from my own choices!). Rather, my true freedom lies precisely in having a choice: to wake up or lie in bed, to pray or not, to go to class or travel Europe, etc. I make a choice for the good precisely by the daily choices I make, as expressed above. Thus, the routine of my daily life provides the opportunity for me to express my freedom (to make a choice for the good); I see in each of these choices a way for me to pursue the true good (ie. the good of living life, of fostering a relationship with God, of growing in knowledge, of doing what is asked of me, of fulfilling my promise to serve God’s People, etc.)

In the end, monotony and freedom are NOT opposites; in fact, our daily “monotony” is the environment in which we can exercise our God-given freedom, and given our nature as weak, yet, habitual creatures, we need to do the same thing over and over and over and over again so that we will get good at it, so good that it becomes almost automatic (ie. second nature). Thus, our choices exercised in freedom become good habits (ie. virtues), which the Church describes in terms of faith, hope, and charity, and prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. That being said, habits are by no means a bad thing; rather they are a certain perfection of our goodness that helps us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt5:48).

IMG_3035This seeking to choose the good over and over and over again (which, on the surface, may be monotonous), which shapes who we become, is not meant to develop into a boring routine. Rather, for the one who seeks this authentic exercise of freedom, it is done so in the context of a relationship with the Giver of that freedom, such that we use our freedom to seek not just the good (which may seem so boring and dry), but the Good One, Who is also the Giver of our freedom.  When we do that, we are truly pursuing the One Who, for the most part, works through the ordinary circumstances of life, and Who, even in the ordinary circumstances of life, creates a certain spontaneity. We exercise our freedom for the good, choosing to serve God daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, and God uses that openness on our part to direct us, normally through ordinary events, but sometimes, through unexpected means. Thus, exercising our freedom in the ordinary events of life is not meant to drive us into a rut and routine, but rather to help us find a regular way of following God’s wise will in our lives and to give God the freedom to work with that routine (and sometimes outside it) to direct us to Himself as the One Final True Good, Who alone satisfies (St. Teresa of Avila).

I leave you (after this rather long post) with a quote from Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ, Russian prisoner-of-war for 23 years during WWII and the Cold War Era:

Our lives externally are little different from the lives of those around us; what makes the difference, what must make the difference, is the faith that inspires all our decisions and choices and actions. Without faith, our lives are just so many empty and boring routines, hollow at the core, as day succeeds day with little sense of meaning or feeling or accomplishment. With faith, however, even the most boring and routine action of every day has merit and significance for us – and for the kingdom of God. – Fr. Walter Ciszek, He Leadeth Me, 200.


One thought on “Monotony and Freedom

  1. Deb Murman

    Just so happens Father Rolling, I am reading Father Cizsek’s book…He Leadeth Me….and I am so grateful for my Freedom….5 years of interrogation….but what treasures he has in the book to share about faith and hope and charity! AMEN!
    Beautiful writing on Freedom and Monotony…so true for us to stay the course! I have always told our children growing up that…real freedom is the ability to CHOOSE to DO whats RIGHT!
    Have a Holy Advent, Father!


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