Freedom and the Acting Person

As classes keep on keeping-on, I've been getting pretty hammered with theological insights and talk about scriptural hermeneutics and exegesis. But, I don't really want to think about those things right now, much less write about them. In fact, perhaps the most meaningful thing I've heard in the last few weeks came in during a day of retreat last weekend when a priest, in addressing the seminary community, reminded us that "the only reason [we] are here is because [we] think that the priesthood is necessary for [our] sanctity." All the theological debate in the world really can't hit you quite as hard as something so basic. And what is so poignant about it? Precisely the fact that I know he's right.

Father's comment strikes me particularly because it reveals two levels in the essential quest of the human person toward his or her finality. Even with all the philosophy, theology, science and history you can muster, the ultimate question that has to be asked is, "Why?" Why am I doing this? Why am I here, committing my life to this or that thing, to a wife and children, to studies, to service to the poor, to prayer, or to self-indulgence, to living the fast-life, to corporate expediency... why? The simple answer to all these is, "Because I think it's what will bring me happiness." Indeed, all of these things do bring us happiness, in some degree or another, and we can't deny that; the human person, by its very nature, desires to be fulfilled and happy. We crave it more than we crave air, since we really only want that because it makes us happy. Realizing that we were created to be happy is the beginning of realizing a lot more. It is certainly the first step toward realizing how to find that happiness; it is the first level of our understanding our true finality.

But, we need to dig a little deeper. "Why am I really doing what I'm doing right now?" While the first "why" was more concerned with the nature of the acting subject, this inquiry pertains more to the nature of the action in question. In other words, it is concerned with the "what" that I'm doing. If it takes a long time to understand the first question, it takes inestimably longer to really comprehend the second. In fact, the two work in great harmony with one another; if you don't understand your own human nature, you can't understand your acting potential as a free individual. Likewise, if you don't understand the effects of free decisions, it's impossible to really grasp what it means to be a 'free person.' If we truly desire happiness as our ultimate goal in life, then it would be logical that we choose individual actions that are consonant with that desire. Obviously, though, we are not always as logical as we might like, and so discerning the value of our actions for our ultimate goal becomes a big part of what we do each day.

Father's statement that I am here because I think priesthood is necessary for my sanctity shows precisely that. By principle of extension, I could also say that you are doing what you're doing because you think it's essential for your happiness. In the end, nothing short of sainthood is demanded of us, for that is exactly what it means to be in heaven: sanctity. Taking some time to consider that there is literally nothing standing in the way of us and holiness at this very moment, we might be able to gain a better perspective on what our true finality really is; it's not something out of reach, but instead a life very rooted in prayer, passion, and hopefully a continuation of the direction we find ourselves moving in at this very moment.

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    # by Anonymous - February 25, 2008 at 5:33 PM

    Bravo! It sounds like your priest is a very wise man as well as a wise priest. It takes discipline to keep your focus on the "what" even when you understand the "why." My prayers and blessings as you plow through your next semester. Sounds like you could use a good snowball fight. Could I send you some of our snow?

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    # by Andrew Haines - February 26, 2008 at 9:02 AM

    I think I'm over the longing for snow... it's about 65 degrees here! Thanks for the offer though.


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    # by Jeffrey Smith - March 5, 2008 at 4:48 AM

    I find it very disturbing. Isn't serving God and His Church supposed to be more important than your personal illusion of holiness? ( When people regard their own holiness as a goal, it always does end up an illusion. ) Is it all about you? Well, unfortunately, my experience tends to support the idea that, for young priests and seminarians today, it IS all about them. No wonder most people regard them as self-centered young louts and fear for the future. Sorry if I've offended you, Your Holiness.

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    # by Andrew Haines - March 5, 2008 at 5:07 AM

    I think what I intended to say in this post has been misunderstood; how can personal holiness and service of the Church at large be different? They are one in the same. Therefore, to be pursuing the priesthood as an avenue of service to the Church seems to be a good thing. Likewise, to be married or single for the service of the Church is a good thing. One cannot disconnect the supernatural end of loving God from his natural end of fulfilling an earthly vocation; sanctity is a combination of both, and an ultimate actualization of the former.

    Perhaps the words I used didn't convey my idea correctly, but saying that "the only reason" seminarians are in seminary was not intended to be an elitist remark; "only" refers to "ultimate": the "ultimate reason we are here" is because we believe that priesthood is necessary for our sanctity... and, the sanctity of the Church and the people of God.

    I apologize for any offense, but hold firm to what I wrote. I hope that my clarification helps you see what I meant.

    Thanks for the comment.