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Freedom and
the Law

by Fr. Ambrose Criste, O.Praem.


You were once alienated and hostile in mind … God has now reconciled you in the fleshly body of Christ through His death – Saint Paul to the Colossians

In the days after the postulants arrive at the abbey each year, we spend a lot of time with rules and regulations: the Rule of Our Holy Father St. Augustine and the Seminarian Rule of Life that concretizes it, the customs and culture of this monastery, and all the details of this strange and holy—and in a way unnatural because supernatural—life that we strive to live here. I must confess that the more I go through this orientation process with postulants year after year, the more acutely I experience a kind of wonder in my heart at the mystery of freedom and the law. We can frame the mystery in different ways: authority and freedom, the law and grace, the law that binds versus the law of love, and so forth.

It’s a mystery that our Lord obviously wants us to confront because it shows up in the Gospels very often. The Pharisees challenge Our Lord for failing—or so they think—to keep the rules: “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Once again He shows them the higher and freer way: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

When we apply these lessons of freedom in our own Christian lives, I don’t think we can simply write off all rules as Pharisaical laws that bind. That would be too simple, and more than a little naive. Nor can we simply discount the higher law of charity as some pie in the sky ideal that can never actually come to life in a monastery like ours. That would be tantamount to saying that our life of professed love of God and neighbor is just a pipe dream.

In these scenes of confrontation between the Pharisaical love of law and the Evangelical law of love, I think Christ is turning His head out of the frame of that scene and looking directly at me, looking directly at you, and He’s asking us, “How are you still alienated? Where are you still hostile in your mind because of your past life of sin?”

You see, our alienation and our hostility—the kind that we still have here in our hearts where it’s hard for us to see because it’s hard for us to look right there—that alienation can show up in a couple of different ways. It can look like an antinomian, rule-hating, libertine immaturity that is really nothing more than wanting to live my life my way, where I am the law and the lawgiver. It can also look like another, equally sad extreme: the rigid, cold, policeman religious who never breaks the rule, or at least would never let his brother see him break the rule, because he hates the idea of ever being seen to break the rule. (That man doesn’t really love the rule at all.)

These are two very different extremes, but both are alienation: alienation from myself and alienation from God, and so also alienation from my fellow Christians and from my confreres.

But you see, when our Lord turns His beautiful face out of that picture frame and asks us, “How are you alienated? Where are you still hostile in your mind and in need of reconciliation?”—when He does that, He is at the same time showing us the very instrument of our healing. The One who asks us the question is Himself the answer. What does Saint Paul say? “God has now reconciled you in the fleshly Body of Christ through His death, to present you holy, without blemish, and irreproachable before Him, provided that you persevere in faith… not shifting from the hope of the Gospel that you heard.”

That very same fleshly Body of Christ, the very one that comes down upon the altar, that Body found a home in the immaculate womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the one who teaches us what it looks like to reconcile a life in observance of a rule with a life in the service of love, love of God and love of neighbor. For when the archangel Gabriel came to visit her with that unsurpassed invitation to be taken up into the Mystery, there she was about the ordinary tasks of fidelity to her daily duty. The mystics tell us she was reading the Sacred Scriptures, and spinning at her spindle. She was living a life in obedience to a simple domestic rule, and yet supremely free to lay aside those tasks so as to listen, and to answer, and to love.

As we honor her today, and as that very same fleshly Body of her Divine Son comes to visit us from this holy altar, may she teach us how to love, how to be lovers of spiritual beauty and lovers of our Holy Rule and way of life, how to be free to love God and our neighbor when the Holy Spirit knocks on the door of our heart with a radical and unexpected invitation. May she teach us to respond as she did, as humble servants and handmaids of the Lord: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.”

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