Thursday, July 31, 2008

Self-control

The second condition of freedom, then, is self-control. Self-control is just a more palatable way of saying mortification. Mortification is a bad word because we associate it with extreme practices, like self-flagellation, etc. This is not what Giussani is suggesting, however. Mortification is penitence and penitence is metanoia. Metanoia is the word our Lord uses when he proclaims, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3,2). The first word of that sentence in the original Greek is metanoia, which means to turn around, or change direction. This is Jesus' invitation to us to turn and follow him.

In the context of freedom it means going with what truly corresponds to your heart (i.e., that which leads you closer to your destiny) instead of going where you might temporarily want to go, being attracted by what turns your head and/or changes your path away from destiny. Denying what you want in such instances and turning back toward destiny is mortification, dying to self. Here Giussani introduces the example of the doctor who becomes a friar and goes to Tanzania to serve and then meets a blond to whom he is attracted, after taking final final vows, designated T and b respectively. T is the choice made in freedom, the response to what corresponds to the friar's heart, that vocation, that way of life, that authentic mode of existence that will lead him to destiny. So, even when T does not seem as attractive as b, it is the former that leads to destiny (Is It Possible to Live This Way? pgs. 68-9).


Hence, "you govern yourself according to the destiny you are aware of. This always implies a tearing away, a wound. In Christian terms it's called penitence or mortification. Mortification means that it seems like a death, like a renunciation, but it isn't! Because if someone chooses this T, he then sees this b in another light, he does not lose it" (pg. 73). He can still love b, but with a self-denying love that is "true and eternal" (ibid). Mortification is a death. It is a dying to self, which is necessary to realize destiny. One of the most beautiful things about the movie Nacho Libre is that, in the end, Ignacio, the friar, and Sr. Encarnacíon, despite their attraction to each other, do not break their vows and run away together, but stay at the orphanage and continue to be true to their religious vows and their service to the orphans, which is their path to destiny.

We do not reach our destiny by seeking to satisfy every desire of which we become aware, but of realizing what we truly desire, that it is infinite, bigger than the world. Therefore, the things of the world, while good or, at least neutral, have to be approached from the perspective of awareness of your destiny and, even when they exert great pull, tugging you against destiny, self-control, which amounts to mortification, is what is needed. Hence, self-denial is a necessary component of the spiritual life. When we fast we exert self-control, when we abstain, the same. When we decide to deny ourselves something we like, something that it is not wrong for us to have, for a time, it is self-control. Then, when we are faced with a desire that threatens us, we are better equipped to deal with it.

It is not possible to live this way in isolation, that is, by yourself. "The companionship's most external and evident value - most clearly evident - is that it calls you back to the religious sense, to destiny" (ibid). Indeed, as the Prince of Morrocco found out in his encounter with the golden casket in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, when, instead of seeing the face of the lovely Portia, he sees death, with this message written in his hollow eye:
"All that glisters is not gold;/Often have you heard that told./Many a man his life hath sold/But my outside to behold./Gilded tombs do worms enfold" (Act II, scene vii).
We have "an enormous wound", original sin. "So the community tells you not to be scandalized by temptation and not to be scandalized even at the mistakes you make, but to indomitably take up the path again" (pg. 75).

Freedom is not perfectly expressed in choosing, by having freedom of choice. We have freedom of choice because freedom is imperfect. This imperfection is easily demonstrated: "Error, the possibility of error, pertains to freedom that still isn't free, that still isn't freedom, that hasn't reached total satisfaction" (pg. 70). Jumping off the thought train, this is why learning to judge in light of the fact of the encounter, which is an event, is so crucial. Again, making correct judgments consistently can only be done when living in the awareness of destiny and not putting yourself, that is, your fleeting desires, first. This is why the fifth and final passage of faith is your responsibility to act. Freedom is necessary in order to act.

It is not because, in some Orwellian twist, freedom is a dictator that it is not perfectly realized by having choices. It is because perfect freedom seeks what corresponds to the heart, it seeks what satisfies all our desires. When you find satisfaction, that is, perfect happiness, choice is no longer necessary. To wit: what else would you choose?

2 comments:

  1. I'm catching up with your posts and was pleased to see the mention of Nacho Libre. Sr. Encarnacion kept her vows, but Nacho looks to have shed his vows with his habit. Yes, he still takes care of the kids, but I believe he has left the monastic life.

    By the way... I was a bit startled by the harshness of the USCCB review until I happened to catch The Nun's Story on PBS - and realized that the reviewer was irked to see the same themes treated so differently in Nacho Libre...

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  2. I don't remember Ignacio making any expressed or implied decision to leave religious life. Perhaps I should watch it again.

    You know, I am not sure that I have ever read a USCCB review for any film. I dislike judging films, music, books, from a preconceived perspective.

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