Every Monday, I have a standing appointment at church, one that has only been interrupted over the last decade by jobs that meant I couldn't get there by 17.15 - and it has absolutely nothing to do with holiness. It does, however, have everything to do with crossword puzzles and deep mutual affection.
My friend, John Lynam, has had the Monday afternoon shift on the Oratory Lodge since its inception - or near enough so. It took us a little while to meet, but once we did, those Monday meetings where we do the Telegraph general knowledge crossword (I have the upper hand here) and the cryptic crossword (I'm getting better, but he still has the upper hand here. However, texting Alexander has always been the way forward - he's downright scary good) were almost as set in stone as the Ten Commandments. This has been interspersed with political and religious chat, as well as my reminding John where things are (years after I had to give up the lodge).
It makes Monday one of the best days of the week.
At around 17.45, he shuts up shop and we scoot into church for the evening mass, which ends with the veneration of St Philip's relic at about 18.35 or so. Occasionally a sermon, usually not, either way it entails discussion such as...
'Fr Richard finished mass in 18 minutes - caught most of the community flat-footed there. I didn't think it was possible!'
Today, we waxed lyrical over the rarely heard EP4 (only Fr JB ever does it, and even he, rarely) and talked about the sermon, which was about Exodus.
The reading was the complaining of the Israelites:
And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.
So: it would be better we had died enslaved and certain of what our life was, than to die free, uncertain and responsible for our choices.
The preacher focused on sin, which was understandable - but I think this passage goes far deeper than that; it goes to the core of one of our deepest struggles.
This passage was very synchronous for me. I have recently been reading Stephen Cope's Wisdom of Yoga, Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart, and most recently, Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart and The Places that Scare You.
Every one of them speaks of understanding uncertainty and groundlessness as part of the path to freedom - that certainty is what we chase to avoid reality - the reality that everything changes and is impermanent, that nothing is certain. I am healthy today, but I could be dead of an aneurysm tomorrow. My world is stable and appears unchanging at the moment, but everything could shift in the blink of an eye. I see myself in a certain way, but even THAT isn't the truth - there are so many parts of me that are hidden and unexplored. One thing I realised yesterday is that the distance I've experienced in intimate relationships mirrors the distance I keep from myself - my whole self.
Freedom is about truth. Freedom is about intimacy - first and foremost with ourselves, and then with others. And freedom is about the certainty of uncertainty - and the adult responsibility of navigating it.
We think our feelings about freedom should be unmitigatedly positive, so we push away any suggestion of fear, struggle, or doubt when it comes to freedom. Of COURSE we want to be free - we wave freedom like a banner. But do we truly understand what it means? Every country that claims freedom is a slave to something: fear, addiction, competition, materialism, being powerful - the list goes on and on.
No, freedom means meeting every situation as it is in the moment, with full awareness, and with our full self (not our limited image of who we are) at our disposal - knowing that even as we make choices, they may not turn out as we planned. People may not stay - they die, they leave, relationships change. Things disappear - and so we must treasure what we do have, even as we do not depend on it for our happiness/joy - even as its presence may bring us great joy. Nor do we use it as a barrier to what scares us or to the truth.
You see, the dirty little secret is that certainty and safety makes us feel better - even as it enslaves us. To quote Kahlil Gibran:
...have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?
Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.
Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.
It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh.
It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels.
Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.
So we grasp and we cling - not because we truly love, but just so that we know for sure, so that we have comfort.
Letting go of certainty doesn't mean we change relationships or our ideas as often as we change our clothes, mistakenly believing that we are being fluid or loving ourselves: staying with what is real, forming a relationship with it and being able to meet uncertainty requires steadfastness, not yet another form of running away.
And so, this inability to admit our mixed feelings about freedom leads us to roll our eyes at the Israelites, perhaps even condemn them, as they complain to Moses and even suggest that they were better off in the land of Egypt. But perhaps we condemn them as vociferously as we do because we know it is our truth - that we would rather go back to the addictions that keep us from true freedom - money, work, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy emotional patterns, drink, drugs, extreme forms of religion or anything that offers us escape or absolute certainty.
Perhaps if we could find compassion for the Israelites, we could find it for ourselves, and begin the long, slow walk to freedom.
In one of my favourite books, My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Remen, the young Rachel and her grandfather have the following conversation:
"Are they [the Israelites] very happy [about escaping], Grandpa?"
"No, Neshumeleh, they are not. They told Moses they did not want to go. They asked many questions. Where are we going? Who will feed us? Where will we sleep? Moses was deeply surprised. He could not answer any of these questions and he did not know what to do. How could he tell G-d that after all He had done to make freedom possible, they did not want to go?"
"But they were suffering, Grandpa. Why didn't they want to go?"
"They knew how to suffer," he told me. "They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free."
And this is the crux of the human condition, isn't it? We know our stories, we know our suffering, we know our wounds. We know how to survive. What we don't know how to do is how to live. But this little box is comfortable enough, right? I'm doing just fine. Who knows what will happen if I leave it?
But a gilded cage is still a cage.
So how do we move towards freedom, take that first wingbeat out of our cage into the exhilaratingly, yet frighteningly, open and infinite skies? As Rachel's grandfather reminds us, "...the choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown."
And the unknown is bloody scary. It's enough to make you slam that gilded cage door, peck birdseed and flap the odd half-wingbeat every once in a while for the rest of your life.
But again, the rebbe offers us hope if we dare to leave that door open and just flap those completely unfurled wings once, when Rachel asks, "Why does G-d come himself, Grandpa?"
"Ah, Neshumeleh, many people have puzzled over this question and have thought many different things. What I think is that the struggle toward freedom is too important for G-d to leave to others. And this is so because only the people who become free can serve G-d's holy purposes and restore the world. Only those who are not enslaved by something else can follow the goodness in them."
Freedom isn't a turning away. It is a turning toward, as any true vocation should be - a turning toward truth, integrity and love, and a continued acting from it. We may be in the wilderness for a long time; perhaps we will die in sight of the Promised Land, not quite reaching it - but through our continued acting from truth, perhaps we have helped others reach theirs.
Frightening? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. Uncertain? To be sure.
But if we stand in that cage door and make that first wingbeat into open sky, we know this: in our move toward freedom, none other than G-d Himself will lead us.
Knowing that, perhaps we can find the courage to begin the journey, for...
...there are many paths to tread,
through shadows to the edge of night
Until the stars are all alight.