Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
In his book, The Foundations of Freedom, philosopher John Macmurray reflected on human nature and our passion for freedom.
He recalls first that the human being has no instincts. We learn by trial and error and, more importantly, by teaching one another. A mother teaches her baby to suckle; she learned breast feeding from her mother. Success encourages the development of habits which soon become "second nature." Some people might call these habitual reactions instinctive but that's a misnomer; they are habits intentionally chosen and developed. Because we are free we can intentionally change or abandon these habits, and they often erode with neglect.
The human being shuns slavery. Animals don't seem to mind it. Many willingly become pets to human beings. Many others, fed, sheltered and protected seem comfortable in their enclosures.
But human beings want to be free. Coerced into doing what we do not freely choose we generally make a mess of it. The job is half-done, if at all. It will certainly lack that finality that willing workers add to their projects; and without that finality, that "spiritual dimension," the finished project may be substandard. As the old saw goes, "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost."
But freedom, the philosopher reminds us, is terrifying. Charged with making one's own decision and acting on one's own, the individual often chooses to go along with the crowd. We can never be certain of our decisions. We never have all the information; we cannot foresee all the consequences; our hunches are often wrong; our insights inadequate. Retreating into conformity, we tell ourselves, "There's safety in numbers."
Freedom, of course, is measured by two standards. First, is it possible? We might fantasize about things we could do if they were possible but it's absurd to complain that I can't travel to the moon and be back in time for lunch.
More importantly, freedom is measured by one's desires. If I don't want it I won't complain that I can't have it. A misanthrope might complain about not having something he doesn't want but he'd only look like a fool to everyone else. If you want something but not very much, and cannot have it, there's not much lost to that.
But everyone chafes under the limits of our freedom; we want more than we can have and we often ask, "How can I have more freedom?" First by having more power. If I have more money, strength or influence I can get more of what I want.
But if I want less, it's that much easier to get what I want. If I had only a million dollars I could complain that I can't buy a multi-million dollar yacht; but with a lot less money I can buy a perfectly adequate canoe. Who is more free the impoverished millionaire or the satisfied pauper?
Saint Clare and her sisters, under the tutelage of Saint Francis of Assisi, chose the lesser road. Raised in comfort, educated in wealth, she chose to follow the Poor Man from Galilee. Enabled by her family's stature to travel throughout the world, she chose the confines of a small convent below Assisi. She entered that enclosure as a young woman and never left it, even when a Saracen army threatened to storm the convent and violate the women. She relied on God's protection. When powerful prelates and nobles became fascinated by her wisdom and holiness, she would not leave the convent; they had to come to her.
No matter who we are, regardless of our birth, wealth or training, everyone of us chafe under the limits of our freedom. No one is permitted to do everything he or she wants to do. "They won't let me." we might complain. Or, "They won't help me."
The Crucified Lord taught Francis and Clare the true path of freedom. For the Love of God they disciplined every desire and followed the high road of obedience. It seemed at times that God could not ask enough of them; they were so eager. In fact wiser heads sometimes prevailed on both of them to "ease up on the discipline." Clare was told to eat more. Francis was put under obedience to wear a habit as he lay dying on the bare ground. (There were women present!)
Christians know this form of discipleship and the Saints remind us of it. The easier route to freedom -- call it "salvation" if you like -- is the Way of the Cross.