WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a frigid night on K Street, amidst law offices and lobbying shops, just a stone’s throw from the White House itself. It was a packed house, literally standing room only. Were the crowd not a continually cooperative group, willing to push in, people would have run out the door. The assembled throng wasn’t there for a fundraiser or meet-and-greet with the hot politician of the hour. It was there to hear about freedom.
On this night, the topic was not freedom of speech or freedom of religion — two topics much in debate in the Capitol and in the public square at present — but “interior freedom.” The speaker was a French Dominican priest who wasn’t even speaking English. In the last days of the Christmas season, the people gathered at the Catholic Information Center were happy to wait for the nun translating the priest’s words.
The mostly young audience was largely familiar with the speaker, Fr. Jacques Philippe, from his many books on spiritual life, of which “Interior Freedom” is one. “Searching for and Maintaining Peace” is another; both are the work of a lifetime.
Among Fr. Philippe’s most fundamental points is: Don’t go through life expecting from others what only God can give. Such things as security, happiness, even love. By which he means what everyone who’s been to an AA meeting knows: It’s a faith and hope in something beyond everyday human concerns that sustain us and inspire us to help and love others.
Not everyone on K Street is going to buy into this. But at least one young man walked into the event impressed by the scene. “I need to be a part of this,” he said as he entered. Just as a representative democracy needs to be about letting the Little Sisters do what they do as they need to do it. We need that virtue and that service.
“Authentic freedom is a freedom for excellence, not a freedom of indifference,” Ryan T. Anderson, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, one of the young leaders present for Fr. Philippe’s talk, said afterward. “It’s about understanding your talents and discovering what God has asked you to do in life, and then doing your best in living that out. You accept the difficulties that will come along the way and accept your own limitations, but nevertheless put yourself at the service of your community and fulfilling your vocation.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, under heavy fire after revelations that his aides purposely created a traffic nightmare on the George Washington Bridge as an act of political payback, knows a thing or two about limitations and difficulties.
“You can’t prevent everything,” he said in a much-watched press conference recently. But the test of leadership is: When you find it out, what do you do?” That’s life. We mess up. Some mistakes make news, others cost jobs; most hurt someone. What are we doing now to move forward?
“It’s essential to learn how to practice the freedom of acceptance,” Melissa Moschella, an assistant professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America and a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA, says, reflecting on Fr. Philippe’s talk. “That inner freedom of embracing the things that we did not choose and cannot change — to learn how to discern a call to grow in faith, hope and love precisely in and through those circumstances.”
Like a snarl-up on a bridge, the fog of pride can get us stuck. With freedom, we have the power to unmire ourselves. It doesn’t happen quickly, but we’re all in it together. Packed in bookstores, on the GWB, on the job, everywhere, even when we’re alone. Knowing and seeing and practicing this, living the examined life, helps honest, true freedom flourish.