Bound for Freedom

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture
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In a world which so values freedom, the average person may find it odd, incomprehensible even, that a person would root his life in a vow of obedience. Isn’t that precisely the opposite of freedom? Doesn’t such a “binding” of the will necessarily reduce our freedom, our humanity?

I think of this having recently witnessed the solemn vows of two of our brothers, Brs. Ambrose and Dominic David. Afterward, the Master of the Order, Fr. Bruno Cadoré, who received their vows, spoke with all of the student brothers and made the comment that the most important event in the life of a Dominican Friar, even greater than his ordination, is his solemn profession: this is what unites us with the Order and makes our life possible. Thus the mission of the Order of Preachers depends upon this vow, this commitment to the Order and to one another. In order to be most free to contemplate God and share the fruits of this contemplation, a friar must first bind his will to the Order.

But this paradox runs deeper: all freedom, I would propose, depends upon a certain necessity for its very possibility. Freedom requires necessity, a certain binding of the will. St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing the freedom of the will, notes that a certain type of necessity is required for the will: not the necessity of coercion, nor the necessity of material construction or motion, but a necessity of end: “For what befits a thing naturally and immovably must be the root and principle of all else appertaining thereto, since the nature of a thing is the first in everything, and every movement arises from something immovable” (Summa Theologica I.82.1c). And so “necessity of end is not repugnant to the will”, and “natural necessity does not take away the liberty of the will.”

Thus the goal of our lives, of our will, is fixed: we are “wired”, so to speak, for the Universal Good, or Ultimate Happiness: in a word, God. We cannot avoid seeking God in everything we do, even if we fail to realize it, and even when we do so in a disordered way (i.e., sin). Thus, there is a sense in which our will is “bound” to God by its very nature; and it is this “binding” of the will which makes our freedom possible at all. We need to be directed toward something in order to be free. Otherwise, we are mere slaves of arbitrariness and chance. So purpose, a directedness towards the ultimate goal, is what makes freedom possible.

The Dominican vow of obedience, then, is analogous to something we find in nature: a fixed orientation of the human will leading us to God. For the Dominican, we "fix" our will by an incorporation into a community which prays, studies, lives together, and preaches; it is an orientation which arises by binding our will to God, to Mary, St. Dominic, our rule, our constitutions, and our superiors – an orientation by which we, and others, might be more free to reach our true end, Ultimate Happiness, God Himself. Thus, we are bound for freedom.