Freedom of Spirit: A Hecker Reflection
This is the eighth in a series of previously unpublished reflections from the 1854 spiritual notebook of Paulist Founder, Servant of God Father Isaac T. Hecker. The reflection series is being made public in conjunction with Father Hecker's cause for canonization. Following the reflection is a response from Father Tom Gibbons, CSP.
Freedom of Spirit
“We should be free in all our devotions and in all our actions, so that we are ready at all times to quit when obedience or charity calls us elsewhere.” Louis Lallemant. (1587-1635) French Jesuit authority on the spiritual life.
The bishops and doctors assembled in council on occasion of the famous Simon Stylites (Syrian ascetic saint, 390-459), when they ordered him to come down from his column and to renounce this kind of life so new and striking; and instantly and without a murmur of delay or reply, this holy man got ready to descend. They could not but think that so great a docility, obedience so humble and full of simplicity, could come from nowhere else except the Holy Spirit and concluded that the rest was inspired by God and they allowed him to act with freedom.
We must seek and possess interior freedom at any price; this is the first condition of all success in the spiritual life. For without interior freedom there can be no fidelity to the invitations of divine grace. It would be better to lose all else than this liberty of spirit; for this liberty is of God. As Paul writes in Romans (8:15): “For you have not received a spirit that makes you a slave to fear again, but you have received the spirit of sonship whereby we cry Abba Father.”
It is the will of God that we should leave undone what we cannot do without trouble. There is a point in the spiritual life when God does most for us when we do the least for ourselves. There are two shoals against which we may make spiritual shipwreck: self-activity and idleness. Liberty of spirit will guide us safely between these to our goal. If the general conduct of one has been such as to make him approach nearer to God, we may be assured that the good spirit is guiding him. Let us not vex it by any interference; it will perfect its own work.
All that the soul in that case can ask, and what ought surely to be granted, is to follow faithfully the invitations of grace and the impulses of God’s spirit. And if the soul is guided by the Holy Spirit, it would not do the least thing contrary to faith or the church; for we are taught inwardly by the Holy Spirit, and outwardly by the holy church, in the same grace.
A Response by Father Tom Gibbons, CSP
“For we are taught inwardly by the Holy Spirit, and outwardly by the holy church, in the same grace.”
One of the values that Americans tend to celebrate is the power of the individual over the larger collective; it’s in our DNA as a nation. From the earliest days of the United States, stories of the individual rising above the odds – often defying the conventional wisdom of the masses – have captured our imagination. In the process, these stories have solidified the respect most of us hold for the voice of the divine within the individual.
Few have better articulated this aspect of our national character than Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his now-famous 1841 work Self-Reliance, Emerson proclaimed, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so.” Given that the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, spent a significant amount of time with Emerson personally while he was discerning to what life God was calling him, it’s not surprising that a celebration of the Holy Spirit working within the individual became a central part of Hecker’s spirituality and that of the community he founded.
But Emerson also writes in Self-Reliance that while his own impulses do not seem to be from the Devil, “if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” This is where Hecker takes a few steps back. While Emerson respects the divinity of the voice coming from within the individual, Hecker also sees the importance of listening to the voice of the Spirit within the collective. At the end of the day, what is important for Hecker is that the voice that is being articulated is actually coming from the Spirit; he does not care if it comes from within the individual or the collective.
Which leaves us with a challenge today as American Catholics (or Catholic Americans, which ever word you want to make the subject or the adjective). As children of Emerson, Americans tend to champion the individual at the expense of the collective. Yet the history of the Catholic Church has frequently focused on upholding the voice of the collective over and above the individual. By looking past such dichotomies, Hecker reminds us all to simply be attentive to the voice of God … no matter from where that voice comes.
Father Tom Gibbons, CSP, begins his first assignment as a newly ordained priest at Saint Peter’s Parish in Toronto, Canada.
About Father Isaac Hecker’s 1854 Spiritual Notebook:
Servant of God, Father Isaac Hecker wrote these spiritual notes as a young Redemptorist priest about 1854 and they have never been published. Father Hecker was 34 years old at the time, and had been ordained a priest for five years. He loved his work as a Catholic evangelist. The Redemptorist mission band had expanded out of the New York state area to the south and west, and the band’s national reputation grew. Hecker had begun to focus his attention on Protestants who came out to hear them. To this purpose Father Hecker began to write in 1854 his invitation to Protestant America to consider the Catholic Church, “Questions of the Soul” which would make him a national figure in the American church.
Father Hecker collected and organized these notes that include writings and stories from St. Alphonsus Liguori, the Jesuit spiritual writer Louis Lallemant and his disciple Jean Surin, the German mystic John Tauler, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Jane de Chantal among others. These notes were a resource for retreat work and spiritual direction and show Father Hecker’s growing proficiency in traditional Catholic spirituality some ten years after his conversion to the Catholic faith. They are composed of short thematic reflections.
Publishing and disseminating the writing of Servant of God Father Isaac Hecker is the work of the Office for Father Hecker’s Cause.