Letting God: The Annunciation & Freedom

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A friend of mine once told me: “You are never freer than when you are doing God’s will, and never less free than when you are doing your own.” There you have the Annunciation. “Let it be done to me according to thy word,” is the sober declaration of one who sees that the Divine will is everything. The Blessed Virgin had no illusions about the false freedom of self-will.

We often do.

Our Lady’s response at the Annunciation is so refreshingly simple as to make us examine our sometimes complicated and ambiguous replies to the Lord. Bottom line: we want to know exactly where God is taking us at each step, and if we can’t see, we stop in our tracks. Blessed John Henry Newman prays in a famous lyric: “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me.” And we understand the need to pray like that.

Most of the time our hesitancy has nothing to do with the extraordinary. We are not called like Abraham to leave behind both kin and country, nor to quit boats and nets like the Apostles. Instead, the Lord mostly asks us to stay in the same place with familiar people, doing the same kind of work, for most of our lives. This is exactly where our response to the Lord is challenged, our ideas about freedom purified, and our peace of soul tested.

Why do I seek God’s will in the first place? Time will prove our motivations. What is personal freedom all about? Commitments and routine will challenge you to locate freedom more internally than externally. And can I be at peace with the life that God has, in fact, arranged for me? However I ended up where I am, can I see Divine fingerprints all over the events of my life?

It would be naive to ignore the suffering and discouragement, the sadness and loneliness that meet us relentlessly as we go through life. But our faith has taught us with absolute certainty to see that life’s disagreeable side is not due to blind fate, that the destiny of the creature is not to rid himself of his desires for happiness. Faith teaches us that everything around and in us is impregnated with divine purpose, that all things echo the call beckoning us to the house of our Father. [1]

In consenting to God’s will for our lives we find the freedom and peace to navigate within the confines of our situation. Most people, at some point, begin to chafe against the limits of their lives. Handled badly, a rebellion can produce broken marriages and families, or other bad decisions with sad and lasting consequences.

If things get really dire, people who feel trapped may feel melancholy enough to pray like Jonah: “O LORD, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3). When we see no options, when all of our human solutions appear exhausted, and each day seems to bring the same disappointments—it’s tempting to wish it all away or to long for escape. Even people who have faith and pray daily can find themselves sinking into this rut.

Apply this to the human race as a whole and you begin to see what Jesus Christ came to save all of us from. What it means for the Light to shine in the darkness comes home when your own heart is tested by futility and discouragement.

You also see why His coming hinged upon the free assent of the Blessed Virgin to God’s plan of salvation. Because sometimes there is a way out that only God can see, and unless we give a blindfolded “yes” in trust, we will never find it. “How can this be?” was our Lady’s legitimate question, wondering how virginity and motherhood could be reconciled. God had a way. And His ways are not our ways, but He has a way for us too.

St Josemaria was fond of reciting a verse from the ancient Marian hymn Ave Maris Stella, which asks our Lady to “prepare a safe way” (para iter tutum) for her children. When creeping through a dark valley, that short prayer is like candlelight showing us the next small step to take—the only kind of step of which children are capable. The freedom of God’s children doesn’t entitle us to a roadmap, or a detailed calendar of coming events. Instead, our freedom guarantees full access to the Lord who shows His ways to those who seek Him.

This is why our Lady’s “fiat” gains for us the courage not only to seek the Lord but to trust Him. She was given no clear itinerary for the months and years following the Annunciation, as the Gospels make plain. At times God chose to reveal His will to Mary and Joseph ‘at the last minute’ through a dream, or to set them on course to Bethlehem by a census-taking decree from Caesar. Few would budge on such short notice unless they deeply trusted the One whose providence governs all things, even dreams and decrees.

Giving ourselves to God in trust, we discover that we don’t have to feel trapped, much less victimized, by life. He doesn’t simply enable us to take things as they are, and leave it at that. He sets us free to grow in those very circumstances that had oppressed us. Frustrations and stress might still be present, but we find light to see our way through them—at least to accept the things we cannot change with peace.

St Josemaria wisely counters objections to this Christian optimism. Doesn’t it go too far?

We could think perhaps that this optimism is excessive. Are we not well acquainted with our shortcomings and failures? We are no strangers to suffering, tiredness, ingratitude, even hate. If we Christians are made of the same stuff as other men, how can we shake off the retinue of misery that constantly accompanies our human nature? [2]

These are good questions. It’s one thing to accept the idea of trust, of finding freedom in accepting all things from God’s hand, but it’s a very different thing to trust and follow day-in and day-out. St Josemaria answers as frankly as he posed the questions:

This supernatural understanding of earthly existence does not oversimplify the complexity of human life. Rather, it assures us that this complexity can be shot through with the love of God, that beyond the disagreeable surface can be discovered the strong and indestructible link that binds our life on earth with our definitive life in heaven. [3]

We can’t give ourselves the type of freedom that can love “beyond the disagreeable surface” of earthly life. It is God’s gift. Like the Incarnation itself, like our Lady’s fiat, it is the unlooked-for gift of God that makes a way where before there was none. And along this way we can run, for “You give freedom to my heart” (Ps 119:32).


FOOTNOTES

[1] St Josemaria Escriva: “The Blessed Virgin, Cause of our Joy,” from Christ is Passing By, no. 177.
[2] Christ is Passing By, no. 177.
[3] Christ is Passing By, no. 177.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he teaches English at St Michael’s Preparatory School, the boarding school operated by the Norbertine Fathers. He also preaches retreats, is chaplain to the cloistered Norbertine Nuns in Tehachapi, California, and serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California (Our Lady of Nareg Eparchy). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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