Photo credit: Grandma Dianne
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Today at least, these lines of Donne’s are profoundly countercultural. Our idea of freedom is to be ourselves; and quite rightly. But our idea of being ourselves is to eat, drink, play, live, and love however we want, no matter what anyone else or any of their rules tell us to do. We are to follow our hearts, which, too often, turns out to mean whatever impulse we are under at the moment. We are, in short, free to enslave ourselves however we want. But while wrong freedom means bondage, the right bondage means freedom.
To illustrate this, I want to tell you about a wonderfully freeing way to enjoy yourself: start by getting in the car and driving for an hour or two. You will be stiff by the time you arrive at a cold, possibly windy, place. Put on thick winter clothes which make it hard to move. Then cram your feet into a pair of plastic shells which are carefully designed so that you cannot move your ankles while wearing them. Now walk a few hundred yards, carrying a pair of poles and two heavy boards, narrow but about your height, with awkward bumps of hardware on them. Clip your feet into the boards and grasp the poles. Now unable to walk, use the poles to push yourself to where a chair scoops you up from behind and lifts you away. This part of the expedition won’t be too bad, though you may appreciate the view less if there’s a cold wind numbing your face. The chair will deposit you at the top of a hill. Slide yourself away from it and to the edge of the hill. From here, it’s a smooth, hard, white slope of snow back to where you started. Just drop yourself off the side of the hill and slide down it on your two boards. Try not to fall down.
‘Well,’ you say, ‘that sounds like an exceptionally good way of not being free and not enjoying myself! “Drop yourself off the edge of the hill,” indeed! How am I to move when I’ve got these boards strapped to my feet? And how can I use my feet when they’re embalmed in such boots?’
To which I answer that you cannot have the enjoyment of skiing without the bondage of skiiing. It is only when you have embalmed your own feet and made walking impossible that you can have the freedom and movement of creaming down a hill, the view beautiful around you and the snow crisp under you. Only after you have put yourself into thrallment—and fallen down quite a few times—will you have freedom.
Probably, few people would complain about how enslaving it is to ski properly. We understand that the structure, even the restrictions, of the sport are neccessary—that we can’t be ourselves as skiers until we have subjected ourselves obediently to the mandates of others. Yet as it is with the physical, so it is with the spiritual. We cannot be free to love truly without being bound rightly.
Humans are made to love in certain ways: it will not do to put your gloves on your feet and your boots on your hands. You may certainly proclaim that you have reached a milestone in free skiing, but you won’t go down the hill very well. Similarly, we were designed for union between man and woman. As G. K. Chesterton says,
If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.Orthodoxy
Marriage is this way too; and, further, marriage is meaningless unless it is “until death do us part.” If it is not, marriage is simply a declaration that two people will refrain from living with any other people until they decide to. But I don’t think you can be said to have skiid properly if, when you get to a steep, narrow spot, you take off your skis and walk the rest of the way down the hill. Freedom—and skiing—lie in carrying on despite discomfort or fear. You may reply that when injured, you don’t have to leave the mountain on skis, and divorce is analogous to this. But my analogy is not quite true: the bond between husband and wife is far deeper than the bond between you and your skis. Really, divorce is wrong because it is impossible, once a man and a woman are joined together in a sacramental marriage. “…So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:6)
At the moment, however, we’re discussing freedom. While freedom may seem to lie in not being bound by marriage, Christ offers us the truer freedom of freely choosing to remain bound—of choosing love and fidelity over all the irritations and desires which would enslave us. Only in that environment can love truly grow and flourish freely.
Learning to ski is hard; I’m not very good at it myself. But I know that it is when I accept the boundaries and rules of skiing, when I subordinate myself to the way that the sport works, that I find comfort, enjoyment, and freedom. When I have fit myself to the proper boundaries and requirements of the sport, they enable me to be myself as truly as I can—within the limitations of my ability—on skis.
Right boundaries are not so much limits as scaffolds. A man’s constancy to one country and to one woman is not his drudgery, but his glory; not a limit on his true self, but the framework in which he can work out his full potential for greatness and devotion.
The Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, are not a set of harsh prohibitions imposed by an arbitrary tribal deity. Instead, they are liberating rules that enable a people to diminish the tyranny of sin; that teach a people how to live with one another and in relation to God, how to restrain violence and fraud, how to know justice and to raise themselves above the level of predatory animals.Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;Psalms 1:1-3
but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.