One hundred and fifty years ago in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all African slaves in those territories still at war with the Union. This anniversary year presents an opportunity to ask ourselves if we are free or enslaved—or perhaps both? That state of being free while enslaved is the condition of anyone addicted to anything: tobacco, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and that most admirable addiction workaholism.
Those in bondage by any of the above are usually aware of their condition. However, there is an unconscious enslavement that encompasses almost everyone except small preschool children. In his book Walking on Water, Anthony de Mello says, “The most wearisome slavery in the world is worrying: ‘What sort of impression am I making on others?’ It pushes people to try to look intelligent, charming, generous, etc. Do you know someone who is like that? Can you realize that a president or a pope who acted like that would really be a slave?”
This enslavement typically begins in the self-conscious teen years and becomes full grown by high school where everyone is judged on exterior appearances or abilities. These bondage chains don’t magically drop off at graduation, if anything they grow larger as the graduates entered our highly, competitive adult world. A fortunate few by personal effort or physiological assistance find freedom, yet their old chains are never very far away. Whenever they are center stage, giving a talk to a group, leading a meeting or being a member of a bridal party, they once again feel the tight constriction of their old slave chains.
A convert from Judaism who died in a Nazi concentration camp gas chamber, the German mystic and saintly Carmelite nun Edith Stein, wrote, “Real spiritual transformation can only begin when we relinquish our positions as the center of things!” This discerning insight of hers challenges all seeking wholeness and holiness to ask, does my present position prevent me from that which I seek?
Does this insight of St. Edith Stein mean that entrance into even the Kindergarten of Spiritual Maturity requires emancipation?