Freedom in Our Souls

We cannot exercise freedom from inordinate attachments unless we have accepted the purifications which are necessary to be freed from our self-centered instincts.

St. Augustine

This is salvation: to live in the consolation of the Holy Spirit, not the consolation of the spirit of this world. No, that is not salvation, that is sin. Salvation is moving forward and opening our hearts so they can receive the Holy Spirit’s consolation, which is salvation. This is non-negotiable. You can’t take a bit from here and a bit from there? We cannot pick and mix, no? A bit of the Holy Spirit, a bit of the spirit of this world … No! It’s one thing or the other. (Pope Francis’s homily at Mass on 10 June 2013)

Much has already been said about the impact of modern culture on our personal identity and self-awareness. Everyone is subjected to unrelenting distraction, yet we respond by seeking solace in what our external world promises to us. Pascal’s Pensées reminds us that not being at peace with ourselves is a human condition, and being diverted is a flight from our limitedness. “If man were happy,” he wrote, “he would be the more so the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.”

The spiritual teaching of the Sermon on the Mount presents an enduring response to the question of a secure happiness and salvation. Through living the virtues and precepts, the Sermon presents the ways of wisdom which will lead all in loving faith to holiness and perfection. This Christian experience along the paths of spiritual liberation is accessible to all who receive the gift of God’s grace and love. Jesus teaches that we are freed from the observances of the Jewish law, and this allows us to focus our efforts on the level of the heart, where the virtues are formed and blossom.

With the Sermon and the Gospel teachings as the choice instrument for the work of justification and sanctification, the Holy Spirit enters within each person and touches our natural affinity for personal truth and our deep yearning for goodness and happiness. It enlightens us concerning the Word we have heard, and moves us to live as authentic witnesses of Christ. Unlike diversion, and the inevitable afflictions we suffer from the exterior world, this source of everlasting happiness is purposefully located within us. As the Spirit moves as the essence of the New Law, it invites us to live consciously within, to encounter our limitations, and recognize the different spiritual voices in our hearts.

Through charity, the Spirit produces wisdom and love in our souls, and he brings our free will and the New Law together. As we acknowledge our desires for authentic happiness, we come to see that our hearts are naturally inclined to love God and our neighbor. “Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). The Spirit works to be perfect, and to be interiorized in us, such that our will and the Spirit work together, and build the movement of our free will. To be moved by the Spirit is the sign of a maturing freedom which solely belongs to God’s children.

St. Augustine’s Confessions depict his spiritual struggle and conversion. The first was a movement away from God, where the great soul had given himself up to pleasure, and moral boundaries were ignored. The many distractions of Carthage provided an escape from experiencing himself, and Augustine aspired and strove for wealth, pleasure, and recognition. As his heart gradually grew weary, Augustine underwent a struggle where he fought his passions. While he sought the truth, his inner world remained restless till the reading of the Holy Scripture penetrated his mind. Like Augustine, each of us also encounters and responds to the world in a variety of affective ways. We grow more able in recognizing our responses, and of gaining understanding of our emotional patterns, strengths, and struggles.

Being certain that Christ is the only way to truth and salvation, the great man began to move in a new direction as he forsook his life of separation from God. As Augustine lived within himself, he began to be touched by the presence of the Spirit through the love of God. As “light shines in darkness” (Jn 1:5), Augustine became more receptive, and began a new journey with the Lord. In Letters, Licentius would recall how his friend would discuss truth, happiness, evil, and, finally, God and the soul. In his second rule of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius described how we move toward God and away from sin, as in this case of Augustine’s spiritual renewal.

Like Augustine, we ponder about our faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ. Our interior awareness brings us to reflect on the moral quality of our lives through considering our actions, choices, and relationships with others. This is the awareness we seek through the sacraments, which Christ had instituted, and is of great value in the spiritual life. In this life, joy lies at the roots of our freedom where our Christian discipleship is born of a love of the Lord. We desire to live in union with his life and teaching—that of the Sermon, the New Law, and St. Paul’s description of love. As we live for the greater good revealed through the joy at the heart of our lives, we repudiate our goals of material accomplishments. This joy is a sign of moral excellence, and its discovery—amidst our trials and our journey to moral maturity—guides us in confronting our lives with the Word of God.

This good is a profound reality that corresponds to truth, yet, because of the limitations of human experience, it is also difficult to express. Nonetheless, we have a keen perception of the good and the true, the key elements of our spiritual nature. The attraction of this good leads us to avoid real evil, and build our awareness of our moral duty and obligations. When the good is finally present, it should fill us with joy and happiness. This provides us with a solid foundation for our morality.

Our natural inclination toward the good is expressed through the New Law—to love God and our neighbor. In the contemplative life, we understand ourselves, become attentive to all that we see in the world around us, and reflect on the things that we have observed. St. Thomas stresses the importance of contemplating eternal things, and through our contemplation, we should have a freedom of mind to see the condition of our neighbor. This lays the foundation for the desire for justice, and we naturally desire good when we are confronted with evil and suffering. Without it, we risk becoming enclosed in ourselves. Love is the first cause, and with this inclination towards charity and goodness, we enter the moral realm and respect the excellence of all human persons.

In our quest for happiness, the key to self-renewal is to discover our spiritual nature as the image of God. The choice between good and evil springs up because we can be captivated by our spiritual power and be tempted to establish ourselves as our centers. Instead of conforming to God’s offer made towards our natural inclination, our moral judgment can become distorted, and we can cut ourselves off from the source of truth. Here, the New Law serves as the expression of God’s wisdom and benevolence. God has first contemplated us in his loving goodness, and through our lives of grace in his Spirit, God continues to contemplate the world while we orient ourselves to truth and beatitude.

The Sermon is only attainable through the gifts of the Holy Spirit—not least of all, the way of love, the first gift of the Spirit. In our many gifts, the Spirit aids us in the responsible exercise of freedom. Discernment helps us appreciate these gifts, and examine the freedom of a human person, and the choices made as a result of that freedom. Again, let us learn from Pope Francis’ preaching: “If we do not have an open heart, and if we have not experienced the consolation of the Holy Spirit, which is salvation, we cannot understand this. This is the law for those who have been saved, and have opened their hearts to salvation. This is the law of the free, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.”

Orientation (synderesis) towards God is important. The knowledge of oneself, and the reading of the affective movements of consolation and desolation, help us comprehend action in conjunction with disposition. Discernment allows for a pondering of the arguments of the decision, as well as providing a choice of means, and a study of each possible option. We are called to understand the life-giving nature of God, and the destructive enemy of human nature, the evil spirit.

For example, a person who preaches the Word of God might seem like a good person. However, if it is out of vanity to appear holy, one could argue that his acts are inherently turned away from God, thus producing desolation. On the contrary, if one preaches in his meekness and charity for God and his neighbor, then one could argue that the preaching is made in light of turning towards God, thus producing consolation. In a sense, the individual should also aim to integrate both the external and internal dimensions of life. Holistic discernment requires attention to the events and changes of both worlds, and balancing them without prioritizing one over the other.

As we grow spiritually aware, certain movements that stir in our hearts are crucial for our life of faith, and our pursuit of God’s will. However, we must first identify the fundamental direction of our spiritual life, where discernment requires a predisposition of interior freedom. This freedom opens to us the foundation for the Christian life, and its source lies in our natural inclination to beatitude. We cannot exercise freedom from inordinate attachments unless we have accepted the purifications which are necessary to be freed from our self-centered instincts.

The process of discernment regularly leads to a personal encounter with the Lord. We should be mindful of our daily experiences, and communicate them before the Lord. This is the work of the Beatitudes, which leads us to our full reception of the work of the Spirit. Growth in discernment of the action of the Spirit, then, truly matures the faith of a person seeking to grow in relationship with God. We act in imitation of Christ, and according to the preferences of the Spirit. Through a journey of moderation and flexibility, the Sermon prepares and promotes spiritual growth. Hence, discernment is not something one does intermittently. Instead, the aim is a growth of a discerning heart.

For St. Thomas, contemplative intellect and demonstrative reason from loving desire unite in making a free choice. The Angelic Doctor spoke of a person’s desires which grow in intensity, depth, and richness as he works to fulfill both mind and heart. Accordingly, we should recognize the importance of human desires, and our affective states. St. Ignatius himself was not aware of both the dryness and happiness in his heart until he became cognizant some time later. Ignatius’ understanding was not a moral one, but a spiritual awareness of crucial value for the life of faith.

We place in the same operation the ultimate beatitude of the intellectual nature, and the beatitude of God. However, no matter how intellectual we are, we are not pure spirits. To receive the Word of God, we need to open our senses and live the Word itself. The grace of the Spirit comes to us through external realities such as books, like the Bible, whose teaching culminates in the Sermon. A pristine perception of the origin and direction of the spiritual stirrings of our hearts provides us with the light to follow accurately the guidance of the Spirit.

Further reflection seeks the answer on whether these stirrings affect our life and our following of God’s will. Everything is ordered toward action—accepting what is of God, and rejecting what is not, and through our interpretation, decisive action becomes possible. As St. Ignatius indicates, the discerning person must be ready to act in accordance with what has been understood:

The freedom of the Spirit, which the Spirit gives us, is also a kind of slavery, of being “enslaved” to the Lord which makes us free; it is another freedom. Instead, our freedom is only slavery, but not to the Lord, but to the spirit of the world. Let us ask for the grace to open our hearts to the consolation of the Holy Spirit, so that this consolation, which is salvation, allows us to understand these commandments. (Pope Francis)

In spite of our imperfections, we can still seek to fulfill the New Law personally, and carry it out as perfectly as possible—something which our virtues and gifts prepare us to undertake. However, discernment by itself is subjective, and only God can fully satisfy the human person. The human person possesses dignity because of his rational nature, and this quality also confers the privilege of being in the image of God. We are all in the image of God, with the recognition of an intimate correspondence between our heart and the New Law. Ultimately, all in spiritual consolation are to remain humble: “let him who is consoled see to humbling himself and lowering himself as much as he can” (Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” {First Week} §11).  Certainly, humility can draw upon us the grace and freedom of God.




Recommended Reading

The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology. Servais Pinckaers, O.P. (Catholic University of America Press, 2005).

The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V.(Crossroads Publications, 2005).

Dennis Phua About Dennis Phua

Dennis Phua resides in Singapore and serves in the ministry of faith renewal, exploration and evangelization, at the Church of the Risen Christ. His interests include lay preaching, theological approaches to Christian virtue ethics, and Catholic spiritual formation.


  1. Avatar john isola says:

    I find it hard to accept the neglect of priest and deacons to offer prayers for the unborn at mass. I attend daily mass and the only one to RAISE A myself. I have spoken to the paster and the deacons but get little response.There is too much emphasis on social issues and financial affairs and an indifference to the issues of abortion and same sex marriage in the homilies.There should be a more concerned effort to awaken the clergy to get their act together.I do not mean to denigrate the clergy but just state the neglect of the efforts to give more concern for issues that effect the church.

  2. The first apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and spread the Good News to All.
    The dependence of our Bishops and clergy on the government handouts ( for the so called poor) has clouded their judgments. They are not concerned with raising faithful Catholics and it shows. Catholics are falling away and they do nothing!
    I pray they return to teaching the Good News of Jesus and the Salvation of souls.

  3. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    One must be spiritual first then one can practice religion. that is orient oneself to God and His truth. first. Giving up the practice of the Catholic apostolic faith and Church shows a lack of spiritual practice even if one is loving.