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Category: Words Worth Pondering

Occasional essays exploring the meaning and implications of important terms that we often use casually and with little thought.

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Freedom: We love it, but what is it?

Lady LIberty lifts her lamp

Today is July 4, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and all the things that we enjoy by virtue of being Americans — the chief of these being freedom. What do we mean by freedom, though? Lately, it seems that one man’s freedom is another man’s oppression.

As soon as this question occurred to me, I was reminded of The One Minute Philosopher: Quick Answers to Help you Banish Confusion, Resolve Controversies, and Explain Yourself Better to Others by Montague Brown (published by Sophia Institute Press).  In this book, on facing pages, Brown defines a common term and another term that is often confused with it (such as “patriotism” and “nationalism”), with the intention of showing not only what each term means precisely but also of distinguishing between them. Even though the discussion of each term is fairly brief (a single page), Brown manages to bring to light many interesting shades of meaning that illuminate how truly distinct (sometimes even opposite) the two apparently synonymous terms really are.

Sadly, I no longer own this book (I inadvertently got rid of it when I sold off several hundred books I had in storage), but the very memory of it got me to thinking about what we mean when we talk about freedom and its synonyms, liberty and independence. It seems to me that as we engage in the on-going national debate about this idea, freedom, which is so integral to our national identity, we need to know what we are really talking about.

The American ideal of freedom

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech

The right to speak freely in the public forum is a vital safeguard against tyranny.

Of late, the idea of American freedom has become blurred. It seems the American flag, symbolizing the unity of the nation, has been displaced by other emblems — the rainbow banner, the Stars and Bars, and other contentious emblems. Is there no banner under which Americans can still unite? Can we still claim to hold a shared understanding of the freedom we all claim to cherish? 

 When I think of “freedom” in the context of being an American, some of the images that spring to my mind are Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations of “The Four Freedoms.” The idea of these “four essential freedoms” had its origin in a State of the Union address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Roosevelt was trying to convince the American people that the United States should help to defend Europe against the spread of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and he held up these “four essential freedoms” to stir up enthusiasm for this effort. A couple of years later, after the U.S. had, in fact, become embroiled in the European war (as well as war against Japan), the iconic illustrations of illustrator Norman Rockwell revived the idea that these four “freedoms” are essential to the American way of life.

Today when I look at these “four essential freedoms” defined by Roosevelt and movingly illustrated by Rockwell, I see that they are not all cut from the same cloth; there seem to be two different ideas about freedom at work here. First there are the freedom of religion and freedom of speech — these I’ll call the “freedom to” — freedom to speak, freedom to worship (or not) as we choose. These are essential rights that were not only endorsed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence but also enshrined in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution as essential to a free society, safeguards against the kind of tyranny which first caused the American colonies to declare independence from the British monarchy.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Fear

To be free from fear is a universal human aspiration but it cannot properly be asserted as a right.

These “freedoms to” (speak and worship) are regarded as basic civil rights. But can we also claim a “freedom from” as a right? “Rights,” properly speaking, are things we can exercise for ourselves, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Roosevelt might have defined the final two of his four freedoms as “freedom to prosper” and “freedom to defend oneself from aggression.” But he didn’t do that. By saying, instead, that people have a “right” to be “free from” want and fear, he is referring to something that not everyone can do for himself.

When he first included these two, President Roosevelt was trying to build a case for the American government, and military, to act on behalf of others (the British, French, etc.). When Rockwell illustrated them, he also was depicting not something we do for ourselves, but something provided through a greater agency than we are capable of individually. In other words, “freedom from” is not something for which we ourselves are responsible, but something that may have to be provided by an agency greater than ourselves.

We need to be careful when we talk about “rights.” Peter Singer, a very sloppy modern philosopher, has caused no end of trouble by claiming that animals have “rights,” but he would probably be the last person to assert that animals have any “responsibilities.” Yet every right, properly speaking, has a corresponding duty. And duty is governed not by animal instinct but by the moral sense, which animals lack. By virtue of our free will, we are free to choose how to act, but we have a duty to choose well. If we exercise our civic right to free speech, for instance, we have a responsibility to speak as truly as we are able. When we choose to speak falsely — to lie and mislead others — we abuse that right. If we forget the close correlation between rights and responsibilities, we run the risk of misconstruing altogether what a “right” is. How can we assert our right to freedom, for example, if we misunderstand what the term means?

The Christian understanding of freedom

The notion of freedom is absolutely fundamental to the Christian understanding of Man. At the very beginning of human history, as depicted in the second chapter of Genesis, we see that we humans were created to be free: the first man and woman were given the whole Earth, without constraint, except for a single prohibition: not to taste the fruit of “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” We should note that here, as in many other places in the Bible, to “know” something does not refer simply to intellectual, but to experiential, knowledge. Now, all of Creation was good, so Adam and Eve already experienced (knew) the good. Therefore, the prohibition “not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” really meant “not to know (experience) Evil,” since they already knew Good. This was the only thing forbidden to them — yet it was perfectly in their power to disobey this prohibition. They had free will — they could avoid that fruit, or they could defy God, take a bite, and experience the consequences of their actions, which turned out to be all kinds of evil.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Religion

“The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person.” CCC 1738

I don’t want to dip any further into theodicy than to point out that our First Parents did not make themselves free by throwing off God’s authority; rather, they abused the freedom they already possessed when they chose to rebel. God created them to be free, but they chose to be something other than as He had made them — they chose to know (experience) evil. This suggests that “freedom,” at least in a Christian understanding, does not mean simply “license.” License indicates absence of all constraints, even the God-given sort. When Adam and Eve defied the Divine prohibition, they acted licentiously. And as soon as they did that, they were no longer truly free.

Nor were they truly independent. From the moment of our First Parents’ disobedience, the human race has had to toil for the bread we eat, yet it is still God who provides the soil, the seed, and the rain to make it grow. Our pioneer ancestors were certainly mindful of this truth, but as our lives have become more comfortable, we have lost sight of our own radical dependency upon Divine Providence. Little wonder then, that Franklin Roosevelt could assert that we have a fundamental “right” to be “free from” unpleasant conditions such as want and fear. Philosophically speaking, however, something can only be called a “right” if the bearer of that right has the power to fulfill or to be that which the right asserts. So if we claim a “right” to be free from want, we are asserting that we can provide for our own needs — that is, we are denying our dependence upon Divine Providence. This is different from being “free to” — free to provide for our own needs, to the best of our ability, or free to defend ourselves against an aggressor. Since our abilities and our strength are limited, we might fail, so there can be no guarantee of a right to be “free from” any adverse condition.*

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want

“Christian morality, when adequately and completely practiced, leads of itself to temporal prosperity, for it merits the blessing of that God who is the source of all blessings.” Rerum Novarum 28

I’m sure Adam and Eve, and all their progeny down through countless generations, would have loved to be “free from” — free from want and fear, disease and worry and death. But on our own, we cannot be free in that way, at least not since that Original Disobedience. We might say that everything that happened between the Expulsion from the Garden until the Incarnation was an opportunity for humankind to learn just how inadequate our own efforts are, and how greatly we depend on the Almighty for any good that comes our way. To acknowledge our human limitations can be a liberating, if humbling, experience. If you don’t believe me, look at the example of Mary, the New Eve, who, when given a choice by God, chose humility and submission to the Divine Will rather than exerting her own will. Her humble “fiat mihi” completely overturned the act of her original predecessor, who was enticed by the promise that “you shall be like gods” when she reached for the forbidden fruit.

The truth about human freedom

Some will ask, what is freedom then? Is it merely submission to a Divine Overlord? If that’s the case, then what is the point of free will? There are various gnostic sorts of heresy — Mormonism is one — which claim that when Eve succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation and bit that fruit, she did the human race a favor by making a “grown up” choice. In this way of looking at things, getting thrown out of the Garden was a good thing — it showed that humankind was now ready to “go it alone” and pull itself up by its bootstraps. Thus, according to this view, the disobedience of our First Parents was a kind of emancipation proclamation, making Satan the Promethean figure who made it possible for men to become godlike in their power over their lives.

It is easy to fall into this kind of heresy if we don’t have an adequate understanding of the true nature of human free will and its purpose. These questions are dealt with in the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with Man’s freedom. Paragraphs 1731-38 elaborate the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Because we have the gift of reason, we have the ability to choose our actions. This distinguishes us from animals — they act by instinct or necessity, we by reason and choice. In this way, we bear the image of God, who is all-knowing and all-good. To the extent that we use our free will to choose the Good, we become more like God. Conversely, to the extent that we neglect or refuse to use our God-given reason to make good choices, we demean the divine image in us by acting no better than animals. This is why the Catechism says that

Freedom characterizes properly human acts. It makes the human being responsible for acts of which he is the voluntary agent. His deliberate acts properly belong to him.

To the extent that we act willingly (voluntarily, freely), we are responsible for our acts, accountable for the choices we make. (Ignorance and duress can mitigate our responsibility for our actions, of course.) Now, Scripture has it that “the Truth shall make you free,” so the more we act in conformity with Truth — i.e., the more we choose the Good — the freer we become. Mary, in voluntarily submitting to the will of God, in giving her fiat, chose the ultimate Good and therefore exercised human freedom most perfectly of all mortals. That is why she is called Full of Grace.

Illumination of Mary as the New Eve

Mary’s fiat restores what was lost by Eve’s disobedience

Grace, as the catechism points out, is what makes true freedom possible:

[T]he more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world. (CCC 1742)

The Catechism, in fact, recognizes just one fundamental human right: “Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect.” (CCC 1738) Notice the duty that accompanies the right — respect for each other’s freedom, because of our natural human dignity. The paragraph goes on to say: “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.” (Italics in the original)

The impostors and the truth

A Christian anthropology clarifies the differences between true freedom and its impostors. It is not license — in fact, it is the opposite of license, for it recognizes God’s just authority. Nor is it mere independence — a willful independence can cut us off from the source of grace that makes true freedom possible. What about liberty, then? Are liberty and freedom identical?

Even liberty is an impostor when it masquerades as freedom. Liberty is a legal concept, while freedom is a moral concept. Liberty can be conferred or denied by a legal authority. Naval personnel are said to be “given liberty” when they are permitted to leave their ships in port; slaves are “given their liberty” when their legal owners emancipate them. Saint Paul was put in chains by the Roman authority, and he submitted to that authority, yet he never surrendered the freedom that he had in Christ Jesus.

Cover of The One-Minute Philosopher by Montague Brown

Using terminology unequivocally assures that both our agreements and our disagreements are honest ones.

Catholic Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently caused a minor uproar when he said, “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.” He might just as truly have said that they did not lose their freedom just because they were denied their liberty. George Takei’s intemperate response to Thomas’s statement was born of a misunderstanding, for Takei apparently assumed that Thomas was denying or overlooking the lack of liberty imposed upon the enslaved and the interned (Takei has since apologized for over-reacting, and for failing to understand what Thomas intended). In fact, Thomas was speaking out of a Catholic understanding, which recognizes that even slaves possess an innate human dignity that allows them to make reasoned, voluntary choices (to be free), even while living under constraint.This kind of misunderstanding only feeds division and sows hatred. If we truly care about the common good, it behooves us to avoid equivocation and make sure that what we mean by what we say is understood by those we hope to convince. We can do this if we keep clearly in mind the Christian understanding of the true
nature of freedom, and the ways it differs from its counterfeits, liberty, independence, and license. One is an absolute good, which must always be valued and preserved, while the others are limited and contingent goods that can serve true freedom or hinder it.

So while we celebrate our American freedom, let us remember that, while we must respect the freedom of others, we are truly free only when we act in conformity with the Truth, which is found in its fullness in Christ Jesus. To act otherwise is not to be free, but “is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’” (CCC 1733).

“For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)


*There is a beautiful Anglican collect (now added to the treasury of Catholic prayers through the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans) which is a wonderful reminder of the limits of our human freedom, and our dependency on God for freedom from adversity. I include it here for the benefit of those who may not know it.

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help
ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our
souls; that we may be defended against all adversities which may happen
to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the
soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas


Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Don’t Shoot the Elephant or You’ll Kill Education

blind men and elephant public sculpture India
The Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant
is as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.

I don’t usually touch on hot button issues on this blog, preferring instead to focus on perennial wisdom that can benefit us all. To my mind, too much bloggery deals with narrow, sectarian rants (of the right and the left), radiating heat but very little light. I prefer to try to preserve a space in which we can put cant aside and try to contemplate truth, as it can be seen refracted and reflected in literature, history, philosophy, art, and the other liberal arts. You see, I have this funny idea that if we all look toward the light, from whatever direction our perspective may take, we can all be illuminated and, in that way, united, even if we disagree about the things we see. Perhaps we will even recognize the limitations of our own personal perceptions, like the proverbial blind men who each grasped a different part of the elephant. Individually they had their own (equally limited and erroneous) ideas about what they were touching, but when they combined their perceptions, they realized that what they collectively beheld was much greater, more magnificent and wondrous, than what anyone of them individually suspected. (If you aren’t familiar with this parable, read it here. It is every bit as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.)

Education draws us out of our own, limited understanding of truth

Really, folks, this is precisely what education, in the true sense of the term, is supposed to do. It is not supposed to tell you that whatever you already perceive — whether it’s a leg like a pillar or a trunk like tree branch — is the absolute and only truth, it is supposed to put you in touch with people and cultures and points of view that differ from your own, so that you open your mind and learn to weigh
opinion and experience, and in this way become more capable of discerning not only particular but larger, more enduring truths. It draws you out of your own blinkered, myopic reality and sets you in a larger context that spans time (history and posterity) and space (the whole world). That’s what the word “educate” (Latin e(x) + ducere = to lead or draw one out) means.

stock image of magnificent elephant
Truth is a beautiful thing, but a false multiculturalism
can blind students and make true education impossible.

If the administrators of Columbia University or any institution of so-called “higher education” should capitulate to the demands of students that their own puerile perceptions not be challenged — if they agree to attach “trigger warnings” to any course that might offend a student’s cultural identity — they will be doing the opposite of educating. Instead of the academic community sharing insights and enlarging their appreciation of the majestic beast, they will kill the very thing that has brought them together. They will be putting an elephant gun in the hands of their blind young charges, and, when the trigger is pulled, they’ll all be left grasping some gruesome butchery of the truth.

If “multiculturalism” and “diversity training” actually tried to do these things, they would be valuable adjuncts to more traditional educational approaches. Instead, these duplicitous terms are a facade, masking a process that has systematically taught and reinforced prejudice — i.e., it has taught young people to hate and fear anything that they do not already experience or believe or enjoy. This recent article  in the National Review illustrates how true this is. (Read the article yourself to see what the kerfuffle is about; it has to do with students who feel offended by Ovid’s lack of modern cultural sensitivity, or some such).

We need to consider truth from different angles

I’d like to focus on the salient point that the article’s author, Ian Tuttle, makes — which, in fact, he takes from C. S. Lewis — and that is that education, far from insulating students from viewpoints that differ from their own, should be programmatically exposing them to a variety of political, cultural, historical, and philosophical viewpoints, so that they may enlarge their understanding and test their own preconceptions.

In an introductory essay to St. Athanasius’s De Incarnatione (another very old book), C. S. Lewis made just this argument. “Every age has its own outlook,” wrote Lewis. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Lewis is not suggesting (at least not here) that old books got things more right than new ones — Dante was not omniscient — but simply that they got things right (and wrong) differently: “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

The only problem with such an argument, of course, is that it assumes there are truths to be grasped, truths that transcend cultural and historical contexts — and here lies the rub. These days, if you want to get an academic’s back up, just try suggesting that there is any such thing as transcendent, universal, or  immutable truth. And if you really want to cause trouble, try suggesting that education’s purpose is to teach students how to perceive that truth. If my own experience in “higher education” is anything to go by (and, sadly, I’m convinced it is), you will be attacked — verbally, if not physically — and swiftly be given the gate.

That’s part of the reason I’m writing this blog rather than standing at the front of a classroom today. Not because I’ve given up on the ideal of true education, but because I’ve found it almost impossible to pursue such an enterprise in today’s halls of “higher learning.” If you value true education of the old-fashioned liberal arts variety, keep reading this space. In fact, why not sign up to get notifications of new articles by email? There’s a space for you to do so in the sidebar on the right.

Just one more point. I’m as eager to further my own on-going education as I am to help you further yours. I started this blog hoping to generate some conversation through the ether, but too often I find myself alone in my echo chamber. I don’t mind a bit conversing with such folk as C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ovid, Livy, Vergil, et al., but I would love to have some of you readers chime in from time to time. Let me see some other quadrant of the elephant. If you find value in anything you read here, please leave a comment and let me know why. Join the conversation and add your insights — or your illuminating questions. That’s how we can all, together, arrive at a clearer perception of the truth.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Words worth pondering: the Passion of Christ

This week, in deference to Holy Week, I’m taking a break from ancient epic to consider the Passion of Christ. I’ll start by asking two leading questions, the first of which is a kind of riddle: How is the Passion of Christ like a deponent verb? That one’s rather obscure, so I’ll answer it last. Let’s begin with a somewhat easier question: Has it ever occurred to you that when we speak of the “passion of Christ,” we are using the word passion in a way that we rarely (if ever) do in any other context?

When we speak of “passion” in ordinary conversation, usually we mean something like “an overriding desire or interest,” as in “riding dirt bikes is my passion.” I’ve had many students tell me that they wanted to choose a major that they were “passionate” about, meaning simply something they are really interested in.

Two kinds of “passion”?

Captain Kirk, raging
Captain Kirk, in an alternate universe,
was ruled by his passions.

This idea of “passion” as an interest is a kind of watered-down version of an older meaning of the term — passion as an overwhelming emotion, such as anger or lust or jealousy, something that happens to us, that can take control of us and make us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. We used to hear references to “crimes of passion,” meaning crimes committed in the heat of the moment, when a person acts under the impulse of overwhelming emotion that temporarily shorts out rational control — a kind of “temporary insanity” that diminishes moral culpability. That idea seems to have lost its force in the legal sphere, and it probably never held much sway in the moral sphere.

If you look for the term “passion” in the Bible, you’ll find that only once is this word used to refer to Christ (perhaps not even once, depending on which translation you use).

To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3, RSV-CE) 

Every other reference to passion uses the term in the sense of overriding impulses or desires (almost always to be resisted), as in Proverbs 14:30, which counsels against rash anger (“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.”) or Romans 6:12, which refers to the passions as ruling our fleshly nature (“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”).

The passions (all kinds of strong emotion or desire) have been of concern to anyone interested in moral living since ancient times. Greek and Roman philosophy advised that our rational faculties should govern our actions, rather than letting the passions get the upper hand. In fact, this ability to be governed by reason rather than the passions was considered the key way that humans are different from, and superior to, mere animals. The Christian view, which recognizes free will as another distinguishing factor, agrees with this philosophical idea. Paragraph 1761 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the passions :

In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, “either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.” It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason.

In the Catholic understanding, then, we cannot passively give in to our passions. We have to exert our self-control to keep them in check.

This idea of passion still seems to have little to do with Christ’s Passion. If we picture Christ in the final hours of his life, we won’t see a man behaving “passionately.” In fact, what is remarkable is how meekly he accepts being betrayed, arrested, subjected to a series of monkey trials, beaten, insulted, spat upon, made a public spectacle, and finally tortured to death. Anyone else surely would have put up some kind of a fight or at least denounced his accusers “passionately.” Yet Jesus did not. “As a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.”

So what’s going on with this word, passion? Maybe these two uses of the word are false cognates — they look like the same word, but are unrelated etymologically? Actually, no. Rather the opposite is true — they are the same word, with the same essential meaning, but because of the way attitudes toward “the passions” (emotions) have changed over time, the connection between the two has gotten lost.

Digging around the roots

the flagellation of Christ
Traditionally, art depicts Christ
enduring patiently, impassively.

To see the connection, we need to get back to the etymological root from which this term sprang. But since doing so involves some discussion of Latin grammar that will probably make your eyes glaze over, I’m going to spend a little time digging around the roots to aerate the soil a little first.

It may help if first we think about some words that are closely related to “passion,” starting with “passive.” Someone who is passive lets things happen to him, but doesn’t do anything to affect what’s happening (such as giving into his passions). We often think of passivity as a negative trait — if someone is too passive, don’t you sometimes want to provoke them, just to see if you can get a reaction?

You may remember from your school days (if you were lucky enough to have been taught grammar) that there are passive verbs and active verbs. With an active verb, the grammatical subject is also the person or thing causing the action expressed by the verb: Bob reads (Bob is the grammatical subject and also the agent or doer of the action the verb expresses). With a passive verb, the grammatical subject is not the doer, but is the person or thing being done to: The book was read by Bob. Here, “the book” is the grammatical subject, but it is not doing the reading; rather reading is being done to it (by Bob). So we can see that passivity in a grammatical sense is similar to passivity in a literal sense.

Here’s another word that is closely related to passion, although the connection is not readily apparent: patience. Here again, our perception of what this word means has degraded over time. Most people probably connect the word patience with waiting: when a child pesters his mother for something, she replies, “In a minute! Just be patient.” But patience doesn’t really mean waiting at all, it means being willing to put up with something that irritates you (such as a child having to wait for something he wants). This is why “patience is a virtue.” (I’m pretty sure no one ever said “waiting is a virtue.”) And if we’re really patient, we may also be impassive (unmoved by what we have to endure).

Now we’re getting closer to the root meaning that patience and passion share. But before we get to that (another little reprieve from Latin grammar), I’d like to remind you of another word whose meaning has been degraded to such an extent that its original meaning has almost been lost: to suffer. When we hear reference to suffering, we probably think immediately of pain. Pain, of course, is something that we want to avoid at all cost, isn’t it? But the meaning of this word does not have primarily (or originally) to do with pain. Let me hint at its real meaning by reminding you of a rather old-fashioned use of the verb, to suffer, found in the English version of the prayer called the Anima Christi:

Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.

It’s pretty clear in this context that “suffer” means to allow or to permit: Don’t let me be separated from you.

So “to suffer” can mean to allow to happen something that we’d prefer didn’t happen. This meaning is still preserved in the derivative term, sufferance. We might say, “His pig-headedness is beyond sufferance,” meaning we just can’t stand it. Or we might say, “The property owner reminded him that he was at the private beach on sufferance and could be kicked out at any time,” which implies that the owner is allowing something that normally he would prohibit. It’s easy enough, I think, to see how the idea of suffering, in the sense of putting up with something that we’d rather not endure, gradually came to mean, specifically, undergoing pain, which nobody wants. But what we need to remember is that suffering simply means putting up with anything that we might prefer not to happen.

Sneaking up on the Latin grammar

Notice, if we suffer something in this sense, we are being patient. And if you’ll be patient just a bit longer, I’ll get around to tying all this together. I’d like, first, to go back to the Latin version of “Suffer me not to be separated from Thee”: Ne permittas me separari a te. Separari is the passive form of the infinitive separare, “to separate.” We’ve already talked about passive verbs, so it won’t surprise you to realize that separari means “to be separated.”

I mention this because the term we’re interested in, passion (as well as patience) is derived from a special kind of Latin verb known as a deponent. The present infinitive is pati; the present participle is patiens (whence cometh patience) and the past participle is passus. “Passion” is an Anglicized form of the Latin noun passio, which you can see is related to passus (so is “passive”).

Now, before I tie all this up in a nice bow, let me just mention how I got interested in this verb, pati. I came to the study of Latin somewhat late in life, after many years of studying modern romance languages. I knew that Latin would be more complicated than French or Spanish, but I was happy to find that much of what I had learned about the grammar of these modern languages was reflected in Latin grammar. The tenses of verbs (present, future, perfect and imperfect, etc.), the moods (indicative, subjunctive, etc.), the voices (active or passive) were familiar enough. But then I ran into something called a deponent verb, which messed with my mind. Why? Because a deponent verb is “passive in form but active in meaning.” Reading Latin is hard enough without running across a verb that looks like a passive but makes no sense if you try to translate it that way. Even more irritating, there are quite a few of these deponents, which means there are lots of opportunities for being confused.

But then I discovered the deponent, pati, and it all started to make sense. Why? Because pati is the perfect exemplar of deponents — what the grammar does is what the word means. What does the word mean, then? It means to undergo without resistance something that you’d rather not. It means to be patient, to be passive. In other words, it means to suffer, in the sense of undergoing something involuntarily.

How the Passion of Christ is like a deponent verb

The Taking of Christ, detail, Caravaggio
While his disciples resist passionately, Jesus submits willingly.

Are you wondering why I took such a circuitous route to get to the meaning of the word “passion” as it relates to Christ? Perhaps even now you are thinking with disgust, “What’s the big deal? I could have told you to begin with that Christ’s passion means his suffering.” But perhaps by suffering you would only have meant that he underwent pain and humiliation. There’s more to suffering than that — it’s not merely something that happens to you, willy-nilly. In Christ’s case, at least, it is something he does, even though it looks like he is doing nothing. Passive in form, active in meaning.

Jesus suffered as a man, but he was almighty God. That means that, unlike you or me, he knew exactly what was in store for him — think of how many times he tried to warn his disciples, “but this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” Think of the hours he spent on the Mount of Olives contemplating what was about to happen, agonizing, sweating blood — all because he knew what was coming and chose not to avoid it. “Let this cup pass from me … yet not my will but Thine be done.”

His human will was crying out for it not to happen, but his Divine will permitted it. The betrayal, the mockery, the confusion, the spitting, the humiliation, the cruelty, the torture, the death. Because, despite appearances, this was what would turn everything right. This, ultimately, was the point of it all. He was the man born to die. His purpose was fulfilled by willingly submitting to all the cruelty and indignity that the world could heap on him. He suffered himself to be betrayed by Judas, he suffered himself to be doubted and denied by his closest associates, he suffered himself to be stripped and bloodied and executed among thieves and murderers. He continues to suffer himself to be misunderstood by believers and reviled by unbelievers.

So, yes, his Passion is his suffering. But we must understand what it meant for Christ to suffer. And we must think about the strength of will required for that suffering. If we do so, we will better appreciate the Anima Christi when we pray:

Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.

And now you know how the Passion of Christ is like a deponent verb: Passive in form, active in meaning.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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