Thomas Merton says the real freedom begins often as an experience more deeply in situations where we have no choice – that’s where we begin to discover freedom. He speaks about response-freedom describing coming down to the refectory for the evening meal. It’s Lent and in the monastery the meal is always the same; you get bread, runny soup and there’s a boiled egg. You have no choice. But, if you’re a person who’s free inside it’s like, ‘Oh! There’s a boiled egg! How lovely!’ It’s wonderful, and you get all excited and your day is made because there’s this boiled egg, and you’ve seen it as something good and wonderful. You have something in you that’s free enough to respond, i.e. to see, the goodness and the possibility in the situation rather than to be completely conditioned by what seem to be impossible givens.
And it can certainly be said that on the spiritual path the direction is toward response-freedom, away from choice-freedom. This is implicit even in that wonderful cryptic comment at the end of the Gospel of John. There’s this comment about when I was a young man I put on my own belt and went where I went but when I was an old man someone cinched me up and held me tight. And I think we discover in our spiritual life that we get on a tighter and tighter tether and there’s less and less ability to just sort of randomly and compulsively choose whatever we like according to our likes and dislikes. We become more and more clear about the one thing we must do. So in that sense our choice-freedom diminishes and yet as we’re able to surrender to that in a total willingness of our being, freedom emerges. Freedom emerges. You know that old cliché of the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, “In whose service is perfect freedom”? And yet it’s true…
There’s a subtle difference between a like that’s an ego having something that it expected fulfilled; and a joy in something, because in a way it’s so unexpected, it brings pleasure and recognition. They have a different feeling to them, inwardly. And as you begin to learn to steer by those internal freedoms, you’ll answer your own question about where joy and pleasure and abundance live in your life.
— Cynthia Bourgeault