Have you ever thought of prayer as the only avenue to true freedom? This is assertion that Staniloae makes in this extraordinary short chapter in which he defines freedom—a freedom that is achieved through prayer and forms the foundation of our relationship with God and fellow men.
His central thesis is that prayer frees us from both ourselves and the confines of nature. We exist and act in a universe of natural laws that drive “complex mechanisms.” We are participants in the natural laws and conversant with nature. We can influence it, for example, when we apply our minds to direct the movement of our bodies, when we grow our food or harm others. Yet unless we are conversant with God, we are limited by the laws of this natural world and are trapped within it by our passions. Only God, who created the universe, is not limited by its laws. Hence by praying to God, we also become free of the boundaries of what we experience through our senses and the laws of nature.
Without God, we are mere cogs in an impersonal universe. We live in a word “destitute of the divine spirit,” a “self-enclosed mechanism, entirely governed by scientific laws.” Such a world would have no meaning. “The world,” Staniloae says, “has no meaning, except as a sphere for dialogue between God and men.”
Through this dialogue “…our union with God in prayer is so perfect and complete that we can no longer tell where our work ends, and God’s work begins…”
To achieve union with God, we must achieve freedom from passions. Yet, Staniloae asks rhetorically, isn’t it possible for a man to exert control over passions and lead a virtuous life without God? He gives us a definitive “no” and shows us another enclosure we can be trapped within. If our own personal liberty, rather than union with God, is our only goal we are still trapped in our own pride and self-love. We are still subject to delusion and limited to only the criteria and solutions our minds can invent on their own. We are often caught in downward spirals and quagmires that lead nowhere. We become prisoners “in the realm of blind nature.”
“It is only when he is set free from himself that man becomes free in the true sense of the word…” he concludes. Drawn into a relationship of love with God, we forget about ourselves and our passions.
It is love in our relationship with God, then, that sets us free. The same applies in our relationship to other human beings. “Only a relationship of pure love with another person can set us free from the world outside and from ourselves.”
Freedom, in fact, can only be achieved through a relationship with another human being rather than solidary action or meditation. “Wanting to be lord over himself, man then finds that he is subject to himself…”
A relationship of pure love requires authentically free people, Staniloae tells us. Unless we are free of passions through a life of prayer, we want to dominate others. Love and domination, however, cannot coexist.
“Only another authentically free being, one, that is, who is free from all passion and who has therefore no desire to dominate will affirm and uphold my freedom.”
Yet our relationship with God is not one of mere submission but one of reciprocity and growth. We give ourselves to God and receive all he has and life as a gift. We are not slaves but sons and daughters of god, partaking in his freedom.
Paradoxically, “we have to give ourselves to another authentically free being in order to receive the gift of freedom, and the only freedom which is of nature inexhaustible is that of the supreme Person.”