Over the past couple of weeks, Where Peter Is has featured some articles presenting dueling metaphors about Christian freedom, conscience, and the place of other people in informing conscience. Paul Fahey first drew a picture of a garden, walled by God, in the middle of a wasteland. He suggested that there should be complete freedom of movement within this garden, and that though some people may find a need to limit themselves further to avoid wandering out into the wasteland, those limits should not be imposed on anyone else. Dan Amiri countered with the image of the straight and narrow path. He claimed that freedom to roam about is a false freedom; rather, “freedom” refers to freedom from impediments to making our way towards God (something that we will never truly have in this life), and freedom to make progress towards God along the straight and narrow path.
Of course metaphors are just metaphors, they aren’t theological truths. So it would be nonsensical to say either of them are “right” or “wrong.” But I do think both of them leave something to be desired in terms of presenting a useful analogical framework for understanding the moral life of Christians. I would like to propose a third metaphor, one that borrows elements from both Paul’s garden and Dan’s narrow path, but that diverges quite a bit from both as well. My metaphor also draws some inspiration from St. Teresa of Avila’s spiritual masterpiece, The Interior Castle, though I cannot say I’ve reached some of the inmost “castles” she describes, and thus would never venture to suggest that my metaphor is superior to hers where it may differ.
I would suggest that the Christian life is a kind of garden, but it is a very specific kind: a hedge maze. At the center of the garden is the fountain of God’s pure Presence and eternally flowing Love. The goal is to reach the center, not just wander about, but it is not a straight path to get there. In the moral life, we are constantly presented with a range of choices that are limited by factors beyond our control. Sometimes there is no choice at all, except to sit still or walk in one direction. Other times we have a few or several different options, and we have to pick one and see where it leads. There are multiple paths to the center, but there are dead ends too. The dead ends are not the wasteland, and they may be the result of lacking knowledge, or barriers erected by others, not necessarily personal sin. The right response to discovering a dead end is to backtrack to a decision point and then try a different direction. If we just stop and despair at our error, we will never advance closer to the Fountain.
The ordinary way of advancing through the maze is by use of our conscience, reason and senses. Conscience is our basic understanding of the rules of the maze: the goal is to get to the Fountain at the center, we can’t climb over or through the hedges, especially not by stepping on someone else’s back, but we can ask others for directions. We can see and hear the Fountain rising above the hedges in the center, so we have a general idea of which direction we need to be going, or at least, if we are generally moving toward or away from God, though our lateral choices may remain ambiguous in their usefulness for quite some time. This is Christian freedom: the freedom to move through the maze, to find different paths, to discern whose advice we will follow, and to not despair over God’s love for us when we encounter dead ends, but to turn around and resume our quest.
There are servants stationed around this maze with cups of water from the Fountain: the Eucharist. Drinking from these sustains us on our journey, and reminds us of what we are striving towards and why. Sometimes we are given the special grace of the Holy Spirit to give us specific directions, like a dove that sometimes flies above the maze to mark the path we cannot see but He wishes us to follow. But this is not the ordinary course of things, and we should not be too disappointed if the dove rarely appears for us. We can still be confident of the Love and Presence of God so long as we can hear the Fountain gurgling and take shelter in the shade of the hedges He has grown for us.
There is sin in this garden too. St. Teresa uses the analogy of lizards and snakes that occupy the castle of the soul to describe temptations, and I think that image works as well for the garden maze. Sometimes we get distracted by these creatures, and start chasing after them rather than making our choices according to the goal of advancing towards God. This is venial sin. It is universal, but the closer we are to the Fountain, the more the sound and sight of it compels our attention and the less we are tempted to follow the dirt-dwelling creatures always darting about the maze. No matter where we are in the maze, it doesn’t take any extraordinary measure to choose to stop the chase of sin and refocus on the goal, though we may find ourselves put back quite a bit. We are still within God’s garden, even if we have strayed towards the periphery. The hedges provide some shelter from the elements, and some assurance that we can eventually reach the Fountain, however much work and time it will take to get there.
If we continue the futile chase after temptations for long enough we may eventually find ourselves exiting the hedge maze entirely, ending up in the wasteland outside of communion with God and His Church. Leaving the shelter of His care causes an obvious jolt to the soul’s senses. There is no ambiguity about it when the sun suddenly beats down mercilessly upon our heads, the ground beneath our feet is parched and hot dust, and the divine waters are nowhere to be found. A person with a desire for God, no matter how faint or long-neglected, will react to this shock by turning around and seeking re-entrance to the shelter of the hedge maze by means of Confession, which God’s keepers of the gate—though it be narrow—are eager to give to whomever asks.
The most terrifying kind of mortal sin needs a different metaphor, though. Some people in the hedge maze grow frustrated with the constraints of the hedges and think that they can obliterate these constraints their own way. Rather than being led wrongly by the ordinary enticing temptations of the flesh, they seek to dominate the world around them by obliterating whatever stands in their way. Thus they set about destroying the hedges, cutting them or burning them to the ground, nihilistically conquering the maze. (Thisis what deadly sinful pride looks like, and confidence in the love of God and the ultimate end of the maze in Him should not be called sinful pride.) But when the last hedge is destroyed and the proud ones stand naked before the majesty of God, there are no more excuses to be made for destroying His beautiful creation, no more chances to stop and repent and submit oneself to the design God had laid out to train our human weakness step by step towards perfection. The person who finds himself in the Presence of God without the hedge of the communion of the Church behind him finds himself in Hell.
If we are in the hedge maze of the Christian life, but we do not understand that is what it is, or that journeying towards the center during this life should be our quest, we will make little progress. For instance, if we think around every blind corner we might accidentally find ourselves in the wasteland, we may be too fearful to move much at all. This paralyzing scrupulosity results from misunderstanding the nature of mortal sin, and I agree with Paul Fahey’s main point that mortal sin is not something a person falls into without intentionally choosing to oppose God. However, expecting the path to God to be straight (albeit difficult terrain), or the garden of God’s grace to be an open field in which one can aimlessly roam, both can lead to the type of frustration that in turn leads to mortal sin. In either analogy, if the maze stands in the way of the freedom we think we ought to have—whether to roam or to move straight ahead—we are tempted to think that the hedge is the problem, and needs to be removed. The moral law should be dismantled, or the person who stands in the way of what we think is the path of perfection and makes our lives more complicated must be cast aside or destroyed. These are the mortal errors of the extreme left and extreme right within Christianity, respectively.
As I said in the beginning, I don’t think my metaphor of the hedge maze is definitive, but I think it is useful. It helps us cast out paralyzing fears and instead walk in the spirit of the adopted children of God, exploring the goodness of His creation within the limitations we encounter in this world. It encourages us to give ourselves and others a little more grace when we make wrong turns or get distracted by temptations for a while. It reminds us that perfect love and union with God is our ultimate goal, and that God wishes that no one should be lost. I hope it helps our readers to advance more readily along their quest towards Him.
Image: Hedge Maze at Luray Caverns, VA. Link to source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30699184@N03/8629928216
The image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.
Lillian Vogl is a woman of many facets. Professionally, she is learned and licensed in law and finance. Spiritually, she is a lifelong lover of the Divine and student of Scripture, Catholic by choice, mystic by election, and blogs at “Beyond all Telling” (www.patheos.com/blogs/beyondalltelling/). Personally, she nurtures the flourishing of her husband, two children, and friends with all the beauty and structure of a good compost heap.