In Exitu Israel: Freedom and Happiness

Without true freedom, there can be no happiness, because happiness is the exercise of our freedom to love what our Beloved loves.

Bela Čikoš Sesija, “Dante at the Gates of Purgatory,” 1897
Bela Čikoš Sesija, “Dante at the Gates of Purgatory,” 1897 (photo: Public Domain)

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are creatures with a finite and time-bound body that obeys the relentless law of entropy — but we possess an immortal soul that animates us and whose deepest longing is to return to union with the Love that gave it being. As Dante Alighieri writes in The Divine Comedy, “Your life is breathed forth immediately / by the Chief Good, who so enamors it / of His own Self that it desires Him always” (Paradiso 7.142-44). As we make our way through this life, we search out and delight in all the tiny signs of this Divine Love: a grand game of hide-and-seek that ends in the embrace of the Most High.

What are the rules of this game? How can we seek out God in this life so that we can achieve that greatest happiness and the deepest desire of the human heart: union with him eternally in Heaven? In the series The Quest, we consider the ways in which our lives follow the narrative pattern of the journey, requiring immense courage and a commitment to the Love that calls us out of ourselves and waits for us at the journey’s end. But we can’t understand love if we don’t understand its foundation (freedom) and its end (happiness) and so we lay the groundwork for these important concepts in the first episode of the series, “The Voice of God Within.”

If we think the notion of love is misunderstood in our present day, I would argue that freedom is even more so. And, in fact, this misunderstanding of freedom derails our ability to love as we ought. Freedom is intimately connected to our ability to choose our path for ourselves, and we see this from our first beginnings in the Garden of Eden.

Have we ever paused to wonder at the infinite vulnerability with which God approaches his creation in Genesis? God gifts Adam and Eve with life, with his Divine Breath, and with the Garden of Eden — and he asks only that they obey him in this one small request: “Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat” (Genesis 2:16-17). With this instruction, and the gift of the freedom to obey it or not, God opens himself up to our utter and complete rejection. He makes himself vulnerable — a vulnerability which will see its most profound and beautiful expression in the Crib of Bethlehem and the Cross of Golgotha. 

In the Divine Comedy, Dante reveals that Hell (and Purgatory too, but to a temporally limited extent) is the reward for our abuse of this gift of freedom. Hell, for Dante, is filled with souls who relentlessly and unrepentantly choose to love some lesser thing in the place of God. Perhaps this is the meaning of the terrible inscription over the gates of Hell in the Inferno: “My Maker was Divine Authority, / The Highest Wisdom, and the Primal Love” (Inferno 3.5-6). How could Love make Hell? Because Love left its beloved free, and its beloved wrote its own damnation.

If the looming threat of Hell might make us wish that God had “programmed” us to behave ourselves, we must remind ourselves that without freedom, there could be no love and therefore no true happiness. Freedom is the foundation of love because love cannot be compelled; it must be a choice, and it must be a gift. Love begins in freedom, and it ends in freedom. As Dante understands it in The Divine Comedy, freedom is the reward of love. The souls who are brought to the mountain of Purgatory in The Divine Comedy sing the hymn “In exitu Israel” — and Dante explains in his “Letter to Can Grande della Scala” that this song is meant to signify that, just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, these souls will now be freed from the slavery of sin. 

But there is a higher perfection even than being freed from the bondage of sin. As Dante Pilgrim reaches the height of the mountain of Purgatory, his guide Virgil explains that his will has been perfected: “Your will is free, erect, and whole — to act / against that will would be to err: therefore / I crown and miter you over yourself” (Purgatorio 27.140-142). The highest perfection of the will is to have the freedom to choose and to use that freedom perfectly. As Dante ascends through the spheres of Paradise, he realizes that the nature of true happiness is desiring what God desires: that is, choosing freely to love what God loves. As the soul of Piccarda explains, “The essence of this blessed life consists / in keeping to the boundaries of God’s will, / through which our wills become one single will…” (Paradiso 3.79-81). The perfected will is entirely and eternally free — and it is free precisely because it is entirely and eternally directed toward God, its Beloved.

It is in this way, therefore, that we can say that freedom is happiness and happiness is freedom. They cannot exist without one another. Without freedom, there can be no true love — and without love, there can be no true freedom. And without true freedom, there can be no happiness, because happiness, ultimately, is the exercise of our freedom to love what our Beloved loves.

Living our full purpose in this life asks us to choose to take the first step in following the call of God, and to choose at every moment afterward to continue on the journey. We are helped on our way by our good habits, which we form through continually choosing the way of courage, truth, justice, love, and virtue in matters both great and small. We are helped by the sacraments, through which we find healing for our weary and battered souls. And above all, we are sustained by love. As Shakespeare says so beautifully in Sonnet 116, love “is an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken” (5-6). We should love, therefore, and be brave.