Freedom and the Justice of the Soul
by Father Paul Keenan
Soulful living is a different way of thinking about
life. As I ponder this, I’m led to recall two
statements made by theologian John S. Dunne in his book The
Way of All the Earth (University of Notre Dame
Press, 1978). In describing the pivotal statement of
Hinduism, tat tvam asi ("you are
that"), Dunne finds that implicit in the statement
are two lines of thinking about life. The first:
"Whatever belongs to my life shall enter into
it." The second: "Whatever enters into my life
shall belong to it."
Those two statements intrigue me, because they raise
several reflections that are significant for soulful
living. "What belongs to my life?" is a
question about fate or destiny. "What enters into
my life?" is a question about the freedom I have to
affirm or to shape my destiny. Dunne’s two statements,
taken together, raise the question of whether we are
locked into a destiny or whether we can shape it.
Destiny and freedom seem at first to be opposites.
Tom calls me, an old friend, who is agonizing because he
is out of work and has had no success in finding any. As
he unfolds his tale of woe, he tells me that throughout
the course of his life, he has given generously to
others but that others have never been there for him. He
is destined, he tells me, to be an outsider when it
comes to receiving life’s blessings. He is also
destined to be a loser, he claims; and it is clear that
be believes that he cannot change that. "Saying yes
to destiny means saying no to freedom," he tells
me. Yet as I listen to Tom, I sense unhappiness about
the inevitability of his fate. What he is really telling
me is that his situation isn’t fair.
Now I have the lever for working with Tom. Can I get
him to probe that sense of the unfairness of his life?
If I can, I can put him in touch with his soul.
Reconciling opposites is the work of the soul. Tom
thinks that in his case, destiny and freedom are
irreconcilable. He’s had plenty of evidence to support
his belief that he is destined for failure and that
there is nothing he can do about it. Yet he’s hurt and
angry. To me, those are the voices of his soul. They cry
out for me to hear them so that, in turn, I can get Tom
to hear them.
I have come to think that the words "fair"
and "unfair" are keys to the soul. They are
words about Justice; and by its Latin etymology, Justice
means "getting what is right for you."
When I ask Tom why he feels badly about being locked
into his destiny, he says, "I deserve better,"
and "Others get what they deserve, and so should
Once I get Tom to admit that his life is unfair and
that he is unhappy about it, he’s on the way to
admitting that there just could be more to life
than what he sees. Perhaps there is more to his life
than he realizes; otherwise, why bother to be unhappy?
If there’s more to Tom’s life than what he sees,
what could it be? At this point, it may be, say, a good
job, more money, a better house. If he can’t seem to
express it, I might try getting him to talk about what
he loves to do.
But next, I want to see if I can get Tom to identify
the force that made him dissatisfied with his life, and
that now points him in more agreeable directions. I want
him to become aware of it, and to see how it led him to
question the adequacy of his original, sense-based
conclusion that he was inevitably locked into failure.
If I can get Tom to that point, he’ll be just about
where Moses was as he stood before the burning bush.
(Exodus 3: 1- 14.) A Presence drew Moses away from his
normal experience and led him to envision something more
– freedom from being locked into his life in Egypt. As
Moses’ awareness went increasingly toward the
Presence, he felt a need to know what it was. I am
hopeful that Tom, too, will learn to name it, because I
want him to draw upon it again and again.
Here, I have called it Justice, meaning a caring
Presence that upsets Tom when things are not right,
draws him to a wider range of options and ultimately
brings him to an awareness of itself. This Justice
demolishes the notion that life is unfair and leads Tom
to a deeper sense of self and to a broader range of
possibilities. "What belongs to Tom’s life"
– his destiny – becomes much broader than he had
previously imagined. He is destined, not to be a
failure, but instead to allow whatever enters into his
life to belong to it, to shape it, to create him.
"What enters into his life" is also broader,
because he can choose from a broader range of options
than before. Both his sense of destiny and his sense of
freedom have been transformed by knowing that there is
Justice in life, after all, and that Justice includes
But I could just as well call this Justice by the
name Soul, for it is an animator, a spiritual principle,
the moral essence of life, and the guide to identifying
and fulfilling one’s true destiny – the qualities
you will find in the dictionary if you look up
These meanderings do, at the end, lead us back to our
question about the nature of soulful living. I said
earlier that to live soulfully was to think differently
from the way people ordinarily think. When Tom first
called me, he thought as many reasonable people think
when they have experienced the School of Hard Knocks. He
believed that he was destined to be a loser and that
there was no way out. However, once he became aware that
he was unhappy about that, he came to realize that there
was a Presence that was beginning to reveal to him a
whole new sense of life, a life that was not rigid, but
guided by a Justice that, far from ostracizing him,
cared for him. He began to see new options for himself;
but, more importantly, he began to develop a
relationship with the Presence, with the Soul, with God.
So what does this say about soulful living? It says
that part of soulful living lies in being dissatisfied
with our limits. It also says that part of soulful
living is to allow that dissatisfaction to have a
positive role in guiding us to know that we are,
after all, destined for more than our present limited
condition. Finally, it says that the ultimate direction
of soulful living is to open up to us the possibility of
a relationship with the Soul itself, with the divine,
and to see how it is the Source of all that is and all
that lies along the road of our future.
© Copyright 2002 Father Paul Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Father Paul Keenan: Popular speaker, author and
radio co-host of WABC Radio’s "Religion on the
Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write
about the issues that matter to people. Widely
experienced as a national and local television and
radio news commentator, he is the author of Good
News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming.
As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese
of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for
various radio and television programs. In addition, he
serves as a parish priest in New York City.
Father Paul Keenan, came to his
now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after
having been a college teacher and administrator and a
parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City,
where he graduated from Rockhurst University and
completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at
Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the
priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in
Philosophy at Fordham University.
Father Paul is also known for
his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com)
and contributes regular articles to various other sites.
He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper,
"Catholic New York." His other talents and
interests include reading, cooking and being humble
servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.