Sora Nostra Lillian Frances   

Whose Service is Perfect Freedom

Author of Peace

I first wanted to kill myself at the age of 12. That was a strange development, because I had been terrified of death before. When I was 10 or 11, the thought of my consciousness blipping out, and all the sensations of the world along with it, scared me so much that I would go into complete shock and paralysis and would feel unable to do anything. At 12, the sentiment flipped, and I could hardly imagine continuing to live. Death came into me, very much like a possessed person, and it made a home in me. Until around the time of my 22nd birthday, for the span of a decade, it had the upper hand.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the tide began to turn. In very early January of 2023, I renewed the prescription on my glasses, which needed to be stronger. I also got transition lenses, even though they're super dorky and sometimes inconvenient, because I find bright light very painful. After years of refusing to wear my glasses for really really really really really stupid reasons ("appropriating glasses culture from people who actually need glasses") I gradually began to wear them. The reason was so simple that it's honestly really boring: I wanted to see. I had just begun reading Spinoza's Ethics, and read about how the perfection of an entity's existence and its power to exist are one and the same, and I realized I was pointlessly diminishing my perfection of existence by choosing to see blurrily. I was cutting myself off from the joy of my bodily powers, from feeling greater love for the various things of the world, and in general, was choosing to exist less and to suffer more. Starting to wear my glasses was emblematic for me of choosing to exist. Death still had a strong grip in me, but I had gotten the ball rolling.

Except that "I" hadn't gotten the ball rolling, not really. I was greatly assisted. Spinoza's Ethics is, in my opinion, the exposition of a hack: try this one weird trick to tap into an endless source of joy. The trick is the divine intuition, which works by acknowledging our embeddedness in God—defined as that entity which is the source of being, whose essence is existence and whose existence produces all essence; the naturing-nature, the cause-of-itself, absolutely infinite in power and perfection, "through whom all things were made." While I had played around with monotheism a lot before, Spinoza showed me what it would concretely mean to trust in God's existence and to confess it rationally. Then he showed me how to lift my thoughts toward a God who inherently provokes the adoration of every fibre of my being, a God who draws me together to greater perfection; and then, how how to connect the existence of all things to the existence of God, and so to find in all things resources for joy. He showed me that God's self-love, expounded in austere rational principles, was in fact one and the same as the purest and most eternal form of my love for God, and that, transitively, this love was returned by God to all things. It's impossible to summarize everything Spinoza's Ethics did for me, let alone convey the same effect to you in summary, but the end of the matter was that he brought into my life a fount of joy and in Spinozist terms, joy is the experience of a greater existence before which the prospect of suicide could not stand. I simply could not help but be glad in my life and take joy in the world in light of a God so glorious as this. There had been a knife in my heart, and wonderously, bloodless, it came loose. Bit by bit, I was freed.

For Spinoza, freedom (and by extension, free will) is defined rather simply: an entity acts freely insofar as it is the sole cause of what it does. Addiction, for instance, reduces our freedom by hijacking the existential power of the addict. Only God is absolutely free, because only God is self-caused, and nothing can cause anything without relying on God as an immanent cause; our creativity borrows from God's infinitely creative nature. Finite creatures are necessarily partial in freedom, because perfect freedom, in which one brings-about existences purely through one's own essence, requires an unlimited power of existence. What neither form of freedom implies is a kind of crude grocery store voluntarism, where it is the fact that you choose the one and neglect the other arbitrarily that makes you free. God cannot practice this kind of freedom, because any idea which it is within God's nature to entertain is subject to the sustaining love of God, and so acquires its existence and its essence and occurs. God cannot weigh two options and pick one while condemning the other. Instead, God manifests anything and everything whose perfection is consistent with God's perfection, proliferating an infinity of attributes and modes of existence, producing "all things visible and invisible." Likewise, our highest freedom would be to participate in God's creation of everything which follows from our being, being agents of God's creating and sustaining love. Because we are finite creatures, however, we are bound up with other finite things with which we are not reconciled, and so our actions and creations are inconsistent with and insufficient to our beings, producing suffering and loss of freedom and eventually death.

I feel very similar toward Spinoza's definition of freedom as toward his definition of love: I think the simple core he whittles it down to is very good, but it requires specification when it comes to human experience. Lately, I've come to think of this elaboration in terms of the possibility of perfect freedom for human beings. If human beings are limited, Spinoza's definition would seem to entail that we can only practice relative and transient freedom. Yet I began to question whether we might conceive of humans as having a source of perfect freedom when I read a collect from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, originating in the original 1549 manuscript:

"O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

The first time I read it, the phrase "whose service is perfect freedom" stunned me. The idea of perfect freedom as service was in complete contradiction with any crude voluntarism, given that the freedom in question is only to choose to serve God. In some ways, it was in fact more aligned with Spinoza's concept of freedom. If our freedom, to be causes of our own actions, occurs when we to the highest possible degree emulate and so participate in the activity of God, then it really is in God's service and in God's service alone that we are perfectly free, and vice versa: when we are perfectly free and at the height of true joy, we naturally serve God. Yet there is an apparent difference in the idea of being "perfectly" free—which a human being, as a passible and limited creature, by definition cannot be. How is it possible for an imperfect creature to be perfectly free?

There are resources in Spinoza for redressing this contradiction. In fact, he himself uses the same line, referring to "virtue and the service of God" as "in itself happiness and perfect freedom" Ethics, Coda to Part II. We can find answers to how this might be in the concept of divine intuition. When we do not merely reason about the existence and power of God, but intuit our being-in-God, we do not act as though we were finite creatures, but rather conceive of ourselves in the fullness of God's plenitude—and thus, love God from the standpoint of infinitude. The love we feel in this moment is a foretaste of eternity because it goes beyond this finite life, not by denying our current existence, but by affirming it beyond the limits of an imperfectly received creation. We likewise in the intuitive love of God have a foretaste of perfect freedom, because if we are conceived in God then we share in God's essence, and God's essence is to make-exist through free creativity.

Another formulation of this idea I love is in the 1979 Episcopal Catechism. The catechism defines our being made in God's image as implying "that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God," which answer is immediately followed by the question, "Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?" The catechism responds, "From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices," in that "we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God." This putting of oneself in the place of God is later termed as "sin," which is said to have "power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted." I can readily connect this account of sin through the concept of freedom I've developed up to this point. Because we can intuit ourselves in God, we can emulate God's nature—which is loving, creative, reasonable, and harmonious with all things. Yet when we, out of pride or solipcism, put ourselves in God's place as though our existence were truly self-sufficient and not ontically dependant, we eschew our capacity for divine intuition. We thereby lose the resources which divine intuition affords us, and become stuck in our own finitude.

The entirety of the Episcopal Catechism is at its heart a gloss on one statement: "Our help is in God." Humanity having lost its perfect freedom, God has sent first the law and the prophets, and next the Son and the Holy Spirit, as means to turn us back toward our likeness with God, reckoning us to God as adoptive children. Spinoza demonstrating his characteristic ambiguity between Jewish and Christian discourse, of which he fully accepted neither argues much the same thing in his note to Part IV Proposition LXVIII, speaking of how "this freedom [which humankind lost in the fall] was afterwards recovered by the patriarchs, led by the spirit of Christ; that is, by the idea of God, whereon alone it depends, that man may be free, and desire for others the good which he desires for himself." There is here, both in Spinoza and for the Episcopalians, a sense that finite human beings should be more free than their finitude implies and that being unfree is a sin—though one in need of healing, not shame or condemnation.

Why do we expect humans to be perfectly free, to the point of using the term "sin," when we only expect limited freedom from other finite beings? I am here reminded of how Walter Benjamin in "On Language as Such and the Language of Man" refers to the essential being of humanity as expressing itself in a naming language, whereby human beings translate the languages of things into language as such and address themselves to God. As possessors of language as such, human beings are afforded the possibility of addressing God and thus of perfect freedom, and are also charged with the responsibility of using it; if we do not, we abandon the world which clamours for us to convey its being to God. Moreover, because our ability to truly name things before God requires that we not over-name them, we are equally charged to act in perfect accord, loving one another as if we had one self in common. It is this self which is fully free, which truly receives all things and loves them perfectly, and which truly loves God with a full heart. The Nicene term for this collectivity is the "communion of saints," though by its very nature it isn't something any one human group has a monopoly on, nor are any of our languages apt to conclusively name it.

But we must consider how this perfect freedom touches us individually; communion is not instrumentality from NGE, and preserves us individually just as much as it reconciles us collectively. Neither this freedom, nor this perfection, nor this love can be fully received in a finite life, but it can be received in part. Through the divine intuition, a glimmer of perfect freedom enters into this life as an exalting joy in God, strengthening us and comforting us and giving us new life. This joy perfects us and fortifies our reason, and thereby allows us to conceive of all manner of things in light of the love of God, and so perfects us all the more. Here is the autocatalysis of divine love, the spiral of grace, which I feel is what has led me to see my life as worthwhile. I was in a state of unfreedom, in a vicious circle of finitude, and was confronted with a perfect freedom. "And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not conquer it" John 1:5.

Lover of Concord

On the first of January this year, I read the famous Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton's harsh review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. One of the two out-of-context quotes which has stuck with me from that article is the following: "Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide. The suicide abandons life because it has become worthless; the martyr surrenders his or her most precious possession for the ultimate well-being of others." This quote cut me to the core because, even before I was suicidal, I would regularly think about having to die to save my friends or family. If we are close friends, it is likely that I have at some point been lying in bed with my eyes closed thinking, "I would give up my life if it meant [you] would live." But Eagleton is exactly right: a martyr and a suicide are diametrically opposed, and it has been a long time since I've treated my life as my "most precious possession." I have much more regularly treated my life as though it were worthless, which of course makes it easier to contemplate giving it up. There's a great tweet I can't find anymore which says, "I swear on my life" bitch you're suicidal, swear on something else. I have let myself think "I would give my life for you" while also letting myself think "my life is of no value." The latter makes the former meaningless. Offer something else.

My life is now coming to be of tremendous worth to me. When it felt like Spinoza patched something up in me, I began to imagine my head as being full of jars of light which were gradually being filled. Before, the image had been more like a broken cup: you poured light into it, but it would leak out and end up empty anyway. But that is no longer how I feel. The process of coming to value my life has actually created a lot of guilt in me, and has made me begin to question whether I was a better person when I was suicidal. If my life is of value, it is all of a sudden more tempting to enjoy it than to be harsh and rigid and self-flagellating of it. I no longer enjoy thinking about the possibility of dying for someone else's sake. I don't want an excuse to die.

In 2021 and 2022, I obsessed over the poem "The Present Crisis" by James Lowell and yes, it is in fact Unsong which did this to me. Specifically, I became fixated on three lines: "But the soul is still oracular; amidst the market's din / List the ominous stern whisper from the delphic cave within: / 'They enslave their children's children who make compromise with sin.'" This sentence, especially the last line, quickly became the tagline for my superego. Although I did not have any faith in God until 2022, I still somehow believed in sin, and so I felt I was constantly in grave, grave, horrifying sin by virtue of my many failings. I reacted by giving away basically all the money I had saved up to charity or to homeless people, by giving platelet donations quite a few times even though it hurt (it wasn't meant to) and I would wooze from doing it, by becoming more and more vegan after already being vegetarian, and by spending as much time as possible trying to comfort distressed people on the internet. Absolutely nothing I could do was enough, and I became harsher and harsher on myself until eventually I loosened up somewhat and just accepted feeling terrible.

I mention all this because now I feel dramatically more selfish, and not even willing to feel all that terrible about it. Nothing I did in 2022 or 2021 or any year before that feels meaningful to me, because I thought I was going to imminently commit suicide, and so none of my actions had real stakes to them. There was nothing to enjoy, and suffering was no object, so it was easy to beat myself up for sins which only I was recognizing. As a result, I now worry that I'm a considerably worse person than I was before. I feel that I now get angrier, and am bitchier, and am more inclined to think horrible things about people I'm upset at or treat people with veiled contempt on impulse. That I am quicker to feel that I "hate" people who I feel have wronged me, because I care about being wronged, and have an impulse to petty revenge. That I self-flagellate for my failings less, which lets me be lazier, less ambitious, and more complacent, as well as to lean hard into avoidant anxiety. That I am annoyed by giving things up for moral reasons; ethical and environmental concerns still justify veganism to me, but I grumble inside far more loudly about not being able to eat treats and whatnot, and can only justify it by considering it a kind of mortification of the flesh. There are other examples, but the overall point is, my impulses have simply become nastier, because now I have skin in the game. I recognize that this might be interpreted as a case of obsessive-compulsive scrupulosity. However I am not a big fan of diagnostic criteria as means of self-knowledge, so while I'm keeping that interpretation in mind, I am not bound to it.

On the day I started writing this essay, my good friend sent me a Lillicore tweet which reads, "tgirl means tea girl. like a cup of tea she is both hot and warming to the heart, born after collections of scraps and forgotten leaves that constitute her essence are steeped for some time, with grassy savoury sweetness and the slightest hint of bitterness." That idea of my essence being constituted from "scraps and forgotten leaves," steeped into sweetness and bitterness is extremely moving to me. I have a pretty unruly and pessimistic conception of the unconsciousness, very much more Freud than Jung, as being a haphazard grab bag of innumerable contradictory chaotic impulses both amoral and hypermoral, tenuously kept together by a strained ego and a somewhat arbitrary reality principle which again, you might understand because my brain is a fucked up mess of intrusive and distressing thoughts; we obsessive-compulsing. I believe that both suicidal depression and, before it, dissociative dysphoria could be seen as drying up these impulses and keeping them in storage; the impulses made their presence known, they had an aroma like tea leaves do, but they could not be consumed or consummated. Transitioning did bring them into some degree of greater expression, but really, the horizon of suicide kept them in that dehydrated state. It's the divine intuition, and perfect freedom taking the place of death, which really began the steeping process in earnest. And there's no question that tea leaves are meant to be steeped, that this perfects them. But there is always a potential fear of over-steeping, and turning the bitter hint into something overpowering. And in fact, I do usually over-steep my tea, either by forgetfulness or choice. That probably does say something about me.

Something I often say about tea is that, while I love it and it is my favourite beverage, I suspect most of the appeal is just a socially acceptable excuse to drink hot water. Tea, especially when taken without milk or sugar, doesn't have the kind of definitive character of other suspensions in water like coffee or juice. This lack of distinct identity is made even more apparent by the fact that it is not all that different from the suspension of leaves in lake water, which no one has any trouble recognizing as "water." That doesn't mean the smell and taste of tea don't make themselves clear or leave a considerable impression, it's just, in my mind, that that smell and taste are obviously reliant on the fact of being in water. I again feel the same way about myself. I frequently feel like an essentially lacking, defective person. I am not led by strong and distinct ambitions, and find formulating my true and actionable desires a very complicated and slow process. I have no strong feelings about how I will spend the rest of my life, such as in vocational or romantic matters, and my innate tendency would be to just float around like a jellyfish. All my truly-felt desires are miniature and unordered, little tentacles grasping at the water. I want to see my friend next Saturday, or I want to go for a walk tonight, or I want to sing the Nicene creed in the shower, or I want to write one single short poem. Those are sweet leaves, but no one leaf makes for a pot of tea on its own, and no desire is enough to carry forward for more than a single day. And then there are bitter leaves: bits of pride and envy, wrath and sloth, greed and gluttony and sloth. None large or defining in itself. Just other collected scraps.

It's the hot water I'm steeped in which coheres me. The hot water is love for divinity, for all people, and for all of creation: genuine, sincere love, not one of my many depressive-obsessive moralist fits. The hot water is vibrant, joyous, and glad to be alive. This isn't something I first felt in 2023, nor is it explicitly theological in character—though I think any recognition of existence as being substantially and intrinsically good, and any gratitude felt for being part of the stuff of life, does apprehend in some way what I call the divine intuition. There has always been life in me, even when I looked toward dying, though everything feels different to me when I look instead toward the veiled face of God. Transition also stands out to me as an event where I in some way looked toward the Source of being, because things like HRT, SRS, and voice training are all about reaching into hidden resources of existence and finding out what a body can do, and is therefore a kind of glorification. Which is why I feel a bit like tea leaves steeped once and then again, to a subtly different effect. Everything about that freeing love is appealing, but it isn't essentially mine, and so it can't be drunk without first being mixed up with my essence, bringing out the qualities that inhere in me and increasing my powers of existence. So I end up faced with two problems: first, that I am dramatically insufficient, just a collection of many forgotten things; and second, that I grow bitter.

I have two answers to the former problem, each embodied in a person. The first is St. Francis of Assisi, who from what I can tell, was a man of many erratic and incoherent impulses, kinda like me, who was then baptized in the Spirit and sanctified. St. Francis is by all accounts ambitious, and made a huge impact on the world, but seems to me to have done so without any coherent ambitions other than love: love of God, love of neighbour, love of all creatures and all things. I can't imagine attaining the level of universal tenderness and humility he expressed, but I feel I can aspire to it more than the driving motives of most people. What he did was not predicated on any self-sufficiency of desire, but rather, on allowing what little he was to be expressed by a power that was greater than his own. I am insufficient for all callings, being just dust and breath, and my nature is melancholic and depressive—but Francis had a calling for which his insufficiency was no object.

My second answer to the problem is Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of my favourite novel, Middlemarch. George Eliot, the author, was the first translator of Spinoza into English, and her Spinozism comes out in Dorothea's quiet virtue and alignment of her desires with the common essence of humanity. The important difference between Dorothea and Francis is that Dorothea, in the end, spent her life in "unhistoric acts" whose effect was "incalculably diffusive," such that "her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth." This to me is just as good a way to live as that of Francis, but Dorothea has an additional Sadie Plant-esque appeal of being wrapped up in emergent perfections in a way that is not straightforward but is nevertheless profound. Conversely, Francis has a Lee Edelman-esque appeal by virtue of his extremism, having thrown the full force of the drive—which is never truly moderate—under the wondrous sign. Both of these appeal to my sensibilities deeply, and are heartening to keep in mind.

As to the problem of my bitterness... When I began writing this essay, I honestly just felt despairing. I felt ethically derelict by virtue of wanting to be alive, as though I had gone from one painful quandry to another. But unexpectedly, what helped me was watching this video a friend sent to me years ago, where a rabbi argues for a novel exegesis of the Eden story. Toward the end of the video, the rabbi affirms that it is good when we are tempted, that our temptations exist for a reason, and that when we are tempted to do what is wrong and resist temptation, we bless the world. Therefore every part of us is good, even our apparently evil impulses, so long as they are handled correctly. The rabbi in question, Rabbi Manis Friedman, is, it must be said, sucks. He is a homophobe and transphobe and has a genocidal attitude toward Gaza and has also implied that the Jews who died in the Holocaust deserved it. He made a homophobic video so ridiculous that I recommend you watch it. Seriously, I don't want to spoil it, but trust me that it's worth it. But I'll make use of whatever helps me.

There's a lot I could say on this topic, and maybe I will in a later post. But what came to mind first of all was a line from the Lord's Prayer: "And lead us not into temptation / but deliver us from evil." What does it mean to be lead into temptation? I have always assumed that this line meant to neither be tempted nor to do evil, but it could mean something else: that we, being surrounded by temptations, desire the strength to follow the narrow path between them, to be led elsewhere than into them—but not that they should not exist in the first place. Maybe it is good to have the bitterest impulses, if and only if they are treated not as an opportunity to offend, but rather, through not offending, as an occasion of a blessing.

"You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' Whereas I tell you that everyone looking at a married woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your right eye causes you to falter remove it and fling it away from you; for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish, rather than that your whole body should be thrown into the Vale of Hinnom. And, if your right hand causes you to falter, cut it off and fling it away from you; for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish, rather than that your whole body should depart into the Vale of Hinnom." Matthew 5:27–30 from David Bentley Hart's translation

I have generally felt the bitter impulses to be the eye or the hand that causes me to falter. But there is a difference between throwing out the instrument for pursuing temptation and the temptation itself. In John 8, Jesus saves the woman about to be stoned for adultery by making it known that everyone who desires to kill her is impure from their sins, and so is unfit to condemn. If someone were to respond to the adultress by thinking, "The sin she has committed I can at any moment commit in my heart, and I am tempted to do so, and I have done so before," that could become an opportunity for mercy. Temptations which are not acted upon become instruments of superior love, and not one of the leaves are bad. What was received first as sin is now received as grace.

I pray for the sake of every foul thing in my heart, not that I should be bound by them, not that I should be freed from them, but that they might be bound to perfect freedom.

Or in other words: she God could make me worse.