Limitation and Freedom

On my LinkedIn newsfeed, a Nike advertisement popped up with an image of a man finishing a race and the following inspirational message:

“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”

The man in the picture, and the origin of those words, is Eliud Kipchoge, who recently became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours.

This accomplishment, even despite the fact that it was not done “under race conditions” and even included other time-optimizing elements, is nonetheless astonishing. His average mile was under 4 minutes and 34 seconds!

But his observations on his feat have given me pause.

“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”

As a teacher who has admired the work of Carol Dweck on mindset and the importance of cultivating in my students (and in myself) the sense that my mental capacities and abilities are malleable–that intentional practice and effort does make a difference–this statement feels inspirational and motivating. I have seen so many students trapped by their perceptions of their lack (or, oftentimes worse, their surplus) of talent. Students who have decided at fourteen that they “just don’t like reading” or they “can’t write”. Or, conversely, that they have always been “A students” and need to maintain that confining, impoverished, grade-based identity. And I look at someone like Kipchoge and his example gives me hope. I remember what many of us were often told when we were young: “You can be anything you want to be.”

“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”

But then, I start to wonder.

To be a creature is to be limited. To be a human being is to be confined by one’s biology, location, health, intellectual assumptions, cultural milieu, prejudices, anxieties, talents, desires, wounds.

And, to be clear, we aren’t just minds trapped in bodies, free except for these unfortunate physical constraints on our consciousness. We are our bodies, for all the frustration they sometimes cause us. It’s through the body that we see and touch and taste and love and desire and think.

To be embodied is to be bound by time and space. We grow old. We get tired. We get sick. Eventually, we die. There are limitations.

And as much as the human person continually strives to overcome these–to go farther, faster, deeper, higher–in ways that are often awesome and admirable, I think that some people have discovered a different kind of liberation, an expansive freedom in limitation.

Chesterton has this great image that illustrates the tension I’m talking about:

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (Orthodoxy, Ch 9)

Without walls of some kind, we actually lose our freedom. Limitless autonomy is a kind of horror.

Is it just me, or are women especially attentive to this kind of freedom in limitation?

Emily Dickinson, unrecognized for the genius she was in her lifetime, self-confined to her Amherst house as the mysterious “woman in white”, describes the expansiveness she finds within the boundaries poetry imposes:

I dwell in Possibility – (466)


I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

She names poetry “possibility”—even though her poems were written on little pieces of paper, on tiny notes to friends, and only a few were published during her lifetime. Her “narrow Hands” are nonetheless capable of “gathering Paradise.” Life itself, fleeting and fragile, is stretched between possibility and poverty:

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power

For Dickinson, literature, despite the humble pages upon which we grasp it, is by its very limited-ness and focus on a particular story, a particular character, a particular life, able to transport us toward infinite horizons:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

I have my doubts that the new show, “Dickinson,” will be attentive to this important part of Emily’s self-understanding.

My dear friend Flannery O’Connor, to whom I often refer in this blog, was limited by her community, her illness, her prejudices, her sin, but she saw her limitations and the kind of freedom I am describing more clearly than most. Throughout her twenties and thirties (she died at 39) she hobbled about on crutches and lived with a mother who loved her but did not often understand her and a Catholic community that often regarded her stories with incomprehension and dismay. She found her freedom in her vocation as a writer, but as her stories attest (they are all about strange, wounded and distorted characters encountering violent intrusions of grace in the rural South) she embraced the boundaries of her knowledge and of her talent:

A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to do a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such. It is well to remember what is obvious but usually ignored: that every writer has to cope with the possibility in his given talent. Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing. It is the business of every writer to push his talent to its outermost limit, but this means the outermost limit of the kind of talent he has. (“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”, emphasis added)

What she says of artists could be applied to all of us insofar as we recognize our own lives as a kind of art:

The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them. (Ibid)

Isn’t this, really, what it means to be a saint? Saints are often trail-blazing and controversial and provocative, to be sure, but not at all in the way that celebrities are. Francis binds himself to poverty, Dominic to homelessness and preaching, Benedict to a particular place, Edith Stein to the cloister, Dorothy Day to the worker community, Mother Teresa to the untouchables of Calcutta, John Paul II to the burden of the papacy, Gianna Molla to the life of her unborn child, Therese to her littleness.

They have, of course, Jesus as their model—Jesus, who imposed upon himself the limitations of our nature, who was born in an obscure village, belonged to a conquered and beleaguered people, “never travelled two hundred miles from the place he was born,” who wed himself, finally, to the cross.

And yet, as James Allan Francis observed a hundred years ago:

All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.

And so I wonder about the limitations in my own life. To what extent do I resist them? Which ones am I called to break, and which ones am I called to embrace as doorways to a deeper freedom?

Thanksgiving Thoughts

“[I]t all brings me to thanksgiving, the third thing to include in prayer. When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)

She wrote that somewhere around 1946 when she was just 21 or 22 years old. Flannery’s Prayer Journal, which was never intended for publication and which I finally read only with great trepidation and shyness, has so much to say about thanksgiving, and grace, and vocation.

In the journal she is continually begging for the grace to be a writer. She is sure, at this early stage in her life, that this is her vocation – that this will be her way of giving herself to God.

Her cause for canonization should have been underway for years, in my opinion, but as far as I am aware it is not.

I’m sure, if she heard me say that, she would send me some incendiary remark in a wryly composed letter with lots of “innocent spellings”.

She continues, “My thanksgiving is never in the form of self-sacrifice — a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly.”

Thanksgiving as self-sacrifice. Like the Eucharist.

They say the saints are more keenly aware than the rest of us of sin.

What’s so interesting, reading this journal, is looking at it with the perspective of the years of suffering Flannery was about to endure. She did not know, at this time, that she would contract the disease that killed her father and eventually die from it at only age 39.

And yet, when you read some of the prayers, it’s almost like God answered them by sending her lupus. And that she knew, even in her early twenties, that the life of holiness she so desired was only possible via suffering. And that her longing to be a good writer would never really have been fulfilled had she not suffered.

G. K. Chesterton also has some beautiful things to say about Thanksgiving. I saw this on the IgnatiusInsight page a couple of days ago, and immediately I thought how Flannery-O’Connor-like he sounds here:

A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.

source: Ignatius Press facebook page


Flannery has similar things to say about peacocks.

The beautiful thing about giving thanks for things is that you really only begin to understand them when you notice how grateful you are for them. Like the turkey. You could pass by a turkey farm, but if you stopped, got out of your car, and gazed at a turkey like Chesterton suggests, the beauty and absurdity of this strange-looking animal might start to dawn on you. The longer you looked, the more mysterious this bird would seem. The fact that it has become the traditional sacrificial lamb of our yearly American holiday would only increase this sense of strangeness. And if you looked long enough, you would finally forget about yourself and you would just be totally given to the being in front of you.

The turkey’s goodness is very much tied to its death and consumption by us. It’s very humbling, because of course we do not deserve it.

Chesterton also says,

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

I think that what Flannery and Chesterton are getting at is that the gesture of gratitude and thanks is actually the truest response toward life. No matter how little we may initially feel we have to be thankful for, and no matter how irritating cliches about ‘be thankful for what you have’ and ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ can be, if you stop and seriously look around you, at the couch you are sitting on, or the hum of the heater in your house, or the cup of coffee by your elbow, you may begin to see it.

It is an act of sacrifice to give thanks, because you have to give up your sense of discontent, your sense of wanting other things, of wanting some other life or some other place, and ultimately you have to give up even your sense of yourself. When you are really thankful, you are not thinking about yourself at all anymore, but the goodness of being.

Even babbled thanksgiving “once over lightly” is better than none at all, and I am going to really give it a try this year.



Sometimes life is like a poem. (Read: mysterious and really difficult to interpret). Two experiences can work like two images juxtaposed by the poet, working off of each other, challenging each other, challenging you. Like this oft-quoted line by Emily: “I heard a Fly Buzz–when I Died.” Strangely, she pushes two images together, a commonplace one and the ultimate one: a fly buzzing and death. You have to deal with that weird juxtaposition throughout the rest of the poem.

Anyway, being an English teacher/English major, I’ve been thinking about an interesting juxtaposition that happened to me, and juxtapositions within that larger juxtaposition.

The other day I went to a Chicago White Sox game. Sitting behind me and my friends were two couples, probably in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and inevitably I heard most of their conversations during the game. Eventually they began discussing their future children and whether or not they wanted to send them to Catholic school, comparing notes on their own various Catholic school and public school experiences, and joking about whether the expense was worth it. (Little did they know that four Catholic school teachers were sitting in front of them, but, tempted as we were, we didn’t turn around). They talked about how their years of education had funded all the rich mosaics of “St. Pete’s” in the Vatican. They recalled the crazy, strict morality of Catholic school, but the liberal immorality of their Catholic school friends. “They did worse stuff than my public school buddies!”

Then one of them said,

“But I mean, the Catholic Church is a big joke, right?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m Catholic, but I’m not Catholic.”



I almost turned around. Not because I was angry, though. And not because I wanted to. I didn’t want to.

But I should have said something.

That was image number one. It already includes lots of strange juxtapositions within itself.

Then, yesterday, I was sitting outside reading and enjoying the beauty of the Notre Dame campus. A man came up to me and asked me if I worked for the music department, or if I knew anything about it. And then he noticed my book: The Return of the King. And that started a long conversation. Apparently he had applied to the ACE program years ago, but was not accepted ended up doing a different teaching program in Baltimore. Teaching was not for him, however, and he asked me very kindly about my own experience. There he was, and there I was.

As always, I was surprised to find myself engaging in a rather intense conversation with a complete stranger.

Somehow our conversation turned to faith, and it turns out that he had discerned the priesthood and visited various monasteries, but about ten years ago had had a conversion experience in which he had joined one of the pre-Vatican II groups of Catholics who believe that the Catholic Church, during Vatican II, had apostatized.

He talked a lot about the Third Secret of Fatima, and how the Vatican had been covering it up. How it’s easy to tell that the Lucia presented by the Church is clearly not the “real” Lucia. How the events of the book of Revelation are occurring as we speak. How it makes sense that the Anti-Christ would come, not seeking political power as some predict, but rather spiritual power, leading souls away from Christ by the very institution that was originally supposed to lead them to Him. How the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon because she has been unfaithful to Christ.

I told him politely that that’s what some Protestants call us, too.

He gestured at the basilica, and said how he never goes in there. But he comes to Notre Dame frequently, and enjoys the library, where he has looked at many old (Pre-Vatican II) documents of the Church. He told me how strange it was.

“That must be very painful,” I said.

The Grotto

He agreed. “It is very beautiful here,” he said. “I do go to the Grotto sometimes. Do you have a devotion to Our Lady?” I told him that I did. He prays the rosary daily, all fifteen decades, but of course not the Luminous Mysteries, the ones introduced by Pope John Paul II. He walks around campus and talks to people, and it is so strange for him because “ten years ago I was like you.”

The church he goes to an hour away belongs to the Society of St. Pius X. But he, and others, actually don’t belong to that society, but a group that split off from that society.

I said that it was strange, because that’s what seems to happen so often with the Protestant Churches, too.

He asked me a lot of questions. He suggested a website for me to look at if I wanted to learn more. He was very kind, and very polite. Twice he apologized for interrupting my reading, and gave me many opportunities to close the conversation if I wanted to. But I liked talking to him.

At the end, I asked him to pray for me and I told him I would pray for him, too.

“What intention do you want me to pray for?” he asked.

I was a little surprised, but then I said, “For the unity of Christ’s Church. I know you and I disagree about what that means, and maybe we’ll end up praying for opposite things, but that’s okay.”

He said that he would.

He said goodbye and went to get a drink of water, because the air was very humid. “Nothing like in Louisiana, I expect!” he said, referring to my time there.

I thought about him kneeling at the Grotto to pray even though it’s part of a university belonging to the Church he believes abandoned the true faith. Lighting a candle with us. Juxtaposition, no?

I admire him because even though I don’t think he’s right, I think he really is trying to do what is right.

And I thought about the people behind me at the baseball game, and this man, and how hard it is to be Catholic, and how so many people struggle with what that means. How I struggle with what that means. And how easy it would be to roll one’s eyes at the people who think that the Church is a just a big “joke,” and others who think she is the “whore of Babylon.” And the people who think of the Church as some sort of corporation, making all sorts of human decisions. The Church of the old white men oppressing women, people who are gay, minorities. The big rich Vatican Church ignoring the cry of the poor. The out of touch Church. The “spirit of Vatican II” Church who moves with the times and who has abandoned tradition. The traditional Church who refuses to move with the times and clings to tradition.

Chesterton also noticed such juxtapositions of images that did not quite fit, that challenged each other. And he does a good job reminding us that the result of juxtaposition, whether it is in a poem or in your life, isn’t about striking a “happy medium,” or even Aristotle’s “golden mean,” exactly. Life and poems are too complicated for that.

He says:

As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.

[…] It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.

St. Francis

[…] And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.

Blessed Pope John XXIII

[…] The Church swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

(G. K Chesterton, excerpt from Orthodoxy)