The Waters of Liberation


I’ve lived on the banks of a river that is the stuff of legends—those storied waters that cradled civilization and was the bridge between life and death for the ancients. It is obvious why Egypt is called “the gift of the Nile” once you spend a couple months in the sandy, dry heat. No life could exist in such a desert without those blessed waters.

I conversely now live in one of the most lush deltas in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the fertile plain that lies between the melting Himalayan snow, the waters of the sacred Ganges flowing out of India, and the largest bay in the world. Here the 700 rivers mean life—and death. When the monsoon rains come and the rivers flow outside their banks, many people who have nowhere else to go in this overpopulated land, have to move and rebuild—again.

I’ve seen the same waters meant to bring life, carry destruction instead. How can it be?

I’ve always loved order. I think that is what drew me to organized religion as a teenager who hadn’t been raised in the church. I finally had a set of rules I could follow. There were lines in the sand dividing the good and the bad and I knew just what to do to stay on the right side of that line. It felt like freedom was in the certainty.

I didn’t act like someone who was free, though. I used my freedom to condemn, separating myself from those who didn’t stay on the side of the line that I called good. I became a stagnant, festering pool; there was no living water flowing through me to others.

So, I thought if rules brought death, I’d live free of them. I ran from the church of my youth. I pushed back against the limits to see what being boundless felt like. It felt utterly terrifying. I became a flood, destroying everything in my wake. That wasn’t freedom either.

I’ve lived with a carefully measured faith and no faith at all. Both were destructive. I searched every place I could for a real taste of liberation, but I still felt chained inside.

I’ll never forget the awe I felt the first time I joined Trappist monks in prayer. Sitting inside the expansive abbey that left me breathless under its colored glass, I watched them file into the stalls in a line. As I watched them pray the five daily offices, I started to catch on to the predictable pattern of prayers and bows, silence and melody.

After years of living inside its structure, it was a rhythm the Brothers knew without thinking about it anymore , yet it was full of life and beauty. It was like watching living poetry. Lines and stanzas give necessary structure. Yet the words are boundless, their beauty can take on a life even the writer never imagined possible.

I’ve spent many days learning from the Brothers at the abbey over the years, both sitting under their teaching and just watching their lives. I’ve seen them embody the words of Galatians 5:12-15 from The Message: “Use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.”

They work and rest, pray and study, and serve others and each other. They welcome all and turn none away. I watch their lives flow like a river that knows its boundaries. Their rule of life embodies true freedom—a life that flows from the Source and knows its destination, its purpose: to bring life to others.

I see in them that liberation is not a place of rules where personal salvation is the goal. But it’s not a place of throwing off all rules either. It’s this stream that flows through the middle places, where we never forget that we are meant to bring life to everything we touch.

Thomas Merton said real liberty is found only when I am looking for God in every moment and, if it is found, then “I would grow together with thousands and millions of other freedoms into the gold of one huge field praising God, loaded with increase, loaded with wheat.”

May my freedom join together with yours; only then will we see the harvest that the waters of liberation can truly bring.