‘His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God
but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave,’
The words of St Paul, who prefixes that hymn addressed to the Philippians with the comment “In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus.” ... ‘To assume the condition of a slave.’ In the context in which Paul writes, he is saying one should serve others willingly - put other people first.
However, the definition of the word slave with which we are more familiar is defined as ‘a person legally owned by another and having no freedom of action or right in property'. Among other possible interpretations of the word ‘slave’ is this: ‘A person under the domination of  some habit or influence.’
What sort of habit could I be thinking of? Well, among the many possibilities, I want to highlight a human condition which seems to afflict those with a sensitive nature, a condition which in reality is a weight sometimes too heavy to bear, and a form of slavery. It is a millstone to happiness and fullness of life, as in any form of slavery; a condition which throughout life remains a festering sore on the psyche and the soul particularly when it affects spiritual morality.
The condition is known as scruples!
To suffer the slavery of scruples is to live with an impediment that seems impossible to cure. I say that because I want to share with you two examples of the mental torture it inflicts on the sufferer.
The first example is of a man I had met on and off for some years. Now he is free of his pain because he died last year having lived for more than 90 years, and is now enjoying eternal freedom living in glory with the Lord. I spoke with him on a number of occasions, and his one topic of conversation was ‘how do I know my sins are forgiven so that I may be worthy to see God.’ He was convinced that he would never see God in his glory. The thought worried him from the moment he awoke until the moment he fell asleep at night. Whatever I said, however I tried to convince him that whatever sins he thought he may have committed were forgiven, he couldn’t accept that God would forgive him. His was the most tortured soul I have ever tried to calm, to convince that in the eyes of God, he was sacred. I have no idea what initiated his mental torture, if in fact it was anything specifically. I didn’t ask him, and in our feverish talks there was nothing to indicate a reason. He shunned counselling. One question always in my mind was ‘did this man’s suffering in some small way mirror Jesus’ suffering on the cross? Jesus, who sacrificed himself to release humanity from the slavery of sin, sin which causes separation from God. I am convinced that the torment this man endured during his life, a slave to the emotion of ‘doubt’, was his passport to heaven. I could never assure him that God loved him just as he was, despite any of his perceived imperfections. He died fortified by the Rites of Holy Mother Church.
The second example is of a lady who is in a ‘care home.’ She is suffering from the onset of dementia, but she has an underlying mental affliction that is permanently foremost in her thoughts. To give you some indication of her background, a few weeks ago I recounted in a previous reflection a story from my childhood of being taken by my father to a mission being held in our Parish. It was about 1950, so I was at an impressionable age. I should mention that males and females attended this mission on alternate evenings. There were two missionary priests who took it in turns to ‘instruct’ the laity, and one evening after suffering one and a half hours of instruction, those in attendance left the church with a sigh of relief. Because of the instruction which had been inflicted on those present, from my perspective I knew then that I was destined to spend eternity in hell. It didn’t bother me then, as for the life of me I couldn’t think of anything that I’d done that deserved the punishment of hell, and the thought hasn’t bothered me from that day right up to the present. Why? I know that God’s judgement on my failings will be just, and I can accept that.
To return to the situation of the lady in the ‘care home’, she, being just a few years older than me, had experienced similar instruction during her youth because she told me, but the effect that such instruction had on her has blighted her life ever since. All her life she has been mentally shackled with the fear of eternal separation from God because of her perceived unworthiness. I spoke with her for 40 minutes during the week by phone, trying to convince her that she was innocent of any wrongdoing and that she was in a state of perfect grace. No matter what I said to allay, to calm her fears it had no effect. What troubles me, is the prospect that as her dementia develops, her mental suffering may intensify. All I can do is to keep phoning her, as because of COVID-19, I am prohibited from entering the ‘care home’.
Mental shackles, - being a slave to living nightmares, - are as destructive as physical shackles, and are as prevalent today both in secular life and religious life as they have been throughout history. Slavery, in all its forms, has not been confined to history, it remains in our society as it does in all societies throughout the world. It is experienced in marriages, in the workplace: and some occupations are reliant on it. We pray that all peoples may one day be free from being enslaved.