Years ago, as a young seminarian, I wanted to paint icons. I knew nothing about icons, only that I liked them and that they were holy. The vast wealth of books and materials on their meaning and even on the technique of painting them simply did not exist. My knowledge of painting was also non-existent. But rushing in like a fool, I bought materials (none of which were correct) and stretched a large canvas on the inner front door of my apartment. There I began painting an icon of Christ Pantocrator. I had no training and I used no model. I just painted. The effort lasted for better than a month. When I finally reached a point that I called “finished,” I asked a friend, a fellow seminarian who was an artist, to come see my work. He did. And he laughed.
“Do you know who it looks like?” he asked.
“Christ?” I said hopefully.
“No. It looks like you!” And he explained to me something known to artists. If you paint without a model, there is a very good chance that you’ll unconsciously paint yourself. The Icon as “selfie.”
I have often thought about this incident (and written about it previously). There is a spiritual lesson hidden within it. To paint without a model, directly from the imagination, is to paint without boundaries. The only thing that exists without boundaries is my ego, my imagined self. My “icon” of Christ represented the ideal representation of sin: the ego as God.
How do we distinguish the ego from the Other? The only means is to recognize boundaries – that there is a line, a place, a fence, that separates me from the Other. Love does not cross the boundary nor seek to blur it. Love requires a limitation on the self and the projected ego. Your life is not about me.
Boundaries take many forms. They may be the concerns, point-of-view, needs, fears, of another person. Those psychological characteristics do not have to be absolute in order to be boundaries. As the borders of another life, they are not me. I stop where you begin.
Our egos, which I am distinguishing from the true self, have great difficulty with boundaries. The ego is a narrative of our lives that is our own creation. It is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It is often how we make sense of things and sort things out. This is a process that is under constant revision. It pushes us to criticize and judge, to weigh and compare. Archm. Meletios Webber describes this process as the working of the mind (in contrast to the heart):
In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task…. Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right. (In Bread and Water, Wine and Oil)
Strangely, this process creates false boundaries – borders that mark the ego’s own definitions. As such, it is an inherently narcissistic view of the world – the world according to me. In our encounter of true boundaries we find the limits of the self, and therefore begin to find the true self. The nature of the heart (and the true self) does not define itself by its enemies, or the one who is wrong. It is accepting rather than judging. It is quiet rather than noisy. The encounter of its boundaries does not produce the need to probe, define and argue.
The ego’s search for God is deeply frustrated by His silence. The boundaries of silence, darkness and hiddenness with which God most often surrounds Himself are met with frustration, argument, anger or even rejection. The ego frequently substitutes the products of the mind for the truth of God. God as idea is the God who is most suited to the needs of the ego. Such a God will, end the end, be an icon of the ego itself. We inevitably become like that which we worship.
When I was in the years of my serious inquiry into Orthodoxy, I was drawn to the God I could not have. I understood the eucharistic discipline of Orthodoxy and that there were things I was not yet able to eat or drink and places I could not go. My spiritual journey outside of Orthodoxy had presented no boundaries – I could go anywhere, say anything, eat or drink, commune at will. And with every effort of the ego, I was confronted only with my own ego. The Sunday services I conducted as an Anglican priest were the product of massive negotiations (my ego versus the egos of others who wanted something else). Worship was an uncomfortable peace, this week’s exercise in partisan warfare. My last parish had three masses each Sunday, the work of three distinct communities – that often did not like each other.
The modern cultus of seeker-friendly Church is the logical end of a market oriented life. But it can never heal the sickness that most infects us. Jesus did not die in order to rescue the ego: He died in order to put the ego to death. When I converted to Orthodoxy, a friend, nurtured in modern liberalism, opined, “Stephen became Orthodox because he was afraid of change.” In truth, I became Orthodox because I was afraid there would be no change – just more of the same negotiations year after year.
The ego constructs a gray city, populated with negotiated buildings and ever-shifting streets. There can be no value there because there is no reality. Only the borders of our lives reveal who we are. I am not God.