I attended a clergy retreat this week led by Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Abbot of the Monastery St. John of San Francisco in Manton, California. His first talk of the retreat was on the subject of monasticism in the contemporary Church. It was a very thoughtful meditation. I was struck particularly by his description of a monastery as a “space” built on the four traditional vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. It is a very rich metaphor. I have written recently about holy space, thinking about the nature of our relationship to sacred places. The abbot’s meditation suggested that there is a spatial quality to our spiritual life itself.
The thought makes me ask the question: “What is it that shapes the space in which I live?” If the vows of a monastic create a sacred space within which he or she lives the life of salvation, what promises and vows shape my life in the world? Fr. Meletios suggested that all Christians live within the space of their Baptismal vows. This is certainly true, but the precise character of those vows remains a matter to be defined in each life.
I am not a monk – I am a married man. The “vows” of my marriage (there are no spoken vows in an Orthodox marriage service) are clearly a primary space within which I find my salvation from day to day. Marriage is the first sacrament given to the human race. My priesthood also frames a world in which I must work out my salvation. For every man and woman, the details of life offer a space within which we find God.
There are implications carried by this understanding of “space.” To speak of a defined space is to recognize that the life that I live has boundaries. For the monk, the boundaries are shaped by his vows. For the married, the marriage establishes boundaries: I will find my salvation within the boundaries of this union. One of the characteristics of sin is its resistance to boundaries. The first trespass is just that – a trespass – the boundary given by God is refused, and with it, the life-giving communion with God of which that boundary is a sacrament.
The commandments within our life, whether they be those that frame a marriage or those that govern our relationships with all, are not laws whose purpose is to restrain: they are boundaries given that we may live. There is no human life without boundaries. We will only be truly human if we allow the boundaries given by God to create the space in which we live.
One of the arguments of the icon-smashers of the 8th century was that God could not be circumscribed (placed in boundaries) and thus could not be depicted. The response of the Orthodox was that in Christ, God is circumscribed as man and it is the property of a man that he can be depicted. Every icon of Christ is a proclamation of God’s embrace of the boundaries of our human existence. The life of Christ is a representation of what it means to live as a human being.
Every God-given boundary is a point at which we are invited to lay down our life. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Love of God, love of spouse and family, love of neighbor, love of enemy – all love creates boundaries. Love establishes a limit which abolishes sin: “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
The God who created the heavens and the earth continues to recreate us – giving us a space within which we can truly live.