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. And 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. An old friend once said, “The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.”
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, often have difficulties 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. The ego is me watching me.
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. True boundaries demarcate where we cannot, even must not go. They delineate what we do not know, and we must acknowledge that we do not know. The world devoid of mystery is the world of a boundless ego.
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, in 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. A life defined only by the success and failures of a boundless ego.
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. You are not God.
But this is not the end of the story. Christ, praying to the Father, says:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (Joh 17:20-24)
This “High Priestly Prayer” of Christ can sound dangerously like the end of boundaries. It is, instead a life of coinherence. The Son is not the Father, but neither is He the Son apart from the Father, nor is the Father to be seen apart from the Son. Their very names, given to us by Christ, “Father,” “Son,” are names that only have meaning as they relate to the other. This is a mystery revealed to us in the Trinity, an existence in which there is commonality and a shared life, but where the one does not destroy or obliterate the other. That is His prayer: “That they may be one, in the same way [even] as we are one.”
And this true existence requires boundaries: it requires that I not know some things. It requires that there be places I cannot go. And this mystery is given to us in a myriad of ways within the Tradition.
Fasting is learning to eat with boundaries. There must be some times when I cannot eat some things so that I might learn how to rightly eat anything. The calendar is time with boundaries. There must be some days that are different from other days so that I might learn how to rightly live each day. The rules do not exist to protect certain foods or because one day differs from another. The rules are only for us as a medicine for our boundless egos. It is a very good thing to learn that you are not God. It is only there that we will learn what it means to truly exist.