The Limits of Holiness

I saw a commercical recently that proclaimed, “Freedom has no limits!” It sought to capture the modern imagination with what is a patently absurd statement. Everything in creation has limits – that is the nature of created things. It is nonetheless the case that we can imagine our life without limits – a shameless existence where nothing impedes our pleasure. This was the inner world of a young woman in Alexandria who would later be known as St. Mary of Egypt.

She left home, according to her own testimony, and took up a life of unbridled pleasure: sex, alcohol, whatever she imagined and desired. From what we can tell, that lifestyle came without consequences, for she was running ahead at full throttle when she came face-to-face with a limit. The limit was an invisible force that would not let her cross the threshold of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

She had traveled to Jerusalem on a lark, partying with pilgrims, using her shamelessness to draw others into her pleasure. The True Cross of Christ, fully intact (it was the 6th century), was set to be displayed for veneration on the Feast of the Cross. The Cross, the Church, the Tomb, Golgotha, all that filled that holy place, were themselves to be reduced to objects of her pleasure, souvenirs of a good story. But there are limits.

The limit she encountered was obviously a gift from God. We are not told the nature of the invisible force that prevented her from entering the Church. Angel or the hand of the Most High – we do not know. Three times she was rebuffed and turned back.

In the years before that moment, she had no limits. As such, she had no knowledge of herself or the world. Everything was appetite and passion. We only know the world or ourselves by the limits that describe us. Interestingly, both the word “describe” and the word “define” are rooted in the notion of a limit, a boundary. When God made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Christ, He allowed Himself to have a limit and a definition. He who was uncircumscribable became circumscribable. It is why we can make an icon of His image. When we dwell without limits (“unfettered freedom”), in some manner, we cease to have any meaningful existence. Who I am also means who I am not.

St. Mary met her limits. She embraced them and entered the desert. There, in years of prayer and fasting, she found, within her limits, the depth of her being and the depth of God. Its paradox is that this life within revealed limits is the only true freedom. Freedom is not the ability to do anything, to have no limits, but the ability to truly be who and what you are, which can only be known through the revelation of limits.

It is of note, I think, that the name of this saint was not made known until the day of her death, when she wrote it in the sand, leaving instructions for the Elder Zossima for her burial. She named herself, “The sinful Mary.” The limits that had been made known to her revealed her to be a saint, one who even walked on water. Such self-knowledge is also the path to knowledge of God whose service is perfect freedom.

57 comments:

  1. Thank you Father for this description of St Mary. Growing up mostly being told to live without limits, it’s been a struggle to allow myself to live within limits. I don’t like it and often fight against them, only to find once I surrender myself to them, how much easier it is😂 there is a great deal of peace within boundaries, I’m just not able to see it so often. O St Mary pray to God for us and help us to accept His limits!

  2. I trained and worked as an artist. Among artists, it is well known that when you impose limits, the discipline challenges and improves your artistry. For example, some photographers will use only black and white, to develop their sense of contrast and composition.
    I suspect that the same is true in many other walks of life, including spirituality.

  3. Thank you Father, finding limits have helped me find myself. How do we reconcile limits and faith? In modern culture it is popular to say “anything can happen if you just believe” and use that to press whatever group we are trying to influence (underlings at work, church lay people, team sports) into performance to up our output. How does one respond to the “have faith” rhetoric?

  4. I think that while St. Mary’s life may be described as “without limits” from a worldly perspective, it was in fact a very limited life controlled entirely by the passion of lust. She was entirely controlled by her desire for sex. The mantra of today is, “Do whatever makes you happy as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” But we are not taught that doing what makes us happy now may be hurting ourselves in the long run.

    Last Thursday, after we did the full Canon of St. Andrew and read the life of St. Mary, I was inspired to write this poem about her. I hope you don’t mind my sharing it here.

    SAINT MARY OF EGYPT
    by Esmée La Fleur

    She lived a life of bodily pleasure –
    From man to man, absent all compunction;
    Her only pursuit, this empty leisure:
    A life reduced to one single function.
    Unaware of any other measure,
    Until she reached a critical junction –
    When she discovered a greater treasure,
    Causing her to seek Christ’s Holy Unction.

    Without further thought, she departed hence,
    Crossing the Jordan into the desert –
    Where she devoted herself, most intense,
    To God alone as a perfect convert:
    Her every word offered as incense,
    With fiery Angels praying in concert.
    A true example of deep repentance –
    The divine medicine that heals all hurt.

    Her ascetic labors of endless years,
    Which most in this world would think insane –
    Namely: fasting, vigils, and honest tears,
    Painstaking efforts that were not in vain;
    But allowed her to traverse new frontiers,
    And overcome all sorrow and pain –
    As her soul entered the heavenly spheres:
    Where only His pure love and goodness reign.

    She was fed and clothed by the Word of God,
    Enduring all hardships without complaint.
    And her grace-filled soul bloomed like Aaron’s Rod –
    Finally freed from all passions’ constraint.
    As we seek to escape the devil’s fraud,
    By emulating this Great Lenten Saint:
    Let’s follow the proven path she has trod –
    Asking her prayers that our hearts grow not faint.

  5. One of my Sunday School children asked the other day, how did Fr Zosima only know Mary’s name after her death, if he communed her the previous Lent? Good question, I thought.

    Wonderful article. The “limits” of a chaste marriage are also the walled garden in which we taste the delight of heaven with our spouse.

  6. Esmee,
    Beautiful poem! I hope to see more or your writings here.

    Father, when Elder Zossima offered her food, she only took a few grains, graciously accepting his company and his food while keeping to a self-imposed fast. Here is yet another lesson on observing limits. I ask St Mary of Egypt for her prayers.

    Thank you, Father for your reflections in this article. Indeed food for my soul.

  7. Ralph W.,
    Your comment also spoke to my heart. My brother recently gave me a camera with more ‘bells and whistles’ than I know how to use. At this point I have all the settings on ‘automatic’. While I desire to expand my skills, to try things I haven’t done before, the wide array of possibilites are almost overwhelming. It is good to set aside a specific amount of time to experiment and set limits on what we do, even while we undertake creative projects.

  8. Dee,

    I have laughed with friends about the seemingly endless options on modern washers and dryers! We always end with, “really, all I want is a “wash” and a “dry” setting…”.

    Esmee, thanks for that!

  9. Ralph,
    If you start with a blank canvass – the first brush-stroke is a limit (as is every subsequent one). Without “limits” there is just an empty canvass. With us, our true limits are actually the “contours” of our true self – the outlines of our very personhood – which, it turns out, is an image of Christ Himself. Christ does with His eternal Word and divine energies, what a painter does with color.

  10. Hello Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for another enjoyable blog post. Can you please elaborate on what you mean by the word ‘service’ in the last sentence of this article?

    Specifically, are you using it to describe God’s service to man, or man’s service to God?

    Thank you,
    Joanna

  11. Joanna,
    It is a phrase taken from St. Augustine. He described our “service” (literally, “slavery”) to God as “perfect freedom.” God does not make us “slaves” in order to make us act contrary to our will – but in order to help us truly live in accordance with our will – which is, by nature, to serve God.

    St. Paul uses the term “slave” (doulos) to describe himself.

  12. Byron,
    lol! yes I have an ‘old clunker’ washer. I’m happy with it as long as it gets the dirt out!

    With us, our true limits are actually the “contours” of our true self – the outlines of our very personhood – which, it turns out, is an image of Christ Himself. Christ does with His eternal Word and divine energies, what a painter does with color.

    Father, there is indeed a beauty in the limits that the Lord creates in us, particularly in ‘obedience’ which does much, I believe, to strengthen and form a humble heart.

  13. “Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

    – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 9

  14. Nothing functions without limits. Perhaps that is one reason God became man?

  15. “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
    🙂

  16. Nes and Kristyn,

    Thanks for the wonderful Chesterton quotes. They put into words the terror and confusion and misery of the modern youth: fighting depression, lacking confidence and direction, and seeking to bring the whole miserable existence to an end. If there are no boundaries, then the canvas of their lives is blank at best and at worst colored only by the cold and scheming world that wants their money and their souls. The loss of framework and structure also translates into the loss of love. You can do anything you want…because nobody cares.

  17. A wonderful and providential reflection as usual, Father. I too second David S’s question about how to respond to the “all things are possible for him who believes” rhetoric divorced of the Cross. It hits home for me particularly because I had believed God gave me a specific promise concerning a specific person who now it appears I need to let go of and move on from. I worry that if I do, perhaps I am not trusting God (failing to trust the inner voice and spiritual intuition I thought He was giving me concerning her); but if I don’t, I’m not surrendering to what actually is as far as her wishes at present.

  18. James Isaac,

    I cannot know how similar your situation is to mine (or to St Jacob’s!), but I sympathize; I’d be happy to chat on e-mail more. Sometimes things take a long, long time, looking hopeless in the process. But Christ is our hope.

    What we often think of as spiritual intuition is just repressed emotion. Yet if this was confirmed by God, accompanied with verified signs, discussed with your spiritual father (ie, godfather) or someone else with serious experience and a lifetime of faithfulness, etc, then that is quite a different matter. Just be prepared for an outcome that looks less like the American Dream and more like you being crucified. Much more realistic—and probably much closer to why God put you where you are. Truth will always involve suffering.

  19. David,
    “Faith” is one of those words that has been distorted beyond recognition in the modern world – largely through distorted versions of Christianity. First, there are problems with the “anything can happen.” St. James chided us for misusing faith. “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James 4:2-3 I once said, “Americans want the spiritual life of Mother Theresa, and all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos.” I said it so long ago that the references were contemporary! You might have to look them up.

    We need to concentrate more on our daily needs, and giving God thanks for all things, with a strong eye towards beginning to embrace providence – that God knows everything we need. I very holy man that I once knew never asked for “things” or situations. He simply thanked God for all things and said that He did not need to ask for anything since God had already promised to meet his daily needs. He had little, desired little, but had a fullness of God. That is faith.

  20. James,
    I’m quite leery about promises regarding other “free agents.” God cannot give what he does not control – and He does not control other persons. I’m also leery of inner voices and intuition – sometimes they’re smack on the money and sometimes completely off.

  21. Father, I learned the hard way (in my late 30s) that prayer will never override someone else’s free will. First I had to understand the agency that God has given to every human person, and then I had to learn to live with the understanding that the only “free will” I have any jurisdiction over is my own. I shouldn’t say “I learned” but that “I am learning.” I never thought of it terms of your comment above, however; we do tend to conflate trusting God with an expectation of how His creatures will behave.

  22. James,

    If you have to choose between God and your inner voice, go with God; the other can be wrong. And of course the old adage applies here: “If you love something(one), let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” That applies not only to the beginning of a relationship, but all along the way. Because things can be “ours” to a greater or lesser extent, and that measure fluctuates – sometimes hourly.

  23. Thank you Father, Joseph and Drewster for your comments. Very helpful…especially JBT “just be prepared for an outcome that looks less like the American Dream and more like you being crucified”. I guess it’s a sort of epistemological crisis I’m experiencing, because I thought I was conversing with God and hearing His voice and it was bringing me peace, helping me to not be so hard on myself as I tend to be, etc. Because getting stuck up in my head surely isn’t the answer, yet seems like the only alternative. Idk maybe she was “supposed to” be the one I had prayed for but our mutual issues and toxic shame drove us apart or maybe the story isn’t over yet. Must surrender all to God and His loving providence. Perhaps that’s ultimately what “letting go” really means.

    I’d be happy to correspond by email, Joseph. 🙂 not sure if I’m allowed to publish it here though.

  24. David,

    A lot of the confusion of “faith” is in our culture’s psychologizing of it. It becomes nothing more than an idea or a hope–and that is easy to state and easy to ignore.

    I once told a non-believer that “faith is a life lived”. The push-back was at once both extreme and almost violent. He simply refused to consider that faith is anything of substance. I held to it though and he eventually stopped trying to recast it into his own, insubstantial, view. Sometimes an inflexible response is required. But it must always be given in kindness, with love.

    Father Damick’s recent post is excellent, in my opinion. “Faith” is about “faithfulness”–a very concrete living, not an idea of life.

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/asd/2021/04/12/exorcism-faithfulness-prayer-and-fasting/

  25. I find the story of St Mary of Egypt interesting as it touches on my work in mental health with traumatised children and adults in the criminal justice system. It’s my understanding that St Mary ran away from home around 12 years and then through her early to mid teens displayed various hypersexual and destructive behaviours? This paints the classic picture of abuse which would ring all sorts of alarm bells today – a child flees its home often because of abuse and then vulnerable and alone survives as best they can. The recognition of hypersexuality in children and young people as a common feature of past and ongoing sexual abuse by adults is well-established. The victim often lacking boundaries comes to believe that abuse is a form of love and acceptance e.g. being passed between men . Our understanding of psychology today means that St Mary would now be seen as a likely victim of abuse rather than as a utterly depraved ‘harlot ‘ mired in ‘bodily pleasures’ (I wonder whether some of monks who narrated her story in the way it has come down to us were blinded by their own distorted desires). The way St Mary withdrew so completely from society is also telling and has parallels with the actions of traumatised individuals today. Reflecting on the psychological aspects of St Mary does not negate the radiant redemptive element of her story in fact for me it makes it all the more compelling. St Mary in her early days was more sinned against then sinning, although as she progressed towards God she surely tested to the upmost the barriers to God we all have in our hearts. A victim and survivor who emerged victorious.

  26. Since Pascha, 2005, barely three weeks after the death of my wife of 24 years, wgen Jesus showed me the Truth of His Life and the bestowal of it upon those in thr tombs I have not feared death though ut still wars in my members and leads me into the slavery of sin, I also know that, if I repent and call upon His mercy, it is given. It is the mercy which both convicts and sustains me for it and it alone endures forever despite my predilection for death.

  27. Jill,
    With our present knowledge, it’s impossible not to speculate on such things. Also, knowing people who’ve been through these things, I can only admire her all the more. It’s a hard enough battle without the demons planted by abuse.

  28. Jill,
    I’m glad you made your comment. Indeed your reflection offers depth to the potential history that St Mary had. I’m also glad you questioned the harlot label. Going throught what she went through, she probably thought of herself as a harlot. Nevertheless, God covered her sins and through her repentance and aceticism she became a great saint, given high honors in the Orthodox Liturgies of Holy Lent.

    Thank you for your comment!

  29. Byron thank you for that link!

    Isaac James, your comment reminded me of two podcasts I’ve heard, one by Archemandrite Seraphim Aldea and the other by Archemandrite Sergius Bowyer. In these podcasts they relate what experience we might encounter when we ask God to show us what path to take or what circumstance might come.

    Fr Aldea was afraid to pray for guidance, he relates, because he feared he would read “God’s hand” in a whole assortment of possibilities. So what he prayed for is an unequivocal response so that he wouldn’t ‘read signs’ when there were none. So out of the blue he was called and asked about whether he wanted a “free” heritage church building to be the foundation for a monastery. He was immediately excited about “God’s answer”. But like Joseph B.T. says above, the free church became a cross of heavy restoration with numerous fiascos and searches for funds to help with the restoration. After years the dream starts to take form, but still with many trials and setbacks.

    Fr Bowyer says, that if it seems God is “silent”, the answer might mean not yet, or that “He has something greater planned for you”. Keep in mind that in the Orthodox Way, marriage is martyrdom. And such marturdom is a form of obedience seen in a very positive light, because it leads to the salvation of the wedded couple.

    Last, I vouch for what Fr Stephen says. Sometimes intuition is spot on the money and sometimes it is a huge miss. Rather, in such a situation, I’d wait for the Lord to speak ‘loud and clear’ aka Fr Aldea.

    In my own case, I avoided my poor husband-to-be like the plague. He was a good man but I wasn’t ready for a relationship. Thank God he was patient. However, he did arrange secretly with my friends to invite him when the occasions seemed appropriate. By coincidence, he would show up when I went out to have a coffee with my friends. And this was in the days before cell phones. So here it was, I began to wonder whether this was Providence. Perhaps it was…in the long run and with much loving martyrdom. : )

  30. Dee, thank you for sharing your insight and experience. Two things I regret praying: for God to send me His appointed love and for Him to refine and purify my love for her. (Well, I suppose that is a fleshly regret…helps to be reminded that it is the crown of martyrdom and the Cross which truly marks love. Although even these things can be taken and misused…the death I’m struggling to die is the death to ego and self.)

    Perhaps letting go doesn’t mean giving up, but embracing the pain of being rejected by the one you deeply love in your soul and allowing God to work within and transfigure it. And, to bring this back to the original topic of this post, to accept limitations and not expect myself (or her) to be some perfect lover (I’ve made lots of mistakes too)…

    No worries about the name-inversion thing. 🙂

  31. James Isaac,
    Disappointment is a major trigger for shame, and it matters not where or how it happens. When it is as personal, and intimate, as a relationship, however, I think the wound goes deeper than almost any. Such wounds also come with what is felt as a rupture in our communion with God. We can bring those experiences back to Him and ask for His presence in them – seek to find communion with Him in that very place. That – for me – is exceedingly difficult. You are in my prayers. May God comfort you.

  32. Thank you Father….it’s been almost 2 years in process. The shame I felt in the disappointment of the initial breakup (given how excited I had allowed myself to feel and how close and intimate I felt with her) sent me into quite a downward spiral which thankfully has largely healed. Indeed, for almost a year I became convinced I had blasphemed the Holy Spirit and had lost the possibility to experience communion with anyone or anything! Then the disappointment of feeling that rupture in communion with God had healed, but she was still rejecting me…anyhow I appreciate your prayers and the loving support of this blog “community”. May you all be blessed in the Lord Christ.

  33. James Isaac – i have come to the conclusion that most of us have no idea what real love is. Here are some excerpts from The Ascetic of Love by Mother Gavrilia that have helped me…

    Question: Mother, should we expect our feelings toward the other person to be reciprocated?

    Answer: Love, as taught by Christ for the first time, is offered without expecting anything in return. This is the great, the vast difference. In this Love, the Ego no longer exists. Our own self ceases to be. We give our love to the other person, as we receive it from God, without any thought as to what [the other] does with it.

    Question: You mean the way Christ loved?

    Answer: Exactly… All persons of God love this way. They do not love because they expect something in return from the one they love; they love because if you cease loving, you cease living. Those who have not felt that, have not felt the Joy of God at all. Not at all… because they are concerned only with themselves, all the time… [They say], “I love this person so much and he does not reciprocate my feelings. I did so many sacrifices for him…” You hear such nonsense so often! It has nothing to do with Love according to God, which comes from the Source of Love, goes to the other [through you], and returns to the Source. Who am I to expect and wonder whether the other person loves me or not? Do we feel in union with God? What else do we want? This is our sole purpose in life!

    +++

    True love gives… and expects nothing in return… Love is to love someone for what he is… Not in relation to yourself. This is how God loves us.

    +++

    …because I love [God]… I want to offer myself every day, willingly, lovingly… I tell Him, “Lord, I want what You want.” I cannot feel differently. It is the same with people. I want with all my heart to love them… I don’t care who they are. They are human beings — with a heart, a soul, a mind — just like me… When you love someone, you cannot be selfish towards that person… This is why we were born, dear, to love! …You give your love, and you do not mind if you are loved in return or not… Not a bit… because you receive God’s love… What you really care about is if you love and if you are with Him.

    +++

    Once, I asked my Angels, “Where does God want me to be? What does He want me to do?” The categorical answer was, “Where you go, what you do, how you live…is of less significance. Only one thing is important: the quality and quantity of the Love you give to all – to all – without discrimination…” The quality is determined by the giving of Love without expecting reward. As to quantity, Love must be endless, to the point of personal sacrifice. For Love without sacrifice is not Love according to God. But, what kind of sacrifice? That which is not felt as being sacrifice! …Not the calculating kind which says, “I have sacrificed this and that, and what have I got in return?” That is Pharisaism!

    James Isaac, Maybe you can see this experience as an opportunity to love more purely without expectations.

    In Christ, Esmée

  34. So beautifully true. Part of my problem has been a sort of perfectionism in requiring that of myself and despairing of being unable to give so freely. I’m finding though that the more I give myself to God and accept that my inner and true worth is an inalienable gift, the less “need” I feel for approval and worth from others. Lots of “psychological” childhood wounds etc. also have been roadblocks to truly giving and receiving love freely…but ultimately that’s the goal, isn’t it?

    Thanks for sharing, it helps to keep that perspective always. And pray for mercy!

  35. Jill,
    I appreciate your comment from yesterday as I was going to write one much like it when I saw that you had already communicated the message. It’s bothered me ever since I first heard of St. Mary of Egypt. I don’t think her any less of a saint – perhaps more. But it disturbs me that she is often held up as an example of someone who followed bodily pleasures and was controlled by passions. What 12 year old girl has any idea of such things unless someone has illicitly introduced her to it? Even then, she may not be pursuing “pleasures” as much as trying to fix her broken self. I recall many years ago asking a young teen about why she responded to her sexual abuse with an admittedly promiscuous lifestyle. “Because at least then I can start it and stop it” (i.e. have some control over it) was her reply. Still, God is glorified in Mary’s story as He helped her find healing and redemption.

  36. Mary, Jill, et al
    I think you are both quite right about the likely beginnings and cause of St. Mary’s “sinful” life – our own experiences teach us this. It is also the case (I think) that we have the text of her life, as she herself described it to St. Zossima. It is, no doubt, an account that is marked by extreme humility, in which she herself chose not to suggest blame for anyone else. That would not normally be a path to initial healing from trauma and abuse – but – in the course of a life-time, might be the way a saint would come to describe themselves.

    Thus, I want to respect both. We are all “harlots of the desert” in some manner or another – and we all got here through some occasions of the chain of abuse that is common to all of our human experience. Some endure deep abuse, while for others it is mild. For some, the abuse can easily be identified and described, while others would have a hard time putting their fingers on it. And yet, here we are.

    The weakness of our modern narrative is its assumption that we can make the world a better place, end abuse, set the captives free, eliminate evil, etc. Those are excellent goals, but the goals often obscure the thing at hand. What I hear in both of your comments is a loving attention to the thing at hand – real persons who have endured real abuse and have to live out its consequences. God give us grace to make the journey easier and the burdens lighter.

    May St. Mary of Egypt, and all the “harlots” (both female and male) pray for the many victims of abuse, both visible and invisible, who now find themselves carrying the burden of shame and burden of sins not of their own making. God give us all grace!

  37. Hi, Fr. Stephen. Question, when you say God does not control other persons, obviously God is not a puppet master. But does that mean God does not work on other people, or in bad situations, control the outcomes? I’m wondering about the distinction. Thank you,

    Laurie

  38. Laurie,
    God does not override human freedom. However, He works in all things always for our sake. There’s a great mystery in Gods providence, much of which is only seen through the Cross. He is a suffering God who enters into the depth of our suffering even making it His own. Mostly, I think we tend to treat this in a manner that oversimplifies something that can only be known in its depths. At its heart, it is always His love at work.

  39. I want to thank Jill for her comment and for the responses to it; much appreciated by me. Also I want to thank James for sharing his experience and the discussion that followed. I second Esmee Le Fleur comment about love, and would recommend to James this wonderful article about love, https://orthochristian.com/137490.html, that I found very helpful.

    Father in your comments I very much see the virtue of balance, something lost or dismissed by Western Culture I suppose, and I imagine proclaimed as a great virtue in the Church.

  40. This is a good time to express my deep gratitude for the people commenting in this thread.

    Wonderful link, Anonymo! These words are so edifying that I’m going to print them up and keep them on hand for re-reading. I pray that they will sink into my heart.

    Also, Esmee, thank you so much for these quotes. I had a difficult day today and they were very timely when I needed them.

    Indeed, Father, our shame is so key to the suffering we experience when something happens unexpectedly and we are disappointed. This is the experience I reference today. It does not involve an intimate relationship, but a relationship of trust and responsibility. As you have said in the past, it does help to give thanks to God for all things as He providentially brings all things to Himself.

    However, He works in all things always for our sake. There’s a great mystery in Gods providence, much of which is only seen through the Cross. He is a suffering God who enters into the depth of our suffering even making it His own.

    Thank you for this, and your ministry, Father.

    Last but not least, James, thank you also for inspiring this outpouring of responses.

  41. You’re welcome, and thank you all for your kindness and support (I was a bit afraid I’m airing my dirty laundry in public again). Thank you Anonymo for that link as well…most helpful. (I need to print it out and post it on a wall too!) That tension between the real love I know is there and the dependence aspect has been the crux of my inner struggle…the more the self (“ego”) is crucified, the more real love can pour forth. Learning to be merciful to myself while not excusing the tendency to smother has been most helpful.

  42. Father, one of the cardinal limits in our journey toward Holiness is obedience both to God, one’s spiritual Father (if any) and, especially for priests, one’s bishop. Yet there are clearly times when such obedience to a person contradicts the greater obedience owed to God. In that case, the journey to holiness requires apparent disobedience. Do the Father’s give any guidance on proper discernment in such cases?

  43. Michael,
    I’m not certain that I understand your premises. You say, “there are clearly times when such obedience to a person contradicts the greater obedience to God.” We do not practice obedience to persons in the Church. We obey a bishop in his office as bishop – a task to which we have chosen him, ordained him, and told him to do certain things on behalf of the flock. That’s not an endowment of special powers on a person.

    The same is true of a priest. He acts in obedience to his bishop, not according to a personal whim.

    Even in the case of a monastic’s spiritual father – there has been an agreement of obedience that is an inherent part of the relationship. If it becomes impossible, then the relationship needs to end. Sadly, it happens.

    More problematic, however, is when the merely personal thoughts of someone ordained become confused with the authority given in ordination. We cannot bind the faithful to what not commanded by God. It can be abused. When it is abused, we may seek out someone else in the chain of command (so to speak) and receive guidance – mostly guarding ourselves against our own merely private wishes.

    There are times in the Church – when the good order and well-being of the whole – require decisions and the exercise of authority. This past year in the pandemic, for example, it has been perfectly within the authority of bishop or priest to insist on certain temporary practices in the Church (such as distancing and masks) for the sake of the health of all. Someone has to make such decisions. We can disagree (our consciences are not bound) but, for example, when we step through the doors or on the property of the Church and there is a statement of policy that is made, we obey it, or we stay away, etc. When a ship is in danger, the captain of the ship needs to obeyed. There will be time enough to court-martial him later if he made mistakes.

    So, the second thing in your premise: “obedience to God.” Obviously we always owe obedience to God. But, given that Americans have the consciences of Protestants, I very leery of an obedience to God that is somehow in disobedience to priest and bishop (I would want to find ways to check carefully on my conscience).

    Now, given that I’m not just a convert, but a convert who was once an Episcopal priest, I know what it is to have to follow God rather than a bishop who is in error. When I was leaving the Episcopal Church, I wrote a formal letter renouncing my holy orders (and was thus desposed) in order to be free to receive chrismation in the Orthodox Church. Indeed, I told my Episcopal bishop my intentions a year before they happened – and we agreed on how that would work. He actually asked me to kneel and gave me his blessing! It was an interesting relationship.

    In all cases, it seems to me, that openness, kindness, and humility are important.

    Can you give examples that meet what you describe as “clearly”?

  44. Fr,

    That was one of the most succinct, most nuanced, and most Orthodox descriptions of obedience I’ve read in a very long time. Thank you; that is not a voice I hear anymore, particularly from those in spiritual authority. It isn’t just that such love, obedience, and ultimately loyalty to Christ have fallen by the wayside—they’ve almost completely disappeared from our wildest imaginations and become beyond our ability to conceive.

  45. Father, the clearest historical example is that of Patriarch Sergius and his proclamation that the joys and sorrows of the State are the joys and sorrows of the Church.
    Obedience is always personal, despite what you say. On good days I try to be obient to the Person of Christ. His authority is invested in particular people on earth too. It only remains valid to the extent that that person is obedient to God and the Holy Tradition. That is the reason, I think, heresy is often named after its most visible proponent like Arianism and Sergianism, et. al.
    Still, it can be difficult to discern. The darkness obscures.

    However in just in my short life in the Church I have heard statements from people I love and trust that come perilously close in my mind to “I am just following orders”.
    That troubles me, especially, with so much evil stalking the earth in ways that are reminiscent of what Sergius so famously failed to respond to well.

  46. Michael,
    Sergianism is a good example. In our sick age, where everything is politicized from every angle, it is easy to imagine Sergius where he is not. The sin and delusion I think is in the notion of how we think about the State in the first place. I do my best not to think about it at all, just as I don’t care to think about the devil. He is powerless and so is the state. We need to live small, keeping the commandments and doing the next good thing. Getting caught up in political imaginings and the culture war is simply a waste of time. Those who rejected Sergius did exactly those things.

    Sergius was part of a State church that was a major part of his culture. We are part of a tiny minority that are seen as insignificant. We should resist the temptation to write a script for our place and time that simply does not fit.

    If we would live as “blue collar” Christians instead of constantly imagining ourselves to be managers, we could ignore the idiocy of the imaginary power of the state and just keep the commandments. Almost anything else is vanity.

    Also, many people in Russia continued to attend the Church under Sergius because they had no access to the underground church. They minded their own business and did their best. Eventually, God took care of things.

  47. More thoughts:
    As dark as it is – and it is dark – I think we appears all the worse if we spend our time in places where the darkness is greatest. On a daily basis, I get up, make breakfast for my wife, do my prayers, check on emails and the blog. I might do a bit of reading or writing. Any darkness that enters the day largely means that I’ve been scrolling through the news or spending too much time on Facebook or stuff like that. No one has come knocking on my door insisting that I accept darkness.

    If I live rightly, and small-ly, the darkness is not really much of a present issue. If it is darkness in the life of another person, then, I can do some measure of charity or kindness to relieve it. But the darkness of which we become most aware is a media-borne disease. That is quite avoidable.

    Back last year, I had some local Appalachian guys in the house working on the stone around my chimney. Somewhere in the course of the day, a political question arose in the conversation. One of the men began by saying, “I ain’t ever voted, but…” I laughed with a certain joy. His life had not turned on such worries. Instead, he laid stone, loved his family, and went about his business. He didn’t have a lot of opinions. That, I think, is the salt of the earth.

  48. Yes, Father. I need the reminder to live small, obey the commandments, do the next right thing. There is enough political idiocy here in CA for the whole country! God will eventually set things right, gravity will win out. And, yes, looking at the long haul of history, the state is powerless.
    “Blue collar” Christians…I like that. I was both blue collar and professional in life…prefer the blue collar!
    Esmee. Write more poetry. 👍

  49. Father,

    I appreciate the discussion on obedience. While the true nature of the Church is an apocalyptic mystery, would not the metaphor of family more approximate its essence rather than military or naval metaphors? If so, then what are mom and the kids to do when they are convinced that Dad is steering them into a cul-de-sac in the wrong part of town, and have expressed their concern but been met with hostility and indifference? Obviously what would happen in this actual analogy would depend on the level of trust in (or nowadays, bare acceptance of!) Dad’s leadership within the family…I suppose my question is what “should” happen based on this lens of viewing things?

  50. James,
    I had to smile at your example, primarily as I thought about how important the role of a priest’s wife is in the life of the Church. I know of a matter some years back when the Holy Synod of the OCA needed something of an intervention. I understand that a strong letter from Mat. Juliana Schmemann did the trick (she was the wife of Fr Alexander). There are many aspects of the life of the Church that are not recorded but are essential. On the whole, my experience of Orthodoxy, is that there is much of an unseen life that constitutes its wholeness.

  51. “There are many aspects of the life of the Church that are not recorded but are essential. On the whole, my experience of Orthodoxy, is that there is much of an unseen life that constitutes its wholeness.”

    This made me think of how the org chart of most companies can never fully reflect what’s going on. Where I work there is an admin assistant who manages the calendars of senior management. When those managers speak about her, it’s evident that she holds a certain kind of authority over them, though she’s the lowest paid person in the department.

  52. Drewster,
    We have false imaginings as well. For example, people speak about the “male priesthood,” as if every male in the Church was a priest, when, in fact, only a tiny number of men become priests. But our gender ideological narratives (in which a “token” representation is somehow seen as significant) sees it as some sort of insult to all women. That the priesthood in the Church is a “male” role, is not quite accurate – it’s a “very few male” role. Modernity’s myths generally fail to understand reality and seek to reshape it into its false narratives. God is ever-so-much more creative.

  53. Fr. Stephen,

    This is so true. And when I start holding forth on the ills of the company or the various lobby groups, I am reminded that the same “misfit” syndrome is present within the roles of my own life. For some I’m too big, for some too small, and so on. But our ever-so-much more creative God uses all those to effect salvation in my life and those I touch. Continually a genius.

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