The Frontier of Personhood

The word “frontier” has long been associated with certain aspects of American mythology. “Frontier Days” is short-hand for log cabins, flintlocks, and the rugged life. Occasionally it takes on aspects of the “Wild West.” In recent generations it has been moved off-planet, such that we hear Captain Kirk intone, “Space…….the final frontier.” It is also a word whose meaning has been forgotten, as our mythology has overtaken it. Originally (15th century), the word comes into use as a reference to the borders between countries. A frontier…is a boundary. This remains the case and is its primary meaning. It is also, however, a reminder that our culture was born in the actions of ignoring boundaries. It is indicative of a cultural narcissism that has afflicted us for centuries. We’re not good at boundaries.

Many societies have pushed against their boundaries. France and Germany notoriously battled over what, exactly, was to constitute their border. England and Scotland did much the same. Such territorial disputes are probably inevitable (unless established by a river or a mountain range). The American experience was something unique. Here, the “boundary” (frontier) began at the Eastern shoreline and continued to the Western shoreline. The entire country was “frontier.” “Pushing the boundaries” was a way of life.

This should be borne in mind when thinking about the modern mantra of progress. Progress in America has always carried with it the assumption that boundaries (frontiers) exist in order to be overcome. The ultimate paradise would thus be a condition in which all boundaries would disappear. We speak of the “frontier” of space, the “frontier of science,” even the “frontiers of morality” (all of them targets for progress and boundary-breaking).

In point of fact, a healthy life is marked and shaped by various frontiers. It is only boundaries that allow us to see and know. Boundaries are an inherent and essential part of personal existence. The very heart of the Christian understanding of God is that He has a tri-personal existence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within the very mystery of the godhead are boundaries. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, on so forth. Thus, true existence, is never without boundaries. We understand that, created in the image of God, we ourselves have a personal existence. Beyond this, our spiritual fathers teach us that we do not yet fully possess such an existence, that it is something towards which we are moving. In that understanding, if we speak of “progress” in the spiritual life (which I am loathe to do), such progress would not be the violation of boundaries, but the fulfillment and perfection of boundaried, personal existence.

Modernity, as the violation of frontiers, urges us towards a knowledge and way of life that consumes and absorbs, ever crossing boundaries in its pursuit of progress. In the 1960’s, Crosby, Stills and Nash sang, “Rules and regulations! Who needs them! Throw them all out the door!” a paean to the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. It was a silly mantra, but resonated with those who imagined themselves at the frontiers of change. Narcissism makes for easy revolutions, but with destruction and misery as its primary result.

The boundaries of personhood are at the very heart of Christian love. Our profession that “God is love,” is a recognition that the truth of all things requires, not just the recognition of boundaries, but their respect. When the Scriptures say that love is “patient and kind,” it is describing life rightly lived with regard to the boundaries of others. Our impatience often insists that God intervene, set aside the boundaries of our freedom, and fix the world. That would be the modern god. It is, unsurprisingly, an apt description of the modern idea of government.

Love is the “weakness” of God. His love can be frustrating, even maddening, when we long for our will to be made dominant. In the face of human suffering, Christ suffers. This is not the answer we desire from our gods. In our culture, love is understood to be a desire, or a passionate mark of brand loyalty. We want to possess the other.

Boundaries (and, thus, love) requires that we endure healthy shame – for this is the emotional experience that comes with boundaries. The virtue of enduring such healthy shame is known as humility. Love is impossible without humility. Many are surprised when they first hear that God is humble. Christ said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29) This is not a temporary “role” assumed by Christ, but a true revelation of the nature and character of God.

Like God Himself, Paradise contains boundaries (the commandment not to eat of the forbidden tree). There is no path to paradise that does not include boundaries – and the healing within us that allows us to live with them. The true unexplored frontier of our time is the mystery of a boundaried existence. We will either learn to become persons or devour one another even as we have devoured the planet on which we live.

52 comments:

  1. The religious background I come from had a “non-conformist” heritage. The idea of these heroic individuals who went against what the church taught to follow their individual beliefs had a lot of appeal. In a culture like America it makes sense, but it is a dark path to go down. I am glad my body parts don’t push the boundaries, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this comment.

  2. Thanks, Father. This part was particularly helpful: “Our profession that “God is love,” is a recognition that the truth of all things requires, not just the recognition of boundaries, but their respect. When the Scriptures say that love is “patient and kind,” it is describing life rightly lived with regard to the boundaries of others.”

    ^that is the only way to be able to love our enemies, despite the boundaries that seem to be inhibiting our love. Chesterton said ‘To love anything is to love its boundaries … For when we have come to the end of a thing we have come to the beginning of it.’ And so, Seeing the boundaries of others with humility as you mentioned, is the only way to see the person in truth, which is in love. This perception sees a sinner and does not judge but rather proclaims “forgive them for they know not what they do”

  3. There are always boundaries of one form or another. We may reject traditional and religious boundaries and believe we are free, but sooner or later will discover that another set of boundaries are imposed on us. It’s a matter of choice; to whom or to what will we conform to – who will we serve?

  4. You are quite right on your description of what “frontier” means in the New World. The American historian, Fredrick Jackson Turner made a career out of writing about the “frontier” and the creating the mythos of the US as a constant assault on the frontier. He used the idea of Manifest Destiny as a part of that.
    The historian, Henry Adams, wrote of the danger of such thoughts and how it just might lead to destruction. In the 19th century there was quite a discussion. The ideal of “Progress” won.

    Philosophically the idea became wedded to nihilism, I think, which rejects all shame and posits a world where all boundaries are to be eschewed. Wedded to technology and “science” the model of the world became much as Adams had feared — rushing head long into annihilation.

    God Himself was even reinvented in that milleau as all manor of “end of the world” sects and scenarios continue to be propagated.
    My personal favorite are those who seek to breed the perfect red heifer for as a sacrifice in Israel to reestablish the Temple in Jerusalem where God will come and reign ushering in the end of the world and creating the “New Earth”.
    God is indeed patient and kind.

  5. Michael,
    I hope I am not verging into tin foil hat territory with this post? I first came across the concept of manifest destiny some years ago, whilst reading Dee Browns book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; a tragedy of epic proportions. Tied in with manifest destiny, I think, is the American dream (which for many is in reality a nightmare), American exceptionalism and neo Zionism (your reference to the perfect red heifer?) within some strands of Evangelicalism. And not forgetting the prosperity gospel, are all forms of neo colonialism, as is all of the present woke politicking that is part of the current zeitgeist. A colonisation of minds rather than invading countries, but the invasion of countries is still on the cards, if the colonisation of minds is not working.
    The distortions of truth, the ideas, the actors and the scenery (techne, etc) on the world stage may change, but the same agenda is being proposed.
    History continues to repeat itself. We are the same as we have always been and tend to conform to the wrong things; informed mainly by the passions, Non-conformity is an illusion, as is progress. We are either bound to God, ourselves, or the demonic.

  6. Andrew,
    What you are describing are various forms of “modernity” and its ideas – largely fomented and nurtured in American culture. We speak of “globalization,” but it is largely “Americanization” that is taking place across the world. And, it is not “America” as a brand, but as this narcissistic frontier mentality in which we consume the world and each other. America’s religious experience has largely been one of inventing new Protestantisms and revivals, etc. The current “Wokism” (or whatever it should be called) is an American religious revival, and cannot be understood in any other manner, I think. American Protestantism is without boundaries – and consumes people and cultures.

    I sometimes become nervous when I hear people speak of “Orthodox evangelism” – if they mean some sort of Americanized attempt to “spread” the faith. The problem is the temptation to have what is essentially an Orthodox brand of American Protestantism without actually becoming truly Orthodox. There’s a fair amount of that out there.

    So, it brings us back to boundaries. To slowly become truly a person. This happens in and through the sacramental community of the Church. It’s slow, slow work – something that happens over generations.

  7. For what it is worth, my ‘evangelism’ is limited, at this point to one person. A close friend who is actually Orthodox but was deeply hurt by a member of my community calling my friend’s grandson a racial slur. I have been holding on to him so that he does not drift too far away. Ultimately it is a work of the Holy Spirit.

  8. Fr. Stephen,
    not being American and not having spent any time in America, it is not easy to get a proper perspective. I can only try and make any sense from what you term as ‘Americanisation,’ from reading and my experience of its effects where I live and have lived. It’s the same with my seeking and learning about Orthodoxy, except I have no experience of Orthodoxy; it’s confined to reading at present.

    I appreciate your articles and replies to posts. Thank you.

    From reading your reply to my post, would I be wrong in thinking that, what I would term narcissistic Protestantism, will sacrifice anything and everything to achieve its goals, whatever they may be. As an example, an actress a few years ago on receiving an Oscar celebrated the fact that had she not aborted her baby, she would not have received such an accolade, which in reality is a useless piece of metal?

  9. Andrew,
    Good example. I understand that you’re in the UK. What became the “American way of life” was brought here largely by British transplants – but was quite unique in its own ways. Britain, for example, has the natural boundary of being an island – though England has never been very good about sharing that space with Wales, Scotland, etc. And Ireland didn’t have enough ocean between them and Britain, alas. The colonial period of Great Britain had something of the American spirit within it – expansion upon expansion.

    The hollow core of much of European Christianity, particularly in its Protestant forms (and increasingly otherwise as well), is a living testament of modernity’s own hollow spirituality. Chesterton noted that when someone stops believing in God, they are quite likely to believe in just anything.

    America’s revivals, in their various forms, created our politics, both in the 19th and in the 20th century. The current so-called culture wars between Left and Right are a religious struggle, both sides being largely composed of delusional fanatics. We live in dangerous times.

    As WC Fields once noted: “The world’s a dangerous place. A man’s lucky to get out of it alive.”

  10. Fr. Stephen,
    I am currently in Nigeria (have been since 2014), but I am from the UK, I am Welsh. Even though the English have not persecuted us for many a long year; Wales has been under English rule for over 800 years. The union was between England and Scotland.

    That quote from G.K. Chesterton is rather spot on, as are many things he had to say.

    What you say makes sense, what America is now has it roots in the UK and Europe; colonialism, Protestantism and the enlightenment project. Thank God for Orthodoxy. Like I say I have no experience, but what I am reading is seriously challenging much of what I have previously thought and believed.

    To para quote Hank Williams- ‘Nobody gets out of this world alive.’ We all have to die.

  11. Father when even attending the Divine Liturgy is taking on a political cast to it with the evangelical fervor to boot: To mask or not to mask. The ongoing and still present ethnic divisions, etc. I am having a hard time going some weeks. I seem to be celebrating a different God than many of my (mostly younger) fellow parishioners….
    A line I heard once: “God created man in His own image. Man, being a gentleman, returned the favor. ”
    It has always seemed to be a struggle to not allow the Church to become just
    another political/social club. I hope we do not loose our savor (Mt 5).

  12. Andrew,
    I have an Anglican (American) priest friend in Nigeria who teaches in a seminary, though I don’t know where. He’s a good man. The tide of history has a way of sweeping people along. Modernity was not a decision people made, it was marketed to them. The tempations that yielded to it were yielded to by others many times over in the centuries before, only they were not facing the juggernaut that is modernity. Its mythology, which is derived from various heretical developments of Christian thought, is the single most powerful opponent that Christianity has ever faced…and we’ve been losing ground steadily. At present, it is only Orthodoxy that, I think, has the possibility of withstanding it, though time will tell. Only God knows how the tides of history will move.

    On the other hand, we should never despair. We live at the time and place God has given to us and all things are in His hands.

    My ancestry includes a bit of Welsh, English, Scots, Irish, and a small slice of Danish. Typical American Southerner.

  13. Narcissist definitely don’t recognize boundaries. When you set boundaries to protect yourself, they do not take it well, and find other boundaries they can break as pay back.

  14. Father Stephen,
    I, and my 2 brothers- in-law, were “assaulted” by an evangelical this morning, as we stood outside a café where we had just breakfasted. He was a man in his 60’s. With no warning he looks at me and asks, “If you were to die tonight do you know you’d go to heaven?” I responded, “I know Christ.” I guess that satisfied him. He goes on then to the two others with me. The 3 of us were having a good conversation before His intrusion. I just wanted him to go away, like a pesky fly.
    And, after the assault and throwing the questions at us, which I’m sure were burning in him, he left. Your article is on boundaries. This man knew nothing about personal boundaries as he invaded ours with impunity.
    What Michael is doing is commendable…focusing on someone he knows. And Father you have often said that one of the best things we can do is to say, “Come and see,” as we invite someone to liturgy. The Holy Spirit converts, not us.

  15. Father Stephen,
    I believe what you say about Orthodoxy withstanding the onslaught of modernity and what ever else is in opposition to the truth.

    I don’t know why I have been lead to this; the Holy Spirit? I was until two years ago a Roman Catholic. Before that for thirty years I was formed by and lived a worldly life; a prime product of modernism.

    Some years ago an RC priest suggested to me to pray the Jesus Prayer. Which I did intermittently. I did this for some time and read some Orthodox books about the Jesus prayer, then for no reason let it go.; mostly praying the RC Divine Office and just being quiet for an hour a day; which at the time I believed to be prayer?
    When I moved to Nigeria, I left the Orthodox books I had in the UK, except for Vladimir Lossky’s, the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. After some time here I was drawn back to the Jesus Prayer. I also started reading as much as I could online about Orthodoxy. To cut a long story short I became convinced of the truth that Orthodoxy is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This put me out of communion with the Roman Catholic Church. I await on God now.

  16. Fr. Stephen,
    we have a slight Welsh connection. I like differences, and similarities. Similarity’s unite and differences can be embraced in their truest sense. This one size fits all in thinking, etc, will not bring people together. This can only be accomplished in Christ, ‘where the is no Jew, nor Greek, no male nor female.’

  17. Fr. Stephen,
    I was bit unclear in my earlier post; I was RC until two years ago; the thirty years before that, was before I became RC in 1994.

  18. “Modernity was not a decision people made, it was marketed to them.”

    While not wrong, not exactly the whole truth either. Father has many times spoke about the generational scope of disfunction – trauma. I think something like that is at play here too. There is no need to market to someone who’s in the system and can’t even comprehend an alternative.

    The amount of pain and struggle that I had to overcome just to break out of established “conventional wisdom”, felt enormous. I’m still not baptized or christmated into the church because of my lingering attachments to others still living in that world. After studying as catechumen for more than six months, I think my priest thought I was ready. I knew I was not. Not yet.

    Where we’re born, how we’re raised, my history, the attachments – maybe there was some marketing there – but everyone believed the same thing, it’s not like there are many dissenting views to consider as to the way things work. And some beliefs are self enforcing – deviate at your peril.

  19. Great post! Than you father.

    A quote from Thomas Merton came to mind. When he become a monastic. Merton writes, “Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me, and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.”

    Maybe we always find ourselves as persons within some set of boundaries. In paradise. In Christ. In Church. In Marriage.

  20. Andrew,
    May God grant you peace and joy in your path into the Orthodox Church.

    A funny thing happened in my catechumenate. My husband (who is not Christian) said to me that I ‘got religion’. His words bothered me very deeply. Having not been Christian before my entry into the Orthodox Church, I wasn’t ready to call myself religious. There was just too much association with all that is Protestant with such a designation in my mind. I wanted to (and I guess I still want) to deny I was religious. In the discussion with my priest (my catechist and confessor) he asked me a few questions: Do I pray every day? Do I make prostrations before icons in my home? Do I come to Divine Liturgy as often as I can? Am I present (not so distracted) to Christ in my prayers? After saying yes to these questions, he said, “Dee, I think you’re going to have to accept the fact that you’re religious”.

    Believe it or not this was a difficult “pill” to swallow. I still find it hard to call myself religious. There is a boundary of sorts I want to draw between myself and those who think themselves religious (remembering my not so positive experiences with evangelicals among other Protestant groups who pride themselves in their religiosity and forcing their ways on others). However, I’ll also be candid that I worry a a bit about the infusion of converts into Orthodoxy from Protestant persuasions. It seems to me that it is harder for them to distinguish different theologies, including the mindset to “evangelize” others. But thanks be to God, the Lord has patience with me and my hang ups. And I need to trust God that He’ll make things right according to His will and way in His Church as it grows in the US –this Church is indeed His Bride and Body. And it is also my prayer that we do His will as His Church–although we are kind of messy in doing it. It seems we’re still living the stories we read in the Book of Acts and Epistles.

    Nevertheless, somehow it is still easier to say that I live in Christ, than to say I’m religious. I keep wanting to draw that line. Perhaps it is out of shame or pride. Or perhaps I resist labels, with the exception of my willingness to call myself a Christian. But still, I insist on the difference that I’m an Orthodox Christian, and let the social ‘chips’ (whatever they might be) fall where they will. (I teach chemistry in a small university and I’ve made my ‘religion’ public–I ask for your prayers in this regard)

    Please forgive me, Father and Andrew. I’m not sure that this is much of a helpful comment. But it reflects my ongoing life in Christ. I’m learning (ever so slowly it seems) what it takes to become a person in Christ with healthy and appropriate boundaries.

    Father, thank you for your helpful article.

  21. Dee,
    thank you for your reply; it is helpful. I could really do with some peace and joy! Being religious? I’ve been accused of being religious, by people who describe themselves as being spiritual (New Age types) and therefore in some way being superior, because being religious is akin to stupidity.

    At a lecture I attended some years ago, a Roman Catholic priest talked about this modern false dichotomy of the spiritual versus the religious. He said that being religious was not opposed to being spiritual in a Christian sense. Being religious means being committed to God; there is a relationship which binds us.

    I hope all goes well with your going public about your being religious in your job at the university. It seems that it is a risky position to take as a Christian these days; especially in education. I remember having a job interview some years ago and mentioned that I was a Christian. It was relevant to a question that I had been asked. It didn’t go do down very well. One of the interviewers looked at me with contempt. I didn’t get the job.

    I will pray for you.

  22. Dee, et al
    I rejoice at the reception of Protestants into Orthodoxy – and my remarks concerning evangelism should not be understood as a hesitancy about that. I am one of those converts and it would be deeply ungrateful on my part (and arrogant) to imagine that my conversion was somehow different. I should add that I am confident that Orthodoxy will be able to stand the “test” of such additions.

    But, to “heal” modernity, we actually have to speak to it. I could not write as I do about modernity and the challenge it presents to Orthodoxy were it not for the fact that I encountered first within myself. The fact that we are receiving as many converts from that direction says much about the unanswered questions and hungers within the modern heart.

    Within Orthodoxy, there is a conversation that has only just begun. We have to listen even more than we speak. God give us grace!

  23. Dee, I have never thought if myself as “being religious”. In my experience that meant ignoring boundaries and being concerned with externals. I still think that you can be faithful to Jesus and the practice of the Church without being religious. But, hey, that may be shame talking.

    Dean, I concentrate on my friend, Fred, because I miss him and because God gave us to each other. When he was a catechumen, I bought a book for him by Albert Robateau an African American Orthodox scholar. I did not know when I would give it to him, thinking of the Sunday following. At that moment, Fred walked into Eighth Day Books. We greeted each other and I gave him the book. At that instant something happened and we have been friends ever since.

    At one point, after Divine Liturgy, we met in the coat room and he expressed his confusion that a white boy like me, born and bred in Kansas and he could be as close as we are. Its a God thing plus I have known and been friends with Fr. Moses Berry since 1974.

    I am not breaking barriers in my effort to get him back to the Church even though our parish is unknowingly still a bit of a hostile place for him. His sponsor, since reposed, was a white co-worker who was a convert himself and out of the ethnic and social norm of the parish, as am I.
    To be faithful to Jesus, he needs to be there but he will only come if I am his wingman.
    That also means that I have to be there despite some really strange stuff that makes it difficult for me too.
    We are brothers in Christ.

  24. Father, I do wonder from time to time how and to what extent our personhood from God intersects with our personal autonomy in the world socially and politically. At times it seems to be very little at other times as with the martyrs under the Soviet yoke, especially in Romania it seems crucial (note the derivation of crucial from ‘cross’).

    It is particularly difficult in a culture like ours which is post Enlightenment hedonistic.
    Historically, even during the roughly 1000 years of the ‘Christian Empire’ government has often not been the friend of Christians. It is clearly not so now.

    Where is the point that one’s personhood in Christ is violated by voluntary participation in such a culture? Where is the line for the Church that prevents her from lapsing into Sergianism?

    I know you cannot answer the questions but I need to ask them. I find myself more and more looking to the witness of the Romanian Christians under Soviet rule as both a guide and a hope. I was introduced to that witness by the Protestant Richard Wurmbrand.
    The Romanian Communists did not care what type of Christian you were.

  25. Michael,
    Through my many years of trying to follow Christ, more than 50, I have found that I have only helped folks draw closer to Christ through relationship.
    These have resulted in the only lasting fruit I have seen. There is a paucity in St. Paul’s letters on calls to evangelism. I recall only one where he says something like being ready to give a defense to those who ask you of the hope that is within you. That hardly sounds like Bible thumping!😏 I will pray for Fred, easy to remember since my wife is Freda.

  26. Thank you Dean. What a blessing. May your prayers redound to you in showers of His mercy.

  27. There is a man here locally who has carried on his personal brand of evangelism for decades. He seems to be a bit in The Fool for Christ mode. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/15593
    His truck that he drove around all over was also pained with crosses and the exclamation “Jesus Saves”.
    I drive by his home often and I have always gotten a lift out if it Still do. I will miss it when it is gone.

  28. Despite the city forcing him to paint over his house some years ago, It did not stay that way long. Then the city decided to leave him be. I thank God for men like Mr. John Pollard.

  29. Father,
    We have had different lives in Christ. Yours has been a much longer road within the Christian faith. Someday my heart may be healed from the works of those who say they were Christians but bore no resemblance to Christ in their behavior. Unfortunately most were Protestants.

    Nevertheless, one of the most gentle, humble and loving souls I’ve ever known was my father’s father. My grandfather was a religious Quaker of the ‘old school’ type, for want of a better description. I try to remember him in my moments of trials and temptations when I believe I’m encountering or perceive residual Protestant expressions from Orthodox parishioners. Perhaps these are moments that the Lord is using to heal my heart in these circumstances.

    The Church has indeed endured many difficulties and at different times unhealthy or unhelpful influences. And She is still here alive with the Holy Spirit through the grace of God. In these times, it is good to identify and focus on the influences of modernity in the way that you do, rather than to participate in the culture wars of sorts or of particular groups of people. I see it as a very loving approach that you have to speak to these matters. And indeed it is good to develop skills of listening and a offering a loving presence to others as you and so many of your commenters show. Thank you for your patience with me.

  30. It is good to be careful and describe and point out the effects of Modernity and to identify it by its appropriate name.

    As you say Father, we all carry this baggage in some way. And the learning of boundaries is an important step in the way and life of Christ.

  31. There is a boundary of sorts I want to draw between myself and those who think themselves religious

    Dee, I sometimes mull over the use of generalities as weapons in our society. Father has mentioned before that God is particular in His love for us, but our world seems to enjoy “dumbing down” everything into generalities and using them to assault, to confuse, to create division among us.

    I tend to think this is reflected in our own views because it is so prominent in pretty much everything around us. We are inundated with it and can’t really help being influenced by it. I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself over it. I think it is healthy to concentrate on recognizing it more than anything else. That alone can be pretty eye-opening. Just my thoughts.

  32. Dee, Byron,
    I think that what is most helpful in what Dee describes – is to say, “This hurts.” That helps us talk about the problem, and why someone else might be less bothered by it. It also describes it in a way in which we can attend to the hurt rather than being angry at people who might hurt us again.

  33. Dee of St. Hermans,

    I’m also a chemistry professor at a small college, having been received in to the Orthodox Church six years ago or so. I would love to hear about your experiences finding meaning in your work and understanding how that fits into your life in the Church/your family.

    Thank you for telling about your feelings regarding identifying as ‘religious.’ My own are, you might say, an antitype of yours. I find a certain satisfaction in saying “I’m religious.” In a rootless age, it’s identifying with a group which is (as other posters mentioned) looked at with contempt. It is nice to be able to go ‘outside the camp’ in this way. For me.

    If you have any interest in a separate correspondence, I can be got hold of at opsomath at gmail .

  34. A comment from my friend, Simon:

    First, I don’t hesitate to think of Orthodoxy as religion and myself as religious because in my understanding the true self is ontologically religious. Our ontology and our ultimate hypostatic realization is religious. I am closest to glimpsing my true self when being given to prayer. All other projects are mere pathologies of human religiosity.

    Second, pushing on boundaries is a sign of growth. Abraham pressed the boundary as an intercessor. Jacob’s true self was revealed by having pressed the boundary of his communion with God. Job was vindicated by God for pressing the boundary of his communion with God. He so forcefully pressed the boundary of communion that his false friends said, “But you are doing away with the fear of God and hindering prayer before God.” They could not fathom Job’s boldness. Christ himself said that “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

    The boundaries the world pushes against does not increase communion, but drives us deeper into dis-integration.

    To which I would add: Amen.

  35. Father would it be accurate to say that the boundary humans must push against is the false boundary of sin and self-will?

  36. Michael,
    Those would be boundaries of a sort. There are also, to stay in the theme of the article, false boundaries created by shame (of a toxic sort) that we have to push past in order to get to the truth that they hide from us. Often, such boundaries are not of our own making but have been imposed by others, or circumstances, etc.

    This movement that is “deeper” or “higher up and further in” takes us to various boundaries. It requires discernment, and lots of grace for us to understand what we are seeing and whether it is a healthy boundary to be carefully regarded, or a false boundary that has to be resisted in some manner. This, too, is a work of grace.

    It is important, I think, that we understand that what we are pushing for is Christ Himself – not just the “true self” (there is no true self that is apart from Christ). That understanding keeps it from just being navel gazing.

  37. Father, since you mentioned evangelism, I’m reminded of something you said in this space several years back. You wrote something to the effect of: “People ask me what I do for evangelism. I tell them, I answer the phone.”
    I love that Father!
    I too came from the Protestant world and growing up in various churches, I was always hounded about how many people I was evangelizing. Even at a young age, I thought to myself, sheesh, I’m not even sure I’m a Christian, how on Earth am I supposed to be evangelizing others? Little wonder that I came to Orthodoxy.

  38. Alan,
    Your comment made me laugh, then cringe.
    I remember the compulsion I felt as an evangelical to “witness.” I wonder if it’s much different than the pressure to
    “publish” (evangelize?) that JW’s feel? I am so glad I am not under this onerous pressure as an Orthodox believer. Paraphrasing an elder who said, “Work on your own salvation in life, and if you can, help 5 or 6 others.” That soothes this brow. I can manage to water a few cactus plants. I don’t have to worry about irrigating the whole desert!

  39. Well said Dean.
    Of course, there’s also the famous quote from St Seraphim: “Find inner peace and thousands around you will be saved. “

  40. Surely you’ve all heard the old joke, or some variant of it:
    A man is out walking in the park, and he sees a priest in his cassock sitting on a park bench. Curious, he asked the priest… “Excuse me – do you belong to some organized religion?” “No,” replied the priest. “I’m Orthodox”. 😉

  41. Nikolaos,
    Both Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Fr. John Romanides treated the word “religion” as a bad thing – Romanides going so far as to call it a “disease.” I would agree with them – if one is using their definition of the word “religion.” The problem is that the word has a fair variety of meanings and uses, and has, over time, been used positively by Orthodox writers and saints.

    So, to say we do not have a religion requires that the term be defined.

  42. Fr. Stephen,

    I read your manuscript “Icon as Theology ” and it’s the best and clearest explanation of icons that I’ve encountered. I’ve already re-read portions and am sure I will do so again. I’m certain this would be of benefit to many people if it were published in some form (even on your blogsite, if not elsewhere) to make it more widely available if feasible.

    For me, what helped the coin begin to drop was your comparison of icons with symbols. Previously I naively thought of icons as something like “holy symbols” that point beyond themselves. Symbols themselves can be quite meaningful and powerful, so to me this was already no small thing. But I now realize that icons do much more. Unlike symbols in the ordinary sense, they “make present that which they represent” (I had heard this phrase before but only after comparing to symbols did the distinction more fully register). I also can see how this goes to the heart of the Orthodox faith and is a natural implication of the Incarnation. I recently acquired 2 icons for the first time since my conversion to Orthodoxy several years ago (I was way more patient about this than I should have been but got stymied by feeling I didn’t yet know what I was doing). They have already helped my experience of Orthodoxy go deeper in ways that I didn’t previously understand. They truly are “windows to heaven” and I can see how they convey essential truths of the Christian faith, including God’s presence in all things. I also can see how/why they are frequently misunderstood by non-Orthodox and this can be a real challenge in communicating the faith, especially to Protestants.

    Thanks again for your beautifully prepared manuscript (I can’t believe you wrote it around 30 years ago and well before your own conversion to Orthodoxy). I think it could be of benefit to many others too if possible.

  43. Kenneth, that phrase “they make present what they represent,” is a great one to remember and contemplate.
    I think it can be quite difficult for modern folks to understand what those words mean snd how profound. “Make present” is a real thing, not and act of sentimental feeling. Therefore they are not idols. The veneration if icons AND those they represent IS Incarnational and messy. Those wishing to keep the Church ‘pure’ and separate from this world, like the original Iconoclasts do not like icons or trust people who do. Some such even reject display and veneration if The Cross.

    Thankfully, one runs across very few dedicated Iconoclasts in life. Usually, even the one’s who think they are, are simply ignorant of the reality.

  44. Thank you for your comment Father on the word “religion.” In my final few years in the P world I saw this same phenomenon where the word somehow came to have a bad connotation. I was perplexed then as I am now to see the same (hopefully small) strain in Orthodoxy. In James chapter 1, it sure doesn’t seem to be a bad thing.

  45. Father, I was reading St. Irenaeus tonight, and he made a remark that reminded me of your writings on boundaries. From Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter IX:

    “For, being driven away from Him who truly is God, and being turned backwards, he shall be for ever seeking, yet shall never find out God; but shall continually swim in an abyss without limits, unless, being converted by repentance, he return tot he place from which he had been cast out, confessing one God, the Father, the Creator…”

    I thought that was an interesting turn of phrase, and reflected well your writings on the destruction of boundaries: an abyss without limits.

  46. My late father, as director of Community Health in Wichita had one responsibility that seemed very mundane and did not generate much political passion but it was constant: Noxious weed control. Noxious weeds affect everybody and the reaction to their lack of control is pretty universal. “Get rid of them!” As with repentance, it is difficult, tedious, not glamorous work.

    When noxious weeds get out of control they tend to obliterate boundaries. There are many varieties and some, if controlled are really quite beautiful. Some are even still sold illegally by unknowing garden centers around the country.

    So it is with “progress”. It has been sold to me all my life as good and beautiful but we are beginning to see its fruit now, I think.

    I have many noxious weeds in my own heart. Some sold to me, some passed on to me, some I thought were beautiful initially. Now, I am finding that I am unable to control them on my own (silly me for even imagining that I could). Neither can I rely passively on the someone else or the Church to do it for me.

    I must “take arms against a sea of troubles” no doubt but my opposition alone is not sufficient and will not end the battle. Only the mercy of God, through the Cross is sufficient.

    To many ears, including my own, the Cross sounds dark and painful and, at times, it can be but it does not lead to death.

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