Freedom and the Self

This Sunday on the Orthodox Calendar commemorates St. Gregory Palamas – perhaps the most significant theologian and teacher of the late Byzantine period. He particularly is important when considering the nature of the Christian experience of God. Orthodoxy believes that it is truly possible to know God though He remains unknowable. The mystery of this true knowledge constitutes the heart of St. Gregory’s work. I offer this small reflection on the topic of freedom in his honor.

Part of the experience of being involved in religious activities in the late 60’s and early 70’s was the not infrequent encounters with members of cults (they seemed to be everywhere). I’m not certain how I would define a cult (not purely by doctrine but certainly by its destruction and control of its members as whole persons). I worked in a “coffee house” (which in that particular time period, oddly enough, was not associated with coffee) for a couple of years – playing music and being involved in the adhoc ministry that was part of that world. We encountered young people from across the country (there was hardly anywhere else to go on the weekends, unless you drank or did drugs – the coffee house had neither). But a common thread in my encounters with cult members was an absence – it was as though nobody was home.

Conversations could be attempted – but the answers came back as selected quotes. Doubt, questioning, many of the things that you would expect from most people in conversations regarding God, were part of the absence. It is little wonder that people involved in cults were often treated as though they had been “brain-washed.” Something like that seemed to be the case.

Since then I have occasionally (though not often) encountered the same phenomenon in people who were not members of what anyone would think of as a cult. However, the same sense of absence, of a rigidity replacing freedom, marked the encounter.

Several years back I came across a small book that offered interesting insight into all of this: In Search of the Person: “True and False Self” according to Donald Winnicott and St. Gregory Palamas (Alexander Press, 2002). With a title like that, how could I resist? I was not familiar with Winnicott, though from what I read his work is pretty standard psychological fare. The author is Fr. Vasileos Thermos, who is both a practicing Psychotherapist and an Orthodox priest, living and working in Greece.

I was struck by a quote in the book from Fr. Dimitri Staniloae:

“To the extent that man does not use his freedom, he is not himself. In order to emerge from that indeterminate state, he must utilize his freedom in order to know and be known as himself.”

To summarize (hopefully without doing injustice) – our freedom, an essential part of what it means to be a person, is frequently suppressed in the name of religion (or other ideologies). Fearing immorality (or something similar), or seeking conformity at any cost, it is easy to reduce a person’s freedom, substituting a false obedience, that results in the creation of a “false self.” This “false self” is the “absence” I encountered in some cult members and others.

Freedom is a paradox. It is an utterly inherent part of our existence – a critical part of our salvation – and yet threatening in its power. Freedom of the self can seem a threat to every kind of order (religious, political, social, etc.). Nevertheless we are told in Scripture that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (freedom)” (2 Corinthians 3:17). St. Paul will also warn in his letter to the Galatians (5:13) that our liberty should not be used as an excuse to sin. And thus the paradox is set. Without freedom, we will not become the whole person we were created to be and which is the proper end of our salvation. But freedom can also be directed incorrectly, leading to yet another bondage (to sin). But substituting a religious bondage for a sinful bondage is not the answer.

Of course, Scripture also speaks of our being the “slaves of Christ,” a true statement when rightly understood, but also capable of misunderstanding and misuse.

This is, for me, part of the paradox of Orthodoxy. When I converted, a number of acquaintances in my former Church, made explanations to themselves that my conversion was an effort to hide from and avoid the discomfort of freedom. There was an assumption on their part that because the Orthodox Church’s teachings are clear and “conservative” on certain points (certainly in comparison to liberal Protestantism), that the Church must therefore be rigid and controlling. This is simply not the case.

It is easy to assume that canon law, because it is canon “law,” suppresses our freedom and makes us slaves. And yet this is not at all the case. The canons and Tradition (like Scripture) point us in the proper direction and enlighten us in the path of salvation. But the Orthodox application of the canons is guided by something other than a rigid literalism. We fast, but not as though the fast were a law. Every Bishop and Priest who serves as a custodian of the canons, has to apply them with salvation in mind (this is the proper use of what is termed “economia”). Different persons, different situations, require different applications of the canons. One rule does not fit all.

This mystery extends throughout the Church. This is not a reduction of canons into mere “guidelines” but the requirement of wisdom in their application as we seek to direct souls towards a proper relationship with God. The freedom of the person has to be respected in a manner such that what is nurtured is the “true self” and not a humanly created automaton (the “false self”), or simply the ego quoting what it does not truly know.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The paradox of our relationship to God is that obedience in our relationship to Him does not enslave us – but sets us free. It is the same as the paradox of the Cross. Christ said of the Cross, “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own self” (John 10:18). Our own salvation can be no different. No one can take our life from us – we must lay it down of our own self.

We lose our life in order to find it. We lose a false self in order to find the true. The saint is the most free of all human beings. What a strange wonder.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





21 responses to “Freedom and the Self”

  1. coffeezombie Avatar

    This somewhat reminds me of a conversation with a coworker I had a while back, the son of a Baptist pastor in the Bahamas, where he said that his brother had pointed out once that the Baptist religion was the (or one of the, at least) “most guilt-ridden” religion he knew. I remember finding that rather ironic, since the Baptist church I was a member of would often point to Catholicism as being guilt-ridden, while they enjoyed freedom in Christ.

    Perhaps because of my Baptist upbringing, I often find the idea of freedom in obedience difficult. Obedience I understand. A God who is keeping a minute list of all my disobediences, ready to meet out punishment at any time (though, of course, willing to forgive each of them when I repent), I understand. Fasting as a following of a rule sent down by this God, I understand. To draw from Archimandrite Meletios Webber’s “Bread & Water, Wine & Oil”, God as a *power*, I understand.

    God as a *person*, well, I hope I’m getting there.

  2. Mark the Zealot Avatar
    Mark the Zealot

    Whose service is perfect freedom.

  3. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Excellent topic and very well-written. I enjoyed hearing about some of your personal life as well as the definitions of freedom and the true self.

  4. David Dickens Avatar

    A frightening thing this freedom we speak of so openly. I have begun to wonder if others understood the depth of it, we would have to use more hushed tones.

    This is a dangerous business this freedom, this loving God of ours is a terror to the world. We please Him, He loves us; we sin, He loves us; We ruin ourselves and the world, He sends His Son to us to heal us with His very life, even knowing we will take (what cannot be taken, but was given) that life of His Son. Offensive is this love! Now more than ever have I come to appreciate the Hell we live in as we thrash ourselves around the crucible of His love. Light, warmth, life itself we bash ourselves against like a frustrated toddler; often knocking ourselves out cold from the impact.

    “Take it away, we beg. Take away my freedom. Stop loving me. Or I will wash my mind in entertainments, and scorch it with chemical distractions, and give myself over to tyrants of this age to strip this your gift from me!”

    So we say. So we do. And yet, He still loves us.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My observation over the years is that human beings, for the most part, don’t like freedom. Not really. We would rather forfeit our freedom to tryanny or licentiousness rather than realize it in the free gift of love that is obedience.

  6. Reader John Avatar

    It is ironic, perhaps even “projection,” to see Orthodoxy as un-free.
    One of my classmates in law school, a southern Indiana man (like me, older than most of our classmates) had become Roman Catholic. He put it roughly thus: “Better a Pope in Rome who claims infallibility but pretty well leaves us alone than some ignorant Preacher Boy who just claims to be preaching the Bible and tries to micromanage his members’ lives.”
    There doubt are some latitudinarian Churches around, but that broad brush paints a recognizable picture.

  7. Yannis Avatar

    Thank you for your posts Reader John and especially David, really enjoyed them.

  8. Jeremy Krenz Avatar
    Jeremy Krenz

    Father Bless.

    As a recipient of blessing from your blog, and now your book, I am wondering what the chances or possibilities would be of a sort of chapter by chapter study of your recent book, ‘Everywhere Present’ via the blog?

    Thank you Father for your time!

    In Christ,


  9. James, the Brother Avatar
    James, the Brother

    Father Stephen,

    I have often seen and heard the term “economia” used in context of the faith.

    Can you offer a working quick “cliff note” thought on that word that I might be able to incorporate into my thinking as it pops up occasionally.

    By the way, I really enjoyed your book. I started out just wanting to read it but ended up reaching for the yellow highlighter often. It’s a book that I will come back to often and will not end up in my “already read” section.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Generally it means a lessening of the canonical requirements because a strict application in a particular case would do harm. Thus giving a lighter or easier penance (epitimia) in confession would be a use of economia. It could have other applications as well. Frequently in missionary situations there is a broad use of economia because of the nature of the situation.

  11. arwrites2 Avatar

    I learned of my loss of freedom when attempting to snowboard in my 40’s. I had the right board, snow, a gentle mountain and a good instructor. But I couldn’t get past my need to direct, or control, movement.

    As a kid, I swam a lot in the Pacific. Caught in riptides, I allowed the power of the ocean to guide me until I could swim around the danger. I didn’t even think about it; I was guided without thought, without mindful intent, by the sea’s natural strength.

    When I converted to Orthodoxy a few years ago, I mindfully followed instructions to be obedient, which essentially meant pray, fast and attend Church as much as possible. I thought to be humble, to love my neighbor and do good work. I failed miserably. I began judging my fellow church members on how they acted, what they wore. I judged my priest and his family. Realizing my hypocracy, I judged myself harsher and fell into despair. It’s as though all demons from hell collected in my mind to thwart my relationship with God.

    Regardless of my sins, I feel the love of God. I feel His presence regardless of following Orthodox rituals of fast and prayer and confession. His love is pure, thoughtless, in that I don’t think to feel it.

    He exists in all, be they Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim. It’s our minds that diminish His presence. Our judgmental, goal-oriented minds.

  12. davidperi Avatar

    Thank you for posting this article. One book that really helped was by Metro Hierotheos Nafraktos..Orthodox Pyschotherapy..found most of the chapters online except the one that was needed…the transformation by the Holy Spirit. Later when I went to a Monastery, I found this book.

  13. Chris Avatar

    It would seem our freedom is only “liberty’ in context. In my experience there is no such thing as absolute free will, if that we true my mere wishing of something to be true would make it so. Instead I think God gives us enough room to choose between the “natural order” and disharmony. If I got whatever I wanted simply because my so-called “autonomy” demanded it, then I would enjoy the fruits of Heaven without God which is ridiculous to suppose, I would be my own “god”, rather I think the paradox of being “free” yet “enslaved” is that God is the only true freedom that exists because He is the only “being fully and entirely free unconstrained by anything. Otherwise we just delude ourselves with self-righteous grandeur that tends to manifest itself with self-centerdedness and hedonism on a personal level, and the idolization of “the people” or “the ruler”.

    Also, I think Fr. Dumitru Staniloae is a helpful in the way he articulates that Creation is an “objective subject” being filled with God and its the personal character of things as opposed to the idea of Creation as being neither good nor bad, neutral or profane.

  14. Canadian Avatar

    Just a comment. The will, being a faculty of nature both in God and in us, means that it is confined to the capabilities of the nature it is a component of. Free human will can be fully free within it’s natural capabilities yet not free as if it was divine (as you allude to). In Christ though, he unites our free natural human will to his divinity and gives that humanity capabilities above what is strictly natural to it such as walking on water, vanishing from sight, or glowing as the sun on the Mount. He wills as a divine Person, we will as human persons.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It seems to me Father, that human’s would rather be under tryanny than to be free; rather be told who we are than to be who we are. The consequence is bad govenments, bad bishops, bad fathers, and a life lived in bondage to out passions and to the created things.

    It takes courage to really face oneself in the Light of God’s grace. Most, I think, can’t handle it. Even those that can have to step back and have a cup of tea from time to time.

  16. David Wooten Avatar

    Father, Bless,

    Do you happen to know the provenance of the icon at the top of this post?

  17. Father Stephen Avatar

    I do not – the “internet” is the best I could do.

  18. Yannis Avatar

    St Gregory’s icon shown is a 2007 icon painted by Matthew Garret:

    See November 14th entry in the site linked.

  19. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    David W,
    the icon is by Matthew Garrett of Boise, ID.

    Store is here:


  20. Monk Chanan Avatar

    I very much liked this article, Fr Stephen. It caused me to rejoice in that it was like my spiritual mentor Thomas Merton’s beliefs; his whole life was a call for this kind of freedom to be shown in the interior life of the disciple, in as much as it is no more than the working out of the grace and Spirit of Christ, who said, “If the Son of Man makes you free, then ye shall be free indeed!” This, in Merton, was not related to liberalism or modernism in the least, which often was displayed in many mistaken followers, that is to say a kind of sixties sandalista modernism, but was instead that very beautiful working out of the grace of Jesus Christ which can thrive in a disciplined monastic setting and the whole community is committed to the orthodox truth of the new testament, the fathers, the creeds and the teachings of the saints.

  21. Andreas Avatar

    This reminds me of the book “The Freedom of Morality” by Christos Yannaras which I have read. The only way in which a human being can gain true freedom is by being good, more specifically it is by following the Right Path correctly throughout ones life ‘being as Christ-like as possible’. I must say, that knowing that this is true and that following the Truth is the only way in which one is truly liberated, is most comforting, empowering and gives one great happiness and joy. Through prayer, fasting, Holy Communion and all the other Orthodox sacraments and mysteries of the Faith, Orthodoxy being the True Faith, and Christ being the Truth, The Way and The Life, if one is a good Orthodox Christian then that is the only way one can be saved.

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