Boundaries, Borders and the True God

Years ago, as a young seminarian, I wanted to paint icons. I knew nothing about icons, only that I liked them and that they were holy. The vast wealth of books and materials on their meaning and even on the technique of painting them simply did not exist. My knowledge of painting was also non-existent. But rushing in like a fool, I bought materials (none of which were correct) and stretched a large canvas on the inner front door of my apartment. There I began painting an icon of Christ Pantocrator. I had no training and I used no model. I just painted. The effort lasted for better than a month. When I finally reached a point that I called “finished,” I asked a friend, a fellow seminarian who was an artist, to come see my work. He did. And he laughed.

“Do you know who it looks like?” he asked.

“Christ?” I said hopefully.

“No. It looks like you!” And he explained to me something known to artists. If you paint without a model, there is a very good chance that you’ll unconsciously paint yourself. The Icon as “selfie.”

I have often thought about this incident (and written about it previously). There is a spiritual lesson hidden within it. To paint without a model, directly from the imagination, is to paint without boundaries. And the only thing that exists without boundaries is my ego, my imagined self. My “icon” of Christ represented the ideal representation of sin: the ego as God.

How do we distinguish the ego from the Other? The only means is to recognize boundaries – that there is a line, a place, a fence, that separates me from the Other. Love does not cross the boundary nor seek to blur it. Love requires a limitation on the self and the projected ego. Your life is not about me. An old friend once said, “The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.”

Boundaries take many forms. They may be the concerns, point-of-view, needs, fears, of another person. Those psychological characteristics do not have to be absolute in order to be boundaries. As the borders of another life, they are not me. I stop where you begin.

Our egos, which I am distinguishing from the true self, often have difficulties with boundaries. The ego is a narrative of our lives that is our own creation. It is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It is often how we make sense of things and sort things out. This is a process that is under constant revision. It pushes us to criticize and judge, to weigh and compare. The ego is me watching me.

Strangely, this process creates false boundaries – borders that mark the ego’s own definitions. As such, it is an inherently narcissistic view of the world – the world according to me. In our encounter of true boundaries we find the limits of the self, and therefore begin to find the true self. True boundaries demarcate where we cannot, even must not go. They delineate what we do not know, and we must acknowledge that we do not know. The world devoid of mystery is the world of a boundless ego.

The ego’s search for God is deeply frustrated by His silence. The boundaries of silence, darkness and hiddenness with which God most often surrounds Himself are met with frustration, argument, anger or even rejection. The ego frequently substitutes the products of the mind for the truth of God. God as idea is the God who is most suited to the needs of the ego. Such a God will, in the end, be an icon of the ego itself. We inevitably become like that which we worship.

When I was in the years of my serious inquiry into Orthodoxy, I was drawn to the God I could not have. I understood the eucharistic discipline of Orthodoxy and that there were things I was not yet able to eat or drink and places I could not go. My spiritual journey outside of Orthodoxy had presented no boundaries – I could go anywhere, say anything, eat or drink, commune at will. And with every effort of the ego, I was confronted only with my own ego. The Sunday services I conducted as an Anglican priest were the product of massive negotiations (my ego versus the egos of others who wanted something else). Worship was an uncomfortable peace, this week’s exercise in partisan warfare. My last parish had three masses each Sunday, the work of three distinct communities – that often did not like each other.

The modern cultus of seeker-friendly Church is the logical end of a market-oriented life. But it can never heal the sickness that most infects us. Jesus did not die in order to rescue the ego: He died in order to put the ego to death. When I converted to Orthodoxy, a friend, nurtured in modern liberalism, opined, “Stephen became Orthodox because he was afraid of change.” In truth, I became Orthodox because I was afraid there would be no change – just more of the same negotiations year after year. A life defined only by the success and failures of a boundless ego.

The ego constructs a gray city, populated with negotiated buildings and ever-shifting streets. There can be no value there because there is no reality. Only the borders of our lives reveal who we are. You are not God.

But this is not the end of the story. Christ, praying to the Father, says:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (Joh 17:20-24)

This “High Priestly Prayer” of Christ can sound dangerously like the end of boundaries. It is, instead a life of coinherence. The Son is not the Father, but neither is He the Son apart from the Father, nor is the Father to be seen apart from the Son. Their very names, given to us by Christ, “Father,” “Son,” are names that only have meaning as they relate to the other. This is a mystery revealed to us in the Trinity, an existence in which there is commonality and a shared life, but where the one does not destroy or obliterate the other. That is His prayer: “That they may be one, in the same way [even] as we are one.”

And this true existence requires boundaries: it requires that I not know some things. It requires that there be places I cannot go. And this mystery is given to us in a myriad of ways within the Tradition.

Fasting is learning to eat with boundaries. There must be some times when I cannot eat some things so that I might learn how to rightly eat anything. The calendar is time with boundaries. There must be some days that are different from other days so that I might learn how to rightly live each day. The rules do not exist to protect certain foods or because one day differs from another. The rules are only for us as a medicine for our boundless egos. It is a very good thing to learn that you are not God. It is only there that we will learn what it means to truly exist.

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.



18 responses to “Boundaries, Borders and the True God”

  1. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Another gem. Thanks again!

  2. Byron Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I think I shall wallow in these thoughts for a bit….

  3. Sara Avatar

    Thank you! This is so helpful just when needed.

  4. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Father!

    Your words are timely.

  5. KC Avatar

    Thank you for this profound teaching about the ego and the true self — I’m still learning the Orthodox way and unlearning other ways, and therefore am typically left feeling I have nothing else to contribute — but your teaching is a treasure and deeply appreciated.

  6. Kirk Avatar

    NOT BAD.

  7. AndrewT Avatar

    You make a very powerful argument for Orthodoxy here: it gets us out of our heads. It defrocks our egos. It gives us the bitter but healing medicine. And the working methods have been largely unchanged from old times.

    I feel convinced that an open communion just cannot do this. It’s based on a false and shallow sense of love that doesn’t face spiritual reality of differentiation (discernment among truths and non-truths). What church like that thinks they are on the good side of Christ’s judgments of churches in Revelation? The truth is that they have long since ceased to care or be Christian on that level. A church without fasting cannot do this. We’ll never stop looking out for #1 when our aberrant mode of eating remains unchallenged every day of the year: driving to any restaurant we feel like, and ordering anything we want to eat in minutes, and only money is the barrier. A church without traditional icons cannot do this. Our feeble imaginations will step in to produce images made in OUR image, according to our own liking. Instead of a middle-eastern Jesus precisely depicted as Pantocrater we’ll embrace an Aryan “buddy.” A church without hymns cannot do this. We’ll resort to acoustic guitars and sound like a rehearsal for Kids Bop.

  8. Frdcn Dennis Avatar
    Frdcn Dennis

    This was written some time ago when it occurred to me that the ego/self/I/individual autonomy (the vocabularly is rather inprecise around this topic) actually HAS no boundaries:

    Fear is the natural state of the self/I.  Defined as individual autonomy, I necessarily becomes the terrain of constant strife, for by its nature it can be said to ‘exist’ only in opposition to all else it encounters; all else is seen and experienced as not-I.  This occurs in degrees ranging from passive (not consciously recognized) to aggressively hostile. The autonomous individual is marooned on an island of irreducible contention. 

    I is a wanting thing; it wants forever because it is forever insufficient.  This insufficiency is held for the most part, unconsciously, but is explicitly experienced as fear; it intuitively recognizes that it is not up to the task of satisfying the want that echoes within.  It fears because it is essentially empty, (and in that sense could be said to be vain, the root meaning of vanity being emptiness.) and can generate nothing from within itself.  It necessarily must direct its attention outward…an attention consciously experienced as want…to yield the outcome it desires.  The fear that is already a fundamental aspect of the autonomous self is exacerbated by the uncertainty of the world upon which it must place its demand: “Will it come through?” “Can I find what I need?” “Do I have what it takes to get it?”  Such considerations constantly plague the insufficient self, and fuel the intensity of the search.     

    To say that the autonomous self is empty, while true enough, does not do justice to the perniciousness of the condition.  ‘Empty’ implies the possibility of being filled.  Self cannot be filled because it is ultimately not anything that has a limit that can be reached.  It cannot even properly be called it, for the word itself implies an eventual boundary.  The emptiness of self is infinite, its anti-existence total, which is why it is experienced as insatiable by the one trying to fill it by the wants it demands.  It is the emptiness of a lie, and has no more reality.  The autonomous self is, in fact, THE LIE that gives birth to all other lies; therein is its direct relationship to evil.

     Of all the words associated or synonymous with ‘Empty’ (‘vain’; ‘futile’; ‘worthless’; ‘vacant’; ‘valueless’, etc.) all of which shed some light on it, perhaps the most powerful description is more colloquial in nature, as when we say ‘empty’ to mean ‘hungry’.  In such a sense, it becomes more of what the actual experience of it suggests: that it is beyond simply a neutral, passive emptiness waiting to be filled.  Experienced as hunger, it takes on an organic and active quality, parasitic in nature that demands vitality from its host, and unless interrupted and cast off, will eventually and inevitably kill it.  A recurring line from the Great Canon of St. Andrew comes to mind:

     “… may I not become the food and possession of the enemy.” (Song 4: 23,25,26,27)

  9. James McKeown Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen:
    The center of the alienation that we experience in this secular society appears to be a lack of relationship. However, the cornerstone of this relationship is that of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are called to enter into this but it can only become real when we become a eucharistic and ontologic people centered in humility and concern for the other. We cannot claim orthodoxy to be the basis of this relationship, if we turn from the need to experience the fulness using the scriptures on a daily basis, the divine liturgy, the councils of the Church Fathers and refusing to judge and condemn others inside and outside the Church. This secular society constantly pulls us away from the light into the darkness. Unless we are constantly seeking this relationship through mentenoia, we are playing into the hands of the evil one.

  10. Christopher Avatar

    Well, I have definitely lost the plot. Is this the article about boundaries and morality you referred to in the last threads comments? Following the last paragraph, are we to take the moral commandments (say to not murder, or more relevant today’s anthropological debates or “clash of moralities” – say the clear Tradition to not sodomize {let alone make a “lifestyle” of it}) to be thought of on the same plane or category as fasting or following a liturgical calendar?

    “There must be some days that are different from other days so that I might learn how to rightly live each day.”

    Can that not rightly be described as a *moral* way to live each day (i.e. *rightly*). Indeed, has not “the moral life” been used to describe a life that is not egocentric, and is in a *right* relationship with it’s Creator?

    Given an effort to Christianly explain the underlying (or is it overlying ontological/metaphysical) basis of “morality” (whether one is talking about today’s post-Christian-modernist-secularist-etc.-etc. morality or classical Christian morality, or for that matter Islamic morality) why would one want to jettison morality along the way. People are capable of examining things that come before other things, and the limit of things in light of other things (which also have limits), etc. To live a “miraculous life”, do I become undisciplined first? Of course not. To follow the fast, do I reject food first? No, I simply change my relationship with it.

    I am reminded how C.S. Lewis subtitled “The Abolition of Man” with “how education develops man’s sense of morality”. What was “abolished” of course (for as Fr. Hopko said of what Lewis was trying to warn us about “it happened” – modern man abolished classical man) was man and an new man (i.e. a new ontological understanding of man, universe, God, everything) replaced the old man – and thus an new morality came with this new man (e.g. one were man’s instinctual urge’s are “good” and thus always to be satiated). Lewis hoped that this new education would be stopped, rather quaint and naive looking back now. Lewis’ definition of “morality” of course is not something restricted like “egocentric moralism” but “the way”, the Tao – a much different definition of “morality”…

  11. David Avatar

    Father Stephen –
    Thank you for posting this reflection. Very timely preparation for Lent yet relevant every day of our lives.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Morality is a word (like all words) that can be defined in various ways. Essentially, I have suggested that morality in forensic/legal terms misunderstands and misrepresents the nature of our Christian life and struggle. Actually, I am working right now on an article that will suggest a different way of understanding morality – thinking about it with images that lend themselves better to the ontological reality of our struggle (in a way that legal/forensic images do not).

    I’ll be interested to see what you think.

  13. Dino Avatar

    The flawed foundation of forensic morality is what the Marxist-style politicisation of “today’s anthropological debates” exploits, and in so doing manages formidably well to ‘debunk’ the old for the ‘new’ –all the time exacerbating the ‘falleness’ into which the ensuing generations now find themselves.
    This crafty “rights”-rhetoric that politicises traditionally non-political, ontological issues in order to “speak great words against the most High, and wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws” (Daniel 7:25) loses a great deal of its might when brought back into the ontological plane.
    But the commandments as a manifestation on the created dimension of the life of the Uncreated can only be shown as such by our own saintly life. Such a life can shut the mouths of the dissention with two or three sentences, (if they are willing to listen) while whole books won’t do much without this ‘backup’.

  14. Robert Avatar


    In case you missed it, in the comments of the last post I wrote a short response (there’s also a reply by Fr Stephen) addressing your concern about morality:

    “… coming back to the topic of this post and Christopher’s concern [question] about the (in)ability to use “moral” and “morality” – I would say we *must* bring interpretation to bear on this (and other topics), with full force and without apology. The Fathers did so, unapologetically, without reservation – at times recovering the meaning of existing words and terms, at others times creating new words and phrases altogether. The meaning and use of words change, subject to social conditioning and manipulation. But let’s use that to our advantage! Let us recapitulate our thoughts, our habits of speech, the words we write in accordance with the Gospel and for the Glory of God.”

    Don’t get hung up about the word morality itself – it is rather morality disjointed from traditional Christian spirituality and theology, as it is employed popularly in the modern sense bereft of sound Orthodox ethos – it is this (mis)understanding of morality that one must watch out for. It is this misuse of morality to which Fr Stephen is calling our attention and offering a much needed correction.

  15. Agnikan Avatar

    “The ego’s search for God is deeply frustrated by His silence.”

    “Silence is a great power in our unseen warfare and a sure hope of gaining victory.” — Lorenzo Scupoli, Unseen Warfare. Edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse. Translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987. Chapter 25, 146.

  16. Karen Avatar

    Frden Dennis, thank you so much for that reflection and expansion on Fr. Stephen’s description of the ego. It was very helpful to me.

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    What happened to that painting of yours? And would it be beneficial to post a photograph of it? Just asking.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In a closet somewhere or lost forever. My ego doesn’t need to be shared any more than it is already.

    I think that those who have struggled with my battering of the word “moral” etc., will find my latest post helpful. Looking forward to its conversation.

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