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.

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.



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18 responses to “The Limits of Holiness”

  1. Susan Cushman Avatar

    Mary of Egypt is my patron saint. It was such a blessing to hear her life read during the Canon at St. John last night. Of course I know the Life well, but it always brings new grace when it’s read liturgically. And to read your words here, shedding light on many ways that her experience relates to us, in our often unbridled passions where we try to live what we think is life . . . “without limits.” Thank you for this, Father.

  2. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    A stimulating set of reflections, Father, thank you.
    What you said about freedom, creation and limits make me wonder about the divine nature. I know God has traditionally been described as infinite actuality, following Aristotle. But what about infinite possibility? Could it be that divine infinitude has to do with possibility, while divine finitude (revelation) pertains to the limits of created actuality? In this view, the Incarnation marks the actualization – in time, space and matter – of uncircumscribed possibility. For me, thinking of God’s infinite nature in terms of possibility inculcates mystery more so than actus purus, the latter sometimes seeming to imply static indifference, raw power, mechanistic causality. If one were to posit an infinite pole of pure possibility in God with a corresponding pole of incarnational actuality – if such a theological move were legitimate – then i wonder moreover if the Orthodox doctrine of essence / energies would map well onto such a notion. Of course, “essence” may gain an even deeper sense of profundity in this pattern of thinking. Your thoughts are much appreciated.
    Thank you,
    Owen

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    Generally, Orthodox theology refrains from such speculations. In the Incarnation, God (uncircumscribable) becomes “limited” (circumscribed). It is His self-emptying. But, it’s more a hallmark of Western scholastic thought that works at getting behind that. It’s territory where I do not tread.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Thank you Father. “Jus da slap up agin the side of ma head wid a tar arn” (hillbilly accent) I needed.

  5. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks for the response, Fr. Stephen. I admire your restraint!

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen, your question to Father and his reply made me think of my Dad .
    He grew to manhood working with his folks and brothers on in the high desert of eastern New Mexico not unlike the desert St.Mary went to. Although he certainly learned of the living intra connectedness of all created life, when I started on my theological journeys, he would always shake his head at me and say “You are just saying: what is out beyond, and beyond that, and beyond; it makes no sense!”
    It took me until quite recently to comprehend what he reacted that way. I finally realized that in the desert where his heart always lived–if you looked too far “beyond” you would miss the rattlesnake at your feet, or your horse had wandered off and you were miles from water.

    Something like that actually happened to my granddad once. Bring open range country, keeping track of the cattle was almost a constant job. My granddad was out doing that in winter one time, mikes from home. His horse fell and broke its leg. My grand dad had to make it home in snow and deep cold on foot. He made it barely, but he got frost bite and was snow blind for a month, at least.

    Mt Dad told that story often as a reminder of the need for watchfulness here and now as well as the value of limits. Thank you for the reminder

    The “rest of the story”: My mother taught and loved by what she called the “dynamic spiral” of life. Caring for others because of their unique value and possibilities. But she also let me know that God is real and I needed to find Him in the midst of the spiral–not as an idea but as true being and fulfilment.

  7. Fr Stephen Muse Avatar
    Fr Stephen Muse

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for writing. Yours are one of the only blogs I routinely read, and each time I am blessed by your writing and your creative ways of conveying the Orthodox faith in the nooks and crannies of our lives, cripsly and practically. Thank you!

  8. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks for the feedback, Michael. Lovely thoughts about your father and mother.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen, the journey to the Church for me and my brother was made possible by our parents (although neither understood that in this life). My mother was heavily influenced by Native American faith in the same area where my Dad grew up..
    Long before we were born, a shaman she met taught her about “horizon busters”. I what seemed like polar opposites to what my Dad taught, the shaman told her to sit quietly with one’s entire focus on the horizon. At some point the horizon will “break apart” and she would see a new way to do things from the Divine.

    My life in the Church has shown me that my parents were and are both right…

    My mother reposed in 1984. My Dad in 1999.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Stephen (Muse),
    Thank you ever so much. It’s encouraging!

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father Stephen Freeman:
    My experience has been that “no limits” is liked only by those who have never experienced the lack of limits nor want to.

    The most creative people I have known in my life both crave limits and use them to make beauty.

    Even stand up comics and jazz musicians who perform frequently ultimately have limits to get laughs or create music that communicates…

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    You are right, of course. The unlimited freedom is nothing more than a cultural myth – believed only by those who haven’t dealt with it as a problem.

    One aspect of wisdom is its apprehension of limits and their place in our lives.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Real freedom, as with genuine personhood comes from obedience to God (internal and external). Obedience born from love. At least that is what it seems from a distant shore.

    Obedience to the world results in death.

  14. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Hi, Michael.

    Hypostatic freedom is ontological not deontological. Ontological freedom is the freedom to be what God made us to be. A “good tree” doesn’t produce “good fruit” because it’s working really hard to do what it is supposed to do. The good tree naturally produces good fruit. It follows from its nature not as an act of the will. We can speak of obedience now because we are not free to be what God made us to be. In many ways we may find ourselves trying to act like a ontologically free hypostasis, but that might be self-defeating because there is no way to keep it up. Here is a possible example. Someone may understand that forgiveness of others is the “right thing to do.” But, that act of conformity may actually destroy the person. When a person–over a long, difficult-to-explain, stretch of time–moves into hypostatic freedom the forgiveness may come without effort: The good tree produces good fruit. I feel like my efforts at obedience are beside the point. There is a Buddhist story that is interesting. When a local peasant asked the monk about enlightenment the monk said that “Enlightenment is chopping wood and carrying water”, which are everyday tasks of daily life. I get the feeling that the monk wasn’t far from the kingdom of God.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, you are correct obedience is far more simple than it is made by people.

    The root means simply to hear. The rest involves discernment of some kind since we did not listen originally.

    Our original disobedience came from not listening to God’s “Do not eat…”

  16. Ilya Sterie Avatar
    Ilya Sterie

    The biggest sinners make the greatest Saints. Extremes… pushing limits – within a limited existence.

  17. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I have never found anything special about obedience. I’ve never understood the glorification of obedience. I don’t see any merit in obedience even if the obedience is to God. I see no merit in doing what you’re told to do. I don’t know what to call the thing I’m trying to communicate, but obedience doesn’t seem like the right word. For example, I follow the Church’s lead on a number of things for which I might do otherwise on my own. But, I have come to trust the Church’s lead so I follow the lead. But, to call it obedience seems to trivialize the concession. I don’t see any merit in the concessions in and of themselves. It’s a practical matter for me. And it took me time to get to that place. But now that I’m there it seems to follow naturally. A few years ago to do what I am doing now would have been an act of obedience, but now it’s something else.

    IT’S LOVE…HOLY SMOKES…I DO IT BECAUSE I HAVE COME TO LOVE THE CHURCH!!!

    I JUST REALIZED THAT AS I WAS TAP-TAP-TAPPITY WRITING THIS OUT.

    You never know when lightning is going to strike.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ilya,
    I have been contemplating your comment and keep facilitating between Yes and No Not that my opinion amounts to a hill of beans even though I am attached to it for some reason..
    Certainly, repentance is required BUT
    Matthew 4:17 merely requires repentance saying nothing of the amount or extremes.
    Shakespeare said: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…”

    Repentance is not a force it is a gift, a true mystery. It is not a matter of will, except it is God’s Will for us. He takes the first step: the Cross. We are each and every one of us forgiven.

    Great saints are ones who take up the Cross even if they remain unrecognized by other humans.
    Is a great saint “extreme”? I do not believe so. They are simply as God made them to be.

    Forgive me, I do not mean to argue.

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