Archive for June 6th, 2007

The False and True Self

June 6, 2007

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.

I read a small book earlier this year (purchased at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary’s bookstore) 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. 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 Anglicanism), 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”).

“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.

I Pause to Give Thanks

June 6, 2007


Numbers only mean so much – but Glory to God for All Things passed the 200,000 views mark this morning – all since late October. I generally write at night before going to bed – it clears my head and puts a better ending on the day.  I am deeply moved that so many (and from so many places across the globe) read, and share kind comments and questions. May God bless all of you who visit and read. I thank you for your prayers. Without them I am sure I could not write.

Where the Truth Abides

June 6, 2007


The old addage, “Seeing is believing,” pretty much sums up our modern attitude to the world around us. Common sense and a modest commitment to reason both accept the notion that the world is, pretty much as we see it, and that what we see is the truth of things. Over the years I’ve heard any number of believers suggest that they would like to be able to go back in a time-machine and witness the events in the life of Christ. Some utter such a wish for sentimental reasons, others, more cautiously would like to go back so they could see for themselves, the idea being that once having seen for themselves, they would then know the truth of the matter.

The problem is, we have a clear Scriptural witness that this did not work the first time. The disciples, despite being in close proximity to miracle after miracle still seem to have their doubts. Rather staggeringly, we are told in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel:

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

Miracles do not apparently make believers out of skeptics. If time machines, common sense, general reason and “just taking a look for ourselves” are insufficient for belief, how do we get at the truth of things? This common sense approach to the gospels will never arrive at the truth of things for two simple reasons: there are no time machines and, as just noted, seeing is not necessarily believing.

The Scriptures have a very different claim about the truth. It is Christ Himself who claims that He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Such a statement should change our very concept of truth itself. If Christ Himself is the Truth, then the truth of anything can only be known in its relationship to Christ. Here Truth has been transformed, even made relative, if we understand that it is relative to its relationship with Christ.

Thus if we were to ask, “What is the truth of myself?” we would not look to ourselves to find the answer, much less exercise our freedom and simply define our own truth. “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The truth of my life and its direction and even of my existence is not in me, but in Christ. Thus the truth of things remains hidden.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

This applies not only to ourselves but to all that is. The truth of everything is not yet made clear. Like a mystery story, we read clue after clue, but not until the last page is turned do we realize that a man we thought was important was unimportant; the woman who appeared to be guilty was innocent; and the butler did it after all.

For Christians, truth is eschatological: it is coming to us from the very End of things. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, but the Alpha and the Beginning will not be clear until we know the Omega and the End.

Thus it is that the Church points its life towards the End. We believe that the End of all things has dwelt among us, and continues to live among us and make Himself accessible, most particularly in the mysteries of the Church (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.). At the feast of the Eucharist we believe that we in fact stand at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, that the End is somehow contained or made present within the actions we take at that time.

It is also a key to forgiveness. Sin is the past – it is what I have done – it is what has been done to me. But if the End of all things reaches back to me and makes me His own, then the truth of who I am is redefined. I am forgiven for my fall and made into a new creation. If others around me see nothing of this truth, or, at best, catch only a glimpse, it is still true. For as I remain faithful to Christ and draw ever closer to the End of all things, the truth of who I am (which is defined by my relationship to Him) will become ever more clear.

Icons have many aspects that make for their peculiarity (particularly those painted in a traditional manner). Faces have a particular shape; hands and bodies seem elongated; eyes are enlarged as well as the forehead; ears, nose and mouth are reduced. Is this a portrait of what we think the saint looked like? An icon is a painting that seeks to reveal the truth of the saint – to show us who they are in relationship to Christ. Thus each of these artistic conventions that are the common language of icons are defined by the End of things. They are painted in the truth of their being. No longer bound by earth, their bodies are painted in a way that the earthbound weight of things is replaced by the lightness of being. The senses are reduced for we are no longer sensualists in the End. Eyes and forehead are enlarged for we shall see and know as we do not now. And though saints among us may be hidden now – they will be revealed then. Thus, a Church filled with icons, is also filled with the truth of these human lives. Entering the Church, we are standing at the End of all things.

I enter the Church with my candle, ready to pray. I look up and by grace I realize: it’s later than you think.