Living Simply to Simply Live

I attended a clergy retreat this week led by Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Abbot of the Monastery St. John of San Francisco in Manton, California. His first talk of the retreat was on the subject of monasticism in the contemporary Church. It was a very thoughtful meditation. I was struck particularly by his description of a monastery as a “space” built on the four traditional vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. It is a very rich metaphor. I have written recently about holy space, thinking about the nature of our relationship to sacred places. The abbot’s meditation suggested that there is a spatial quality to our spiritual life itself.

The thought makes me ask the question: “What is it that shapes the space in which I live?” If the vows of a monastic create a sacred space within which he or she lives the life of salvation, what promises and vows shape my life in the world? Fr. Meletios suggested that all Christians live within the space of their Baptismal vows. This is certainly true, but the precise character of those vows remains a matter to be defined in each life.

I am not a monk – I am a married man. The “vows” of my marriage (there are no spoken vows in an Orthodox marriage service) are clearly a primary space within which I find my salvation from day to day. Marriage is the first sacrament given to the human race. My priesthood also frames a world in which I must work out my salvation. For every man and woman, the details of life offer a space within which we find God.

There are implications carried by this understanding of “space.” To speak of a defined space is to recognize that the life that I live has boundaries. For the monk, the boundaries are shaped by his vows. For the married, the marriage establishes boundaries: I will find my salvation within the boundaries of this union. One of the characteristics of sin is its resistance to boundaries. The first trespass is just that – a trespass – the boundary given by God is refused, and with it, the life-giving communion with God of which that boundary is a sacrament.

The commandments within our life, whether they be those that frame a marriage or those that govern our relationships with all, are not laws whose purpose is to restrain: they are boundaries given that we may live. There is no human life without boundaries. We will only be truly human if we allow the boundaries given by God to create the space in which we live.

One of the arguments of the icon-smashers of the 8th century was that God could not be circumscribed (placed in boundaries) and thus could not be depicted. The response of the Orthodox was that in Christ, God is circumscribed as man and it is the property of a man that he can be depicted. Every icon of Christ is a proclamation of God’s embrace of the boundaries of our human existence. The life of Christ is a representation of what it means to live as a human being.

Every God-given boundary is a point at which we are invited to lay down our life. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Love of God, love of spouse and family, love of neighbor, love of enemy – all love creates boundaries. Love establishes a limit which abolishes sin: “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

The God who created the heavens and the earth continues to recreate us – giving us a space within which we can truly live.

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22 Responses to “Living Simply to Simply Live”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: The monastery of St. Sabbas in the Holy Land, one of the oldest Orthodox monasteries.

  2. Jon Neely Says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading this!🙂

    Also, I came across this:
    http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2010/01/why-does-grace-come-and-then-leave.html
    and I believe it is quite possible that this was written specifically for me to read by Divine Providence because it depicts clearly the state that I have found myself recently.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    God is good (even when it doesn’t feel that way)🙂 Fr. Deacon Charles Joiner’s blog (which you cited) is quite excellent – it’s an oversight that it’s not on my blogroll (to be corrected shortly).

  4. Joseph Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your website and your posts.

    Jon, I enjoyed reading that article that you linked
    to as well. Thanks!

  5. Michael Says:

    Now I see two ways to view “the ‘lot’ marked out for me is my delight.”

    I look forward to all your postings. Thank you for your inspiration.

  6. Burning Hearts Says:

    The nature of modern society is that everybody professes to know truth, but truth is revealed by her works. There are no secret handshakes or passwords at the holy of holies. The one who sits on the throne of the celestial court has Himself become “The Way”.

    The nature of our participation in the incarnation is wonderfully spoken of by St. John the Damascene “not as a garment or a fourth person but as a body united to God…, as well as the divinity by which it has been anointed’ (‘Disputatio cum Pyrrho’ P.G., t. 91, 337, quoted in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky).

    The incarnation gives the flesh the ineffable faculty (or grace) of being able to penetrate this Divinity. St. Maximus’ speaks of iron penetrated by fire. Becoming fire it remains iron by nature, but as iron it cuts, as fire it burns.

    When Christ was born, a human hand raised the young girl, but the Divine restored her to life. Human feet walked on the water, but the Divine made the water firm. (‘De Fide Orth., III, 15’, 1057A, quoted in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky)

  7. Karen Says:

    Jon, yes, thanks for that link. That was a most helpful post. It looks like an excellent blog, and I look forward to perusing more of it.

    The following post also I think spoke of the issue your previous comments had raised in my mind. It is always a struggle for me to learn to discern that fine line of doing what I can to open myself up to God’s grace vs. trying through self-effort to virtue that only God’s grace can work within me. The deceitfulness of pride is always at the heart of what makes this process of discernment so difficult!

    http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2009/11/choosing-grace-over-self-effort.html

  8. Lazarus Says:

    Reflections on “holy ground”—

    That which we call “holy” is that which has been set aside by God, or by the Church and its members for God. The Presence of God is thus invoked by the very nature of, and made manifest in, that which is “holy.”

    Moses was on “holy ground” when he encountered the burning bush. It was set aside by God for encounter. Our Churches are “holy ground” set aside for the Divine Mysteries and Worship, i.e., for encounter of the Divne. Our home altars and “icon corners” are holy ground, set aside for God, meant for prayer, contemplation, and encounter.

    As Orthodox Christians, our whole lives, in fact, are supposed to be “holy ground.” Everywhere we walk, we should proclaim, by our example, “hallowed be Thy name.” As His Children, we should bring honor to our Father’s name by our thoughts, words, and deeds, i.e. by holiness. We hallow His name by moving always in the sacred space of the Church’s Life, which is Christ.

    Sacred space is also created by those material objects ‘set aside’ for God and that occupy that space. Our icons and icon lamps, our prayerbooks and prayer ropes, holy water, incense, oil, the Cross around our neck, etc. – all those things are set aside to honor God, and create sacred space within the Life of the Church.

    As members of the Church, we CREATE sacred space by living the life proper to members of the Body of Christ. The Church is, therefore, sacred space in the world, the “New Jerusalem” which is now already coming down from heaven and is to come in fulness on that Day. The Church is, therefore, existing always in eternity and in time/space/matter, and thus also are its members. We exist in a sacred space between heaven and earth.

    All sacred space (and the objects and people which occupy it) is, mystically, at this ‘portal point’ between heaven and earth, which is the mystical garden, even the Garden of Eden, where Adam walked with God in the cool of the day. It is the place of encounter, where the New Jerusalem is manifesting. It is the point where the Church on earth and the Church in heaven touch.

    Sacred space, then, permeates the Church, its Life and members. It should be viewed not only as the space bound by time and matter, but as the eternal spiritual ‘space’ (Divine Presence) that is the very Life of Christ, flowing from the Head to the Body and its members.

  9. Mike Says:

    Father Stephen, as I read this was reminded of what Paul Evdokimov called “interiorized monasticism.” There is a sense in which we are all called to the monastic life and obedience to the four traditional vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability regardless of whether we are single, married, lay, or ordained. Obviously the exterior expression of those vows will vary depending our our station in life but the interior transformation remains.

    Peace, Mike+

  10. Carolina Maine Says:

    This post is amazing! Once I learned obedience and realized that boundaries exist-I was happy to keep in harmony with them. I wish I wasn’t such a slow learner though! Thanks for visiting Poet Verse:)

  11. Alejandro Sandoval Says:

    Great articles..

  12. orthocath Says:

    Thanks, Father, for this reminder. Our culture pushes us to “freedom” from such boundaries. The problem is such “freedom” is often self-destructive. Am I, as a father, “free” when I neglect my wife and children and fail to provide for them? Or, is my life as a father more authentic and real if I fulfill my role? Such is real freedom – to live responsibly in the role God has given me.

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  14. Percy Vere Says:

    Deaqr Fr Stephen,
    “the vows of marriage are the primary space within which I find my salvation day to day”.
    Would you please comment about the “primary space” for a widower?

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Percy,
    The “primary space” for a widower, would depend, it seems, on whether the widower was seeking to live faithful to his spouse or seeking to remarry. The ideal practice in Orthodoxy (following St. Paul) is to remain faithful to one spouse for the whole of a lifetime – which would include faithfulness beyond death. Depending on many things, this often becomes a more difficult struggle (the grief alone adds a great struggle). But faithfulness to that relationship – remains – in a changed manner – one of the primary defining spaces of life. The first time I met Mat. Juliana Schmemann, the wife of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, I asked, “So you must be Fr. Alexander’s widow?” To which she replied, “No. I am Fr. Alexander’s wife.”

    This is not a living in the past – for we do not believe that those who have died are now history – retrievable only by memory – but that they are alive in Christ – and with us in the communion of the saints. My mother (may her memory be eternal) died last September. I feel closer to her now than ever. She is part of my daily prayer life (as I pray for her) and I frequently have a sense of her presence that is not at all a matter of memory. My relationship with her has changed, indeed it has deepened. But it has not ended.

    But a relationship with a departed spouse is still a defining space – unless we press forward into forgetfulness – which would be less than Christian. That relationship still creates one of the defining spaces in which we live. “I am _____’s husband.” Thus I am faithful to her. I observe the demands that are appropriate to this relationship now. I pray for her as she prays for me. My present faithfulness (should God so grant) affirms the faithfulness of the years. The love does not disappear.

    When I travel to another city without my wife, she remains (perhaps even more importantly) a primary defining space of my existence.

    It is possible for grief to become “morbid grief,” in the language of the counselors. In such a case the relationship is not the defining space, but the sense of loss of relationship becomes the defining space. Part of the maturation of grief is accepting, even reluctantly, the new relationship that comes with death – living in the present with a life that is utterly sustained by God – and not in the past in which we say, “If only.”

    I hope that is helpful. If you are in such a situation, may God give you strength.

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  18. Percy Vere Says:

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for those wise words – they are most helpful. Having been a widower since October 2003, my inclination is toward becoming a sort of anchorite (although not fully “withdrawn”) wrestling with learning to pray “properly”.
    Some of those closest suggested getting out and about, meeting people “you may meet someone special” & thus not be alone (physically). But I’m not alone, for Christ is in me & I’m in Christ!
    Blessings from PV

  19. Boundaries « View from the trees Says:

    […] lines taken from Living Simply To Simply Live on the spatial quality of our spiritual life. To speak of a defined space is to recognize that the […]

  20. Daniel Wilson Says:

    The three wonderful talks given by Archimandrite Meletios can be heard here: http://saintjohnwonderworker.org/Fr_Meletios_2010.html

    A pre-Lenten retreat that Fr. Meletios presented a few years ago can be heard here: http://ancientfaith.com/specials/archimandrite_meletios_webber

  21. uberVU - social comments Says:

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  22. Demetrios1 Says:

    Thanks for wonderful words!

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