We All Need Boundaries to Gain Meaning
Orthodox Churches display a large icon of Mary called the Platytera on the wall behind the altar. The word is Greek for “wideness” and it depicts a truth for us; namely, the Virgin Mary having been received into the risen Christ’s life has become “wider than the heavens.” What can this mean?
First, it means that we too who have said, with Mary, “Be it done to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38) and who have accepted and live that Word are also destined and blessed to enter, as an old Protestant hymn puts it, the “wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”
In our worship, at the Great Entrance we bring the gifts of bread and wine and place them on the altar with words that proclaim that Christ is “on the Throne with the Father and the Spirit, boundless and filling all things.” There’s that idea again. And yet this boundless Christ deigns to be among us, limited and finite and bounded in person – this is the mystery of Christmas – and now in bread and wine, the ancient fare of common people.
We begin to get the idea: a total difference yawns between the ultimate God who is boundary-less and we who live in bounded nature. We may glimpse the boundlessness of God in the risen Christ, who is the human face of God, and his beloved Mother but we can only wonder at the unbounded Fullness of God. Even the name “God” fails to catch more than a wisp of that unbounded nature. The Jewish mystics saw into this Truth when they called God ayn sof – which simply means “no boundary.” Amen.
But – and this is the crucial “but” – when God is dethroned by idolatry or denial, and if makes little difference which path is taken, then what happens?
Nietzsche and Dostoevsky knew the answer before the turn of the Twentieth Century, and they knew it wasn’t good. If God is dethroned then there is only man to fill the gap and woe betide us. Many will take the place of God and the boundaries will dissolve. Whoever puts himself in the place of God – Stalin and Hitler come to mind as prime examples – will hold no respect for other human beings, for they are no longer perceived as the image of God if God is dead. Chaos may once again reign unchecked, and the lines between good and evil become blurred. Life loses meaning and nothingness, the abyss, looms large.
Newtown Connecticut stands for the latest crimes against humanity. Let’s agree that the criminal was mentally deranged. But what is the nature of such derangement if not a total breakdown of boundaries that most of us respect? Innocents are always killed and lives destroyed. Most of us manage, sometimes by a mere hair, not to hurt or kill others because we know the boundaries; we are able to remind ourselves that others are worthy of dignity, perhaps even that they are made in the image of God. For the psychopath no such checks are in place. We understand crimes of passion because they are personal: Cain murders Abel from the beginning. But senseless acts of violence elude our comprehension.
We must begin to take seriously the breakdown in consciousness that accompanies loss of boundaries. Vertigo of the soul occurs if we believe there is nothing out there, and that we are therefore also nothing: ciphers on an endless horizon of meaninglessness. No wonder people go crazy. We need meaning for our lives and limits to our freedom. For many of us, God provides that meaning and limitation, and will continue to do so. And it’s a blessing, not a curse.
published 21 December 2012