Tag Archives: Mother Raphaela

Boundaries and Bridges

by Mother Raphaela

Most of us have heard the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Concern for boundaries is ancient and not confined to human beings. Animals, too, set up territories for themselves with boundaries they may even defend to the death. The sense of “boundaries that cannot be passed” is a Biblical theme as well. Even land, sea and air were separated by God with boundaries when He created the world from nothing. (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 104).

Creation is an ordered affair. The universe has laws which form the basis for the whole of modern science. It is not surprising to discover that the first scientists were deeply religious people who believed in such laws and boundaries, nor that some of the best contemporary scientists continue to be so, as well.

Partly, perhaps, to reinforce this sense of boundaries, the Old Testament set up many rules against mingling: Plant only one crop in a field; do not weave a mixture of linen and wool; do not remove a neighbor’s landmark… (cf. Lev. 19:19; Deut. 19:14, Hosea 5:10). Indeed, we human beings are set in our own environment, apart from other creatures, living as individuals, families, communities, ethnic groups and nations. This is spelled out in many ways in most religions.

All of these boundaries create a livable environment for our existence. The life of a human being alone, without protection, would be snuffed out quickly.

Perhaps greatest of all is the boundary God placed between Himself and His creation. Since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden for their rebellion, we are reminded by Genesis that “man cannot look upon the face of God and live.”

The story of the Tower of Babel is a tale of men taking the raw materials of creation to build a proud assault against this boundary.

Today we find ourselves living once more in such a Babel-like cultural building, where God Himself is challenged and questioned, along with any boundaries of God’s making. If a technology exists, there are those who feel they should use it, no matter what may be destroyed in the process. We see terrorism, mass killing, genocide and global warming as the first signs that this modern tower of Babel will fall as surely as have all of its predecessors.

Human history is made up largely of following the growth, development, stunting and, at times, brutal destruction of boundaries – boundaries that begin with the first self-awareness of an emerging nation; a new group; an infant; the realization that one is no longer simply an extension of one’s parent.

On the level of churches, nations, communities or any human group, adults who fail to develop a healthy sense of boundaries create anew all of the sins catalogued in the Old and New Testaments. Those in authority may be tempted to see the people under them, even their own children, simply as extensions of themselves, existing to serve them as their own hands and feet serve them, if perhaps with less respect and care than they treat their own hands and feet.

Those not in authority, especially in a democracy, may have a similar temptation, seeing those elected to positions of responsibility as extensions of themselves, with the expectation that they will please them and carry out their will in every way. God Himself would not be capable of pleasing everyone.

Yet we hear Christ calling on those in authority, “the greatest,” to be the servants of all (Mat. 20:26; 23:11).

In fact it is appropriate for everyone at times to follow the instructions of others, to allow himself or herself to be trained.

None of us however – master, comrade, servant or disciple – will be able to accomplish our best if we cannot take responsibility for our own actions, perceptions and strengths. Wise masters gave even slaves the authority and tools to carry out work and obligations.

There is a saying that peoples, communities and groups get the leaders they deserve. I nod my head when I hear that said. Both leaders and people can enable each other in irresponsibility, corruption and abuse; can hobble each other into crippling inactivity, or, when we are at our best, inspire each other to greatness.

On a more intimate level, many of us have experienced families without proper boundaries between members. All sorts of abuse – physical, verbal and emotional – may go on when each person is seen as part of the undifferentiated family persona. The only boundary that may not be broken is that which shields this familial persona from the world. In public, each family member is expected to behave as if everything is perfect. Members of such families often have an outstanding presence in public. They do all they can to keep up the image of being part of a perfect family. On the outside, they seem to be charming, warm and compassionate, loving and considerate to all.

While it is good they have this side, this behavior creates great incredible pressure on those caught within. If a person tries to break free of the family secret, “blow the whistle” on what is sometimes even criminal behavior, the family will quickly retaliate, accusing them of lying. Outsiders may well reinforce this as well, preferring to see only a model family, with each member a “nice person.”

It is a well-known phenomenon amongst “twelve step” groups that often the spouse and children of an addict may seem crazier in public than the addict himself. The addict is able to switch behavior on and off instantaneously, often leaving other family members to appear to an outsider as very flawed, while the actual addict is regarded as a lovely, sensitive person who has been “driven to drink” or to some other dysfunctional behavior by a spouse or other family member.

One who marries into such a family is in for a nasty shock. Until he or she is seen by the others as irrevocably one of the family, the sick, abusive family behavior may never manifest itself.

In 19th-century literature, this is a classic theme, with the sheltered, sweet Victorian bride who had known only sweetness and light, discovering on her marriage night that she has entered a nightmare world with no exit.

Communities and religious groups can also fall into this same type of behavior. We reflect on the Lord’s well-known accusation: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Mat. 23:15).

And the reverse may happen: a relatively healthy, peaceful and happy family or group may be joined by someone who perhaps even unknowingly projects their own abusive standards and behavior onto those he or she is with.

This happens in monasteries as well. Especially people who come from abusive backgrounds may not be aware that they have these “two sides,” for denial may have been the only tool they had as children to survive in such an environment. Such people appear wonderful and charming as visitors and perhaps even for their entire period of probation. When they begin to feel secure in their community position, however, things begin to change. While guests and outsiders will still see the wonderful person, the community will begin to see an irrational display of depression, anger and jealousy, normally accompanied by accusation of others, since such a person has been formed truly to be blind to him or herself.

When I first entered the monastery, I recall being told by a wise old nun that every time I was bothered by observing what seemed to me someone else’s wrong words or behavior I was probably seeing in them what I was unwilling to see in myself, to the extent that they might not even be thinking, saying or doing what I thought I felt, heard and saw: I was projecting what I would be thinking, saying and doing if I were in their position. I have since then learned that this wisdom comes straight from the Desert Fathers.

Until we are able to learn proper boundaries, we build instead the walls of our own prison. When we do not love ourselves enough to accept our own healthy boundaries and limitations, along with our many gifts and talents, we cannot love others properly.

Proper boundaries allow us to see another person with true detachment – and love. Without them, we will tend to swing between two extremes: we may feel totally “at one” with others, when they behave as we feel they should, seeing them as extensions of ourselves; or, when they speak or act in ways that make us feel threatened, we will feel totally alienated, needing to defend ourselves with ever greater physical, emotional or spiritual barriers.

When others try to live with us, they soon realize that they have no clues as to what “set us off” that time. They find themselves in a mine field, never knowing when the next step will cause yet another explosion, while we will be feeling all the while misunderstood, frightened, angry, and unable to face what we may unconsciously fear as hugely destructive forces within ourselves.

This is where blind trust and obedience can be life-saving for us. Some of us literally cannot see where we end and another person begins.

May we be given the grace to pray to begin to see this blindness of ours; to begin to accept at least some of what others tell us of their own vision. We need to find at least one other person whom God has led to health and trust them as blindly as we have previously followed our own destructive path, even when that person’s words may seem to strike painfully at the very roots of our own sense of self and identity.

Such a healing process should not last forever, but it will need to last as long as our blindness exceeds that of our guide.

I believe it is good to seek such a healing process, although we should use every possible means first to be sure that we are truly choosing a doctor and not a fellow patient; a ship’s captain, not just another drunken sailor, as St. John Climacus says of finding a monastic guide in The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Step 4:6).

While it is wonderful when we can find such a guide or mentor in our community, parish or church, we should seek out such a person wherever he or she may be found, however distant. That person need not be an authority in every area of our life. We may not need their training in theology, choir directing, bread baking or writing essays. But we do need to accept that in those areas where we are still “babes in our thinking,” as St. Paul says (I Cor 14:20), we must start from the beginning in all humility.

What we are seeking is the ability to reach out in a healthy way to build godly bridges that in eternity will cross over boundaries to unite people, churches, nations in the unity of the Kingdom of God.

Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is abbess of the Community of the Holy Myrrhbearers in Otego, New York. Her books include Living in Christ and Growing in Christ: Shaped in His Image, both from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. She is also a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Her text is a condensed extract from a two-part essay, “Boundaries and Bridges.”

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48


by Mother Raphaela

We, with the whole of creation, are fallen. Along with the writers of the Old Testament, we can take that for granted. Scandal, corruption, violence, betrayal – that whole list – should not surprise us – not in ourselves, in others or in our surroundings. Our surprise and joy are found as we discover the Gospel faith that God meets us where we are, builds bridges over the walls we have constructed around ourselves in our fallen attempts to live our own lives in spite of others (including God) and by these bridges, brings us to eternal life and salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This Gospel faith – this bridge-building by God – is what we call revealed religion. One who has experienced such a revelation cannot deny it; one who has not experienced it cannot begin to comprehend it. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Peter, but my Father in heaven…” There is a uniqueness in revelation: a choosing and a calling. “You have not chosen Me,” Christ says to His followers, “but I have chosen you.”

If God has touched us in this way, if we have experienced something of Him through His calling of us, we will know that “our ways are not His ways” (cf. Isaiah 55:8). The experience of the Christian saints down the ages has been that we cannot look at ourselves to discover what we are to be like, but at God in Whose image and likeness we are made.

Yet to look at God is to enter the realm of poetry. The saints who used many words to speak about Him remind us that no words are adequate: whatever we may think or say, His reality remains far greater and beyond our grasp. When we think He fits into our intellectual constructs, we have rather produced an idol which He will delight in destroying. Many people’s loss of faith is actually a step in the right direction – their god was too small and its destruction is sometimes the first step towards a relationship with the true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One of the main reasons for the crucifixion of Jesus was that those around Him could not accept that God could or would use a man to build a bridge to His creation. God could not be walking in their midst. To claim to be God, as Jesus did, was at best lunacy, at worst blasphemy.

Indeed, it took Christians over 300 years to gradually develop a vocabulary to describe their experience of God’s revelation in Jesus. Then as now, Christians have begun with the reality of the three different persons, with the fact that men and women have experienced Jesus and known Jesus. With Peter and with Martha of Bethany, they have come to see Him as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 16:16, John 11:27). With the apostle Thomas they have come to an overwhelming

realization that He is their Lord and their God (John 20:28). With John the Theologian, they have heard Jesus speak to Philip and say, “He who has seen Me has seen My Father” (John 14:9). They are aware that Jesus said, “I and My Father are One” (John 10:30). At the same time, they have heard Jesus pray to His Father and speak of the Spirit as totally other than Himself: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless not as I will but as You will…” (Matt. 26:39) “But when the Counselor comes, Whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness to Me” (John 15:26). At first, they weren’t sure how to describe all this in what we today call the language of theology. There were too many paradoxes; too many facts they could not deny yet which did not fit their view of reality. Indeed, as we continue to grow into our life in Christ, each of us goes through the same process of breakdowns in what we believe.

We do believe that God is love and that it is the nature – not just the choice – of love to pour itself out on the other. For this reason we believe God must have others as part of His very being. While some might say that creation is the other, we believe that creation mirrors what already exists within God Himself, Trinity in Unity. This mirrors our view of human persons made in the image and likeness of God: the unity of humanity does not compromise the uniqueness and integrity of persons; true bridges do not violate boundaries.

Another image of God’s revelation – His bridge-building with His creation – is found in the Biblical theme of love and marriage. In the Old Testament, the Song of Songs and the marriage of the prophet Hosea are examples of this allegory of the nature and love of God. St. Paul is explicit in the New Testament as well – for example, see Ephesians 5:31-32. To use words of theology: in love, God begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit.

Creation is seen by some as a mysterious result of the union of the Divine Son and the Spirit, just as the marriage of a man and woman normally results in the begetting of children. Nevertheless, there is a very long debate on the nature of this union that goes back at least as far as Origen and that has not yet been resolved.

Some, with Origen, have taught that intercourse between Adam and Eve was only a result of the fall; that before then, the unity they had with one another in the Garden of Eden precluded sexual relations. Those who favor this approach still teach that Christians should not have sexual relations except as a matter of catering to weakness and then only to beget children.

There is another equally venerable and Orthodox reading of Scripture, however, which teaches that human intercourse was part of God’s original plan, that love indeed always pours itself out and is by nature creative. In this view, the union of a man and women in marriage reflects the joining of God to His creation, i.e. the “other” who is created and then redeemed to share in the essence of God in theosis, without being destroyed personally. Marriage is seen as a matter of mutual support, love and respect. If children are given in response to such sharing it can only be a blessing. While a choice not to bear children could be sinful depending upon the reasons, to participate in God’s love and creativity can mean an infinite number of other things as well.

When Christian marriage (and community life) shows such a reflection of the love of the Trinity, unity is found in the harmony of differences. Even people who are close enough to know pretty well what the other is thinking and anticipate reactions and behavior, will continue to be strong individuals, not pretending that boundaries don’t exist or trying to obliterate them. Such families, communities and friendships will indeed be fruitful and rejoice as their offspring grow up, move on, become their own persons. They expect them to do different and perhaps even greater things than they are doing and understand that the main heritage they have given them is life in the Church, the Body of Christ.

The Church as well rejoices in her offspring: new missions, monasteries, national churches. Each of these groupings, when it is truly animated by the Holy Spirit, reflects the uniqueness of its time and place as well as the particular people who are called to be part of it. When the first assembly in Jerusalem saw that the gentiles who previously had been far from the Church had received the same Holy Spirit, it recognized that this new situation called for an entirely different framework if the Body of Christ was to flourish with these new members. The Church, speaking through St. James of Jerusalem, refused to place on them the full burden of the laws and traditions of Judaism (Acts 10-11). Thus was laid the groundwork for the unique, autonomous national churches which have ever since characterized the Orthodox Church, with a world-wide apostolic hierarchy descended from that assembly in Jerusalem balancing the local authority within the boundaries of each group.

For us fallen people, however, ignoring and violating boundaries comes natural- ly; building bridges does not. While as St. Paul tells us, God has been revealing Himself through His creation from the beginning of time (cf. Romans, Chapter 1), our natural fallen response is not to use creation as such a bridge to God, but rather to idolize it; to turn it into an end in itself. This is one of the chief reasons Jews and Christians have needed to place appropriate boundaries between themselves and others, so as not to lose their identity as God’s “Chosen People”; not to bow down in worship to the surrounding society or its false gods.

Yet how do we reach out to others without losing what we have to share with them? How can we make sure we are not used by those things which are meant to be used by us?

Forgiveness seems to me to be the key. Without a truly robust understanding and practice of forgiveness, Christian life is a sham, whether in marriage or community. Forgiveness cannot be something tacked on after all else fails; it is the way Christians approach life, for it is the way our God approaches us. Forgiveness means being able to look clearly at the world and those around us in true detachment, seeing that all is not well (even within ourselves) and loving in spite of that. It does not mean going through life in denial that anything is ever wrong, nor in being scandalized when it becomes obvious that evil has been perpetrated by known individuals.

Such a life of forgiveness demands letting go of control – or the illusion of control that revenge and constant defensiveness bring. It is the way to be sure that we build bridges rather than fortifications and not violate or ignore boundaries. Forgiveness is truly life-giving. Only one who has been truly seen as he or she is and then forgiven can fully understand the gift of grace. For ourselves as well, this means letting go of justification, of the desire to appear better than we are. If we do not let our God and others know us (not just know about us), we cannot know the wholeness and healing of forgiveness. And what we have not received we do not have to give to others.

There are reasons bridge-building and forgiveness are not popular and widely practiced, however. It can mean not only true detachment but also the sacrifice of everything, including the crucifixion of ourselves. It can, in actual practice, mean laying down our life for another or “for the many” as our Lord did.

For those not ready to take on such forgiveness themselves, this can be very threatening. Paradoxically, the way of bridge-building, like the way of the Cross, can be a very lonely one at times on this earth. Christ built the only true and eternal bridge for mankind to heaven when he ascended the Cross, yet that was the time when He knew Himself most forsaken by both God and man.

Death was the only right way of reaching out to us and to the world, yet it was also the way of His leaving us and the world in the flesh. While others do not always see such a leave-taking as bridge-building, when leaving is an authentic response to God as was that of Jesus, it is indeed the most fully loving action possible. Jesus knew He belonged elsewhere and could continue to love those He was leaving only by going to the Father.

For us, the Church and its liturgical life are powerful tools in making forgive- ness central to our lives. To be fully members of the Church, we must choose and make time to gather as the people of God, to “come out of the world” for definite periods. Making the choice to come faithfully for Sunday Divine Liturgy may be a real sacrifice for some, yet for the Orthodox Christian it is a necessary first step. As we are present at the liturgy, we bring our lives, ourselves, our loved ones, the whole world to offer in sacrifice – to make holy – before God.

We learn as we do this that the truest relationship we can have with others is to allow them to be themselves and to place them in God’s hands. Liturgy teaches us that this is true prayer. It is the way of radically letting go rather than always attempting to control.

Christians, called into the priesthood of all believers as the Body of Christ offering the liturgy on behalf of all and for all, become by that action the bridge between God and the world. This is a divine reality that transforms in time and eternity both those who participate and all they bring with them. We can forget this reality, for we remain ourselves, with our own personal boundaries and limitations, just as bread and wine remain bread and wine yet truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. To catch even a glimpse of this reality, however, is enough to know the God Who creates and sustains the whole universe at every instant of its being. No one can prove this truth to another. It is something that can be proven only in the crucible of life’s experience. Yet as we continue, our times of prayer will take on the force of reality and move beyond the hours of liturgy. We will continue to grow into God’s own life and will learn how to bring ourselves, one another and the whole world before God as we go about our daily lives.

We will eventually discover that the acceptance of boundaries and the building of bridges through the life-giving grace of forgiveness slowly replaces our fallen approach to life. We will find ourselves on the road to heaven with those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, holding all others up to God in prayer.

Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is the Abbess of Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York. She is the author of Living in Christ: Essays on the Christian Life by an Orthodox Nun and Growing in Christ, both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

In Communion number 44 / Winter 2007