At the Edge of Heaven


In writing about the Iconostasis in the previous post, I wrote of “boundaries,” and how the definitions that exist in the Church reflect even greater realities. I believe those realities are two-fold.

The first reality is to be found within ourselves. Fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God, there is a spiritual reality to our composition and inner relationship that is far too easily overlooked in our materialistic age. It seems correct to me that we are now seeing that many components of our life have a grounding not just in the “mind” (whatever a materialist would mean by that) but in the body itself (every thought has a chemical expression). We are not angels, disembodied spirits. We are human beings who think with flesh and blood. And this is a marvelous thing.

And yet, at least in our ignorance, we cannot speak very clearly of such matters. We often have to draw on other metaphors – though we should remember that our embodied existence is just that, embodied. I wrote in the previous post of the Temple of our body, and how there are distinctions and boundaries to be found there and respected.

Much of this is the cause of our problem with “prayer of the heart.” It is interesting that the “prayer of the heart” almost always has a certain amount of physical instruction. “To pray with the mind centered the heart,” is one such admonition.

I believe it is a place that we also encounter, or can encounter icons. I have seen people literally be converted by the presence of an icon. Last year I was in Atlanta when the Icon of Our Lady of Sitka was being taken around the country. The image that came to me as I stood with the other priests and offered the Molieben (prayer service) to Our Lady of Sitka, was that of a surface that has been distorted by the weight of an object placed on it (think of a flexible surface). In such a situation, the surface on which we stand is pulled down as if in a “cone shape,” and eveything around it falls towards it.

Now that may sound strange and having just written it sounds strange to me – but that’s what I felt. It was as if something very big and very heavy were in our midst. I believe this to have been the spiritual weight of the icon itself. Thus many of the people in attendance at the service felt “drawn” to the icon. My own language would have said that I did not feel drawn, I literally felt as though I were falling towards the icon.

Perhaps I am delusional. That is always a distinct possibility, but it is clear that many people were touched by the presence of the icon that night.

One of the most famous “boundary” stories in all of Orthodoxy, is that of St. Mary of Egypt. She was a young prostitute who, on a lark, traveled to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She came with a procession of pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the cross was exhibited). But she discovered that when she tried to cross the threshhold of the Church she was repelled as if there were an invisible wall blocking the way. After several attempts she turned to an icon of the Mother of God beside the entrance. She prayed for help and promised to give up her life of prostitution and give herself completely to God. Then she was able to cross the threshhold.

In such an occasion I can only say that a person stands at the boundary of earth and heaven. Unable to enter heaven except by repentance they find that every human effort to press forward thrusts them backwards. Heaven opens to us only as a great gift of grace.

This same experience is something that I think exists frequently in our prayers. We frequently stand outside the door, and are all to frequently satisfied not to enter into the depths of the bridal chamber (the altar of the Church is called the Bridal Chamber during the Bridegroom Matins services of Holy Week). We stand and pray and are satisfied with a wandering mind and a hardened heart. There is a great need in our lives to press forward until we come to the place of true repentance. Then we find the doors of heaven opened to us and we enter into true prayer.

The series of prayers that a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon must offer before entering the holy altar at the beginning of any Divine Liturgy (these entrance prayers are prayed before the service of the Proskomedie). All of these prayers recognize the holiness of the altar area and the unworthiness of those who enter.

These boundaries, places and points where earth and heaven meet, are probably far more frequent in our lives than we admit. God is so gracious and merciful that He comes to us again and again. It is our fault that we increasingly secularize the world around us, and we see no boundaries, no doors.

Christ speaks of such moments in His famous parable of the Last Judgment when he tells us that all of these needy neighbors who surround us (the sick, the naked, the hungry, those in prison, etc.) were all occasions where Christ was to be encountered. They each stood before us as the Gate of Heaven and we refused to enter.

It is good when we pay enough attention to our heart that we can be aware of the generosity of God who meets us in so many ways. We need to be like Jacob of old who awakened from his dream at Bethel (the dream where he saw the ladder stretching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending). He did not wake from his dream like a secular man. A secular man would have said, “What a strange dream. I wonder what I’m worried about. Or did I eat something bad last night.” For the secular man, reality is defined only by himself. Jacob woke from his dream and said:

Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:16-17).

These are not the thoughts of a modern man. But, with the renewal of our mind, they can be our thoughts.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





7 responses to “At the Edge of Heaven”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is the Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

  2. Sophocles Avatar

    Father bless,

    Once again, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
    I was with Father Eric of St. Paul today and mentioned to him your picture of the church.
    Strange that you should mention the Sitka Icon as a perhaps?catalyst to someone conversion to the Orthodox Faith, because when this Icon was traveling I brought several people with me to the church that evening to pray for my appointed time before it.(Hmm, intersesting thought just came to me that the Icon may have carried with it my “energies”/prayers with it along with everyone else’s to aid in the conversion of that person you mention). One of my friends that evening witnessed a woman kneel before the Icon a little before it was my turn. She continued almost unmoved during the whole time of my prayer with a candle in her hand, kneeling, and was still praying after I finished my hour shift.
    This incident made such an impression on my friend that that evening he asked me how he could become a Christian. He became a catacumen and was baptized on Holy Saturday of Last Pascha.
    There is so much good stuff you mentioned,i.e. the Icon carrying with it a “weight” or a prescence. The Mystery of being Orthodox deepens for me. Excellent.

  3. tony c Avatar
    tony c

    The scriptural reading for the Roman rite Office of Readings (Matins) for Friday (today) is the Exodus account of the Lord coming upon the holy mountain in smoke and fire and trumpet blast. The people are told through Moses to wash themselves and assemble, but not touch or enter upon the mountain, less they die.

    It seems to fit w/ some of the comments you wrote above, like the clergy prayers before entering the altar, and God’s physical presence, manifested locally in things for our benefit.

    As I’m writing this, the morning Angelus bells are ringing in the churches in my neighborhood. I often wonder how many people in this sleepy little town still follow that corporate call to prayer. Or how many away from God and church feel a little twinge of conscience when they hear the church bells ring and perhaps lift their hearts just a bit.

  4. James the Thickheaded Avatar
    James the Thickheaded

    I have been thinking more and more about these boundaries. Thank you for focusing on this. Maybe the point of posting the archangel at the entrance of the Garden after the Fall is that we simply can’t help ourselves with boundaries, or maybe this is simply symbolic of the role of our own guardian angels that seek to guide and protect the boundaries of our hearts. I don’t know. But more simply, maybe this is the point of the fasts, the iconostasis and the like as well. Maybe indeed, this observance is one very important aspect of reverance for God and each other. And yet then there is the opposite of this: that we erect boundaries between ourselves and God and (again) each other in the wrong places – as we focus instead on ourselves. Nothing seems simple.

  5. James the Thickheaded Avatar
    James the Thickheaded

    Let me add: That perhaps the complexity is best mirrored by the consideration that the iconostasis has a door and the Garden still has an entrance. Entry is difficult, subject to conditions, but not impenetrable.

  6. November Avatar

    As I was reading this and contemplating a response Revelation 3:20 came to mind: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

    The longing goes both ways, we desire to be in His presence and He desires to dwell among/in us. I guess Heaven will be when these barriers no longer exist and we will fully be with Him.

  7. Dr.Q Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you so much for your reflections here and in your past two posts on the Iconostasis. Coming from an evangelical and fundamentalist background, it has taken me years to come to a place of seeing the importance of boundaries. It’s nice to read others who are seeing similar things.

    The demarcations of space, time and calling is something that Americanism in general has a problem with, and evangelicalism in the States seems to have succumbed to culture in this as well. Our culture has become increasingly secular as we no longer observe boundaries between the sacred and profane. Without this distinction, how do we know when the Holy draws near?


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