The Shape of Heaven


I am feeling my way forward with this post – that is to say – I have some thoughts that are probably still in formation – so bear with me. That human beings have a particular relationship with icons is, to me, part of the dogma of the Church. It is not an expressed dogma – the Seventh Ecumenical Council made its defense of icons dependent on the right understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. But we can move forward from there and acknowledge that the Incarnation of Christ is itself, in part, a revelation of what it is to be truly human. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “God became man so that man could become god, but He also became man so that man could become Man. And icons, as we understand from the Seventh Council, are possible because God truly became a man.

To extend all of this a bit further – I would want to say that like the holy icons, space itself– the place we occupy at any given time – is deeply important to us as human beings. We are not disincarnate beings who have no relation to what is around us. We are quite the opposite – we are incarnate beings who are deeply defined and enmeshed in the space we inhabit.

This space can mean any of the tangible elements of our existence: light, heat, color, space itself – and so many such things – all deeply important to us. I hope that what I’ve been writing seems completely obvious.

Of course our environment and space are important. So what’s your point?

The point is that we frequently act as though these things do not matter to us. I can speak only of the places I have been – thus, mostly America – but here, we frequently treat space as though it were not important – or as though it was only important for some use and not for its relation to us as human beings. Thus we build ugly cities or build mindlessly, with consideration only for profit or some other less human purpose.

To this day, it is relatively easy to spot a building built in the 1960’s or early 70’s. Go to anytown in your state and find the most silly looking building and you’ll probably be standing before some bright idea of those decades. It was a time where tradition played as little role as possible in the creation of space. I am not a student of architecture – but I know what makes me feel uncomfortable or out of place. Tradition has often created beautiful spaces for the simple reason that people prefer beauty to ugliness. Beauty is frequently destroyed either by ignorance, greed or just wrong ideology.

But I do not mean to rant here about American architecture. My point is to write about the importance of space. There are reasons that Tradition properly guides the construction of Orthodox Churches – the building itself is an icon. Done well, the space in which we worship is an aid to prayer. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying every Church building has to be in competition with Hagia Sophia. But serious thought and care for such spaces remains important.

You can pray anywhere. I have worshipped in a converted warehouse as an Orthodox Christian – and I would rather have been there than in a heterodox cathedral. Nevertheless, space remains important. The small spaces in our homes, the “icon corner,” (in Russian it is the “beautiful” corner), are critically important and thus worth paying attention to.

There is also the space we occupy in another sense – the place of our heart. It is deeply important for the heart to be “beautiful,” adorned with forgiveness and love. Without such beauty prayer becomes nearly impossible.

I was with a friend earlier today who has just moved into a new house (“new” in the sense that it is “new” to him). There were things to see and admire (hardwood floors, nice views out the windows, etc.). But what he commented on most, and thus what led to this posting, were some of the house’s unusual places: a space under a stair, an unexpected corner – things that gave the house character and somehow made it a space well-suited for a family and a delight to children.

At Theophany it is traditional for our homes to be blessed. But this same blessing continues as we pray and fill our spaces with the love of God. Perhaps in time our cities will become better spaces (some are already – I have my list – and, I suspect, you may have yours). With prayer, and attention to the fact that the spaces in which we dwell are places in which we incarnate the Christian faith, our spaces can be the garden of God, the space of Heaven. May God in His mercy grant us all such places to dwell.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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16 responses to “The Shape of Heaven”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The drawing is from a proposed Orthodox building in the Atlanta area.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What a profound topic. Still trying to form my thoughts as well. Space. The way we use and describe space by our actions is a profound reflection of our heart, whether it is hardened or softened by God.

    The loss of any sense of the sacred has deep and abiding consequences not only in how we treat each other, but what we build. Materialism makes things out of all that is in creation, including human beings and denies the possibility of inter-relation because it rejects transcendent reality and ontological exisitence. Icons, made of wood and paint, some of the most “material” parts of our worship, give the lie to all that materialism proposes.

  3. Kyra Avatar

    *wink* Some else has been to TED I see. Profound topic indeed. I have long felt that a sense of belonging in one’s community is of the utmost importance. In our old town we lived on Main Street. There was a history there, there were people there who could remember the road being dirt, horses and carriages and sledding down that street in winter.

    People belonged.

    In the end I think that is what the idea of space comes down to…a sense that we each have a place where we feel at home…our own “Cheers” where everyone knows our name. The city gate, of the scriptures….
    In church we have that essence of belonging. And therein, in my mind lies the crux…what do we join ourselves to? Of what do we belong to? I belong to God. I belong to my husband and family. I belong to my church. I belong to my community…..

    That is my space.

    Thank you, Father.

  4. Steven CC Avatar
    Steven CC

    This has been on my mind the last few days. The importance of common spaces is hard to overstate.

    I yesterday returned from a wonderful pilgrimage to Mt. Athos. Each monastery has dormitories for pilgrims, much like the cells of the monks. Yet neither we, nor the monks, spent much time in our rooms or cells. We were in church for hours at a time. We were also out in the courtyards and open spaces in and around the monasteries. Leaving aside the more superficial and aesthetic features of the architecture (which were stunning), the design was impressive and beautiful because it funneled people together, and people to God.

    The Churches themselves reminded me of the Churches. Though each worshipper could find a place in a stasidion, the temple revolved around the common places of the church (the area before the icons and, of course, the Beautiful Gate where we lined up to Commune).

    Thessalonika, a deeply Byzantine city, and thus deeply Orthodox, was centered of its various churches and public squares. This is the case in each of the (adminitadly few) Mediterranean cities I’ve visited, and it just seems to me to reflect an Orthodox understanding of man. American urban design, generally, seems to reflect a more atomistic understanding of man. The goal seems to be to build nice houses and apartments and, when one isn’t at work, rarely leave them. When one does leave them, it’s more to run errands than to find God and man, like one can do in a church or square.

    May the Holy Spirit come and abide in us all, always.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    Sorry, I don’t know what TED is. Many older towns have that kind of space you describe. I wish our newer ones had it as well. I like your list as well.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think many of the ancient places, even just older places, often have a “shape” different than many modern. Part of this is that the value of space is such that you try not to waste space when it is constructed – but to be sure that it does what it should do.

    Today space changes quickly and is more disposable. Meaning that its very temporariness is part of its shape. I wonder what it means to us to live, work, pray, in temporary space (though all material space is temporary on some level).

  7. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    This post further allows me to identify the rumblings of discontent in my own soul. It is the absence of “place.” The feeling of being “home” occurs at different times (especially in the altar helping with the Divne services), but this lack of “home” seems to be felt in the more “artificial” structures of my life.

    Perhaps this is an icon of our hearts.

    Perhaps this work of building a proper place for God in my heart should be reflected in the physical buildings we “live” in.

    It seems the “work” is becoming clearer! Lord, have mercy.

  8. nancy Avatar

    More on this topic on There’s an excellent article on Church architecture by Andrew Gould, a young architect who has designed the new church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. –and a much longer article by the Englishman, Aidan Hart.

    At the same time, I think of the Russians under Communism who met secretly in tiny spaces to worship and experience the Divine Liturgy. But it is true that in Orthodox Churches spaces are such an integral part of the Faith, and Americans, especially Orthodox Christians in this country, need to understand that design of their places of worship need to be purposeful.

    As for the architectural monstrosities which dot our landscape, that is a huge issue. But if we can find “heaven” in our holy spaces, we are headed in the right direction.

  9. mrh Avatar

    Great post.

    One note – I would not equate building for profit with building mindlessly. Most public places nowadays are built very mindfully with very specific goals in mind, and those goals are about profitability. From Disneyland to your local strip mall, spaces are carefully designed to encourage consumption and spending. And, I just might dare to say, to encourage the worship of those activities.

  10. Kyra Avatar

    Ahh…sorry Father…I had been to Tia’s website where she linked to a a topic on the exact same topic…a sense of space, the architecture that is pleasing to the eye and draws people in and gives them, exactly as you expressed…a sense of space…
    How ironic that both you and Tia were thinking along the same lines in such a short period of time. It must be something, at least for me, that should be impressed more so in my heart and dwelt upon. I fail to believe in coincidence, but have no problem believing in God’s use of the sublime hint. 😉

  11. Visibilium Avatar

    I’d like to remind everyone who decries building for profit that builders don’t build in a vacuum, but in response to consumers’ demands. Builders who aren’t responsive to consumers go out of business.

    Living in a society in which a builder would be delighted to build my home according to my tastes as long as he obtains a profit is a great society, as far as I’m concerned.

    Instead of engaging in a trendy socialist rant, why don’t we place blame where the blame belongs–on rampant consumer philistinism? Christians are a people apart from the commonplace, except as missionaries. Let’s minister aesthetically as well.

  12. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    Perhaps because I didn’t have a “space” when I was growing up that remained for very long, space has become very important to me. Our family moved so often that eventually space seemed to lose its meaning — it moved in and out of our lives just like human beings did… Consequently I have very few memories of any Particular space that I can now look back on and call “home”.

    And perhaps that is why being a homemaker seems so important to me. After my children were born, I began to arrange space in a particular way… At first it was unconscious, but gradually I realized that I wanted to make space a place where human beings felt comfort, or love, or peace… I wanted whoever was occupying it to want to stay in it… I wanted to entice the human beings who moved in and out of it to sit down… talk to one another… look at each other… touch each other… Be together.
    I also wanted space to cause them to contemplate… Beauty… Truth… The Person who is those things.

    And so I have arranged space in certain ways in my children’s home — so as to foster some of that — a certain pillow here, just so… this book there, within reach… Chairs and tables arranged close together, turned toward each other slightly… A pretty bowl or a vase of wildflowers nearby… A zither or a guitar enticingly in view, maybe, a steaming hot cup of tea at just the right moment…

    “Where there is beauty apparent, let us enjoy it. Where there is beauty hidden, let us unveil it. Where there is beauty defaced, let us restore it. And where there is no beauty… Let us create it…”

    (Does anyone know who wrote that, by the way?)

  13. Joseph Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Which church in Atlanta would this proposed building project belong to??

  14. Andrew Gould Avatar

    The drawing posted above is St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church (OCA) in Norcross, Ga. I designed it for them a couple of years ago. It’s not clear whether they are going to proceed with trying to build it. Please have a look at my web site “” for other images of this church, and two others I have designed.

    Incidently, most of my design work is houses and traditional neighborhood developments, so the issues discussed above are very close to me. I think you’ll see from my web site that my partner and I work hard to achieve that warmth and humanity in our buildings that is so rare these days.

    I would like to comment on what has gone wrong with most construction in America. It’s not ugly because it’s for profit. The Art Deco skyscrapers of Manhattan were built for profit. The magnificent city of Venice was built for imperialism and greed. In fact, contemporary building, particularly in suburbs, in so dandied up with cheap Classical details because the developers are trying to make it beautiful. Beauty (or at least associations with something from the past that actually was beautiful) sells for top dollar. The trouble is, most Americans no longer recognize beauty. Most designers don’t know how to design Classical details. Many people can’t even tell the difference between a fine 19th-century house and a modern plastic house with awful fake details. Our nation has gone blind.

    How did this happen? For sixty years architecture schools have taught nothing but Modernist design. Over the past thirty years the market has demanded a return to traditinal design. But the architects don’t know how to do it. For decades suburban developers have been building ugly “traditional” buildings because they simply can’t get better designs. And most Americans don’t care that they’re ugly, so the developers have no incentive to look for better architects. Therefore the fault ultimately lies with the consumer, for buying mediocrity, but the root is not greed but blindness.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for your post! And forgive my borrowing of the drawing, it’s magnificent like all of your work I’ve seen (most especially the Church in Mt. Pleasant). You have much more knowledge of the architecture scene and it’s welcome. What is so difficult for me is finding space in which I am more fully human. I found when I was in England last summer, that such space was far more plentiful, left over, no doubt, from an earlier time.

    It’s not profit motive, I’m sure, but not knowing beauty when we see it is striking. It reminds me of Lewis’ remarks in the Abolition of Man.

    I pray that more people like yourself will continue to add beauty to homes, Churches and other structures. We are not necessarily saved by beauty (pace Dostoevsky) but it certainly plays a large role. Thank you again.

  16. Jp Esnouf Avatar
    Jp Esnouf

    Oh man this was beautiful! Thank you Fr Stephen

    “There is also the space we occupy in another sense – the place of our heart. It is deeply important for the heart to be “beautiful,” adorned with forgiveness and love. Without such beauty prayer becomes nearly impossible……..With prayer, and attention to the fact that the spaces in which we dwell are places in which we incarnate the Christian faith, our spaces can be the garden of God, the space of Heaven. May God in His mercy grant us all such places to dwell.”

    The heart truly is a vast space – created for God – wow! May God enlarge my heart to receive and not shun.

    So blessed right now!


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