Icons in a One-Storey Universe


I’ll ask my readers to forgive me as I look at yet another aspect of the Christian life when the idea of a two-storey universe is jettisoned and we come to realize that we are living in a one-storey world: that God is with us. Readership has remained very high over the past week or so, so I will take that to mean that many people are interested in this approach and the insights it brings.

Icons are popularly referred to as “windows to heaven.” This is one of the places where language breaks down. If you are using language in a two-storey world, “heaven” is the equivalent of “upstairs.” It would thus be very peculiar to describe something as being a “window to upstairs.” The very language of the Church shows that it means something quite different.

Icons are not windows to another world, per se, but are a revelation of the truth of existence. When we paint an icon of a saint, the effort is to paint the saint in the truth of their life, not in their mere historical appearance. Thus the symbolism of the Byzantine style, points us towards the holiness of a saint. The same thing could be acheived by writing their lives – but an icon does the same with a single picture.

The same is true of icons depicting Biblical scenes. The icon of the crucifixion famously contains many elements that you would not literally have seen that day in Jerusalem – but if you knew the Truth of all that was happening – then you would know all that is shown in the icon.

This is one of the great difficulties of our one-storey world. It’s not that we live on the first floor and that’s all there is – it’s that we live on the first floor and we don’t know the half of it. We do not realize the true nature of where we are or when we are. Icons frequently show us much about the world as it truly is. This is the character of much of the lives we read about in the saints – they not only see what we see – they see much more. Indeed, we are told, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is not a reference to a notion that if you’re pure in heart, someday you will die and see the Lord. This completely misunderstands the verse.

The verse tells us that the primary organ of vision for human beings is not the eye, but the heart. Our eyes will only see what our hearts will allow. Thus we almost never see the truth of our enemies – as our language says, “We are blinded to the truth.” Anger blinds. Hatred blinds. Greed blinds. Politics blind. Many things blind.

Thus a great part of the Orthodox life is living in such a way that we will be able to see more and more clearly the truth of our own existence and of the world around us. There are those (non-Orthodox) who view the making and venerating of icons as a non-essential in Christianity. They may be willing to tolerate it, but see no necessity in it. Making and venerating icons, in the wisdom of the Church, is not only pleasant, but quite necessary. The veneration of an icon is an essential part of actually seeing it. The persons or situations that are presented to us in an icon are situations that call for humility of heart and a feeling of reverence. In some cases the reverence is so deep that we not only kiss the icon involved, we actually prostrate ourselves to the ground before it before we kiss it (this is the case in the Holy Cross and in the Burial Shroud of Christ).

We have a culture where people bow themselves before money, before food, before the flesh, before power, before almost anything but not the things of God. Our hearts are thus poisoned and our vision becomes clouded. We cannot see or judge anything correctly. We do not see or know the true God, nor do we see our neighbors for who they truly are. The only corrective is to live a life learning to rightly honor those things that should be honored. If kissing an icon seems foreign, it may be merely cultural, but, mind you, ours is a culture that has not taught us how to honor the things of God.

When someone is entering the Church through Baptism they renounce the devil and have prayers of exorcism read over them. Then they turn towards the East, towards the altar of God, and are told to worship Him. At that point they bow to the ground for the first time. They are then given the Creed to recite. There is an understanding that unless you bow down to the Lord God and worship Him, the words of the Creed will remain closed to you. You will not hear them rightly nor find them to be for your salvation.

Thus we walk through this one-storey world and pray to have our eyes opened. We make the sign of the cross frequently, almost as if we were brushing away the clouds of delusion that rise up from everything around us. We invoke the name of Christ without ceasing, begging His mercy.

Icons are windows – to heaven. But heaven is a window on this world. Christ Himself told us that the Kingdom of God is among us. Blessed be His name and may we see with pure hearts what only the Light of Christ can illumine.

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.


18 responses to “Icons in a One-Storey Universe”

  1. stephen Avatar

    Father Bless,

    This has been a great series in which I have learned a great deal and it has given me another way to share my faith with others. Thank you.

  2. Jason Avatar

    Father Bless! I believe someone else referenced Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World regarding this blogging series you’re doing, but this morning when I read a couple of pages from the chapter on baptism, I thought much of what he said resonated nicely with your overall one-storey theme. Perhaps we all need to go back and read this work more closely after you’re done with this series? Keep up the good work.

  3. Canadian Avatar

    You have really nailed something in this series. We Protestants are so used to arguing and defending our propositions about God that we have oftentimes lost (or never have known) the joy of living before the ever-present One himself. The Father’s did fight passionately about propositional truth against heretics, but their passion seems to often stem from an attitude of: “hey, that’s not the Christ we know and worship!”

    Oh to know this Christ we are united with!

  4. Bill Moore Avatar
    Bill Moore

    Several times during this series of posts I’ve start to comment. But I’ve not been sure about what to say, or how to adequately say it. Perhaps, if it ever comes together for me, I’ll send you a long email. 🙂 Until then, let me just add my voice to the words of thanks and appreciation for what you are putting out here.


  5. Ben Avatar


    A wonderful post and insightful words on icons. Thank you.

  6. Erik Avatar

    Thank you for this series. It’s strange, isn’t it? This old world, so full of suffering and death and ugliness, which we can’t help but notice, (and sometimes even love!), is suffused with beauty — the glory of the Lord, a beauty that I am habitually utterly blind to. I was thinking about the “one storey universe” when I came across this passage in Chekov’s short novel, “The Steppe”:

    “And once you gaze at the pale green sky spangled with stars, with not a cloud, not a spot on it, you understand why the warm air is motionless, why nature is on the alert and afraid to stir: She feels eerie and sorry to lose even one moment of life. The boundless depth and infinity of the sky can be judged only on the sea or on the steppe at night, when the moon is shining. It is frightening, beautiful, and caressing, it looks at you langorously and beckons, and its caress makes your head spin.
    “. . . And then, in the chirring of the insects, in the suspicious figures and barrows, in the blue sky, in the moonlight, in the flight of a night bird, in everything you see and hear, you begin to perceive the triumph of beauty, youth, flourishing strength, and a passionate thirst for life; your soul responds to the beautiful, stern motherland, and you want to fly over the steppe with the night bird. And in the triumph of beauty, in the excess of happiness, you feel a tension and anguish, as if the steppe were aware that it is lonely, that its riches and inspiration go for naught in the world, unsung by anyone, unneeded by anyone, and through the joyful hum you hear its anguished, hopeless call: a singer! a singer!” (Anton Chekov: the Complete Short Novels, Tr. by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    How do any of us say anything in the face of Chekov’s prose? It gives me joy to find echoes in so many places. Thank you for taking time to share such a beautiful passage. Nature calling for a singer! What an image!

  8. BV Avatar


    I think a post on devotion to Mary in a single-story cosmology would be an informative post. I just finished reading Mary Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan, which I found to be very informative. The book charts the development of doctrine about Mary through the centuries as well as her influence in the arts. Anyways, for a Protestant, treading on the turf of devotion to Mary is always tenuous and I think it would be helpful to read your opinion on the matter.


  9. Yvonne Avatar

    may we see with pure hearts what only the Light of Christ can illumine

    This reminds me of a wonderful prayer from the Carmina Gadelica (a collection of Gaelic prayers from the Highlands and islands of Scotland).

    The mountains glowed to Him, the plains glowed to Him,
    The voice of the waves with the song of the strand,
    Announcing to us that Christ is born,
    Son of the King of kings from the land of salvation;
    Shone the sun on the mountains high to Him,
    All hail! let there be joy!

  10. harlequinsgazette Avatar

    Thank you Father.

    For many years, I have tried to explain to friends the reasons why there is an Icon over every doorway, why I kiss them (which is wonderful that you brought that up) and the reference to East, where God’s Altar is. I always felt a bit guilty that not all my Icons face the East, but they bring me such peace and sometimes are the only thing that snaps me out of a tyrannical mood.

    Being of Assyrian blood and trying to explain the whole Aramaic thing, along with Icons, and Holy Water everywhere…I am glad you are at least covering the Icon portion.

    Bless You,

  11. […] Icons in a One-Storey Universe [image] I’ll ask my readers to forgive me as I look at yet another aspect of the Christian life when the idea of […] […]

  12. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, such a blessing! Thank you!
    I immediately thought of a comment by CS Lewis to the effect that ‘only the pure in heart will want to see God’. Ever since I read that I have struggled with the idea that it is not an “after death” experience, but a here and now Christian experience. This article of yours has really helped to clarify the role of icons in this one storey house that we don’t know the half of.

  13. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    BV says:

    “Anyways, for a Protestant, treading on the turf of devotion to Mary is always tenuous and I think it would be helpful to read your opinion on the matter. ”

    I’ve read about a dozen of Pelikan’s books. He had a tendency to keep his inner struggles “close to the vest”, even in person. He converted late in life. I suspect his book on Mary was born out of his own struggles with devotion to her; the same struggle every adult convert to Orthodoxy has gone through. We’ve all been there, so you’re not alone.


  14. Mary Lowel Avatar
    Mary Lowel

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for the insightful post on icons as a glimpse of the upper story that gives us an escalator invitation to approach the unseen and unknowable God, who deigned to penetrate our flatland with unspeakable tenderness. I have found that penetration most ready to children, my own granddaughter in particular. I offer this example as evidence.

    I Love Tars

    It was one of those eternal moments when heaven and earth converged in the front seat of a Toyota on an unseasonably warm January night in 2004. We had parked on the outer perimeter of a new subdivision being built in south Lexington. Freshly gutted fields of prime Bluegrass horse farms laid before us – an encroachment of nearly completed faux-chateaus, plastic wrapped in vinyl siding, lay behind. There were no streetlights to compete with the crisp cobalt sky that glittered with a trillion lamps a trillion miles high.

    Gabrielle, my three-year-old granddaughter, stood on the console between the seats with her head poking out the open sunroof – loving the stars.

    “See the moon, Greema. He so pr-tty.” I scanned my CD loader for the perfect accompaniment, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but paused on the warm drone of a monastic choir. “I like that, Greema; play Jesus songs.”

    I held her tiny legs as the constellations blinked to strains of “Kyria Ellison.”

    “I love tars, Greema!”

    There are other eternal moments, those between my grandmother and me.


    Mamie Blakey was a frail little woman with a sturdy soul and gracious Southern manners. She was given to curious, ancient idioms which made no sense to me except what I could derive from their context. When trumped at double-canasta, she would let go a lilting air of softened Rs, “O’maa staaz n’ga-taz!” (Transliteration: Oh my stars and garters!; meaning unknown).

    Should her partner, Cousin Mary Boone, follow with an unexpected Ace after Mamie had thrown down her King, there issued, “Ah swa-nee, how aw-ronical!” (Transliteration: I Sawanee, how ironical!; meaning: exasperated incredulity)

    Like all Christian women of her vintage, born in the late 19th century, Mamie distained idleness and the futility of “just having fun.” But for all her restrained sensibilities, she had a keen talent for producing merriment. She enjoined little brother and me, standing on chairs near the stove, to play Adam and give names to shapes being created in the hot frying pan as she pouring pancake batter for our breakfast. There were pancakes with ears and noses; cakes with tails that fell off when flipped – cakes that tasted better than any round and anonymous.

    Mamie Blakey was never called “grandma” or “granny.” No, she was what Grandfather George called her – “Mother Dear,” pronounced “Mutha-de-ah.”

    Mutha-de-ah did not waste cosmic energy on scolding her offspring of any generation deep. She had a cultivated stare that evoked sharpest regret for smallish behavior. To ensure her progeny “raw’memba themselves,” all she needed to do was lift an eyebrow, a gesture guaranteed to forestall “tom-foolery” or worse, something she called, “act’n common.” Commonness was a state to be avoided like house fires and earthquakes. Not that Mutha-de-ah intended that we should think of ourselves as something special. On the contrary, acting common meant calling attention to one’s self in some special way that embarrassed your elders, like broadcasting your opinion of food you left on your plate at the dining table of cousin-so-and-so-thrice-removed.

    After Grandfather George died in 1958, Mutha-de-ah and I shared a bed when she came to visit us in Montana, my father’s self-imposed exile from a caste system that made no sense to him, even in context. Already under the covers when she came to my room, Mutha-de-ah whispered, “May’ree Kathryn, we must say awe prey-ahs.” Pulling me down to a kneeling position beside her, she rested her head on folded hands against the mattress and addressed the All Mighty with such effortless intimacy that I asked, “Mutha-de-ah, where is God? I can’t see him.”


    I keep the icon of Archangel Michael on my car dashboard to remind me not to fear black ice and flat tires. While the stars went on singing “Lord, Have Mercy,” Gabrielle asked to hold Michael.

    “Greema, why does Michael have wings?”

    “Because Michael is an angel; angels have wings.”

    “Greema, why does Michael have a horse?’’

    “Because Michael rides in the sky, Gabrielle”

    “Greema, why does Michael have a hat?”

    “That’s Michael’s crown, Gabrielle. Michael has a crown because he is the prince all the angels.”

    “Greema, why does Michael have a tumpet?”

    “A what?”

    “A tumpet, Greema; Michael has a tumpet”

    “Oh yes, a trumpet! Michael has a trumpet to call all the angels to help us.”

    “Greema, I want to see him. I want to see Michael, NOW!”

    Unsatisfactory analogies came to me from physical science – things like moon and stars in daytime – present though unseen. But why retreat to murky empiricism when children already “believe in all things visible and invisible,” sans science or credo? It is harder to explain the shared properties of water, ice and air than the affinity between the Foremost of the Heavenly Powers and a painted piece of wood. A picture trumps a thousand Newtonian sentences!

    Gabrielle kissed the icon, tenderly addressing present angels. Then looking up at the stars again, she asked, “Where is Michael, Greema? I can’t see him.”

    “Uhh…well,” I struggled mightily over how to answer a three-year-old. Then I remembered what Mutha-de-ah had said that satisfied my curiosity one night in Montana. “Gaud is ev’raw-whey’a, May’ree Kathryn. We hav’ta use ah uh’thuh’awz to see that big.”

    “God is everywhere, Gabrielle. Michael and his angels follow God everywhere He is. We have to use our other eyes to see that big.” (I defer to theologians for

    Mary Kathryn Lowell
    February 24, 2004

  15. Kenneth Avatar

    This is a wonderful reflection that I had previously overlooked. Icons are an essential part of the response to secularism, and hence to much of modern Christianity. Alexander Schmemann said that future historians will look at secularism as the great heresy of our time, just as Arianism once was. Icons are challenging for moderns (including me) to understand for the same reasons that all of classical Christianity is difficult and secularism is easy.

  16. Kenneth Avatar

    My experience with the Orthodox faith is that it is always about what is actually real and present, not just in our minds and hearts or our feelings. I’m reminded of C S Lewis’s quote about kids playing burglars in a large house, which is all fun and games until they hear an actual footstep in the hallway, then it becomes all too real. The Orthodox faith is frequently like hearing this footstep, and realizing that it’s not about the ideas or opinions in our heads. This quote from Lewis is from his book Miracles:

    “Supposing We Really Found Him? It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kenneth, and yet He is both here in a particular, discreet way and everywhere present, filling all things. Including you and me. We are each living icons smudged at times almost obliterated by sin. Fortunately, His mercy (more substantial than any created thing) cleans it all away. It takes submitting to His mercy often and repeatedly to allow the cleaning to occur. Sometimes the depth of the smudge is so great, the cleaning hurts so, in His gentleness, He does a little at at time. Those men and women who have had the humility and perseverance to submit to the Cross in a personal way, we honor by writing icons of them. They continue in their humility by being present through those icons wherever those icons are physically.
    The Fools for Christ reach even further into the so-called irrational part of our souls and minds and illumine even that.
    I bear the name, unworthily, of the archangel mentioned by Kathryn. So even the angels condescend in humility to be subject to ridicule by the acts of those that bear their names.
    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner and upon all of your flock that me may declare your mercy and victory over all your enemies in thanksgiving and peace.

  18. Kenneth Avatar

    Thank you, Michael, for those helpful thoughts. There are profound depths to this that I’ve only barely begun to understand and experience.
    And thanks to Fr. Stephen for hosting this wonderful blog and helping to guide us in the right direction.
    Thanks be to God!

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