When Things Are Not As They Seem


It is said that when some of the natives of the South Seas first saw Captain Cook’s ships approaching, they saw them as clouds. There was no category in their world for “ships,” thus the Captain and his crew came in “clouds.”

I’ve have always wondered about the connection between how we name things in the paucity of our experience and how much that naming actually shapes our ability to see. Princess Ileana of Romania, later Mother Alexandra the nun and foundress of the monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, wrote of her visual experience of her guardian angel when she was a child. There is a clear indication in her writing that she was able to see something as a child that as an adult would become increasingly difficult.

My life in the Church, over the years, even outside the Orthodox Church, has made me more than a little aware that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (to paraphrase). I have served Churches where angels were seen (in procession disappearing into the altar in one case). I have another case where a young woman was saved in the midst of a tumbling car wreck by an appearance of the Royal New Martyrs of Russia. I can add to such stories, though they are not daily reported to me.

But they have often enough been reported to make me wonder about the nature of the world in which I live. I often think that I live in a world that seems as it does because everyone expects it so to seem. And I’ve heard enough to doubt that all is as it seems.

This, of course, is an excellent place for me to mention yet again the difference between a “one” and a “two” storey universe. In the two-storey world, you can have all the oddities you want, you just push them off to the next floor and let the world seem as empty as it does.

Of course, if you live in one-storey world, then the things undreamt of are as likely to appear as anything else. Nothing may be quite as it seems. Indeed, it may very well be the case that very little is as it seems – and this I think is indeed the case.

It is the case, for instance, that most people you meet seem to be one way, but when you get to know them there is very much more there than at first there seemed. Sometimes there is very much more good than seemed at first – sometimes very much more bad. Sometimes there is more pain and sometimes there is more willingness to inflict pain. But things are rarely as they seem at first.

The same is true simply for the world in which we live. At the pace we travel, rushing about, there is very little that we actually see – or that we see for more than a blur. The Scriptures tell us that the pure in heart are blessed for they shall see God. We are not the pure in heart – nor is our heart slow enough to even begin the process of becoming pure.

Traveling at the speed of modernity – blinded by the flicker of screens that constantly interpret our world – we must be more and more certain that whatever things may seem to us they surely are otherwise. Our hearts are far from pure and thus we see no God and in our rush to some other vision we are redefining reality into no reality at all.

The call of the Church, of the Gospel, is a call to repentance. But that call is a very slow call. Repentance, even in the case of “quick cases” like the Apostle Paul are deceptive in their speed. His repentance had long been preceded by “goads” from God. Saul had been wrestling with God long before he met a blinding light. And he continued in his slow change for years to come, even enduring “buffeting” from Satan for the sake of his salvation.

There is a slowness that belongs naturally to children – a timeless quality to their wonder – when not interrupted by new strange sights and sounds that do not actually belong to the world. There is a slowness that can see angels.

The same speed of life beckons to us all: “Be still and know that I am God.” It is a stillness that may require a lifetime for in that stillness can be found the very purity for which our hearts were created.

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.


10 responses to “When Things Are Not As They Seem”

  1. Hartmut Avatar

    “Things are not as they seem” – this is also true with regard to the course of your own life. mostly you discern only in retrospect the true meaning of ways you were leaded or things that occured in your life. And you can only marvel at how God works slowly, with preseverance, with patience (“a call to repentance. But that call is a very slow call”).
    It took God about 30 years to bring me to become a catechumen of the Orthodox Church. And even those ways in my life that now rationally seem to be detours were necessary ways to bring me to this point. Things need time to grow.

  2. Gina Avatar

    Beautiful, thank you.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Not to be contentious, but if we embrace the “slow way” fully, are we not just as likely to fall into complacency and fatalism as to become pure?

    There is a big difference between dressing and keeping the earth and leaving an unweeded garden for “things rank and gross in nature” to possess it.

  4. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    This July I was able to visit Mother Alexandra’s grave at the Monastery of the Transfiguration. I visited several times while I stayed there. Her story is very moving. Considering what Princess Ileana and her family would face in Romania, it is very gracious of our Lord to grant her reassurance that her guardian angel was near!

  5. Christopher Avatar

    “Our hearts are far from pure and thus we see no God and in our rush to some other vision we are redefining reality into no reality at all.”

    The “no reality” of our despair and fears mostly I think…

  6. kevinburt Avatar


    We have spent the last 4 weeks working feverishly to finish some remodeling of our house. Things have been a mess, days off spent working and cleaning, and less time praying and playing with my kids and talking with my wife.

    What occurred to me is why “spirituality” in our culture is such a mess. We’re all too busy, “rushign about” as you put it.

    I simply cannot survive at such a pace, for it crowds God into another room for a while. Busy-ness sure lends itself toward a two storey universe. If God gets crowded out, He has to be shelved somewhere.

    You mentioned the “pure in heart” and how they see God. Doesn’t “purity” imply singleness of mind or heart? It seems I recall being told at one point that this could be translated “blessed are the single of heart.”

    Anyhow, the past four weeks have really impressed upon me and my wife that we have to keep from being so busy with stuff. We need time to reflect, slow down, pray, be quiet, etc. Thanks.

  7. Irving Avatar

    Quite beautiful 🙂 Thank you. Stillness and service are indeed the way to God.

    Peace and Blessings!

  8. Lucas Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    Respectfully, wouldn’t complacency or fatalism mean “Not moving at all”? This would be a different thing entirely than “Moving slowly and carefully.”

    the sinner,

  9. Seth Avatar

    Chesterton has a few fine words on the slow wonder of children: “This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

  10. The Scylding Avatar

    God “intrudes” on us to disturb our nice little catgories. He upsets the apple-cart to break us from the bonds of our own minds.

    At he same time, when we purposefully go and look for upset apple-carts, it is most likely we’ll find everything in “decent” order. God is not bound by the constructs of our minds, be they mystic or ‘reason’ – bound.

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