Sacraments: The World as Mystery

My recent post on Pentecost and Evangelism occasioned several thoughtful responses. One of the responses seemed to me particularly worth further reflection. I start with an excerpt:

Truly it is God we need and want, nothing less. I experienced in my heart, but didn’t realize in my head until I began to study Orthodoxy, that in my evangelical world we affirmed “by faith” having God living by His Spirit within us and that His Presence was with us in our corporate context. But in reality, because a sacramental view of reality had largely eluded us, we failed to really experience that Presence in any consistent way, especially in the context of corporate worship.

The comment goes to the very heart of the modern Christian dilemma. Without a truly “sacramental” world-view, the presence of God and of all things holy remain alien to our life and are reached only occasionally and with great difficulty (if at all). The writings I have offered on Christianity as a One-Storey Universe are precisely an effort on my part to find language to describe the alienation of the holy from a secularized world.

The whole of Orthodoxy is rooted in an understanding of the world that is not only non-secular, but even pre-secular. The language of Orthodox worship, hagiography, and writings of the Fathers, never imagines a situation in which God is removed from the world and inherently inaccessible. The world itself is a sacrament – or in Orthodox language – the world is mystery (mysterion).

It is important to say just this much – “the world is mystery” – for if we say less – we run the danger of saying that the world is indeed secular, but that there are “sacramental” moments within it. This is the danger carried by the notion of limiting the sacraments to seven in number. Of course those actions and occasions which the Church formally refers to as “mysteries” or “sacraments” are precisely what the Church says of them – but in actions such as the annual blessing of the waters on Theophany – the Church reveals that all of creation is intended to be an occasion of communion with God. Indeed, it is the very purpose of creation.

I am not suggesting anything here that has not already been better said by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his classic For the Life of the World, nor is he asserting anything there that is not simply a clear statement of the Orthodox mind. In many ways such expressions are simply commentaries on St. Paul’s theology (in any number of passages). I quote only one for this purpose:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7-10).

There is a vast difference and distinction between a world-view which allows for such things as sacraments and a world-view which understands that all of creation is a sacrament. With the first, one can be religious from time-to-time. With the latter, communion with God is a way of life and the whole of life.

Everything is changed in such an understanding. It is in just such a context (and quoting from Scripture) that we can understand that the Church not only reads the Scriptures, but is itself the Scriptures (see my earlier series on an Orthodox hermeneutic). In the same way we not only eat the Body of Christ, we also are the Body of Christ.

Prayer and worship cease to be specialized activities that we attend and become the very fabric of our lives. This in no way diminishes the worship of the assembled Church, but we do not cease to be Church when we exit the doors of a building. We are commanded to “pray without ceasing,” and to “give thanks always for all things.” In the language of Fr. Schmemann, human beings live rightly when we live as “eucharistic, doxological beings,” that is, human beings exist to give thanks to God and to worship Him.

As the angels ceaselessly cry: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” Even so we can reply: “Glory to God for all things.”

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.


17 responses to “Sacraments: The World as Mystery”

  1. Robert Avatar

    The one storey universe and the understanding of the world as mystery, rests on the foundation of the Incarnation. Orthodox theology is therefore best understood as a theology of the Incarnation. Glory to God for all things indeed.

  2. Bosco Peters Avatar

    I am delighted to have been pointed to this blog.
    I was at a wonderful Orthodox baptism only last week.
    I hope you might visit my site “Liturgy”
    and add it maybe under your Anglican links
    and let me know so that I acknowledge this link & link back.
    I look forward to exploring here more.

  3. Ezekiel Avatar

    This morning’s reading from Romans 1 became an “Aha!” moment!

    “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made”

    The Lover of Mankind has revealed Himself to all in many ways.

  4. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    A few years ago, I wrote this essay on Creation as Sacramental as my heart was becoming open to these realities. Listening to your podcasts on the one-story world draws me ever deeper into it, and for that I am deeply grateful.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would agree so long as we remember that the incarnation includes Christ’s life and teachings, Passion, Death, Descent among the Dead, Resurrection and Ascension into glory, etc.

  6. The Scylding Avatar

    Indeed – you have opened my eyes a bit more through this post. Glory to God for all things for sure.

  7. Isaac the Syrian Avatar
    Isaac the Syrian

    I was listening to a John Polkinghorne talk the other day and he said, to paraphrase, that the mistake of those people who made “god of the gaps” arguments in the past was that they were separating God from parts of his creation and actively engaging in giving credit to a secular enlightenment world view. He concluded that God is either in the whole of the cosmos or he is not. So the point is that I think the movement away from a sacramental Christianity is the first fruit of the dissolution of Christianity.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    Secularism is the mother of atheism.

  9. Carl Avatar

    Remember also John 3:16, “For God so loved τον κοσμον.” The salvation of the cosmos itself was in God’s heart when the Son was raised up.

  10. Pastor Chad Avatar

    This reminded me of the song by Evanesense ‘Your Star’. In it they sing about how ‘the mechanical lights of this world’ seem to have frightened away God’s star (I realise they are probably not talking about God’s star necessarily, but it is an interesting concept). Naturally, God has not been frightened by our technological progress, but it does make you think about how our technological progress can get between us and God, or at least our experience.

    Thanks for this reminder of the our incredible God and his creation.

  11. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Agreed. All these events, of course, would not have been possible without the Incarnation.

    The problem you seem to pick up on is a common one. Namely, we enter into error when we reduce things to singularities. One storey is nice, but of course there is a Heaven in contradistinction to Earth, and God the Wholly Other. The Incarnation is central, but not to the exclusion of Christ’s death, the Resurrection, the Ascension etc.
    There thus seems to be a healthy tension between the One and the many.

    Father Bless!

  12. canadiancatholicblog Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I truly enjoyed this article. It’s very well written and provides many excellent points and explanations.

    I am studying to be a priest eventually. I’m an Associate of the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) of the Roman Catholic tradition. I’ll enter the novitiate in our Order in August.

    If I understand right, you are an Orthodox priest. I don’t know much about the Orthodox Churches, though I am fascinated by Orthodox Christianity, especially in your understanding of things we Roman Catholics have in common with the Orthodox, such as Apostolic Succession, Sacraments (which you write about beautifully here), etc…

    God Bless,

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    I should make myself more clear. I think that all those aspects of Christ and His ministry are themselves contained in the word “incarnation.” Thus it’s not a tension but an embracing of the whole of it.

    Same thing on the sacraments, or the One-Storey Universe, etc., it is the whole of it, rather than things in separation. I embrace a particular, but never in a state in which it is not also in communion with the whole. Thus it is not a tension but a communion.

    Does this seem picky on my part or that I’m just quibbling over a phrase or two? I don’t mean to. Somehow it seems important to me.

  14. Robert Avatar

    Hi Fr Stephen,

    I do think it is important, and thank you for clarifying. Perhaps “tension” is too strong word, and probably not well chosen – certainly it is not God versus the world, or God versus man. I do like your choice of words: “communion with the whole”. And so it is God in the world, God in man.

    I believe this communion -this partnership and synergy with God- I believe this to be the answer to the distinctions and limitation of being, knowledge, time and space that we encounter in the one storey universe. The One and the many are united in the Divine covenant of His redeeming love.

    It is my prayer that the Faith of the Apostles, this “leaven of Heaven” will spread through the whole loaf – the entire one storey universe! Lord have mercy on us and help us all to do our part.

  15. […] Father Stephen Freeman has written about Fr. Schmemann’s work, and his understanding of sacramentality: […]

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