The Absent God – Introibo ad altare Dei


Children in Church have a marvelous innocence – one that often sees past the barriers which we adults erect in our own ignorance. One of the children in my Church, young daughter of a Catechumen, has what I can only describe as a “devotion” to me as priest. I’ve never questioned her to see precisely who she thinks I am (some children, early-on, can make the mistake of thinking that the priest is God). Recently I missed a Sunday liturgy on account of sickness. My second priest presided at the service. This dear child, unbeknownst to everyone else, was eagerly watching the altar for any sign of my presence. When the service was over and there was no Father Stephen coming out of the altar, she began to cry. That was when her mother discovered she had been looking for me all morning.

The other day the child pointed to the altar and said, “That’s where you live.” I was at a loss to respond. I could not look at the altar and say, “I do not live there, I only work there,” for the altar is not that sort of place. Indeed I do “live” there, and more fully than I live any other place. But it took a child to point it out to me.

That said, I want to raise the important question of “where does God live?” Of course the question can sound childish, or can easily be answered by saying, “God is everywhere.” God indeed is everywhere, and yet our hearts do burn with the question, “Where is God?” The question can sometimes be all-consuming, especially if the omnipresent God is only theoretically everywhere, but in every practical sense we have no awareness of His presence with us.

The Psalmist prays, “Be not far from me” (22:11).

Christ said to those around him, “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).

I have written numerous articles on what I have termed the “two storey universe,” that is, a view of the world in which God dwells in one place (heaven) while we dwell in another (earth). Imagined in various ways, it is something of a hallmark of our secular age – not that we do not believe in God – but we do not find Him to be particularly present in our daily lives. Churches may be exempt from this rule of absence. It also may be true that the idea that God is present everywhere has become such a statement of banality that it is tantamount to saying that the universe is big. To be present everywhere can be as empty as being nowhere.

For the question of God’s presence is far more a question of “how” than it is a question of “where.” How God is present also carries implications for how our world should be seen and understood. If the Kingdom of God is among us, then the world may be quite different than we perceive – indeed, it may be that we are absent in the presence of the present God. Which also raises the question of “how” we are here.

Despite imagery to be found in Scripture that would suggest that “heaven” is somewhere else – Christ’s location of the Kingdom of God affirms otherwise. Christians should not confuse imagery used for one purpose with a statement of geographical literalism.

St. John (of Revelations) says that “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” and begins to relate what he saw. He does not say that he was caught up to some other place – simply that he was “in the Spirit.” St. Paul speaks of being “caught up to the third level of heaven,” but admits that he has no idea whether this occured while he was “in the body or outside of the body.” It is not an experience he could attach to geography, despite the language of being “caught up.”

I had an interesting experience in the Holy Land – one that flows directly from Orthodox theology but occurred in such a manner that it brought me up short. We were standing by the Jordan River, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware was celebrating the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters. It is the same service used everywhere in the Church on the feast of the Theophany, but also anytime Holy Water is blessed. It begins, “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there are no words which are sufficient to hymn Thy praises.” I hear the echo of Metropolitan Kallistos’ Oxford accent still ringing in my ears. But at one part of the prayer a specific blessing of the water is invoked, “Send down upon these waters the blessing of Jordan.” This statement has made sense to me everywhere else I have celebrated the blessing of water. But here, standing at the Jordan, we were calling on God to make the Jordan be the Jordan. It is like calling on God to be present.

The Jordan is always the Jordan and God is always and everywhere present, but in the blindness of our heart we consistently reduce the Jordan (and all waters) to just so much water. We reduce the presence of God to an absence. With God it is easy. We can exile Him to some other place we imagine and call it “heaven.” With things like the Jordan, however, we have to remove all significance, any suggestion that there is more to reality than meets the eye. Secularism is not an objective view of reality, but a view of reality as mere object.

This is a very difficult problem if you happen to be part of a Church in which the sacraments play a major role.  Indeed, I would argue that the decreasing role of the sacraments in many Churches is precisely because they have little or no place in a world of “objects.” Their presence is problematic. It is for this reason that many versions of Christianity go to great lengths to explain how the Body and Blood of Christ are not the Body and Blood of Christ, or are only the Body and Blood in some very carefully nuanced sense. It is easier to explain how someone becomes a Christian by making reference to a decision they have made than to make reference to something that involves being immersed in water.

For some, the Incarnation of Christ, His coming among us in the flesh, was for the sole purpose of offering Himself as a sacrifice, a payment, for the sins of the world. Resurrection is job completed, awaiting only the Ascension so that He can go back home and celebrate a successful work here on earth. All that remains is for His followers to market “faith” in Him as a means of enlisting others in eternal life in heaven.

In such approaches there is nothing integral about the Incarnation – nothing revealed in the fact of God made man. It is little wonder that for many Christians the Virgin Mary holds no place of particular honor. By the same token, other saints are themselves only isolated objects of decision – they in no way have a share in the life and work of Christ. In such a world of isolation, Orthodox Christianity is strange indeed.

But it is at such moments that the Orthodox would dare to say that they possess a “fullness,” an understanding and indwelling of the Gospel that is complete. Thus in the Orthodox Church, the world is a “single storey”: “God is with us.” God is not only with us, but is with us as our salvation (in answer to the question “how” is He with us). He sustains all that is and works for the salvation not only of all human beings, but of the entire created order as well.

Thus when we pray for the blessing of Jordan to come down on the Jordan, we are praying for creation to be creation – something more than a self-referential, closed universe. For the world to exist as creation, by its very name is for it to exist by virtue of a Creator. The life of the Church is well described by St. Paul:

For [God] 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 (Eph. 1:9-10).

Christ Himself is the union of heaven and earth – He is the fullness of time walking among us. In the sacraments we see manifest the union of heaven and earth, the transformation of life from “object” to “creation” and more than creation – the union of created and uncreated.

It is a false life for the Christian to live as an object among objects. It is poor theology to separate the world into “sacred and secular.” We were not created to live as an object but as a person – the very image of God. The world was created for us to inhabit – to live.

I live in an altar. The one at Church reveals itself easily – even to a little girl. But it also reveals the whole world as the altar of God. And if I am to live – then I must learn to live in the abiding presence of the altar of God, who is blessed forever.

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.



16 responses to “The Absent God – Introibo ad altare Dei”

  1. handmaidleah Avatar

    I struggle to live “in Christ” and live Orthodoxy, in other words to BE a Christian at all times… The key word here is struggle. I often think I am struggling in the wrong direction, not doing what I should be doing.
    My first priest said that Divine Services are like an announcement that “Jesus Christ is Appearing Live” on Sunday and people still don’t come… I get that way sometimes and the drive to town is long and the capacity to give in to temptation is very strong. In this case the temptation not to go to Church.
    The struggle to be a Christian is the hardest thing I have ever tried. God is not absent, I am.

  2. Pilgrim Avatar

    Keep heart Leah. I recently started reading a book called Unseen Warfare, a spiritual book written in the 1500s by a Roman Catholic priest that made its way to Mt. Athos where it was edited and “made Orthodox” by St. Nicodemus, and then was again heavily edited by St. Theophane the Recluse. St. Nicodemus in his foreward says:

    “This book teaches that the warriors who take part in this unseen war are all who are Christians; and their commander is our Lord Jesus Christ, surrounded and accompanied by His marshals and generals, that is, by all the hierarchies of angesl and saints. The arena, the field of battle, the site where the fight actually takes place is our own heart and all our inner man. The time of the battle is our whole life.”

    Keep fighting! Our enemies are our passions and the demons who love to expose them. We’re not fighting alone though! We have all the angels and saints as fellow warriors, and Christ as our commander!

  3. […] Presence of God January 1, 2009 Filed under: Orthodoxy — Mama @ 5:38 pm While reading a typically excellent post (”meditation” might be a better term for posts made over at Glory to God for All […]

  4. zoe Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen. Thank you for reminding us that “God is with us” always. The “struggle” that Handmaidleah mentioned must be the cross that we as Christians must bear everyday. This “struggle” was symbolized by the cross that was put on each of our necks at Chrismation.
    When I was a protestant I thought of sins and temptations as something that is out there in the world and if I can isolate myself from the world, it will be easier to obey Christ’s command not to sin and “be perfect” but now that I’m an Orthodox Christian, I’m more aware that I sin every minute and probably more because of persistent pride. It is easy to avoid the enemy without (outside of myself) but it is hard to fight the enemy within me. I can not avoid it nor ran away from it. But it is reassuring to be reminded that God is always present no matter where we are, we can call upon the Holy name of Jesus to help us. For he is also within us: He said “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world”.

    Thank you Pilgrim for your encouragement to Handmaidleah, I’m encouraged by your comments as well.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  5. Steve Avatar

    From the introduction to Unseen Warfare:

    “For that growing number of people who take to heart the scandal of schism, and of that mutual ignorance and estrangement which is both cause and effect of schism and who work and pray for a better understanding between Christians of East and West the lessons which this book can teach are of no small moment. It is not in the sphere of ecclesiastical organisation, of canon law and church government that unity will be discovered and unity achieved. Nor is it in the sphere of dogmatic discussion severed as that so often is from the actual life of the Christian community and reduced to a battle of abstractions. It is where we fight and pray together, in the same spiritual combat against the same unseen enemies that we shall find ourselves to be one army–not become one army, but discover that we are one. And when we discover that, the formulae and the institutions will be adjusted accordingly.” (Hodges, 1987)

    Interesting and prophetic.

  6. Bruce Avatar

    If God “fillest all things”, I think my challenge is to figure out how to subscribe to His RSS FEED….I know He’s broadcasting, why am I not able to see and hear? Sounds like I have a VISION problem as per Father Stephen’s previous post!

    Maybe a few keys for my RSS GOD FILLEST ALL THINGS FEED are:
    1. An absolute faith that He is always broadcasting (and somehow it is right in front of me, wherever I happen to be) and thus a constant state of gratitude and praise to Him. When I don’t see Him, the problem is in me not Him.
    2. The lack of a clean mirror (my heart) to absorb, reflect, and then transmit what He is constantly, unceasingly unconditionally giving in His Love to me and us all. When all else fails for me, I can begin to see each breath and heartbeat as a gift of His Unconditional Love and an affirmation of how He’s filling me without any expectation or requirement that I recognize and return His Gift….I’m free to do as I wish with the gift of life He grants me moment by moment, day by day. However, keeping my mirror clean (and recognizing when it’s dirty quickly) allows me to truly begin to know the Gift Giver and pass on His Gift to others.
    3. A willingness and openness to see my daily circumstance as the practice field God can use to be my Teacher and reveal Divine Things. His ability to transform what is ordinary, boring, and repetitious in my life into an extraordinary, exciting, and new revelation of His Glory shining in the midst of my circumstance (whether pleasant or unpleasant).

    Perhaps, the key for me to experience this sense of awe and wonder in being one of His creations is to keep my ‘judge'(who knows it all) locked away in the closet and to remember and truly believe I know but a little but He knows all.

  7. Visibilium Avatar

    “Even unto the God of my joy and gladness.” (Usus Cascadae/ROCOR)

    A recipient of miracles would be convinced of multiple points of intersection between the created and the uncreated, although the nature and dynamics of the intersection wouldn’t be well understood.

  8. Romanós Avatar

    I don’t remember when I stopped believing that God lived only in heaven (along with Jesus) and we on earth, but it must be relegated to my experience of “Christianity for children.” I still believe, of course, that He (and Jesus at His right hand) live in heaven, but as an adult believer, I cannot remember thinking that “God is in heaven, man on earth” and acting on that basis. In other words, the “two-storey” universe is not a component of my world view. As a young adult, whenever I would be confronted by a person or a book that posed such questions as “if there is a God, where is He?” or such subjects as “the absent God” and the like, I would feel very annoyed. “How can people be that silly?” I’d ask myself. It was a long while before I realized that even many of the people I went to church with had no experience of God’s constant and pervasive presence, an experience that I had from the moment of my conversion: “After He washed me in His precious Blood, He left me without departing, and gave me the one gift that I have never lost, though it’s hard to describe… to see Him everywhere I look. I just have to get quiet, and He’s there, more certain and real to me than I am to myself.” ( That’s one form that the “experience of God’s constant and pervasive presence” takes in my case, but it’s not the only one.

    When I enter the church for services, I kiss the cross on the church door. As I enter the narthex, I kiss the icons and the gospel book. Later, during the service I may kiss some of the people, and at the end I kiss the priest’s hand as I receive the antidoron. Why all this kissing in church? Well, because God is there, among us, and in a special way, not more, not less, than He is anywhere else, but in a special way that elicits this response from me. I actually kiss all these things, doors, icons, bibles, and people, in what some people might consider, well, rather everyday situations, so “why bother?” Not all the time, but when the spirit moves in me, I venerate the Lord in His presence among us, according to what is proper. It’s like I can’t escape Him, even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to. He is with me here as I write this, and He is not just an imaginary friend (as the 6’4” tall rabbit in the film Harvey). As I wrote in my testimony, He is more real to me than I am to myself.

    Perhaps it is just the case that people don’t expect God, Who created and manages the universe, to be as intimate with us as Jesus says He is. That seems to take a great deal of humility to think that, but actually it doesn’t. It humbles me more to know that the King of kings of kings (Blessed be He!) cuts through the layers of creation and the immensities of the universe to be with me, than it would to believe that I’m so unimportant, that He needn’t bother.

    Any other kind of god than the living God, if such existed, would certainly account for all the religions of the world in their complexity. But we have the living God or, rather, the living God has us, He is with us, and so whatever we do in this knowledge, though it may take the form of religion, is ultimately something more personal, really more like a friendship. No, I’m not espousing the “Jesus is my pal” attitude or the boys’ theology that goes with it. God is God, He is awesome and fully beyond us in His essence as the Church teaches, and it is right that we approach Him with fear and trembling. Yet, he takes our fear and trembling and changes them into ευδοκια, His good pleasure, as He takes us in His loving embrace, as our Father whom we call on as Lord.

  9. david peri Avatar

    As the up-coming Feast of Epiphany is around the corner, I´ve been reading some comments about this. One commented since it is about Manfestation and Illumination, the Fr mentioned that as Orthodox believers we should invite “Christ into our darkness” .

    Kinda of scary that as believers there are hidden corners of darkness that the light has never entered. Lord have mercy upon me.

  10. Balan Claudiu Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen,

    I read your blog often and I like it a lot. God inspires you tremendously because your articles are superb. I will pray for you and for your family, to continue this blog ministry.

    I’m a Romanian student at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Bucharest, and I want very much to become a priest and to serve God and all the people every second of my life. in everything I do. Me and some other friends we have also an orthodox blog. The reason that made me start a blog was you and the beautiful articles on this site.

    I want to ask you if you allow us to create a blog on WordPress in which we will translate daily all your articles in Romanian, because I think they will be of great help. We will not change anything, we will keep everything as it is (text, pictures,…) If you want we can use the same wordpress theme and the same header as yours.

    In our orthodox country we have a lot of orthodox blogs, but only few are worth reading daily.

    Please let me know if you are ok. I think romanian people will love you. If you say yes I will ask for the blessing of my priest and then we will start right away.

  11. fatherjamesearly Avatar

    This commment isn’t as profound or as serious as the others, but it’s pretty funny, so I’ll post it anyway. Your comments about small children mistaking the priest for God reminded me of a time when my 7-year-old daughter Beth was about 2 or so. After the liturgy she and I and the rest of my family were in the church hall enjoying coffee hour (I was still a a layman at the time). The doors to the hall were open. Our priest Fr. Matthew came through the outer doors and turned toward his office, not coming immediately into the hall. Beth caught a glimpse of Fr. Matthew and took off running toward him. I followed her and caught up with her just in time to hear her say to him, “Jesus, I want some water!”

  12. luciasclay Avatar

    I smile at the girls comment. My son, just a couple weeks ago, in a mothers room at a lutheran church my wife likes heard the voice coming out of the speaker in the ceiling and asked “Is that God talking ?” while staring up trying to find the sound.

    Your comments on the fullness of faith, the one storey universe, etc. As always they convey the Orthodox teaching that I find so awe inspiring.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would add as a short thought, viz. children, God has placed them in our midst and expect so much of us: wisdom, insight, protection, the truth, their daily bread, love, kindness, an example of what it means to be an adult as well as a Christian. Expectations for priest include yet more. I have rarely met a young adult who had fallen away from the faith who did not have a story that included disappointment in a priest or in a layman. God, indeed have mercy on us!

    On the other hand – I had opportunity to meet with the Anglican priest under whom I first received my vocation to the priesthood when I was a teenager. He is now elderly and still a solid believer. He embraced me and was so glad to see the decision I had made (to be Orthodox) and with tears in his eyes he begged me to forgive him and the Church which had failed in so dramatic a way. It was a blessed moment. I was able to tell him – you, personally, never failed me. I love you.

  14. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    My “special needs” daughter (see my comment under your last post) got a little confused after we had been attending the Orthodox parish where I was chrismated for a while. In hearing the Priest addressed as “Father” and also in hearing the regular recital of The Lord’s Prayer in the LIturgy (and every bedtime), she once asked my Priest,”Are you God?”–much to his bemusement and consternation! He quickly assured her he was not, and of course I had another exercise in learning to reduce complex theological truths to their most simple concrete meaning in context for her! 🙂 My life with her is so full of situations like this, that I sometimes joke that with all her questions, I often have “smoke coming out of my ears!”

  15. selena Avatar

    Children certainly are blessed with special insights. The very first time I took my children to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy (having been evangelical protestant all my life), my four-year-old daughter whispered to me as we walked in the door – “Mummy, I think Jesus is here!”

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