Living on the First Floor

DSC_0270I am currently working on a small book that gathers many of my thoughts on the metaphor of the “one-storey universe.” Readers of this blog should be well familiar with the image. I cannot claim to be its originator – I can think of several sources that first suggested this way of explaining things. It is a verbal effort to share a visual and kinesthetic experience. I think that much of my public ministry (in speaking or writing) is an effort to find ways to say things to contemporary Americans (and others) that can make the life of faith possible. It seems clear to me that a wholesale adoption of the vision of the world as offered by our culture is little more than an agreement with death. The gospel necessarily involves the giving of sight to the blind.

I have been fascinated by artists for most of my life. I can think of any number of such gifted persons who have been important in my life. Their importance for me was this strange ability (I call it “strange” because it is not native to me) to see things that others cannot see or to see things in ways that others do not. The thought that two people can look out at the same scene and see something different fascinates me. I can understand that we all see different emphases – different parts of the puzzle. But I mean something much stronger than that. Often the artist relates to what he/she sees in a different manner. Colors manifest themselves in different ways. Relations between objects appear that others do not see.

I see something of the same thing in the stories of saints (particularly those of the Orthodox with whose stories I am most familiar). They walk in the same world in which I walk, and yet it is clear that they do not see the world as I do (most of the time). Saints are not people inhabiting the same space that I inhabit and yet looking away to a world about which they have been told. They are not “heavenly minded” in this sense of heavenly absence, a world that belongs somewhere else. They clearly perceive heaven among us, within us.

A reading of the gospels quickly reveals a Christ who sees and knows something about the world that others around Him either do not see, will not see, or do not understand. He is a walking Jubilee Year (when all debts are cancelled under the law of the Torah). He is the age to come, already walking among men. Around Him, the lame walk, the blind see, prisoners are set free. In the cities of “Roman-controlled” Galilee and Judaea He is not controlled. His Kingdom pours into the lives of those around Him. A crooked tax-collector suddenly proclaims that he will restore four-fold what He has taken from others – a simple response to Christ’s entrance into his home. He surely saw the world in a manner radically different before and after such a rash statement. There is no other explanation.

For me, a key to the vision of the Kingdom of God begins with refusing to allow the Kingdom to be removed from our midst, to be shuttled off the planet and placed somewhere yet to be or open only to those who have died. If Christ has come and accomplished what we are taught in the Gospels, then the world is already different than it commonly appears. To see what has come among us requires that the proper light shine on everything before us.

My experience as an Orthodox priest has been to be frequently plunged into a different light. Words and stories, music and actions are all set beside one another in a way I have never seen before. It is a liturgical combination whose purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. It reveals the Kingdom that we might learn to sing the song that belongs to that presence. In other words – it reveals the Kingdom of God that we might learn to worship. I have come to believe that we exist to worship God.

Along with other Orthodox Christians across the world, I have just completed the Paschal cycle – beginning with the pre-Lenten Sundays, through the 40 days of Lent, Holy Week, through Pascha itself, and on to the completion found in the feast of Pentecost. How can I describe an experience that stretches over 100 days, all of which reveal the truth of Christ’s Pascha? It cannot be described – else the Church would have a description instead of 100+ days of liturgically ordered activities.

But I can say something about what I have experienced. The language I have found for this revelation is that Christianity belongs in a one-storey universe. God is here. In the words of the Pentecost liturgy: “He is everywhere present and filling all things.”

I am not an artist – I cannot quite do with words what others do with colors. A single icon speaks with an eloquence that remains beyond my reach. But God is the great Artist. He has so colored our world that, in the Light of Christ, we can see and know heaven among us. As heaven appears – then we begin to see others as persons to be loved rather than objects to be used. We see trees and all of creation as belonging to the same choir as we ourselves. We begin to hear a song that will never end. God give us grace to see and to sing.

A blessed Pentecost to all.


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 “Living on the First Floor”

  1. Marcus Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Father Bless!

    I am so blessed to read yet another grat post. The two-story universe that you tell us of is something that has radically changed my thinking (though at the same time it is something I’ve always known). It has also effected the others in our small Orthodox community down here in Alabama! I found myself having a strange thought this morning. I realized that though I am convinced that God is here, with us, not somewhere else, a different dichotomy has arisen in me. I feel like I do live in a two story universe, but a different kind, where relationship and logic are mutually exclusive categories. There is only room for one or the other, and the two have nothing to do with each other. Though the Lord rules the universe in logical rules, He has come to show us true relationship with Himself. I am always having trouble trying to reconcile the two, and seeing both the relational side and logical side as “together”, forming one complete whole. Relationships are often illogical, as human persons are not machines, and logic has no place for them. Perhaps this thought is a muddled one and not fully developed, but perhaps someone else has felt this way.

  2. jamesthethickheaded Avatar

    I’m glad you are pulling your material together in a book. I find that in re-visiting some of the books I devoured in journeying in to Orthodoxy… that as you said… this idea is in many places as you say. Maybe it’s not expressed as plainly as here… or maybe my purpose in reading at the time lay in searching and finding something else… but as that angst fades, the subtler things begin to pop out: “How’d I miss that?” So I look forward to a book that could be shared… helping others find a more direct route.

  3. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for writing these things down, both here at your blog and also in a book. However small the book, it will be great to have it! Your position concerning how we live in and perceive the world as Orthodox Christians has only been an encouragement to go back and re-read church fathers I have read and to go forward and seek others I have not yet read. Currently I have on order “Being As Communion.”

  4. Meskerem Avatar

    Father Bless and Thank you for this!

    Whenever I read about your writings on “In living in a One Storey Universe”, I cannot stop thinking of the Beatitudes, of our Lord speaking to the multitudes face to face on the mountain. He introduced the kind of life those who seek the Kingdom of God must lead and the rewards that awaits them.

    I think these Blessings are obtained right here because Spiritual happiness can be achieved from following what Jesus Christ said with those teachings.

    Being “Poor in Spirit” and being totally dependent on God to be awarded with the Kingdom, “Mourning” over the suffering of others and our own sins to be comforted as part of repentance, “Meekness” in both honor and dishonor to inherit this world, “Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness to be able to be filled,”Merciful” to obtain Mercy,”Pure in Heart” to see God everywhere, “Peacemakers” to be called the sons of God, “Persecuted for righteousness sake, to own the Kingdom.

    I remember our Sunday school teacher making us realize this and in contrast to the One Storey Universe we get those blessings as we follow them.

    Like you said Father…”a key to the vision of the Kingdom of God begins with refusing to allow the Kingdom to be removed from our midst, to be shuttled off the planet and placed somewhere yet to be or open only to those who have died.”

  5. davidperi Avatar

    Father…Let us know when the book is out.

  6. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! May the Lord help me to see all more and more with His Light.

    Meskerem, good addition to Father’s thoughts. Thanks.

  7. Joel Avatar

    Is the photo your home church?

  8. antypas Avatar

    Looking forward to it! Thank you.

  9. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Father, bless!

    Your thoughts of the one/two story universe give me ways to reach out and explain to my Evangelical friends of the riches of Orthodoxy. I am thankful for this material being in book form! Yes, let us know when it is available.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    My home Church, St. Anne, is a fraction of the size of this Church. I’m not sure where it is – unidentified photo off the web.

  11. Mary Avatar

    An Orthodox Church is infinitely larger than it looks : – )

  12. Chandler David Avatar

    This Church is my beloved home parish, the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection in New York City.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are blessed. It is quite beautiful.

  14. Patrick Avatar

    Well, its about time! I’ve been hoping for a while you’d do this. We’ll make a spot on our bookcart!

  15. Steve Avatar

    Jennifer chose.

    But was it plain,

    the box in which the world would fit?

    And all would go,

    but for The One,

    who rose from deep below?

    On HOLY altars

    were offerings made.

    In Peace, Love and Joy,

    no shade.

    Redemption everlasting,

    He shows how,

    not when.

    That was here and now and then.

  16. […] At first glance, this “fullness” appears to be contradictory for how can we, in our present state attain any measure of fullness spoken of by our Lord? Do we even know what fullness should look like? After all, it is new wineskins that are made fit for new wine. But this is not, as some have supposed, a subtle hint that the things pertaining to the resurrection body are for the world to come. […]

  17. Micah Avatar

    This is a great article Fr. Stephen, thank you.

    For good reason, mankind has always striven to live in a kingdom that did not have the time-space limitations of the earthly kingdoms. This idea is well presented to the church in the book of Zechariah, chapter 2.

    God became a person precisely for this reason, so that all mankind through the sublime humility of His immersion in the Jordan, could know that Kingdom precisely because they know, and sometimes see, the King.

    Christ is in our midst!

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  1. Matthew, You asked how I would feel. I just glanced at my previous comments. I’m not sure I have presented…

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