So Close to Heaven

When I think of the Iconostasis of the Church (the wall that demarcates the Holy Place) I thinkof “boundaries,” and how the definitions that exist in the Church reflect even greater realities. I believe those realities are two-fold.

The first reality is to be found within ourselves. Fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God, there is a spiritual reality to our composition and inner relationship that is far too easily overlooked in our materialistic age. It seems correct to me that we are now seeing that many components of our life have a grounding not just in the “mind” (whatever a materialist would mean by that) but in the body itself (every thought has a chemical expression). We are not angels, disembodied spirits. We are human beings who think with flesh and blood. And this is a marvelous thing.

And yet, at least in our ignorance, we cannot speak very clearly of such matters. We often have to draw on other metaphors – though we should remember that our embodied existence is just that, embodied. I wrote in the previous post of the Temple of our body, and how there are distinctions and boundaries to be found there and respected.

Much of this is the cause of our problem with “prayer of the heart.” It is interesting that the “prayer of the heart” almost always has a certain amount of physical instruction. “To pray with the mind centered the heart,” is one such admonition.

I believe it is a place that we also encounter, or can encounter icons. I have seen people literally be converted by the presence of an icon. Last year I was in Atlanta when the Icon of Our Lady of Sitka was being taken around the country. The image that came to me as I stood with the other priests and offered the Molieben (prayer service) to Our Lady of Sitka, was that of a surface that has been distorted by the weight of an object placed on it (think of a flexible surface). In such a situation, the surface on which we stand is pulled down as if in a “cone shape,” and eveything around it falls towards it.

Now that may sound strange and having just written it sounds strange to me – but that’s what I felt. It was as if something very big and very heavy were in our midst. I believe this to have been the spiritual weight of the icon itself. Thus many of the people in attendance at the service felt “drawn” to the icon. My own language would have said that I did not feel drawn, I literally felt as though I were falling towards the icon.

Perhaps I am delusional. That is always a distinct possibility, but it is clear that many people were touched by the presence of the icon that night.

One of the most famous “boundary” stories in all of Orthodoxy, is that of St. Mary of Egypt. She was a young prostitute who, on a lark, traveled to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She came with a procession of pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the cross was exhibited). But she discovered that when she tried to cross the threshhold of the Church she was repelled as if there were an invisible wall blocking the way. After several attempts she turned to an icon of the Mother of God beside the entrance. She prayed for help and promised to give up her life of prostitution and give herself completely to God. Then she was able to cross the threshhold.

In such an occasion I can only say that a person stands at the boundary of earth and heaven. Unable to enter heaven except by repentance they find that every human effort to press forward thrusts them backwards. Heaven opens to us only as a great gift of grace.

This same experience is something that I think exists frequently in our prayers. We frequently stand outside the door, and are all to frequently satisfied not to enter into the depths of the bridal chamber (the altar of the Church is called the Bridal Chamber during the Bridegroom Matins services of Holy Week). We stand and pray and are satisfied with a wandering mind and a hardened heart. There is a great need in our lives to press forward until we come to the place of true repentance. Then we find the doors of heaven opened to us and we enter into true prayer.

The series of prayers that a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon must offer before entering the holy altar at the beginning of any Divine Liturgy (these entrance prayers are prayed before the service of the Proskomedie). All of these prayers recognize the holiness of the altar area and the unworthiness of those who enter.

These boundaries, places and points where earth and heaven meet, are probably far more frequent in our lives than we admit. God is so gracious and merciful that He comes to us again and again. It is our fault that we increasingly secularize the world around us, and we see no boundaries, no doors.

Christ speaks of such moments in His famous parable of the Last Judgment when he tells us that all of these needy neighbors who surround us (the sick, the naked, the hungry, those in prison, etc.) were all occasions where Christ was to be encountered. They each stood before us as the Gate of Heaven and we refused to enter.

It is good when we pay enough attention to our heart that we can be aware of the generosity of God who meets us in so many ways. We need to be like Jacob of old who awakened from his dream at Bethel (the dream where he saw the ladder stretching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending). He did not wake from his dream like a secular man. A secular man would have said, “What a strange dream. I wonder what I’m worried about. Or did I eat something bad last night.” For the secular man, reality is defined only by himself. Jacob woke from his dream and said:

Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:16-17).

These are not the thoughts of a modern man. But, with the renewal of our mind, they can be our thoughts.

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 “So Close to Heaven”

  1. thinkingaboutitall Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your post. I feel like I am currently waking from a dream, but it is my awakening from a bad dream where God is malevolent. I have grown up as a Protestant Christian, and I have read the River of Fire that you have put up a post about. Can you recommend good Orthodox books that are about a God of love and compassion and mercy?
    Thank you,

  2. Miriam Avatar


    I keep wondering in the back of my mind why women are unable to ever go behind the iconstasis? I can understand not being allowed to be priests (most days), perhaps it is related to that.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to ask rudely or rebelliously. It just bothers me sometimes why women are excluded from even approaching. (Not that I think there shouldn’t be boundaries, not in the least, I just don’t know why gender is one of them.)


  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are numerous times when women may enter the altar – specifically if they have a blessing from the priest to do so. Normally most men cannot or should not enter the altar, unless they have a blessing from the priest to serve. At my parish, only the priests and servers enter the altar. Others (including my Choir Master needing to ask a question before a service) remain outside the doors, and the priest comes to them.

    To set “boundaries” allows us to see the holy. There is no place for democracy in the holy. The issues really are not about gender, per se, but about who is blessed to serve in the altar (some men or boys). In the larger question of priesthood, gender does play a role, as do many other things. The priesthood is a particular icon of Christ. In denominations that ordain women, their ordained ministry is more an icon of modernity. They do not seek to image beyond that.
    In Orthodoxy, the use of the sanctuary is understood mystically, rather than politically. It is difficult to separate these things out (in our hearts) but it is a worthwhile effort to make. The world and its politics would love for our hearts to carry nothing more than the dead secularism of the modern age.

  4. Durk Avatar

    I was really struck in this article by the idea of the iconostasis being an icon of the “brass wall of our will” in the midst of our hearts. We’re separated not because of a decorative “wall” of wood and icons, but because of our hard hearts. And it’s good to be reminded of that, by the actual iconostasis.

    Nevertheless, I am reminded by Miriam of the fact that women can never enter behind that wall to serve. I understand about not thinking politically, but spiritually; I really get that. But I don’t think anything will ever stop me from being bothered, by some sort of parable here that works negatively. If the iconostasis is a parable, the fact that women can’t enter to serve is a parable as well, and a very tough one to swallow. I’m not sure what equivalent exercise in humility men are given in the Orthodox Church.

    Meanwhile, my wife of a few months — a very “modern” person in really every sense of the word — has been going to church with me whenever she can, is considering being baptized, and the parable doesn’t seem to bother her. I think she’s elected not to think about it. That’s probably what I do as well: elect not to think about it.

  5. Karen Avatar

    Re: women excluded from the altar. In addition to what Fr. Stephen pointed out (that some women do receive a blessing to be in the altar, though not to serve there), a nun once told me that an Orthodox nun tonsured to the Great Schema has a privileged place within the altar to worship.

    I’m sure I have a lot to learn, but what helps me is focussing on the fact that men and women in their sexuality, as in all things, are not self-referential–rather, they are both icons of a greater Reality. Specifically, man is not merely the male, he is the icon of Christ, and woman is not merely the female, she is the icon of the Church. While there is genuine union between the two (Christ and the Church) and mutual honor, they are not identical in spiritual meaning. It is within the Divine Liturgy that this iconic imagery and meaning really comes into its own. *IOW, what is spiritually imaged for us by only men/boys serving in the altar is meant to speak to us about the nature of the relationship between Christ and the Church, NOT about the relationships between human men and human women as they are in themselves.* In my experience, it is when these two frames of reference–that of the spiritual/heavenly and that of the merely ordinary/earthly–become blurred that confusion is created and sometimes doubt sown upon the Church’s unparalleled affirmation and teaching of the equal dignity of men and women (and the very great dignity of each as Divine image-bearers).

    With regard to the iconic boundary of the altar vs. the nave, I think it is a very good and proper thing (though humbling) to remember that without God’s blessing none of us (men or women–all of us being members of the Church) can come to Him and that, while we do not have the power or authority in ourselves to ascend to Him, He does come to us and purifies and feeds us not only with His words which are life, but also with His very own Body and Blood that He might sanctify us to become fit inhabitants of Heaven!

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    The wall both separates and unites. Everyone in the Church serves in the liturgy. But the iconicity of the temple carries a number of meanings. It must be remembered that most men cannot enter the altar (not if the Church is following the canons properly). So for most men, the image is no different than it is for women.

    By the way, when I have served liturgy in a women’s monastery, a nun served in the altar during the service. This is a common practice. We have not only “democracy” within us as a spirit of modernism (and useful in some places), but also individualism, etc. The iconology of the liturgy reveals both things of heaven and things of the heart. If we remake and fashion that iconology according to the “mind of the flesh” as St. Paul says, then we will banish heaven and replace it with man’s own imagination.

    We should recognize the sinfulness of our own hearts and pray for repentance – and be patient with the things of God. Many things can be “upsetting” until they are known.

  7. Durk Avatar

    Thanks to both Karen and Fr. Stephen. I do appreciate the explanations, which help somewhat. In the end, however, all explanations for barring women from serving as priests seem to me rather “lame” — and this is after 26 years of being a practicing Orthodox Christian. As an Orthodox Christian, however, I know that I didn’t make the rules. I know what my goals are in the spiritual life, and pondering questions like this for too long isn’t good for me.

    It might be like I heard on a recent show on NHPR: The Church is sort of like “Star Wars”… in the sense that you might not like certain episodes or even movies, but the total package is really cool. My wife liked that analogy, too.

  8. mic Avatar


    is there an Orthodox Church somewhere in your area?

    Books on Orthodoxy are nice and could be very helpful, but it is far better to come and pray with us.

    i hope you find the answers that you are looking for, and the ones that you didn’t know you were looking for.


  9. mike Avatar

    …Great meditation!…this post brings to recollection the “2 storey universe” post which was so beneficial for me spiritually….it has me thinking of the numerous occasions in my life when i’ve found myself at a mystical intersection so to speak..of Heaven and which God would present Himself as the only alternative to a life of sin induced misery or even suicide…sin has a way of breaking us and bringing us to our knees for relief/remedy and ultimately onto Godly sorrow/repentance… pondering the other places/ways where Heaven and Earth intersect for me personally…while im not ‘Orthodox’ and probably never can be for doctrinal differences I find one of those profound intersections to be while ‘in’ the Divine Liturgy…perhaps suprisingly another would be a ‘good’ AA meeting..on the otherhand there are infrequent occasions when a deeply profound sense of an opening between heaven and earth has been manifest to me while simply gazing/pondering on my wifes face and at other times an icon has provided the impetus…my favorite though is a really good sunrise……forgive my ramblings

  10. Lina Avatar

    Maybe it is age, but I am learning that what I am is not important while worshipping God. When I concentrate on being in the presence of God, the prayers and the singing, little else matters.

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