Love and Freedom in a One-Storey Universe

dsc00126I offer the first-ever guest article on the blog. My eldest daughter, Matushka Mary Holste, sent me this piece. I loved it and wanted to share with others. Enjoy.

St. Augustine said, “Love and do what you will.” This statement describes a way of being that offers us both freedom and joy. We are to love and be transformed by love. We are not able to love fully without the strenuous work and pain of allowing God to heal our fallen and wounded hearts. But as we grow in our capacity to love, learning to love as God loves, our desires begin to naturally align themselves with God’s will. We will no longer need to seek guidance from exterior rules of behavior. We will no longer need our elaborate lists of what is a sin or what is not a sin under various circumstances, because the law will be written on our hearts. (Jer. 31:33, Ps. 40:8, Heb. 10:16) This process in our lives parallels the shift from the Old Testament law, which prescribed godly conduct to Israel in great detail, to the New Testament commandments of grace: thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Matt 22: 37-40)

In a one-storey view of the universe, God is not separated from our daily lives, as if He lives upstairs and we live downstairs, so that we can visit the upper floor once a week or whenever the mood strikes us.  Instead, every aspect of our lives is shot through with grace. We are no longer alone in the basement wondering what is going on upstairs, but we are being transformed by Christ’s presence from moment to moment. He is very close, within our own hearts.

Living in a one-storey universe does not mean, however, that God is simply extending his rule-book to prescribe the right and wrong choice in every action we take during the day. It does not mean that God is standing over my shoulder waiting to see if I will misstep in eating one bite too much at breakfast, dallying one moment too long over my e-mail, or saying the wrong thing to my child as I tuck him into bed. Love and do what you will. The one-storey universe means, rather, that we have been freed from the path of fear, freed from wondering about every trivial decision in our lives. Would God approve more of me eating all my cereal or of leaving some in my bowl and feeling a little hungry? Eat the cereal with gratitude to God and love in your heart, and it does not matter how many bites you take. Fasting and ascetic labors are a means to an end, an exercise to strengthen our will when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41). We should not fret over them to the extent that we become distracted from the greater spiritual work of cultivating gratitude and love. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

Often, our temptation is to live our lives in our heads rather than in our hearts. We agonize over finding the correct path. What career does God want me to take on? How many children does God want me to have? What car does God want me to drive? Love God and your neighbor and pursue whatever career path you wish.  Love whatever number of children you have and raise them as best you can. Drive whatever car suits your needs and finances, but drive it with love, gratitude, and consideration for the other people on the road. The good news of the one-storey universe is not that God has scripted our lives for us, but that He can use any of our choices for our salvation.

A number of years back, I bought the worst car ever—it was in terrible shape mechanically, and I paid twice as much as it was worth—all because I had been praying for a sign to help me choose the correct car, and the salesman mentioned that he had been praying to the Virgin Mary for his mother’s health. In hindsight, I can say now that it was not a sign, not God’s will for me that I should spend our family’s limited resources on that broken car. But at the time, the responsibility of finding our first family car was new and daunting, and I hid behind the idea of blindly following God’s “will” rather than admit how frightened I was. It could have been an opportunity for healing if I had prayed instead for help in understanding the source of those fears and for the courage and resources to learn a little about cars.

It is much easier to live in our heads than in our hearts, to focus on the exterior actions we should take in life rather than the interior condition of our souls, because our hearts are where we hide our fear, our anger, our pain. Every one of us lives in this fallen world and hides unknown depths of pain that desperately need to be healed. The process of opening our hearts to love makes us vulnerable and uncovers old wounds that we would prefer not to examine.  But a heart that is whole is capable of feeling joy and love in ways that we with our crippled hearts can only dream of. This on-going work of examining our hearts and opening them up to be healed by God is what salvation looks like. Often, we are spurred on to begin this difficult process by a particular grief or crisis that can turn our world upside down or our hearts inside out. But in whatever way we come to Him, God wants to give us the most profound love and joy. Heaven begins here and now, this very moment, with the transformation and healing of our hearts. Then we will be able to love and do what we will, to have perfect love and freedom in Christ.

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.



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25 responses to “Love and Freedom in a One-Storey Universe”

  1. claire Avatar

    I hope you’ll write more guest articles–many more!

  2. Angela Weaver Avatar
    Angela Weaver

    This post is well written and very timely for me. May I have permission to print it and share it with my high school students and homeschooling moms? Thank you so much for a wonderful blog overall.

  3. Matushka Mary Christine Avatar
    Matushka Mary Christine

    I found that this seemed to have been written just for me. I have always been more of a “Mary” than a “Martha”, but my son Aaron died by suicide last June. Since then I have closed off my heart for the pain is unbelievably unbearable. You encourage me to open again.
    Thank you.

  4. Angela Weaver Avatar
    Angela Weaver

    Dear Matushka Mary Christine – I just wanted you to know that we are Holy Trinity still pray for your and Father. We miss seeing you. I pray that God will continue to heal your hearts.

  5. Syphax Avatar

    One thing that I love about Orthodoxy that I didn’t have growing up was the idea that God is ever-present and sustains the world in existence. I had always thought of God as living far away up in a heavenly realm. But now I know that he continually sustains me in existence – all the things around me, the natural order, and the people I love. He is not constantly waiting to strike me down for making a wrong choice, but rather he strengthens me and is present if I need him. This post really strengthens that image. Thanks.

  6. Rhonda Avatar

    Mat. Mary Holste:

    Beautiful words & very timely for me. Please write more articles for us 🙂

    Mat. Mary Christine:

    Memory eternal, Aaron! May God grant you His peace & love& may the Theotokos grant you comfort. I shall pray for your family.

  7. Jeremy Avatar

    Thank you for this post. It is a good reminder to not get caught up in the little details, but rather to embrace grace. It seems that here in the West especially, Christianity can get simplified to a list of “do’s and don’ts” in order to go to heaven or avoid hell. What you wrote is a much more balanced approach.

  8. Mary Freeman Holste Avatar

    Thank you all for your words of encouragement! Mat. Mary Christine, although I don’t think we’ve ever met, our families have been friends for as long as I can remember, and I just wanted to tell you that I have been grieving along with you. I was very moved by your husband’s sermon on the occasion of Aaron’s death, that was published on the internet, and I kept a copy of the text for myself. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope someday to finally meet you in person. I am so glad you found this piece to be helpful.

  9. Victor Avatar

    Love this article completely. The car story is one I am all too familiar with as I passed through a period where I tried to ‘find God’s will’ by looking for signs everywhere. It was a very toxic, trying time in my life. Folks get so worried about ‘missing God’s will’ that they become discouraged and exhausted. I’ve since taken to telling people that God’s will for them is found in obedience to what they know to do now, not in what they ought to do next. We don’t need a sign to tell us to love our neighbour/brother whom we can see. As we exercise love, we find ourselves naturally doing what is right.
    Thanks again for this article, very helpful.

  10. Mary Freeman Holste Avatar

    Angela Weaver, I’d be very happy for you to share this with anyone you like. Thank you very much.

  11. Eric Avatar

    A most beautiful post

    Thank you both, for your writing and sharing


  12. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “The good news of the one-storey universe is not that God has scripted our lives for us, but that He can use any of our choices for our salvation.”

    Very true. Even our bad choices.

    “It is much easier to live in our heads than in our hearts, to focus on the exterior actions we should take in life rather than the interior condition of our souls, because our hearts are where we hide our fear, our anger, our pain.”

    How very true. It takes courage and humility to look within.

    Thank you so much for this article – I hope you will write again. I may want to share this with others too.

  13. Dino Avatar

    The re-orientation from

    “the exterior actions we should take in life”


    “the interior condition of our souls”

    is beautifully explained here, and is the number one method we all have at our disposal (in the way of constant “Nepsis”), to say “yes” to God, Who announces to us continually (as He did to the Virgin Mary) that -as Saint Maximus puts it- He desires to become incarnate as the Divine Logos in our human soul.

  14. BV Avatar

    This post is difficult for me, very difficult, because the author writes of Love as something Good. My recent history tells me otherwise.

    About 4 years ago I lost the woman I’ve loved the most, the woman I believed I would marry. A year ago my dad went to his rest in Christ. As an introvert, these types of relationships go very deep, and to lose them is soul-destroying. I add that we introverts can’t process the word “love” without the word “trust.” The two come together. To love is to trust and to trust is to love.

    God allowed these two I loved, these two I trusted, to be removed from me. I have thus been conditioned by these experiences to avoid Love. The end result isn’t Good.

    The author uses the metaphor of us in the basement and God upstairs to describe the basic worldview that our contemporary societies have adopted. In my head, as I read the Bible and think of Christ, I know this worldview is unBiblical and anti-Christocentric. In my heart though, it’s my reality. I chose to be in the basement, because to come upstairs means to trust the Triune God I feel screwed me in the past.

    I don’t know how Christ did it. I don’t know how in His worst hours, He still trusted. How did He do it?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    There’s a great deal of pain and grief in your note – it’s very hard in the midst of those feelings to sense our connection with God. Christ unites Himself to us – even when we cannot feel it. He understands and unites Himself to you even in your worst hours. And He is trustworthy when we cannot manage to trust. I’ll pray that He will lighten your burden and give you hope. The loss of a parent is one of life’s greatest griefs. May He console you.

  16. dino Avatar

    One of the keys to interpreting grief in joy and love is (as Eldress Gabriella used to say) the vision of the “other side”. The more we become grounded in Heaven and the lighter our attachment to Earth becomes, the better we cope with whatever befalls us, the better we use it as a chance for transformation, the more we emanate that otherworldly (i.e: unshakeable from the troubles of this world) Joy.

  17. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    BV –

    I’m sorry you are in so much pain. Though I haven’t suffered your losses, I know what it is like to be an introvert. We introverts do not find new friends and people to love easily. We tend to love a few very deeply and that leaves us especially vulnerable to loss. I will pray for the healing of your heart.

    With Fr. Stephen’s permission, I invite you to read my blog, where I often write of hope in the face of suffering (I am not Orthodox but my Christian faith is central to my reflections.) Here is the address:

    (Fr. Stephen, please remove this if you think it best.)

  18. Susi Avatar

    BV, your words touched me so very deeply. I, too, am an introvert who has experienced losses much like your own. That you are contemplating Christ is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Consider also the lives and deaths of the Apostles who, being “mere” men, trusted as they also did…the Saints, the Holy Martyrs, the Theotokos. Thus is the richness of trust of those within the Orthodox Church and we are blessed each and every day as we read of their witness and find strength for our day. I rediscovered and deepened my hope and trust in God through them, and I pray the same for you, dear to Christ BV.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    BV, having lost my own wife of 24 years several years ago, I know that of which you speak. Despite my love of God, I wanted to die so that I could be with her and felt guilt that she died rather than me. The pain is deep and, to be honest, never really goes away. Reading this blog and choosing to comment on what I believed but did not necessarily feel all the time helped.

    I too have been withdrawn and untrusting of others most of my life, styling myself as an anti-social troglydyte.

    Yet, I decided, eventually, that I wanted to live. I began to pray to the Theotokos for comfort:

    O my beloved Queen, my hope, O blessed lady Theotokos, protector of orphans and protector of those who are hurt, the intercessor of those who perish and the consolation of all those who are in distress, you see my misery, yoiu see my sorrow and my loneliness. Help me. I am powerless, give me strength. Encircle me in your arms. You know what I suffer, you know my grief. Lend me your hand because who else can be my hope but you, my protectgor and my intercessor before God? I have sinned before you and before all people. Be my Mother, my consoler, my helper. Protect me and save me, chase grief away from me, chase my lowness of heart and my despondency. Help me, O Mother of God!

    You pain is real and should not be denied, Mary knows that pain as well for she saw her only son crucified, dying a horrible death.

    It doesn’t really matter whether you believe or not. Suspend your disbelief and just say the words. I prayed this prayer everday for several of years. Gradually, the pain receded and my heart is comforted. I still pray it every once in awhile if the grief resurfaces. I use a modified form of it every morning.

    It is about the only way I’ve ever found that enables me to endure my own pain and the pain I see in the eyes of others–so I pray it for others as well, as I will for you.

  20. Dino Avatar

    Having encountered grief at times of intense attachment to this world as well as at a time of intense renunciation of it, I would want to attest again to the invaluable power of complete abandonment to God only. It is not an easy thing, most of us only ever achieve glimpses of such Faith (as we could also call such dedication ‘Faith’) but, even as a nothing more than a polar star that shows the way to those still in darkness, that knowledge helps us turn all thoughts of “why” to a certainty that “God never makes mistakes”.
    I remember being deeply impressed, in a way the witnesses of the Great martyrs must have been impressed, when, many years back, a woman who had lost both her children and her husband was called to testify in court in Greece (she was by then an Abbess).
    …Because the solicitor -trying to sway the jury towards his favour by making them feel somewhat sorry for her- started off by saying “this poor woman has unfortunately lost both her sons and her husband”, she immediately interrupted by exclaiming “God never makes mistakes”!

  21. jennifer steel Avatar

    Heaven begins in our Hearts. Thank you for this post, Matushka Mary Holste, I would love to read a follow-up one day.

  22. Deborah Engleman Avatar
    Deborah Engleman

    This article is so beautiful! I have read it several times, and sent to to other people. Especially love the last paragraph…priceless!

  23. […] This article was also published earlier as a guest post for Fr. Stephen Freeman on his blog Glory to God for All Things.  […]

  24. Sophia Avatar

    Matushka Mary, thank you for writing this. It took (and is still taking) many years for me to come to the realization of what you so eloquently convey. I should have come to this blog earlier! 😉

    Matushka Christine, I don’t know you at all, but I pray for you and your husband. I am so sorry for your loss. I pray that through your re-opening heart God will show you how love is stronger than death, even though I can’t imagine your heartbreak and my heart breaks for you. May God’s angels guide you and bring you peace.

    BV, I pray also for you. Those are very hard losses. May God bless you and bring you comfort, and strengthen your heart to love again.

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