Walking in a One-Storey Universe

Our modern culture celebrates the individual and his/her choices. We prize freedom above everything. But we long for something we cannot express. Human beings were created for communion and participation and we lose our way without it. The instinct for such a life has never disappeared from our culture, despite almost centuries of nurtured individualism. It gets expressed it bizarre ways. We have an almost mystical experience with certain sports and the commonality of shared loyalties; we are repeatedly drawn to music festivals that tragically become bacchanal reveries. Patriotism and its liturgical expressions (“USA! USA! USA!”) create a false, empty camaraderie with a very dark side. But the instinct remains and is good. I even find it hopeful. The instinct for communion bears witness to the truth of our creation and the oneness of our nature.

I am sharing a wonderful video (some 25 minutes in length) that looks at an event of communion in today’s Russia. It is the Velikoretsky Cross Procession, a pilgrimage that celebrates a miraculous icon. The pilgrims walk for nearly a week on a journey that began centuries ago. Many of them are under churched, barely formed in their Christian faith. But their instincts represent a Russian expression of enculturated Orthodoxy. “I don’t know why I come,” a young girl says. But her words express the deep longing of a heart for God – a God that permeates a people, the land and a common movement. An American listening to some of the comments might impute a form of nationalism to the sentiments. But that is simply projecting our modern experience onto a people whose sense of things (Russia, Orthodoxy, land, trees, water, health, marriage, icon, pilgrimage) is all somehow one thing.

I don’t share this video to say, “This is the ideal!” Rather it’s an example of something different. It has all the flaws that human beings bring – but they exist within a one-storey world, a world that still has deep, classical roots. May God bless!

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.


31 responses to “Walking in a One-Storey Universe”

  1. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    I was very moved by this video.

    I thought it was interesting when the priest was critical of the “folk” spirituality. Even at the destination he had to remind the lady what the objective was.

  2. Jonathan Anderson Avatar

    this was good until the nature worship at the end. sort of ruined it for me, but also is a reminder for those who put Russia or Russian spirituality above that of our own land. Russia has a long way to go as well.

  3. Margaret Avatar

    I did go back and forth between thinking “hmmm, not so sure I want to continue” and “praise be to God” — the praises won!

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. I mentioned this in the introduction. What is of note is not that this represents any ideal, but that it is so thoroughly one-storey. Even the ignorance is a one- storey ignorance. We have far to go ourselves, except that we have emptied God and even the “magic” out of our world. Russia has only been free of the Communists and able to begin(!) teaching since 1989.

  5. Byron Avatar

    I think the nature worship at the end was interesting and even charming, and while I understand the dogmatic errors involved, I can’t help thinking of the metaphor of the cross itself as the tree of life. Obviously the Russian mindset is (still, and despite communism) very different from that found in the West, as Fr Stephen suggests. It is perhaps a bit closer to the folk mindset of past generations which can still be found here in Cyprus, although we Greek-Cypriots are quite westernised now and the younger generations are much more individualistic, or if they attend church at all, their Orthodoxy is self-conscious and sophisticated in a way which doesn’t appear to be the case for some of these simple Russian pilgrims. Touching procession, may God speed these people on their way every year.

  6. LI Avatar

    Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union was an immense spiritual wasteland during communism, forbidden to go to church, people worshiped whatever they could find. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere on earth as much superstitions, trust in fortune-tellers, magic and all things inexplicable as in former Soviet countries, it’s a weird rebound effect. Now that they have the freedom to attend church, old habits die hard. Plus trees don’t ask one to confess their sins 🙂 and they are frankly said, rather majestic.
    Communism also destroyed any sign of individualism – thus while in the ‘developed’ world people look at each other exactly to avoid doing like others, in former SU people watched and did exactly as everybody did, there was safety in numbers, and that dies hard too.
    What I found very touching is a detail lost in translation – that old lady interviewed at the beginning calling God with a diminutive (Боженька), my grandmother used to do that too. It’s outrageous at first sight, but I think it is a sign of intimacy rather that lack of reverence, my grandmother who never knew how to read or write had God Himself as a personal friend. It doesn’t get more one-storey than that.

  7. Dean Avatar

    In Mexico Spanish speakers don’t use the diminutive when speaking to God but most all use the familiar “tu” when addressing Him instead of the more formal “usted.” This surprised me when we first moved there but later I found that it fit the Mexican temperament well…seeing God as an intimate member of the family.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    English speakers fail to realize that the older use of “Thee” and “thou” in addressing God is the familiar, like “tu.” If you look at a King James edition with the dedication in the front to King James, you’ll notice that the king is addressed as “Your majesty.” The familiar pronoun was traditionally used for God, close friends, children and animals. But through the perversity of time, the familiar came to feel quite formal and people insisted that God had to be addressed only by what they thought was a “formal” Thee, thus misusing the English language and the nature of our relationship with God.

  9. LI Avatar

    In my language (Romanian) we use also “Tu” for God, and the difference is even more outstanding and refreshing because the formal “you” is not acquired by using the plural as in Russian or French (or Mexican Spanish?), but with a word that literally means “your lordship/ladyship” and where I grew up children are not allowed to address their parents or their elders with “tu”, but with a softer formal pronoun, reserved for extended family and neighbours (it’s rather complicated at first sight, but it helps in holding in place a sort of hierarchy and knowing your place in it).

  10. Greg Avatar

    Veneration of matter is not worship. The idea that a tree or spring might be sanctified is a Christian intuition. I am not sure this is all that different than taking water from a spring where the Kursk root icon was found. Maybe there is something wrong on this instance, I don’t know since I wasn’t there and the priest seemed concerned, but based on what little the video shows it is impossible to say.

  11. LI Avatar

    Greg, I’m not saying there are no objects with healing power received from God or saints, but these are just some poor trees. The people are chewing their bark for good health (because everybody does it) never minding the health of the tree itself. One tree was already killed because people dug up and peeled its roots, the second one they were at didn’t look too happy. Is this Christian (intuition)?
    Forgive me if I offend your veneration, but I’d rather pray at St. Nicholas whose icon they were following for good health and salvation of my soul, as the priest advised them.
    As Fr. Hopko quoted one of his friends, “We believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, not the Mechanic, the Magician and the Fairy Godmother”.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The real one storey approach is to approach all of creation with profound reverence understanding that all can be imbued with divine presence. That precludes the wholesale destruction of any part of the creation simply for one’s own benefit. Superstition, animism and sympathetic magic is profoundly two storey, IMO, as there is an inherent dualism is such practices and beliefs.

    The Incarnation made actual reverence much more existential and present but it is not just a Christian intuition. Many traditional tribal cultures have just that intuition at the heart of their understanding of creation and our place in it. That is one of the reasons that the Russian Orthodox missionaries to Alaska were so welcome.

  13. Lena Avatar

    Little thought on the subject of trees and folk superstition:
    Before revolution Russia was overwhelmingly peasant country and majority of peasants were identifying themselves as orthodox Christians, for centuries the very fabric of everyday life was permeated with faith. The word “peasant” in Russian is “крестьянин” which is little bit changed “Christian” (христианин in Russian). Culture of village, ways of life became scaffolding filled with true faith. As Father Stephen mentioned it was thoroughly one-storey world. After revolution with persecution and death of many believers in many places the living faith was washed out only scaffolding remained. It helped to keep memory of faith and secret pride and in soviet times it was at least keeping alive curiosity and hunger for truth. Those superstitions are remnants of old scaffoldings which for modern people’s ancestors were filled with faith in God Who fills all creation. (I’m not trying to say, that they actually venerated those trees). It fells to modern people to learn and reclaim again true Orthodox faith, to fill everyday life with it and build new cultural scaffoldings but it’s long and by all means not an easy process. The most encouraging thought is that it’s happening. I also couldn’t help it but notice that majority of pilgrims in the video are villagers or people from small towns, it’s very likely most of them have peasant roots too. (I apologize in advance if it sound cumbersome, as you can see English is my second language.)

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Very helpful observations. It is fascinating to me, to see events such as this that are clearly there because the “scaffolding” (good image) remained, despite 70 years of oppression.

    Here in America, we are centuries removed from such scaffolding. But, I grew up with parents who would have been of “peasant stock” in Russia. They grew up on farms, in a thoroughly Protestant (Baptist) culture. But how they thought of trees, roots, herbs, for example, differed greatly from the average secular view. My parents were convinced that “God had put everything necessary for our health and healing in nature.” They paid attention to herbs, etc. (not in any way to the extent this is done in Russia). But it represented a sense they had about nature, and a kind of reverence for it.

    My mother’s family had a background in Scotland. Her mother and her grandfather practiced certain common forms of Appalachian “folk” medicine. For example my grandmother could “talk fire out of a burn and stop blood.” That is, someone burned would come to her, she whispered something over the burn and blew on it, and it stopped hurting. Even with bad burns. She did something similar to an open wound and it would stop bleeding. Her father would remove warts in a similar fashion. These things probably predated Christianity in the British Isles, but had been Christianized (grandmother said it worked through the Bible but she wasn’t allowed to talk about it). Her pastor would likely have frowned on such things.

    Certain one-storey practices will look like “superstition” to those of us in a two-storey world. And some of it is. But it’s interesting to stop and think about what superstition is, and what we mean when we say something is superstitious. I’ve often thought that a Christian returning to a one-storey world could use a good healthy dose of superstition – or that superstition was closer to the truth than the absence of superstition.

    The frank lack of embarrassment about such things in the film was quite remarkable and unlike most things in American culture.

    Sometimes I feel like an anthropologist.

  15. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    My response to the video, like others’, was a combination of inspiration and discomfort.

    The discomfort felt almost like an embarrassment. As I started watching and feeling inspired, I could imagine myself wanting to join them, to be part of this powerful movement of faith-filled people.

    Then when some of their beliefs seemed too strange or superstitious for my western, “scientific” mind, there was this odd feeling as though I been caught believing something ridiculous.

    Yet the genuine hunger for faith, for miracle, for God, underlies many of the superstitious or misguided aspects of many human attempts at faith. How different are these Russian peasants from some of my fellow RC’s who get caught up in a seeming hysteria over an unsubstantiated “apparition”.

    All of us sometimes wander from the path of Truth – and in a variety of ways. I believe God is less judgmental of this sort of wandering than we are – as long as people’s hearts are genuine.

    I give these people credit being so exuberant in their search for the Holy. May they find the One they are seeking.

  16. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    Not all of the pilgrims were venerating and eating tress. If memory serves, some even spoke kindly about those who did, acknowledging the naive error without judging them.

    Generous tolerance was not an acceptable approach to theological “errors” in the church circles I grew up in. We sorted out every kind of “error” and put it in its place, along with the perpetrators and purveyors.

    Having and sharing proper IDEAS about God and faith was much more important than joining in devotion. Praying over meals was OK, but any public display beyond simple, routine prayers usually caused embarrassment.

  17. Dean Avatar


    The word for “Lord” in Spanish is “Señor” which is also the common word for “sir,” lower case. Of course since Romanian and Spanish are Romance Languages they have much in common. Father Stephen, as I drive the interstates often, I see a motto on Covenant Trucking rigs that reminds me of your book. It says (as best as I recall) “Jesus…He’s not the man upstairs but KING of kings and LORD of lords.” Reminds me to live in the one storey while driving!

  18. LI Avatar

    Thank you, Dean, yes, indeed, there are a lot of similarities.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Part of my preparation for entering the Church (long before I knew it) was a course I took in cultural anthropology/theater history that focused on tribal cultures around the globe and their rituals (which was the theater part). There is much there. For instance the dances of Native Americans are a form of liturgical prayer that is essentially sacramental, recognizing the unity of all creation and praying to have a greater realization of that unity for the sustenance and unity of the tribe. The communion that is realized and expressed around the drum is powerful and real.

    These are precursors to the full sacramental reality of the Incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ.

    Orthodox theology and practice that recognizes the life in the created world and that said life comes from God.

    Not to mention the fact that it is quite possible to pick up a stone and feel the life and energy it in. God loves His rocks–He uses them for all kinds of things.

    His creation is a vibrant, vibrating, inter-connected living organism. We are part of all of that, steward of it and exercise dominion over it by God’s fiat. One storey does not mean one-dimension.

    One of the problems in expressing these realizations in the U.S. is that the occult segment also has seemingly similar ideas, sometimes even using the name of Jesus and Christian language.

    Then there are some Protestants to whom the very notion that there is life outside of Jesus alone is a grave spiritual problem. To them, everything is occultic, including sacraments. They do not understand the difference between seeking power and control vs. receiving a divine gift with thanksgiving.

    Topped off by the secular, utilitarian, scientistic idealists the true one-storey folk.

    And, of course, we live in this soup and are influenced by it and cannot help but take on some of the attitudes just by osmosis.

    Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  20. Dorothy (Zrovka) Allen Avatar
    Dorothy (Zrovka) Allen

    Russia always had a sort of “dualism” in its Orthodoxy. There was the Church Tradition and there was folk tradition. This I know from experience. All of my grandparents were born in 19th century Russia and they carried many folk “superstitions” with them to their new country. I grew up not only hearing about these folk customs but living them when I was a child. They are not “new” – they were carried forward for hundreds of years. When, during Soviet times, the people had their Church worship taken away from them, many people fell back on the folk customs and “superstitions” that they learned from their babushki (grandmothers).

  21. Martha Avatar

    I sometimes wonder at our penchant to dismiss superstition as being very far away from God, yet not feel the same embarrassed discomfort at, say, a mechanistic view of the universe. Who has a longer path to God, and more to overcome – the peasant/pagan who thinks they feel God’s grace in a tree, or the self-satisfied intellectual who thinks his brain alone can determine the limits of what is “real”?

    The tree-hugger, while still in error, may be in many ways closer to eventually seeing He Who is Real.

  22. Lena Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Thank you so much for your response! I should admit I have a soft spot for history/anthropology 🙂 I can only be very thankful to your ancestors that they lived the way they did, their linage bears blessed fruits.

    It seems to me that our farmers/peasants ancestors acutely understood their dependence on God. Their livelihood was very much subject to forces of nature and they knew only Creator of all can help them. They relied on Lord with a sincerity i cannot imagine. On top of that the rule of law is historically new concept in Russia. Simple people were for the most part at the mercy of their rulers few of whom were merciful type. There was and is deep skepticism about justice in the court of law. (There are very old folk sarcastic sayings about it) To be able to live with dignity in such situation one need real faith and hope in Lord. It amazes me beyond comprehension how merciful God can use incredibly wretched product of our sins even on historical scale and make it to bear redemptive fruit in faith and love which cannot be killed.
    Endless thank you, Father for all you are doing for people near and far.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There are several types of superstition.

    To modern rationalists any belief in what is called without discernment “supernatural” or divine power (like us) is mere superstition.

    There are those who attempt to use ritual to placate a feared capricious god or seek their favor or the favor of ancestors. Or to commune with an impersonal force or energy.

    There are those who seek power and control in the occult.

    Then there are those pious practices that partake to a degree in a pre-sacramental understanding of the personal divine presence not out of fear or a quest for power but simply an invocation of blessing.

    The latter comes from the ontological intuition that God is with us.

  24. Dino Avatar

    I sometimes find that one beautiful Orthodox aspect that comes across in some of these Russian videos is that the real purpose is not to bring heaven on earth, but to raise man and the world to Heaven.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, absolutely. That is the key difference.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, the one’storey aspect is that 40,000 people walking along actually have a reverence for everything around them and expect to deepen their encounter with God. They do not look for an amazing event (though such might happen) or great psychological moments. The old lady walks because she has many sins. The concept of a “podvig,” a “feat” undertaken or endured for the sake of God, is deep within the Russian culture.

    I have also noticed that, though we are very familiar with patriotism, and there is a mention of the “Russian people” in the video, what is expressed is a far remove from our experience of patriotism.

    I had a conversation with a Russian parishioner once about war. I told him that it is said that in war a man does not risk his life for freedom or his country, etc. He risks his life for the guy next to him in the foxhole. He said, “Do you know what Russian men risk their lives for in war? For the soil.

    We had a conversation following that about the meaning of “Rodina” something we translate as “motherland.” But it’s not the abstract concept of “nation.” In the Russian culture the “motherland” is literally the land itself. I have occasionally encountered this in America, but it’s rare. Again, it is this one-storey tendency to identify with things that are here, rather than abstractions about things. Such an attitude about the Rodina, it seems to me, would, in the long run, make it far more possible to make appeals for the environment, etc.

    These are not observations to criticize my own people, but to observe a difference, and to note our love of abstraction (two-storey universe). The inner change to sacrament and icon, involves an inner conversion towards God-with-us-in-us-present-in-all-things. And it is important that such a presence not be simply an impersonal force. That is the nature of “superstition,” to de-personalize the holy. That turns what is personal into just more “stuff,” to be manipulated, etc.

  27. Geri Avatar

    Down to earth note: When we first started becoming Orthodox and praying the prayer to the Holy Spirit: “Oh Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth Who art everywhere and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of Life, Come and Abide in us, Cleanse us from every stain and save our souls, O Good One”…I couldn’t even kill a fly in the house without thinking about the Giver of Life (had to open the window and let him out.) That prayer changes everything.

  28. joe Avatar

    In addition to what others here have said, as an American man, I personally found refreshing the obvious value that men and masculine values still retain in Russia.

  29. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I was reading another blog today and heard more than a couple echos of your one-storey universe. Hope you don’t mind me linking to it:


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