The Song of A Good Universe

“My whole life is a mess…”

I am a priest and I have heard statements to this effect any number of times in my ministry. It usually comes not after a single misfortune, but after multiple problems. It also reflects that the problems have moved beyond their external boundaries and have now become the framework of a person’s whole experience. It is not a statement to be taken lightly.

The Scriptures do not treat such experiences in a callous fashion. The entire book of Job poses the problem of a man who has lost everything to a string of misfortunes. Indeed, the book even provides the background story in which we hear a dialog between God and Satan in which God specifically allows Satan to do all of these terrible things to Job. Job’s problems are not in his head.

Job has no problems within his head -for after each terrible misfortune he says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” But he is not  blessed in the counsel of his wife. She is disgusted with how Job’s life is turning out and says, “Curse God and die!” His friends offer misguided counsel as well. Few things can be as irritating as a theologizing friend when you have suffered terrible loss. The platitudes of the “comforters” are often little more than salt in fresh wounds.

But the book of Job does not solve the riddle of Job’s suffering. There is no satisfactory answer – or no answer that would satisfy the philosopher. Job receives the vision of God – and with that – he is satisfied.

An oft-quoted verse regarding the world and its suffering is in the book of Romans. St. Paul says:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)

I would be willing to extend St. Paul’s statement to say simply: All things work together for good.

And this often proves a great difficulty for many. Our minds and emotions explode at the many contradictions that arise in the face of the world’s suffering (or that of a single child) and the word “good.” But it is important to note that St. Paul does not say, “All things are good…” It is, instead, a confession about the nature of creation’s movement. Despite all that is bad, wrong and evil, creation is moving towards the good (“working together”).

In theology, this “good working” of God in creation is called “providence.” In the Baptismal liturgy we hear:

For of Your own good will, You have brought into being all things which before were not, and by Your power You uphold creation, and by Your providence You order the world. When You had joined together the universe out of the elements, You crowned the circle of the year with four seasons. 

The very heart of this faith begins in its first words: “Of Your own good will…” The Christian belief about all that exists in creation is that it is good. That the universe exists is itself good and is the work of God who gave it existence “of His own good will.” The same God who called it into existence upholds it. He sustains it in existence. If God did not maintain all of creation in existence, moment by moment, it would instantly cease to be. The good God who gave the world its good existence and sustains it, also gave it a good order – and it is here that the faith introduces the word providence. The ordering of creation has a purpose and a direction. And this purpose and direction are good.

I often think that our modern world, despite all of its technology and science, fails to think of the world as it truly is. Everything is in motion. Nothing in all the universe actually reaches the state of non-motion, or “absolute zero” as it is called. We can approach it, but never arrive. But our imagination tends to think of the world in very static terms, as though it were a snapshot or a painting.

It is difficult to speak of things in motion. Not unusually, in the writings of the fathers, the language of motion is translated into the imagery of music or dance. Music is sound in motion just as dance is pure motion. But as all of creation is itself in motion, it is appropriate to speak of the music of creation and the dance of creation.

The music that is the song of creation moves towards a goal. Like a great composition, the many discordant moments, the counter-melodies and sounds that jar the ear still move inexorably towards a resolution, a final chord that no one has yet heard except the one who first began to sing. And that chord will resolve all sounds so that they will be seen to have always been part of the whole. It is the musical expression of Job’s vision.

The folk dances in many Orthodox lands most often have about them a movement within a circle. The dance sometimes threatens to break the circle, to drive the dancer off her feet and hurl her with centrifugal force beyond the reach of the circle itself. But the steps return the dancer to the movement of the circle again and again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes with leaps and great skill, while other times like the drunken steps of the uncertain. But the circle remains and continues. It unites the dancers with the music, and at its best enables them to enter communion with the music so that their motion becomes the expression of the notes themselves. But the circle remains.

A very common presence in Orthodox music, both in the wide-spread Byzantine tradition as well as in many other places, is the “drone” note, known as the “ison.” It is a note that is held beneath the melodic line, sometimes sung by only a few. When it is sung well, it never overwhelms the melody. I like it best when the ison is barely there at all – when it is both present and absent – so much a part of the melody, though remaining stable, but so united that it can only be discerned through effort.

I think of this ison as being similar to the mystery that has been “hidden from ages and from generations.” It has always been present and even audible, but most fail to hear it (they weren’t listening). But the ison represents a unity and purpose, a common note that links every moment of the song. It is often just a note, sung, but with no words giving it shape. It supports the words. It gives an order that could easily be forgotten with the melismatic wanderings of a byzantine tone. For the melody wanders, feeling its way and pressing the boundaries of order. But the ison remains and always calls the melody back to its harmony.

The purpose and providence of God, the good ordering of the universe, is almost never discerned by studying the twists and turns of life. The outrageous events that assault the innocent are harsh notes that disturb our ability to hear any harmony.  St. Paul’s affirmation of the working of God’s good purpose is the confession of a man who was persecuted, stoned as a heretic, beaten as a criminal, imprisoned as an enemy, once tortured with hatred and envy. He knew all of the tragedy of the ancient world: infant mortality, famine, natural disasters, all of the catastrophes of our existence. And it is from within that harsh cacophony that he hears the single note of God’s goodness and its promise towards all things.

One of my favorite American hymns, “My Life Flows On An Endless Song,” was written by the Baptist minister, Robert Wadsworth Lowry. A verse was added in 1950 that I have converted in my own thoughts to a Paschal hymn, the tyrants being our adversary and the prison, Hades. I gladly sing it with my friends.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?


Photo by Yash Raut on Unsplash


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.



21 responses to “The Song of A Good Universe”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My mother was a dancer, a dance teacher, choreographer, student of dance history and a philosopher of movement. One of the attributes of folk dance she never failed to mention was the organic connection to the land such dance always has. It connects the people who do the dance to the land and is an expression of community. Dance is integrative and healing a truly noetic experience when done rightly.

    God, the master choreographer and composer able to spin infinite variations on the same theme of DNA and a hierarchy of being He holds in His heart: a weaver of infinite and ineffable tapestries. Only He knows the score and the pattern….and that is the over-riding reason I cannot accept the evolutionary paradigm of modern rationalism.

    Life is sacramental and liturgical; a melding of the seen and the unseen; the created and the uncreated in ways that we can only begin to appreciate in silent obedience. It is mystery that can never be penetrated only revealed.

    I am, therefore I sing. “To live is to dance; to dance is to live.” Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.

  2. Theodossia Avatar

    Thank you Father for this beautifully written article.
    Glory to God!!!

  3. Grant Avatar

    Beautifully put, thank you.

  4. Devin Avatar

    “The music that is the song of creation moves towards a goal. Like a great composition, the many discordant moments, the counter-melodies and sounds that jar the ear still move inexorably towards a resolution, a final chord that no one has yet heard except the one who first began to sing. And that chord will resolve all sounds so that they will be seen to have always been part of the whole”

    It’s been ages since I read it but this brings to mind the creation myth from Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Beautiful.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    The trouble with the Enya version is the references to God have been diminished to a more acceptable New Age hymn. I first heard the original in an acapello Appalachian version – much closer to its intent. But Enya understands the drone…

  6. Phil M Avatar
    Phil M


    I was also put in mind of the “Great Dance” described so magnificently by CS Lewis at the end of Perelandra.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Devin and Phil,
    Both Lewis and Tolkien were medievalists of a sort. The imagery of the Song and of the Dance belong to the corpus of the Christian faith. Both of them develop that imagery in something of a poetic beauty. But they are beautiful precisely because they reflect something that is, in fact, real and true. Thus they speak to the heart. We read them and begin to hear the song or feel the rhythm of the dance.

  8. […] thoughts to them go winging; When friends by shame are undefiled, How can I keep from singing? The Song of A Good Universe*|*Glory to God for All Things __________________ All quotes are from the Alcoholics Anonymous.1st Edition We are not at peace […]

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Not sure how or if it relates but studies of a number of people with dementia have found that they can remember and sing hymns and even recognize people while they are singing.

    My mother was able to help some severely autistic children communicate with others by finding and using the kids natural rythmns and incorporating those rythmns into personal dances for them.

    Unreplicatable unfortunately because it was based on my mother’s empathy and her intuitive grasp of rythmn. Her dance was always a form of prayer. That is where I began to learn of God.

  10. Susan Avatar

    With joy, this reminds me of and expands on some of your earlier work (reposted a few Thanksgivings ago at the request of a reader) where you spoke of your father-in-law; also a situation concerning your son that you prayed about…God is at work here; and God is good.

    And I am grateful for the reminder about Perelandra, part of Lewis’s Time and Space trilogy, so beautifully done.

  11. […] (Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Song of a Good Universe) […]

  12. Justin Edge Avatar
    Justin Edge

    “Music speaks to the heart.”

    It also forms us.

    Scientists have discovered that spoken words (non-musical) are engaged by the judgment center of the brain – we make a moral decision whether or not to accept the meaning of the words. But, when the words are sung – turned into music – they bypass our brain’s judgment center and the words’ content is uncritically accepted.

    Think of how many adults you know who sing lyrics to pop songs which carry meanings they would never utter as a statement! Also consider how often marketers try to sell us their messages with jingles (or background music) instead of direct speech.

    The Holy Tradition, Divinely given, has always known this – and thus speaks directly to the heart with our liturgical hymns.

    I have had the experience of praying the Jesus Prayer, and realizing that I have been unintentionally SINGING it the entire time. I have also had the experience of unintentionally engaging in the DANCE of prayer – doing the sign of the cross, prostrations, without initially intending to.

    Thanks you, Fr Stephen, for yet another beautiful article.

    “Beauty will save the world.” – Dostoevsky.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Justin, these same thoughts (viz the Brain) have been known to me. I use them in teaching my catechumens. It is one of many examples of how the Tradition knows and remembers something that modernity has forgotten.

  14. Peter Avatar

    That picture is on the cover of “One cosmos under God”. The author has a blog I often read. Not orthodox but he talks about the directionality of things towards their final end, and how evolution cannot explain things without this underlying “pull” or song as father stephen talks about in this post.

  15. jacksson Avatar

    The comment by Justin is interesting, when he says:

    “Think of how many adults you know who sing lyrics to pop songs which carry meanings they would never utter as a statement! Also consider how often marketers try to sell us their messages with jingles (or background music) instead of direct speech.”

    I remember when I first became Orthodox about 29 years ago, I read about the “original” major heresy that the church had to overcome, the heresy of Arius. Being a Protestant who had read the New Testament many times, I had a hard time figuring out how the teachings of Arius had such a grip on the people of the day and for many generations thereafter. I began to understand when I read that Arius developed various chants, musical dittys, etc that promoted his belief structure and thus entered into the minds and souls of those who chanted and sang them.

    What Michael states regarding his mother and how she related to her charges through the medium of dance and then Justin points out how, even today in modern times, we become attracted to the jingles of the ads, the tunes of the day and as a result form ‘opinions’ as a result of the tunes and even learn to move about as we are affected by the movements of those around us.

    I remember years ago when my kids would ask me to sing to them some of those easily remembered tunes of the day which reflected to some degree my own position and connection to life, I would respond with (usually the choruses) various songs that I wouldn’t sing today. I would sing the Kingston Trio ditties and I remember one about a murderer who killed a couple and then hid their bodies in ‘Miller’s Cave’, a fictional cave near Waycross, Georgia. I would have told you with certainty that there was a cave near that location named Miller’s Cave. It was years later that I discovered that there are no known caves near Waycross, “Georgia. This particular song would always end with the drown out chorus, “Now, I am loooooost in Milllllers Cave.”

    Now I find myself singing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs, granting life” or the songs of the Triodian. Years ago as I progressed in my Protestant attempt to become one with Christ, I would find myself singing “The Old Rugged Cross” not knowing that the melody was directly taken from a drinking song at the local German tavern (or at least that is what I was told). Maybe Arius used local tavern melodies.

  16. jacksson Avatar

    To correct a few errors in the previous post, I became Orthodox about 20 years ago, not 29 and my rendition of the Lost in Miller’s Cave chorus was draaawwwwn out not drown. Funny how difficult it is to see ones own errors. There must be a lesson to be learned in that difficulty. lol

  17. jacksson Avatar

    Cogitating a little more on the words of Justin, above, the statement that “Music speaks to the heart” and “it forms us”, I wonder if that really means that music speaks “to the soul?” In this case I am not meaning the intellect (the nous as some moderns say), but rather to the inner core of our being. I remember that Dave Wilkerson once commented that the part of the world most difficult to remove from our former lives in (gross) sin is not our cigarettes though they come close from what I hear, but our music; I still find myself occasionally responding in stores to background music from the old days, but I do so unconsciously until I recognize what I am doing.

    In looking at the church and what we do, I see that we use readings, chant and melody to speak to the heart (mind and soul). In attending the services of the church in a nearby Greek (female) monastery, I am somewhat inhibited by the fact that almost the entire service is in Greek which I am very weak in, but after about 12 years in that atmosphere of constant Greek chant and melody, something seems to have happened on the inside. When I hear the same words in English now, they don’t dig into my soul as much although the scripture readings do lodge in my intellect. Hopefully I am being formed, kyrie eleison.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    I indeed see this formation in children. The “ritual” of the liturgy is very much like dance (only much slower). But the actions of crossing and bowing are with the “rhythm” of the hymns. The whole liturgy is a great hymn and dance as we inact our salvation (I do not say “re-enact” for our salvation is ever present and always new). Children take to this almost immediately. A couple of years back I built a small “child sized” analogian for the narthex in our parish where we have icons of Christ and the Theotokos. Children, even those new to walking, can reach them. And they do. They cross themselves (it’s very amusing to watch their efforts – one young girl uses both hands which makes me think of how a bishop blesses). But they kiss and cross and bow and quickly learn the dance of the liturgy.

    In a culture where nothing is given honor (other than celebrity and then in a very ephemeral manner), it is profoundly important that our children are learning how to rightly give honor from the time they can walk. It will be a kinesthetic memory that will live in them for a lifetime.

    I have had young people from Russia and Eastern Europe, who, upon discovering that there is an Orthodox Church nearby, enter the Church and immediately become tearful with the words, “It smells like Church!” Our building is very modest – nothing like their temples back home. But it smells as Churchly as any Kremlin cathedral.

    It is this “song and dance” in its most extended version (it takes a year to complete a single dance) that converts do not understand at first that they must learn – and that it necessarily takes years. But once it is learned it begins to yield fruit upon fruit.

  19. Paula Avatar

    Fr. Freeman, may I email you privately?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


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