Theophany – Showing the World to be the World

I was standing beside the Jordan River, somewhere along its trek through Israel. I was with a group of pilgrims led by Met. Kallistos Ware gathered for the Great Blessing of the Waters. Somehow, it seemed that I was the only priest who had brought an epitrachelion (stole), so I loaned it to the Metropolitan for the service. As the service began, I noticed a school of fish at the edge of the water, watching the bishop as eagerly as the rest of us.

Great art Thou, O Lord, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works. There is no hymn which suffices to hymn Thy wonders!

The Metropolitan’s voice boomed out across the valley in its Oxford-accented tones, sounding like the voice of God. The area where we had gathered was also marked by small groups of Protestant pilgrims who had apparently gathered to re-baptize one another. At the sound of the Bishop’s voice, everyone stopped to listen.

The words of the prayer over the waters continued. Written by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem in the 6th century, they carried the same style as that of St. Basil: strings of appositives accompanied almost every statement, expanding, echoing, expounding and explaining each phrase with yet more lines of Scripture.

And then something caught my ear that jarred me awake from the cadence of the words:

And grant to it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan.

Now, that’s a very odd statement to make while standing at the waters of the Jordan. Aren’t the waters of the Jordan always the waters of the Jordan? What is the “blessing of Jordan?” Further, the prayer said,

But show this water, O Master of all, to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life.

I was already puzzled that we were praying for God to make the Jordan be the Jordan, and now we were asking Him to “show” this water to be a string of marvelous wonders. Shouldn’t we ask Him to “make” it be those wonders?

The answer came with the drop of a theological coin. Fr. Alexander Schmemann taught that, in the sacraments, we are not asking God to make something to be other than it is but to reveal it to be what it truly is. Asking God to show the Jordan to be the Jordan is simply the most blatant example of this principle.

A problem associated with sacramental thought, if this principle is forgotten, is that things that are blessed somehow cease to be what they are. Instead, they become exceptional moments in which the things of this world are no longer things of this world. They change while everything around them remains the same. We go to Church, the miracle happens, but remains confined to the altar or the font, while the world around it remains unchanged. The Church becomes the locus of the extraordinary while the world is stuck in the ordinary. It is, ironically, a two-storey sacramental order. This thing is holy, that thing is not. It is a diminishment of Christ’s work. The sacraments become points of contact with the second-storey, tiny windows in which miniscule rays of sunshine peak out into an otherwise darkened world. But the world itself remains dark.

The nature of the true sacramental understanding is revealed very precisely in the words of St. Sophronius. The Jordan is the Jordan. It is we who fail to see the world as it is. We imagine the world to be self-contained and self-referential. The Jordan is not the Jordan – that’s just a name: it is just some water, hydrogen and oxygen flowing over the surface of the third rock from the sun.

On the 6th of January (19th on the Old Calendar), Orthodox priests across the world, in their many thousands, will stand beside public waters, rivers, creeks, springs, seas and oceans, in some cases hovering over holes piercing through feet of ice, and speak the words of St. Sophronius. All of them will call upon God to send the blessing of the Jordan on the Nile, the Volga, the Mississippi, the  Bering Strait, the Bermuda Triangle, the Amazon, the Antarctic, the Yenesei, the Tennessee, the Atlantic and Pacific, the Black Sea and the Aegean, the Clinch River here in Appalachia, and all the waters of the world will be shown to be the Jordan.

The Feast of Christ’s Baptism is called “Theophany.” It means the “showing forth of God.” It is so named because, in the event of Christ’s Baptism, we see Christ, the Son of God, hear the voice of the Father (“Thou art my beloved Son…”), and see the Spirit in the form of a dove. It is a “showing forth” of God as Trinity. But when the Trinity is made manifest, everything is, of necessity made manifest. The truth of all things is revealed.

This “truth of all things” is the revelation of the world as sacrament. The waters and all that is in the world is a means of communion with God because of His Divine condescension. The world was not created to be a place of an “alternative” existence, one without God. It exists as the means and focal point of our communion. The sacraments revealed to us within the life of the Church do not exist as isolated instances of a divine encounter but as examples and revelations of what God is in the world. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.”

This understanding does much to explain Schmemann’s insistence that secularism is the great heresy of our age: it is the denial of the sacramental character of the world. Just as man is created in the image and likeness of God, and thus capable of bearing God’s image, so too, creation has a sacramental and iconic capability. The world is not an impregnable wall that hides us from God. It is the very means by which, and the place in which, God makes Himself known. We were created for communion with God. This takes place here and now, within this world.

St. Maximus the Confessor spoke of a number of cosmic reconciliations, or an overcoming of divisions: male/female, paradise/world, heavenly/earthly, intelligible/sensible, uncreated/created. None of these distinctions disappear, but are fulfilled in their proper role and purpose. The world as sacrament participates in this overcoming of divisions in the union of humanity to God. Our union with the created order, particularly as sacrament, describes the essential priesthood of humanity – “microcosm and mediator,” in the words of St. Maximus.

This is the showing of the world to be what it is meant to be, as well as its revelation to us of ourselves in Christ. And all of creation, like the fish, gathers at our feet to see this strange wonder!



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.



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65 responses to “Theophany – Showing the World to be the World”

  1. Christopher Avatar

    It would not be that long ago I would have replied “wonderful” Father! Amen, and amen. However, I have good reason to believe (I have directly experienced it) that for the majority of those in the life of the Church (at least here in North America), fully participating in the sacramental life, only see, believe, and live exactly what you say – a “a two-storey sacramental order”, a sacramental-*ism*.

    Of all the Orthodox I know, I am one of two or three that can even *understand* what you are saying, and neither I nor any of these other people are actually *living* it.

    So what is actually happening? Vain repetition? I think so (again and again…). Are these sacramental actions and words *working* in a hidden way? That’s the faith, but where is the fruit? I think most of the time – almost all of it really – what your “average” Orthodox person is really doing is living a Moralistic Therapeutic Theism (not Deism like most of the rest in what’s left of Christendom).

    So, I don’t think the Church is the “locus of the Extraordinary” at all – almost all of the time for that vast majority it is the locus of very ordinary secularism and a *habit* of repetition of something neither understood nor lived, but somehow mildly therapeutic and vaguely seen as “important” and even “necessary”.

    “The world is not an impregnable wall that hides us from God” This is right – we do it all to ourselves…

  2. Brad Avatar

    I am glad, first of all, that Metropolitan Ware showed us what is already true: that God’s booming voice echoes with Oxfordion gravitas.

    On a serious note, your article reminded me that someone has suggested that when the Symbol of Faith says, “We believe in one baptism for the remission of sins,” we might read that as “we participate in the one baptism of Jesus of Nazareth, when he stepped into the Jordan River voluntarily underwent John’s baptism of repentance vicariously for all humanity. That is, our baptism is identification with and participation in his. That would ‘show the Jordan to be the water of redemption.’ Does that make sense? Thoughts?

  3. Geri Priscilla Avatar
    Geri Priscilla

    Where was the picture taken?

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sounds like a useful way of expounding the Creed.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was not able to find out…

  6. James Taylor Avatar
    James Taylor

    Regarding the rather unhappy remarks of Christopher (above in Comments), in appearances he may be correct that most American Orthodox are asleep to the transcendent vision of the world held by Fr. Schmemann and Fr. Stephen, but in spite of that, during every day, at every prayer, at every Divine Liturgy, “the Holy Ghost over the bent /
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins). We do not know and therefore are asked to withhold judgement what may be taking place in the “deep heart” of our brothers and sisters in the Faith. Just one personal crisis can change everything. In the Body of Christ it is our work, along with the monastics and others, to pray every day for the world and those who may be luke warm — often, like ourselves!
    Br. James

  7. Ann Huff Avatar
    Ann Huff

    Again your writing brings tears to my eyes. I am reminded of Lucy in the Narnia series seeing the world as “the same but somehow different”, of St Francis preaching to the birds, of the Word “now we see as through a mirror darkly”. In the way that our organizational brain wants to categorize everything, and coming from a Protestant background, I have always imagined the Orthodox to be a bunch of old men with beards and icons. The more I read what you write about the Fathers, I see that they “got it”. And thankfully, they, along with others like yourself, use writing to help us draw nearer to God. Glory to God for all things!

  8. Ann Huff Avatar
    Ann Huff

    James, what a beautiful way to put that. Looking back at my own very convoluted path to God, and the things with which I still struggle, I am reminded yet again to withhold judgement on my fellow man. I cannot see into their hearts and minds, but God can! I can be one small candle in the dark, loving my brothers and sisters and sharing in God’s presence with them.

  9. Eric Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen

    In the Western church we celebrate the Epiphany today
    Couldn’t help thinking of your article as the Magi behold ‘the Child and His Mother’. In seeing Jesus with the Theotokos, we are at once seeing also perhaps the most Universal aspect of our humanity, in Him. There and Everywhere Present

    Grace to you

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think this is a very jaundiced view indeed, and mostly makes me pray for your heart. I could be totally off base, but I read disappointment in your comment: “Not long ago…wonderful…however.” Disappointment is one of the major causes of shame, and that is a great darkener of hearts. Lay it aside. What if there were only 2 or 3? It proves nothing. There are far more than 2 or 3, and I’m not sure that it matters.

    What is true is true. There is a God and He raised Christ from the dead. How are we not in paradise?

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was “amused” today, when looking for pictures for the article, to see a picture of a bunch of Greeks jumping in the waters to dive for the Cross, with the headline, “Feast of the Wise Men celebrated Greek Style.” I suppose in Greece, Wise Men jump in the lake. 🙂

  12. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father Stephen for this wonderful remembrance of Theophany.
    Over the past two days I’ve been reading your archives, specifically looking for further insight to the flat, lifeless “common sense philosophy” that has transformed American Christianity. Much of what you say here was said in those old posts…back in 2007-08! Common sense with its two storey universe have no room for the “sacramental”.
    You once said you have been pretty consistent in your teachings over the years. Well, truth is truth…it doesn’t change. You also said that these truths need repeating over and over again to be able to understand the lie of a two-storey universe. For that, I can not thank you enough. I am very grateful.

    Christopher, you say “Of all the Orthodox I know, I am one of two or three that can even *understand* what you are saying…” Ohhh, I am so sorry you said that. Who, after lifting their head back up, would find that helpful? I believe, my brother, we understand in different degrees. By the grace of God. He imparts to us what we can grasp.

    I think it is correct to say the universe is redeemed and is being redeemed…some of the “fruit” is just not ripe yet! Some of the branches need pruning for fuller growth. And really, how can a person who is assessing the condition of their brother and sister give mind to their own “ripening”?!

    Forgive me. We belong to the same Body. The ear can’t do without the foot. Better, the ear benefits from the foot. If the foot has a wound, so the ear suffers as well. We have the balm, the oil, the power of the Spirit of the Church to fix it. This is one way the fruit ripens. And it happens all the time in the Church. I experience a lot of love there. And not only there but in ‘the world’ too! Sure, there are contentions at Church. But they can be, and usually are, worked through.
    Truly, just as sure as Jesus is Lord, love never fails. I say this with tears…
    “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love and compassion never ever ever fails. Such is our God.

  13. Byron Avatar

    Are these sacramental actions and words *working* in a hidden way? That’s the faith, but where is the fruit?

    Christopher, I must echo Father’s concerns. Remember that our faith is not intellectual, even if it is rational. We often take part in things we do not fully understand. How many of us fully understand the Liturgy? There is hidden wisdom within it that I have yet to glimpse. Yet I am able to take part, by God’s grace.

    While I understand, if only in a shallow and incomplete manner, Father’s words, I can still take part in the sacramental nature of the world. Occasionally, I am blessed with insight into some small thing that draws me closer to God. The fruit of that is in my heart; it is the realization that we pray to God–and here He is! Right next to us; not far away, as I sometimes imagine when praying, at all. If, by God’s grace, I change–even ever so little over time–how many around me may change as well, by God’s grace? Take heart in these things. They happen slowly and, at times, imperceptibly.

  14. Dean Avatar

    Two or three. It does not matter…. I immediately thought of the 7,000 God had reserved in Israel who had not bent the knee to Baal.
    We may think we are the only “true” ones. Yet we surely cannot see another’s heart, as someone noted above. I have trouble seeing my own heart correctly. One good thing about worshipping at a monastery is to see many who come frequently, some from hundreds of miles, to worship Christ in spirit and truth. Our hearts vibrate with the same frequency to the tuning fork of the Spirit…our thirst is the same. They point me to the Father.
    I love God’s creation. I can see how some are tempted to stop there and almost worship it owing to its captivating beauty. My own heart sometimes throbs at the shimmering artistry of nature’s paintbrush. It is God’s marvelous handiwork of creation and it, like my brothers and sisters, also points me to Him whose world it is…all whole, all sacrament.

  15. Fr Dcn Stephen Avatar
    Fr Dcn Stephen

    Magnificent reflection, Father.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dean, Christopher, et al
    I think that what Christopher means by “understand” is an inadequate description. The full intellectual intent of what I’ve written, with its philosophical, metaphysical whatevers is probably not really grasped by many. There are also some people who could never put it into words but for whom it’s a daily reality.

    For the love of God, Schmemann was writing about this in the 70’s, to an audience that would have been just as secularized if not moreso. Much of what he was saying was new even to most priests, who had long been drawn into a sort of Western notion of the sacraments as isolated, special moments. My conversations – which are fairly wide-ranging, both on the internet as well as in my travels – tell me that there are way more people than is being suggested…though that’s just really not the point.

    We do what we do because it’s true. Whether anyone “gets” it or not is the work of God. If this stuff is by grace (and it is), then what more can we do than speak it, write it, share it, and work a bit at living it? Discovering all over again what it means.

    People do not see the constant stream of private emails that come to me – people who would prefer to comment apart from the blog. Always ok. I am incredibly far removed from despair about any of this. The whole world “lies in the power of the evil one,” Scripture says. So, every bit of light that we see is miraculous and a witness to the wonder and power of grace.

    Be radiant. Christ is risen.

  17. Janine Avatar

    Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.

  18. ook Avatar

    I believe the picture is Minsk (Belarus) at Epiphany.
    A few of these pictures circulating around.

  19. Chris Avatar

    I’ve read Fr. Schmemann, and I still have difficulty reconciling two ideas in Orthodoxy: The world is Sacrament in that we commune with God through the world; and, on the hand, the “seven sacraments,” as they’ve been defied in the West, have pre-eminence in that communion. The Eucharist is treated differently than other wine and bread; and Baptismal water is treated differently than drinking water. And all sacraments find their fulfillment in the Eucharist. Am I thinking about this correctly?

  20. Dino Avatar

    Father, Christopher, et al,
    I find this type of ‘theophanic word’ to be profoundly needed – at all times…
    Whether we just see the world and ‘nature’ (somewhat godlessly), or have the eyes to see God’s creation instead.

    We do not need to make a better world.
    We need ‘new eyes’.

    And it isn’t the others around us that need them as much as ourselves.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have shared this before, but it is a critical component in my both looking for and feeling at home once I was led to the Church.

    My father(48 when I was born) spent his formative years, ages 5-18 as a pioneer, a subsistence homesteader on the high plains of eastern New Mexico. The first seven of those years it was the New Mexico Territory.

    During his life there he experience the incredible Theophny of the Creator in His creation bringing forth life and sustenance for every creature. The incredible interconnection of all things. His was an authentic, raw experience and became the bed rock of his career as a public health phyisician and of his pedagogy to his sons.

    He never understood Jesus Christ and His Cross as the focal point, but he left such a hunger in both his boys that the life in the Orthodox Church was the only way to fulfill it.

    My brother and I looked just about everywhere else one can look between the two of us and found all of it wanting.

    If someone longs to understand the reality of God’s creation, His nature, our nature and the interconnectedness of all in Him — the Orthodox Church is the only place to find it.

    In spite of the sinfulness also on display, only here can one hope, in the shadow of His Cross, come to know the organic wholeness that is His promise and His gift to anyone who has eyes to see, ears to hear, hands to feel, a tongue to taste and a heart to rejoice.

    Blessed Theophany to all.

  22. Karen Avatar

    I love this Feast. Two lines struck me from St Sophronius prayer which I heard last night and this morning:

    “…For you, being God uncircumscribed, without beginning and inexpressible, came upon earth, taking the form of a servant, being found in the likeness of man. *For you could not bear, O Master, in the compassion of your mercy to watch mankind being tyrannised by the devil, but you came and saved us.*…For you are our God, who appeared on earth and lived among men. You sanctified the streams of Jordan by sending down from heaven your All-holy Spirit *and you crushed the heads of the dragons that lurked there.*

    Glory to God!

  23. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    From “Aurora Leigh,” book 7
    Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    Earth’s crammed with heaven
    And every bush afire with God.
    But only he who sees takes of his shoes
    The rest sit around and pluck blackberries…

  24. Cathy Avatar

    As always Father,your words are a beacon of light shining through the darkness of this present world. God Bless and Keep You!

  25. Jeff Avatar

    After a time of digesting your words and the comments on them, it occurred to me, Father, that I have been unconsciously assigning the wrong beginning to the referential nature of our current home. I realized that I had been thinking of the world having “become” sacramental when Jesus arrived here in the flesh. Today I see, not unlike Elisha’s servant was made to see (2 Kings 6?), that the world has always been sacramental and is part of only one storey. I thank God for this revelation.

    As you say, “this ‘truth of all things’ is the revelation of the world as sacrament. The waters and all that is in the world is a means of communion with God because of His Divine condescension. The world was not created to be a place of an ‘alternative’ existence, one without God. It exists as the means and focal point of our communion. The sacraments revealed to us within the life of the Church do not exist as isolated instances of a divine encounter but as examples and revelations of what God is in the world. ‘Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.’” From Adam and Eve to Elisha, Elisha to John the Baptist and every other believer before and since, and ultimately in the Alpha and Omega (not linearly speaking), our savior, Jesus Christ, God reveals His glory. This revelation through His servants takes place within His sacramental creation, His temple which speaks of his glory endlessly.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very well said. You would enjoy reading Fr. Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. It is a small classic.

    I ran across an article by Dr. Albert Mohler (major Southern Baptist theologian) who was lamenting the “secularization” of America. He meant by that the absence of God as an acknowledged reality – more or less – the political presence of God in society. But Baptists, with all due respect, are inherently secular if the term is understood in the manner I’ve used it. They are among those who helped invent “secular.”

    Things are just things – everything is, at best, grape juice and crackers, nothing more. The world is not holy, it’s just an arena for arguing.

    Think of how Christ spoke of birds and flowers in the Sermon on the Mount. In Christ’s teaching, even the rocks can sing. The waters “obey” Him (that would be impossible in a secularized theology – rocks are just inert stuff). There can be no communion with “things.”

    But Christ reveals things as they truly are. We can take flowers and birds as examples for our lives. We can listen to the singing of all creation (rocks included). St. Maximus, and others, spoke of a “natural contemplation,” by which they meant the true consideration of all created things. It consists of the perception of the “logoi” of all created things – their inner reality and purpose – their sacramental life and being. It is a walk in paradise.

    The “least of these, my brethren,” is Christ’s term that reveals every human being in the truth of his/her existence. Christ is in our midst.

  27. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    He is, and ever shall be, Father. Thank you for your reflection. St Paul says we see dimly, as in a mirror. The reality is there, as we can behold it.

    Yesterday I was looking through “The life of Christ by Chinese Artists” with my five-year-old son. The paintings/icons are far from Byzantine, but he could read them, because he can still just see Christ in them. To anyone interested, a quick google of “life of christ by Chinese artists calming the storm” will produce one of my favorites. The Chinese/Japanese/Korean depiction of ocean waves is so primordial. They capture the abyss, tehom, the implacable grasping of the sea – here in the act of being turned back, called to peace and stillness, and redeemed and sweetened and ultimately made “no more” – precisely because Christ descended into the waters.

    Finally, Christopher’s comment made me think of an account related in the life & works of Fr. Seraphim Rose, wherein a young pilgrim (knowing Fr Seraphim’s deep intellectual background) comes and asks him to head the pilgrim’s philosophical essay. Fr Seraphim politely read it and replied “It was a bit over my head”.

    Lord, grant us to see with our souls that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” (Hopkins, “As kingfishers catch fire…”)

  28. Jeff Avatar

    Thank you for your response of affirmation.

    It is almost a certainty that what I wrote is because of what I’ve learned from you and Fr. Schmemann. As it happens, I just finished reading For the Life of the World. As I have with your Everywhere Present, I will be reading it many more times. The words you and he impart are food that does not spoil or grow old. It is ever nourishing to me–mind, body, and soul (if these actually exist separately, which I don’t believe that they do).

  29. Jeff Avatar

    …and yes, “…Christ reveals things as they truly are.” All that you said in your reply in fleshing (no pun intended, honest) out that truth, a truth that is so obvious to me now that I see it. It is astounding that it is that “simple.” But how can it be any other way? If God is God, then it must be so. If God came in the flesh and spoke and lived with us, why would it not be as you say. It has to be. I only pray that what my heart has seen will continue to transform my mind.

  30. Albert Avatar

    Another succinct phrase for me to copy into the margins of my little prayer book:: “every bit of light that we see is miraculous and a witness to the wonder and power of grace..” Thank you, Father.

  31. Richard Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I am a third-generation Baptist minister of 10+ years. This week, my family and I entered the catechumenate at St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas. I will not bore you all with the details of our journey towards the Church, but the tipping point was reading Fr Schmemann’s For the Life of the World and realizing that this vision of the world was the most true and the most faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There came a Sunday when one of the senior pastors at the church where I served stood before the altar (communion table, as we called it) and reminded everyone, lest we think too much about what was about to happen, that “this is only crackers, this is only grape juice.” And it became clear to me in that moment that it would not do to keep importing neat ideas from Orthodoxy into my Baptist experience. Either this stuff is real, or it isn’t. If it is, then it requires an entirely different way of approaching the world than the secularized version of the faith in which I was raised.

    We have a long way to go yet. But Theophany seems like a good time for beginning.

  32. Drewster2000 Avatar

    I have at times thought despairingly like Christopher (and probably still do) but every once in awhile something resets my thinking. One such incident was when I took a philosophy class in college. During one class the professor started tearing down God, using all the classical arguments, i.e. Can God create a rock so big he can’t lift it? Can he create a round square?

    I remember being very upset by this, but when the class ended a funny thing happened. I walked out into the bright sunlight. It was one of those moments. I realized all of a sudden that nothing said inside that classroom – or anywhere else for that matter – had any power to change the truth. We could scoff and doubt and proclaim all kinds of intellectual dominance over God or the universe or anything else – but it meant nothing.

    It is the same for the Church and the sacraments. In fact I would even dare to rephrase Fr. Stephen’s wording a bit:

    “The sacraments become points of contact with the second-storey, tiny windows in which miniscule rays of sunshine peak out into an otherwise darkened world. But the world itself remains dark.”

    I would add that the world remains dark as seen through our eyes. It is NOT actually dark. There are a lot of legally blind people around us (often including ourself) but the world itself – places, animals, even our own persons – continues to be what it actually is: good, beautiful, true.

    Much could be said about this of course, but the point is we often forget that reality is much more real and true and beautiful than we’re usually able to see. We are broken and need our sight restored, but this fact does not change the state of reality. Understanding this gave me great peace. I am blind and broken but this truth does not condemn the whole world. The earth is still spinning as it is supposed to and the Lord’s will is being made manifest all around me even so. With that weight off my shoulders, I can carry on living another day, working out my salvation with fear and trembling.

  33. Dino Avatar


    I deeply agree that no matter how much we may “scoff and doubt and proclaim all kinds of intellectual dominance over God or the universe or anything else – it means nothing”.
    As you say: “The world remains dark only as seen through our eyes. It is NOT actually dark.”

    I mentioned earlier that we need “new eyes” rather than a “new world”, one could paraphrase this to say that: no matter how ‘good’ this world might be made, it would still be ‘bad’ for those with ‘bad’ eyes, and -similarly- no matter how ‘bad’ this world might become, it would be mighty ‘good’ for one with ‘good’ eyes.
    May God grant us the purity of heart that sees Him in everything, even in the most troublesome…

  34. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Drewster and Dino…yes, Amen…may God grant us the purity of heart to see Him everywhere and in every thing!
    I thought of this verse…John 9:41:
    “Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.”
    (one of those hard verses!) Correct me if I’m wrong here. In conversation with the Pharisees Christ is talking about spiritual blindness in saying ‘they see’ when they really don’t, thus the need to admit they are blind would not be a lie (thus no sin). And that they need their spiritual eyes, so to speak, (nous?) opened…made pure, in and only through Christ. And of coarse, this applies to us, that we would admit our our blindness and come to Christ for our ‘eyes’ to be healed, that we may see Him everywhere, filling all things. Yes, even through the most troublesome times. knowing He always works for our good.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, exactly why the joy of the Lord is often easiest to perceive during times of existential and spiritual difficulty–at least for me.

    A favorite icon of mine is Jesus lifting Peter out of the roiling waters of the lake.

  36. Agata Avatar

    Drewster and Dino,

    Thank you both, beautifully said.

    Your words about us “needing new eyes” Dino remind me of stories of St. Matrona of Moscow. She was born blind (and later lost the use of her legs). She was always ‘at the mercy’ of other people, and yet thousands of people came to her for help with the most impossible problems in the most impossible, dark, troublesome times. She brought them joy, healing, hope – as true Saints do.

    May we also be granted glimpses of such spiritual sight, which only comes from closeness to the Lord who by His Nativity “Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!”…

  37. Christopher Avatar

    Father and all,

    I have been traveling the last few days and only now getting back. As far as “unhappiness”, “disappointment”, and other such sentiments and *feelings* in relation to church/parish life on a practical level, I do have them in abundance! However, that is not the important thing. I also “feel the love” as someone else expressed, and have all sorts of positive emotions as well. The focus on the sentimental my words prompted I think (at least in part) speaks to what I was pointing at.

    Are we secularized to the point that Orthodox Christianity has become for many/most of us a *therapeutic* act, life, and habit? Christianity is in a real way a very hard thing. I originally came to it in large part because if its realism, its honest assessment of our situation, our life, our God (if I may be given a little leeway to put it like that – like a “philosophy” that one intellectually grasps). Do you want to be saved from death and futility, and given over to real Joy? Take up your cross – which is to say, suffer and die. Does that (even just as a prospect – something to consider in a distant intellectual way) not make you unhappy? If you are “happy” about the cross…I will just say it: it is highly probable you are mistaking it for something other than what it actually is.

    Secularism – that way of life (no, it is not a mere “philosophy”, rather it is a deep deep matter of the heart) – is not just something “out there”, in society, in other Christian communions and denominations, in history, etc. My experience is what it is. The sentiments that arise within me from this experience are largely not within my limited will and powers to “control”. To the extant I can follow Christ and the Tradition, I can only “deal with” (so to speak) the sentimental *ascetically*. That said, a consequence of secularism and the denial of the sacramental character of the world is just that – a *denial* of sacrifice, which is a denial of the ascetical life. Our ascetic life becomes “two story”, schizophrenic, un-whole, irrational. If we deny the sacramental and acetical, we deny *who* and *what* we are. What do we be-come instead? Sentimental creatures always looking for relief and therapy. To such people, asceticism (like the cross) becomes impossible to bear.

    As far as the judgement of others, yes and no. The inner heart? Not my purview. Like Dino says, we need “new eyes” not in others, but in ourselves. On the other hand yes judgement. What we *are* is very much related to how we *relate* to others. What if there are only 2 or 3? Where are they, so that I may congregate with them?! If we are as secularized as I see that we are, then where and who is our support? If the world is a sacrament, then why would I congregate with the “Christian” (or “Orthodox”) secularists who *deny* not in what they say (they say the creed every week, etc.) but in everything they actually *do* and how they actually *are* outside AND inside their (therapeutic) sacremental-ism?

    It’s not “proof” (of the truth of Christianity or the cross, as revealed in the sacramental life of the Church or any other way) that these two or three would reveal to me – I am already a believer. Rather they would be simply be the Church, the Body. Secularism is the death of not only worship, but asceticism and the Church as well. If we are not going to be honest about this – retreating into a sentimentalism (which is what a two story moralistic therapeutic theism is) or any other form of denial, well then…I suppose I will continue to wait on the Lord 😉

  38. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Christopher…I hope you find those 2-3 other people, who acts like you expect them to act…I hope you find them so you can congregate with them. In the meantime, I will continue to talk about the love of God till my tongue falls out, or my tears stop flowing, or till He takes me home, which ever comes first. Maybe the more I talk about it the closer I will get to actually living it. As for carrying my cross, you have no idea about that. No one does except Christ.
    Your sentimental, schizophrenic, secularized, Christ-loving sister,

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m sure that you are describing your experience as you see it.

    If I had much to say it would be that the sacramental nature of reality is just that – reality. It is such regardless of whether it is perceived and lived. It permeates lives whether they know it or not, because it is the truth of reality. If we live at a time when it is poorly perceived and lived, then that is the time we live in. How does that change what you or I are to do?

    I think (without simply accusing everybody who responded to you as riddled with sentimentality) that your description comes off as jaundiced. Not as someone making an observation, but as someone making an accusation. There is a difference.

    My experience is that of a comradeship with a lot of fellow strugglers. Every success is a joy and every failure a place to offer encouragement. To sink into secular sentimentality is easy enough. On the other hand, I assume that people who read these posts do so because something within it resonates – it speaks to where they are. That itself is not nothing. Asceticism isn’t easy – but I don’t recall seeing monks who were miserable when I was on Mt. Athos. Some of them even laughed now and again.

  40. Ivan Avatar

    This sentence from the article, “The world as sacrament participates in this overcoming of divisions in the union of humanity to God” is very comforting. I think it’s a main point of this article. It helped me remember what Theophany and Orthodox life are about. I don’t seek to know if other people understand or agree with the advanced theology involved – it’s about the community, the koinonia and sobor, living in love with God, peacefully and happily.

    I feel reassured that I am okay, and those I worry about are too. This is one of Fr. Stpehen’s great pastoral talents, to share our Lord’s confidence and respect for humanity. And confidence involves fidelity, but also trust. I feel called to totally trust Jesus Christ by this article, and to pray. Thank you for reminding me of my spiritual responsibility!

  41. Margaret Maines Avatar
    Margaret Maines

    This experience and prayer is about letting go and letting God! It is a faith experience – we trust, we hope and we love – all in faith – saying Fiat!

  42. Alan Avatar

    After reading all of the comments, now seems like a good time to give thanks to God that I’m not very smart and don’t understand much of what I’ve just read. 🙂

    To Richard, your comment brought me much joy! Glory to God for bringing you and your family into The Church!!

  43. Christopher Avatar

    Father, Paula and all,

    Ok, thanks for the feedback. Truly! Yours is a very good question Father. It does not change the truth and reality of God and Revelation, but it does change us I think – in particular it asks (what are for all of us very hard) questions of our ‘pattern of life’, are way of “doing” Christianity in the world, day to day, week to week. Not only individually, but as community. In light of your latest essay, what is necessary is not the same what is sufficient.

  44. Dino Avatar

    If we were to see with ‘new eyes’, this would be manifest to some but hidden to most. I recall Fr Maximos of Simonopetra saying that ‘every depth has a surface, but not every surface has depth’. Well, those whose internal eyes have been offered to God to be graced –to see anew–, might have a depth that is hidden from the eyes of most. They do exist.

  45. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you too, Christopher. Truly! You speak as you see it and for that I can not fault you. Matter of fact, I admire that. I may not agree sometimes, but it is to be admired!

    Dino…what’s not to love about Fr. Maximos! A wise man, indeed.

  46. Agata Avatar

    Thank you Father!

    “If we live at a time when it [sacramental nature of reality] is poorly perceived and lived, then that is the time we live in. How does that change what you or I are to do?”

    (Christopher, please see something I found for you in the comments of the latest article Father Stephen posted)

    Father, this is such a perfect reminder, and it made me think how the Holy Fathers seem to always say something similar about the times they lived in. Isn’t that true for all human history since the Fall?

    But the Lord has put us here and now because He deemed this time as the best and most ‘profitable’ for our salvation (this was advice I once received in confession). It is up to us whether we float “on the surface” or “go deep”…. The Orthodox Church is the only ocean, deep and wide… 🙂

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Richard, may God bless and strengthen you and your family in your journey.

  48. Christopher Avatar


    Thanks for pointing me to St. Matrona. She of course “understood”, or perhaps a better word is “saw” the difference between the darkness and light (2:Cor6). I happened to look at the inquirers pamphlet rack in the narthex today (Might be the first time in 5 or 10 years). There was a copy of a talk Fr. Schmemann gave some college students in 1968. He was explaining to these students about how we could not simply be Orthodox in secular society in the same way that our forebears in the faith were in Eastern Europe, Greece, etc. He explained two failure paths commonly taken *within* the Church. I think these failure paths are even more common today…

  49. James Taylor Avatar
    James Taylor

    ” He explained two failure paths commonly taken *within* the Church. I think these failure paths are even more common today…” . I’m in: what were those two failure paths? Thanks, Fr. Stephen.
    Br. James

  50. Agata Avatar

    I’m also curious about those “two failure paths”… I suspect at least one has something to do with nationalism. The failure modes always take us further away from Christ, offering some other subject of worship (it’s so painful to witness this in Ukraine right now). “Instead of Christ” is the true meaning of who is expected in end times (if I remember right from one of deeper explanations here on the blog in the past).

  51. Karen Avatar

    Yes, thank you for this response to Christopher, Father.

    Your experience of rejoicing and suffering alongside others resonates.

    Christopher, I believe that all of us experience disappointment with failures we perceive in ourselves and others, and this can produce real struggle in our faith in the Church. It effectively blocks our spiritual perception (both of ourselves and others). We are attracted (as we should be) to the beauty of the Ideal (Christ), but if we know Him more as Ideal, perhaps, than as the Living Person whose commands we diligently work to uphold—learning to know as we are fully known (and loved) by Him, we do not develop Christlikeness and a heart broken and yielded to Him, vulnerable, but rather standards and expectation of ourselves and others. (I speak from abundant personal experience here.) Those are bound to be disappointed, and we will indeed look upon those in our parishes and in the world around us with a jaundiced eye, and not the eye that steadily gazes upon Christ and has thus been “rendered limpid by love” (a lyric phrase from The Doors of the Sea) such that the world around us in all its effulgent (though often hidden) beauty becomes Theophany. I have found the ascetic discipline of embracing (loving/serving) what IS in terms of the human persons around us instead of looking for (or even demanding) what “should” be outside ourselves, to be critical to the transformation of my perception (a work in progress)..

    “Be the change you want to see in the world” is not just Ghandi’s philosophy. It is also the way the world works (and Ghandi got his perspective from the teachings of Christ in the Gospels). Of course, we don’t have it within ourselves to do this—we must abide in the Vine.

  52. Karen Avatar

    Gandhi….I always misspell that name!

  53. James Taylor Avatar
    James Taylor

    Karen wrote:
    “I have found the ascetic discipline of embracing (loving/serving) what IS in terms of the human persons around us instead of looking for (or even demanding) what “should” be outside ourselves, to be critical to the transformation of my perception (a work in progress).. ”
    It occurs to me this is what is to be done as we are “decreasing” and Christ is “increasing”. If the motive is the death of the old ego, the old self, in the process and to put on Christ, surely there are invigorating moments from the Holy Spirit of strong sentiments of Love and the Good, but not to be confused with sentimentality, which come to think of it, is still better than a cold, hard heart.
    Br. James

  54. Christopher Avatar

    James & Agata,

    Sorry I did not spell it out. I spent a small amount of time googling but could not find this little talk online. I put this pamphlet in my pocket to finish later but I ended up giving it to someone at coffee hour 😉

    Fr. Schemman’s point was that Orthodoxy came to America from countries/cultures where there was an “organic” relationship between Christ & Culture, or Church & Culture. In America, only the first, perhaps second generation were largely not “Americanized” and still (mostly) living an “organic” Church/culture within a ghetto of ethnic families, neighborhoods, etc.

    So how does the church *be* the church within a culture (i.e. secularized, pluralistic, anti Christian {which is not the same as anti Christianity or anti church}) which is not organically related to it? The two failure paths he identified were the “neurotic” one, which is an antagonistic rejection of secular culture usually coupled with an attempt for a ‘return’ to the ghetto, or an idealized non-secular culture, etc. The other failure path was the “compromised” path where the Church attempts a re-integration into the now secular culture, but which in fact ends up working in reverse in secularizing the Church .

    Any of us with just a little experience can cite numerous examples of these two failure paths we have experienced directly locally or indirectly in the wider Church

    The second half the essay (which I did not get to read fully) was his prescription on how to be the Church in secular culture successfully…the part I read had an emphasis on catechesis – an Orthodox Christian would have to understand *both* what secularism really is fully, what (Orthodox) Christianity really is fully, and how to be in the right relationship with each.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the Schmemann summary. I would pray (for I intend it) that my writing and speaking on the nature of the secular world and its challenge represents a small contribution to the catechesis of the Church. I keep it pretty front-and-center when it often seems that it would be forgotten in many places. Getting the response right is difficult, to say the least. The culture owns pretty much everything, including a large part of our minds. If it weren’t for God, everything would be forgotten quickly and smothered in the silence of amnesia.

  56. Christopher Avatar


    I don’t disagree, or at least I don’t think I do, with anything you said. What I think I am doing (putting aside my own sinful reactions/emotions, failure at communication, etc.) is speaking to another facet/aspect of all this. Within traditional Orthodox (and RC for that matter) ecclesiology (a fancy name for the what and how of being Church) we have a heavy emphasis on the Sacraments and their presence in the world but not of the world (in of themselves) and their transformative working on us.

    One of Fr. Schemman’s insights was that secularism does something to the Sacraments, the Sacramental life – to our Churches and ourselves – that is different than the more usual failings, sins, etc. that we normally think of. Secularism, which IS itself a pattern of life, of mind, and of heart, is the *negation* of worship (which means it is the *negation* of the sacraments, ascetical Christianity, even sin itself {something Fr. Schemman dwells on in this essay}).

    This has many implications, not the least of which is the chicken and egg problem. How can I “be” the (Christian) change that if not the world needs (an idealization I think) that I, my children, my family, and my parish needs if the very thing that *forms* me in this change is “negated”?

  57. Christopher Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Your writing and speaking is a significant contribution in my estimation. In fact, your actually one of the few who are doing this work in a way that does not fall into one of Schemman’s failure paths. I don’t have to tell you that you get, let’s call it “push back” from some in the Church who would like you to take one of these two paths or simply ignore this “heresy of our age” altogether. Not only this, but I give you double extra credit 😉 for being courageous and willing to take risks in this area – your not afraid to be wrong, make mistakes. Too many in the Church I think are risk averse in this area. This is somewhat understandable given the magnitude and importance of the problem, but it leads to the status quo were we just kick the can so to speak, retreat into our various “isms”, etc.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you! Those are, perhaps, the kindest words I’ve read in a while. I think Schmemann is profoundly right, and that, so often, this aspect of his work and thought are overlooked while championing some imagined liturgical innovation as his great contribution to Orthodoxy. He was not an innovator.

  59. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Christopher I think I’m following what you’re saying. (And agree with you regarding Fr Stephen’s ministry in this blog) I’m stuck however on the usage of word ‘negation’.
    Please forgive me as I ask for elaboration— I want to learn more deeply your meaning and I do have Fr Schmemann’s book ‘For the life of the world’ if there is a reference there that could fill me in more.

  60. Karen Avatar


    I think I can appreciate that. After a while, I think my own approach (coping style), as one prone to distraction and anxiety, is to pull back and remind myself that secularism, clerical abuse, nominalistic faith or whatever bugaboo has me enthralled for the moment is not more powerful than Christ and cannot keep me from doing my part to attempt to keep Christ’s commands. I have no control over what anyone else thinks or does, but I can love and serve the next person Christ puts in my path with his help. And, sometimes even more importantly, let others serve me when I am weak (as I am now with several close family members in health crisis and me having to be strong for several….

  61. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Father – I missed this when it was first posted. Despite the excellent (as usual) discussion in the comments, my simple mind is still trying to get over the beginning of your post. You were by the Jordan – THE Jordan – with Met. Kallistos Ware – THE Met. Kallistos Ware. If I can get beyond that, I might be able to absorb the fact that you loaned him your stole for the Blessing of the Waters. The waters being the Jordan River. The blessing being done by Kallistos Ware.


  62. Maria Avatar

    One year later – January 6, 2020…reading this for the first time. +++
    That God, in his inestimable Wisdom, thought to bless me, a sinner, with a minute glimpse of Himself and the Mystery of the universe – may this always bring me to my knees.
    Romans 12:3 “…not to think of myself more highly than I ought to think.”
    Thank you for this post Fr Freeman.

  63. Jeremy Spainhour Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Writing as a pastor in a low-church Protestant denomination (Christian & Missionary Alliiance), thanks for this. I recently read For the Life of the World and it has opened up new vistas and vantages for seeing what is really there.

    The question I’m still pondering, however, is in what sense it is really there–in the sense Barfield ponders the question (Saving the Appearances). You wrote: “This ‘truth of all things’ is the revelation of the world as sacrament.” Apart from the revelation of the world as such, and thus our beholding it as such, in what sense can it be called a sacrament, if any? What role, in other words, does the mediator play in realizing the microcosm?

    I’m reminded of Paul’s words in this connection: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). Neither did Paul divide up the world ‘out there’ between the sacred and the secular, the holy and profane (“this thing is holy, that thing is not”), but he seems to suggest that without the ‘mediator’ seeing it and receiving it as it is– the good gift—and giving thanks to the Giver of all things, the division remains, or perhaps is created anew.

    Perhaps we should retain the language of such a division, but locate it, as Solzhenitsyn might have, not in the world ‘out there’ but in its microcosm: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but straight through the heart of every man.” We, then, are “the impregnable wall,” the veil between the sacred and the profane is the one we willfully place over our eyes to keep from seeing the glory of God in all things. This surely is the occasion for the Gospel of the God who reveals his glory by concealing himself in the veil of human flesh, precisely in order that the “veil” could be “torn from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51; Heb. 10:5).

    Thus, it seems, until we see the world in the light that shines through the narrow key hole of Jesus Christ, we cannot see anything as it is in truth, because we cannot see ourselves: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:16-18).

    In Barfield’s language, then, apart from Christ first mediating our ‘participation’ in Being, and only then our mediating the world in Christ, would not the world as sacrament collapse the macrocosm into the microcosm, Being into beings, the Wholly Other into the unholy us–the transcendent “I AM” into the immanent frame: “I think…”?


    Jeremy Spainhour

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that in reading and interpreting Schmemann, his profound description of secularism as a modern heresy (or even the great heresy of modernity itself) must be kept in mind. That those of our culture fail to see the world in its fullness (“what it truly is”) is a failure most especially created in misguided Christian minds. Modernity’s secularism is a Christian heresy – not a pagan idea, or something yet more alien.

    Forgive me, but it was, in its origin, largely a Protestant invention and a habit-of-seeing or not-seeing perpetuated by a frame of mind that has long since separated itself from the way of seeing that is the inherited tradition of the Christian faith. For one, the destruction of the sacraments – in which they are reduced to memorials or ordinances is both symptom and cause of this deviation. It not only loses all sense that the Eucharist is truly and really the Body and Blood of Christ – but all of creation begins to be plunged into the same flat, meaninglessness that is the modern imagination. The world becomes just “stuff.”

    I do not mean to be self-serving – but I would recommend reading my small book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, for a larger treatment of this question.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mr. Spainhour, thank you for writing. Your questions are good ones. I first began to appreciate the world as sacrament through my Dad. He was born in1901 and spent much of his youth with his family as homesteaders in the territory of New Mexico, initially living in a sod hut with his parents and older brother. Their 160 acres was in the high plains of eastern New Mexico. A land many would describe as God-forsaken. But it was there that my Dad began to perceive the beautiful and providential inter-connectedness of all life. The beauty of creation that had an intelligent presence at the heart of it so that even in such a dry seemingly desolate place life was everywhere, filling all things and bring all together.

    He never really found Jesus despite being baptised three times but it is no accident that both his sons only found fulfillment of his experience and vision (to which he devoted his life) in the Orthodox Church. My older brother is a priest.

    Sacrament is actually the opposite of your description of it. Sacrament is an expression of His Incarnation and actually gives substance to the physical creation. Each of the specified Sacraments give substance in unique ways. The Divine Liturgy brings the participants into His actual Body and infuses us with His Life giving Blood.

    The shadow of fallen humanity is brought into an eternal reality without limits. It also expands and revivifies all of the physical creation — us included. Both personally and corporately.
    Faith as substance as described in Hebrews. A beautiful and transcendent substance to be sure, but a palpable reality.

    It is sin that pinches and tends toward shadow and nothingness. Thus I pray often everyday “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” lest I forget and begin to think the shadows are real. A constant temptation

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