The Liturgy of Life

In the earliest years of my Orthodox parish, we rented a “warehouse” space. Essentially, it was a store front with warehouse storage place in the rear. It was a daunting task to stand in a bare, concrete room with heating machinery hanging from the ceiling and an overhead door gracing the back wall with the task of arranging an Orthodox Church. There was virtually no money (I signed the lease at $800 a month – a scary proposition at the time).

We owned a few icons (small 8×10’s). It was an improvement over the living room we had used for the previous month or so in that it was empty and could remain “set up” throughout the week rather than being dismantled. My most expensive contribution to the effort was a small gate-legged antique table from my home. We set it up and it served as an analogion for the reader’s service that was our standard Sunday effort. We set an icon of Christ and an icon of the Theotokos on wire-framed music stands. Nothing gave the impression: “this is a Church.”

A great drawback was that the warehouse had no air-conditioning. Sunday mornings our first summer began with a tolerable cool and quickly rose into the 80’s and more as the Tennessee sunshine baked the building. We added floor fans.

We made our first major effort at changing our space with the addition of an icon screen. We gathered on a Saturday morning, purchasing and assembling the elements of a rough framed drywall across the Eastern end of the room. It’s fairly easy to take 2×4’s and build an 8 foot wall across a room. We added drywall with three spaces to constitute the “doors.” We began the morning in a warehouse, and strangely, by the time for Reader’s Vespers, the structure of the iconostasis was in place, the icons hung (we had bought two large-ish icons of Christ and the Theotokos) and the miracle began.

I have heard from critics of Orthodoxy across the years that the iconostasis “hides the altar.” In point of fact, it does the opposite. At the beginning of the day, my sad little gate-legged table, set aside for the work, was placed within the newly created altar space, and was transformed into altar. The iconostasis doesn’t hide anything – it reveals.

I have stood in magnificent Orthodox temples, with highly developed iconostases, magnificent frescoes, abundant gold leaf and every sort of decoration, but none have ever spoken more loudly than that newly-constructed wall.

An iconostasis is not just any wall. It stands fixed between heaven and earth. Its doors are portals into the age to come. That early rough construction in a warehouse transformed the space into the house of God, or rather, revealed it to be what it already was.

Such is the nature of a sacrament.

Icons are called “windows to heaven.” Such a name implies that there is something to be seen, though it requires a window. The same is true of the iconostasis. There is something to which we are united, a heavenly throne to be made manifest, though it requires something by which to be manifested.

Yet more interesting is the teaching that these somewhat “external” realities are also “internal” realities of the heart. From the Macarian Homilies:

Because visible things are the type and shadow of hidden ones, and the visible temple a type of the Temple of the heart, and the priest a type of the true priest of the grace of Christ, and all the rest of the sequence of the visible arrangement a type of the rational and hidden matters of the inner man, we receive the visible arrangement and administration of the Church as a pattern of what is at work in the soul by grace. (Homilies, 52.2.1)

This is why we find an “affinity” for the Liturgy of the Church, one that is often beyond words. We have a feel for such things even when we have ceased to believe in them. For example, there were likely very few in attendance at the coronation of King Charles III who actually believe that an anointed king is anything other than a treasured (by some) relic of the past. Yet the pageantry was moving.

The same culture recently held a “rave in the nave” at Canterbury Cathedral, underlining the emptiness of the present ruling Church regime. Oddly, even the “rave” is a strange secular acknowledgement of the power of the space. A rave would be a rather “ho-hum” event in a nondescript venue. Its attraction is found in the building itself – though a rave is one of the least likely activities to pierce the doorway into the eternal.

The perception of God, and of all things divine, often begins with the experience of awe and wonder. Both are subset experiences of healthy shame. In a culture that is strangely bound by shame, it ceaselessly and shamelessly shatters every proper boundary, finding no wonder or awe other than the worst commodifications of human passions. Pornography has become an epidemic, though it is a mockery of human sexuality. We fail to understand that only self-restraint and modesty, as well as marriage itself, make possible the true perception of wonder in the presence of the naked beloved.

The modern heart has become the meanest warehouse of human experience. It is cluttered with experience but lacks the “order” necessary to reveal the greater depths that would make proper sense of who we are. Interestingly, that order, particularly in the Liturgy, was described by St. Dionysius the Areopagite as “hierarchy” (he actually coined the word for that description).  There is a “hierarchy” in the Divine Liturgy, an ordering of space, an ordering of words, an ordering of ministries, all of which serve both the revelation of the Body and Blood of God on the altar, but also as a “patterning” and “type” of the mystical altar of the heart. The instinct of the Church is that you cannot enter the latter without the practice of the former. The absence of either leads to problems.

A key turning point in my life, during my thesis (“The Icon as Theology”) defense, came with the question, “Do you believe the veneration of icons to be necessary to salvation?” I hesitated (I was an Anglican priest at the time), and responded, “I believe that their veneration is necessary to its fullness.” I have lived with that answer for many years and pondered it and the question as well. Christ, according to the Scriptures, is the “icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). I cannot imagine a salvation that is somehow separate from the veneration, indeed, the worship of that Icon.

The visible icons of the Church, including the wall of icons that points us to the center of all creation, all serve as types of the invisible Icon that resides in heaven and within the human heart. Learning to see what is truly there is a lesson taught by veneration, by worship, by attention, and by the noetic perception that is the gift of the Spirit.

A wall is so much more than a wall.

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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40 responses to “The Liturgy of Life”

  1. Paul Hughes Avatar
    Paul Hughes

    Icons and the iconostasis do both, hide and reveal. In fact, the latter implies the former.

    To see anything takes effort and time, just for starters. Distance, nicely paradoxically, helps us see. The Other has to want to be seen. There are lots of moving parts; faith is kinetic, as befits something living.

    There are … heh … clearly things hidden by the iconostasis and 99% of us aren’t able to go behind it. As it shd be.

    Might as well complain one’s wife hides her body behind clothing from all but her baby nursing or her husband enjoying … or hides her soul from all even more fully.

    Unless one puts in the time and effort.

  2. Ben Avatar

    Father, help me with the Old Evangelical Man that still hangs out in my head. He says that when Christ died, the curtain around the Holy of Holies was torn in two. This means that we now have access to the throne room of God and don’t have to worry about things like outer and inner courts. So the iconostasis is wrong.

    My heart says this is bunk, but my head can’t explain why. How does that torn curtain fit into this idea?

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The “veil” used with the doors of the iconostasis, exists in order to be opened (just as the doors are opened). That which is “hidden” or “veiled” in the altar is, in the Liturgy, that which is brought forth and given as Holy Communion. The veil is torn, the doors opened, we receive life.

    We don’t complain that, in the celebration of Christmas, we contemplate Christ as a little child. We also, in the course of the Liturgy, contemplate that which was “closed” or “untorn” that we might rejoice at what is opened, and torn for our salvation.

  4. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said;

    “There is a “hierarchy” in the Divine Liturgy, an ordering of space, an ordering of words, an ordering of ministries, all of which serve both the revelation of the Body and Blood of God on the altar, but also as a “patterning” and “type” of the mystical altar of the heart. The instinct of the Church is that you cannot enter the latter without the practice of the former. The absence of either leads to problems.”

    I so want to share this with all my former evangelical charismatic friends and family who so pounded again and again against anything liturgical (though truth be told even the most charismatic church has a liturgy of sorts). These comments are bringing questions to my mind … like … could it be that what I experienced in those charismatic spaces was really unhealthy for the altar of my heart? Could this be the reason that there are so many people in my old circles who have not been spiritually transformed?

    I have spent years trying to enter the altar of my heart, but without the Church and her Divine Liturgy as well as her sacraments. What a fool´s game really.

  5. Janine Avatar

    Thanks Father, this is very beautiful. You remind me about boundaries and delineations: God’s first work was to separate out in order to put “order” into chaos. But mostly, sanctification is setting apart — not to hide or exclude, but to preserve like the salt we must be.

  6. Bradley David Avatar
    Bradley David

    Hi Ben, I was raised in an Evangelical context and also heard the same interpretation of the rending of the temple veil. It was a bit of a struggle for me as well at first. I ultimately set aside my interpretation since it seemed to contradict the teaching and practice of the Church. I have been relieved and surprised to find that there are several other interpretations of the rending of the veil among the fathers.

    St. Macarios the Great connects it to the Jewish rejection of their messiah and the destruction of the temple saying “the Holy Spirit departing from thence when the veil of the temple was rent. And so their temple was given over to the heathen and destroyed and made desolate, according to that denuntiation of the Lord” (Homily IV)

    St Nikolai Velimirovich has it as the indication of the type and symbol being removed (fulfilled) since the fullness (Christ) has come, “The veil was rent from the top to the bottom because the reality of the mystery was revealed in its fullness. The Lord of the Holy of Holies came, and the symbol of Him was removed.” (The Universe as Symbol and Signs)

    Neither of these saints understands the rending of the veil as opening unfettered access to the throne of God. I don’t know if some Fathers understand it similarly to Evangelicals. But for these two, separated by some 1500 years, what seems obvious given certain evangelical priors was not so obvious to them. Scripture, of course, is polyvalent. But, it was helpful for me to hear various alternative patristic understandings of that particular event.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Ben, Bradley,
    More thoughts on the veil. It’s important not to get too stuck on a single meaning of the veil in the Temple, much less the curtain in the Church. First off, the notion that the tearing of the curtain during the time of the Crucifixion meaning that the path to the Father is now opened, has a number of false assumptions (particularly those rooted in a penal substitutionary view of the atonement – in which we were cut off from God by His wrath until it was appeased by the death of Christ). In a very early account of the veil (2nd century Gospel of James – the “Protoevangelicum”), the veil is seen as a type of the flesh of Christ. Thus the Theotokos, in the icon of the Annunciation (usually depicted on the Holy Doors), is shown with a distaff on which she is spinning wool. According to the Protoevangelium, she was spinning wool for the making of the curtain in the Temple (something that was replaced annually). This was connected with her earlier service in the Temple. In the icon, it also is a mystical representation of the flesh of Christ being “spun” in her womb at the Assumption. Thus, at the Crucifixion, it is His flesh that is torn.

    The Curtain of the Church has a number of functions and can have a number of meanings – some of them at the same time. Literalism is the death of understanding.

  8. Janine Avatar

    Father, I have never heard of the veil being akin to the flesh of Christ. But it makes sense in terms of the sacrifice on the Cross opening up the world of Resurrection and the Kingdom for all of us, defeating the final enemy.

  9. Kenneth Avatar

    “Literalism is the death of understanding.” — another keeper!

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Hebrews 10:20 refers to the veil of the Temple as the flesh of Christ.

    “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh,” (Hebrews 10:19–20 NKJV)

  11. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  12. Janine Avatar

    Another question: So is this where the sense of “the veil of this world ” comes from? Christ’s earthly body (which held God)?
    Sorry if a bit dense, but for some reason this has struck a stunning blow to my mind.

    I guess reading that passage I just took it as simple metaphor but it seems much more than that

  13. Hélène d Avatar
    Hélène d

    Thank you P.Stephen for this stimulating post which brings us back to the heart of our holy Orthodoxy and which is the place of our loving encounter, for each and all together with our good Lord !

  14. Philip Onyon Avatar
    Philip Onyon

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this testimony.
    I am not Orthodox, but formerly Anglican charismatic and now a wandering agnostic. Your story delighted me with the utter ordinariness of the warehouse being transformed into an opening to the eternal in a most wonderfully simplistic manner. Reminds me of several mystics down the centuries who also show the Unapproachable is made available in the mundane.
    Your explanations of the Orthodox objects used in worship was most helpful.

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’m not sure of the origins of the phrase the “veil of this world” is. I’d be hesitant to tie it to this.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Thank you. May God give you grace as you wander!

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Didn’t mean to dismiss your thought too casually. It’s a good question. I think the “veil of this world” is more of a modern expression (I don’t recall ever seeing that metaphor used in an Orthodox liturgical context). It could, of course, be given a very good Orthodox meaning – or be used otherwise – but that’s probably true of most of our speech.

    I’m glad the imagery is being fruitful for you.

  18. Janine Avatar

    Thank you so much Father Stephen!
    Yes, I was going to say I suppose what you pointed out to me made the difference between a metaphor and an icon. The torn veil or curtain being so much more than image but really an icon of a particular thing, a particular Person, and time, and event — and necessarily so. It makes it clear it could only have been this one Person doing this one thing, in what people call the sense of “kairos” if I am using that correctly. I guess it’s all there in St Pal but like so much else I didn’t see it before. I don’t know why this is striking me so deeply but it sure is. I’m so used to hearing things from a different perspective and “watered down”

  19. Janine Avatar

    *St. Paul

  20. Janine Avatar

    PS Fr Stephen, perhaps it’s no accident I have been pondering signing up for the “Coffee Cup” course on the Incarnation: Grammar of Theology taught by you at St. Athanasius 🙂

  21. Ben Maki Avatar
    Ben Maki

    What an amazing idea and correction to Old Evan (as I’ve decided to name him). The veil was torn so that God could come out to us rather than to let us in. I am always amazed at how much deeper and fuller Orthodoxy is!

  22. Ook Avatar

    Rave in the nave is a particularly egregious example, but a quick search shows complaints about unseemly activities in the nave of St. Paul’s go back to 1561 (which, admittedly, is still early modern).
    Originally I thought this is a Protestant thing, as they aren’t sacramental, but then I remembered attending a secular concert at Notre Dame 20 years ago. Not a rave, but I guess it’s just a matter of degree…

  23. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Perhaps the word is “vale” (valley) of this world, rather than “veil”?


  24. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    You can google the phrase as “veil”. I’m aware of the expression, “this vale of tears”

  25. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I could have added several recent similar examples…including a putt-putt golf course.

  26. Janine Avatar

    I found this sort of interesting excerpt on the web, but I’d need a subscription to get the rest of it!

    “beyond the veil”

    in the unknown state of being after death; the phrase is originally a figurative reference to the veil which in the Jewish Temple separated the main body of the Temple from the tabernacle, and derives particularly from Tyndale’s translation of the Bible…. …

    – From the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (editor Elizabeth Knowles)

    I also found some quotation of Tyndale referring to the veil of Moses , regarding people who deceive themselves through outwardly righteous behavior: “They set a veil on Moses’ face and do not see how the law requires love from the bottom of the heart, and only such love fulfills the law”

    Anyway, hope this is not TMI / pedantic and I’m not distracting the conversation too much! But it could be interesting to think about the veil of Moses in this context; perhaps there is a theological tie I’m not aware of that is already known to Father

  27. Janine Avatar

    Oh silly me again 2 Corinthians 3 — esp verses 7 – 13

  28. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’ve been thinking about the veil of Moses as well. I love taking “deep dives” on such things.

  29. Bonnie Avatar

    Father Freeman,
    Your description of renting a space could be a metaphor reflecting the task facing Christians who seek ways to rebuild the faith in the midst of a hard (concrete walls) and empty (warehouse space) society. Thinking about this, I looked at scriptures and commentaries. There is a beautiful piece online which is worth reading: contains a piece by Tadros Malaty on Nehemiah. It is very rich and thought-provoking. It is in PDF form.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bonnie, for me the description of the warehouse reminds me of the original emptiness of my heart and the work I have gone through since I started to become Christian 50 years ago and especially since becoming Orthodox.
    Of course the warehouse could just be a warehouse too.

  31. Janine Avatar

    Father, I’m glad it’s useful (please let me know when not and feel free to delete). At the risk of being too verbose, want to say that I was trying to follow up.

    Intrigued by that blurb that the use of “veil” has to do with Tyndale’s translation, I looked up the LXX for the veil of Moses and also the veil in the Temple and found they are different words (veil/curtain), but that is still interesting to think about in terms of the time/place/purpose, even the etymology where the veil hides, from kalypto sort of opposite of “apocalypse.” Now my head is spinning :-). You, Fr. Stephen, probably know all this already. Anyway, once again St Paul stuns me in saying that it is Christ who takes away the veil of Moses in 2 Cor 3:12-18. Christ “unveils” the “veil.” I love that St Paul links this unveiling/revealing with freedom and the Spirit.

    Thanks also Michael and Bonnie for recent comments

  32. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Janine & Father,
    Your discussion about the veil over this world, the veil in the Temple, the veil in the Church, and Christ’s removing the veil reminds me of the story of Christ meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He *reveals* the meaning of the scriptures to be about Him, and when He blessed, then *broke* (torn) the bread and offered it to them, revealing who He was, this Stranger.

    These acts also reveal the deeper Providential dimensions of this world and the tabernacle activity of the Kingdom of God in this world.

  33. Matthew Avatar

    The veil is torn. No longer is anything concealed, even if for a brief moment it appears that it is.

    This discussion brings to my mind today thoughts of judgment. Some of you know I am currently reading The Longer Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church by St. Philaret of Moscow. St. Philaret says that the conscience of every person will be laid open before all and all deeds and thoughts as well as all secret wishes will be judged by God. This absolutely frightens me. Nothing is hidden. The veil is completely torn.

  34. Matthew Avatar

    Judged by God in Jesus Christ I think I should have said …

  35. Janine Avatar

    Dee, thank you! That is brilliant. “In the breaking of the bread” and the broken body … I would not have thought of that. It reminds that God uses “broken” and “weak” things. Maybe they provide an opening for God to come to us huh? Grateful for all of these thoughts.

    Matthew, I keep being reminded: “For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light” – Luke 8:17 NKJV

  36. Janine Avatar

    Father thank you for sharing that very valuable post (for Matthew). So much in it is precious for me right now.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was received into the Church in 1986 ever since then has been a revelation of what that means: how much each of us is blessed in new and beautiful parts of reality before God and within my own soul by His Mercy. Those who have not stayed primarily have not done so because they can’t or won’t enter into His Mercy for themselves or for someone else.

    The Orthodox Church, despite our difficulties, remains the repository of that Mercy for anyone who begins a life of repentance. Mt 4:17 “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    The first time I attended, I was shown what that meant, briefly. And how vast and full is the unseen reality. ⁹ My late wife, infant son and I were received. The rest of the time has been unfolding to me ever since. In prayer and the hearts of others I knew.

    Come and see, if you have not.

  38. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Michael.

  39. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much for the link to the article Fr. Stephen. The article was wonderfully written and helped me immensely. Thanks so much from the bottom of my heart. I really need to read your book about shame I think. When you discuss shame, I think I get it, then I don´t get it, then I get it, etc. 🙂

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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