On Earth As It Is In Heaven – And Deeper Still

We live and move in a sea of others. Our first breath (having emerged from a womb of maternal otherness) is drawn from air that has been breathed through timeless years by trees, animals, whales; whistled by birds, and passed through last words of dying lips; life-giving breathed by God in the First Man. The same breath has cried out in pain and wonder, whispered in the ears of lovers, cursed its own breathing, and begged for mercy. It is our breath, borrowed for but a short time, passed on to others and to others.

I could write the same of everything within us and all that we are. We are dust and water, salt and sea, recycled, sentient participants in the life of the whole world and all that is in it.  It is little wonder, then, that the Scriptures present us with salvation written in the key of communion.

From the beginning of the Church’s life, we have survived by eating and drinking Christ, who Himself joined our earthly communion-existence, taking flesh of the Virgin Mary, His mother. We often substitute a near-gnostic notion of thought, feeling, and sentiment as the stuff of the spiritual life. Indeed, the word “spiritual” has often been used to mean “non-material” in modern English.

Those for whom the sacraments remain important frequently have them reduced to a formalistic minimum. “How many sacraments are there?” we are asked. Almost immediately, we respond with “seven” by which the near infinite variety of grace-filled encounters with the world are rendered secular and impotent. Though many introductions and theology manuals make use of the seven-sacrament language, the truth is that “heaven and earth are full of God’s glory” – the whole world is a sacrament.

In giving us His Body and Blood, Christ did not seek to insert a little spirituality into our weekly routine. Instead, He reveals to us the truth of our existence and calls us to return to the fullness of sacramental being. All things are given to us as a communion with Him.

Is it so strange that St. Paul tells us that our bodies are a “temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1Cor. 6:19) Indeed, our existence, inner and outer, follows an interesting pattern.

There are three images that mirror one another. The primary image is found in heaven itself, as made known in the writings of the prophets and apostles. We see this especially in the Revelation to St. John. The wonderful images of the altar, the throne, the incense, the angels, the innumerable hosts of heaven are extensions, if you will, of what was first shown to Moses on Mount Sinai. He was expressly commanded to build Israel’s earthly tabernacle “according to the pattern that was shown on the mountain.” (Ex. 25:40)

This leads us to consideration of the second image of the three: the earthly temple. The “pattern” of the Old Testament Temple is described in exacting detail in the Scriptures. First, there was the portable tabernacle made at Moses’ direction. This was replaced by the temple constructed by Solomon on Mt. Zion, again replaced by the Second Temple following the return from the Babylonian exile. The “pattern” of the Temple becomes the basis for the pattern of the Church as the Christian community grew and matured and remains the pattern for Orthodox Churches to this day.

This imagery, made visible for all the world to see in Temple and Church, is revealed to be the pattern within the human heart and soul. Heaven abides within us and we find, through Christ, that the heavenly-pattern-made-earthly is also the soul-pattern of the heart. It is in entering this in-heart temple that we stand rightly in the earthly temple and rise to the heavenly which comes down (or do we go up?) within us.

We live on a heaven-shaped earth with heaven-shaped hearts. The mystery of our faith, as we live it day by day, especially through the maze of details that constitute the Orthodox way of life, is an unfolding of heaven within us. Theosis is the manifestation of the heavenly within our human life.

St. Seraphim famously said, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” That Spirit resides in the Holy of Holies of the heart. It permeates the incense of prayer that is offered within that temple. It descends on the gift of the “living sacrifice” that we offer, transforming it and making it the very Body and Blood of God.

There is, I believe, an additional temple: creation itself. St. Paul says that God has “made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” (Eph. 1:9-10)

The “in-gathering” of creation is its manifestation as temple. Human beings, in the writings of St. Maximus, are a “microcosm” of the universe. If we ourselves are revealed to be the temple of God, we also reveal the universe as temple. The “temple” is the pattern of all things: we exist most fully in worship itself.

It is too often overlooked that the meaning of the word, “Orthodox,” is best translated as “right worship.” This is the very heart of our life. It is the true home and heart place of the Church’s teaching. The sublime institution of the Eucharist was a revelation of all that Christ had said and done, as well as its ultimate fulfillment on the Cross – all of it made manifest in what would become the central act of worship in the life of the Church. It is a dynamic presence of theosis (bread-become-God) set in our midst.

The life of God that is given to us moves within the Temple. It generates a song of praise and thanksgiving, the very offering of worship, whose voice is the heart-cry of all creation. The spiritual life and its various disciplines and practices is a slow movement and transformation in which we come to be aligned with that voice. We are the logos-voice, the one sound in creation which joins itself in an act of freedom, a “sacrifice” of praise, a precious gift that can only come from love. Freely we have received, freely we give.


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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22 responses to “On Earth As It Is In Heaven – And Deeper Still”

  1. Todd Moore Avatar
    Todd Moore

    Fr. John Behr in his book, “John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel,” writes on how Christ is the new temple. In one place (p. 244) he says, “The Temple and the living human being, the glory of God, are thus brought to perfection with Jesus’ own word from the cross, ‘it is finished’. Then Fr. John supports this with an interesting footnote: “See Maximus the Confessor, Amb. 41 (PG 91, 1309cd), describing the recapitulating work of Christ, which culminates in this way: ‘And finally, after all these things, he, according to the aspect of humanity, comes to God himself [πρὸς αὐτὸν γίνεται], “appearing” as a human being, as it is written, “before the face of the God” and Father [Heb. 9:24]—he, who as Word cannot be separated in any way at all from the Father, fulfilling as a human being, in deed and truth, with unchangeable obedience, everything that he, as God, has predetermined to take place and accomplishing the whole will of the God and Father on our behalf ’. And in so doing, Maximus continues, he shows that ‘the whole creation exists as one, like another human being’, καθάπερ ἄνθρωπον ἄλλον. “

  2. David E. Rockett Avatar
    David E. Rockett

    Wonderful stuff again Father! Thank you…& thanks be to God for the richness of His grace in this life…
    “for us also who have the first fruits of the spirit. Even we ourselves groan within ourselves eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of the body.”

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    This theme is strong in St. Maximus, also St. Dionysius, St. Ephrem, etc. The heart as Temple is a huge feature of the Macarian Homilies. Of interest for me is how to move past this as mere idea and into the depths of experience itself. That’s a “day-at-a-time” thing.

  4. Janine Avatar

    Thank you for these beautiful images Father. It reminds me of Pageau talking about fractals (only far more beautiful than that term suggests).

    But at this time I’m reading in Matthew 12, where the Pharisees are really hardened against Christ, and can’t “see” what His “mighty works” are, demand yet more signs for their own reasons, etc. And what it makes me wonder is that, since all of this beauty is truly around us and within us (and I believe the things you write in today’s passage), how come so many cannot perceive? How do we become blind? How do we *not* see? I mean that as a general question about people, not just the Pharisees and scribes.

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It’s a great question. When I think about, “How do we *not* see?” I think, “How is it that I don’t see (when I don’t see)” It’s where I find my explanations. First – “seeing” is almost never the make-believe thing we conjure when we speak of seeing stuff “objectively.” We assume that some stuff is “obvious” when that is rarely how it is. I’m not entirely sure that anything is “obvious.” The etymology of “obvious” might be instructive. It comes from “ob viam” (Latin for “in the way”). Fr. Maximus Constas has written: makes: “Only things that contradict the mind are real, there is no contradiction in what is imaginary.” (from The Art of Seeing)

    To encounter a “contradiction” is to encounter something that is “other” – and it requires that we pay attention to it in a particular way in order to see and know it. I think, for example, when we’re told the “ask, seek, knock,” it presumes a question – a “contradiction” that is being encountered. Where there are no questions, there is nothing to see.

    For the Scribes and Pharisees, there was nothing to see. Everything had been figured out and sorted. Christ’s words and works were a contradiction. They sorted them out by filing them under blasphemy. “There’s nothing to see here, move along.”

    The beauty and goodness of the world require that we pay attention in a special way – even when looking within ourselves. These are some initial thoughts.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Matthew 4:17 has Jesus declare:”Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    On on level He is talking about Himself there in Body, but for disciples long term is it not the fullness of the “On Earth as it is in Heaven!”?

    If so is there a simple work that leads through the on going process of actual repentance that allows the Kingdom to manifest closer than hands and feet?

    The Jesus Prayer for certain, put developing the discipline so that one does not have to repent of the same sins all the time, and worse?

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Also, is there an explanation of the fullness of mercy as a divine healing energy that one can nurture in one’s heart both for oneself and others?

  8. Janine Avatar

    Thank you so much for that answer, Father. There is a lot there to ponder, and quite interesting! I will have to think more about the contradictions that tell us the truth. If I ask myself the same question you did, “How is it that I don’t see (when I don’t see)” the first thing that confronts me is how powerful my capacity for denial has been! I suppose the contradictions require a lot of us in some way, to forego security even and reshape our notion of reality! The unknown is hard

  9. Matthew Avatar

    This idea of Temple … in me, Matthew … is very interesting.

    If the Triune God lives in me already, and if everything in creation is sacramental, then I ask why is it necessary to meet Christ often in the sacrament of the Eucharist?

    Is it because the Eucharist is a more powerful (or the most powerful) sacrament than, say, a lovely walk in the woods or a powerful prayer of thanksgiving that comes from our inner Temple?

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The “work” of giving ourselves to Christ, repeatedly, continually, whole-heartedly, is the essential work in our lives. Sometimes we give ourselves in our failures, other times in our doing well.

    I think of marriage as an example (especially in these, my later years). Giving myself, wholly, to my wife is a daily and moment by moment activity. The point being to be together – to love – to endure – sometimes to suffer – but together. We are Christ’s bride.

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think of the simple example of the world, our atmosphere, being full of water…but that we still need to find a specific place in order to drink it. The Eucharist is not a mental exercise. It’s an “everything-I-am” exercise. The world as sacrament is not the same thing as a “lovely walk in the woods.” It is to be with the world as we are with the Eucharist.

  12. Janine Avatar

    Also, Father, thanks for mentioning Fr. Constas book, with which I was not familiar. Some of it is probably a little beyond me academically but what a rich introduction to the ways of “seeing”

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think the first time I “sort of” read the book it was just “so-so” for me. Then, I picked it up at a different time and it spoke to me profoundly…which says much about how we “see” things or “hear” things.

    I think the second reading came at a time when my “questions” were alligned with what he was saying and I could hear them – well, at least a few of them stuck with me. And that’s about how it is with everything (even with walking in the woods). It is the state of the heart that determines what we are able to see (“blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”). So, lately, I’ve thought a lot about how we nurture the “question” within the heart – understanding that ideas and curiosities are not the same thing as questions. In terms of Scriptural language – I suppose the word would be, “seeking.” “What do you seek?”

    No doubt, there’s a lot of stuff jumbled together in all of that…”purity of the heart” is very rare. If the world is “gifted” to us as sacrament – how do we live in a manner that welcomes the gift? When I hammer on (as I do) about modernity – a primary observation is that the modern world teaches us to be “makers” – masters of the world, managers of life – versus receivers of a gift, the givers of thanks.

  14. opsomath Avatar

    While I was still a misfit Presbyterian, this principle that Father expresses here snuck up on me in many works of fiction, including the CS Lewis work that Father alludes to in the title. Catholic science-fiction author Gene Wolfe got me good too, with a quote that got indelibly etched in my brain until the present day. I don’t know if anyone else who follows this blog also reads this author. Forgive the lengthy and possibly cryptic excerpt.

    “What struck me on the beach–and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow–was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in everything, in every thorn in every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.”

  15. Matthew Avatar

    Understood Fr. Stephen. Thanks so very much.

  16. hélène d Avatar
    hélène d

    Matthew, following your question on the Eucharist, allow me to share with you an extract from an experience lived by a Greek nun, an experience cited by the hieromonk Aimilianos in a book on Divine Worship.
    “What I am going to tell you, I experienced during the Divine Liturgy. When the priest said: (these are the words from the very beginning) “Blessed be the Kingdom…”, I felt that the doors of Paradise opened and I was deeply moved, suddenly, our daily life unfolded in my mind : the monastery, you who were celebrating at that moment, the church in which I found myself, the services so beautiful. … From the reading of the Gospel until the end of the Liturgy, I did not look anywhere, I heard nothing, except the words of the Liturgy. And tears flowed down my cheeks. … Regarding Communion, I cannot describe to you what I experienced : every time the priest said “the Body and Blood of Christ”, I really felt the Body and Blood of Christ! I wanted to run away! I have never communicated in this way ! After the meal, I ran to my cell where I remained alone, without light, repeating the Name of Christ….”

    Of course this is not “reserved” for the monastic environment ! As Father Aimilianos expressed it, The Liturgy, the Eucharist, is a life of God in us, the victory of Christ, the certainty of his presence in our life, in our souls, in the Church, in the world, in time and in space.
    This is the fullness of Truth….
    “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”

  17. Janine Avatar

    Father, thank you so much for this discussion. In your last response you really hit the nail on the head for me with this question: If the world is “gifted” to us as sacrament – how do we live in a manner that welcomes the gift?

    The reason that spoke to me (and I think I am a textbook case too about “where my head or heart is at today!”) is again what you said so powerfully reflects the way the Gospel stories present things. Jesus is offering this tremendous gift — all these healings! — and yet He is not received. And His love is also sadly not received, because it is truly all of a piece. This is the way God loves. And so that orientation to receiving is really a pivot point.

    I just downloaded the sample of Fr. Constas’ book and the first thing that struck me was his discussion of Origen’s way of seeing contradictions. As I understood it, the point of contradiction is just that — God giving us a question to ponder, where the only answer is in reconciliation of those contradictions, which is a “higher” place than we currently see. I believe I have been given experiences in my life which were very embarrassing or humiliating, but they were necessary for me to begin to question ways of thinking I needed to reconsider and turn to God to resolve, and for me this is an ongoing process. I needed to change my way of thinking; i.e. repentance/metanoia. But I honestly think that for me it might be the only way God can really get me to look. That sounds harsh on the surface but really it’s actually the way I have come to experience God’s love. The harshness is the worldly part of it, not God’s part of it. Over and over again, I have needed to be willing to see this. But then I also need to figure out what properly to do with it! (ha)

  18. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much helene d.

  19. Joyce Avatar

    Your essay reminds me of this beautiful video – The Church Forests of Ethiopia


  20. Abigail Avatar

    Commenting without reading the discussion sorry! Your use of the word “in-gathering” and the tone of this post, reminded me of Zenna Henderson’s 1950s social Sci-fi books about “The People”. All the stories are gathered in a collection called “in-gathering”. It’s a beautiful and fun exploration of what communion SHOULD look like and what the fall does to that. If you are looking for a fun summer read!


  21. Janine Avatar

    Just commenting to say to Joyce, I have begun watching that video on the Church Forests! It is remarkable! Thank you!

  22. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Adding on to Janine’s comment:
    Joyce the video is wonderful! I think it ties in beautifully with Father’s article.

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