Christianity in a One-Storey Universe - Part 1
Fr. Stephen Freeman · October 19, 2007
In his inaugural podcast, Fr. Stephen describes the Orthodox view of the world in terms we can all understand.
I’m looking forward to this new podcast series, Glory to God. Previously, I have been writing for the Internet over the past two years on a weblog entitled, “Glory to God for All Things.” I would like to begin this podcast series by looking at how we see the world, particularly, how we see the world in religious terms. For there are many things we take for granted in our language, and in the images we use to describe religious things, that create problems for Orthodox believers. They are problems of which most of us are not aware.
The essential image is what I have called the “two-storey universe.” Much of the language we use about God, about heaven, about angels, about death, the soul, Hades—just generally spiritual things, whatever it may be—most of the language we use has much of this “two-storey” character to it. The origins of this language, in our modern world, [are] rooted mostly in a secularized view of things.
We live in a culture where secularism is the default position. People almost automatically think in these terms. Secularism is not a belief that there is no God. That would be simple atheism, of which, of which there’s not much in our culture. Instead, secularism is the belief that there is a God, but that somehow he is removed from our daily life. We are here on the first floor, the first storey of the universe, and God is there, on the second floor, the second storey of the universe.
Thus, the world we live in is a largely nonreligious world. Those who are religious have many beliefs about the second storey, many doctrines, and we can enter into arguments, even fierce arguments, with each other about those beliefs, but what we often share in common is this split in how we see the world, and as we shall see, it creates many problems for us.
There is a different way to see and understand the world, and we’ll be looking at that, as well, but we’ll begin by looking at the two-storey universe. The primary difficulty of the two-storey universe is that we live on the first floor, while, our metaphor would have it, God lives on the second floor. The great unspoken fear for all of us on the first floor, is that no one actually lives on the second floor. Every time a board creaks, we quickly rush to proclaim: “Miracle!” Mostly because it finally gives us some evidence that God is moving around up there. Thus, in our default position of a two-storey universe, doubts, and even an incipient atheism, are always present with us.
Now, rumor has it that when some one of us dies, his soul gets to move to the second storey. If, however, he was bad, or failed to have correct theology, or a number of other factors, he has to go to the basement. Of course, this would give us three storeys. Our culture is certain that no one goes from the basement to the second floor. This is guaranteed, at least for some, by the reading of Luke 16:26, which speaks of a great gulf that is fixed between the sufferings of Gehenna and the joys of Paradise. This comes from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
There are those who spend a great deal of time and money trying to prove that there really are souls of the departed on the second floor. They make the mistake of becoming spiritualists and are all about proving that there is life after death. Indeed, our television has given us any number of programs on this very subject in the last few years.
The full effect of all this “metaphysical architecture” is that we live in ignorance. We want to believe that someone is on the second floor, but we’re not sure. Thus, there can be a dogged fundamentalism with regard to certain passages of Scripture and the way they’re interpreted, because it’s seen as the only guarantee that we’re right about the second storey.
But try as we might, it’s an inherent part of our life in a two-storey universe that you can never be sure, and that doubt always dogs your every thought. We may not say these things to each other, but they’re there. Thus, death, especially, becomes a crisis of faith.
The industry surrounding death, particularly funerals, is a large part of our culture, as well. Today, the funeral industry often celebrates life rather than speak of the second storey. We simply remember how good the first floor is and say goodbye to those whom we miss. To speak of the second storey is to raise doubts, and the industry is afraid to do that.
In its proclamation of the Gospel, the Orthodox Church predates the two-storey universe. This is a distinct advantage. We do not go to church and attend services and listen to hymns that are full of modern doubt, nor do we have to listen to our own lack of confidence echoing back at us. Indeed, Orthodoxy proclaims, and we hear it always in our services, that when we gather for worship, there are no “two storeys,” that heaven and earth are together, that we actually eat of the marriage feast of the Lamb. Indeed, the food of this feast is nothing other than the body and blood of God. To the question, “Do you believe in God?” We may answer, “Believe in him? We eat his body and drink his blood.” I mean nothing blasphemous in this statement; I simply offer the facts. It is this presence of heaven, here and now, that is Orthodoxy’s primary assault against the mistaken notions of a two-storey universe. For that proclamation is indeed the truth.
Now, our cultural metaphor is much like the lie of the evil witch who imprisoned the children in the Chronicles of Narnia, who imprisoned them beneath the mountain and told them there was no such thing as Narnia. We pray in the beginning of almost all our prayers, “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth who art everywhere present and fillest all things.” Learning to pray in such a manner, and to gradually come out of the darkness of the lie and into the brightness of the truth, that living in a two-storey universe is false, and that coming to live where there is but one storey is the truth.
William Dalrymple in his wonderful book, From the Holy Mountain, retraces the steps of John Moschos, a Byzantine monk, and relates, in his book, a wonderful one-storey account from the monks of the Monastery of St. Anthony in the desert of Egypt. Only the smallest hint of a two-storeyed world had reached these monks, and they find the notion unbelievable. The monks of St. Anthony’s remain wonderfully dark-age, at least in our modern world view. They remain wonderfully dark-age in their outlook and conversation. Exorcisms, miraculous healings, ghostly apparitions of long-dead saints, are to the monks, what doorstep milk deliveries are to suburban Londoners—unremarkable, everyday occurrences, that would never warrant a passing mention, if foreigners did not always seem to be so inexplicably amazed by them.
I will read you a small passage:
“See up there?” said Abuna Dioskoros, as I was finishing my egg. He pointed to the space between the two towers of the abbey church. “In June 1987, in the middle of the night, our father, St. Anthony, appeared there, hovering on a cloud of shining light.”
“You saw this?” I asked.
“No,” said Father Dioskoros, “I am short-sighted.” He took off his spectacles to show me the thickness of the glass. “I can barely see the abbot when I sit beside him at supper,” he said. “But many other fathers saw the apparition. On one side of St. Anthony stood St. Mark the Hermit, and on the other was Abuna Eustace.”
“He is one of our fathers. He used to be the sacristan.”
“So what was he doing up there?”
“Oh, he had just departed this life.”
“Oh,” I said. “I see.”
“Officially he’s not a saint yet, but I am sure he will be soon. His canonization is up for discussion at the next synod. His relics have been the cause of many miracles: blind children have been made to see, the lame have got up from their wheelchairs.”
“All the usual stuff?”
“Exactly. But you won’t believe this.” Here, Father Dioskoros lowered his voice into a whisper. “You won’t be believe this, but we had some visitors from Europe two years ago—Christians, some sort of Protestants—who said they didn’t believe in the power of relics.” The monk stroked his beard, wide-eyed in disbelief.
“No,” he continued, “I’m not joking. I had to take the Protestants aside and explain that we believe that St. Anthony, and all the fathers, have not died, that they live with us, continually protecting us, looking after us. When they are needed, when we go to their graves and pray to their relics, they appear and sort out our problems.”
“Can the monks see them?”
“No, the deceased fathers.”
“Abuna Eustace is always appearing,” said Father Dioskoros matter-of-factly. “In fact, one of the fathers had a half-hour conversation with him the day before yesterday. And of course, St. Anthony makes fairly regular appearances, although he’s very busy these days, answering prayers all over the world. But even when we cannot see the departed fathers, we can always feel them. Besides, there are many other indications that they are with us.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What sort of indications?”
“Well, take last week, for instance. The Bedouin from the desert are always bringing their sick to us for healing. Normally, it is something quite simple. We let them kiss a relic, give them an aspirin, and send them on their way. But last week, they brought in a small girl who was possessed by a devil. We took the girl into the church, and, as it was the time for vespers, one of the fathers went off to ring the bell for prayers. When he saw this, the devil inside the girl began to cry, ‘Don’t ring the bell! Please don’t ring the bell!’
“We asked him, ‘Why not?’
“ ‘Because,’ replied the devil, ‘when you ring the bell it’s not just the living monks who come into the church. All the holy souls of the fathers join with you, too, as well as great multitudes of angels and archangels. How can I remain in the church when that happens? I’m not staying in a place like that.’
“At that moment, the bell began to ring, the girl shrieked, and the devil left her.” Father Dioskoros clicked his fingers. “Just like that! So you see?” he said. “That proves it.”
Indeed, it does prove it, and those of us who do spiritual battle in a two-, even three-storey, universe, can only marvel and say, “Pray for us.”
How sad for us that we perceive ourselves to be in such a small universe, longing for more, hoping for more, arguing for more, starving for more. And yet, God gives us grace. So we pray that he have mercy on such blindness as is ours, that he would come and drive away the dark demons and their lies and open our eyes to the truth. Glory to God!