I am currently working on a small book that gathers many of my thoughts on the metaphor of the “one-storey universe.” Readers of this blog should be well familiar with the image. I cannot claim to be its originator – I can think of several sources that first suggested this way of explaining things. It is a verbal effort to share a visual and kinesthetic experience. I think that much of my public ministry (in speaking or writing) is an effort to find ways to say things to contemporary Americans (and others) that can make the life of faith possible. It seems clear to me that a wholesale adoption of the vision of the world as offered by our culture is little more than an agreement with death. The gospel necessarily involves the giving of sight to the blind.
I have been fascinated by artists for most of my life. I can think of any number of such gifted persons who have been important in my life. Their importance for me was this strange ability (I call it “strange” because it is not native to me) to see things that others cannot see or to see things in ways that others do not. The thought that two people can look out at the same scene and see something different fascinates me. I can understand that we all see different emphases – different parts of the puzzle. But I mean something much stronger than that. Often the artist relates to what he/she sees in a different manner. Colors manifest themselves in different ways. Relations between objects appear that others do not see.
I see something of the same thing in the stories of saints (particularly those of the Orthodox with whose stories I am most familiar). They walk in the same world in which I walk, and yet it is clear that they do not see the world as I do (most of the time). Saints are not people inhabiting the same space that I inhabit and yet looking away to a world about which they have been told. They are not “heavenly minded” in this sense of heavenly absence, a world that belongs somewhere else. They clearly perceive heaven among us, within us.
A reading of the gospels quickly reveals a Christ who sees and knows something about the world that others around Him either do not see, will not see, or do not understand. He is a walking Jubilee Year (when all debts are cancelled under the law of the Torah). He is the age to come, already walking among men. Around Him, the lame walk, the blind see, prisoners are set free. In the cities of “Roman-controlled” Galilee and Judaea He is not controlled. His Kingdom pours into the lives of those around Him. A crooked tax-collector suddenly proclaims that he will restore four-fold what He has taken from others – a simple response to Christ’s entrance into his home. He surely saw the world in a manner radically different before and after such a rash statement. There is no other explanation.
For me, a key to the vision of the Kingdom of God begins with refusing to allow the Kingdom to be removed from our midst, to be shuttled off the planet and placed somewhere yet to be or open only to those who have died. If Christ has come and accomplished what we are taught in the Gospels, then the world is already different than it commonly appears. To see what has come among us requires that the proper light shine on everything before us.
My experience as an Orthodox priest has been to be frequently plunged into a different light. Words and stories, music and actions are all set beside one another in a way I have never seen before. It is a liturgical combination whose purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. It reveals the Kingdom that we might learn to sing the song that belongs to that presence. In other words – it reveals the Kingdom of God that we might learn to worship. I have come to believe that we exist to worship God.
Along with other Orthodox Christians across the world, I have just completed the Paschal cycle – beginning with the pre-Lenten Sundays, through the 40 days of Lent, Holy Week, through Pascha itself, and on to the completion found in the feast of Pentecost. How can I describe an experience that stretches over 100 days, all of which reveal the truth of Christ’s Pascha? It cannot be described – else the Church would have a description instead of 100+ days of liturgically ordered activities.
But I can say something about what I have experienced. The language I have found for this revelation is that Christianity belongs in a one-storey universe. God is here. In the words of the Pentecost liturgy: “He is everywhere present and filling all things.”
I am not an artist – I cannot quite do with words what others do with colors. A single icon speaks with an eloquence that remains beyond my reach. But God is the great Artist. He has so colored our world that, in the Light of Christ, we can see and know heaven among us. As heaven appears – then we begin to see others as persons to be loved rather than objects to be used. We see trees and all of creation as belonging to the same choir as we ourselves. We begin to hear a song that will never end. God give us grace to see and to sing.
A blessed Pentecost to all.