Book Review: For the Life of the World

Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief, liturgy through the sacrament and sacrament through liturgy; symbol and sacrament. Life lived in light of belief, and belief enlightening life lived. As Father Alexander Schmemann writes, “The Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit bringing together the world for the life of which he gave his Son.”

These are my thoughts and notes on the seminal work by Fr. Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. Christians do not need new symbols to recover relevance in a “modern” world. The mere effort of doing this will further entrap and snare believers into a false paradigm of insidious makings. “The living encounter with and entrance into the epiphany of realty,” the mystery of God through experience is what modern man needs to pursue. The reduction of the concept of knowledge to something that is only rational and discursive has been a cancer on western rational, enlightened, and modern minds. God is other, cosmic, and in essence unfathomable, yet God can be experienced. “What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content.” Fr. Schmemann is clear that this rediscovery is not a return to the past, although to my western mind it feels like this, and, also, feels like a journey into a distinct reality. This rediscovery is a journey into “the light and life, to the truth and grace that are eternally fulfilled by” the Body of Christ, “the Church when she becomes that which she is. (λειτουργία – leitourgia) (pg. 167)

The breakdown of the church from or into secularism is a unique (new) and sadly serious consequence of the rejection of the mystical and symbolic nature of God; God is rational but also mysterious. He is knowable in part, but not fathomable. No simple formula can explain his presence in the Eucharist, what is verum/real and what is mystice/mystical. As much as man wants to pretend that he is purely rational and God is completely fathomable, we are going to miss the mark. This is a complex problem and well-intentioned Christians who may condemn secularism cannot grasp that it is a child of Christianity. Although a heretical child, we must recognize the question that secularism is asking. (pg. 151-152) We should seek first to understand others in love as opposed to confronting the sad secularism of this age with a judgmental and prideful spirit. Father Schmemann seems to leave the question being asked by secularism as unanswered, as it is going to be up to the Body of Christ to answer this in the age to come. He says that the Church cannot compromise but must understand to (like St. Athanasius who overcame the heresies of his age) overcome the secularism of our age with Truth. For me, secularism is a problem of relationships. I agree wholeheartedly with Father Schmemann that we must not compromise with secularism, but we must address the emptiness and brokenness of this age with the Truth, in love. May God grant us mercy and patience for this endeavor.

Not yet fully in communion with the Body of Christ militant and a hunger for the Eucharist that is quite visceral, I cannot speak of these mysteries with any personal knowledge except as a person who experiences a deep longing for a deeper obedience and relationship with my master. The “coming of age” of the world does not change the true Christian’s mission to share the perspective of he who gave his life for the world, a world that “went mad” with virtues, “as if there were no God.” We are witness of these things and to this age, I would add, which is coming to a close. (pg. 135)

Thankfully, in this world of tribulation and suffering, it can be seen that Christ has trampled down death with death (John 16:33). Suffering has acquired meaning, Christ has given suffering and those who suffer for him the power to be a sign, a sacrament, a proclamation of the glorious defeat of man as the way of Life. Of course, this all is foolishness to the modern or secular world, after all isn’t religion supposed to ease suffering here and now and even if not now at least through the promise of a “reward” in the “other world” help us with our life here? For the Life of the World shows how Christ has flipped this paradigm, for he is Life and in him is Life, here and now, not necessarily an easy life, or a life without suffering, but a real life lived in a sacrificial way. For faith isn’t for a benefit, but for acceptance of Life and Light in the person of Jesus. (pg. 125-126) Father Schmemann writes, “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death. It reveals death, because it is the revelation of Life.” For the true Christian death is not something to be reconciled to but something to be overcome, “the enemy to be destroyed.” The modern mind seeking to explain death, to make it rational and normal, rejects the great Christian proclamation of death as abnormal and horrible. Father Schmemann reminds us that Christ wept at the grave of Lazarus and when his own death approached, he was overwhelmed with sadness. God’s world is not a “cosmic cemetery” (I love that language) to be abolished but Christ reveals that it is “this world and this life” that are given to “be a sacrament of the divine presence, as communion with God.” (pg. 120)

My favorite chapter in For the Life of The World was “The Mystery of Love” for we are made for one another, priests are called in order to reveal the importance of vocation so that mankind can as the Body of Christ return the world as a sacrament to the Kingdom. There is a mystery here that I struggle to grasp, because we are not fully in the Kingdom to come and neither of the world. We are in some ways taking part in revealing “things of old, yet new and eternal in the love of God.” I think this is why the revelation that Christ reveals for this life and this world is often hard to grasp. Therefore, the priesthood is not a worldly vocation and necessary, “to be all things to all men.” (1 Cor. 9:22) Furthermore and beautifully, so the ordination of priests should be like the sacrament of matrimony because it reveals the deep meaning of a life in Christ. (pg. 113-114)

Like the ordination of a priest, the sacrament of marriage is powerful because through Christ it reveals the mystery of the world coming into the church, the actual real procession of the people of God, in Christ, into the Kingdom for “Each family is indeed a kingdom, a little church, and therefore a sacrament of and a way to the Kingdom. Somewhere, even if it is only in a single room, every man at some point in his life has his own small kingdom. It may be hell, and a place of betrayal, or it may not. Behind each window there is a little world going on…. This is what the marriage crowns express: that here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, perhaps even in one night; but at this moment it is still an open possibility. Yet, even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people stay together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other. And if after forty-odd years, Adam can still turn and see Eve standing beside him, in a unity with himself which, in some small way at least proclaims the love of God’s Kingdom. In movies and magazines, the ‘icon’ of marriage is always a youthful couple. But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life behind – yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present – and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.” And for me too, I am reminded of the song True Companion by Marc Cohn, its ending refrains:

When the years have done irreparable harm
I can see us walking slowly arm in arm
Just like that couple on the corner do
Girl, I will always be in love with you

When I look in your eyes
I’ll still see that spark
Until the shadows fall
Until the room grows dark

Then, when I leave this Earth
I’ll be with the angels standin’
I’ll be out there waitin’ for my true companion

This is a sacrificial life, a martyrs crown, to place another ahead of oneself, bearing witness to Christ. A true companion will crucify their own selfishness and self-sufficiency. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy for how often I fail in this great endeavor.

Mary resonates powerfully around the great mystery of love! In Father Schmemann’s words, we, humanity, have offered a virgin mother refined through time by the workings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the ancient pre-Talmudic Jewish peoples. Mary is the Mother of Christ; this is critically important, because it reveals the fulfillment of love as obedience and response. Oh, that I could be more like Mary! She shows us how giving ourselves gives life. We often think giving love is life, but that is not the case, it is goodness that gives life in a real way for love needs no justification. Mary’s virginity is the fullness of love, the accepting of the coming of God to us fully. Mary gives life to him who is the life of the world and more than any human being she demonstrates obedience and proper response to goodness, life, and love. Clearly, Mary takes nothing from Christ for she shows us precisely, what constitutes the joy of the Church the acceptance of love for him and obedience to him, just as we are called like her to give Christ life in ourselves through the wedding to the Holy Spirit. Mary is the mother of the children of God as much as she is the Mother of God. (pg. 106)

As the new Eve, Mary overcame the life of the war of the sexes that started at the beginning and through love and obedience by accepting the joy of the annunciation. The Mother of God gives us, the world/humankind/all of creation, the words we so needed, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” She spoke on our behalf and Christ became incarnate and joined himself to humanity. (pg. 104) This obedience in love modeled by Mary is critical for the Christian walk because only obedience to God can give love its true direction. As Father Schmemann writes, when we accept the womanhood of creation personified in the life of Mary as fully human, the best of us, we recognize that this is not a passive love but a responsive active love accepting and responding to God with a life lived in purity and faith. An accepting and responsive love gives life, and a fully accepting, fully responsiveness gives full love and full life. (pg. 103) The ancient faith is often viewed as patriarchal, but this is really not the case for the Body of Christ is bride, pure womanhood.

I agree with Father Schmemann that the modern “equality of the sexes” has been a horrible abuse on modern peoples (pg. 102) as it has devalued women and emasculated men. The failure to recognize and value the differences is simply a sad state of affairs. It becomes harder and harder to see the Bridegroom, Bride, Father, Body, Sons, and roles as modern “churches” mix up the symbols and try to invent new rules to appease secular nonsense. The sexes have unique roles and pretending they do not is harmful at an extreme.

Thankfully, we can return to the correct vision of the sacrament with a clear understanding of matrimony and not some nonsensical “theology of love.” This is, of course, cemented in the very heart of the Church’s life with Mary, the Mother of God, and this is why it is says that “all creation rejoices” because of her place within the heart of the Church and her pivotal role in the incarnation of God, the Word being made flesh through her flesh. (pg. 101)

God has come into the world and became man. Christ lives and yet sin is still in us and we constantly fall away from the life we have received. “The fight of the new Adam against the old Adam is a long and painful one,” writes Fr. Schmemann. Soberness, philanthropy, kindness to neighbors, moral living, although important within their context do not touch on what is meant by the life of Jesus. We are called (Mt. 6) to so much more than this. We are called to be saints and a self-satisfied life, a “saved” life has received its reward. (pg 95-96). Here I am reminded of John Wesley’s thoughts on Christian perfection, a life building towards a fullness of sanctification, the justifying grace we receive at baptism is merely a beginning of the “Divine Ascent” as St. Climacus put it. To become saints, we must become fully ourselves with our own unique personalities. We become fully ourselves (as men and women) by entering the Kingdom of God, life lived as God intended it within his Kingdom. Importantly, this is not just a spiritual or religious thing, but a whole being thing, anointed, sealed, sanctified, dedicated to a new life, here and now in the Kingdom (pg. 92) – I think in body, mind, heart, and spirit. I yearn for this day; I seek this for my life. The end of a life lived in two worlds, sacred and profane. A life where there is no neutral ground, no profane life but only a sacred life, accounting, writing, family, time itself being touched by the Holy Spirit. Life as liturgy.

The world is at an end, we are reminded of this through evening church service, the evening of the world has come and a new day has started. This new day has dawned, for we have seen the light that is the light of the world. (pg. 77) The direction of time can only be seen at its end, for we cannot see into the future. We come into the church at the end of our day, at night, and the Church begins the liturgical sanctification of that time. Not as epilogue, but as a prayer added to all the other experiences. Fr. Schmemann writes, “We who are in the world having lived through many hours filled as usual with work and rest, suffering and joy, hatred and love. Men died and men were born. For some it was the happiest day of their life, a day to remember forever. And for some others it brought and end of all their hopes, the destruction of their very soul. And the whole day is now here – unique, irreversible, irreparable. It is gone, but its results, its fruits, will shape the next day, for what we have done once remains forever.” (pg. 74) It seems to me we bring into the night service, vespers, the first fruits of our offering, thanksgiving for God’s blessings and repentance for all the ways we stumbled. For the mission of the Church, is to be all things to all people, and it must take part in the rhythm of time, ends transformed into beginnings and beginnings announcing fulfillment as the Church is “the divine gift of Joy, the fragrance of the Holy Spirit, the presence here in time of the feast of the Kingdom.” (pg. 73)

Having traveled to Israel and studied the Old Testament, this sanctification of time that Father Schmemann writes about is quite clear. It has been being established for millennia as the pre-Talmudic Jews, and many pagan religions, have long looked to time as a sacrament. The Church, not in a syncretic way, recognizes the Truth about man’s “joy about life” (pg. 69) The natural cycles of spring and fall, after all reflect the cycles inherent in creation. Christ fulfills these meanings through the resurrection of the life he lives eternally. From an ancient perspective, time was a mystery, but has been revealed to us, modern peoples, through Christ as history and inauguration the age to come. This is an epiphany for me.

It is interesting how Father Schmemann points out that Christianity, because it is not a new “religion,” doesn’t exactly have profane and sacred days. As the “Day of the Lord revealed and manifested in all its glory and transforming power the actual end of this world and the beginning of the world to come. And thus, through that one day, all days, all time were transformed into times of remembrance of this ascension and coming.” (pg. 64) We are moving out from the light of Mount Tabor into the world on a mission of sanctification and renewal, every day and moment, now a step, a movement, a decision, witness of time as sacred. Not a mystical timeless ecstasy, but a turning of the ordinary into a new day, an ”eighth day, a first day” in a new beginning. “For we have seen the light,” and carry this light out into the world. Christ literally transformed time. This is apparent for me in the contrast between the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, the first descending to a point, the latter expanding out into infinity.

All this: symbol and sacrament, worship, the trampling down death, baptism, love, time and more is revealed through sacrament and liturgy. Liturgy as sacrament and sacrament as liturgy. The goal of a Eucharistic life is to make us partakers of the world to come, for the world in which we live condemned Christ and itself. We must ascend to heaven in the Body of Christ to partake of the world to come. Mysteriously, this is not a “other” world only the world already perfected in Christ. (Eph. 1:23 and 4:10) (pg. 54) The Eucharistic, sacrificial life is a life lived in offering to God where we take the bread and wine, not wheat and grapes, but that which we transform with effort, that which “we eat to live as our offering to Christ of ourselves, of our life, and of the whole world… We do this in Christ and in remembrance of him. We do it in Christ because he has already offered all that is to be offered to God…. In him was Life – and this Life of all of us, he gave to God. The Church is all those who have been accepted into the Eucharist life of Christ. And we do it in remembrance of him because, as we offer again and again our life and our world to God, we discover there is nothing else to be offered by Christ Himself – the Life of the world, the fullness of all that exists. It is his Eucharist, he is The Eucharist. As the prayer of offering says – it is ‘he that offers and is offered’.” This is so powerful because it is God’s grace, as he is the Life of the world, “we are included in the Eucharist of Christ and Christ is our Eucharist” I long for this communion this “restoration of love as the very life of the world.” (pg. 45-46)

Often, I think of Dostoyevsky’s famous saying that beauty will save the world. The Church should be this love, expectation, and joy in beauty. Heaven on earth. Put away fear, love the Kingdom of God, seek it, bring it into our lives, live it, be transformed by it, and represent this beauty in the world. (pg. 39) This is a journey into the dimensions of the Kingdom. This journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds and begin the sacramental act of seeking God’s Kingdom by being transformed into the Church. (pg. 35-36) We are called to be doers not just hearers of the Word (James 1), the liturgical and sacramental functions of the Church do not prevent missions, the purpose is to strengthen us for mission into the world as our own God given leitourgia – ministry. Lex orandi, lex credenda. Christianity is the “end of religion” according to Father Alexander Schmemann, “Christianity is about a lived experience, not a systematic theology. It embraces the unfathomable mystery of God while fully experiencing his Divine energies acting on the world (pg. 29) Christ has inaugurated a new life! (pg. 27) Christ is present in one seeking truth, though the seeker may not realize it. (pg. 26) When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaning only when it is the ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence. (pg. 24) We understand all this instinctively, if not rationally. Centuries of secularism have failed to transform the act of eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite of family and friendship.” (pg 22) It always will be, despite the materialists’ deep desire to transform food (roaches, for example) into some paste pumped into one’s stomach for utilitarian slave to the system nourishment. Lord have mercy. God came to give himself for the life of the world, to transform us, and bring us into his Kingdom.  

For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann is a remarkable book. For me, it was deep material; I think, in part, because much of it relates to the lived experience of correct belief. A belief that is not just understanding on a rational level, but experiential noetic knowledge. Something we in the West and modern mind have forgotten. This is a challenging perspective. Christian belief is more than personally transformative, but of cosmic significance. I have been a Christian for 20+ years and feel I am merely at the beginning of this journey.

The challenge for me is how do I apply this to my daily life? For starters, relying on spiritual council and guidance of a true shepard of the Kingdom is important. I think God for the good discipleship I have found. Also, a simple being active in the life and time of the Body of Christ through time and in time seems of critical experiential importance. I am not sure how these insights would apply outside of the Eastern Churches perspectives and may raise many questions for denominations that do not view Christ in the same way. Personally, I am excited about my journey into ancient faith.

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