A vow of conversation

Merton on Schmemann

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There were a few comments a while ago that raised the topic of Thomas Merton’s relationship with Orthodoxy, and TheraP mentioned a review that he had written on Father Alexander Schmemann’s work. I had read the review in Monastic Studies (no. 4, Advent 1966: 105-115) earlier this year, and since reading Father Schmemann’s The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, had been wanting to return to it. TheraP drew my attention to the fact that it had also been included in the volume Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart & the Eastern Church (The Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series), and this weekend I have been visiting friends who have this book. The whole book looks fascinating and there are several other essays that I have dipped into and would like to read properly, both by Merton and by people like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Canon A.M. Allchin, Rowan Williams and Jim Forest. But I re-read his review of Father Schmemann’s Sacraments and Orthodoxy and of Ultimate Questions. Here are a few extracts:

Sacraments and Orthodoxy, a powerful, articulate and indeed creative essay in sacramental theology which rival Schillebeeckx and in some ways excels him. Less concerned than Schillebeeckx with some of the technical limitations of Catholic sacramental thought, Schmemann can allow himself to go the very root of the subject without having to apologize for his forthrightness or for his lack of interest in trivialities.

Let the reader be warned. If he is now predisposed to take a comfortable, perhaps exciting mysterious, excursion into the realm of a very “mystical” and highly “spiritual” religion, the gold-encrusted cult thick with the smoke of incense and populated with a legion of gleaming icons in the sacred gloom, a “liturgy which to be properly performed requires not less than twenty-seven heavy liturgical books,” he may find himself disturbed by Fr. Schmemann’s presentation. Certainly, Sacraments and Orthodoxy will repudiate nothing of the deep theological and contemplative sense of Orthodox faith and worship. But the author is intent on dispelling any illusions about the place of “religion” in the world of today. In fact, one would not suspect from the title of this book, it is one of the strongest and clearest statements of position upon this topic of the Church and the world. (474) ….

The heart of Fr. Schmemann’s argument is that the Church’s vocation to worship and witness in the world is a vocation to a completely eucharistic view of all creation, a view which, far from setting aside worship and confining it to a special limited area of cult, sees and celebrates the world itself as “meaningful because it is the sacrament of God’s presence.” “Life itself,” he continues, in terms that would perhaps disconcert those habituated to the strict logical categories of scholastic thought, “is worship.” “We were created as celebrants of the sacrament of life.” Man is regarded by Fr. Schmemann as naturally homo adorans, the high priest of creation, the “priest of the cosmic sacrament” (the material world).

Even in his most fallen and alienated state, far from the Church and from the vision of God, man remains hungry for the eucharistic life. He longs, unconsciously, to enter into the sacred banquet, the wedding feast, the celebration of the victory of life over death. But his tragedy is that he is caught in a fallen world which is confused and opaque, which is  no longer seen as “sacrament” but accepted as an end in itself. That is to say, it is no longer seen as a gift to be received from God in gladness and returned to Him in praise and celebration. It is accepted on its own terms as an area in which the individual ego engages in a desperate struggle against time to attain some measure of happiness and self-fulfillment before death inevitably ends everything. Even when he seeks a “religious” answer to his predicament in the fallen world, man finds himself struggling to produce “good behavior” to make things come out so that he will have happiness in the world – or, failing that, in the next.

Even Christianity sometimes ends up by being a pseudo Christian happiness cult, a judicious combination of ethical tranquilizing and sacramental happy making, plus a dart of art and a splash of political realism (a crusade!). This of course calls for specialists in counselling, men trained to give the right answers, engineers of uplift! “Adam failed to be the priest of the world and because of this failure the world ceased to be the sacrament of divine love and presence and became ‘nature’. And in this ‘natural’ world, religion became an organized transaction with the supernatural and the priest was set apart as the transactor.” It is precisely from this state of affairs that secularism arises: “Clericalism is the father of secularism.”

True to the tradition of the Greek Fathers, Fr. Schmemann sees all life as “cosmic liturgy,” and views man as restored by the Incarnation to his place in that liturgy, so that, with Christ and in Christ, he resumes his proper office as high priest in a world that is essentially liturgical and eucharistic. The function of the Church (and of the sacraments) is then to lead all mankind back on a sacred journey to reconciliation with the Father. In the liturgy, the Church calls together all men and invites them to join ranks with her and, in answer to the “tidings of great joy,” to go out in procession to meet the Lord and enter with Him into the wedding banquet which is His Kingdom of joy and love. (477-478)

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