Tag Archives: Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Suspenseful, but not impossible.

Wholeness was the plan, when God created the cosmos. Then, humans distanced themselves from their maker, the one with whom they had walked in the garden. Harmony between the man and the woman was broken, and they both lost connection with their true selves, which had been grounded in the Giver of Life.

C.S. Lewis imagines how an unfallen world might have looked, in his novel Perelandra, which I recently re-read. A scientist with a utopian vision comes from Earth to a strange planet — of course, we have plenty of this stuff to export! — to be the tempter of the Eve figure, the Green Lady. She struggles to maintain her natural and primal, essential oneness with her god, and the drama that ensues is full of suspense.

I suppose it is because of my non-fiction fallen-world perspective that I despaired of the Green Lady being able to withstand the arguments of the oily Weston, even while descriptions of the grace-full divine dance with humans lifted my hopes. I don’t think it’s in my power to say more about this book or the whole trilogy, and what I have just written probably makes little sense, but the story came to mind when I read the poem below. Because the Green Lady won’t remain firm unless the strength comes from knowing who she is.

In this in-between world, the time of waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom, we get moments and glimpses of unity and wholeness, an intuition of how it might feel to be in full communion with one’s own being and one’s Maker, and from there, with other people. But our parts are mostly disjointed and disconnected.

IMPOSSIBLE FRIENDSHIPS

For example, with someone who no longer is,
who exists only in yellowed letters.
Or long walks beside a stream,
whose depths hold hidden
porcelain cups — and the talks about philosophy
with a timid student or the postman.
A passerby with proud eyes
whom you’ll never know.
Friendship with this world, ever more perfect
(if not for the salty smell of blood).
The old man sipping coffee
in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone.
Faces flashing by
in local trains—
the happy faces of travelers headed perhaps
for a splendid ball, or a beheading.
And friendship with yourself
—since after all you don’t know who you are.

-Adam Zagajewski

Father Alexander Schmemann writes about this in The Eucharist:

“… nowhere is the darkness of ignorance into which we were immersed with our fall from God more obvious than in man’s staggering ignorance of himself, and this in spite of the insatiable interest with which, having lost God, man studies himself and endeavors in his ‘sciences humaines’ to penetrate the mystery of man’s being. We live in an era of unrestrained narcissism, universal ‘turning into one’s self.’ But, as strange and even terrible as this may seem, the more elemental is this interest, the more obvious it is that it is nourished by some dark desire to dehumanize man.

“The thanksgiving offered by the Church [in the Eucharist] each time answers and destroys precisely this not only contemporary but age-old lie about the world and man. Each time it is a manifestation of man to himself, a manifestation of his essence, his place and calling in the light of the divine countenance, and therefore an act that renews and recreates man. In thanksgiving we recognize and confess above all the divine source and the divine calling of our life. The prayer of thanksgiving affirms that God brought us from nonexistence into being, which means that he created us as partakers of Being, i.e., not just something that comes from him, but something permeated by his presence, light, wisdom, [and] love….”

-Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist

Father Alexander’s voice for our time.

In this audio clip of less than two minutes you can hear a few pointed and encouraging words from Alexander Schmemann about how to navigate “the sea of this world” and the crisis – on many levels — that we are living in.

Fr. Alexander taught at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York State and was dean of the seminary from 1962 until his death. For 30 years his voice was broadcast beyond the iron curtain on Radio Liberty, and the seminary has recently published the first volume of those talks in the book A Voice for Our Time.

Here it thickens to the limit.

“…what transformed the cross and eternally transforms the cross into victory if not the love of Christ, the same divine love that, as the very essence and glory of the kingdom of God, Christ manifested and granted at the last supper? And where, if not at the last supper, do we find the consummation of the full, complete self-sacrifice of this love, which in ‘this world’ made the cross — betrayal, crucifixion, suffering and death — unavoidable?

“The gospels and the church services, particularly the wonderfully profound services of passion week, witness precisely to this link between the last supper and the cross, to their connection as the manifestation and victory of the kingdom of God. In these services, the last supper is always referred to that night that surrounds it on all sides and in which particularly shines the light of the festival of love that Christ accomplished with his disciples in the ‘large upper room, furnished,’ as if prepared in advance from all ages.

“This was the night of sin, night as the very essence of ‘this world.’ And here it thickens to the limit, it prepares to devour the last light shining in it. Already the ‘princes of the people are assembled together against the Lord and his Christ.’ Already the thirty silver pieces  — the price of betrayal — are paid. Already the crowd, incited by their leaders, armed with swords and spears, are heading out on the road leading to the garden of Gethsemane.

“But — and this is infinitely important for the Church’s understanding of the cross — the last supper itself took place under the shadow of this darkness. Christ knew ‘the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table’ (Luke 22:21). And it was precisely from the last supper, from its light, that Judas, after taking the morsel (John 13:27) went out into that dreadful night, and soon after him, Christ.

“And if in the services of Holy Thursday, the day of the express commemoration of the last supper, joy is all the time interlaced with sadness, if the Church again and again recalls not only the light but also the darkness overshadowing it, it is because, in the double exits of Judas and Christ from that light into that darkness, she sees and knows the beginning of the cross as the mystery of sin and the mystery of victory over it.”

-Father Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist

Eating food that is not dead.

“Prepare yourself, my soul! Be courageous like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that acquiring diligence and wisdom you too may meet your God. Through contemplation may you reach the awesome depths in which He dwells and in so doing become a good steward of the Lord.”

-Canon of St. Andrew

For the Orthodox, it is the first week of Great Lent, which is called Clean Week. We began the fast on Monday, after the Vespers of Forgiveness on Sunday. This year in my parish we were thankful for good weather that day, as our long line of people bowing to each other in their masks, and mostly not hugging, stretched in a long loop that went out the side door of the church and wrapped loosely around the front. We were saying, “Forgive me,” to each one, and replying “God forgives.” Many of us had not seen each other in person for months or even the whole year.

Two new frescoes had been completed just in time to take down the scaffolding and make room for Lenten services. As I took pictures of them on Sunday I realized how each of them draws me into an aspect of the season.

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha in Bethany (on the other side of the arch, not pictured, is Martha scowling) makes me want to imitate Mary and sit at Jesus’s feet. And The Feeding of the Five Thousand reminds me of various levels of meaning in the lines of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” As we are going without physical food in various ways during this season, that part of our prayer is extra meaningful. The most striking words I ever read on the relation of earthly and heavenly food were in For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

“The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all life. …He still loves, he is still hungry. He knows he is dependent on that which is beyond him. But his love and his dependence refer only to the world in itself. He does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive life from God in more than its physical sense. He forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God’s sake, in God and as bearers of the divine gift of life. By themselves they can produce only the appearance of life.

“…Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is a life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.”

The most prominent reading during the first week of Lent is The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which is typically divided into four parts sung during services of that week. This year our women’s book group also chose a book on the Canon to read during this season.

I’ve noticed that during the Compline service when the Canon is being read, year by year, there are so many Scripture passages and characters referred to, that I can’t absorb half of it in my mind. Being at the service and participating with my whole body, soul and spirit is way to do it — we humans are so much more than our thoughts! This week the Compline hymns have been the sweetest part for me, and as usual, a phrase or two from the Canon about a particular sin or person in the Bible will also grab my mind and stick. I seem to have the opportunity for more contemplation generally these days, which is why the lines at top made their impression.

Psalm 69/70 is part of Compline, also, and a few lines from it will help me end this ramble.

“Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: and let such as love thy salvation say continually, Let God be magnified.

“But I am poor and needy: make haste unto me, O God: thou art my help and my deliverer; O Lord, make no tarrying.”