Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Church is Where You are to be Found

The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy
Alexander Schmemann
(St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York, 2003)

A colleague loaned me his copy of this book which must be labelled either "a standard work" or a "classic". Reading it you get an impression, not so much of timelessness but of freshness, such that you would hardly guess that the 2003 edition is the third reprint in English of a work first translated from the Russian and published in 1963. I have some very strong objections to Schmemann's approach to history, but I learned a lot from the book especially in terms of contextualizing the experience I had of Orthodoxy while stationed in Jerusalem in the years 1993-96.

Despite my strong temptation to go after the way Schmemann yokes the Byzantine Church to temporal power, I prefer to take his observations on monasticism, not so much in the Greek form but as he describes it in Russian Orthodoxy and especially in the 15th century as point of departure for a reflection on how even ordinary Christians manifest contrition and set their hearts on the heavenly Kingdom:

"Yet amid all this darkness and decay there was the pure air of the monastery, evidence of the possibility of repentance, renewal, and purification. The monastery is not the crown of the Christian world, but on the contrary, its inner judgment seat and accuser, the light shining in the darkness. This must be understood for a comprehension of the origins of the "Russian soul." In the midst of its degradation it stretches toward this limitless brightness; it contains the tragic discord between the vision of spiritual beauty and purity expressed in monasticism and the sense of the hopeless sinfulness of life. Those who see a wholeness in the Russian religious mind of these ages are deeply mistaken, for just then, in the centuries after the Tatar invasion, the dualism which would mark its future course began to enter into it." (p. 308)
Elsewhere and repeatedly in his book Schmemann maintains that Christianity was imposed on the people of the Rus and only ever absorbed or integrated by an elite. He seems convinced that for the masses, the ordinary folk, Byzantine ritual was a veneer covering the "soft paganism" of the Slavic lands. He points to the rudeness in the people resulting from centuries of slavery under the brutal Tatars. So far Schmemann, the expert on Orthodoxy writing his original in Russian, and as he is dead at the moment, as they say, it hardly pays to get too worked up about what he says about post-Muscovite Slavic Orthodoxy. It is sort of like a French Dominican of over a century ago who insisted that American Catholicism had nothing to offer to the Church at large because of the hypocrisy generally of American Catholics. You have three choices in the face of such a condemnation: 1) Object with vehemence; 2) Beat your breast: 3) Get on with life as the Dominican too in question is long dead.

Getting on with the question for me in terms of Schmemann means posing another question or taking another perspective in terms of the why and wherefore of the Church in time and then ultimately. Ultimately, the Church should be our window on how things ought to be, how they will be in the fullness of time when Christ comes again in glory:
"And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day - and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations." (Revelations 21:22-26)

 Here on earth we perforce see as through a glass darkly. The Church even at its most sublime while celebrating the Sacred Liturgy can be no more than foretaste and promise of the Kingdom which is to come. Hans Urs von Balthasar writing about the liturgy ("Liturgy and Awe", vol. II of his Explorations in Theology, Ignatius Press) attributes greater clarity to the worship of the Western Church in its classic liturgy than is preserved in the East. In another article published in the same volume ("Seeing, Hearing and Reading Within the Church), von Balthasar seems to take exception to Schmemann for blaming the Russian dualism on the Tatar yoke and points to a specific deficiency of the Byzantine liturgical tradition:

"Thus while it is true that the Eastern liturgy, where it genuinely unfolds itself, is a liturgy of seeing, in which the believer is permitted to see, through mirror and likeness, the supraheavenly mysteries of the new age in a great symbolic-representative sequence of scenes as it were solidifies into the "wall of images", the iconostasis - solidified like the ceremonial of the Byzantine court - and that this now divides the church interior into two, one space for the profane, uninitiated people who must be content with the "colorful reflection of the splendor" and one space for the mystic-initiated priest who always has the iconostasis at his back and already stands on the far side of all likenesses." (p. 485)

Von Balthasar is no less sparing in his criticism of Western liturgy, but my point would be that the basic question is another. How do we get to the Kingdom? How do we live the Christian life? The Byzantine world is filled with stories of saints and would-be saintly people who at the end of their lives took the monastic habit. The great example for me is St. Methodius' brother St. Cyrill, who took the habit at Rome when he realized he was dying. I think Schmemann has a great and beautiful description of Russian monasticism when he says of it: "The monastery is not the crown of the Christian world, but on the contrary, its inner judgment seat and accuser, the light shining in the darkness."

Taking the habit is not so much going over to a religious elite, not so much choosing the better path, as it is symbol of commitment with firm purpose to amend our lives. It is that step really which the Church asks of us all, regardless of our state in life, beyond the tears of our penance. It is our "yes" to the exhortation of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery "Go and sin no more."

As taboo as it is to speak about such things in the Church today, I cannot but think of the number of people in the West who in days gone by, on the advice of their confessors, took the hair-shirt or the discipline. Ultimately, the sense of the brown scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel in which we were enrolled at First Communion is the same, namely as token, sign, sacramental witness of our resolve never to be separated from Christ and His Blessed Mother again.

It is not the judgment but the love, the light, the luminous witness, which draws us, and is so eloquently illustrated in the tender dialogue between the Virgin of Tepeyac and St. Juan Diego.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, Pray for Us!

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