Friday, December 7, 2012

Just Spinning?

A couple months back a friend from Rome gave me a copy of the brand new Italian edition from 2012 of a Father Alexander Schmemann classic: "For the Life of the World". Until coming here to Ukraine I had somehow managed to avoid the writings of the great Orthodox Russian emigre` to the U.S. Maybe I was either too young or too old for that fashion; maybe I've just always been too comfortable in my "Roman skin"? At any rate, I've read my second Schmemann book since being here and may just archive any such future gifts without so much as cracking the binding. The only place where, perhaps, we find common ground is in discarding the liturgical movement of the first half of the 20th century, as missing the point concerning the role of Divine Worship in fostering the Christian Life. 

Why so harsh? Well, maybe times have only gotten tougher since back when he wrote or maybe I don't see any reason why Western youth especially should "buy" his hard sell. I dare anyone to deny that Schmemann hasn't just put a spin on the Byzantine tradition, a spin which doesn't do it justice, which hasn't even scratched the surface of that reality. I can't see as he offers much of an antidote to what he and others claim is secularism. His description of the development or flow of the Byzantine Eucharistic Liturgy is to my experience of this year of celebrating here in Ukraine nothing short of contrived for Western consumption. His claim to not be writing a theological treatise on liturgy (hence the limitations of his discourse) does not excuse him from his resorting to little more than contrivance and a caricature of what is sublime and much more many faceted.

I have a Lebanese friend in Kyiv who is a proud Maronite and a lover of all things oriental, as in Middle East, as in the interplay of the various liturgical traditions which find their home in that part of the world, including the Byzantine, which Schmemann would be reflecting in its Slavic expression. My friend regularly frequents the Byzantine Liturgy in the absence of his own Maronite tradition. His own domestic personnel and many friends are Orthodox. They with him seem to grasp, as do some of the historians analyzing the Soviet period, that Slavic Byzantine Orthodoxy is quintessentially Marian and monastic. Regular lay faithful are immersed in an action which is rarely theirs in its fullness but which they live out primarily at home through fasting, penance and prayer in preparation for confession and Communion on the high holy days. Despite all his go-around Schmemann is claiming the aesthetic (?) or perhaps cultural greatness of a liturgical expression he claims superior to Western sobriety and our focus on the centrality of the Sacrifice of the Cross.

Moreover, I think that Schmemann and many Westerners with him are jousting with windmills when it is talk about secularism, as if it were something worth choosing as a cultural alternative. Permit me to be so bold as to contend that what passes itself for secularism is no more than a euphemism for barbarism, for a lack of high culture in its simplest expressions of family piety and a genuine sense of the presence of God in our everyday lives; art, music, thought and the rest all flow from the "little log cabin", so to speak. To my way of thinking, not much is gained by labeling as something carrying weight, what is a denial or a void, that is, the loss of the sense of the presence of the Creator and Redeemer in our daily lives, which finds sublime expression in liturgy whether Western or Oriental, and whence draws strength and direction for the life of every day lived in Him.

In the first appendix to this Italian edition of his book, Schmemann spends time with holy water (so beloved to Slavs yet today) and, among other things, recommends holding fast to the old and elaborate Byzantine rituals for its blessing and use; he gives no quarter to the modern inclination to abbreviate and simplify things, but considers the old formulae as repositories of the teaching which can restore the proper order to things and order of the universe. I was talking to an otherwise quite "secularized", Western European woman, who told me of their Advent wreath at home and how each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas they light a candle. It is a vestige, but an important one, of a life of faith in our Savior-God born at Bethlehem. The tenuous light, the thoughtful and reflective light of one, two, three, four candles lit in the sanctity of her home is the bulwark of civilization. I don't think you necessarily have to study the whole manual to get the jist of what happens with the proper use of sacramentals like holy water or Advent wreathes.

It seems Switzerland is plagued these days by some young politician, who heads a party with the word "pirates" in its name and who has declared all-out war on all things religious. Tell me we are not talking about barbarism! The battle for culture must be fought on many fronts, but if we can be accused, as Church and Church leadership, of having made a big mistake in the last half century, it has been to withdraw from the battlefront of home and family, cutting ourselves off, if you will, from our base or supply lines. Too much devastates our intimacy and we lift not a hand in defense.

"Spinning" has been done on many sides and mostly for lack of understanding what the Council Fathers meant when they said that the Liturgy (for most ordinary Catholics that means Sunday Mass) is the "source and summit" of Christian existence. The dynamics of Christian existence are played out at home; they are graced, fortified and celebrated at Mass on the Lord's Day.

May Father Schmemann and his teaching rest in peace! May this Year of Faith be a time for the Church Militant to once again take up arms in defense of hearth and home. I hope and pray that part of the effort will include reclaiming sacred space and sobriety in our public worship, but never forgetting that home is the place also in the Roman Church to prepare a good Confession, thus preparing for "Christ to come and enter there".



  1. Your Excellency,

    Forgive me for "bumping" your post. I find your constant emphasis on the importance of "home and hearth" intriguing as it is often something which gets missed in all the debate on liturgy.

    I am used to Fr. Zuhlsdorf's "Save the liturgy, save the World" argument but really you are right that liturgical reform will accomplish little if Catholic children are not taught every day at home to live the Faith. Conversely, I would remind (and I am sure you will agree) that Christian formation at home will not be very effective if the children every Sunday participate in a liturgy that in many ways, even if ever so subtly, contradicts what they are being taught at home. The two aspects of Christian life - everyday and liturgical - are interlinked; they support each other and if one fails the other does too. This is all in accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium.

    As a newly-wed husband and soon-to-be father (Deo volente) I would be grateful to hear more of your thoughts on how to concretely, as a parent, pass on the Faith to your children. If you see this post, please spare a prayer for me; I myself will pray for you.

    1. Thank you, GE!

      Very well said! Be assured of my prayers and perhaps of a couple blog thoughts more on "home and hearth".


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