Alexander Schmemann. For the Life of the World.
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY. 1973. 151 p.
Occasionally there are books that just keep coming up, that keep being mentioned by multiple people. For the Life of the World was such a book for me about 3 or 4 years ago. I just finished reading it for the third time as part of my year of rereading.
Alexander Schmemann was an Orthodox priest and a professor at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His book is about sacramental theology. While that may not sound very enticing, it is a beautiful work and a true speculative-affective synthesis.¹ Schmemann is not just writing about the sacraments, but about a sacramental view of the world.
He views the sacraments (the seven recognized by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) not so much as isolated liturgical acts to be examined, but as representative of larger truths and the overall grace of God to us. He uses them to teach about the contrast between the church and the world, as well as between the church and some of the modern corruptions within the church.
But this is not an anti-Protestant polemic by any stretch. Schmemann acknowledges differences between Rome and the East in a few places but his point is not to debate against other Christians. This small book is written very much from a position of love and respect. He speaks of what he knows, and he does so eloquently.
His chapter on marriage is one of many jewels in this book. It provides a coherent view of marriage that counters our modern challenges decades before they appeared in earnest.
Here is the whole point. As long as we visualize marriage as the concern of those alone who are being married, as something that happens to them and not to the whole Church, and, therefore, to the world itself, we shall never understand the truly sacramental meaning of marriage…. (p. 82)
He is right. Our individualization of marriage has led to the crisis we now find ourselves in. Marriage is not just an act between two people. If it were, the state, and even the church, might not have much reason to be interested. But it is not; it is a union that society is built around and that exemplifies the love of God for his Church.
There are too many topics he addresses well to go into detail on all of them in a short review. Here is another quote that reveals the attitude of the larger work.
For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. (p. 99)
One of the last lines in the book succinctly captures what he means by a sacramental life.
A Christian is one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in him. (p. 113)
The book also contains two articles as appendices which address the overall topics in slightly different fashions and are also worth reading. The discussion of symbol and reality in one of them caused the book to first be recommended to me by another priest.
Unless you have absolutely no openness to a sacramental view of acts we perform as part of our religion, I highly recommend this book. I echo Thomas Merton’s blurb on the back cover, “One of the best books I have read in a long time…. It is very simple and really good, and I suggest that every novice read it twice.”
¹ This is a term I borrow from Martin Thornton. In short, it is the combining of emotive and intellectual streams into one coherent whole. Few writers, maybe even fewer theological writers, manage to do it so well.