April 2, 2011
I have recently been introduced to the work of Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) who was the sometime Dean and professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, and a mysteriously named ‘Protopresbyter’. His early work For the Life of the World (1963, 1973) and more recent The Eucharist (published posthumously in 1987) both have some of the flavor of an instructed Eucharist or series of theological mediations which might well have been offered in the contest of an Orthodox Liturgy.
I am leading our Adult Enquirers’ Class retreat this weekend that concludes with just such a service. I can go most of the way with Schmemann in his understanding of worship but find myself differing with him in some respects. He is inclined to say things like “Man is a worshiping being…for whom worship is the essential act which both ”posits” his humanity and fulfills it.” He wants to avoid reducing the Eucharist to some kind of cultic action separated from the ‘real’ or ‘outward’ work of either God or the Church. It is sacramental, a kind of sign that participates in bringing a certain godly reality into being. It is about man (sic) seeking transcendence. His views might be termed ‘high’, at least in relation to my own.
I think of worship less as the be all and end all of the world and resist claims that seem to me grandiose in their claims to worship as acts of ultimate significance; and more as ‘orienting (turning/metanoia) ourselves to that which is of ultimate worth’, and as something we do by both remembering and telling the story of faith, but also in some sense by enacting or participating in it. Articulating this enactment and participation is a real strength of Schmemann for me. He writes “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom.” I would probably say something more along the lines of the Eucharist being, among other things, a means by which we mark our own journeys of faith toward what really matters, ultimate meaning, and the very life of God made manifest in the fullness of communion. If our worship is about the transformation of the world in any sense it is because it begins with our transformation into the people we were created to be.
I will be interested to see whether and to what degree Schmemann’s thinking colors the mediations I will offer on Sunday.