Saturday, September 16, 2006

This World, That World

I’ve been reading The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann lately, and I find it to be a treasury of insights (forgiving his occasional not-quite-on-the-mark critiques of Catholicism). My only disappointment is that he did not develop his theological reflections in greater detail, but one cannot ordinarily expect that from a personal journal. Probably I will have recourse to this book for several posts in the future.

One of the dominant themes in just about all his writings is the Kingdom of God, for this is the reality for the Christian in this world—supposed to be, anyway. And the Church is the manifestation, or at least anticipation, of the Kingdom in this world—supposed to be, anyway. He writes: “In those rare moments when through religion one manages to reach God, there are no problems, because God is not part of the world. In those moments the world itself becomes life in Him, meeting with Him, contact with Him. The world does not become God, but life with God, joyful and full. This is God’s salvation of the world. It is fulfilled every time that we believe. The Church is not a religious establishment, but the presence in the world of a saved world. But so often the church is entangled in problems… dangerous and ambiguous concepts. So often many people whom I knew as seekers of spirituality were narrow-minded, intolerant and dull, joyless, quite often accusing others of not being spiritual enough. They were often the center of their conscience, not Christ, not the Gospel, not God… But where is true spirituality to be found?”

Fr Schmemann had little patience for “religion,” for it is often little more than a phony pious cloak for hypocrisy and hardened hearts. That is why the Church cannot be reduced to a “religious establishment,” but rather, as the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, it must be “the presence in the world of a saved world.”

He will say in other places that there really is only one world, God’s world, with all its visible and invisible creations. But through sin man has, in a sense, created his own world, a world alienated from God, with its own logic and agendas. Therefore the Son of God had to enter this alienated world to save it, to reconcile it to the Father, that all may be one in God again. By his Cross and Resurrection, and throughout the ages by means of his Church, the Spirit of the Lord permeates this fallen world and leads it to its ultimate transfiguration in the Paradise of Heaven. Allow me to share an extended passage from Fr Schmemann:

“Christianity…[is] now undergoing a real test to determine what will enable [it] to remain alive in the world of today… I hesitate to come forward with my feeling—it sounds arrogant—that I have an answer… It is simply a vision of life, and what comes from that vision is the light, the transparency, the referral of everything to the ‘Other,’ the eschatological character of life itself and all that is in it. The source of that eschatological light, the lifting up of all life, is the sacrament of the Eucharist…

“To understand St Paul when he says, ‘The image of this world is passing away,’ to make it real, we need in this world the experience of the other world, its beauty, depth, treasure, the experience of the Kingdom of God and its Sacrament—the Eucharist. The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being. The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation—to be love, truth, faith and mission—all of these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community—love for Christ, love in Christ—as a mission to turn each and all to Christ. The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world. Otherwise the Church would become an idol. The Church is the home each of us leaves to go to work and to which one returns with joy in order to find life, happiness and joy, to which everyone brings back the fruits of his labor and where everything is transformed into a feast, into freedom and fulfillment, the presence, the experience of this ‘home’—already out of time, unchanging, filled with eternity, revealing eternity. Only this presence can give meaning and value to everything in life, can refer everything to that experience and make it full. ‘This image of this world is passing away.’ But only by passing away does the world finally become the ‘World’: a gift of God, a happiness that comes from being in communion with the content, the form, the image of that ‘World.’”

This world, that world; two worlds, one world. Christ is the life and the destiny of all He has made, all He has redeemed. Let us pray that the Church, especially through her sacraments and the witness of her saints, will faithfully lead us to the fullness of eternal life—and will be for us, even in this passing world, a foretaste of divine encounter and fulfillment, that is, of the Kingdom of God.