Monday, November 11, 2013

An Outside Perspective

Recently I have been reading Church World Mission by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the deceased rector of St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Seminary and one of the foremost liturgical theologians of the 20th century. He was "Catholic friendly" and influenced many Catholic liturgical thinkers, among them Robert Taft, Aidan Kavanagh, and David Fagerberg. In Chapter VI, "Theology and Liturgy," Schmemann has some strong words immanently applicable to the present state of the Roman liturgy in all sectors ("traditionalist," "neo-con," mainstream, and liberal).
Some background is necessary. Schmemann, unnecessarily I think, emphasizes a dichotomy between "East and West" in theology and philosophy. By "East" he means the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches and by "West" he means an agglomeration of Roman Catholicism, protestantism, ancient pagan philosophy, and secularism. The author hammers the early influence of "Western" thought into Christianity and its damaging influence on theology and liturgy. He goes to great length to lay guilt for the poor state of Christianity today on the "West" and its philosophy, sometimes to an unhealthy extreme. I myself have observed this phenomenon and criticized it here, but one need not discard the general usefulness of philosophy in understanding Divine Revelation. What Schmemann defines as the "West" really only came into vogue in the West with St. Augustine's reliance on Plato and only became a constant feature in the West six or seven centuries after that with the advent of Scholasticism and its utilization of Aristotle. Even Scholasticism remained the domain of academics and the papal court, not catechists, parish priests, and the laity. The Scholastic age was, if anything, the high point of liturgy in the Latin Church, proving that, before the Reformation ruined everything, some balance was achievable. Scholasticism, particularly Thomism, only became the intellectual norm because when the Council of Trent created the seminary to replace the priestly apprenticeship (usually conjoined with university education) a simple, forthright method of thought easy for export was needed and St. Thomas fit the bill. The "East" on the other hand had integrated Plato and other Greek thinkers more broadly and deeply than the "West" and at an earlier time (Origen, St. Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers etc). Schmemann, in the quotes below, certainly criticizes the modern state of the liturgy East and West, but uses the "West" as a veil through which he critiques some Scholastic, secular, and rationalistic tendencies in the Russian Orthodox Church that he could not bring himself to articulate boldly.
Without further ado:
"What is more serious, however, is the fact that the liturgy—central as it may be among the activities of the Church—has ceased to be connected with virtually all the other aspects of the Church's life.... One may be deeply attached to the 'ancient and colorful rites' of Byzantium or Russia, see in them precious relics of a cherished past, be a liturgical 'conservative,' and at the same time completely fail to see in them, in the totality of the Church's leitourgia, an all-embracing vision of life, a power meant to judge, inform, and transform the whole of existence, a 'philosophy of life' shaping and challenging all our ideas, attitudes, and actions" (131). 
"The Church is not an institution that keep s certain divinely revealed 'doctrines' and 'teachings' about this or that event of the past, but the very epiphany of these events themselves" (134).
"It suffices to consult any post-patristic manual of dogmatics to find the sacraments, for example, treated in the chapters devoted to 'means of grace' and nowhere else, as if they had nothing to do with the faith itself, the structure of the Church or knowledge of God" (135).
"Take Baptism, for example. If today so many priests, not to speak of laymen, see no need whatsoever for the baptismal blessing of water and are perfectly satisfied with pouring some holy water into the baptismal font, it is because they do not experience this blessing as the sacramental re-creation of the cosmos so that it may become that which it was intended to be, a gift of God to man, a means of man's knowledge of God and communion with Him. Yet when deprived of this cosmical connotation, the understanding of Baptism itself begins to be altered.... From regeneration and re-creation, new birth and new life, attention shifts to original sin and justification, and thus to an altogether different theological and spiritual content. If the initial and organic connection of Baptism with Pascha and Eucharist has been all but forgotten, if Baptism has ceased to be a paschal to be a paschal sacrament and Pascha a baptismal celebration, it is because Baptism is not experienced as a fundamental act of passage from 'this world' unto the Kingdom of God—an act which, making us die here 'in the likeness of Christ's death,' makes our life to be hidden with Christ in God. But again, deprived of this eschatological connotation, Baptism is less and less connected—in theology and piety—with Christ's death and resurrection...." (138). 

I cannot help but think blessing a bucket of water
rather than a font conveys the wrong message.

1 comment:

  1. We were blessed to have the blessing of the baptismal water (according to the rite proscribed for Holy Saturday in the EF) at our daughter's baptism. The prayers of consecration of the water are truly edifying.