During the course of my theological education, I have found myself excited not only to go deeper into my own tradition of Anglicanism, but also to broaden my field of vision to other expressions of Christian thought and practice. Roman Catholic, Mennonite, and Reformed theologians (if we may honestly call Karl Barth “Reformed”—I’m certain at least one of my fellow Contrarians will roll his eyes at the idea) have been influential in my theological development, but I increasingly find myself drawn to aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World has been a significant source of this attraction. I did not have the opportunity to read his work in college, but got the gist of it through conversations with a few professors and friends who had. Now that my first year of seminary is in the books, and I have some time on my hands before the next semester begins, I figured this would be the perfect time to pull the book off the shelf, dust off the cover, and dive in.
The first chapter, "The Life of the World," reads curiously like both a warm bath and a cold shower. The Eastern take on things is alien enough to be initially disorienting to us Western Protestants, but once you find your sea legs there is much to appreciate here. What I will focus on in this post is the Schmemann's rejection of what is known as the sacred-profane dichotomy.
For the most part, we in the West are so familiar with this separation of holy and mundane that we hardly notice it. It is part of the air we breathe. Scripture, preaching, liturgy, and sacraments (in the formal sense of the word) are the things of God, while pretty much everything else is relegated to the “natural” world. This is beginning to change in the popular Western Christian mindset, but for most of my life it never occurred to me that a family dinner, a day of yardwork, or a glass of red wine might be holy. To people like me, Schmemann leans in close and says, “Think again.”
The more I think about it, there really can be no separation of the sacred and the profane, ontologically or even functionally. We see God’s presence and activity everywhere. This world was given to human beings by God, not only for us to enjoy, but also to act as a conduit for prolonged and profound communion with him. Schmemann reminds us of the second commandment God gives to the man and woman in the garden:
“‘Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed...and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree bearing seed; to you it shall be for meat’...[T]he whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: ‘...that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.’” (11)
“Take and eat,” God says. “This is how I will give you life. Take these gifts into your body, and as they become part of you they will give you the strength to worship me.” In other words, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). Have we ever considered that our everyday meals might just be sacred occasions? That maybe, just maybe, the most ordinary of human activities is where God most often meets us? Perhaps we may begin to think of the whole world as Eucharist, receiving every material gift from God and offering it back to him in an act of priestly worship.
Failure to do this, according to Schmemann, is where our race first went wrong:
“The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. And even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called ‘sacred’ (‘spiritual,’ ‘supernatural’)—as opposed to the world as ‘profane.’ It has accepted the all-embracing secularism which attempts to steal the world away from God.” (16)
We wanted the world to be an end in and of itself. We wanted to find life in the fruit, rather than in the One who gave us the tree. This is original sin. And as history has gone on, human beings have become more and more sophisticated in their attempts to separate Giver from gift.
As Schmemann notes above, not even the Church has been immune to this disease. He identifies two common approaches to the Christian life, both of which miss the mark: the spiritualists and the activists. While we certainly see more from the activists on social media and in the news, the spiritualists are certainly alive and well. They just tend to make less noise. It is worth quoting the author’s definition at length:
“Lost and confused in the noise, man easily accepts the invitation to enter into the inner sanctuary of his soul and to discover there another life, to enjoy a “spiritual banquet” amply supplied with spiritual food. This spiritual food will help him. It will help him to restore his peace of mind, to endure the other—the secular—life, to accept its tribulations, to lead a more wholesome and dedicated life, to “keep smiling” in a deep, religious way.” (12)
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with going inward. Some of the best writing to ever come from Christians has been authored by people who had profound personal experiences of God. The error comes when this inner life is severed from ordinary, flesh-and-blood living. It is ultimately fruitless to live with a constant inward gaze—for who would feed the poor? Who would care for the sick and imprisoned? Who can love his neighbor when he is constantly looking in the mirror? When we live with this posture, anything outside of ourselves becomes meaningless. Other people are reduced to objects for later reflection; our work is only something to “knock out” so we can get back to our meditations; our food and drink become mere fuel for our bodies. As Schmemann puts it: “The more spiritual is the ‘religious banquet,’ the more secular and material become the neon lighted signs ᴇᴀᴛ, ᴅʀɪɴᴋ that we see along our highways.” (12) A retreat into the “spiritual self” contributes to the banalizing of holy activities like eating and drinking, and removes the responsibility of the faithful to see the fingerprints of God in daily life.
The activist has the opposite problem:
“From this point of view Christianity has simply lost the world. And the world must be recovered. The Christian mission, therefore, is to catch up with the life that has gone astray. The “eating” and “drinking” man is taken quite seriously, almost too seriously. He constitutes the virtually exclusive object of Christian action, and we are constantly called to repent for having spent too much time in contemplation and adoration, in silence and liturgy, for having not dealt sufficiently with the social, political, economic, racial and all other issues of real life.” (13)
It is, of course, vital to consider and address the social, political, economic, and racial issues that plague contemporary culture. This comprised much of Jesus’s ministry. But to do so disconnected from the Church, from contemplation and prayer, raises the question: what is the point of all of this? “What is the life,” in the author’s words, “that we must regain for Christ and make Christian?” (13)
This “life” is communion with God. In fact, the two are interchangeable. The ultimate goal of the activist must be to usher people into God’s presence, to open their eyes to the divine fingerprints all over this world and themselves. This is not an opaque mystical statement, because, as we discussed earlier, we encounter God in myriad tangible ways—in the movement of the trees; in a late-night conversation with a friend; in the Scripture and the sacraments; and at the dinner table. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give company to the lonely, and liberate the oppressed, let us not forget that these are holy things we are doing, things that are not merely conduits to the spiritual realm but spiritual in and of themselves. To separate the “sacred” from the “profane” is to rob both of any meaning or power they might have.
Only when we keep these two together do we receive life in its fullest sense. We come to know that action is meaningless without the inner life, and, when we commune with God in the liturgy, sacraments, and private devotion, our action finds its purpose and becomes effective. Likewise, when we are feeding the poor, liberating the oppressed, and inviting people into our homes, our inner lives becomes that much richer—because, of course, the inner life is not synonymous with private life. Prayer and worship are communal by design. When these two are in proper relationship with one another, we live life as it was meant to be lived. We already eat while we worship; why not worship while we eat? Everything can be a Eucharist, if you look closely enough.