Heaven on earth

I finished reading Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World last night. In the context of various other things I am reading, it was a bombshell on the playground of my mental life. Some thoughts now running about vigorously in my head (I would not want to blame poor Schmemann for all of these):

First, this work is probably the most helpful thing I’ve ever read on the “sacramentality” of the world. I’ve been mildly obsessed lately with how “heaven” intersects with “earth,” with how we may articulate the relationship between the world above and the world below in a way that is not dualistic. According to Schmemann (it is always perilous to paraphrase something as brilliant as his work), religion emphasizes the world above (heaven) as escape from the world below (earth), and tries to replicate the life of the world above by living apart from the world below; secularism by contrast emphasizes the world below and ignores the world above. Both of these, he says, are outgrowths of the fall of man, which was (and is) “noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world” (page 18). God intended all created things to be “sacramental” to man, in the sense that man was to “respond to God’s blessing with his blessing” (page 15). It was precisely man’s refusal to use the world in this sacramental way – it was his insistence on eating and drinking the blessing of God apart from God, and without thanksgiving to God – that was the essence of man’s fall. It was in this “noneucharistic” partaking of the world that heaven and earth were rent asunder – heaven is now pursued by religion, earth by secularism, while both agree that “this world” is no longer the sphere of “life in God.” The world, by both religion and secularism, has been secularized.

It is in the Eucharist, and in the liturgy of the church as a whole, says Schmemann, that this “life in God,” abandoned by Adam but restored in Christ the Last Adam, is enacted once again; and it is out of the liturgy of the church that she goes forth into the world on a mission to “live in God” once again. Her life in the world is an extension of her liturgy, one might say: she receives all of life, in Christ, as God’s blessing, blesses Him in all of life, and in this life disciples the nations.

Second, even before reading Schmemann, I had been thinking about the distinctive “atmosphere” generated by “eucharistic living”; and I found Schmemann deeply confirming at every turn. It is amazing how cold and harsh is the “climate” of so much life among the religious. Where is “the joy of the Lord” and its strength? Where is serving Him “with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things” (Deut 28:47)? Where is the light and laughter, the delight in fire and food, in oil and wine, in His daily benefits in the land of the living? Why the suspicion of created things that nourish our bodies and gladden our hearts? Why do we “secularize” these things, distancing ourselves from them as much as possible so as to concentrate on “holy” things with deadly seriousness? Can we possibly expect our children to be excited about such a life, or to have any idea how to connect it with the “real world” they must live in every day?

I will go back to this work again and again. But my deepest desire is to live in this way, to live a heavenly life firmly embodied in this wonderful created world.

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