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Prayer Liturgy, and Renewal

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The Evolution of the Byzantine "Divine Liturgy"

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Prayer Liturgy, and Renewal

Alexander Schmemann, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review XIV,
1969, p. 7-16.

Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.
(Psalm 51:12)

Reading the enormous and ever-growing "renewal literature" of our time, one cannot help coming to the conclusion that its main, if not exclusive, theme of reference is the world. To make Christianity "relevant" to the world, aware of its "coming of age," responsive to its needs, problems, and anxieties, adequate to its thought forms-such is the basic content and the orientation of the idea of renewal, whether we follow it on the level of theology (where its aim has been formulated as "recasting traditional Christian doctrine in the light of modern man's new self-understanding" ), of apostolate, or even of spirituality. Whatever the differences between the various concrete programs of renewal-and they range from a radical rethinking of nearly everything in traditional Christianity, including the concept of God, to a moderate adjustment to the needs of our time-the consensus, the common denominator, and the working principle here is not only a new and acute sensitivity to the world, but its acceptance as virtually the only criterion of the Church's faith, life, and action. If in the past the world was evaluated by Christians in terms of the Church, today the opposite is true: to many Christians, it is the world that must "validate" the Church. And even if one does not accept the idea of "secularization" as it is understood by some radical theologians, it is this term that is probably coupled more often than any other with the term "renewal."

My purpose in this paper is to question, not the new awareness of the world in Christian consciousness, but that which, to me at least, appears as a dangerous one-sidedness in that awareness. I have no doubts about the urgent need for the Church to remember that she exists not for herself but for the world and its salvation. I am not sure, however, that all aspects of this necessary renewal in Church-world relationship have been given equal attention. I even wonder whether one really begins at the beginning. Speaking of liturgy and prayer, I am not trying simply to add a "touch of piety" to an otherwise healthy process but to raise what I am convinced is the fundamental question of all renewal. This paper is written by an Eastern Orthodox, and, therefore, in a perspective which may differ from that of the Christian West. It is hoped, however, that here as elsewhere the Orthodox "point of view" may contribute to the clarification of the basic issues.



The first question is: What is the "world" of which one speaks so much today? It is strange, indeed, that in our present preoccupation with the world we seem to ignore the fundamental antinomy traditionally implied in the Christian usage of that term. We seem to forget that in the New Testament and in the whole Christian tradition the "world" is the object of two apparently contradicting attitudes: an emphatic acceptance, a yes, but also an equally emphatic rejection, a no. " God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. . . . God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him" (John 3:16 -17) and then-" Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him." (John 2:15) Texts like these could be multiplied ad libitum, and rooted in them is the whole history of the Church with its polarization between the affirmation of and the care for a "Christian world," and its rejection and negation for the sake of "one thing needed." The question is, therefore, whether this polarization gives us a simple choice, i.e., permits us to opt for one of the two positions, the yes or the no, at the exclusion of the other. Such a reduction is always tempting. If in the past a certain tradition considered every "opening" toward the world a sign of betrayal and apostasy, today we hear voices denouncing any "withdrawal from the world" (monasticism, contemplation, even liturgy) as irrelevant and harmful and calling us to a kind of "unconditional surrender" to the world and its values. But the whole point precisely is that the New Testament and the Christian tradition allow no choice and no reduction. They accept and reject the world simultaneously, they present the yes and the no as one, and not two, positions, and it is this paradox that of necessity constitutes the starting point of all Christian approach to the world and thus to all "renewal."

But is there a paradox? Rather, have we not forgotten that the ultimate term of reference in Christianity is not the world but the Kingdom of God, and that the two apparently contradictory attitudes toward the world are reconciled theologically and "existentially" when we refer their object, i.e. the world, to the central Christian notion of the Kingdom of God ? The yes and the no appear then as two aspects, both essential and necessary, of one and the same attitude. For, on the one hand, the world created by God and made good by Him is revealed to us as the "matter" of the Kingdom of God, called to be fulfilled and transfigured so that ultimately God may be "all in all things." As such, the world is accepted as a gift of God, as the object of man's love and care, for it belongs to man, the King of creation, the "representative" of God in the cosmos, to "fulfill" the world. The latter is thus the "sacrament of the kingdom," it is oriented toward the kingdom, and for this reason all dualism and manicheism have always been consistently condemned by the Church as heresy.

Yet, on the other hand, the same world, once it becomes- again through man-self-sufficient and self-centered, an "end in itself" and not in God, once it rejects its ontological subordination to the Kingdom of God, or, in other words, its transcendent vocation and destiny, is revealed as not only the enemy of God but as a demonic and meaningless realm of self-destruction and death-" the lust of the flesh and the lust of eyes and the pride of life. . . ." (I John 2:16) And thus the acceptance of the true world, the world as the "passage into the Kingdom," implies as its very condition the negation and rejection of that which in the New Testament is called "this world" and the love of which is the sin par excellence and the source of all sin.

All this is, of course, commonplace. Unless, however, one returns to that commonplace, one cannot overcome the incredible confusion in which we find ourselves today and which, in spite of the best intentions, deprives the world-be it modern, technological, "come of age," or anything else-of any clear Christian meaning, so that although we are called to sacrifice for the sake of the world all that we cherish, we still do not know for the sake of what it itself exists and what is its ultimate destiny.

It is here, however, that we encounter our major difficulty. To refer the world to the Kingdom of God and to look for the meaning of our action in the world in the light of the Kingdom is tantamount to asking: What is the Kingdom of God ? Are we not trying to find the meaning of one unknown by simply replacing it with another unknown? If the notion of the world is to be clarified by that of the Kingdom, how is the Kingdom to be comprehended and accepted as the ultima ratio of all our thought and action, the moving power of our "renewal" ? "Thy Kingdom come . . ." : Since the foundation of the Church there has been no day, indeed no hour, when this prayer had not been repeated thousands of times. But has its meaning remained clear and identical to itself throughout all that time? Are we still praying for the same reality? Or, more simply, for what are we praying? These questions are not rhetorical. To anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, it must be obvious that in the course of history something strange happened to the central concept of the "Kingdom of God "; little by little it simply lost its central position and ceased to be the ultimate "term of reference." It was Dom Gregory Dix, I think, who put his finger on this development, when-with some exaggeration-he spoke of the "collapse" of the early Christian eschatology. It is not an accident indeed that the treaties De Novissimis are among the vaguest and the least developed in Christian dogmatics and that "eschatology" achieved a bad reputation by taking refuge in all kinds of apocalyptic sects? Whatever the reasons for all this (and we cannot analyze them here) the fact remains that the idea, or better to say, the experience of the Kingdom of God, so overwhelmingly central in the early Church, was progressively replaced by a doctrine of the "last things," of "another world" -centered almost entirely on the salvation of individual souls. But this, in turn, led to a shift and also a "split" in Christian piety. There were, on the one hand, those who for the sake of the soul and its salvation not only rejected but also ignored the world, refused to> see in it anything but the "lust of flesh" ; on the other hand, there were those who for the sake of the world began to 1 ignore more and more, if not to reject, the "other world." The crisis of Christianity, I am convinced, is not that it has become "irrelevant" to the world-for in a way it always remains "scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks" -but that the Kingdom of God, as value of all values, the object of its faith, hope and love, the content of its prayer "Thy Kingdom come!" has become "irrelevant" to Christians themselves. And thus, before one can speak of any renewal, one must return to the question: What is the Kingdom of God, and where and how does one "experience" it so that it may be the "power" of our preaching and action?



To this question the early Church, at least, had an answer: to her the Kingdom of God was revealed and made "known" every time she gathered on the eighth day-the day of the Kyrios -" to eat and drink at Christ's table in His Kingdom" (Luke 22 : 29-30), to proclaim His death and confess His Resurrection, to immerse herself in the "new eon" of the Spirit. One can say that the uniqueness, the radical novelty of the new Christian leitourgia was here, in this "entrance" into> the Kingdom which for "this world" is still "to come," but of which the Church is truly the sacrament: the beginning, the anticipation, and the "parousia ." And the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, was precisely the passage of the Church from this world into heaven, the act by which and in which she fulfilled herself becoming "that which she is" : entrance, ascension, communion. But, and this is the most important point, it was precisely this eschatological, i.e. Kingdom-centered and Kingdom-oriented character of the liturgy that made it-in the experience and the understanding of the early Church -the source of the Church's evaluation of the world, the root and the motivation of her mission to the world. It is because Christians-in the passage and ascension to heaven-knew the Kingdom and partook of its "joy and peace in the Holy Spirit" that they could truly be its witness in and to the world.

In my opinion, one of the greatest tragedies of Church history, tragedy not mentioned in manuals, is that this eschatological character of the Christian leitourgia was little by little obscured in both theology and piety which "squeezed" it into categories alien to its primitive spirit. It is here indeed that one must look for the major cause of the process mentioned above: the progressive "weakening" of the idea of the Kingdom of God, its replacement with an individualistic and exclusively "futuristic" doctrine of the "last things." In the history of post-patristic theology, nothing I am sure was more one-sided and simply deficient than its treatment of sacraments and liturgy in general, of the Eucharist in particular. And the deficiency lay precisely in a double "disconnection" : of the liturgy from ecclesiology and of the liturgy from eschatology. First from ecclesiology, i.e. the doctrine and the experience of the Church. Within the purely rational and juridical categories of the theology, which at first developed in the West but later had a deep impact in the East also, liturgy ceased to be understood and presented as the means of the Church's fulfillment, as the " locus Ecclesia" par excellence. The sacraments now came to be seen as "means of grace," as acts performed, to be sure, in and by the Church but aimed at individual sanctification rather than the edification and the fulfillment of the Church. But this also and of necessity meant their disconnection from eschatology. The initial understanding and experience of the liturgy as passage from the old into the new, from "this world" into the "world to come," as procession and ascension to the Kingdom, was obscured and replaced by its understanding in terms of a cult (public and private!) whose main aim is to "satisfy our religious needs." The leitourgia -a corporate procession and passage of the Church toward her fulfillment, the sacrament of the Kingdom of God-was thus reduced to cultic dimension and categories among which those of obligation, efficiency, and validity acquired a central, if not exclusive, position. Finally, to this orientation of sacramental and liturgical theology corresponded an equally non-ecclesiological and non-eschatological orientation of liturgical piety. If the liturgy remained very much the heart and the center of the Church's life, if in some ways it became its almost unique expression, it was no longer comprehended as the act which "existentially" refers us to the three inseparable realities of the Christian faith: the world, the Church, the Kingdom.



I can now make my point, which is very simple and which will, no doubt, appear naive to many a sophisticated ideologue of renewal. If the latter is to have a consistent orientation and this means precisely a theology, this theology must be rooted, first of all, in the recovered Christian eschatology. For eschatology is not what people have come to think of it, an escape from the world, but, on the contrary, the very source and foundation of the Christian doctrine of the world and of the Church's action in the world. By referring the world every moment of its time, every ounce of its matter and all human thought, energy, and creativity to the "eschaton," to the ultimate reality of the Kingdom of God, it gives them their only real meaning, their proper "entelechy." Thus, it makes possible Christian action as well as the judgment and evaluation of that action. Yet the "locus" of that recovery is the liturgy of the Church. For eschatology is not a "doctrine," an intellectual construction, a "chapter" (" de novissimis ") simply added and juxtaposed to other chapters of dogmatics, but a dimension of all faith and of all theology, a spirit which permeates and inspires from inside the whole thought and life of the Church. And the proper function of the Christian leitourgia , as I tried to show, is precisely to "generate" the spirit, to reveal and communicate that "eschaton "without which the Church is but an institution among other human institutions, an institution, however, with strange and indeed "irrelevant" claims, and the Christian faith a helpless, if not ridiculous, attempt to force the elusive respect on the part of Pascal's "Savants et philosophes ."

At this point one may ask: But is this possible? Have you not admitted yourself that the eschatological power of the liturgy has been obscured and, for all practical reasons, lost in the course of history? Can we simply return to an experience which seems to have been the particular grace of the Church's childhood? To these questions two answers can be given:

In the first place no changes in theological interpretation or in liturgical piety could altogether alter the nature of Christian Liturgy and its original inspiration. We would not have been able to speak about the real spirit of the liturgy, and no liturgical renewal would have been possible, if there did not exist a self-evident "discrepancy" between certain theological thought forms and a certain liturgical piety, on the one hand, and the liturgy itself as it was preserved in spite of all developments and metamorphoses, on the other hand. The unique and truly exciting meaning of the Liturgical Movement as it began and developed during the last fifty years lies precisely in its "breaking through" the theological and pietistic superstructure to the genuine "spirit of the liturgy." As one of the pioneers of the Movement wrote: "I have been a priest for several years and I did not know the meaning of Pascha ." Pascha was there, all the time, but it was impossible to experience its "existential" meaning within the framework of a theology alienated from Pascha . The most important aspect of the Movement, however, is that this "rediscovery" of Pascha was not a simple return to the past, not "archaeology" and "antiquity," but the spring of a truly new vision of the Church and of her mission in the world. To this the whole record of the Liturgical Movement bears witness. What is true of "Pascha "is true, in fact, of the whole liturgical tradition of the Church. I mention "Pascha," however, because it is precisely this "paschal" dimension and root of the liturgy, its fundamental nature as passage and pass over, that constitutes the most valuable achievement of the Liturgical Movement. Whatever aspect of Christian worship we study today-the liturgy of initiation, the Eucharist or the "liturgy of time" -we discover more and more that the basic "shape" or "ordo "of each of them, the principle which permits the understanding of both their origin and their development, lies in their nature as acts of "passage," as "mysteries" of the Kingdom of God.

Thus, the liturgical renewal is possible and it makes possible a renewal of the "theology of the world" as source and condition of a new vision of the Church-world relationship. Let me stress once more that I have in mind not merely liturgy, its forms and spirit, but liturgy as the source of a new vision and experience of the Church and of its relation to the world. As I wrote elsewhere: "... the lex orandi must be recovered as lex credendi . The rediscovery of the Eucharist (and I will add here-of the whole liturgy) as the sacrament of the Church is, in other words, the rediscovery of the Church in actu, the Church as the Sacrament of Christ, of His "parousia "-the coming and presence of the Kingdom which is to come. ... It means that in the life of the Church, the Eucharist is the moment of truth which makes it possible to see the real "objects" of theology: God, man, and the world. . . .” (1).



My second answer brings me to another "reality" mentioned in the title of this paper and of which I have not spoken yet, namely, prayer. That prayer is to an individual Christian what the liturgy is to the Church " in corpore," and that there is no Christian life without prayer hardly needs any proof. What needs to be stressed, however, is that Christian prayer, just as the Christian leitourgia , and for the same reasons, is in its essence eschatological: an effort toward and an experience of the Kingdom of God . If by "prayer" we mean here not only an external rule and practice, but, above all, a total inner orientation of man toward God, and such is, of course, the content of the entire world of Christian spirituality, there can be no doubt that its object and experience is precisely the "peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" which, according to St. Paul, is the very essence of the Kingdom of God . When St. Seraphim of Sarov, one of the last and great Orthodox saints and teachers of spirituality, defines Christian life as the "acquisition of the Holy Spirit," he merely sums up a tremendously rich spiritual tradition which transcends the category of historical development, the division between East and West, the accidents of theological fashions, for it is one consistent, unchanging, and radiant testimony of the reality of the Kingdom of God, of its "transcendant immanence" and immanent transcendance ."

But is it not strange that in the present discussions of renewal so little place is given to this testimony or, more exactly, that its inescapable relation to the very idea of renewal seems so often to be ignored? Is it not the result again of a particular theological deformation, of another "disconnection" : this time theology and spirituality? Is it not clear that the same theology which, in its triumphant intellectualism ignored liturgy as the locus theologicus par excellence, had to ignore ipso facto spirituality? The latter was thus isolated in a particular compartment: that of "mysticism," and ruled out as a source of theology. What we discover today, however, is that theology, when reduced completely to a self-sufficient rational structure, becomes, in fact, defenseless in front of secular philosophies and finishes by accepting them as its own criterion and foundation. It literally cuts itself off from its sources, from that reality which alone makes "words about God" theoprepeis , i.e. adequate to God. At this point renewal risks becoming surrender.

My point here is thus again a simple one. There can be no renewal in any area of Church life or, simply, of the Church herself, without first a spiritual renewal. But this emphatically is not a mere pietistic statement, a call for more prayer. It means, above everything else, the overcoming of the tragical divorce between the thought of the Church and the experience of the Kingdom of God, which is the only source, guide, and fulfillment of that thought, and the only ultimate motivation of all Christian action. At the risk of shocking many a Christian, one can say that the Church as institution, as doctrine, and as action has no ultimate meaning in itself. For all these point beyond themselves to a reality which they represent and describe and seek, which is fulfilled, however, only in the new life, in the koinonia of the Holy Spirit. And this experience is not to be "rediscovered" in books and at the conferences. It has always been, it is still here in the midst of us, independent of the fluctuations of theology and those of collective piety. It is indeed the only real continuity of the Church, the one that must be stressed above everything else in our age obsessed with "history." Just as the liturgy, in spite of all reinterpretation and all reductions, has remained that which it has always been-the passage of the Church from the status viae to the status patriae and as such the source of all real life of the Church-so prayer-the thirst and hunger of man for the living God and a living encounter with Him-is that which kept that life alive.

In themselves, liturgy and prayer are not renewal, for they are above and beyond the category of renewal. But if, as we all feel and believe today, we need a renewal, then we must rediscover them as its source and condition.

* Paper delivered at the Congress for the Theology of Renewal, in Toronto, August 1967.

St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

(1)Eucharist and Theology," St. Vladimir 's Seminary Quarterly, V, No. 4 (1961) 22.

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