Understanding “For the Life of the World” in its historical context

Understanding “For the Life of the World” in its historical context May 29, 2019

Understanding is a gift that is often hard fought for. Those precious few who can communicate complexity in terms accessible and understandable to others offer a true gift. Alexander Schmemann was a man who possessed this incredible gift and with it was able to communicate to a world that had hitherto before been clouded in mystery.

He opened the eyes to many in the west a vision of sacramentality and its place in the work of salvation that God demonstrates in Christ.

This clarity of thought and universality of application was most powerfully shown in Schmemann’s classic For the Life of the World. In it, Fr. Alexander was able to clearly communicate the rich tapestry of a sacramental worldview and make it not only understandable but also relevant for those without being a part of a liturgical tradition.

Today we begin our first true installment in our live blogging of Porter C. Taylor’s new volume dedicated to the work of Schmemann entitled  We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee: Essays in Memory of Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

The first chapter of the volume, an essay by William C. Mills, is an older essay which was graciously republished in this volume. It was composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of For the Life of the World and was originally featured in Logos: A
Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 54.3/4 (2013).

Like many, For the Life of the World was my introduction to Alexander Schmemann and it was an introduction that I can truly say has impacted the way I think about everything ever since. The book is truly one of the great accomplishments of theology in the 20th century.

This chapter is a perfect companion to the book. It is such a joy to read. Mills transports the reader back in time, painting with vivid details the setting in which Fr. Alexander’s classic treatise was presented; a conference for youth on the missionary work of the Church. This conference appears to have been an amazing experience and I wanted to be there. He also helps contextualize the work within the broader scope of Fr. Schmemann’s life and work which is very helpful.

I was filled with joy for the journey which breathed a new life into the pages of a book I love, but also a sorrow for a time now gone. Mills communicates powerfully the Zeitgeist inhabited by Fr. Alexander at the time. It was a time filled with optimism and openness to the ecumenical potential of the church that has been sadly lost.

My prayer is that we may rekindle the hope of unity and generous curiosity which invited Schmemann to share with such clarity the sacramentality of the Gospel and it’s role in the word we all participate in as we give our lives to join Christ For the Life of the World.

Stay tuned for more in our Schmemann series. Next time we will move onto an essay by Paul Meyendorff which looks at the lasting legacy of Schmemann’s liturgical perspective within the Orthodox Churches in the United States.

If you haven’t read it, consider picking up a copy of Fr. Alexander’s book For the Life of the World, and buy a copy of We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee: Essays in Memory of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Its first chapter is a must-read for anyone serious about understanding the context of the book.

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