Alexander Schmemann’s “O Death, Where is Thy Sting?” is a delightful puzzle that dances its way across the pages and through a number of tougher ideas about religion, death, resurrection and secularism, tossing them up in the air like a juggler and then almost walking away, leaving the reader to figure where they come down, and whether we catch them all. For this, I have to say I’m thankful but at the same time, acknowledge it’s no easy couch read …or that it is as the words elide smoothly past you… and you realize you gotta get up and catch these things! But once you go back, slow and it down to really think things through, Fr. Alexander’s a bit disturbing. Or at least he would seem to be if you didn’t place the whole of his writing firmly within the context of his Orthodox roots, for without that, I think it’s easy to sense that he’s trying to say something new, rather than simply pushing back and reset a rather traditional balance.
Fr. Alexander stresses life, and life within the Life in Christ lived here and now. And he does this within a book themed on addressing the matter of death and what we make of it. He makes some effort at contrasting the Philosopher’s Death as found in Plato with the Secular Materialist’s Life to detail how neither is satisfactory before going on to distinguish something of the uniquely Christian view. This latter he bookends nicely within the context of two thoughts from scripture:
“God did no make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living…” (Wis 1:13)
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” (1 Cor 15:26)
And just as in philosophy where the prof’s will tell you, “After Plato, it’s all footnotes…”, by contrast with Fr. Alexander, after these rather clear statements it all tends to get a little fuzzy. In part I think this has something to do with the editor’s juxtaposition of these texts with some of others that thematically complement the discussion but come from elsewhere. But in his effort to thrust our faith back from being a religion and more into a way of life, his assault against incursion of comfortable religion’s next-worldliness on Christianity, a heaven-mindedness that demeans the present, he risks a confusion among those of us A.A. Milne might have called Pooh-brained (“of little brain”) or in my terms, just Thickheaded… a state to which I freely admit wallowing.
“Death remains the same mysterious passage into a mysterious future. The great joy that the disciples felt when they saw the risen Lord, that ‘burning heart’ that they experienced on the way to Emmaus were not because the mysteries of an ‘other world’ were revealed to them, but because they saw the Lord. And he sent them to preach and to proclaim not the resurrection of the dead – not a doctrine of death – but repentance and remission of sins, the new life, the kingdom. They announced what they knew, that in Christ the new life has already begun, that he is the Life Eternal, the Fulfillment, the Resurrection and the Joy of the world.” p.112-113
And as much as I love this emphasis… yeah… I had to back it down. Either we’re just reshifting and recovering a balance, or the whole of our faith has really veered dangerously like Junior’s Daddy (as in Earnhardt meets the Wall)… which I don’t suspect for a moment as the implication… so much as to say the Kingdom is now and after, the Life is now and after… and what’s really going on is more of the not-either-or-but-both-plus thing. And I think that works better for me, and it seems to settle the muddle for now… even as it leaves a delightful puzzle for revelation later… literally. I mean as in as later as it can possibly get for each one of us, or at least as later as it’s going to get this side of glory.
The key difference is that for the Christian, unlike Plato’s ideal world, the other world is also here and now… there is a blending rather than separation of worlds, and one literally bleeds into the other – it’s a two-way street back-and-forth, now and forever… and yeah, we’re not kidding about the blood. For Life is not separate from death, nor are the dead merely lifeless matter. And thus Christianity is not an effort to pick and choose between the Platonic and Materialist views so much as seeing a continuum and a unity where the world prefers either a dichotomy, or nothing at all. It’s a view where the world beyond this visible one we know need not be outside or separate so much as invisible, and more than that, we can’t say. So natch, this is where it gets back to going a bit fuzzy for me no doubt because as Fr. Alexander himself puts it, we’re beyond what we know. What we do know is that Christ was seen on the way to Emmaus with a resurrected body and a different visage… one recognized more by action, by words, and by spirit than by form – though it was definitely physically formed though not in the Plato discusses, but similar to that we experience with each other. And it’s this insight into the nature of the resurrected body that offers the Christian complete freedom towards this life of ours in our current bodies – if only we can seize it. And that puts a smile in my heart, for what a joyful thought that gives us!
“In essence, my body is my relationship to the world, to others; it is my life as communion and as mutual relationship. Without exception, everything in the body, in the human organism, is created for this relationship, for this communion, for this coming out of oneself. It is not an accident, of course that love, the highest form of communion, finds its incarnation in the body; the body is that which sees, hears, feels, and thereby leads me out of the isolation of my I.
But then, perhaps, we can say in response: the body is not the darkness of the soul, but rather the body is its freedom, for the body is the soul as love, the soul as communion, the soul as life, the soul as movement. And this is why, when the soul loses the body, when it is separated from the body, it loses life; it dies, even if this dying of the soul is not a complete annihilation, but dormition, or sleep.
And so, indeed, every form of sleep, and not only the sleep of death, is a kind of dying of one’s organism, for in sleep it is precisely the body that sleeps and is inactive. And here we find no life except one that is suspended, unreal – there is nothing but sleep. If this is the case, then when Christianity speaks about the resurrection of the body, it does not speak about the vivification of bones and muscles, for bones and muscles and the whole material world, its whole fabric, is nothing more than certain basic elements, in the end – atoms. And in them there is nothing specifically personal, nothing eternally mine.
Christianity speaks about the restoration of life as communion, it speaks about the spiritual body that over the course of our whole life we have developed through love, through our pursuits, through our relationships, through our coming out of ourselves. It speaks not about the eternity of matter, but about its final spiritualization; about the world that finally becomes truly a body – the life and love of mankind; about the world that has become fully communion with Life.” p. 43-44.
So naturally my body, spiritual and material as it is, still needs a few fixer uppers. That’s pretty clear. What I like is how this drives an embrace of the body rather than its rejection as has so often been suggested, but fairly its an embrace fed by the knowledge of the truth that my body isn’t just material that automatically or naturally (and every other way) decays and decomposes into minute particles, but is something more. And that something more is both the content of my mind and my heart… the invisible animations that ultimately become spiritualized… and materialized, according to how I carry on in the love I show here and now. Either it can move towards Christ, or towards something like Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. This means more than just tending the garden of my heart as though for myself alone in my own prayers, but more something I do as though every part of creation, every thing living, were filled with God’s presence and that my every breath, every action and every thought were prayer of love… and thus a step along a path of living more purely in this vision. Then if I have this right, what will remain and will be restored is the body as I leave it… yet it will reflect whether it has been harmonized in this spirit, or something more discordant. And if I leave defiled, then my “spiritualized” or my resurrected body mirrors this; but if instead I manage something more pleasing towards eternity, something better, then no matter what physical decay may have engendered on my remains, there may be another story worth telling where the ‘spiritualization of matter’ energizes a form made new and as dissimilar as the butterfly rising in flight is from the cocoon it leaves behind.
“…In this sense Christian faith is radically different from ‘religious belief’. Its starting point is not ‘belief’ but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. ‘For our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect… as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” Only ‘love never ends’ (1 Cor 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the ‘content’ of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess him as the Life of my life.” p.110-111
For Fr. Alexander Schmemann, for his love, for his inspiration, for his gifts and his writings… we can be thankful. Fr. Alexander, pray for us. Lord have mercy.