Each year since his death in 1983, Father Alexander Schmemann’s legacy is evoked through an established annual lecture in his name at St. Vladimir’s, the theological seminary in New York in which his ideas flourished, nourishing generations of clergy and faithful and, through numerous publications and lectures, reaching the broader world. A permanent academic chair or annual event implies that the individual named represents a benchmark of thought and achievement for the institution, a legacy which his spiritual heirs are committed to honor and promote. Here, I ponder how Fr. Alexander might formulate the Church’s response to the crisis of our time.
In a foundational idea of his work, perhaps best expressed in his famous lecture, Between Utopia and Escape, Fr. Alexander advocates for the middle path between two extremes—a sectarian isolation from the real world at one pole, and at the other pole, its counterpart of “progress” towards an ephemeral secular utopia. Yet his proposed middle path is not a compromise between the two extremes, but rather the victory of an ascension out of both dead-ends towards an eschatological vision of the tangible, real world, the home of the Incarnate Lord of history.
One of the greatest impacts of the current pandemic is the effect it has had on interpersonal relations. The inability to embrace or hold a friend’s hand, the need for “social distancing,” and the knowledge that anyone we meet is potentially the carrier of a deadly disease all contribute to a feeling of suspicion and standoffishness, while masks interfere with clear communication and human connection.
The Orthodox Church has faced a slew of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not least in regard to the mode of distribution of Holy Communion. In conversation with priests of various churches I’ve learned of alternate methods being used, including “disinfecting” spoons between communicants, intincting the Holy Body with the Blood, the use of tongs, disposable spoons, even toothpicks to transfer the Eucharist from the chalice to the mouth of the communicant. In Canada the most common alternate method seems to be the use of multiple metal communion spoons, one per communicant. The response to this change on the part of a small but vocal element within the Orthodox community has been heated, with accusations of “heresy” or “blasphemy” being levelled against bishops and priests promulgating or following this practice.
What is emotion? Do emotions have a history? Who has emotion? Are emotions innate? These questions are far more complex than they might seem. Indeed, in recent years, scholars have explored how emotions were understood and enacted throughout history, investigated how emotional discourses acted as drivers of cultural and political change, and probed the performativity of emotions. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has shown how a desire for justice can mobilize an emotional community that transcends borders. This essay begins to canvass the notion of liturgical emotions. For the faithful who encountered the mystery of God in the liturgical world of Byzantium, and for believers today, could human emotions become divine emotions? Not unlike how the sensuality of holy ritual invites the faithful to gaze into divine beauty, the performance of hymns leads the faithful to the true realm of emotions in the soul’s ever-intensifying desire for Christ. If through the ritual of liturgy, the faithful could inhabit the mythic universe of hymnography, become protagonists in its biblical (and apocryphal) stories and find their place in the sacred drama of salvation, then it was in this affective mystagogy that human emotion could be transformed into divine emotion.
It is a privilege to share the Dormition of the Theotokos with you,* especially since the Orthodox manner of regarding the Virgin Mary is in some ways, as on this happy feast-day, perhaps more evolved than in my own church. Mary is so deeply embedded in Orthodox devotion that she is praised in the Divine Liturgy as “more honored than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim;” she is venerated as “the Holy Theotokos, most blessed and glorious Mother of God and Blessed Virgin Mary.” In the experience of the Church Year, the Summer fast for Dormition of the Theotokos in these past weeks is one of the four great fasts of the year—and the Feast itself is at once mystical, eschatological, even Paschal in nature.
The Dormition Gospel from St. Luke demonstrates how Mary’s life has become for us an important keystone in God’s Salvation history. For in contemplating the Virgin Mary, “the first of the faithful,” through the lens of the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10:38-42), we receive resolution to the tension which always presents itself between the two ways—the archetypal way of Martha and the archetypal way of Mary. Yet, rather than choosing which one is right and which one is wrong, in Mary the Mother of Jesus we see revealed the embodiment of both: on the one hand authoritative and outspoken action in faith, such as her handling of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), and on the other hand, serene prayerful stillness, such as the Shepherds saw at the Nativity, when Mary treasured all these things “and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).