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“Beauty is never necessary”: Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World

“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens,” wrote Chesterton, contrasting that poetical sanity with the craziness of the logician “who seeks to get the heavens into his head.” The poet gets a good view; the logician gets a splitting headache.

I do not know whether Alexander Schmemann was a poet. He got his head into the heavens, though – going not over but through the things of Earth, particularly those earthy signs of heavenly life we call sacraments. In For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, Fr. Schmemann serves a feast for the imagination, conveying to his readers the quality of heavenly life as seen and lived through the liturgy and sacraments. In the process he demolishes (almost incidentally) the sacred/secular divide. In Schmemann’s world every day, every hour, and every scrap of bread are deep magic, to which every man’s proper response is Eucharist, thanksgiving.

There is power in art and beauty, power to transform our dour, function-obsessed world. David Mitchel

The expansive, panoramic quality of For the Life of the World makes reading the book delightful, but reviewing it more than a little daunting. A reviewer’s usual job is to make sense of and explain a book — to get its content in his head the way a logician seeks to get the heavens into his head, and summarize and explain it. But one cannot approach For the Life of the World that way any more than one can approach, say, the Gospel according to St. John that way. As Mr. Bingley (correctly) reminded his sister Caroline, a ball needs dancing, not analysis.

But to say “just read the book and enjoy” isn’t a review. It may be a recommendation, but it isn’t a review. So perhaps the best way to get at For the Life of the World’s essence is to start with two virtues that Rabbit Room readers generally would find interesting and applicable. First, the book sets forth how the liturgy and sacraments reveal and impart to the Church the bountiful and inherent goodness of creation – a goodness fragile and fleeting, but now made new by Christ. Second, the book shows the refreshingly childlike and “useless” nature of beauty.

Fr. Schmemann begins For the Life of the World with the quote from the materialist philosopher Feuerbach, “man is what he eats.” Schmemann not only concedes but embraces the point, for

long before Feuerbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible. In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food . . . : “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed . . . and every tree . . . .”

As Schmemann summarizes how we stood at creation, we were, first, homo adorans, priests “receiving the world from God and offering it to God.” The world was “created as the ‘matter,’ the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.” And while we have failed at our vocation, nevertheless we “still understand all this instinctively if not rationally.” Neither the Fall – not coincidentally, an act of eating – nor the “centuries of secularism” that followed could shake this eucharistic quality out of eating or “transform eating into something strictly utilitarian.”

A meal is still a rite – the last “natural sacrament” of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking.”

Through the Eucharist the act of eating ceases to be opaque and once again appears as it really is: clear, and “shot through with the presence of God.” And this happens through the Eucharist because that sacrament was instituted by Christ, who in taking his Father’s gift to man — the whole world — and bringing it before heaven, did what Adam did not. To the naked eye bread may appear opaque, and wine thick and dark, but Jesus saw them as he saw the whole world: shot through with the light of his Father. When Jesus gave thanks for the bread and wine, for his Father’s presence in them, he drew us to his own Table, into his Thanksgiving, his Eucharist. They again became ours as well.

But it isn’t only the earth and its fruits that are restored to us by sacrament and liturgy. The restoration also includes the elusive reality of time. Time may be measured in weeks, years, and days, but it isn’t redeemed simply by measures. That, too, requires Christ’s work:

Did Christ . . . rise from the dead on the first day of the week, did He send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, did He . . . enter time only that we may “symbolize” it in fine celebrations which, although connected with the days and the hours, have no power to give time a real meaning, to transform and redeem it?

Schmemann’s questions are of course rhetorical. Christ did not rise from the dead to give us a liturgical calendar or set hours of prayer. He died to redeem time, and all measures of time. The week is transformed by Christ’s beatification of the eighth day: the day on which he defeated all the sin and death of the seven days preceding, and redeemed all the goodness of the seven days preceding by rising from the dead, and inaugurated a new first day of the Kingdom. The Lord’s Day is thus an end and a beginning of the week. The year is likewise transformed by Easter, the Feast of Feasts which completes time past and begins the age to come. But perhaps the most radical transformation of time as most of us perceive it (certainly as I always had perceived it) is in the restoration of the day:

Contrary to our secular experience of time, the liturgical day begins with Vespers, i.e., in the evening. This is, of course, the reminiscence of the biblical “and the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gn. 1:5). Yet it is more than a reminiscence. For it is, indeed, the end of each “unit” of time that reveals its pattern and meaning, that gives to time its reality . . . But the vesperal service does not begin as a religious “epilogue” of the day, as a prayer added to all its other experience. It begins at the beginning, and this means in the “rediscovery,” in adoration and thanksgiving, of the world as God’s creation. The Church takes us, as it were, to that first evening on which man, called by God to life, opened his eyes and saw what God in His love was giving to him, saw all the beauty, all the glory of the temple in which he was standing, and rendered thanks to God. And in this thanksgiving he became himself.

Schmemann proceeds from food and time to consider the restoration of men and women in Baptism, Chrismation/Confirmation and Penance, and of vocations in Matrimony and Holy Orders. But I have written enough about how For the Life of the World sets forth how, through sacrament and liturgy, we are initiated into and participate in Christ’s restoration of all things. And so now I turn to the other great virtue that runs through Schmemann’s book: it constantly nudges us out of our idolatry of usefulness by pressing upon us the life of beauty, useful or not.

I have never read Marva Dawn’s book on worship A Royal Waste of Time — but I love the title, and it could quite easily be applied to everything Schmemann says about worship in For the Life of the World. To the charge that the beauty of the Eucharistic liturgy is “unnecessary,” Schmemann pleads guilty. But like Reepicheep on the Dawn Treader admitting that some adventures have no “use,” there is not a whiff of actual guilt in Schmemann’s confession of the “uselessness” of beauty:

Unnecessary it is indeed, for we are beyond the categories of the “necessary.” Beauty is never “necessary,” “functional” or “useful.” And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy. It is heaven on earth, according to our Orthodox tradition; it is the joy of recovered childhood, that free, unconditioned and disinterested joy which alone is capable of transforming the world. In our adult, serious piety we ask for definitions and justifications, and they are rooted in fear — fear of corruption, deviation, “pagan influences,” whatnot. But “he that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). As long as Christians will love the Kingdom of God, and not only discuss it, they will “represent” it and signify it, in art and beauty.

That last sentence could be a Rabbit Room mission statement. There is power in art and beauty, power to transform our dour, function-obsessed world. The affectionate and childlike representations of the Kingdom of God in art and beauty simply convey the quality of life in the Kingdom, its economy of grace, in a way definitions cannot. And so Schmemann’s exhortations to prize love, to receive joy, to make and behold beauty no matter how “useless” it seems, run through the book like a golden thread, a brilliant light that, like the Incarnate Word Himself, confronts all those “helpful” things that serve only to reconcile us to — rather than defeat — death.


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