Alexander Schmemman (1921-1983), ordained to the priesthood in 1946, gradually becoming one of most influential Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. He served as a teacher and dean at St. Vladimir’s Seminary until his death, was an official Orthodox observer of the Second Vatican Council, and helped to establish the Orthodox Church in America in 1970. However, Schmemman’s influence spans far beyond the Orthodox tradition, particularly in the form of his superb work For the Life of the World.
Selecting three, or five, or even ten memorable quotes from the entire work would be a task of great frustration, so I have limited myself to the first chapter. It’s that good. So, here are three “quotables” from the first chapter of Alexander Schmemman’s For the Life of the World.
- “Man is what he eats.” With the statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature. In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea about man. 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. Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God’s instruction to men to eat of the earth: “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed…and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. …” Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: “…that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.”
- Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by “eating.” The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him.
- The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all life. Man was to be the priest of a eucharist, offering the world to God, and in all this offering he was to receive the gift of life. But in the fallen world man does not have the priestly power to do this. His dependence on the world becomes a close circuit, and his love is deviated from its true direction. He still loves, he is still hungry. He knows he is dependent on that which is beyond him. But his love and his dependence refer only to the world in itself. He does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive life from God in more than its physical sense. He forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God’s sake, in God and as bearers of the divine gift of life. By themselves they can produce only the appearance of life.