Latest Issue of Questions Liturgiques, Including Article on Schmemann

Peeters Online Journals has posted the Table of Contents (with abstracts) of the latest  issue of Questions Liturgiques / Studies in Liturgy, the international, peer-reviewed journal founded by Dom Lambert Beauduin in 1910, currently edited by our colleague Joris Geldhof (KULeuven).

Among the articles is mine, “The Liturgical Is Political: A Narrative-Theological Assessment of Alexander Schmemann’s Work,” for which the abstract reads:

This article revisits the work of Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) to explore strengths and weaknesses in his arguments concerning a critical question for liturgical theology, namely, the relationship between sacraments and ethics, faith and (social) action, mysticism and politics, liturgy and life. Schmemann published a tight corpus of writings focused on articulating the irreducible, eschatological content of the liturgy as revelatory of divine redemption, while continuously insisting that this fundamental tradition of the church is doubly crippled by ignorance of its eschatological nature and mistaken efforts to draw contemporary social concerns into its practice. Thus, a thesis aligning the liturgical with the political provokes a reassessment of Schmemann’s contribution to the field of liturgical theology. A review of some of Schmemann’s more trenchant statements among his widely read textbooks opens into a broader interrogation of his publications – especially his posthumously published personal journals – so as to advance the question from the perspective of political theology. In the process, narrative proves a methodological link between the two types of theology, particularly through the contributions of Johann Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx.

The burden of the argument driving my revisiting of Schmemann’s corpus, especially his posthumously published Journals, comes together toward the end of the article’s conclusion:

Political theologians, perhaps most pointedly Schillebeeckx, have argued that there is no salvation outside the world. Liberation theologians, such as Sobrino, have sharpened that thesis, on the hermeneutical basis of Scripture, tradition, and history, to assert there is no salvation outside the poor. Tragically, one searches in vain for the poor in Schmemann’s journals. He never once substantially reflects upon noticing, and therefore never remembers, them in the streets of New York or other world cities, making just one enigmatic possible allusion to the poor in Mexico City.[1] Despite brief indications not ruling out but, rather, subordinating social-ethical praxis to liturgical participation, Schmemann’s written corpus repeatedly insists on the mistaken priority of “bringing [Christ] down into ordinary life.” My concluding (mystical-political) counter-proposal is the evangelical call (Matt 25:1-13) to go out to meet him, the bridegroom announced in the darkness (one of Schmemann’s favorite metaphors for the world) of midnight. Negative experiences of contrast take a redemptive turn when believers, confronted by godless situations, enter the struggle with the afflicted, and in so doing experience the arrival of God (divine-human presence even in failure!). As Schillebeeckx argues, there is a mystical dimension to Christian ethical living itself.

[1] There is but this one short paragraph in Schmemann’s Mexico City entry: “I am worried about Mexican Orthodoxy—so naïve, childish, trustful and wholesome. Everything is poor and radiant and everywhere these dark-eyed children who come to you with angelic beauty and light.” The Journals, 124.

The full description and analysis, of course, develops over the course of the article’s nineteen pages. I offer the abstract and excerpt to Pray Tell readers and colleagues, so many of whom, like myself, consider Schmemann’s work crucial to the 20th-century development of liturgical theology.


  1. I do not know whether Professor Morrill has had access to either the Russian version of the Journal which is far larger, if not complete or the French version. In this fuller version there is much more of AS’s reaction to social, political, cultural, matters. The English language version/translation of the Journal is a small selection and even at that, edited with many entries only partially given. The larger version does provide not an exhaustive view but one that shows more of his reactions.

  2. Thanks so very much, Mr. Plekon, for your informative comment. I was unaware of both the publication of the Journals in those other two languages (although Russian and French make immanent sense, of course!) and the varied degrees of editing/cutting in each of the three language-editions. I shall be presenting at the 65th annual Liturgical Studies Week at the St. Serge Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris in early July and look forward to acquiring a copy of the French edition (alas, I cannot read Russian). One further note in reply: I hope my little extract in this Pray Tell post did not give the misleading impression that the English edition lacks any of Fr. Alexander’s reflections on politics (national, international), social-economic issues, events of the day, etc. Thanks, again.

  3. Bruce, thanks for sharing a summary of your article here. I have not delved as deeply into Schmemann as Dr. Plekon has, but I have attempted to read him carefully. In a recent article, I argued that Schmemann attempted to revive the principles underpinning liturgical renewal that fell by the wayside at the Moscow Council of 1917-18 because of the Bolshevik persecution of the Church. I wonder if his emphasis on the eschatological is, at least in part, an aversion to the oversaturation of politics he experienced in Russian emigre communities, both in Paris and North America. These emigre communities were powerful cells of people congregating and sustaining the political, as parishes became natural assemblies for immigrants of all kinds to gather. Schmemann was convinced that parishes enfleshed with Eucharistic ecclesiology were the only antidote to the political pollution infecting Orthodoxy in America – keeping in mind that he was one of the primary architects of an attempt to unite the Orthodox in America into one local Church through autocephaly (a dream that never came to fruition). I’m not trying to excuse his dismissal of the political, and his Eucharistic theology can sound overly utopian, but i find it helpful to try to understand how his own local context might have contributed to his thinking.

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