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Very thought provoking but not entirely satisfying,
This review is from: O Death, Where is Thy Sting? (Paperback)
I found this short book n death, which is a transcript of radio talks given by the late Fr Schmemann to be very thought provoking and striking - his imagery of the "cosmic cemetery" being a case in point. He is excellent in showing the absolute horror of death ("The last enemy to be destroyed is death" 1 Cor 15:26), something to which we should not at all get accustomed or reconciled because its normality is abnormal to use Schmemann's language. After all, as Schmemann notes, Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus. "To live in a cosmic cemetery and to "dispose" every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a "just" society and to be happy! - this is the fall of man."
Schmemann shows a contrast between the platonic idea of the soul escaping the body on death and entering into the life of rest with the materialist for whom this life is everything. He shows that both positions are wrong - the first is wrong because it fails to appreciate the beauty of creation in which man was designed to find his fulfilment in God; the second provides us with no hope whatsoever. The Christian faith is built on the annihilation of death in Christ's victorious resurrection. I found Schmemann's discussion of the fall to be particularly illuminating, his understanding that in choosing to eat of the forbidden fruit, man turned towards that which was transitory (Man subjected himself to food - he wanted life not from God but for and through himself) and turned towards the world for himself and in itself rather than seeing the world as the means by which man communes with God.
He is also excellent on precisely what is the meaning of resurrection reminding us that all the cells in the body are replaced every seven years (there is nothing specifically personal about atoms, he notes) - so the meaning of our bodies resurrecting should be understood in terms of us having spiritual bodies through which we will again enter into communion with God and each other for it is only through bodies that we can enter into communion, as human beings.
Schmemann also dispels the notion that Christianity is a "comfort" religion, rightly pointing out that a religion whose founder is crucified and who calls his disciples (i.e. us) to fall in his footsteps and take up our own crosses is hardly a comforting religion in the sense that it is not designed to take away suffering but rather that through suffering we can become like our Divine Master.
I found his message to be not entirely satisfying. How precisely am I to feel about death as I can feel the disintegration of death working in me. I agree it's abnormal and should never be but how concretely should I relate to it? I think the difficulty with the book lies in the Orthodox understanding of what happens after death. As I understand it, the Orthodox believe that our souls enter into a dormition or sleep. But how does this square with St Paul exclaiming: "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21) (One of my all time favourite St Paul statements) quoted at page 85 of the book. In a curious way the Orthodox approach seems to make the platonic view of things more attractive than the Christian one. Further would St Paul who communed with the Lord and was taken into the highest heavens in one of his mystical experience prefer death (leading to mere suspended dormition)to life. As a Catholic I cannot square this. Catholic belief is that on death our souls separate from the bodies, we are judged individually and we enter into beatitude or into hell. If in heaven, we see God face to face but there is still something lacking, our completeness awaits the resurrection of the dead. With such a belief, I can accept that death is the means through which I see the face of my Divine Master and that gives me a fair degree of excitement - what is suffering compared to that? But how would feel if I were an Orthodox - I have no idea!