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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

2. The Triumph Of Christianity (27 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 25

It must be flatly stated that until now monasticism has shown us the only practical “success” of Christianity, unique in nature, tested by experience, and confirmed by thousands of examples. (This does not, of course, exclude the possibility of other approaches to the spiritual life). In the course of centuries, the visage of the sainted monk has towered over the whole Christian world and illuminated it. In this visage, emaciated by fasting, vigil, and asceticism, washed by tears of repentance and illumined by spiritual vision, the body itself transformed into a spirit, innumerable generations of Christians have perceived undoubted proof of the reality of a new heaven and a new earth.

How can we reconcile the almost complete dominance of this monastic image with the development of the Christian world? Would not the triumph of monasticism deprive it of all meaning? If monasticism and the desert were recognized as the highest norm even by those who were building that Christian world or dealing with it, would not this “building” itself become an illusory and sinfully vain matter? Here we touch on the last and most important apparent contradiction of the age of Constantine in Church history.

Outwardly, it was true, the Christian way seemed to split into irreconcilable contradictions. The Church building protected and sanctified the whole world and all its life; but tens and thousands of Christians escaped from that world and sought salvation outside it. If each approach had constituted a condemnation of the other, there would be only absurdity. But the uniqueness of the age of Constantine was that both monasticism and the building of a Christian world were regarded — not in terms of theory but in living experience — as equally essential and complementary.
Harnessed together, they preserved the integrity of the evangelical outlook, though perhaps only the vision of it.

The world receives a Christian sanction and is blessed by the Church, but monasticism became the “salt” which does not allow the world to absorb Christianity and subject it to itself. In the light of this eternal reminder, the world already regarded itself as an image that passes — as a way to another, final reality which completes and judges all. The monks withdraw, but from the desert they bless the Christian empire and the Christian city, and they never weary of praying for them; they interpret this very abnegation as a service to the world for its salvation. It is a concept perhaps only embodied as a miracle or an exception; the world, even in its new Christian aspect, continued to be the same unadmitted idol, requiring services to itself, while monasticism frequently turned into spiritual individualism and disdain for the rest of life. Nevertheless, an inner standard for Christian action in history had been found.


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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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