23 April 2011

Con Lento.

A few days ago I finished reading Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent. And quite honestly, I thought it was amazing.

Often, it is difficult to find succinctness in writing about faiths with a great deal of mysticism within their doctrines. Orthodox Christianity is one of these, and readers unfamiliar with much of Orthodox writing would be astonished at how much meandering goes on, even if the book itself is fairly brief. Part of this comes from the many (so very many) translations done by people familiar with the religion in question but not terribly at home in English, but not everything is the translator's fault. Often the meandering is beautiful and enlightening -- but if you're a kid trying to figure out why you're vegetarian part of the year, it gets a little confusing. (Trust me on that one.)

Great Lent does not have this problem. Schmemann was educated in Paris and, later, worked with St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York. He is at home in the English language, and seems to understand how to use it to explain things to people (possibly from spending a lot of time working with students). Great Lent is very brief -- the book proper is just over 100 pages, though my copy included another article as an appendix that pushed it up to 130-odd -- but very engaging and, what's more, actually educational. Schmemann's explanations for some of the unusual aspects of Orthodoxy (the strict fasting rules, the attitude towards communion and confession, the use of icons and, indeed, the very wording of the liturgy) are clear and comprehensible, and he doesn't fall back on vagaries like many writers. Indeed, some passages are very beautiful, and I have them earmarked for future quotation (because I do that).

Nor does he condemn those who don't understand what he's talking about or were unfamiliar with the ideas and beliefs behind Lent in the Orthodox Church. Instead, his writing is energetic and, at times, cheerful, though he sometimes veers into a near-polemical intensity which can be a little off-putting.

However, the book never becomes strident, nor does it ever become mean. Schmemann seeks to educate, not to intimidate, and his goal is fully met in this book.

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