Orthodoxy, Hunger and the Sacramental Imagination

Reflecting on the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s mantra, ‘Man is what he eats’, the late Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann wrote, ‘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.’ (Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p.14). There is something almost Augustinian about this (think Confessions, and the famous line, ‘…you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’)

Schmemann reads the narrative of the fall of man in Genesis 3 as being, in part, a fracturing of a sacramental relationship by a misplaced hunger. When food becomes something desirable in and for its own sake, hunger for God has been supplanted by a mutant hunger. There is no trade off here between “spiritual” and “material” life, rather in seeking the material stuff of food for its own sake, the sacramental and priestly sense of receiving and giving thanks for good gifts is lost- there is still a gnawing dependence on what is given, i.e. food, but now the means that were formerly inseparable from the end has become an end in itself. And so we go on eating, consuming, seeking fullness but never quite satisfied. ‘For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.’ (Schmemann, Life, p.17).

This is all heading for a rich eucharistic climax:

‘[S]ince God has created the world as food for us and has given us food as means of communion with Him, of life in Him, the food of the new life which we receive from God in His Kingdom is Christ Himself. He is our bread- because from the very beginning all our hunger was a hunger for Him and all our bread was but a symbol of Him, a symbol that had to become reality.’ (Schmemann, Life, p.43)

If you’re after a richer sacramental imagination for the worship of the church, I think Schmemann has dished up a treat. Whether we call it Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper or whatever else, this meal is given to us as a means of communion with Christ, who is our life. Perhaps if we find it distasteful (or, perish the thought, “religious”), we are merely doffing our caps to the clinging reality of our fallenness, where food is no more than “food”, or flirting with a gnostic tendency to reject any kind of spirituality that is in any way embodied and to insist upon worship that is unencumbered with such clutter.


Food for thought (sorry!)




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