Fr. Alexander Schmemann – In remembrance of his death forty years ago

Fr. Alexander Schmemann – In remembrance of his death forty years ago

by Archpriest Alexander Garklavs


When Fr. Alexander Schmemann passed away on December 13, 1983, the Orthodox Church lost an articulate and prophetic visionary.  Sixty-two years old, he died after a difficult but heroic year-long ordeal with a fatal illness. The forty years since have seen tremendous changes in the world and in the world of Orthodox Christianity.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing transformation of the Russian Orthodox Church were unforeseen.  Major challenges and alterations have taken place in the church he belonged to, the Orthodox Church in America.  The entire landscape of Orthodox America has changed, as in fact has all of Christianity.  What he would make of all this is a matter of conjecture and far from certain.  This reflection will not attempt to imagine what he would say today, however tempting that may be.  It is an offering to the memory of Fr. Alexander who, although gone for forty years, retains an influential presence in the lives of many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians.  This is both an encomium and a remembrance, a testimony of some of his remarkable accomplishments and a few personal recollections about an extraordinary man.

Born and educated in Europe, he actively worked in the New World only thirty years, but his impact was tremendous.  Through his teaching, preaching, writings, and cross-country travels, he taught, inspired, provoked, and sometimes shocked and infuriated, but created a profound legacy.  Since his death that legacy has waxed and waned, gone through interpretations and re-appraisals, and become the subject of symposia, graduate theses and academic books.  Among both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, his writings have become influential in markedly different camps.  Both the liberal-minded and conservatives see him as “one of theirs.”  What remains indisputable is that Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s life and legacy have shaped the course of Orthodox Christianity in North America beginning in the second half of the 20th century and continuing today.  For those who were his students and heard his preaching, he was a commanding witness of Christian faith, a wise teacher and mentor, an honorable priest with dignity and common sense, and an exemplary Orthodox Christian, who was sober-minded and had a great sense of humor.  He was that spiritual leader, who we remember with affection, “who spoke to us the word of God”  (Heb. 13.7).

In the Orthodox Church in America, Fr. Alexander occupied a many-faceted role.  He was a regular consultant to the Holy Synod of Bishops, a member of the Metropolitan Council, an advisor and participant on various church commissions and departments, and a sought-after speaker at parishes and diocesan events across the country.  As clergy co-chair at several All-American Councils he presided with efficiency and gravitas, directing discussions to needed resolutions, and steering conversations diplomatically when controversy arose.  He was instrumental in the complicated negotiations that led up to the granting of autocephaly in 1970.  Farther John Meyendorff described that event as “a real watershed” in Fr. Alexander’s life.  The full fascinating account of how it came to be and of his relationship with Metropolitan Nikodim of the Moscow Patriarchate is yet to be revealed.  What is certain is that the Orthodox Church in America would not have acquired autocephaly without him.   Afterward, in impassioned speeches and writings, he provided the needed elucidation of the meaning and implications of autocephaly for the future of Orthodoxy in America.

His background and talents enabled him to engage meaningfully with other Orthodox Churches.  Those were halcyon years for North America Orthodoxy, with many Orthodox jurisdictions sharing a sincere hope for pan-Orthodox unity.  Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America, became the first American born leader of a North American Orthodox Church.  His election to the position in 1977 was seen as a significant transitional event, with a featured article in Time magazine.  Archbishop Iakovos and Metropolitan Philip, the respective leaders of the Greek and Antiochian Churches, had ecclesiastical stature and national recognition.  There existed a real Orthodox ecclesial camaraderie.  It was not Fr. Alexander’s creation, but his contacts and interactions with various bishops and church leaders was a major factor in intra-jurisdictional relations.  He was also involved in the larger sphere of Christian ecumenism, where he was always a forthright witness of Orthodoxy.

When Fr. Alexander came with his family to New York in 1951, St. Vladimir’s Seminary became his home.  Beginning as an associate professor at its first humble location in New York City, he became a pivotal leader and Dean when the seminary moved to Westchester County in 1963.  There, with an exceptional faculty, it expanded to become a thriving institution, drawing students from the spectrum of Orthodox jurisdictions.  Although the modest campus was surrounded by all of the chaotic energy of metropolitan New York, it was an idyllic spiritual haven for those who lived and studied there.  The professors and students were diverse, and personalities differed as did opinions and style, but under Fr. Alexander’s guidance there was a marvelous shared vision of purpose and goals.

In those days, students kept the classical tradition of standing up when the Dean entered the class room.  He would enter briskly, motion for us to sit down, and begin, “Today, we will look at …”   He had notes, written in his miniscule handwriting, but rarely looked at them, speaking with astounding recall.  He lectured with dignified authority, often in the style of poetic improvisation, with diverse concepts and thoughts coming together in a remarkable synthesis.  It was impossible to fall asleep during in his class.  His popularity as teacher far exceeded the confines of the seminary, and every semester there was an evening course that he taught to which many local lay people would come.  In addition to the classroom experience former students treasure the memories of Fr. Alexander’s presence and preaching in the old seminary chapel.  During those years, there was no formal homiletics class but those of us who were privileged to hear Fr. Alexander were blessed with witnessing the spiritually charged dynamism of a brilliant preacher.  His expressive delivery and convincing certitude became the standards to strive for, even if we lacked his unique virtuosity.

“A master of the spoken word,” Fr. John Meyendorff called him.  Father Alexander’s charismatic eloquence made people want to hear what he had to say.  Listening to him one had the sense of discovering exceptional beauty in a painting that had been for years hanging unnoticed on the wall.  He was proclaiming the “good news,” revealed thousands of years ago by Jesus Christ, in a fresh and novel way.  “The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom,” he wrote in For the Life of the World, “because she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the ‘world to come,’ to see and to ‘live’ it in Christ.  It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already ‘filled all things with Himself’ that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty.  A Christian is one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him.”

What made Fr. Alexander particularly effective was that he came to understand how the eternal truths revealed by Scripture and Tradition could be applied to contemporary society.  He was a creature of his time, of the tumultuous and heady 20th century.  He was a child and survivor of all that:  the pains and adjustments of immigration, the turmoil and scars of war, the challenges and promises of modernity, the effective eclipsing of Christianity by material secularism.  As a product of émigré Russian Orthodox culture, he was shaped from birth by an enlightened religious family, which was followed by a classical education in France and training at the St. Sergius Theological Academy in Paris.  The Paris of his youth was the center of many notable exiled Russian Church leaders and theologians, and Fr. Alexander always acknowledged his debt to them.  In particular some of them, such Fr. Georges Florovsky, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, Fr. Cyprian Kern, Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev, exercised decisive influence on his theological formation.  Also shaping his thought as well as his character was the fact that he grew up and lived his life in countries where Orthodoxy was not native to the environment.  For many Orthodox people this predicament created anxiety and alienation.  Some became adverse to everything “Western” while others completely succumbed to it.  Fr. Alexander came to a balanced understanding and appreciation of the situation, grateful for the freedoms and advantages that the West offered while recognizing its defects.

The historic and social circumstances of the late 20th century providentially suited Fr. Alexander’s administrative and teaching ministry.  With his particular background, talents, and knowledge of several languages, he was able to effectively engage in assessing the Church’s mission in the modern world.  The exodus of Orthodox Christians to the West, while tragic in many ways, created the fortuitous opportunity of producing an ecclesiastical consciousness without the suppressive bureaucracy of imperial-civil interference.  Although gone were some comforts of Old World, Orthodoxy in the West could develop without the prejudices of blinding nationalism and stultifying, quasi-pagan customs.  Emancipated to uncover the essentials in Scripture and Tradition, the Orthodox Church would become what, in fact, it is.  That is, the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”  As Fr. Alexander came to discern the recovery of the essentials of Orthodoxy, he realized that the key was the acquisition of a genuine understanding of Liturgy.

It was as a “liturgical theologian” that Fr. Alexander was recognized in his time, and his contributions to liturgical theology are still the prominent features of his legacy.  His most notable writings were all on aspects of Orthodox liturgy.  They are continuously re-printed, read and re-read, and his insights, deductions and conclusions have not lost their ability to enlighten and inspire.  Fr. Alexander was truly a pioneer, and the significance of his achievements becomes apparent when we consider the larger context.  As a separate field of study, Orthodox liturgical theology was a relatively late phenomenon of the late 19th century.  The course of studies at Russian seminaries was much dependent on concepts of Western Christian Scholasticism.  As such it was mostly a study of rubrics, the teachings of the mechanics of “how to do” the liturgical services.  Some liturgists devoted themselves to uncovering ancient manuscripts in monastery libraries.  But this was archaeological research not liturgical theology.  A more reflective theological understanding of liturgy within the proper understanding of Orthodox Tradition came about in the beginning of the 20th century, and was then carried over by émigré theologians to St. Sergius Academy in Paris.

Curiously, Fr. Alexander came to Liturgical Theology inadvertently.  When Fr. Florovsky invited him to come to St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, he was initially expected to teach Church History as this was his field of study at St. Sergius.  The turn to liturgical theology came about because the seminary needed someone to teach the basics of liturgical practice.  He wrote to Fr. Georges that while he had hoped to teach history, he came to realize that “in our time liturgics is one of the most interesting and key fields in light of the Church’s situation.”  He had the good fortune of being educated by able liturgists at St. Sergius, but he also immersed himself in serious reading of eminent Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians who were involved in the Western Christian liturgical revival movement.  Like other liturgists, he could have pursued the study of liturgical manuscripts, but he took a different approach.  What made his liturgical theology stand out was his realization that the “needful thing” was the acquisition of spiritual awareness of what liturgy really is!   Referring to the early Christian epithet lex orandi lex credendi, Fr. Alexander extrapolated his vision of liturgy as being the basis of belief.  If the rule of worship is the rule of faith, it is through worship that we come to understand how it is that in the Church we encounter God.  Therefore, it is in and through the actual experience of worship that we come to know God, His will and His truths.  Liturgy is “the ontological condition of theology, of the proper understanding of the proclamation, of the Word of God, because it is in the Church, of which the leitourgia is the expression and the life, that the sources of theology are functioning precisely as sources.”

Although he was sometimes labeled a modernist, Fr. Alexander’s focus was actually on resurrecting the Church’s authentic Tradition.  As Tradition had been overlaid with accumulated trends, secondary rituals and superstitions, it had to undergo a process of pruning and grafting to reveal the pure beauty of Orthodox liturgy.  “The great and deep truth of Tradition makes it possible for us to take part again in the immeasurable glory of the day, and nothing is expected from us except humbly, gratefully and joyfully to be part of it.”  Fr. Alexander understood his role as educator to be the formation of pastors who would make the Orthodox experience of worship to be as holy and meaningful in this time as it was for the Apostles, Church Fathers, and Saints throughout the ages.  “The essence of the Orthodox revival and mission,” he wrote, “should be to bear witness to the Kingdom, to call people to the Kingdom.  Everything is there:  overcoming secularism, answers to contemporary problems of culture, history, religion, etc.”

Father Alexander was not alone in promoting liturgical revival but his role was monumental.  As consultant to, and working closely with, the Holy Synod of Bishops, and through his many lectures and writings, he became the visible and audible persona who disseminated theological enlightenment to countless priests and lay people.  Fr. Alexander was blessed to personally witness the fruits of his efforts, as during his travels throughout North America he came to see how active participation in sacramental and eucharistic life created healthy parish communities.  Towards the end of his life, he enthusiastically noted how wonderful it was to see hundreds of people coming to Holy Communion at the All-American Councils, as he recalled that at Church Councils in the 1950s only a handful people communed.

He was a superb writer and his books and articles will long continue to provide inspiration and direction for theologians as well as ordinary people.  Although he was a recognized participant at theological conferences and dialogues, he did not see himself as a theologian writing for other theologians.  His gift was to make Orthodox theology refreshing and accessible.  Unknown to everyone, he began keeping a journal in 1973.  Discovered by his family after his death, The Journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann was published in 2000.  It is an astonishing collection of diary style observations which can be characterized as “the confessions of a modern prophet.”  In them we find his personal thoughts on all matters of church life as well as commentaries on history, culture, and society.  His genius and humanity are displayed in brilliant interpretations and in his admissions of doubts, fears and struggles.  What emerges with striking conviction are his comments about his faith and love for God, the Orthodox Church, his family and friends, for Russia, France, and America and for all humanity.

Another surprising addition to his collected works is the recent publication of the English translations of the talks he delivered to Russia on “Radio Liberty.”  This is a compendium of about 450 short essays on different topics, ranging from elementary religious practices to social commentary and philosophical reflection.  Several talks were devoted to Russian authors.  Broadcast during the Cold War years, those talks provided real spiritual direction to people living in the atheistic Soviet Union.  One person who listened was the great writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who, when he was exiled from Russia, became a close friend of Fr. Alexander.

Literature in general was a subject for which Fr. Alexander had a special love for.  His appreciation of culture was a key part of his character, because he saw that God-inspired creativity was such an effective witness to Christians truths.  His occasional lectures about the religious aspects of Russian literature always attracted many listeners.  The appreciation for art and literature that he conveyed was simultaneously an augmentation of love for Jesus Christ and His Church.  Although first and foremost a theologian, he was uncomfortable with “academic theology,” which he felt did not draw people into the mysteries of faith.  Great art, he maintained, could express and inspire spirituality in more effective ways.  “If theology is isolated from culture,” he wrote in his Journals, it “loses its salt and becomes empty words.”

As this memorial reflection is for the Diocese of the Midwest’s website, it is fitting to say a few things about Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Chicago, a city he loved!  In October, 1979, he wrote, “Two days in Chicago, meeting with Orthodox clergy, then lectures at a cluster of theological schools, … All of that, in an extremely friendly, brotherly atmosphere, a gift of joy and happiness against the background of my beloved Chicago.”  It was only one of many cities he visited throughout the world.  One of the touching aspects of the Journals is his affectionate descriptions about the places and cities he visited.  Noticing even ordinary sights and sounds become a perceptive appraisal of spiritual life.  “Once more, departing from Chicago, I was amazed by the quantity of enormous churches built at the end of the last [19th] century by all sorts of immigrants.  How much sacrifice, religious feeling went into these buildings!  An almost pathological religiosity mixed with an almost total secularism.”   At other points, there are no assessments, only plain observations.  “Back in Chicago, in my cozy hotel which has become my home.  Cold, rain, gray.  Outside my window, a lace of black branches against gray sky.  Warm, cozy.  Phone call from L [his wife].  All is well, so I feel even cozier!”  Nothing profound, nothing exceptional, simply the description of a situation any person could have had.  However, as this was written by the same person who wrote profound theological books it steers us to the realization of how ordinary experiences underlie spiritual perceptions.  For Christians even the “ordinary” somehow can become “extraordinary” and “sacred.”

It was in Chicago that I met Fr. Alexander.  He was giving a two week course on “Sacramental Theology” to a group of Lutheran pastors and students.  A few local Orthodox priests were also attending the lectures, one of whom was my father who invited me to join him.  I was adrift then with no clear direction, and attending those lectures became a turning point in my life.  Fr. Alexander was certainly a dynamic speaker, but it was “what” he said rather than “how” that made a difference.  His manner of preaching was “not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1Cor. 2.4).  That power came from an inspired intellect that was able to connect the Gospels to human history, Church Tradition to world literature, academic theology to a mundane experience on a Chicago street.   Father Alexander’s manner of speaking was captivating.  As he spoke, one had the feeling that revelatory insights were coming to him in the moment and he was spontaneously sharing them with his audience.  During that time in Chicago, he also came to Holy Trinity Cathedral one evening to for an impromptu gathering of local Orthodox parishioners.  It was the first week of March, and Fr. Alexander appropriately gave a short talk about the Sundays preceding Great Lent.   A recording of that talk is on this website.  Although not of the best quality, it nevertheless conveys his masterful and compelling style.

As a confused American college graduate, living amongst carefree, hedonistic, materialistic Chicagoans, I could have acquiesced to aimlessly pursuing the American dream. Neither routine religious rites nor metaphysical speculations seemed meaningful to me.  But what Fr. Alexander said resonated precisely because it was meaningful.  Of course I was far from the only one who was so moved by him.  Father Alexander connected with people from all kinds of backgrounds, men and women, young and old.  I was one of those countless baby-boomers who were seeking something that would make sense of the enigma of 20th century existence, something that offered a response to the question, “Is there more to life than survival?”  The spiritual vision that Fr. Alexander spoke of was sensible, reasonable, and meaningful!  It was also unabashedly Orthodox and thoroughly Christian. He made us appreciate that the Church was much more than a “religious organization” where people from a given nationality go to when they feel they need distraction from boredom.  “In Christianity for a very long time, there has not been any experience of the Church,” he wrote in his Journals.  The Church, as Fr. Alexander asserted, had become disconnected from real faith, deconstructing itself to blind ritual and individual pietism.  Faith “is to possess the Kingdom (the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”).  This possession is the Church as a sacrament, as unity, as new life.  The Church is the presence of the hoped for and the unseen.”

A couple of years later I was a student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  My three years coincided with the last good years of Fr. Alexander’s tenure there.   The seminary experience was memorable in many ways.  All of the professors were of the highest intellectual caliber and utmost moral standards.  This only accentuated Fr. Alexander’s status as Dean and main liturgical celebrant.  What I learned there was that the vocation to serve the Church is the greatest joy a person can experience and at the same time the heaviest cross.  Life itself gives us opportunities to suffer, but the Church additionally provides the ascetical tradition to facilitate voluntary suffering.  Father Alexander rarely quoted the Philokalia but he showed in his teaching and in his life that it is only “through the Cross that joy comes to the world.”  The Church repeats Christ’s calls to us, to sacrifice, to suffer, to give up everything and when we do so, we discover that “It is good to be here!”

Memories of events that are over forty years old are hazy; details are sketchy, and much is forgotten.  Yet, memories of Fr. Alexander remain in vivid clarity.  He had much to give and gave generously of his wisdom, his experience and of himself, sharing his convictions about how love and courage are at the heart of Christian life.  His revelations about ministry and life became foundational for countless priests, church leaders, choir directors, singers, and devout laity, who in turn have become the “little flock” endowed with the Kingdom, the Kingdom that is within us and in our midst.  When Fr. Alexander spoke of that Kingdom, it was as if he had just come from it and could not wait to return there.  It was a place that he knew personally, the Kingdom that the Orthodox Church actualizes with glory, love and splendor in its divine liturgical celebrations.  It may take several lifetimes for a person of Fr. Alexander’s caliber and gifts to appear again.  For those who had the honor of knowing him, as well as for those who are coming to know him now, he is that special person that God uses to lead those living in this dark world into that Kingdom of never-ending light.

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