Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday BookReview: tribute to Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Father Schmemann and wife visiting with Solzhenitsyn

From a 2001 essay of appreciation by 'First Things' editor Father Richard Neuhaus:

Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) is one of the very important people in my life. It is not simply that he helped form some of my ideas, especially about liturgy, or gave me a feel for realities about which I knew little, such as Orthodoxy. He was a great spirit; he lived robustly; he had a confident but not corrosive disdain for the banalities of fashionable thought. He was older and more cosmopolitan than I. He was fun to be with, and one left every meeting with the sense that life could be more, and the resolve to let it be so.

As a young man I first encountered Fr. Schmemann through his books, especially For the Life of the World, Of Water and the Spirit, and The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (all published by St. Vladimir’s Press). Later we would occasionally share the platform at ecumenical conferences, but I did not get to know him well until the days in Connecticut that produced "The Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation" of 1975. After that, I cherished Fr. Alexander as a friend and we would occasionally get together for lunch when he had business in the city, although not often enough, at least in my view. At our last lunch, on Lexington near 60th, not long before his final illness, he noted with disapproval the anorexic waitresses and expatiated engagingly on why the fashions of androgyny are part and parcel of the propensity for abstraction that is the fatal flaw of Western culture. I found the argument entirely convincing. There was for Fr. Alexander no divide between the sacred and secular, between the subjects of, for instance, unisex fashions and baptismal grace. Reality was all of a piece, and all charged with the presence and promise of Christ. In his case Tom Wolfe’s phrase applies: He was a man in full. Or so he seemed, and so he seems, to me.

St. Vladimir’s has now published The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983. It is a big book of some 350 pages and, after I had finished reading it, I wished for more. Much of it is very intimate, and there is always the matter of the ethics of publishing a private journal. But his wife Juliana (the beloved “L.” who appears on almost every page, Liana being the diminutive of her name) made the right decision in translating the journals from the Russian and French and putting them into book form... 

Russian Orthodoxy in the U.S. he found incorrigibly quarrelsome. “The function of a quarrel is in allowing people to feel principled, to serve the cause, i.e., to feel alive. . . . And free time can be filled with a quarrel. The law of émigré life: those who don’t like to quarrel organize balls and can also keep busy—endlessly—reconciling those who quarrel. And those who enjoy quarrels quarrel! But the function of both is the same.” He writes, “I mainly feel like a stranger in the midst of the typically Russian ‘cozy’ atmosphere of the Church: Russian piety, complete self-assurance, the absence of any anxiety, any doubt, any questioning..." 

Again and again, he returns to what is intellectually and culturally stifling in Orthodoxy. “To change the atmosphere of Orthodoxy, one has to learn to look at oneself in perspective, to repent, and if needed, to accept change, conversion. In historic Orthodoxy, there is a total absence of criteria for self-criticism. Orthodoxy defined itself: against heresies, against the West, the East, the Turks, etc. Orthodoxy became woven with complexes of self-affirmation, an exaggerated triumphalism: To acknowledge errors is to destroy the foundations of true faith.” On December 23, 1976, after a series of difficult meetings at the seminary, Fr. Alexander writes: “My point of view is that a good half of our students are dangerous for the Church—their psychology, their tendencies, a sort of constant obsession with something..." 

A year earlier he had written: “What used to be an organic, natural style became stylization, spiritually weak, harmful. The main problem of Orthodoxy is the constraint due to style, and its inability to revise it; a prevalent absence of self-criticism, of checking the tradition of the elders by Tradition, by love of Truth. A growing idolatry.” Seminarians and clergy, he said, wear their cassocks and beards as an armor against life and thought... 

Fr. Alexander had a somewhat grudging admiration for the energy and vision of John Paul II, but doubted that he could reverse the “collapse” of Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council. November 24, 1980: “According to human reasoning, the whole of our Orthodoxy hasn’t got a chance. If the Pope cannot cope, what about us? So, to worry about the Church that so obviously does not want to be saved by my recipes, by our recipes, is sinful in the final analysis: It comes from pride. For God has chosen what is totally meaningless and worthless” (1 Corinthians 1:26ff.). A month earlier, he notes that it is only in the Liturgy that things come together: “I become filled with disgust for the role I have been playing for decades. I have fear and apprehension at having to immerse myself in the affairs of the seminary and the Church. I feel that everybody around me knows what to do and how and what for, but I only pretend to know. In fact, I don’t know anything; I am not sure of anything; I am deceiving myself and others. Only when I serve the Liturgy am I not deceitful. And I will say it again: all of life flows out of—and is connected with—the Liturgy! I feel a collapse of any energy—especially spiritual. I would like to leave!”...

The regularly recurring periods of dissatisfaction are just as regularly broken, usually by the Liturgy. February 25, 1974: “‘Clean Monday’—first day of Great Lent. I spent Saturday and yesterday in Endicott, New York. Joyful impression from the services and the people. After days of inner rebellion, such a clear indication: stop rebelling, there is nowhere to go. The Church is your body and blood; you are wedded to the Church through your priesthood”...

Among his greatest frustrations, and satisfactions, was his relationship with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. During the years of the Cold War, Fr. Alexander’s sermons were broadcast into the Soviet Union by Radio Liberty, making him an enormously popular figure in Russia. Solzhenitsyn was a great fan, and when he was exiled in 1974, one of the first things he did was to ask Fr. Alexander to visit him in Zurich, his temporary home. In the following years, Fr. Alexander was often with Solzhenitsyn, including a long drive up to the Ottawa Valley of Canada in search of a place to establish a “piece of Russia” in the West, which turned out to be in Vermont. On that first visit, he and Solzhenitsyn were alone for a few days in a mountain cottage forty minutes outside Zurich. “S. is obviously a Russian intelligent. No comfort, no armchair, no closet. Everything reduced to a strict minimum. His clothes are those he wore when he came out of Russia. Some sort of cap, officer’s boots. ‘I have so many questions’—our conversation is prepared, he has a list of questions.” Upon Fr. Alexander’s return from Zurich, June 17, 1974: “Only much later will I be able to sum up what were these most significant days of my life.”

The friendship with Solzhenitsyn was often rocky. Solzhenitsyn was single-minded, obsessed, and something of a fanatic, although Fr. Alexander does not use that word. He unceasingly defended Solzhenitsyn publicly from his many detractors. His private thoughts were frequently very different. January 10, 1975: “The rapport with Solzhenitsyn made obvious for me our essential difference. For him there is only Russia. For me, Russia could disappear, die, and nothing would change in my fundamental vision of the world. ‘The image of the world is passing.’ This tonality of Christianity is quite foreign to him.” “I know that S. himself does not hesitate to offend people right and left in the rudest manner. I personally think that to defend him would be to tell him the truth. I really do not want to take part in that struggle. . . . As for Solzhenitsyn, I will defend what I heard through his creative art, but I remain free of his ideology, which for me is quite foreign.” March 4: “I am thinking about Solzhenitsyn and his idolizing obsession with Russia.”

In May, after just the two of them had spent every hour together for four days, Fr. Alexander reflects on the words of Jesus, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He writes of Solzhenitsyn: “His treasure is Russia and only Russia; mine is the Church. He is devoted to his treasure in a way that none of us is devoted to ours. His faith, I think, will move mountains, while ours—mine in any case—will not. . . . A great man! In the obsession with his vocation, his mission, in the total identification with it—without doubt a great man. Truly, out of him flows strength!” Then this insight on the chemistry, so to speak, between them: “In these days spent with him, I had the feeling that I was the older brother dealing with a child, capricious and even spoiled, who will not ‘understand’—so better for me to give in (‘you are older, so give in!’) for the sake of peace, agreement, and in the hope that ‘he might grow up and understand.’ I am a student from a higher grade dealing with a younger one for whom one needs to simplify, with whom one has to speak 'at his level.'"
Russian Cathedral of Paris

Fr. Alexander and I discussed whether he had ever thought of becoming Roman Catholic. As a young man in Paris, he said, he mused about it, but it probably had more to do with Paris being a city of the Catholic West than with the Catholic West. My impression is that there was never a serious wrestling with the question, as in a crisis, although he drew deeply on the Catholic theology that informed the Second Vatican Council. In these journals of his mature years, interest in Western Christianity is very limited. He was intensely engaged ecumenically—lecturing and consulting everywhere, it seems—but these were travels in another country. Catholicism, especially in its Jesuit expression, he found distasteful for its preoccupation with rules, whether in enforcing them or breaking them. He cites favorably this from Leon Bloy: “It seems to me that St. Ignatius’ Exercises correspond to the ‘Method’ of Descartes. Instead of looking at God, one looks at oneself. . . . Psychology invented by Jesuits: a method consisting in continually looking at oneself in order to avoid sin. It is contemplating evil instead of contemplating goodness. The devil substituting for God. This seems to be the genesis of modern Catholicism.”

In 1976 he lectures for eight days at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago. “In all our conversations with students and professors I am struck by their unconscious tendency to follow fashion, to achieve success. They seem to need to ‘dress like everybody else’—the same in theology.” A few days later, he lectures at the Liturgical Institute of Valparaiso University, another Lutheran center. This moves him to try to formulate the difference between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. “Put simply: the Orthodox man begins with the ‘end,’ with the experience, the breakthrough, the very reality of God, the Kingdom, Life—and only afterwards does he clarify it, but in relation to the experience he has had. The Western man rationally arrives at and evokes the ‘end’ from a series of premises. The Orthodox often expresses that ‘end’ quite poorly in theology. For the Westerner, the end somehow disappears, is diluted in elaborate constructions. (I need to express this problem better.)”

A year later, March 15, 1977: “Religion needs a temple, not the Church. The temple’s origin is religion. Thus in the Gospel: ‘I will destroy this temple. . . .’ The Church has a Christian origin. However, our Church has identified itself long ago with the ‘temple,’ has dissolved itself in the temple, and (this means) has returned to the pagan temple as its religious sanction. Protestantism was an attempt to save the faith, to purify it from its religious reduction. But the Protestants have paid a heavy price for denying eschatology and replacing it with personal individual salvation; and therefore, essentially, denying the Church. The greatest anachronism, on a natural level, was to be found in the Catholic Church. Catholicism was possible only while one was able to deny and limit the freedom of the person, the basic dogma of the new times. While trying to change its course, to merge with freedom, Catholicism simply collapsed, and I do not see how its revival could be possible (unless fascism can get hold of the human race and deny the explosive synthesis of freedom and the person).” Packed into that paragraph are, I believe, Fr. Alexander’s core convictions about Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and they reward reflection, whatever one’s ecclesial allegiance...

April 6, 1977, and he has been reading about courses in Great Western Ideas: “It would be useful to teach a course entitled ‘Great Western Errors,’ following approximately this plan: Rousseau and ‘Nature,’ with a capital N; The Enlightenment and ‘Reason,’ capital R; Hegel and ‘History,’ capital H; Marx and ‘Revolution,’ capital R; and finally, Freud and ‘Sex,’ capital S—realizing that the main error of each is precisely the capital letter, which transforms these words into an idol, into a tragic pars pro toto.” The protest of Fr. Alexander’s life and thought was against the closures of totalism—whether political and ideological totalism, as in totalitarianism, or the total explanations proposed by theology or philosophy. Only Christ is total, he insisted, and Christ is unlimited openness.

In February 1979, Fr. Alexander is entranced by the appalling fanaticism of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and at the same time thinking about John Paul II’s visit to New York. “So at the end of the twentieth century, here is the power of religion! What else could mobilize so many millions of people; provoke such expectation, such enthusiasm? The power, and, at the same time, the ambiguity of the Ayatollah; not one word about love, peace, the transcendence in God of all petty divisions. And the threat of a holy war. The Pope, in a sense, speaks only about love. Frightening face of Islam . . . hence, this Khomeini in the end will give nothing to his people (who are so happy with him) except grief, hate, and suffering. Whereas from the Pope’s visit, only joy, only hope—even if nothing comes of it.” And in the end Fr. Alexander suspected that not much would come of it—for the renewal of Catholicism, of the West, of the world.

Later that year, in October, he is lecturing at the Catholic Union in Chicago. He comments on the determinedly fashionable Jesuits and Franciscans, other priests and nuns, all in glaringly multi-colored lay clothing, all demonstrating that they are “with it,” and all quite indifferent to the renewal for which the Pope is calling. He reflects that in 1870, when infallibility was defined, there was the schism of the Old Catholics. “But at that time, the great majority of theologians were ultramontane and the schism was hardly noticed. Whereas now, it is not just a majority but theology as a whole, the whole thought in Catholicism that is against the monolith, against the papacy as it is now. After only a week of the unheard of triumph of the Pope and the papacy [during the New York visit], these Jesuits and nuns look and behave as if ‘nothing was the matter,’ as if all of it had nothing to do with them. They are not even angry, or sad, or hopeless.” On the one hand, the spiritual resurgence led by the Pope; on the other, the complacent progressivism of the Catholic theological establishment. One or the other would prevail, thought Fr. Alexander, leading to a schism that would make 1870 pale by comparison...                                
                          (Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, constantly in "prophetic" overdrive, epitomized the 1960s)

Then, on October 13, 1977, perhaps as succinct a statement of Fr. Alexander’s theology as is to be found: “I realized that ‘theologically’ I have one idea—the eschatological content of Christianity, and of the Church as the presence in this world of the Kingdom, of the age to come—this presence as the salvation of the world and not escape from it. The ‘world beyond the grave’ cannot be loved, cannot be looked for, cannot be lived by. Whereas the Kingdom of God, if one tastes it, be it a little, cannot be not loved! Once you love it, you cannot avoid loving all creation, created to reveal and announce the Kingdom. This love is already transfigured. Without the Kingdom of God being both the beginning and the end, the world is a frightening and evil absurdity. But without the world, the Kingdom of God is incomprehensible, abstract, and in some way absurd.”

In the afterword to the journals, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Alexander’s successor as dean of St. Vladimir’s, writes that Fr. Alexander’s theological worldview was essentially shaped during the Paris years, and under the influence of Catholic thinkers such as Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. “It is from that existing milieu,” writes Fr. Meyendorff, “that Father Schmemann really learned ‘liturgical theology,’ a ‘philosophy of time,’ and the true meaning of the ‘paschal mystery.’ If the legacy [of these French Catholics] was somewhat lost within the turmoil of postconciliar Roman Catholicism, their ideas produced much fruit in the organically liturgical and ecclesiologically consistent world of Orthodoxy through the brilliant and always effective witness of Fr. Schmemann.” The journals leave no doubt that Fr. Alexander was not nearly so confident of the effectiveness of his witness, and certainly had no illusions about his vision flourishing in Orthodoxy.

Throughout Fr. Alexander’s books, and especially the journals, is a running polemic against religion, as distinct from authentic Christianity centered in the revelation of God in Christ. The unspeakably tragic error, he insisted, was to think that Christianity is a subcategory of “religion,” when in fact Christ explodes from within history all human constructions of reality, religious or otherwise, thus illumining with the divine the world of which we are part. I have not gone back to check out all the books, and I never asked him about it, but it is striking that in the journals there is no reference to Karl Barth. In twentieth century theology, that running polemic that pits Christ against religion is most closely associated with Barth. One wonders if there was not some significant influence, or, quite possibly, Fr. Alexander arrived at these insights on his own. He clearly had no use for the proponents of “religionless Christianity” who had their fifteen minutes in the 1960s, but he just as clearly wanted to distance Christ and Christianity from what he viewed as the stifling habits and thought forms of “religion.” Even “piety” is regularly dismissed as a distortion, and he rails against those who came to confession with all sorts of complicated “spiritual problems.” (He spent endless hours hearing confessions, and hated it.) His answer to the scrupulous and the spiritually self-preoccupied was, “Live!” Which is to say, his answer was, “Christ!” Although Barth is not mentioned, and maybe was never seriously read, Fr. Alexander’s thought was, in important respects, strikingly Barthian. Barthianism with a real Church and a real Liturgy...

After walking by the Seine in Paris: “Europe’s dream is ending; its ground is breaking. Europe is becoming a pitiful caricature of America, unable to become the ‘original,’ but an imitation denying its own originality. . . . The real France wants to become America. America does not want to become Europe, therefore it is genuine, whereas Europe is steadily losing its genuine character.” He admires the simplicity of a presidential inauguration (Jimmy Carter’s) and the peaceful transfer of power. “But what delights me is America, its deep essence, America which has found—alone in the whole world—a formula, almost miraculous, of government and society not turned into idols, but combining living tradition with life. I thought again of Solzhenitsyn: Here is what he should look at, research, humbly learn from. But no! only they can teach the world from under the rubble, only they know! Neither S. nor, in general, Europeans will ever try to understand.”

But then there is the American principle of equality, also between the sexes. “In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. Since comparison always, mathematically, leads to the experience and the knowledge of inequality, it always leads to protest. Equality is based on the denial of distinctions, but since they exist, the wish for equality calls to fight them, to force equalization on people, and, what is even worse, to refuse these distinctions, which are the essence of life. The person—man or woman—who hungers for equality is already emptied and impersonal because a personality is made of what distinguishes it from others and not submitted to the absurd law of equality. To the demonic principle of comparison, Christianity opposes love. . . . Equality cannot exist in this world because the world was created by love and not by principles. And the world thirsts for love and not equality.” At another place: “Man looks for rules; a woman knows exceptions. But life is a continuous exception to rules. Wherever there is genuine life, there reigns not a rule but an exception. Man fights for rules. Woman has a living experience of the exception.”

Another afternoon in the confessional: “Students’ confessions. Always sex. I am beginning to think that this sin is useful; otherwise they would consider themselves saintly and plunge into guruism. As it is, they are half convinced [of their spiritual achievements]. So this sting in the flesh is useful. It cuts us down to size.” He could not work up in himself the outrage against homosexuality that some thought appropriate, but it seemed to him very sad. “The question is not at all whether it is natural or unnatural, since this question is generally inapplicable to fallen nature, in which—and this is the point—everything is distorted, everything, in a sense, has become unnatural. . . . Homosexuality is a manifestation of the ‘thorn in the flesh’ which tortures in various ways, but tortures every one. In the fallen world nothing can be ‘normalized,’ but everything can be saved.” He reads Proust, Gide, Julien Green, and reflects on “the frightening burden of homosexuality.” “I think what matters most is the sense of a dead end, of insatiable thirst which cannot be transformed into life. At the end, there is not only a wall but a mirror. In the fallen world, everything strictly sexual is ugly, distorted, base. In a ‘normal’ human being, there is at least the possibility of transforming the ugliness and thus eliminating it. For homosexuals, this possibility, this promise, this appeal, this door—do not exist”...

I could go on, and I have. But I do hope others will want to read the journals, although perhaps not with an interest as intense as those who received the gift of knowing him personally. I am grateful that he was part of my life, and I, at least in a minor way, part of his. His son, the distinguished journalist Serge Schmemann, writes in the foreword: "Fr. Alexander was diagnosed with terminal cancer on September 21, 1982. After several months of silence in the journal, he made one final entry on June 1, 1983, describing how even those months became, in the end, almost a celebration. Six months later, he died at home in Crestwood, New York, with his family and colleagues around him. His last words, after receiving Holy Communion a day earlier, before lapsing into a coma, were ‘Amen! Amen! Amen!'"

In that final entry of June 1983, Fr. Alexander wrote, "For eight months I have not written in this journal. Not because I had nothing to say; on the contrary, never, I believe, did I have so many thoughts and questions and impressions; but because I was constantly afraid of the height where my sickness had lifted me, afraid of falling from it." There follow words of gratitude for family and friends, and then this final line of The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann:
"What happiness it has all been!"

UPDATE:  "On 30 December 1922 the Bolshevik government expelled some 160 prominent intellectuals on the so-called Philosophers' ships." 

Among the group were Orthodox Christian philosophers Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev (below right), both of whom ended up living in Paris:




To situate this in time, the expulsions occurred roughly a year before Lenin died -- and a year after the birth of Alexander Schmemann (into a family of Russian émigrés in Estonia).

Check out this fascinating web-page, by the author of a book on the subject.                 

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