Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

 A Recollection

by Fr. Alexander Garklavs

Fall-Winter, 1998-1999


December 13, 1998 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the passing-away of Fr. Alexander Schmemann.  As Dean of St. Vladimirís Seminary, located first in New York City and now in Crestwood, Fr. Alexander was well known throughout our Diocese. Many of our clergy personally studied under him and many of the laity knew him through his lectures, presentations, and writings. This recollection is both a testimony to that wide-ranging remembrance and also an introduction to the man for those who did not know him.

Fr. Alexander was an uncommon and remarkable person! From time to time, God so wills that His Church have such great leaders. Fr. Alexander possessed the "right stuff": his bearing, his voice, his background, his education, his experience, his eloquence, his writing talent, his social skills, all of these combined in the most proper way. He was, as he seemed to many, somehow larger than life, a person of charisma, persuasiveness, with a refined discernment and prophet-like moral indignation. Yet he also had the common touch and humility, a sense of humor and charm.

God designed that this special personality was also to act in the life of the Church, particularly Orthodox America at a very special time. So dominant was his persona and so effective were his teachings that today, fifteen years after his death, we are still "following" and being challenged by his words in developing a vision of Orthodoxy in the New World. Orthodox America, especially the Orthodox Church in America, would not have matured so well, nor become an indigenous Orthodox experience if not for Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

His greatness was that of a true Churchman. He served Jesus Christ and His Church as a gifted priest, a true teacher, leader, guide, confessor, counselor, preacher, advisor and witness to the faith. He inspired people in the Church and, more important, his inspiration guided people into the Church. I am one of the many fortunate individuals who were dramatically affected by him. Growing up in my particular family, I must have heard of Fr. Alexander in my infancy. My parents would talk about him as others would talk of sport stars or movie actors. When, as a twelve year old, they first took me to hear him speak I suppose that I had no real expectations. In fact, I was too young to understand or appreciate his thought. Still, I recall the special qualities of the man: the dignified manner of speaking, the hushed and captive audience, the palpable excitement in the air, the sense of joy that my parents and others had after the presentation.

Several years later, as a young and confused college student, I heard him again and this time began to comprehend his mesmerizing and subtle genius. Fr. Alexander was in Chicago delivering a series of lectures at a Protestant divinity school. It was Spring and he began one of the talks by saying: "You know of course, brothers, that ĎApril is the cruelest month.í" He continued to speak in a fantastic manner, bringing together Scriptures and literature, theology and everyday life, the subtle and the plain, as if all were connected and relevant to Godís wonderful and eternal plan. For me, an English major, it was a wondrous moment. I would have never expected an Orthodox priest to begin a lecture by quoting the great modern poet, T.S. Eliot! Fr. Alexander was himself a poet at heart. His intellect was certainly disciplined by academic principles, but his eloquence exhibited musical and poetic brilliance more than a professorial authority. One can still get a sense of that listening to his taped lectures or from reading his works.

That series of lectures in Chicago was a turning point in my life. When I did go to Seminary in a few years, it was largely due to hearing and reading Fr. Alexander. He had a profound effect on many people that way. He inspired and motivated, even though his words might not be directed to specific individuals. What he did possess was the gift of being able to touch individuals and persons, even if he were speaking to a large crowd.

Today he is largely and popularly remembered for his liturgical theology. Many liturgical practices that we in the Orthodox Church in America have come to regard as "everyday" were, in fact, not common here prior to Fr. Alexander. The practice of frequent Communion, evening Presanctified Liturgies, General Confession, and the reading aloud of the Eucharistic Prayers have become the norm in many parishes. Other practices, such as Baptismal Liturgies, are still in development. The OCA, as a whole, is still "in progress" and the entire gamut of liturgical issues (from language to rubrics to common sacramental traditions) are all in various stages of evolution. This should be not be surprising. The liturgical life of the Church is in a constant ebb and flow, depending on how the "mind of the Church" responds to local circumstances and conditions.

Fr. Alexander would have been most uncomfortable with the term "liturgical innovation." He himself presented liturgical life as a natural process by which the Church expresses its true self. He neither created nor improvised a liturgical theology. Rather, he was a true son of the Church and an articulate exponent of what he learned from the Church. Fortuitously his own education was fashioned by the cream of Russiaís theologians and scholars who were forced to live in Western Europe after the Revolution of 1917. These scholars brought to the West a mature and solid theological vision that had been formed in one of the most dynamic and creative periods in the history of the Orthodox Church. Fr. Alexander listened attentively to his teachers and subsequently brought his learning to North America.

While the 1917 Revolution resulted in the flowering of Orthodox theology in the West, it also did more damage to Orthodox Christianity than centuries of previous tyrants and persecutions. We still feel those ripples in our collective consciousness. When the history of the Orthodox Church in the 20th century is written, it will be marked by disunity and the most divergent cross currents, characterized by misconceptions and deep human passions. For these reasons, Fr. Alexander himself has become a lightning rod, an object of great respect for some and intense dislike by others.

Unfortunately, it is precisely in the area of liturgical life that Fr. Alexanderís reputation is most vilified. Here is not the place to engage in debate about the nature of Orthodox liturgy. What needs to be said is this: The important quality in the Churchís liturgical development is that in every change or adaptation the primary virtues of love for God and love for people are paramount. Fr. Alexanderís insights regarding the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church were always in the context of these virtues. Orthodox worship can either be alive or it can be dead; it can engender life or it can lead to death (even Holy Communion can be consumed "for judgment and condemnation").

For Fr. Alexander the Orthodox liturgy was an expression of Godís transfiguring power by which mankind could truly be saved. He endeavored to explain and witness to that fact. As he wrote in his book, For the Life of the World, Christian worship demands that we "live in the world seeing everything in it as a revelation of God, a sign of His presence, the joy of His coming, the call to communion with Him, the hope for fulfillment in Him." That some Orthodox fail to understand Fr. Alexander and consider him merely a modernist reformer is a great tragedy for the Church. But this is not new. Many of the great saints that we venerate today, and regard as "confessors of the faith" and "traditionalists" were also persecuted and misunderstood both during their lives and for years after their death, even by those within the Church.

However, we believe that Fr. Alexanderís legacy is not only the positive contributions he made to the liturgical movement. He was one of those deeply religious men who also had an excellent intuition into the values of human culture.  He appreciated art and culture as manifestations of the divine in the life of man.  In fact, theology was less a specialty for him than an expression of culture, in the most sublime and exalted sense.  He would say that great artistic accomplishments were distinguished by how they could genuinely express the triune fullness of life:  as God's good creation, as fallen through man's sin and ignorance, and as redeemed and beatified in Jesus Christ.  Christian liturgy is the supreme form of man's culture.  The integration of culture into religion, as well as religion into culture, can be said to represent the very heights of human achievement, that which is most positive, most salutary, most beautiful, most meaningful. Fr. Alexander had a deep and keen awareness of the balance between religion and art, or put another way, between Christianity and culture. His great legacy to us was to inform us about that balance and to articulate the implications.

For Christianity in general and for Orthodox Christianity in particular, the balance between religion and culture is crucial. Whether we think of the theology of the Church fathers or of liturgical art, architecture and music, we cannot imagine the Orthodox Church without its deep cultural context. The divorce of one from the other is the source of so many of ills of the world. The spiritual healing which could remedy these ills is only possible by participation in the life of Christ in His Kingdom. Fr. Alexander Schmemann was not a "Smile-Jesus-loves-you" naive optimistic, with fairy tale predictions that by returning to some mythic "golden age" we would be better off.  If anything, he was a realistic who understood the meaning of the Crucifixion with a profound clarity. "The Tree of life was planted in the place of the skull, there the eternal King worked salvation in the midst of the earth."  His lesson to us is that the Orthodox Church exists as the Body of Christ "for the life of this world." This was in no way to lessen the mystical and spiritual essence of Christianity. The Church is the Kingdom of God, the only means by which spiritual communion between God and man is fully realized. This "has always been, always will be and cannot but be a treasure. It is only manifest in this world and through it to save the world that the Church remains and sojourns on earth." (from The Eucharist).

Fr. Alexanderís teachings and writings are a holy gift to us. He made it possible for us to recognize those many human-institutional accretions which have distorted the true mission of the Church. This was no small or simple task. The complexities are innumerable. Neither Fr. Alexander nor his most devoted admirers would postulate that his thoughts were free from any error or that he never made any mistaken judgments, but he honestly engaged himself and us in the difficult spiritual task of searching for the truth.  He recognized that the modern world, with all of its chaos and confusion, was still the world that Christ came to save.  His spirituality, imbued with real spiritual joy and love, reflected this.

He especially loved the Church. He loved the Church as a small child loves his mother, with veneration, undying hope, unyielding confidence. His love for the Church was not the selfish kind that we may see. He neither sought to preserve a relative "piety" that had a sentimental appeal only to him, nor did he use the Church to "load men with burdens hard to bear," while himself "not touching the burdens with one of his fingers." Fr. Alexander believed in the Church established for all and for all time, not in a fragmented, closed-in, exclusive, pietistic religious conclave. The essence of the Church is "to manifest the Kingdom of God as the ultimate term of reference, and thus to relate to it the whole life of man and of his world" (from the essay, "The World in Orthodox Thought and Experience").

Fr. Alexanderís vision was certainly not his own private opinion. It was unique, for our place and time, but it was universal in scope and firmly rooted in Orthodox tradition. He was truly Godís instrument, sharing with us an inspired evocation of the Holy Spiritís divine action in our sinful midst and for our eternal salvation. 

For this we are grateful to God and honored to have had the privilege of knowing Fr. Alexander Schmemann.


[Fr. Alexander Garklavs is the pastor of Holy Trinity Church, East Meadow, NY.   Mail to: ]


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