ENGLISH VERSION: He had a gift to take theological terms, concepts, and ideas and somehow “translate” them into words that everyone could understand... Fr William Mills about Fr Alexander Schmemann
Portal-Credo.Ru: Please tell me Father William, how you first learned about the works of Father Alexander Schmemann? And what attracted your interest most - his discussions on the nature of understanding of the liturgy itself or the "Journals" written by him.
Fr William: I first was introduced to Father Alexander in my liturgical theology classes at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. We read For the Life of the World and parts of The Eucharist. However I really don’t remember discussing those texts in depth and for many years his books just sat on my shelf! It was in my doctoral program in Pastoral Theology that I really became acquainted with his essays, books, sermons, and later his Journals. I was amazed at his radical honesty and sense of joy, themes which appear again and again.
Father Alexander had a gift to take very technical and theological terms, concepts, and ideas and somehow "translate" them into words that everyone could understand. He could speak at a large theological conference on Liturgical Theology as well as preach an inspirational sermon to parishioners in Ohio on a Sunday morning! For example, when reading For the Life of the World you feel like he is in the room speaking to you. Father Alexander had a way to talk to the average person, what my friend calls the "parishioners in the pew" so that they too can understand theology. This is why his famous Radio Liberty talks were so popular in Russia and in other Eastern European countries. Father Alexander could talk about a gospel passage or liturgical feast and explain it so that everyone could understand, even those who were barely educated in the faith. While his Journals reflect more of his personal reflections on liturgy, the various feasts and fasting seasons or celebrations of the year, his essays and books are concerned more with liturgical theology per se and the need for continual renewal and revitalization which the Church needs now more than it ever.
- Don't you feel that Father Alexander attempted to picture an idealized Orthodox world while he spent all his life in non-orthodox countries such as France and America? By that I mean that the Russian way of life based on the conservative orthodox traditions which limit the human degrees of freedom with its conservative upbringing, numerous prejudices and dogmatic behavior etc have never been a part of Father Alexander's everyday life. He was free of thatfrom the beginning.
- Actually, when you read Father Alexander’s Journals and also when you read a little more background on the religious culture and life in Paris during Schmemann’s youth and young adult years you begin to realize just the opposite; that Schmemann was raised in a very traditional Orthodox Church with all of the rites, rituals, and liturgical celebrations that went with it. Schmemann often complained of the "decadent liturgical celebrations" in parishes that he attended in France. Furthermore, in his Journals Father Alexander complains a lot about what he calls "pseudo-spirituality" with private moliebens and memorial services, private baptisms, Eucharistic services where few people received Holy Communion and so forth.
You mentioned in our question the notion on human freedom. Freedom and joy are mentioned numerous times in his Journals. Schmemann always talked about the freedom that God gave to Adam and Eve in the garden yet they would rather live outside of Paradise, falling more and more into darkness and sin rather than enjoy the freedom that God gave them. This is still true today, especially in the Orthodox Church. All too often we focus and obsess about fasting rules and regulations whether or not the Altar has a curtain or what type of wine is used at the liturgy rather than share the good news of the Kingdom. In many ways we are still bound by the notion of the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament rather than on the freedom in Christ which St. Paul preaches about in his letters. We still have a far way to go. But that is okay because repentance and change take time.
- With which concepts of the "Orthodox World of Alexander Schmemann" do you agree? And with which do you disagree? What is your position regarding Father Alexander's harsh criticism of such fundamental bases of the Orthodoxy as the wisdom of elders, monkshood, judgments on spirituality etc in their contemporary aspect?
- I, personally, fully agree that the contemporary monkshood has completely compromised itself, the elders have practically disappeared and the spirituality is being substituted by the egocentrism.
To answer your question in one word: nearly everything! Actually however the one piece that is missing in his writings is the social aspect of our faith. Our life in Christ requires us to engage the world in which we live in concrete ways especially with the poor, hungry, destitute, orphan, widow and so forth, themes which you find for example in the writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova, Father Lev Gillet, Father Sergius Bulgakov and Paul Evdokimov among others. For some reason this aspect is missing from his writings, at least one does not find these themes explicitly stated.
That being said I do agree with much of Father Alexander’s comments about contemporary monasticism, elders, and so forth. Of course there are some stable and sound monasteries who are really doing good things, but you are right in saying that there is too much egocentrism. Occasionally Father Alexander talks about monasteries with one or two monks in it who seem to drive away the new novices or nuns who like to travel the country giving talks rather than living and working in their monasteries. In one particular Journal on January 20, 1981 he provides some thoughts about what a contemporary monastic life could look like:
Wear normal secular clothing, wear nothing that draws attention to yourself.
Get a real job and after paying your bills and rent give your money to the local parish or some charity.
Be a regular parishioner but not offer to teach or do anything unless you are asked.
Read the scriptures and pray every day
Do not thrust yourself on anyone, only do things if asked
Read and study all kinds of subjects not just "monastic literature"
Do not seek an elder or spiritual guide, God will send one if necessary.
Seek always to acquire the Holy Spirit through prayer and work.
- Is it rightful to consider Alexander Schmemann to be the founding father of the Orthodox Church in America?
- According to historical research the first Orthodox missionaries to North America arrived sometime in Alaska in the late 1700’s. Later waves of missionaries from Eastern Europe, Greece, and the Middle East arrived and established parishes, monasteries, and eventually seminaries. Technically speaking however, Father Alexander, together with his friend and colleague Father John Meyendorff really helped shape and form what we today call the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) by training priests and lay leaders, giving parish talks and retreats, establishing the Seminary Press in order to produce prayer books and other theological resources.
- Why do you think that the popularity of Father Alexander's works is growing? And particularly in Russia where the church liberalism has never been welcomed?
- Schmemann’s writings have enjoyed a very long shelf-life and are still very popular now even twenty-nine years after his death! Probably his most famous book, For the Life of the World was first published in 1963. It is important also to know that Father Alexander’s writings are also still read and welcomed in many non-Orthodox Christian circles. A few years ago I was visiting Princeton Theological Seminary and both For the Life of the World and The Eucharist were required reading for a course in Sacramental Theology. For your readers who may not know, Princeton Seminary is a seminary for mostly Presbyterians. His books are required at many Roman Catholic