Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Three Metropolitans


We thank Thee for all things, both known and unknown,

and for the visible and invisible blessings upon us.

 

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When I arrived in America in June 1951 to teach at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary (having been invited by Vladyka Leonty’s predecessor, Metropolitan Theophilus), I already had the experience of having been close to two Parisian Metropolitan-Exarchs, Evlogy and Vladimir. Thus Vladyka Leonty was to be my third Hierarch and, as a matter of course, at first I compared him with my Parisian Hierarchs. And now, when all three are no longer with us, whenever I am celebrating the Divine Liturgy, I unite their names in a joint commemoration, knowing that each one of them, in different ways, revealed to me that very essence of the episcopacy, that most difficult and awesome service in the household of God’s Church. This was something, which could not be expressed or defined by any dogmatic descriptions. Since they are so closely linked in my memory, thanksgiving and prayer, I will begin these brief and fragmentary recollections about Metropolitan Leonty with even briefer remarks about those who preceded him in my ecclesiastical life.

 

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I was close to Metropolitan Evlogy, if one can say, physically. From the age of twelve I was an acolyte, crosier bearer, ripidion bearer and subdeacon. I was destined to vest him for the last time during that sad evening of his passing, in August 1946. I think that only those who had the experience of serving at the altar and particularly in a large and well-appointed Cathedral, with its large staff and numerous clerics, with its behind-the-scenes details of solemn services, could know how all this creates a special connection with a Hierarch. There is nothing administrative here, nor is there any Church business. We, his Metropolitan’s Staff only saw him in the Church and then, on Christmas and Easter, in his private quarters where he received what he called his guard and where we were overwhelmed in his kindness, delightful humor and hospitality. On the one hand he held no administrative authority over us but nonetheless each one of us felt that we belonged to him, that we were needed and even indispensable participants in his life and service in their most important expressions. This was that physical, almost a familial closeness. To this day I remember how each one of his riasas felt, the warmth of his smallish hand over which, so many times, I placed the cuff, and the weight of his corpulent body when we assisted him in rising from a full prostration. But, since that closeness was always at the altar, because everything in it was related to that sacred and mystical beauty of the Divine Services, it changed more and more into that love and that joy, which for me defines to this day the essential nature of the Church. I could not, I firmly believe, have achieved this experience through later and sad exposures to the pedestrian and consistorial sides of Church life. Through Metropolitan Evlogy and my service to him was opened for me that, which I perceive to be the basic foundation of the Orthodox experience: its grandeur, its boundless loftiness, the remoteness, the awesomeness of everything Divine and at the same time, its immediacy with its joy and radiance.

Those solemn arrivals, the vesting, the reverences, that constant consciousness of knowing oneself to be at someone’s service, never once, not even for a single second, ever questioned his entitlement to that service. For it is through him and us, the swarms of acolytes and subdeacons, that somehow the power and beauty of God’s Kingdom was revealed.

All this, for me, is forever linked with Metropolitan Evlogy. He unites within himself the indefinable and the incomprehensible as well as all the grandeur and that Divine foundation of the Episcopacy and through that, of the Church and at the same time their nature in their immediacy and love. He had no need to remind himself or anyone else of the majesty of his office because that majesty being self-evident to him became self-evident for all those who encountered him. He did not need to defend his authority because it calmly and again in a self-evident way flowed from him. He did not need to look for an artificial familiarity with people because the majesty and the authority in him were indeed the majesty and the authority of love.

 

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My Churchly childhood and that almost unparalleled understanding of the Church as paradise which was linked with that childhood, ended with Metropolitan Evlogy’s death. I was one of the first priests to be ordained by Metropolitan Vladimir after his selection as Exarch, in the autumn of 1946. These were difficult years, marked by jurisdictional arguments and all kinds of discords. One constantly had to choose, to defend, and to vindicate. And here we were given a Bishop whose methods were radically different from those of the Evlogian times. The quality one felt, most of all, in our new First Hierarch, was his detachment. I became close to him as editor of the Church Herald and saw him frequently. The most surprising thing was his indifference to that, which we call Church business, to the externally administrative matters of Church life. It would have been inconceivable to imagine for example, that Metropolitan Evlogy would assign the drafting of a letter or of an epistle to his flock, to someone else. Vladyka Vladimir would hardly pay attention to what was suggested to him as the text. Having entrusted someone with the assignment he wouldn’t be concerned with how his trust was carried out. Thank you. May God bless you. Excellent, excellent. Just what is needed. He was hospitable, gentle, attentive, responsive. But, when was in a personal contact with him there was a feeling that he was not quite here, that his inner gaze was for some time directed at something else. In contrast to the recent multiplicity in the Church of maximalists who would frighten us with the impending doom and apostasies Vladyka Vladimir never frightened anyone with anything, never called anyone to any kind of maximalism and never would denounce anyone. But he would literally and simply proclaim, with his appearance and with all his being: Don’t you see? Here it is: the better part, the only thing, which is important, desirable, interesting and necessary. He wasn’t comfortable with talk about spiritual topics so beloved by other lovers of things spiritual. He did not like edifying sermonizing, criticism, and any kind of pseudo-spiritual intimacies. Once, when he was being driven back from some Church event, he became engrossed, with a childlike curiosity, about the production of cognac, wanting to know how it was made and what was the difference between various brands. It was noticeable how disturbed he was with any kind of insincerity, from an affected spiritual style, from precisely that pseudo-spirituality that frequently flourishes where there is no real spirituality. It is because he already chose the better part his relations with the world and with people was simple, almost joyful and clear. In one of my last meetings with him, when I came from America, he questioned me in some detail about the kinds of mushrooms that grow there and almost nothing about the Church life there. And yet, when I relayed the greetings from Metropolitan Leonty he, with that familiar and characteristic expression as if with a glance towards the heavens, crossed himself and quickly said: Tell Vladyka that I always pray for him. One could not doubt that this wasn’t just ordinary churchly rhetoric but a real and a profound truth, that he truly and always prays for him and only in this way, after all, did he understand Church business. As for the mushrooms, it was obvious that this was for him, a symbol of something familiar and close, something Divine, through which he could discern in his own heart what to him was that distant, great, unfamiliar America. This was his way of understanding it.

Actually, Metropolitan Vladimir came to light during Divine Services. I am convinced that those who had at least one opportunity to serve with him at the Altar would never be able to forget it. The word to serve is somehow inadequate here if by it one understands a carrying out of prescribed rites and gestures that have been carried out millions of times. All this he did precisely and accurately, but somehow one never felt that these were routine. One was left with the impression that all this was an unearthly lightness, an uninterrupted ascent, a spiritual radiance. Looking at his face, with its upward gaze and illuminated with an inner light, one could see that he was talking with someone very close to him. If in Metropolitan Evlogy the Church was projected as a family, as the flock, in Metropolitan Vladimir it was offered to its source and purpose, to the day without evening of God’s Kingdom.

 

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With all this behind me I arrived in America and reported to my new First Hierarch. He had been elected Metropolitan just a year before my arrival and thus his thirteen years of service as Metropolitan took place before my eyes. But I am convinced that my first impression correctly gave the sense of direction for the future. This was a summer weekday, shortly after the feast of the Trinity. When I arrived at the Cathedral there was a Liturgy at the side chapel. The Church was nearly empty and there were three singers on the kliros: a deacon, a psaltis and the Metropolitan. He was all in white – white riasa, white klobuk, with white hair and beard, very tall, standing straight as an arrow. He was singing the hymn to the Theotokos for Pentecost in his high, clear tenor. I can still hear that voice singing its arrangement by Turchaninov: Rejoice, O Queen! Glory of all mothers and virgins. . . He remains in my memory just as he appeared to me on that day. This was not the angelic, incarnate spirituality of Metropolitan Vladimir; this was not the authoritative fatherhood of Metropolitan Evlogy. This was one more example and expression of the Church – perhaps at first, as a haven and consolation, as an aid in the challenge of patience, as a support in that voyage along the sea of life, surging with the storm of temptation. . .

Later I learned how many personal, familial and official difficulties were Vladyka Leonty’s lot, how many trials he had to experience in his life, and why in truth, the Church for him was his first source of consolation and help for bearing the cross of life. One could feel all this, at that Liturgy in the empty Church, during that mystical feast that sanctified the mundane, even for a brief moment, where there is neither sickness nor sorrow, nor sighing. . .

Vladyka Leonty did not lead anyone, he did not build anything, as did Metropolitan Evlogy who, during the difficult years of the emigration created an exemplary diocese that was, so to speak, built upon him and which soon after his death began to move into its slow decline. Nor was he an ascetic or a mystic living in the vision of the Spirit, delighting in his conversation with God as Metropolitan Vladimir. He was very much down to earth, very simple, and very much day-to-day. He stood in his place, which he did not seek and which he accepted as one more cross to bear with endless patience. He stood and blessed everyone and everything with his large, bony, warm hands, never waiting for great results, rejoicing in small things and was not saddened too much with failures. His somewhat sad but just a bit mischievous smile would say: Why are you worried? God will do everything if it is necessary, and it doesn’t really depend on us too much. He never insisted on anything, he never imposed anything. If he was invited somewhere, he would go. If he was not invited, he didn’t go nor did he ever look for invitations. If he went somewhere he would always bring a present: some small packet, a book or simply, a check. Money flowed through his hands and didn’t stick to them. We can now recall, with shame for our Church, that he would help out poorly paid priests, widows and other clerics, from his own pocket.

In those times of petty self-aggrandizement and questionable careers he was humbly conscious that he was called to the white klobuk by the Revolution, the destruction and the instability of Church life and because of this he never pridefully extolled himself. I have never met a person who was so unaffected by the temptation for power, with so little ability to relish the signs of homage which surrounded him. He felt that his task was first of all to preserve and pass on. He truly never thought about himself but only of the Church that God entrusted to him by placing him in the Metropolitan’s office. Someone must occupy that place and so, he stood there and persevered. He looked upon preservation almost in a quantitative sense: that nothing be destroyed, that if possible, everyone must be saved – the weak and the strong, the good and the bad and the lost. The Lord will judge and sort things out; our task is to guard, to preserve, to bless and to pray. Any sense of anger, righteous indignation and wrath was somehow atrophied in him. If something outrageous occurred, he was not outraged. He would sigh, cross himself and stop the discussion about it as not beneficial. If someone tried to fool him he would attempt not to notice. Yet he took childlike delight in anything positive. In contrast to many others he was overjoyed at the arrival of numerous clerics from Europe after the war: Our regiment has been augmented – we will be stronger. He rejoiced with every new temple as a master rejoices with any increase in capital. As for losses – defections to other jurisdictions, ingratitude and even deaths – what is there to say, no household can live without losses. As many of the older priests, having seen everything in their lives, he was a minimalist towards others, but not towards himself. He neither expected nor demanded anything from them, nor did he judge or condemn: everything is God’s secret, only He sees and knows everything, he commanded us not to judge, but to be patient and to love. All this was incomprehensible for the young and the impassioned, and they would grumble about his tolerance, his responses to obvious distortions, his refusal to choose between the correct and the guilty, his failure to apply the letter of the law: Vladyka, but this is against the Typicon, contrary to the Canons! But he calmly stood on his own, firmly upholding the whole Metropolia under his prayerful gaze, without any illusions and constantly prayed to the Almighty that He would hold back the ranks of those moving against us. He did this with joy – as on that summer morning in an empty Church where he was completely absorbed by Turchaninov’s Rejoice, O Queen. . .

 

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Always a wise man, sometimes a dreamer. In the depth of his soul he did live like a dreamer. One on one, in his study or over a cup of tea, when one could stop talking about mundane Church matters at least for a while, he would let himself bask in his dreams, sometimes utopian ones. He had his own special view of the world, his own themes. He wrote poems, maybe not very good ones, but at heart he was truly a poet. A poet is first of all, someone who sees the world in a different way, someone who has his own secret theme. Vladyka Leonty had such themes – he did not thrust them on anyone, but always lived by them. Because of this, in spite of the endlessly difficult and in many respects tragic life, he never sank to the commonplace, never let it absorb him, but lived and soared above it. Even though his poems were at times both naive and trite, it is worth noting in wonder that in the aridness of life he did not dissipate the ardor of his soul and, until his last days, looked upon God’s world with gratitude, with joy and tenderness, always trying to transform it according to his own secret melody.

 

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I am sitting with him upstairs, on Second Street. We are drinking tea, discussing one thing or another. I rise to receive his blessing and be on my way. What can I present you with?Vladyka, why talk about presents? This is neither Christmas nor Easter!No, I must give you something, please wait a bit. . . He rises and goes into his bedroom, he brings out a somewhat old but a good leather attaché case. Here, you have to travel a lot, take it. I lovingly treasure that case, with its gold initials, M.L.

 

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He would respond personally, in his minuscule script, to every greeting whether official or personal. He would enclose a check, to the Seminary or for wine for the Seminary chapel. He had this remarkable concern over a little. But it is only through such concern over a little that real, vital and unspoken love is projected. At the end of the Liturgy, as his vestments are being removed, he reaches into his pocket and brings out three silver fifty-cent pieces. Here, these are for your children. – Vladyka, my children are already grown, ready to be married off, I try to protest. – Well, this will also come in handy for them.

 

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I once received a post card from Vladyka: I am flying over Texas. I am reading Fr. Bulgakov’s Peter and John. I am praying for those who live in Texas. This is him, in that little post card. It would have been interesting to find out how many people in that airplane are praying for those over whom they are flying.

 

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I cannot overlook his special love for the theological school and especially for Church education. How he radiated, how he rejoiced when he blessed the Seminary’s new house in Crestwood. Not a week would go by when he wouldn’t send books for the Seminary library or some kind of a proposal for the Academic Corporation. He taught Pastoral Theology for a number of years and when he could no longer come out himself, he would summon the whole class to the Cathedral. When he theologized this was not some routine stereotype, quenching the spirit for the sake of the letter. He always wanted to complete his work on the Prophet Ezekiel and submit it to the Seminary. He regretted that his infirmities prevented him from teaching ancient Hebrew. Each time he received a copy of the Seminary’s Quarterly he would send back a note with thanks along with his subscription. He thus subscribed no less than four times a year. Himself a graduate of the Kiev Theological Academy he valued academic traditions and embodied them in himself. He defended the broad academic and intellectual horizons of the former Russian Church and respected creativity and the spiritual freedom of the children of God in contrast to that obscurantism so favored by those self-styled bearers and defenders of Russian Orthodoxy.

 

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Great Lent, 1964. The special solemn service for all those persecuted for the Orthodox faith just ended at New York’s Greek Cathedral. At the end of the service Metropolitan Leonty approaches Archbishop Iakovos to thank him on behalf of the Metropolia. Something extraordinary takes place: the Greek Hierarch, in all his majesty, bows before the Elder in white, kisses his hand and says, You have a great soul.

 

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As I end these brief notes, I remembered Metropolitan Leonty’s special love for the Prophet Ezekiel. Opening his book in the Bible at random, my eyes rested on this text:

He said to me: Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, Thus says the Lord God; whether they hear or refuse to hear. (Ezekiel 3:10-11)

From The Life and Works of Metropolitan Leonty, NY 1969

Translated from the Russian by Fr. Alvian Smirensky
Translation © 1999 A. Smirensky

This article was first printed in Jacob's Well, Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Orthodox Church in America.