On the 13th December 1983, one of the most talented Orthodox theologians, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, died.
Alexander Schmemann was born in Estonia in 1921, but during his childhood and student days he lived in France. He received his theological education in Paris at the renowned Institut St. Serge, which was founded shortly after the Russian revolution by the exiled Russian intelligentsia and which very soon became the centre of Orthodox theology in the West. In 1946 he was ordained a priest and became a teacher of church history at the Institut St. Serge. In 1951 he left for America in order to teach at St. Vladimirs Seminary. In 1962 he was appointed Rector of this seminary.
It is not easy to sum up in a few words the meaning of Father Alexanders life and work. One could say that he possessed an unusually many-sided personality, and has used his talents in all possible fields of church life. For twenty years he was the undisputed leader of the Orthodox Church in America and highly respected by all.
Father Alexanders name will always be linked with the study of the liturgy. At St. Vladimirs he taught "liturgical theology", and he was probably the first to use this term. His own teachers had been the Parisian theologians Cyprian Kern and Nicolas Afanasieff.
"Liturgical theology" is not the same as "liturgics" (study of the rubrics) and even less an abstract, academically scientific "theology of the liturgy". Actually one would never find any "dry" academic theology with Father Alexander, i.e. the theological study seen as a goal in itself. He used to say to new students: "you are not here in the first place to learn all kinds of facts, you are here to be submerged into something, to experience," and indeed, "experience" was one of his favourite words.
Father Alexanders question was: what does the liturgy reveal to us about theology, and thus about the essence of the Church? In order to know what theology is, we must start by listening to the voice of the Church. "The Church does not belong to us, but we belong to the Church", he used to say.
In the centre of Father Alexanders books and talks stands the Eucharist, the Epiphany of the Church (another term he liked to use). In speaking of the Church we must of course not only think of the Church in her earthly form, which Father Alexander loved dearly notwithstanding, but moreover with all her faults. The Liturgy and therefore also the Church is, as Father Alexander used to say: "the epiphany of the Kingdom of God." One may ask what was his specific contribution to the study of the Liturgy, and one may be sure that in the future many a weighty study will be written on this.
His stress on the ecclesiastical side of the Liturgy was clearly influenced by his teacher Nicolas Afanasieff, and therefore, however important, is not original. Personally I was impressed by his stress on the eschatological meaning of the Church and the Liturgy. Day after day he underlined to his students that Church and Liturgy are no goals in themselves, but that what matters is the reality of the Kingdom of God that has come with Christ. This seems to me to be his most important message.
The liturgical revival in many Orthodox parishes in the West, a more conscious participation of the believers in the Liturgy, frequent communion, the use of the vernacular, is surely due to the work of Father Alexander.
Father Alexanders vision of the Liturgy was clearly related to his vision of life. In his opinion "liturgy" does not belong to an isolated "holy" domain, separated from the "profane". The Church does not exist to satisfy certain "religious needs" which have nothing to do with the world, but it is in the Liturgy of the Church that the world rediscovers her true destination.
In his beautiful book "For the Life of the World" Father Alexander speaks about the "sacramental structure of the world", and in doing so he responds from within the Orthodox tradition to the cultural and spiritual problem of our time: secularisation, for him the "heresy of these days."
As a man, Father Alexander has left an unforgettable impression on all those who have known him. He was not only respected, but also loved by his students. He had an extraordinary gift for speaking, and a great sense of humour, and also something of the stature of a prophet. Father Alexander was certainly no "cloistered scholar" who after long and careful studies reaches certain conclusions to be formulated with the necessary prudence. He was given the special charisma to see and understand immediately certain theological problems or situations in the practical life of the Church. Father Alexander wrote a language that is accessible to everybody, not only to theologians. He thought rightly that theology had become too much a matter for professors, another form of clericalism. This does not mean that he refused to consider academical theology, but he was able to present it in a balanced and wider perspective. Especially some German scholars fell victim to his humorous criticisms.
Yet, what each of us will remember most is the joy, which permeated Father Alexanders person, works and lessons. Even during the serious illness from which he suffered during the last year of his life, this "charismatic" or "eschatological" joy did not leave him. He loved to quote Nietzsche, who reproached Christians for having such an "un-saved" look!
In one of his lessons, speaking about Easter night, Father Alexander said that we ourselves cannot "make" the joy of Easter, we can only "enter" it, as it says in the Gospel.
Father Alexander, may you have totally entered the eternal joy of your Lord!
Yoost van Rossum
Yoost van Rossum is a St. Vladimir's Seminary graduate; this article appeared in Vereniging van Orthodoxen "H. Nikolaas van Myra" ("Fellowship of Orthodox Christians: "St. Nicholas of Myra") Yaarbock (Annual) 1984, and was translated by Annemarie de Visser.
The Cathedral News Letter, London, No. 166, July 1984.