Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Father Alexander Schmemann:

No Longer Merely an Echo



FROM ALL PARTS of the Church, from all parts of the world, we have heard the same lament in the last ten months: How powerfully we experience the absence of Father Alexander! How strongly we sense the great void in our lives! How deeply we feel ourselves lonely, unprotected and exposed! When Father was alive we often went to him for encouragement and advice. Sometimes we went for no particular reason, but just to see him and talk, and to receive some reaction or reassurance about something or another. And sometimes we didn’t even call or go because it was enough for us to know that he was there and could be reached when things got too bad, or to unbearable, or too far out of hand. But now he is gone. And though we sense his spiritual presence everywhere and in everything, particularly at the altar — and most particularly in the seminary chapel with the marvelous new fresco of the Eucharist which so magnificently expresses Father’s faith and vision of Christ and the Church — we mourn his physical absence, and the comforting strength and support which he always so surely and powerfully provided. How appropriate are Christ’s words about John the Baptist when we try to express our feelings about Father Alexander. "He was a burning and shining light, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light" (Jn 5:35).

Fr. Alexander on Palm Sunday

A Timely Death

Father Alexander’s death has been called "untimely," and in a human sense it was. As Archbishop lakovos said on the CBS television tribute, "He was taken from us much earlier than we thought." Yet he was taken from us by God, and in this sense his death was certainly "timely." With God there are no accidents, and every moment is the right one for everything, including one’s death. It was God’s will, which always works with our human freedom which we can use for good and for ill, that Father Alexander should leave us when he did. The Lord does not want His creatures to die. We die because of our sins. But when and how we die is still in God’s hands, to be accomplished according to His will. As we search for the meaning of Father’s parting from us, edified and strengthened by the beautiful way in which he was enabled to transform his death into a victory of life, we can find it in the simple conviction that he finished what he was given to do upon this earth and is now called to work among us from heaven.

A Word of God

In reading the book of Archimandrite Vasileios, the abbot of Stavronikita monastery on Mouth Athos, called Hymn of Entry (SVS Press, 1984), a quotation of Saint Ignatius of Antioch struck me as the perfect "word" to give meaning to Father Alexander’s passing. The holy bishop was on his way from Antioch to Rome where he was to face execution for being a Christian. He writes a letter to his friends in the city asking them not to interfere with his approaching death, for he desires to give his life for the Lord. In this letter to the Romans he writes:

For if you hear my voice no more; I shall become a Word of God; but if you are in love with my bodily existence, I shall be merely an echo (Rom 2:1).

Father Alexander did not die a martyr’s death in the strict sense of the word as Saint Ignatius did, but his life and his death were those of a martyr in the original sense of the term — which literally means witness. Father Alexander was a witness to the presence and power of God in the life of the Church and in the life of God’s people. He was a witness to the Kingdom of God defined by Saint Paul, in what was surely Father’s favorite and most quoted scriptural passage, as "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17).

Father bore witness to Christ and the Kingdom of God. And like every Christian witness, his testimony was finalized in his death. However holy a person may be, however eloquent in speech and articulate in expression, however powerful in action and fruitful in deeds, while he remains alive in this world, on this side of eternity, he is "merely an echo" of God, a voice crying in the wilderness of the fallen world about the beauty and glory of the kingdom to come. But when such a person dies and departs to be with Christ, he is not "unclothed," as the apostle Paul has told us, but is "further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life," it becomes "a Word of God."

No Longer An Echo

In his dying, Father Alexander has become a Word of God for us. He has become finally and forever his real and true self. He has become who he eternally is, and was called by God to be from before the foundation of the world. If we are in love with Father’s temporal being, if we love his bodily existence, if we lament his passing and long for his earthly voice — however beautiful and comforting, strong and encouraging, instructive and inspiring it has been in preaching and teaching, in liturgical prayer and personal conversation — we remain in love with "merely an echo." But if we hear Father’s voice no more and learn to commune with him as he now is in his eternal condition of glory with Christ in God, then we will come to know him as a Word of God given to us by the Lord not merely to be heard and obeyed, but to be personally encountered in the Spirit as "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12).

We receive a new relationship with Father Alexander in his death, and deeper and fuller and richer communion. We are given now to know him as a completed person, a perfected image of God purged of all of the faults and frailties, which were his in the days of his flesh. We are now blessed to know him alive in eternal life, fully graced with the glory of God, wholly enlightened with the light of the Day without evening of the kingdom of heaven, which Light is the Lord Christ Himself.

How sad it would be for us now to long for the echo when we have finally been given the Word.

The Orthodox Church, Vol. 20, No. 12, December 1984, p. 3