Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Father Alexander Schmemann - A Personal Memoir

by Fr. Paul Lazor

I Introduction

My presentation tonight at this, the annual Memorial Lecture in honor of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, is entitled: “A Personal Memoir.”  As my own many years of pedagogical, pastoral and administrative service at St. Vladimir’s Seminary draw to a close, it is a privilege to be given this opportunity to relate to you, through personal memories, something of the enormous impact on my life of this great and wonderful man.

My usage of the word man in reference to Fr. Alexander is deliberate and purposeful.  The wonderment inspired by even a brief review of his “life worth living,” a phrase used about him by Fr. Meyendorff in his eulogy at Fr. Alexander’s death, makes it easy to forget that Fr. Alexander was first of all a man – a real human being!  How was he able to do it all?  How was he able to do so much and at the same time, as we say today, keep it so together? He was intensely involved in both Europe and America in an incredible scope of activity and labor.  He was in direct contact with a host of dissimilar people, in a multitude of differing circumstances and situations.  He presided at meetings of the Seminary Faculty and, with the blessing and cooperation of the hierarchs at the time, also led many sessions of the Church’s All-American Councils.  While being immediately involved in the daily affairs of the Seminary’s administration, he simultaneously played a major role in the resolution of those ugly complications that periodically arose in Church life.  He formulated positions and documents for synods of Orthodox bishops, but participated as well in the difficulties and trials of ecumenical dialogues and cooperative efforts toward worthy purposes with other Christians.  He taught basic courses in church history and liturgy, but also offered electives in such areas as Russian literature – all at St. Vladimir’s, an Orthodox seminary.  In addition, he was a frequent guest lecturer at seminaries and formal gatherings of many other Christian-faith traditions.   He authored foundational books and profoundly insightful, prophetic articles regarding theology, liturgy and Church life in contemporary American society, but also regularly gave talks about matters of similar import over Radio Liberty (in Russian).  He was a leader in the development and canonical foundation of the Orthodox Church in America, as well as a major, inspirational proponent of unity among all Orthodox Christians in this country.  All the while, he never forgot his roots in France and its Russian émigré community.  He wrote extensively (in Russian) for the Parisian publication, The Journal of the Russian Christian Movement (where chapters of his wonderful book, The Eucharist, were first published), and for years was directly and very personally involved, both here and abroad, in the many complexities of what might be called “the Solzhenitsyn era.”

One result of his multifaceted, sacrificial labor was that Fr. Alexander was rightly awarded numerous titles and honors.  Many of them came to be almost automatically associated with his name.  He was a high-ranking priest (protopresbyter), a spiritual father and counselor.  He was a Seminary dean, professor, theologian and author – a leader within and a world spokesman for Orthodoxy.  On a personal level, however, Fr. Alexander struggled with these titles and their accompanying accolades.  He was concerned that they might constitute a kind of mask – labels prescribing roughly 90% of the activities of his life, but at the same time covering over his actual, real personhood.  Fr. Alexander kept a diary, the lengthy Russian version of which (Dnevniki1973-1983) was only recently published (2005).  Its purpose, he writes, was not to “note everything down,” but to “touch base” - with himself.  In the diary one discovers that he sometimes listed some of the titles awarded him and then humorously added: “Who knows; maybe I really am famous!”  During one entry, he asked himself directly the basic question: “Are you here?”  The answer he gave was: “Yes, I am here.  Thanks be to God.”

I hope something of this wonderful human being, the real man who provoked, permeated and enlivened the many titles of accomplishment and honor legitimately accorded to him, will emerge through my personal recollections tonight.

The Fr. Alexander Schmemann I have been blessed to know, remember and love is a man with grandparents and parents to whom he referred with respect throughout his life.  He was a man who fully shared his life with  “Liana” (Juliana), his beloved wife and faithful friend, with whom he had children and grandchildren, who in turn were objects of the couple’s mutual love and ongoing attention.  He was a Russian-Parisian who knew and loved the names of particular streets, sites and noteworthy annual events in both Paris and New York; who was regularly in a straightforward dialogue about “the truth of the Gospel” (Gal 2:14) in both Europe and America; who demonstrated a special familiarity and sympathy toward the languages and cultural contexts of the many places and persons he came to know and serve. He was reverently at home at the holy altar of the Church, especially that of the Seminary Chapel, where he celebrated the liturgy and preached God’s word with great focus, depth and joy.  He was profoundly conscious of being in God’s presence at another, more humble kind of altar: the sacred desk of his little office at home, where, looking through the window and observing keenly the daily weather, he was prompted by an inner voice (as he once described his mode of writing) to write (by hand) his books and articles, and to respond personally to myriad letters.  He was comfortable at the table of a great French or Armenian restaurant, but also enjoyed himself enormously at a typical American picnic, holding a “good old” hotdog, as he called it, in one hand, and a cold beer in the other.  He was attracted to the greatest intellectuals and writers (not only to their thoughts, but especially to their biographies, where he noted carefully the manner in which they identified and worked through the difficult issues of their lives, i.e., how they, as he would say, “dealt with what they were dealt”).  He often read as many as one such book per week.  He was equally appreciative, however, of the pious and simple, labor-class parishioners of the many Orthodox parishes throughout America where he regularly conducted retreats and lectures.   This is the man I recall with love and gratitude this evening.

II First Acquaintance

A great example of a title serving to mask the true personhood of Fr. Alexander Schmemann occurred on that occasion when, for the first time in my life, I heard his name.  It was around 1956-57, and I was then about 17 or 18 years of age.  My home parish, St. John the Baptist in Canonsburg, PA (of which my grandfather and father, Galician immigrants and factory workers, were founding and still active members), was scheduled to host an annual, major liturgical service involving all the regional parishes of the Pittsburgh Diocese on a Sunday evening during Great Lent.  Our parish pastor, Fr. Nicholas Fedetz (of blessed memory), demonstrating the many pastoral skills and intonations he typically employed to popularize events important to the parish, announced after a Sunday Liturgy that our parish was to host the local Deanery’s “Lenten Mission,” as the service was called. The Pittsburgh Russian Orthodox Male Chorus, of which my older brother and cousins were members, was to sing the responses.  Using a more solemn tone, Fr. Nicholas then explained that the service was also to feature a sermon by a very famous Orthodox scholar and priest from distant New York City! This homilist of note was declared to be none other than: Fr. Alexander Schmemann.  In describing Fr. Schmemann, our pastor accorded to him a special title. He said:  “Fr. Schmemann is a German convert from St. Vladimir’s Seminary.”  My own immediate thought and reaction was: “What is a “German convert?”  And in addition: “Can anything good come out of distant New York City to our noble little town in Southwestern Pennsylvania?” 

When the Sunday evening, Lenten service finally took place, Fr. Alexander presided at the celebration and delivered his homily. Through his particular vocal tone, accent and appearance, he all but confirmed the basic description of him given earlier in church, as well as in private conversation by our pastor during one of his many visits to our home.  Indeed, Fr. Alexander sounded to me exactly like what, in my imagination, a “German convert” was to be.  He was not easy to understand.  His language and points of reference seemed obscure and were not easy to follow.  Discussion later with members of my large family confirmed that many of them shared this same experience.  In short, not a single word of Fr. Alexander’s sermon, however powerful and prophetic it might have been, penetrated the mind-set, atmosphere, piety and setting of my life at that time.  “A German convert!”  Even today, I grapple to uncover the many nuances behind this strange title by which I initially came to know the man I remember with love tonight!

Several years later, when I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh and living in the University’s Student Union Building (a rather luxurious building which the University had recently purchased and which formerly had been the Schenley Hotel), on my way to my dorm-room one day I caught sight of a notice near the elevator which stated that a guest speaker, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, soon would be offering a lecture about Orthodoxy in the student auditorium of that very Building.  As I read his name, the earlier impressions he made on me and even the curious “title” awarded to him all came back.  Now, however, I was at a different place in my life.  Time had moved on.  I was several years older and found myself in an emerging personal struggle to come to terms with something and someone I had always been and had simply taken for granted: an Orthodox Christian.  I was slowly coming to realize, however, that my current path, as a Pitt athlete studying to be a chemical engineer, and as a member of a certain social circle with its accompanying mores, was gradually marginalizing the presence and impact of the Orthodox Church in my life. I sensed that a continuation along this path would lead me to become, at best, what might be called a good “Russian Orthodox,” i.e., a “religious” person, “proud to be Russian” (as my friends often kindly encouraged me to be in those days), keeping certain ethnic customs and particular holidays according to a different calendar, but in the end far from the heart of things: “life in abundance” in Jesus Christ.  I had always had a special love for the magnificent beauty and order of Orthodox worship. Since early childhood this was a powerful element in my life.  At the age of eight, for example, I had already sung the entire Divine Liturgy in church as a solo cantor. Only now, however, was I beginning to “touch base” and sense something of the significance of this love. Within liturgical celebration I perceived a certain truth and even a calling concerning my life. I made efforts to ignore these interior stirrings, but deep within I knew that I could not merely pass by or walk away from them. 

Despite my lack of understanding regarding his message earlier in my life, a strong intuition told me that now Fr. Alexander Schmemann, as the acting Dean of the Seminary where my beloved parish priest had trained for his pastoral ministry, had much to say that I should hear.  Nevertheless, even though his lecture was given in the same building where I lived as a dorm resident, I did not attend!  “The teacher appeared,” as the saying goes, but as the pupil, I was not ready. To this day, the best I can do to explain my remarkable absence that evening is the following.  In my soul I sensed that the presence and words of Fr. Alexander, whatever he might do or say, would require from me a radical change in the direction of my life – perhaps even enrollment at the Seminary.  This latter consideration, incidentally, was a matter about which my fatherly and inspiring parish priest, Fr. Fedetz, regularly reminded me.  But, as the pupil, I was not yet ready!

III. Enrollment at St. Vladimir’s Seminary

In the fullness of time and by the Grace of God, however, the pupil grew to an appropriate level of readiness.  I had already worked for a large company as a chemical engineering trainee. I had already obtained my college degree in that field.  But, during a typical sacramental confession during Great Lent, the Lord, unpredictably and without warning, “touched base” with me, providing a shaking clarification regarding my life and it purposes. A Russian saying I learned years later in my life, from my mother-in-law, captures well what took place at this earlier time:  “You have something; you don’t value it; you lose it, and you cry!”  During the Confession I indeed broke down and cried profusely. I knew that something extremely valuable was going to be lost in my life if things continued along their present path.  Something had to be done.  Later that spring, I finally heeded seriously the long-standing advice of my parish priest – who, with self-restraint and great compassion, had said very little during the stirring confession mentioned earlier.  I reached the following decision: prior to a deeper involvement in my new profession and other aspects of my life, I should at least check out the possibility of enrollment at an Orthodox seminary.  Through priests who were their graduates I was familiar with two such seminaries in the State of Pennsylvania:  Christ the Savior in Johnstown, and St. Tikhon’s in South Canaan.  My pastor, however, without speaking negatively about either of these schools, advised me to look beyond this more local scene, and to consider enrollment at his alma mater, St. Vladimir’s.  He put it to me simply: “You are a college graduate and a good student;”  “go where you will get the best education – St. Vladimir’s is a graduate school!”  I followed his guidance and, after the appropriate process of application, was accepted there in the summer of 1961.  In September of that year my cousin (now Metropolitan THEODOSIUS), himself a recent graduate of the Seminary, accompanied me on the overnight bus trip from Canonsburg to New York City and St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

I will never forget our walk together along upper-Broadway, the first-ever along that street in my life, on the morning of our arrival in New York City.  As we passed by several large educational institutions and their impressive facilities - Columbia University, Barnard College and Union Theological Seminary (with a glimpse of Julliard School of Music in the background), I looked continuously for familiar signs of an Orthodox presence: a gold cupola, a three-barred cross; something!  Of course, I saw nothing of the kind!  Only after we had entered a non-descript, unnamed brownish-brick building at 537 West 121st Street and later stepped out of the elevator on its 2nd  floor, did my cousin finally say:  “You are now at St. Vladimir’s Seminary!”  I still find it amazing that the arrival at and moving into St. Vladimir’s was a transfer so laden for me with instructive meaning.  I went from residency as a Pitt scholarship-athlete in the luxurious former Schenley Hotel, where my meals were served at a special training table, to housing shared with eight other seminarians in a multi-roomed apartment located in an old building tightly squeezed between two other structures on a side street in New York City, where you either ate at “Dot’s” or cooked your own humble meals!  From the very first moments of my Seminary days, the Lord Himself already began to present to me a clear glimpse of the new path along which He was calling me to walk.  In His own way (and certainly not according to any way I had foreseen) He revealed to me His words: “Learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29).

IV. Seminary Days – Meeting Fr. Alexander Anew

From the opening day of Orientation, conducted for the five new enrollees in a small living room of one of the several apartments rented by the Seminary in the building described earlier, it was evident to me that the person who, by his vision of Orthodox Christianity and its concrete application in life, guided St. Vladimir’s Seminary, was none other than:  Fr. Alexander Schmemann.  He quickly demonstrated a special charism - a quality of leadership that never left him during all the years I studied, prayed and worked with him.  His was the gift of giving gracious and full attention to each person in what grew to be a long line of seekers, petitioners and telephone callers each day.  With his attentiveness, generosity of spirit and good humor, he made each person, in each encounter, feel like he or she was the only person he was to see - be that person a bishop representing an ancient Patriarchate, or simply a student wanting to discuss difficulties with a community-service assignment; a theologian seeking guidance through the complexities of a doctoral dissertation, or a teenage boy talking about his love of basketball!  During my own student years we came together only twice for personal, separate meetings.  By his joyful, warm and sympathetic daily greetings, however, he always assured me that his door was open.  Rarely did he pass me by without at least asking how things were in my beloved “Pittsburgshchina,” as he called the Pittsburgh area. 

As I mentioned previously, Fr. Alexander had the ability to be at home with many dissimilar people in and from many different worlds.  Ultimately, he utilized this gift to enter your world, seasoning it with that salt which is a foretaste of the joy of the Kingdom of God.  He thereby actualized a perspective concerning the priestly ministry stated by Archbishop John (Shahovskoy) in his book, The Orthodox Pastor:

“A true priest … seasons the world with his whole life, with all his words and actions - voluntary and, especially, involuntary” (p. 93).

By the Grace of God he captured well what St. Paul the Apostle said of himself:

“I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”
(I Cor 9:22).

Years later (1977), in a letter he sent to me upon my acceptance of his offer to leave my excellent parish and to assume full-time, resident employment at St. Vladimir’s as the Dean of Students – a position he termed “pastor of the student body,” Fr. Alexander made a gentle reference to his own future retirement. He wrote: “Now with joy and gratitude I can say: ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…’” Little did I realize then how adequately his words, with those of St. Simeon, would come to express the ongoing impact of Fr. Alexander on my life.  To this very evening he continues generously to “season” my heart, soul and mind with joy, peace and gratitude concerning the Kingdom of God.

V. Fr. Alexander – the Teacher

Perhaps Fr. Alexander’s greatest gift was that of being a teacher.  In the chapel as well as the classroom he not only taught, but first of all learned, “things divine.”  His lifetime of learning in the Chapel should certainly come as no surprise to any of us.  Like the fishermen of old, in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, we are all given the possibility to become “most wise” through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In his diary, however, Fr. Alexander discloses that, for him, a similar learning process transpired in the classroom.  He claims that in that setting he learned through what proceeded from his own lips, during his own lectures.  He says in amazement that, as he lectured, he seemed actually to be listening to someone else – speaking within and through him!  Indeed, he was a great teacher of “things divine,” but, by his own admission, he was first and always an attentive pupil of the Source of these divine things – the Lord God Himself!

A particular feature of Fr. Alexander’s ministry as a teacher – whether in homilies given at weekday (7:00 a.m.) Divine Liturgies in the Seminary Chapel, or at evening lectures (7:30 p.m.) in the classroom, was his usage of unforgettable words and special formulations.  To this day those of us who listened to him speak can still hear him utter such words as “eucharistic” and “doxological.”  In his usage, however, these were not intended to be “fancy words.” By such terms he pointed to those basic godly actions by which we humans realize our vocations as  “worshipping beings.”  To this statement, however, he always added the qualification: “It all depends on what you worship!”  And Orthodoxy, he explained, is all about rightly worshipping the one and true God.  From this foundational premise concerning Orthodoxy, Fr. Alexander cut through confusing complexities.  With clarity and vigor he identified and expounded on the basics of life in the Faith, especially as they were embodied and conveyed in the Church’s sacraments and liturgy.  His treatment of the “Rite of the Little Entrance” at the Divine Liturgy serves as a good illustration of his special ability in this respect. In some usages, before the Little Entrance is actually accomplished, the clergy might enter and exit the sanctuary as many as three times.  The participant in or student of this confusing scene may have great difficulty discerning just what is happening.  Is the action being carried out an entrance, or is it an exit?  Piercing through the layers of accumulated “practices,” Fr. Alexander presented the Little Entrance as what it really is: an entrance into the “joy of your master” (Mt 25:21, 23).  It is a movement essential to the sacramental transformation of an assembly of  “aliens and exiles” (I Peter 2:11) in this world, who, when they “gather as church” (I Cor 11:18), to hear and embrace the Word of God, make a “journey” and an “ascent” to the “homeland of the heart’s desire.” There, having offered to the Lord in gratitude and praise all that they are and all that they have, they receive the gifts of the food and drink of eternal life at the Master’s Table in the joy of His Kingdom.

Another feature of Fr. Alexander as a teacher was his employment of contrast: a usage found extensively in Orthodox hymnography.  His presentations were replete with references to heaven and earth, the “already” and the “not-yet,” continuity and discontinuity, the contemporary and the eternal; the “no” and the “yes;” the possible “impossibility,” or the impossible “possibility.”   By such contrasts, he “cleared the air” and thereby made space for the “one thing needful.”  He declared a consistent “No” to what he perceived as a “misguided eschatology:” an otherworldly spirituality which seemed to him to render meaningless “the life of the world,” for which Christ “gave Himself up”  – as the Anaphora states.  He rejected as well a “religion” which claimed, through observance of its rules and regulations, and adherence to its counsel, to make “the life of the world” safer, saner and better – to “solve the world’s problems.”  In some instances, his list of “no’s” – usually occurring at the beginning of a sermon or lecture, was so lengthy and inclusive that the startled listener wondered just what could possibly remain!

What always remained of course was Fr. Alexander’s huge “Amen” to Jesus Christ: the Alpha and the Omega; the Lamb and Savior who takes away the sins of the world.  Through the incarnation, life, teaching, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ; through His ascension and enthronement at the Father’s right hand; by the outpouring through Him of the Holy Spirit, the God and Father has accomplished all things “for us men and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed).  This “all things” is constantly remembered, lived and bequeathed to each one of us in the sacraments and liturgy of the Church.

In elucidating the manner in which this “life in abundance” is realized among and communicated sacramentally to the faithful in the Church, Fr. Alexander once again often began by “clearing the air.”  First, he dismissed a commonly held notion by which the Church is presented as an “institution” with “sacraments” (anywhere from two to twelve in number).  He went on to reject the contrast whereby the liturgy and sacraments of the Church are reduced to the categories of “real” and “symbolic.” Coming to “the one needful thing,” he contended that the Church herself, in all her fullness, is entirely sacrament – the Mystery of the Kingdom of God in our midst.  The Church is “in this world,” but not “of this world.” The Church is “heaven on earth,” and a “transfigured earth in heaven.” Bringing together these “apparently disparate elements,” the Church is ultimate Reality embodied and communicated to the faithful through Symbol – her   Spirit-empowered liturgical and sacramental celebrations.  Through these celebrations, the faithful receive the gift of citizenship in the Kingdom of God. They are born anew as members of Christ’s spotless, most-pure Body.  They live in the “now,” but as celebrants of the “Sacrament of Sacraments,” the Holy Eucharist with its Food and Drink, they are given a joyful foretaste of the “not yet:” “life in abundance” at the Lord’s Table in His Kingdom. These few sentences are but a suggestion of the remarkable teaching of Fr. Schmemann regarding the sacraments, the liturgy and the Church.

The comprehensiveness of his vision and understanding regarding Jesus Christ and the purposes of His work inspired Fr. Alexander to yet another of his most powerful and consistent insights.  This intuition concerns Mary, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mother of our Lord.  The Church celebrates many feastdays in her esteem.  Fr. Alexander had a particular love for one not listed among the major twelve.  This festival, called “The Praise of the Theotokos,” occurs on the 5th Saturday of Great Lent - when Mary is lauded through a magnificent Akathistos Hymn composed in her honor.  The Troparion of this feast sings of her as the “Victorious Leader of Triumphant Hosts.”  She is glorified as the very human personification of the Way, Truth and Life in Christ.  She is the very realization of the joy of the Kingdom of God into which all aspire to enter through the solemn path of Great Lent.  In Mary, the Virgin-Mother of our Lord, Fr. Alexander saw nothing of the “joylessness” of which Christians have often been accused. In fact, he saw just the opposite. He cited the greeting accorded to her by the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation.  He pointed to numerous examples in the Church’s extensive hymnography.  Through these sources he proclaimed that the one word which, more than any other, captures the presence of Mary among the faithful of the Church is:  “Rejoice.”  Recognition of this reality, he insisted, is especially important on the 5th Saturday of Great Lent, when the penitential and ascetical emphasis of this important season draws to a close.  Soon the faithful will be called to put aside self-concern, and to follow Christ to the tomb of Lazarus.  From there they will go with Him up to Jerusalem to be witnesses of His own suffering, death and resurrection.  Exactly at this turning point of Great Lent the Church presents anew the Virgin Mary: a young woman who emptied herself and “let it be” in her life according to the Will of God.  With arms upraised in gratitude and praise, she stands before the faithful, rejoicing in her Son, interceding on our behalf and leading us into the joy of the Kingdom of God her Son came to inaugurate in our midst.

A comprehensive pastoral dimension is also manifest in Fr. Alexander’s teaching.  In fact, in my days as a seminarian, he taught the Seminary’s only course in what today is called “Pastoral Theology” (which, unbelievably, I currently teach). He was clearly aware that the Good Shepherd, as John the Theologian states it (John 10), does more than  “lead” the sheep and envision their ultimate destination.  The Good Shepherd also knows the sheep “by name” (Jn 10:3-15).  He finds the sheep where and such as they are when they are lost.  He knows their capabilities, and understands well what will be required of them to begin their journey and to reach its culmination. Such an awareness concerning the Good Shepherd provided powerful motivation for Fr. Alexander to attend practically and concretely to the many issues involved in the accomplishment of the vision from which and toward which he taught.  He resisted tendencies toward a polarization of the “academic” and the “practical” – to make of the Seminary a kind of  “ivory tower” in which theological vision was separated from everyday Church life.  If the eucharistic Liturgy is indeed, as he asserted, the presence now of the banquet table of the Kingdom of God and the center of the Church’s life, then the many issues relegating most Orthodox Christians to non-participants in that banquet must be identified and addressed.  If the Anaphora is indeed “our story,” as Fr. Tarazi terms it, then it once again has to be read aloud by the celebrant.  If the Sacrament of Repentance is the renewal in our life of the Grace of Baptism, then the fact that Confession has either disappeared or has degenerated into a yearly formality, a kind of “key” opening the door to the annual reception of Holy Communion, must be faced and changed in a major way.  If Baptism, Marriage, Unction and the Liturgy of Death have become “private” sacraments and rituals concerning only those immediately involved, then they too require a public and ecclesial renewal. They must be inserted again into their proper places in the very heart of the Church’s liturgical life and in the mind of the faithful.  These are but a few of the major areas where the pastoral labor of Fr. Schmemann has had and continues to effect enormous influence on Orthodox Church life in America as well as throughout the world.

The cycle (or cycles) of worship is another realm of official Church life undergoing major renewal as a result of the teaching and pastoral labor of Fr. Alexander.  At this point in history it is no exaggeration to say that, among Christians in typical parish life, the Orthodox alone continue to refer to a cycle or cycles of worship: daily, weekly, festal and yearly/paschal.  Others usually speak of services (of whatever type) at different times: the evening service, the morning service, the afternoon service, the earlier or later service; the longer service, the shorter service; services in English or some other language; the eucharistic mass of the Lord’s Day anytime between 5:00 p.m. on Saturday to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday – to name but a few of the variations. From this list of possibilities, the community member is invited to choose the service and time most convenient and suitable for his/her needs, schedule, etc.  For the Orthodox, liturgical cycles are not lists of many services from which the faithful are to select those most convenient, suitable, etc. Celebration, as Fr. Alexander explained, is not something you merely “drop into.”  Real celebration is always the fulfillment of preparation and expectation.  From this perspective, the Divine Liturgy of the Lord’s Day is the fulfillment of that preparation and anticipation which begin at Vespers on Saturday evening.  The two services are not interchangeable!  Pascha is the fulfillment of the path of repentance and self-denial – the prayer, fasting, almsgiving and instances of forgiveness performed during the 40 days of Great Lent.  Great Lent, in turn, with its many special penitential services and commemorations is elevated to something much greater than a season to fulfill certain “religious obligations.”  Especially inclusive of its evening celebration of the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, it becomes again a journey arousing in the faithful a righteous hunger and thirst – an anticipation for the joy of that “day without evening” of the Kingdom of God: Pascha!  All that I have attempted to say is but a brief survey, a mere hint of that joy of the Kingdom of God  - of which in every respect, Fr. Alexander was such an authentic witness, and by which he has so generously seasoned my life!

VI. The Death of Fr. Alexander

I bring this personal memoir of Fr. Alexander Schmemann to a close with several recollections concerning his death.  Late in the summer of 1982, after returning from his “break” in Labelle, Canada, Fr. Alexander met personally with Natasha and me and informed us that, since the beginning of his summer stay in Canada, he had not been feeling well.  He spoke calmly, saying that in his adult life he had never been really sick, and was fully cognizant of the incredible blessings bestowed on him.  During a lengthy stay at the New York Hospital in the final week of September and early October, his condition was diagnosed as cancer. When he was released from the Hospital, he summoned Fr. Hopko, David Drillock and me to his home after Vespers one evening to inform us of the diagnosis. Once again, he spoke calmly and courageously, stating that by no means was he giving up.  He was ready to obey the doctors and do all that was possible to fight this terrible disease.  Nevertheless, he made sober admission that everything, including life, has its limits and, sooner or later, in one or another way, all things in this world must come to an end.  He asked for our understanding, support and prayers.

After several months, the chemotherapy and other difficult treatments he endured during his many regular trips to medical facilities in New York City began to take their toll.  His body weakened. He began to lose his hair. On one occasion, as we walked side by side across the Seminary grounds near the monument at the bottom of the Chapel’s hillside, he reached up to his head and simply pulled out a clump of his hair, As he scattered the clump into the air, he turned to me and, revealing a certain sadness, said:  “It will be a humiliation to the end!” His appetite also began to fade.  Yet, one morning over our breakfast after Matins in the Seminary refectory, he again “seasoned” my life with one of his incredible, intensely profound statements.  As he observed me eating heartily, he peacefully smiled and in a humorous tone said: “Father Paul, you are in good health and eating so well, while I am sick and can barely sip my coffee.”  Then he added: “As you know, however, some of us die sick, and others of us die healthy, but we all die!”

Many other scenes come to mind as I recall the last months of Fr. Alexander’s earthly life. He continued to serve in the Chapel, but liturgical celebration became more difficult for him.  He sometimes stumbled in his physical movements or lost his place in the order of service.  Once, as we stood together at the high place while the Epistle was being read during the Divine Liturgy, he turned to me and said: “I simply cannot preach.”  At his request and by the Grace of God, I stepped forward immediately after the Gospel reading and offered the homily.  The only time I saw Fr. Alexander actually “break down,” as we say, was at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (Nov. 21).  He had returned to the sanctuary after the Liturgy, and, with his back to the altar, leaned against the wall near the entrance to the sacristy.  With his face hidden in the curve of his supporting arm, he wept audibly and uncontrollably for some time. He nodded in appreciation as efforts were made to console him, but he, and all of us with him in reverential respect, largely refrained from words.

A host of other memorable occasions could easily be mentioned. Especially noteworthy was the last Divine Liturgy Fr. Alexander celebrated, on Thanksgiving Day of 1983, and the magnificent homily he offered on that occasion.  Instances such as these, however, have been well remembered by others.  His unforgettable, last sermon has been published and widely distributed, and is read annually in the Chapel at the Liturgy on Thanksgiving Day. 

A final recollection from his earthly life, involving me directly, is connected with a last visit Fr. Thomas Hopko, David Drillock and I, along with our wives, made to Fr. Alexander in New York Hospital.  Matushka Juliana and Masha were also there, bringing the total number of visitors to eight.  Fr. Alexander had taken a turn for the worse.  Fr. Tom brought Holy Communion for him, and we also had with us the sanctified oil remaining from the Sacrament of Holy Unction, which, weeks earlier, Metropolitan THEODOSIUS and other clergy had celebrated over Fr. Alexander in the Seminary Chapel.  During our visit to him, Fr. Alexander was fairly alert and, by facial expression and gesture, indicated a full awareness of our presence.  Fr. Tom gave him Holy Communion. We prayed over and anointed him again with the holy oil. Fr. Tom then pronounced the dismissal, and, offering Fr. Alexander the cross for veneration, said in a strong voice: “Amen.”  To this Fr. Alexander responded: “Amen. Amen. Amen.” As our visit reached its conclusion, Fr. Schmemann and I exchanged a final and direct glance, at which time I humbly asked him the following question:  “Do you bless us to continue your work?”  Once more, this great and wonderful man seasoned my life in a way that remains vivid to this very evening. His seasoning during those last precious moments consisted in his saying nothing, but through his silence, gentle smile and a slight turning away of his head, saying everything.  With clarity I heard him say:  “The Church is not mine.  The Seminary is not mine.  All things have been offered in thanksgiving to God!  He will take care of things.  He will provide the ‘successors’ appropriate to continue His holy work!”

Let us conclude in prayer.

Let us pray to the Lord:

“O God of spirits and of all flesh, who, through the Pascha of Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has trampled down death, and overthrown the devil, and given life to Thy world; grant rest to the soul of Thy departed servant, the Protopresbyter, Alexander, in the place of brightness, refreshment, and joy, of which he was such a faithful and trustworthy witness during his earthly sojourn! May his memory be eternal!


January 14, 2007

This work is Copyright © 2007 Fr Paul Lazor. Originally presented by Fr Paul Lazor at the 23rd annual Fr Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture at St Vladimir's Seminary, January 28 2007. It is republished on this web site with permission.