Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

A celebration of life and death

The Orthodox World and especially the Church in North America was deeply saddened on December 13, 1983 (a Memorial to the Blessed Herman of Alaska, first Orthodox Saint in America), when we learned of the untimely death and falling asleep of our dear friend and colleague, the Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. What a tremendous impression this humble servant of the Lord has left on the Church here and abroad. Whatever liturgical and pastoral renewal we have witnessed during the past 30 years came out of his scholarship. He was in the unique position of influencing patriarchs, bishops, priests, deacons, teachers, singers and a multitude of laymen in Orthodoxy as well as historians and theologians in the non-Orthodox world. His influence was for the better! Orthodox Christianity became a way of life for us. It was no longer a petrified mummy stored away in some far-off museum. It was no longer an exotic religion to be studied by experts in their field. It was life in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Christian life for him was a full vocation. In one of his best known books, For the Life of the World, he reminds us, "The meaning, the essence and the end of all vocation is the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is through the Church that each one of us finds that the vocation of all vocations is to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood: in His love for man and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom." Thus he lived amongst us.

During the past year, Father Alexander suffered from the dreaded disease of cancer. It sapped his energy, changed his physical appearance and robbed us of his presence at many of our church activities. He became a suffering servant. But his mind, liturgical life and prayers and wit remained intact. He continued, to the best of his ability, to lecture to the student body at St. Vladimir Seminary which he loved even unto death. He participated at institutes for college students, choir members, iconographers, religious educators, theologians and clergy brotherhoods. He continued to administer as Dean and took part in every faculty and Board of Trustees meeting. He accepted invitations to the conventions of the various Orthodox jurisdictions in North America. He continued to write, preach, teach, counsel and witness to the Faith. All of this in spite of his pain and anguish. He dared not stop! Suffering to him was not new. He had often labored over the future of the Seminary. There were jurisdictional differences to which he was called upon to mediate. The granting of autocephaly to the "Russian Metropolia" from the Mother Church of Russia caused such a stir within Orthodoxy here that Father Alexander became one of its strongest defenders and thus anguished over its possible divisions in this hemisphere. He had high hopes for the Bilateral Commission of the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Archdiocese and prayed that other churches would come to join its noble purposes. Then came physical suffering as well. He faced it with a true Christian spirit. He knew that it was part of the total experience of man – fallen man to be sure – but man now redeemed by the Risen Christ. He knew that in this world there would be tribulation. He also remembered the words of Christ, "be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." To quote from his book again: "Through His own suffering, not only has all suffering acquired a meaning but it has been given the power to become itself the sign, the sacrament, the proclamation, the ‘coming’ of that victory; the defeat of man, his very dying has become a way of Life." Thus he suffered amongst us.

This remarkable priest-theologian will be missed. He has left a legacy, unique to be sure. He shines now as one of the several bright stars of Christianity. His life and death were truly a celebration.

Let Father Alexander now speak to us as a last testimony: "The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, ‘joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.’ And it is the expectation of the ‘day without evening’ of the Kingdom; not of any ‘other world’ but of the fulfillment of all things and all life in Christ. In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. In Him ‘all things are yours; whether . . . the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s’, (I Cor. 3:21-23). And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. For neither life nor death can separate us from the love of Christ. I do not know when and how the fulfillment will come. I do not know when all things will be consummated in Christ. I know nothing about the ‘whens’ and ‘hows’. But I know that in Christ this great Passage, the Pascha of the world has begun, that the light of the ‘world to come’ comes to us in the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, for Christ is risen and Life reigneth."

Farewell dear friend and rest in eternal peace!

George S. Corey

The Word, Vol. 28, No. 2, February, 1984, p. 3