by Fr. Alexis Vinogradov


When American churchmen visited Russia and commented on the state of religion under the Soviet regime they would often describe the lack of religious freedom by saying, "the Church is reduced to serving the Liturgy, to the pomp of exotic, outward ritual." Being themselves so conditioned to the primacy of the preached or spoken word, they could see little spiritual value in the liturgical life per se, and would marvel that this "archaic" ritual would still hold some degree of primal attraction.

What completely eluded these western churchmen was the very thing to which Father Alexander Schmemann would dedicate the better part of his thirty-year teaching career in America. For the western man the liturgy could be an object of historical interest, a helpful venue for personal piety and expression, a source of spiritual comfort and solace, but it was primarily the stage or setting for the rational word, the sermon. Deprived of that "intellectual" component or center, there remained for him, as architects might say, only the form with no useful function. Father Alexander continued, and almost single-handedly articulated in America, the legacy of a small number of theologians who understood that the whole liturgy (meaning the entire worship of the church) is not the focus of speculation or experimentation, but is itself the very source of theological knowledge and spiritual experience and revelation. If in that prolonged period of intellectual silence in Russia’s recent religious history, the Church managed to nurture both peasants and intellectuals as well, it was precisely due to these "archaic" rituals — a spiritual force which even boorish, ill-educated, and often narrow-minded clergy could not diminish or destroy.

But this paper is not a review of Russia’s spiritual history. Rather, it is a continuing attempt to underscore the nature of this spiritual force called worship, why a "Parisian intellectual" like Father Alexander would claim it as the single most critical concern of the Church’s life, indeed the very core of her life, and why it remains today as always the essential "thermometer" of the spiritual health of Orthodoxy in America, and throughout the world.

In the landmark essays, "Problems of Orthodoxy in America," Father Schmemann dedicated the second essay, titled "The Liturgical Problem," to an elaboration of some of the causes of the disconnection of liturgy and life, and he pointed to a direction for healing the rift. If we need to return to all these essays today (including the Canonical Problem and the Spiritual Problem), it is because these fundamental problems not only remain largely unchallenged and unchanged, but in some instances the cancer has spread. Possibly the most insidious aspect of the overall problem is what Fr Alexander called a benign "pseudomorphosis", or an imperceptible and often welcomed transformation of church life and thought into a complete betrayal of the Gospel. Such a church maintains all outward forms at all costs and often with great rhetoric and passion but, denuded of its inner and transforming power, remains a skeleton church which (in the words of theologian Paul Evdokimov writing in 1951) no longer judges the culture but is itself judged by the culture and a decorative "component" of it. Father Alexander writes:

Orthodoxy has always had its heart, its criterion and its
power in its worship. And if I am right in describing our
present situation as a deep liturgical crisis, it is here
in an attempt to understand and to overcome it — that
begins our truly responsible preoccupation with the future of
Orthodoxy in America (p.166).

Here is Father Alexander’s leitmotif, the fundamental assertion that undergirds his whole theological enterprise. While his article addresses the disintegration of a liturgical vision, we must look to his other writings, specifically his thesis, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, and his later more popular works, such as, For The Life of The World, Of Water and The Spirit, Great Lent, to form a fuller understanding of that liturgical vision which is the source and foundation of Orthodox life.

If the guiding axiom of the Church was always the universal, immutable, and essential connection: prayer-faith-life — then the modern and unique heresy is the accepted disassociation of these parts into self-sufficient components. Secularism is the name for that heresy which affirms the primacy of human life without any necessary reference to any ultimate or transcendent reality. To be sure, in its most liberal guise it may even recommend various "spiritualities" as helpful or even culturally enriching, but regards them as decorative appendages to life, having no significant impact on the real course of human affairs. For Father Alexander the most pernicious secularists were those who professed membership in a church, but whose lives bore no evidence of a deep transformation of life and witness to the kingdom of God.

If secularism is characterized by the self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction of worldly and social aims and projects, then the churchly secularist is one who is chronically satisfied with the forms and goals of modern "progressive" parish life or the salvific programs of religious institutions or the piety of various spiritual "paths" (of which a veritable marketplace abounds today). One can test this out by the proud institutional rhetoric of "stewardship" or "ministries" or "programs," which are the barometer of collective religious achievements, the doing of the "right things" — but as Father Alexander reminded us, in the old days the thirst was not for the right things but "for the total perfection announced by the Gospel" (p.174). "The modern Orthodox has lost the desire and nostalgia for the Kingdom" (p.165). This phrase is often used by Fr Roman Braga in speaking of the basic instinct planted in man and in the words of the psalmist, "deep calling to deep".

Through a subtle network of channels the American Way of Life flows into our veins, we feel good about ourselves and our achievements, and no longer sense any alienation from (and hence, no thirst for) the Kingdom of God. One obvious proof of this is the virtual disappearance of Confession (much less practiced today than in Fr Schmemann’s time) which was always a living sign of man’s alienation and his need for God’s forgiveness and salvation. In his soon to be published Journals, Fr Alexander even refers to the transformation of confession from a deep awareness of one’s sin and betrayal, into a "three-minute discussion of problems" and minor disagreements. In the article on the Liturgical Problem he characterizes this shift in thinking:

The question which underlies the whole liturgical experience
of Orthodoxy, "what does it reveal about me and my life,
what does it mean for my activity and my relation to men,
nature and time", is replaced little by little by an entirely
different question: "how much of the liturgy is needed to put
me in ‘good standing’"? … The liturgy is still the center of
our church life, unquestioned, unchallenged, unopposed. But
it is in fact a center without periphery, a heart with no
control on blood circulation, a fire with nothing to purify and
consume, because that life which had to be embraced by it,
has been satisfied with itself and has chosen other lights to
guide and to shape it. (p.175)

In his assessment of the problems Father Alexander does not excuse his brother clergy, bishops and priests, whose task is to rediscover and lead a renewal in a liturgical way of thinking and life. Yet, as he soberly reminds us, they are often accomplices in the distortions and reductions by their own competitive attempts at creating parochial utopias, at asserting juridical rights and authority, striving to preserve what Father calls an outward "formal rectitude" with no inner transformation and light.

Father Alexander’s unique gift as theologian and critic was his refusal to unmask the demons without pointing to a cure. Unlike many theologians today who are engaged in a relentless critique of church life and culture with their all-too-familiar attacks on secularism, Father Alexander always lifted his audience in the direction of a solution. The living proof is that despite all his courageous unmasking of the Church’s problems (and most likely due precisely to that courage), many priests and lay persons, many converts and many former proponents of that rigorism he critiqued, have been deeply converted and moved by his own infectious hope and love for the church and God’s kingdom. He never sequestered himself in some theoretical ivory tower at seminary or advocated an authoritarian purging of defective structures. His stress was never on one-time miraculous cures for the Church, but rather on an ongoing creative vigilance and the hard work of daily renewal through what he termed "liturgical teaching", and he certainly plunged joyfully into that work himself.

It suffices here to point to one concrete example of what he meant by such teaching. Coming himself from an old-world Orthodox culture which had long relegated Baptism to a private family ceremony, he taught us to look intently at each word and gesture in the three-fold sacraments of initiation: baptism-chrismation-eucharist — all these together bringing us into the life of the kingdom. In teaching us the meaning of each phrase in these so-called "time-honored" rites he awakened us to the fact that the Church had long ceased to "honor" their meaning by completely divorcing them from each other. By encouraging their reintegration into the plenitude of the Church’s eucharistic gathering, he enabled us to rediscover for ourselves their inherent and self-evident power, and the Paschal nature of each person’s entry into the Kingdom through the total eucharistic life of the Church. Theologians who like to arrange life into neat manageable categories have criticized Fr Alexander for being a "eucharistic theologian" by which they imply his one-sided stress on the eucharist at the expense of other sacraments. However, today the renewal and growing experience of liturgical Baptism, which is largely the fruit of his teaching, has proven this criticism false, while his books, Of Water and The Spirit and Great Lent remain among the written evidence of this teaching.

A very encouraging step in the direction of liturgical teaching has been the initiation of church-wide conferences, I think specifically of two recently done at St.Tikhon’s Seminary, one on Parish Life Ministries and the other on Pastoral issues. I believe that it is through such regular local and regional gatherings the many barriers of fear, isolation, and competitiveness must be eroded. We must learn to move past the point where, for example, one priest’s positive experience of baptismal liturgies becomes the subject of derision by another clergyman or even bishop! Such gatherings, which can manifest the Holy Spirit’s guidance, will ensure, to use another example, that the audible participation of the faithful in the mystical prayers of the Anaphora is not simply left to the whim of individual celebrants, so that, as Father Alexander reminds us by the patristic adage, we learn to practice: "in things essential, unity; in things dubious, liberty; in all things, charity". But this movement of renewal, now begun, needs the courage and leadership of the Church’s hierarchs to gain momentum, and the willingness of local leaders, clergy and lay, to invest time and effort.

For each member of the Church, lay or ordained, he advocated a "pastoral" approach to this necessary work of liturgical restoration — that all things flow not from a rigorous adherence to forms and rules, but from the abyss of divine love for the brother and sister, from the desire to lift up and to offer all things to God, to see the Church and her worship not as something other-worldly and detached from life, but rather as the pars pro toto, on behalf of all and for all, God’s very presence for the salvation and love of the world.

In the final article in this series, an examination of "The Spiritual Problem", the ultimate solution to which he points is the task of making saints. If our fallen hopes always tend towards collective answers, the building up of parishes and church institutions, to ride as passengers on the achievement of the group -- he reminds us that it is never a "group" which saves the Church, but rather her saints. And if a person can be saved only within the Church, it is each unique person who is capable of no less than saving the whole world. The true work, therefore, lies with each one of us. Like Seraphim of Sarov we need to be ready to embrace the "wilderness" into which God sends us, and there to commune with Him in the joy of the crosses He gives us to bear, to emerge from this crucible full of His light, speaking the words of life in our home, in our workplace, in our churches — transforming, as Father Alexander liked to say, "the routine into Paradise"!



[Fr. Schmemann’s article, "Problems of Orthodoxy in America: II. The Liturgical Problem," was published in St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1964, pp. 164-185.]


Fr. Alexis Vinogradov is the pastor of St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls, NY.

From Jacob's Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Fall/Winter 1999-2000