BOOK REVIEW

The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, edited by Juliana Schmemann.
Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000

Reviewed by Robert Flanagan

 

When reading a published journal the reader always hopes to be privy to the inner life of the writer. Most often, though, writing is done to be read and so there will be a certain amount of shaping, self-censorship, even. In Father Alexander Schmemann’s Journals there is quite a lot of shaping, and it seems clear from the selection and manner of presentation of details that he expected the journals to be read by others who would not be familiar with his life. Indeed, the very first entry of these journals seems to be a ‘preface’ to the whole. "What is there to ‘explain’?" Fr Schmemann asks of his desire to begin these journals, and goes on to respond:

The surprising combination in me of a deep and ever-growing revulsion at endless discussions and debates about religion, at superficial affirmations, pious emotionalism and certainly against pseudo-churchly interests, petty and trifling, and, at the same time, an ever-growing sense of reality … Always the same feeling of time filled with eternity, with full and sacred joy. I have the feeling that church is needed so that this experience of reality would exist. Where the church ceases to be a symbol, a sacrament, it becomes a horrible caricature of itself. (p 1)

In addition to his own personal shaping for the eyes of others, these Journals are edited by Fr Alexander’s widow, Juliana Schmemann. Editing by someone so close to the writer raises the possibility that the text might be edited to protect the author’s memory, to present him at his best. It is also published by the press of St Vladimir’s Seminary, which, as the home and workplace for many years to Fr Alexander, would naturally also be interested in the author’s reputation. And so there are (at least) three layers between the reader and the inner life of the author.

This having been said, the publication of the Journals by Matushka Schmemann and St Vladimir’s is an act of courage. There is no shying away from the darkness that often seems to have been strongly present in Fr Alexander. There is much that, in isolation, could be used against him by his detractors. In one place Fr Alexander is very honest about his prayer life, not ‘traditional’ by any means, and in many others is critical of monasticism, of bishops. He is most often critical of a certain type who play acts Orthodoxy, taking the Orthodox costume and a shallow maximalism above the substance of the life in Christ. There are many instances in the journals of what seems to be depression, sometimes almost despair, in regard to the situation of Christianity, the Orthodox Church in particular, and even more, the Orthodox situation in America.

But O, how wondrous, how luminescent, is the joy, the light, the hope that shines against the dark background of these journals. It is this contrast, and it is a multi-toned contrast rather than simply black and white, that is the tonality of these journals.

The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy they become demonic, the deepest distortion of religious experience … Somehow ‘religious’ people often look on joy with suspicion.

The first, the main source of everything is ‘my soul rejoices in the Lord …’ The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves … Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull — or, rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to joy? How, when and why, instead of freeing suffering people, did the Church come to sadistically intimidate and frighten them? (p. 129)

The reader has the sense that joy was not easily come by for Fr Alexander, but a constant struggle, and when it appears it is always seen against the darker background, the forces that would rob Christianity of the one thing necessary, especially the forces present within the Church itself.

This criticism of those forces, including its Orthodox manifestation, is repeated again and again in these pages. There is a wonderful set of entries from Holy Week in 1981:

Monday, April 20.

Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday services were especially joyful….the Epistle of all Epistles: "Rejoice … and again I say, Rejoice!" Truly the Kingdom of God is among us, within us. But why, except for a momentary joy, does all of it not have more effect? How much anger, mutual torture, offense. How much — without exaggeration — hidden violence.

Tuesday, April 21

What has Christianity lost so that the world, nurtured by Christianity, has recoiled from it and started to pass judgement over the Christian faith? Christianity has lost joy — not natural joy, not joy-optimism, not joy from earthly happiness, but the Divine joy about which Christ told us that "no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22). Only this joy knows that God’s love to man and to the world is not cruel; knows it because that love is part of the absolute happiness for which we are all created …

The world is created by happiness and for happiness and everything in the world prophesies that happiness; everything calls to it, witnesses it by its very fragility. To the fallen world that has lost that happiness, but yearns for it and — in spite of everything — lives by it, Christianity has opened up and given back happiness; has fulfilled it in Christ as joy. And then dismissed it. So that the world began to hate Christianity (the Christian world) and went back to its earthly happiness. But having been poisoned by the incredible promise of an absolute happiness, the world started to build it, to progress toward it, to submit the present to this future happiness …

… Some say, "How can one rejoice when millions are suffering? One must serve the world." Others say "How can one rejoice in a world lying in evil?" The do not understand that if for just one minute (that lasts secretly and hidden in the saints) the Church has overcome the world, the victory was won through Joy and Happiness.

Holy Thursday, April 23, 1981

Christianity is beautiful. But precisely because it is wonderful, perfect, full, true, its acceptance is before anything else the acceptance of its beauty, i.e., its fullness, divine perfection; whereas in history, Christians themselves have fragmented Christianity, have started to perceive it and offer it to others "in parts" — quite often in parts not connected to the whole.

Holy Saturday, April 25, 1981

I am writing before leaving for my most beloved of all loved services: the Baptismal, Paschal Liturgy of St Basil the Great, when "Life sleeps and Hades shudders …" I write just to say it again. It is the day of my conversion — not of unbelief to belief, not of "out of the Church" to "Church." No; an internal conversion of faith, within the Church, to what constitutes the treasure of the heart — in spite of my sins laziness, indifference, in spite of a continuous almost conscious falling away from that treasure, in spite of negligence, in the literal sense of the word. I don’t know how, I don’t know why — truly only by God’s mercy — but Holy Saturday remains the center, the light, sign, symbol, and gift of everything. "Christ — the new Pascha …" And to that Now Pascha, something in me says with joy and faith: "Amen." (pp. 289-293, passim)

The note of joy is always present as in this series. Elsewhere he insists that joy is the only possible attitude of a Christian. And in almost every year there is a comment on the words of St Paul in the epistle for Palm Sunday: "Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice …" And what is the source of this unfailing joy? It is the eschatological dimension of Christ’s saving act, the Kingdom of God now present in the Church. It is the presence of the Kingdom, here and now; the ‘last things’ — judgement and coming in glory — present here and now. We stand with a foot in either world, this one and the Kingdom, and it is our duty to keep each foot planted in its own place. We do not escape by the liberal fantasy of a possible utopia nor by the reactionary otherworldly grasping on to a disembodied ascetic and romantic view of a church that never was.

There are many examples of this presence of the Kingdom in this world in the Journals. In one entry Fr Alexander contends with the failures of his beloved Church, and then bursts into one of the many small epiphanies of his daily life:

My perpetual conclusion: If theology, spirituality, etc. do not return to a genuine Christian eschatology (and I don’t see any signs of one) then we are fated not only to remain a ghetto, but to transform ourselves, the Church and all that is within it, into a spiritual ghetto. The return – and this is my other perpetual conclusion — starts from a genuine understanding of the Eucharist, the mystery of the Church the mystery of the New Creature, the mystery of the Kingdom of God. These are the Alpha and Omega of Christianity ….

What is real? All that I mentioned earlier, or this moment:

An empty house flooded with sunshine; trees in full bloom behind the window; far away little white clouds floating in the sky; the peace of my office; the silent presence — friendly, joyful — of the books on my shelf. (p 330)

These small epiphanies are bright stars in deep night. Along with what often seem to be mini-essays on the many serious subjects dear to his heart — the liturgy, Solzhenitsyn, the émigré community, modern culture, Russian literature, and many others — there are the delights in the presence of his family, his wife Juliana especially; the liturgies and services of the Church year, especially the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday, the double feast of Lazarus and the Palms, the Annunciation, the Akathist to the Theotokos; his early life in Paris and teachers; summers in Labelle and each day’s bringing of the Divine presence in the natural world.

There are many other aspects of Fr Alexander’s Journals that are of great beauty, joy and wonder. Music, literature, the love of teaching, the appreciation of positive response to his books, especially by those whose faith was strengthened by them, Scripture, the Eucharist. There are many others not so bright as well — the struggle to write, difficulty hearing confessions, disappointment with students.

In this world we can only approach beauty. But when we do it is an approach to wonder, perfection, fullness. To read these Journals of Fr Alexander’s is to make such an approach, by virtue of seeing the fullness of a human life in ‘this world’, struggling to realize the presence of the Kingdom of God, and the connection of Christ’s church to it strong, vibrant, and meaningful.

From Jacob's Well
Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Spring-Summer 2000

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