Father Alexander Schmemann - A Personal Memoir

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.