The Legacy of Father Alexander Schmemann

The Life and Work of Father Alexander Schmemann 


Alexander Schmemann was born in Reval (now Tallin in Estonia) on September 13, 1921. He moved to Paris with his family in his early childhood. He first attended a Russian military primary school, the Corps of Cadets school and a Russian gymnasium, but then, on his own volition, switched to a French lycée. He received his theological education at Saint Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, which he entered in 1940, at the beginning of the Second World War. On finishing his studies, he was appointed an instructor in Church History at St. Sergius, as an assistant to Professor A.V. Kartashev, one of the remarkable intellectuals of the Russian emigration who had found a new home St Sergius. In 1946 Alexander Schmemann was ordained deacon and then priest by Metropolitan (then Archbishop) Vladimir (Tikhonitsky), who headed the Russian Exarchate of Western Europe under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 1951, Father Alexander moved with his family to the United States at the invitation of Father Georges Florovsky, the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary in New York and a former professor at St. Sergius. Father Alexander at first taught Church History and several other courses at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, but his real interest was the Liturgy. Eventually he would read a course titled “Liturgical Theology,” and he established himself as a renowned specialist on the Orthodox liturgy. In 1959 he defended his doctoral dissertation, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, at Saint Sergius in Paris, and the work was soon translated into English. In 1962 he was named Dean of St. Vladimir’s, which moved to a beautiful new campus in Crestwood, a suburb of New York.

Father Alexander had an active role in the establishment of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America in 1970. Contacts with the mother Russian Orthodox Church had been practically broken since 1917, and the Russian Orthodox Church in America, known as the “Russian Metropolia,” had become de facto autonomous. After the signing of the Tomos of Autocephaly on April 10, 1970, by Patriarch Alexis I of Moscow, the official name of the American Church became “The Orthodox Church in America” (OCA). The establishment of  autocephaly was a product of personal contacts made by Father Alexander and other American Orthodox theologians, such as his colleague and friend Father John Meyendorff, during the meetings of the World Council of Churches in the 1960’s with the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) of Leningrad.

Father Alexander’s impact on the life of the Orthodox Church in America increased over the years. He continued the vision of Father Georges Florovsky, according to which emphasis was placed on the mission of Orthodoxy in the West, and on the celebration of the liturgy in the language of the people. Many of the students at St. Vladimir’s came to be American converts to Orthodoxy, especially former Episcopalians, who had no Russian background.

However, Father Alexander never lost his Russian roots and feelings, which he inherited from his parents and the Russian emigration in which he grew up. Though he would never see Russia, he read weekly sermons on “Radio Liberty” which were broadcast throughout Russia. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was a faithful listener of these sermons, asked Father Alexander to become his spiritual father after his exile from Russia in 1974. This personal contact resulted in a lifelong friendship, despite the different outlooks of the two men. In his Journals, which were found after his death, Father Alexander confesses his uneasiness with the fact that the only interest of the great writer was Russia, while for himself the only thing needful was Christ and the salvation of the whole world. For Father Alexander, a Christian perspective of the world has to be universal and not narrowly nationalistic. That was why he could feel at home in his beloved Paris, where he grew up, as well as in the United States, which had become his new home.

Father Alexander had a love of literature, especially Russian literature. He published many articles on literary themes and taught a course at St. Vladimir’s on “The experience of the Church in Russian Literature, from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn.” He had a special affinity with Anton Chekhov, who portrayed with compassion the human aspect of the Church, such as the human weaknesses of the clergy, and who was always exact in his remarks on liturgical details.

Father Alexander died on December 13, 1983, the day on which the Church commemorates the memory of St. Herman of Alaska, one of the first Russian Orthodox missionaries in America.

Liturgical theology

Father Alexander’s particular interest in and love for the liturgy started in his childhood, when he was an altar boy and later a sub-deacon at the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Rue Daru in Paris. In his Journals, he writes how as a child, on his way to school, he liked to enter a Roman Catholic Church for a few minutes in order to watch a “low Mass” that was being celebrated at one of the side-altars. This love of the liturgy received a theological foundation during his years as a student at St. Sergius Theological Institute, thanks in great part to Father Cyprian Kern, the professor of patristics and liturgy, and of Father Nicholas Afanasiev, professor of Canon Law. Father Cyprian, who shared with Father Alexander a love for the liturgy, became his spiritual father and close friend. From an intellectual point of view, it was the teaching of Father Afanasiev in particular which would influence his theological thinking. Father Nicholas laid the foundation of what would be called later “Eucharistic ecclesiology” -- that is, the teaching of  the Eucharist as the basis and center of the life of the Church. Also, Father Afanasiev taught that the Church is not a juridical institute, and that therefore, the Church cannot have “laws.” The Church is the new life in Christ, which has to have “rules” (canons), it is true, but in which there is no place for any kind of human “power” except for the “power of love.” This non-scholastic approach to ecclesiology, and to theology in general, was typical of the “Paris school,” which was not limited to St. Sergius (for example, Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Uspensky never taught at St Sergius,) but of which it formed an important part.

The courses on liturgy at St. Sergius were called “liturgica.” Father Alexander would title his course Liturgical Theology. Where did this term come from, and what is meant by it? Father Cyprian Kern had used this term in a collection of meditations on the liturgy published in 1928 (Крины молитвенные. Сборник статей по литургическому богословию, Belgrade, 1928. The term was also used in the Liturgical Movement in the Roman Catholic Church in the beginning of the 20th century. The influence of this movement -- which formed part of a patristic revival in the West, especially in France -- on the theological thinking of Father Alexander should not be ignored. Indeed, Father Alexander himself characterized this movement as an “Orthodox movement within a non-Orthodox context” and stressed that it has a profound link with Orthodox theology.

Liturgical theology is to be distinguished from the study of rubrics (устав), and envisages a theological understanding of the liturgy. But this term should not be understood in a scholastic sense as an abstract “theology of the liturgy.” For Father Alexander, the liturgy itself -- its ordo, the liturgical texts, the liturgical year -- should be the source of Liturgical Theology. Its aim is to express an experience. This experience is also the context of all other forms of theology: lex orandi lex credendi. Father Alexander goes as far as to say that the liturgy in itself is not his primary interest. He saw even in a particular love for liturgical rites -- for the ustav and for the beauty of the Orthodox Church services, which he noted in his own ecclesiastical milieu -- a spiritual danger. What matters for him is what these rites reveal to us and what they mean. Or, put in another way, the study of Liturgical Liturgy must give an insight into the nature of the Church.

In order to gain an understanding of liturgical rites, Father Alexander taught, one has to study its historical development. He continued the historical approach to the study of the liturgy which began at the theological academies in Russia in the 19th century. For him, the model of a true understanding of the liturgy has to be the early Church, the Church of the first three centuries. But liturgical theology is not merely a historical discipline. Father Alexander’s vision of the liturgy was also marked by a particular intuition, which was the result of a personal experience. He stressed the importance of the Eucharist as the “epiphany of the Church” (one notices here also the influence of Father Nicolas Afanasieff), and eschatology as the main characteristic of the liturgy. His last book, The Eucharist, has the subtitle “Sacrament of the Kingdom.” In his doctoral dissertation, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, Father Alexander pointed out that the original eschatological sense of the liturgy was little by little lost after the 4th century and replaced by a “mysteriological” piety which emphasized the separation between the “sacred” and the “profane” (according to this perspective, what matters is to “touch the sacred”).

Father Alexander saw the necessity of a liturgical reform in many respects, but he was, in fact, not a “reformer”: He stressed that the first aim of liturgical theology should not be the reform of the Liturgy (that had become the goal of the liturgical movement in the Roman Catholic Church). Father Alexander stressed that liturgical theology should lead first of all to an understanding of the liturgy, and that reforms, if necessary, would result from that. He also taught that reforms of the liturgy should not be imposed by force on the Church. Thus the practice of frequent communion is the logical result of the understanding of the Eucharist as the basis and center of the Church’s life. The reading aloud of the Eucharistic Prayer and other liturgical prayers results from the understanding of the Church as the “people of God,” in which there is a distinction, but no separation between clergy and laity. The use of the language of the people in the liturgy is self-evident if one understands that all faithful are participants in the liturgical celebration.

Secularism and Religion

Father Alexander’s vision of the liturgy forms part of a theological vision which he formulated for the first time in one of his earliest publications, originally a series of lectures for the World Christian Student Federation, entitled For the Life of the World. This little book deals with the sacraments, but it is far from a scholastic or academic treatment of the topic -- which explains its success and its translation into many languages. Father Alexander speaks about the Sacraments within the context of a vision of the world, of creation. He explains that creation has been given to man as a means of communion with God. Eating and drinking, therefore, are sacred acts. Being hungry means being hungry for God. This explains the practice of fasting, which reminds us that we are completely dependent on God, the Origin of our life. In the celebration of the Eucharist, food appears as the means par excellence by which our communion with God is again restored.

Father Alexander pointed out that this Christian outlook of the world had been lost in the secularist culture of our time. According to the secularist view, the world, creation, had become an end in itself. Father Alexander explained that secularism is not the same thing as atheism. A secularist may believe in God but in the secularist vision of the world, God is no longer at the center of man’s life. The world has become separated from God. That is why Father Alexander characterized secularism as the main heresy of our time.

Father Alexander taught that religion is essentially not different from secularism. For religion has the same point of departure: the separation between God and man, that is, between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Only its approach is different: it intends to overcome this separation by sacred rites, to touch the “sacred” and to escape from the world.

Father Alexander taught that the only answer both to secularism and to religion is the revelation, given to the Church, of the restoration of the world (the creation) through Christ’s Death and Resurrection, as the Kingdom of God. This revelation is experienced in the liturgy of the Church, first of all and foremost in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, and in general the liturgy, is no longer to be seen as a private devotion (either of the clergy or of the faithful), but as an ecclesial act. This cosmic and eschatological dimension of the Church, and the ecclesial meaning of the liturgy are the main themes of Father Alexander’s theological writings.

Father Alexander was not an academic theologian or a scholar. His writings have a personal and prophetic style. The point of departure of all his theological reflections was one particular theme, or rather, one particular vision, which he repeated over and again: eschatology as the essential characteristic of Christianity, and the Eucharist (and the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church) as the expression and experience of the Kingdom. This prophetic vision makes him one of the major Orthodox theologians of the 20th century.

Back to First Page