Each year since his death in 1983, Father Alexander Schmemann’s legacy is evoked through an established annual lecture in his name at St. Vladimir’s, the theological seminary in New York in which his ideas flourished, nourishing generations of clergy and faithful and, through numerous publications and lectures, reaching the broader world. A permanent academic chair or annual event implies that the individual named represents a benchmark of thought and achievement for the institution, a legacy which his spiritual heirs are committed to honor and promote. Here, I ponder how Fr. Alexander might formulate the Church’s response to the crisis of our time.
In a foundational idea of his work, perhaps best expressed in his famous lecture, Between Utopia and Escape, Fr. Alexander advocates for the middle path between two extremes—a sectarian isolation from the real world at one pole, and at the other pole, its counterpart of “progress” towards an ephemeral secular utopia. Yet his proposed middle path is not a compromise between the two extremes, but rather the victory of an ascension out of both dead-ends towards an eschatological vision of the tangible, real world, the home of the Incarnate Lord of history.
Now, for Fr. Alexander eschatology is not some obscure theological category that deals with the future post-mortem concerns of man, but rather is the manifestation of the kingdom entering and transfiguring Time itself. For him this transformation is manifest perfectly in the Liturgy. In his The Eucharist (p.129), Fr. Alexander writes that in the liturgy
our remembrance “becomes our entry into Christ’s victory over Time, over its collapse into ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’. It is an entry not into some abstract motionless ‘eternity’ but into ‘life everlasting.’”
This ascendancy over the tyranny of Time is seen in the kairos which proclaims the kingdom as the Eucharistic liturgy begins, and further in the recounting of the saving acts that “have come to pass,” including in these acts the “second and glorious coming” which we yet anticipate. Here, in the liturgy, the linear sequence of history is suspended within the primacy of eschatology: events of eternal significance, borne in the timeless One who is now, and remains always, “in our midst”! And while theologians argue about what “happens” to the holy Gifts, they overlook that we first call upon the Holy Spirit to effect the change “upon us,” and in consequence “upon the gifts here offered.” It is us, the gathered faithful, who are being transformed, shaped into a New Creation, made able to gaze into the ineffable dimensions of the Spirit, and thus perceive the world and all its matter as symbol of the kingdom.
At the moment of this writing, America is enduring domestic terrorism warring upon its sacred institutions of law and government (spurred by leaders publicly ordained to preserve them)—the seditious occupation of the Capitol—on a day that ironically coincides with the Christian Church’s celebration of the renewal of all creation by the immersion of Christ into the Jordan waters. So here we are, concretely in the middle of the cultural cycles of Law and Revolt, the polarized forces of Conservatism and Liberation, and here Fr. Alexander speaks of Christ as precisely the one Crisis that resolves the irreconcilable tension of these extreme poles of human concourse that permeate every fiber of our lives.
If etymologically krisis means the sifting that separates the toxic from the healthy organism, the biblical “chaff from the wheat,” then what Schmemann says must ring true for every facet of human affairs:
“Christ is the only one crisis which is blessed and saving…in Him the Law is fulfilled as well as Revolution…the whole meaning of Christianity is to soar upwards out of this rhythm, this course, these dynamics of the world. Christianity makes it possible to live by the truth of the revolution inside the law and by the truth of the law inside the revolution, their fulfillment in each other—it is the kingdom of God, truth itself, beauty itself for it is Life and Spirit.”(Dec.8, 1975, Journals)
The following words of that same journal entry, give us a sense of how stifling Fr. Alexander would find today’s warring “sides” not only in society but especially in the Body of Christ:
I see the key to the Christian perception of culture, of politics, and, of course of religion itself—a ‘holding it all together.’ Christianity is freedom from conservatism and from revolution. Hence a ‘rightist’ Christian is as frightening as a ‘leftist’ one, and I know why I lean towards the left when dealing with the rightists, and to the right when I am with leftists.
If Fr. Alexander alerted us to the curse of the primordial Fall of man manifest in this cycle of law on one side and the drive towards freedom from law on the other, if he was able to show us how in himself Christ embodied the reconciliation and fulfillment of the two opposites — what answers does Schmemann himself either show or provide for our own path in imitation of Christ? What answers does he give that would offer genuine hope for the Church, and consequently for the world? How do we rise with Christ into the New Creation that He has made of us by His fellowship in our earthly flesh?
When we look to Fr. Schmemann’s writings on saintly figures, his biographic sketches like the well-known Three Metropolitans, or his eulogies on luminaries like Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, we see that he dwelt less on their theological or historic achievements than on the small details of their personality and manner of being. In Metropolitan Leonty, Schmemann highlights his gentleness and love of children; in the great scholar Bulgakov, not his theories, but rather his deep immersion in the luminous experience of the liturgy. Character, not grand works, marks these personalities.
In his excursuses on Russian literature, Fr. Alexander always highlighted the manner of seemingly insignificant figures, such as the old obscure and annoying woman, the true heroine in Matryona’s House, “without whom,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “the whole world itself could not stand”; or about Chekhov’s Head Gardener, whose protagonist could never see his neighbor, no matter how soiled, other than a glorious child of God.
Clearly, not only the Church’s cloud of witnesses in her saints, but also this rich field of living and literary characters shaped Fr. Alexander’s own unique personality. I can never read the account of the first attempt to arrest Jesus in the gospel, without thinking of Fr. Alexander. The officers return empty-handed to the Pharisees and give this excuse: “no man ever spoke like this man!” (Jn.7:46). Fr. Alexander drew us who were fortunate to live in his time, by the manner in which he spoke words of life, of truth, and of joy. Even his unequivocal and even acerbic “condemnations” (peppered liberally among his Journal entries) are invariably noted in a spirit of grief for the errant and wrong-doers, and never to expose them as enemies that need to be crushed. He was well aware that even many of his “heroes” and saints failed in the realms of the world’s “success.” For Fr. Schmemann the crisis revealed in Christ, the true discernment of spirits, is not to curse the wrongdoer, but to identify and unmask the idols that stand in for the truth, and possess their victims (1 Jn. 5:21). A theology denuded of witnesses to the kingdom of light and joy, a theology that polarizes man against his brother, is no theology at all.
Fr. Alexander stood humbly before the expanse of history, articulating the difference between the kingdom revealed, made sure and present in Christ—and the manner in which this kingdom is discerned and enacted in its historic and cultural setting. We are perhaps only now, in our current crisis of political, cultural, and religious polarization and the exponential tribalism and divisions in the Body of Christ, recognizing that each of us finds ourselves caught in the death-bound confines of one or another polarity, the camp of our own “righteous” group and mindset. To walk in the assurance of immortality of “sons of God” (Lk. 20:36), is to stand liberated from this cyclical trap, to rise with Christ into the New Creation that he has made of us by his fellowship in our earthly flesh. Only in this freedom do we have a “word” to offer to the world.
Fr. Alexis Vinogradov is Retired Rector (1978-2015) of St. Gregory Theologian Orthodox Church in Wappingers Falls, NY.
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