Colchester, England. March 1, 2011
Last year I posted an interview with Archpriest Andrew Phillips entitled “ROCOR Has the Potential to Become a Global Church.” In that interview I asked Fr. Andrew, “Frs. Alexander Schmemann and Seraphim Rose were two charismatic figures who gave very different responses to the challenging questions of modernity. Which of them is closer to you and why?” Fr. Andrew’s assessment of Schmemann at the time was quite negative. Fr. Andrew’s introduction to the third Russian edition of Fr. Alexander’s diaries (Дневники) has given Fr. Andrew cause to revisit Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
I have read the diaries and discovered that Fr. Alexander was not just a person of faith, but also someone who had the gift of joy. Schmemann considered the absence of joy in a Christian’s life to be a sign of spiritual malady.
In the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Schmemann has been connected with the problematic autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America and with “Protestantism of the Eastern rite.” However, very few of those who criticize Fr. Alexander have seriously studied his works. In Russia, where there was no “jurisdictional conflict,” Fr. Alexander’s legacy has been received with more equanimity. For example, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University for the Humanities in Moscow has published his books alongside those of Archbishop Averky, who subscribed to a contrary school of thought.
I would hope that the time has come for a respectful dialogue about the legacy of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Fr. Andrew’s personal reflections may serve as a starting point for such a conversation. I am posting them here without any alterations, preserving the author’s British spelling and usage.
With the persecution and paralysis of “the Centre,” the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, and of other, smaller Local Churches under Communism, how well I recall the resulting decadence of Orthodox Church life in Western Europe (in all nationalities and jurisdictions) in the 1970s and 1980s. That life was dominated by narrow-minded nationalism, provinciality, corruption, political bureaucracy, egocentricity, vanity and escapee academicism.
Hardly any encouragement, advice and guidance were given to young men who felt called to find their salvation in serving in the clergy. Discouragement and even persecution of any young man interested in Church life was the order of the day. “Go away” was the usual response. You could be a potential rival, you had “the wrong name,” you were “too young” (though a hundred others of “the correct blood” had been ordained much younger), you were “too poor,” you were “too honest,” you were “too well-educated,” you were “not educated enough,” you were “married,” you had “too many children”. I heard it all – any excuse was good enough to try to crush any spark of spiritual interest or sincerity.
Here, there was no difference whatsoever between the situation in Western Europe and the Soviet Union. It was just that in the Soviet Union, persecution came from the state, in Western Europe it came from “representatives” of the Church. When after preliminary enquiries in 1978 I realised that I would be refused entrance to the Theological Academy in Moscow because I had “the wrong” (i.e., British) passport, a bishop told me: “Go and study theology at a British University.” I knew that this answer merely masked his indifference and refusal to help, in fact his polite way of saying “Go away and leave me alone,” and that this meant death for my soul. So I went away to Greece, a refugee from Russian unpleasantness.
Later, I met another bishop in Paris, who had been chosen “to close down the Church,” in the words of his deacon, who later took refuge with the OCA. I could never be accepted into the “Orthodox Establishment.”I was not an “ethnic,” I refused to sacrifice my family, I was not from the “right” (= Anglican) background, I had not been to public school, then, to cap all these my above sins, I openly refused to become a freemason. There was no chance for me. These were the negative and contemptuous attitudes towards anything and anyone spiritually living. Anything that has been done has been achieved despite the local representatives of “the Church,” not because of them.
In spiritual terms, however, all this was wonderful, perfect. Firstly, it sorted out the serious from the non-serious. Secondly, it taught you a sense of humour. It taught me very early on that in the Church we have a choice – to laugh or to cry. I know which choice I made. And it taught me that in the Church life is never boring. In other words, this was the ideal situation in which to learn a little humility, to learn that the Church is God’s, not man’s, and that God’s Will will always be done, it is irresistible, whatever they throw at you. Any who think otherwise are merely repeating the fatal mistake of any number of deluded individuals and sects in Church history who think that they are “saving the Church,” when in fact they are only destroying their souls.
All this taught me the real Orthodoxy, that which is never taught in seminaries, academies and universities. This is never to give up because God’s Will will be done, in spite of instead of because of “them,” and especially it taught me to pray for all of “them”. As the Gospel says, if we pray only for those who love us, we are no better than the pagans.
Above all, it taught me that if we are really trying to live in the Church, everything that happens to us is for our good, in other words, that whatever happens, whatever sins we fall into, there is always miraculous Providence. And Providence is that warm and loving presence of God, which accompanies us every day of our lives, miraculously protecting us from ourselves and from others, and working the most extraordinary “coincidences,” which the world cannot even dream of.
Amid this darkness, though in the USA, there was Fr Alexander Schmemann. Unlike the others I had met until then, he encouraged. What a breath of fresh air!
I only met Fr Alexander once, in 1980. I am sure he did not remember me from among the thousands of far more significant and interesting people he met every year. I had read his books and found them spiritually flat, empty. (In fairness, Fr Alexander had his own doubts about some of them – Pp. 137, 447 – and he had great difficulty in writing them. All page numbers quoted in this article refer to the third Russian edition of Dnevniki. Published in 2009). To me his books seemed to have been written either for Non-Orthodox, or for lapsed Orthodox, or else for Orthodox who had no consciousness whatsoever of Orthodoxy. In this sense and for that public, his books were perfect, works of genius. But to me everything in them either seemed to be blindingly obvious or else merely personal opinions of Fr Alexander. And those opinions were based on his own negative experiences of ritualism and spiritual death in the emigration.
I had been told by the hushed voices of silly converts that Fr Alexander was “charismatic,” almost God Incarnate. I did not find him so. I found a man smoking cigarettes dressed in an American lounge suit. (He had been smoking two packets a day since the 1930s – P. 422). When I met him at a conference in Montgeron, outside Paris, in 1980, he gave a talk, full of generalisations, which anyone could have given. In his Diaries he rightly recorded that whole conference as “pointless” (P. 532).
Having been introduced, we had a conversation, in which he said some very strange things, which revealed his considerable naivety about Orthodox personalities in England and about England in general. He must have thought that I had not understood him. In fact I had understood him: he was speaking about his own psychology, not about the Church. When I indicated what I honestly thought and he realised that I was not going to flatter him or others and swim with the tide, he encouraged me – words which came like rain to my parched soul. For that I will always be grateful to him. He was no vain academic like others I had met.
I understood Fr Alexander even better later, after acquaintance with his late twin brother, Andrey, the great supporter of the strand of traditional Russian Orthodoxy in Rue Daru. There was his Swiss ROCOR cousin, who thought that Fr Alexander had become a Protestant. This was hardly a surprising opinion, since she had read his “demythologising” Introduction to Liturgical Theology, so brilliantly analysed and countered by the ever-memorable theologian Fr Michael Pomazansky. There was his aunt (the matushka of a ROCOR priest in Switzerland) and also Fr Alexander’s other ROCOR relatives from South America.
For some, Fr Alexander was an evil monster, a heretic. Indeed, in several dioceses of the Russian Church inside Russia today, they refuse to sell his books. In one diocese in the 1990s they were burned on the orders of the local bishop. For others (like his close Parisian friend Nikita Struve, writing in Le Messager), Fr Alexander was a saint. Of course, the reality was somewhere in between.
Sympathy for Fr Alexander
I found and find Fr Alexander very sympathetic. Thanks to kind friends, I have recently been able to obtain and read a copy of his Diaries (1973-1983) in the relatively uncensored Russian original (Dnevniki). Only 3% of these have been censored, whereas the English version of his Diaries has been considerably cut.
May I say first of all how readable and charming these Diaries are. For me they are pure nostalgia. I knew virtually everyone he mentions on the Parisian and English side and even know a few of those on the American side, from Fr George (Bp Gregory) Grabbe to Fr Vladimir (Bp Basil) Rodzianko. I too knew about the 70s Paris tragedies of the drowning of Marina Rosenschild and the (KGB?) murder, disguised as suicide, of Ivan Morozov. Perhaps I am getting old, but I can now read memoirs about people whom I knew very well. I understand where Fr Alexander is coming from. He was only two years younger than my own father.
Among mutual acquaintances there were “starodvizhentsy,” senior members of the Russian Student Christian Movement. These were charming people, though I did not agree with them. I have never understood the Paris Russian mentality of: “I don”t agree with him, therefore I hate him and I will not talk to him”. Fr Alexander neither. He associated it with the absolutism and extremism of the Russian émigré. He always read what those who disagreed with him wrote – which seems to me to be perfectly normal – it is a matter of respect for their experience and suffering, however great the disagreement.
Mutual acquaintances in Paris included priests close to Fr Alexander, like the charming Fr Igor Vernik (an open mine of information about many, like the Fraternite Orthodoxe, to which he was so opposed. Pp. 431-2, 460), Archbishop George (Wagner) (“worse than stupid, because he is stubborn as well”), Fr Sergiy Bulgakov (another chain-smoker for many years), Fr Vasiliy Zenkovsky and Mother Maria Skobtsova (the last of whom he much disliked as a fraud). There were also Fr Pierre Chesnakov and Fr Alexei Kniazev, who were well-known and dear to me. And there was Fr Alexander’s best friend from his school days, the ROCOR priest Fr Michael Artzimovich, who meant so much to me. God rest them all!
Primarily, Fr Alexander”s Diaries are those of an urbane, secular, sociable, civilised Franco-Russian émigré, a very well-read literary critic (but not an academic – he strongly disliked academics and especially academic Orthodoxy – Pp. 14, 19-21, 530). Thus, he loved literature, restaurants, good food, laughter and conversation. Secondly, these are the Diaries of a priest, speaker and lecturer, the Dean of St Vladimir”s Seminary in Crestwood and one of the principal architects of the Cold War foundation known as The Orthodox Church in America (OCA – 1970 and surviving to the present day).
There is so much to agree with in Fr Alexander”s Diaries and which we have in common. For example, there is his love of nature and of family life, his beloved family summer holidays in Canada, his humour (Fawlty Towers, for instance), his deep nostalgia for his childhood and Paris, his love of writing and speaking, in other words, his love for his fellow-men and that wretched inability to say “no” to the demands of others. There is his dislike of provinciality (P. 488), of falsity, fake piety, the naive and triumphalist proudly talking about their “spirituality” (Pp. 501-2, 515, 579), their pseudo-”spiritual fathers” (Pp. 379, 577) and parish priests posing as pseudo-elders (Pp. 368, 631), their “Jesus Prayers” and chotki and their bad translations into English and the futile American “activism” of young priests from St Vladimir’s (Pp. 334, 479, 612).
He understood that some converts, “maximalists,” were in love with themselves, not with life and working for a living, and that these were on irresponsible, clericalist ego-trips in their self-created ghettos (Pp. 370-71, 524, 577, 586, 608-9, 615, 632). Their fundamental disease was narcissism which they concealed from themselves with the word “spirituality”. There is their boastful “knowledge” (that is, knowledge without understanding – also known as ignorance) of “Spirituality,” “Theosis,” “the Fathers,” the Philokalia, the “Typikon,” “Mysticism” and the “Canons,” in fact they were talking only of their self-flattery. (However, some of his views of converts seem cruel – they did not after all have his privileged background and he did not understand their underlying needs and so could not channel them positively).
Fr Alexander noted how often those “interested in spiritual life” had little love of Christ (P. 35). There was his understandable dislike of pietism, in fact mere sentimentalism “a l’eau de rose” (Pp. 215, 226, 302), and his equally understandable dislike of “religion,” that is, fake religiosity, and actually hatred and pretentiousness (Pp. 218, 227, 251, 302, 460, 620, 625), which he thought of as idolatry, such “religion” having replaced God, Christ and faith. He also rejected silly convert cults with their beard competitions etc. He found, quite rightly, that it was “religious” people and the priestly caste who crucified God, as they had done in Jerusalem, and as they still do today. He stood wholeheartedly against any sort of totalitarian fanaticism (Pp. 431-2).
There is his dislike of academic Orthodoxy, its “theology” and its footnotes, talking about things they had never experienced, the incessant talkshops, conferences, debates and all the other peripheral froth and hot air – surely the real cause of global warming – in the marginal sections of the Orthodox Church (Pp. 448, 464, 588). Byzantine studies, he thought, was “for snobs and failures” (P. 461). For him, academic interest is false because it does not produce repentance, which can only come from an authentic inner life (P.14), from joy. Indeed, “Rejoice!” would be a very good title for these Diaries. There is Fr Alexander”s basic spiritual awareness that the devil is always at work in the Church and this proves the Divinity of the Church (P. 439). As the English proverb goes: “Where God builds a Church, the devil builds a chapel next door”. How sadly true!
For Fr Alexander, as for all of us, there is no need for theology outside the services – it is all in the services (Pp. 29, 273). There is his dislike of all ideologies, left and right (Pp.191-2, 263, 265). There are his attitudes to the spiritually dead West with its deathly modernism (Pp. 147, 171, 409, 440, 477, 508-9, 519, 528, 591), which he rightly understood as a spiritual disease. The West, as he said, is contaminated by the fantasy of egalitarianism, with its absurd and blasphemous attitudes to “woman priests” (= priestesses) and homosexuality, which are so disconcertingly alien to all Orthodox.
As a Russian, he rightly saw the Western obsession with “rights,” “socialism” and “democracy” as decadent idolatry and dehumanising pride. He understood that when the soul leaves the body, the body dies and that the West was dead because it had lost its soul. His analysis of the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the West because it has rejected Christ, on Whom it was founded, is compelling (P. 447). But he also rightly understood that Western Christianity had to die first before Christ could rise from its death (P. 451).
Although his Diaries form an index of secular émigré intellectuals, they are remarkable by their many omissions. Thus, Fr Alexander never seems to speak of holiness, of saints, he never once mentions St John of Shanghai or monks like Fr Seraphim (Rose), he hardly ever speaks positively of monasticism and, in the true Parisian style, frequently expresses dislike of it (Pp. 271-2). He had no contact with Jerusalem, Mt Athos or any of the Local Churches in Eastern Europe or with Russia itself, which tragically he never visited. The only exceptions were brief visits to the Serbian Church under Yugoslav Communism and the Coptic Church and its monks (Pp. 416-17).
He had no contact with the wider ROCOR outside certain narrow parishes in North America. Thus, he never visited the ROCOR Cathedral in San Francisco. Apart from his contacts with the old, “more authentic” (Pp. 568-9) immigrant Orthodoxy in Pennsylvania and the wonderful Orthodoxy of Alaska, to which he made two deeply rewarding trips, his other contact was with modernistic parishes in Finland. In other words, Fr Alexander had little contact with the sources of living Orthodoxy. Indeed, rather than an interest in monastic and ascetic life, he seems to have spent a lot of time studying French literature and philosophy, the novels of Georges Simenon, the writings of Julien Green and Russian secular literature. It says a lot about him.
It is clear that secular literature, French and Russian, did indeed shape much of his world. Fr Alexander calls himself a rebel, an iconoclast (P. 63), a “contestataire” (P. 106). He hated any attachment to the past (P. 73). And in this way he was the typical Russian secular intellectual, who, born outside Russia, came to the Church, but never fully integrated Her (P. 53). In this way he was a stereotype of the Paris emigration, a remnant of the uprooted St Petersburg aristocracy and ruling caste after Peter the Great had cut them off from the people.
The literary critic in Fr Alexander was rapidly disillusioned by the third emigration, often of Jewish origin, and the false “religious revival” of the 70s among the Soviet intelligentsia. He realised that it was so heavily Sovietised that it was unable to think outside Soviet categories (P. 614). His initial over-adulation of a secular writer, however great, Solzhenitsyn, as “a saviour” now seems absurd, though Fr Alexander only faintly understood this (P. 488) and found Solzhenitsyn a genius (Pp. 527-8).
In his booklet on Solzhenitsyn (whom he did not appreciate because of Solzhenitsyn’s love of the best parts of ROCOR), Fr Alexander wrote some of his most perceptive lines on the West. Here he said that “the religious tragedy of the West” was that “it combined intellectual disbelief with religiosity”. (On Solzhenitsyn, Montreal, 1974). This was precisely also the tragedy of the Westernised Russian emigration (Westernised even before it settled in the West). Indeed, this, a believing heart and a disbelieving mind, was Fr Alexander”s own tendency, as he admitted (P. 518).
Unfortunately, as a result, the “Protestant,” rationalist side of Fr Alexander had little time for popular piety and the Fathers (P. 109), for Orthodoxy as “a way of life” (P. 57). He rejected the Orthodoxy, that is the St Petersburg aristocratic Orthodoxy of Paris, which he saw as captive to Catholicism (P. 158). Indeed, he had little time for the nostalgic of the emigration. He often spoke of the rot of the emigration (Pp. 23, 85, 134), especially in the USA, and its obsession with the past (Pp. 123-24).
Fr Alexander and ROCOR
Fr Alexander”s evaluation of ROCOR and particular priests in it (for instance, Fr Viktor Potapov, Fr Alexander Lebedev, Fr Alexander Kisilev) is very sharp and very negative, but I can understand it, however unjust concerning those particular priests. Obviously, he never understood what ROCOR was and is and only saw the outside of it, the worst. That is why he dismissed this whole part of the Russian Church, with her saints and universal values, as a sect, using the contemptuous nickname of “Karlovchane,” in a piece of crude polemics, quite unworthy of him. However, I can understand – I too remember the worst of ROCOR in the 1970s and also saw what he saw.
Crudely put, the worst of ROCOR then was a mixture of racism and phariseeism – “museum Orthodoxy,” the fate of which could only be death, for it was already inwardly dead. There were elderly émigrés bathing in pure cultural nostalgia for a disappeared Russia and not passing on to their children and grandchildren any of the Orthodox Faith, let alone to non-Russians. Those émigrés were all too often accompanied by a few fanatical ex-Anglicans who appeared to want a kind of “Taliban Orthodoxy,” so that they could condemn to hellfire everyone who had remained Anglican (P. 48).
No wonder that sort of ROCOR died out or disappeared into the bottomless pit of tiny sects. Such a ROCOR was either all about the past or else about pathological psychology; it was certainly never about love and Christianity. Thus, what Fr Alexander saw in ROCOR, was only provinciality, nationalist, ethnic Russian Orthodoxy, not its universal mission, which its best elements have always worked for. His accusation that ROCOR was self-defensive is bizarre, given the constant aggressive attacks and persecution made against ROCOR by virtually everyone (P. 594), including by himself.
His inability to understand and accept the ROCOR canonisation of the New Martyrs and Confessors is simply tragic, as also was that of the academic Fr John Meyendorf (Pp. 630, 642). How can you reject the saints? How can your reject St John of Shanghai? And yet that is what Fr Alexander and those with him did and they still do. Understandably an anti-nationalist and anti-chauvinist, Fr Alexander did not see the inside, the saintliness of ROCOR, her faithfulness to the universal Russian Orthodox Tradition, the carrier of uncompromised Orthodox civilisation, the non-fanatical zeal to speak of Orthodoxy to those of goodwill around the world and the profound veneration for the New Martyrs and Confessors (for which Fr Alexander had no time, and about whom he was profoundly wrong, as also about the ever-memorable Metropolitan Philaret).
It is all the best of ROCOR which has made and makes ROCOR alive today, whereas the superficial Orthodoxy which Fr Alexander saw in parts of the OCA is dead or dying, a flame that flared and then burned out, leaving only grey ashes and bitter regrets. The unity and the freedom of today”s Russian Church are based precisely on the headstone of the corner, on the New Martyrs and Confessors. Fr Alexander did not see this. Sadly, in many ways, Fr Alexander did judge by externals. And here he made several mistakes.
The Tragedy of Fr Alexander
And here we come to Fr Alexander’s real tragedy. Only seeing the outside, the shell, he never accepted the Incarnation of Church life inside the shell. His thoughts and philosophy (not ideology, because he abhorred that word – P. 125, yet ironically he became the ideologist of ethnic American autocephalism) were opposed to the Church, as She exists on earth. He was intelligent enough to reject the Paris School (P. 527), calling Bulgakov a heretic, “Marxism inside out” (P. 527), with all its occult fantasy (“Sophianism”), imagination, self-exaltation and uprootedness. Yet, Fr Alexander was himself ultimately disincarnate, both literally, neither Russian, nor Parisian, nor American, and also intellectually.
The essential tragedy of Fr Alexander is that although he loved the Bible and the Eucharist (Pp. 615, 635 – and who does not?), he never accepted the mass Orthodoxy of the Church after the Constantinian settlement, the mass Orthodoxy which is the fruit of the Incarnation. Fundamentally – and this is what gives rise to all the accusations that he was a Protestant – he never went beyond the fourth century, he never accepted that the Church is the Church of the masses. Therefore he never accepted the balancing and sanctifying counter-movement of the Church of the fourth century, the Orthodoxy of monasticism, of asceticism, of symbols, of mystery, of the Fathers, of “Byzantium,” of “Holy Rus,” of the iconostasis, of secret prayers, of confession, of the lives of the saints, of the veneration of relics, of the Menaia, of the “sanctoral,” of akathists, intercessory services and memorial services.
It is all very well to praise the “early Christians,” “who did not have iconostases,” but they were saints, who could have been martyred at any moment, and we are not saints. In this way, Fr Alexander’s Orthodoxy was an elitist, purist Orthodoxy, which simply did not take into account the reality that most people are quite happy praying at services which, intellectually, they understand little of, because they do not understand the language. They do not need to. Most people need an atmosphere to pray in, not books to read, not things to understand. Most people simply never read and do not live in their heads. Their needs are different. They live in their bodies and hearts, however primitive, emotional or sentimental – or spiritual and “mystical” – that might seem to intellectuals.
And interestingly, this is the essential problem today of all those of Russian origin or say that they are of the “Russian Orthodox Tradition,” who still refuse to accept the loving unity and authority of the Russian Orthodox Church: they cannot accept mass Orthodoxy, but prefer tiny “communities,” in fact hothouse ghettos, often less than 20 or 30 in number, where everyone is supposedly an intellectual and so the faith is “pure”. And essentially, this is pride, the pride that always lurks behind every division, every rejection of unity, whether it comes from the left (St Vladimir’s) or from the right (sects of “True Orthodox”). They all think that they alone “will be saved”. And this simply shows a totally unacceptable lack of love for the masses, who will – get real, please – never join them.
Intellectually, Fr Alexander never understood that Orthodoxy is the Christian way of life, the Gospel Incarnate. Hence the accusations of “heresy” against him in Russia today. In this sense, Fr Alexander’s mind was never fully Churched, hence his dislike of the term “Churchness” (P. 379). His approach to the services was basically the deconstructionist, “demythologising” approach of the secular, literary critic. The whole mystical aspect was missing, there was only the rationalist Protestant Biblicist, the literary critic, the captive of German-originated Biblical criticism. Ironically, it was also this that led to the Russophobic, American, “ethnic” nationalism which infects parts of the OCA today.
Fr Alexander, their “spiritual father,” was not a Russophobe (P. 360), but he did have a very critical view of Russia (P. 438) and felt more at home in Paris, in the West. As he himself said of his opposite number in the then polarised (at least in the USA) ROCOR, Bishop Gregory Grabbe, the children were indeed worse than their father (P. 54). Fr Alexander, an internationalist, would have been horrified at the American nationalism expressed by some of his spiritual children, in various jurisdictions, today. Already in his lifetime he was very concerned by the Protestant-style “activism” and American “business” approach in the OCA (Pp. 438, 617-18), which despite himself he had encouraged. And he himself admitted that actually he himself felt more at home in the “West,” and not in the “East,” that is to say, he was at home more in the “West” than in the Orthodox universe (P. 616).
Thus, Fr Alexander often understood the Church only as “religion” (a word which he understandably disliked – we all hate “organised religion,” that is why we are Orthodox), as “theologians” (P. 39), as an institution (“beards and crosses” – P. 10) – which as an institution of course we all dislike, but accept as necessary. He never saw beyond the outer shell into the inside. There was always that superficiality, so typical of the world of Orthodox speakers on the international conference circuit, with their flat, superficial, Spiritless, academic views of the Church, but never real experience. The tragedy of Fr Alexander was that he never realised the positive principle that Orthodoxy is always incarnate, in the life of groups and nations; he only ever saw the negative aspects of Incarnation and therefore rejected the principle itself.
Though he clearly understood the weaknesses of many, for example, Prince Andronikov (Pp. 110 and 322), Olivier Clement (P. 422), Dmitriy Obolensky (Pp. 604, 607, 630) and Nicholas Zernov (Pp. 78-79, 564), he displayed naivety of judgment about others. As we have mentioned before, he had a healthy dislike of “spiritual fathers” (Pp. 35, 631) and the fraudulence of pseudo-spirituality (an inter-jurisdictional phenomenon – evil always goes everywhere). His attitude to the wrong sort of converts (“maximalists”), as for example, he met them in Oxford in the early 80s (les transfigures – P. 640), is quite understandable.
Fr Alexander understood nothing of the real England, only of the elites in London and Oxford (P. 590). Like all those elitists, he never understood the people. How well I recall one of his disciples in Paris, a graduate of St Vladimir”s, telling me of his shock at learning of aspects of everyday life, the life which I and everyone I knew well had always lived, and I wondered what planet such people came from. It was from the Planet of the Disincarnate.
The Missing Dimension
Fr Alexander wrote that he loved Orthodoxy (the disincarnate idea, the theory), but disliked the Church (Pp. 236-7, 248), which is incarnate. He sometimes opposed the Church and Christianity to Christ (Pp. 85, 459), which you can only do if you see the Church as a mere human, artificial, “Byzantine” institution (Pp. 92, 95, 105, 331, 452). His dislike of “Platonist” “Byzantinism,” of St Dionysius the Areopagite (Pp. 236, 453, 619 – how tiresome all this “Pseudo-Dionysius” nonsense) and St Maximus the Confessor (Pp. 300, 453, 539), quite understandably upset the patristic Fr George Florovsky and all Greeks – and for that matter all Orthodox – who deserved better from him. Hence also his dislike for the term “Holy Russia,” which he also misunderstood as idolatry, instead of understanding Her as Christ Incarnate, which is what Holy Russia really is.
He sometimes looked at the services as a “text,” as a literary critic, and the mystical aspect of Orthodox liturgics seemed to have escaped him, so filled was he with the human side of Church life. But how could he keep it all in perspective? There was no monastery for him to go to and renew himself, only his summer holiday family home in Canada. On the other hand, as we have seen, he stood against falsity in Church life, against fake religiosity, hypocrisy and bigotry and he understood that all Orthodox theology is in the services.
Fr Alexander understood the centrality of the Eucharist and spoke of “Eucharistness” (P. 608). He did much to encourage frequent communion among his largely ex-Uniat flock, which had been forced to adopt, over two centuries before, the old Catholic practice of rare communion. However, Fr Alexander had no understanding at all of the sacral, “Byzantine,” spiritual, mystical nature of the Church (Pp. 452, 518, 480), secret prayers read secretly, repentance, ascetic life, St Gregory Palamas (Pp. 374, 539), St Ignatius and St Theophan (Pp. 502, 587), and, like other Parisians, he often misunderstood the use of confession (P. 511), prayer and fasting. In this, he was secular and, by his own admission, he could not detach himself from the world (P. 452). Thus a whole dimension, a whole half, of Orthodox Church life was missing in him.
Fr Alexander also understood that St Vladimir”s could turn into a disaster which he could not control (Pp. 34, 331, 438, 460, 596). He realised that seminaries themselves are not Orthodox; they are a result of Roman Catholic clericalism. Nevertheless, sadly, because of his anti-monastic prejudice, he did not see that any real seminary must be part of a monastery, like St Tikhon”s in his own jurisdiction, rather than a foundation run by and for intellectuals. Fr Alexander disliked confessing (Pp. 34, 511), but did it and quite well, it seems. He had a rationalistic, anti-mystical (P. 518), Protestant view of liturgics – and so accused those who had an Orthodox view of having a Catholic view! (P. 158).
Fr Alexander never understood the importance of clerical dress, of women covering their heads in church, of faithfulness to the Orthodox calendar, of the way services are done (P. 96). He never understood that although ritual is of course secondary, it is also symptomatic of inner truth. His rejection of traditional piety was tragic. He never understood that many pious faithful simply cannot pray in churches on the new calendar, with pews and beardless priests, who forbid any “foreign” language (it is only “foreign” to the ignorant), fasting and women covering their heads.
He never understood that dog-collared and clean-shaven priests will never be taken seriously and nor will the new calendar – at least in the Russian Church (P. 426). Sadly, the naive, young priest who serves matins without the canon (if he serves matins at all), who detests the Menaia, who has the holy doors open throughout the liturgy (if he has an iconostasis at all), shouts out the sacred words of the secret prayers, puts pews in his church, refuses to give confession and bans women in church from covering their heads, is now, perhaps unfairly, seen as an OCA product, and is now, perhaps unfairly, called a “Schmemannite”. The fact is that, whatever he is called, he tramples on Orthodox piety and he scandalises the faithful.
Nevertheless, to say that the whole present-day OCA tragedy and its scandals, obliquely mentioned in his censored Diaries, was Fr Alexander’s fault, is unfair. He was not alone in setting up the OCA, which in those dark Cold War years seemed to him a good idea. He was not responsible for the secular compromises in parts of it. It is true that his anti-monasticism did not help. And it was the fundamental lack of authentic monastic life and ascetic tradition which was and is at the root of the OCA”s demise. But why should Fr Alexander, a married priest and good and honest family man, be blamed for a lack of monastic life and the resulting decadence?
It is not as though Fr Alexander had ever wanted power and to be in charge of the hothouse of St Vladimir’s – he had no ambition, no careerism and would have been happier just preaching, speaking, writing and living with his family. How often he was exhausted and fed up with the petty bureaucracy, infighting, pestering and phone calls. He had been put into a position of power, despite himself. And his tireless work in giving talks, in writing, confessing, serving and talking on Radio Liberty were invaluable, however one-sided.
And Fr Alexander did what he could, with all the tragic human limitations of what he had and what he was. And that is no less than anyone else, and sometimes a lot more. The fact that the whole sacral, monastic and ascetic dimension was missing from his work and indeed was considered by him to be an error (!) does not mean that his views on the centrality of the Eucharist are wrong. It simply means that they are one-sided – only half of the story. And it was this half that he revived. It is for others who come after him to revive the other half of the story, to complete the puzzle.
No Orthodox Church has been founded by laypeople and married priests. The centrality of monastic mission, whether in the Roman Empire in the first centuries, whether in Georgia and Armenia, whether in Wales, Ireland and Scotland in the fifth and sixth centuries, whether in England in 597, whether among the Slavs in the ninth and tenth centuries, whether in Alaska in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whether in twentieth-century Romania and Serbia, is vital. Without monasticism, there is immaturity and prematurity, with the result that there is no spiritual growth, only an outward “activism,” which dies once the emotion and naive enthusiasm of youth dwindles away.
Conclusion: The Whole Picture
We have a vision, a vision which we have had since 1974. It is this:
One day, after the whole tragic Cold War story of Russian Church divisions, whether in the Americas or Western Europe, caused by the paralysis of the Centre in Moscow, has been overcome and is consigned to the history books, all the pieces of the puzzle will have been put back together again. Then we shall all see once more the whole picture, which only very few of Fr Alexander”s tragic generation saw.
This process of the restoration of the whole picture started with the canonisation of the New Martyrs and Confessors, begun in New York and completed in Moscow. It was through their blood and sacrifice that everything changed and unity has come. Their canonisation was followed by its fruit – when the two closest and largest pieces of the puzzle, those closest to the New Martyrs and Confessors, the Patriarchally-founded ROCOR and the Patriarchate itself, entered into communion in 2007.
Now the other pieces of the puzzle, the OCA and Rue Daru, still have to return and join in. This will come when everywhere they start venerating the New Martyrs and Confessors, without reservation. Then the whole puzzle will be complete again. Then the “big picture” of the universality and worldwide mission of Russian Orthodoxy and its vital role in Pan-Orthodox unity will once more be apparent – even to those who wandered far from it, because they were concerned only with their parochial little corners and their “personalities”. As regards “personalities” in their little corners, as it is said, if you want to be a big fish, all you have to do is enter a small pool. And that is what some and their adepts did, make the pool ever smaller, so that they themselves could seem ever bigger.
Like everything sectarian, it is of course a delusion, or rather a self-delusion. Sectarianism, with its personality cults, has always been the curse of the Russian emigration. So concerned were small émigré groups with their own little world, so insular were they, so cut off from the Centre, that they lost sight of the big picture, of wholeness. It is understandable, because the Centre was held captive by militant atheism. So what was left, except little corners, with some grasping for the big picture and its restoration? But that time has gone now and it must be consigned to the bad old days – which is, have no illusions, what they were.
There is no doubt that Fr Alexander helped many into the Church and many of them, who later moved onto a deeper understanding and life in the Church of Christ, are grateful to him. The fact is that the spiritually moribund Metropolia of the 1950s, with its ethnic ritualism from “the old country,” was transformed by him and those with him. There is no doubt that, however one-sided his views, Fr Alexander was sincere and well-intentioned. And there is no doubt that he helped lay foundations for the renewal of the Orthodox Church in North America.
Since Fr Alexander”s death others, like Fr Ephraim, those in ROCOR and others, are completing what he was unable to do, enlivening the whole other, supra-rational, half of Orthodox Church life, monasticism, asceticism, the Tradition, which Fr Alexander, a man of his times, only partially knew and understood. Therefore, as to one who helped lay foundations, we have no hesitation in saying:
To Protopresbyter Alexander – Eternal Memory!
16 February/1 March 2011
St Macarius, Metropolitan of Moscow
On the whole, a fairly balanced view, as much may be expected from a ROCOR priest. The discussion of `maximalist` converts is especially illuminating. I must say that, as an OCA communicant, I am surrounded by people who, by and large, are quite happy understanding the Liturgy in English. I observe that traditional piety, in its most salutary sense, is imbued with reverence in ROCOR, and a sense of the sacred. I can dispense, however, with being relegated to a status of `hearer` without understanding. I find laity in the OCA on the whole more tolerant, reasonable, and, simply put, I have no other way to say it–less spiteful than I often encounter in their ROCOR counterparts. This is experience. It is not operative as a rule, and I find some of the most normal people I`ve met are priest`s children who have grown up in an orthodox setting. I converted twenty five years ago at the age of twenty-six, and have mellowed considerably. I like being educated, well-read(for my social standing), and am willing to live and let live.
A clean shaven priest will never be taken seriously? Insane! What has a stupid beard got to do with intelligence, faith and an ability to communicate? Some Russians are so backwards!
As a convert and someone who has no ear for other languages, I can say that I would never have become Orthodox if the services had not been in English. The feeling of uber-ethnic nostalgia and a not uncommon sense of not being welcome in Ethnic Churches would have sent me away.
But I wish Russians would realize that Russia is not the only ,or the best Orthodox Church in the world.. My Antiochian priest in UK tells me that it is the Russians who come to his church and tell him what he should be doing” why you not sing the music this way, why you not remove the pews?’ and he tells them that Antiochians were Orthodox a thousand years before Russia had heard of it.
We are a part of a wonderful ,eternal ,life giving Church ! Let us give thanks for that and love one another.
p.s. as for Fr Alexander, he was only one man who did his part the best way he could, just like we all are doing. If you comb over anyone’s life, you will find some good and some bad. A jigsaw puzzle is a good image or a stone wall. We all have a few pieces to contribute. Lord bless us all.
I think that allot of those stuff aren’t true.
I know some former students of Fr. Alexander.
By their stories he was a great man, priest, and mentor.
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