Thursday, May 6, 2010

Living Icons, Chapter 9

I must admit that I have a great deal of sympathy for Fr Alexander Schmemann, the subject of Fr Michael Plekon’s ninth chapter. His book The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy changed my life when I first read it a little over a dozen years ago. It was one of the very first scholarly treatments of Orthodoxy in general, and Orthodox history in particular that I had ever read, or at least read with understanding. It was due largely to that book that I decided to follow the academic path of the study of Orthodox theology. It’s a book I continue to read at least annually, even if by now I’ve come to disagree with parts of his treatment, in particularly his treatment of the Church in Byzantium. More recently I’ve turned again and again to his journals.

Fr Schmemann, unlike other figures in this book, was neither an ecclesiastical maverick nor an ecumenical radical. He didn’t seek to go beyond Tradition or to complete the work of the Ecumenical Councils. Still, I have little doubt that he and I would not see eye to eye on many issues – monasticism first among them – but that doesn’t particularly bother me.

Fr Plekon conludes his chapter with an excerpt from a tribute written by Fr Alexander’s son, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Serge Schmemann:
At home Father Alexander never told us to “go to church,” or that “you must fast,” or “do it this way,” never. Simply, he did what he had to and we found ourselves drawn to those things which were important to him. I can’t say we spent as much time in church as he didd, But our joy in the services came entirely from him. In our house the guiding principle of churchly life was the example of my father. My father is fasting quietly, without insisting that anyone else does so, and instinctively we begin fasting as well, after all, we can’t let him fast alone! It was important for him, and thus it became important for us... With him everything was cozy, he was always extremely joyous. If we arose in the morning in foul spirits and saw that he was happy and energetic – with him each day began this way – then his attitude infected us all... He always fought against the reduction of Christianity simply to forms and rules. It, in fact, liberates man from the narrowness of forms and rules and Father Alexander saw in Christianity the freedom of the person and love, and in his lectures, writings, sermons, always sought to reveal the deeper meaning of all things occurring in the Church. He never oversimplified, seeking in each person the very complex arena of struggle between good and evil... [H]is theology was marked above all by the element of freedom. His Christianity is that of Christ, for precisely He gave us freedom. All church rules, after all, can acquire a certain independent life of their own, totally detached from God. Father Alexander kew this all too well, which is why he never began from rules. For him all things begin with faith in God, which leads to an order of life, and not the other way around.
Now this is someone I would have liked to have known!

1 comment:

Elijahmaria said...

My spiritual father who is a Byzantine Catholic priest in upstate NY used to love to go listen to Father Alexander's lectures. He was the one who gave me my first books by Father Alexander and he'd tell stories from those lectures about the person and the substance of his thinking. His is a dense and rich legacy whatever else may be said about him.

I'm with you on this one.