Essay / Theology

Notes from Schmemann's Journals

Schmemann Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was an Eastern Orthodox theologian with a long teaching ministry at St. Vladimir’s seminary in New York. He lived a fascinating life: born to Russian parents in Estonia and educated in Paris before living much of his life in America. His Russian-language sermons were broadcast for decades on Radio Liberty (aka Radio Free Europe), and among his listeners was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who eagerly pursued friendship with Schmemann after coming to the West.

After Schmemann’s death in 1983, eight notebooks were discovered in his office desk: he had been making notes in these journals periodically over the previous decade. They were mostly in Russian, but sometimes English and French. His wife Juliana edited them, making selections and translations which other colleagues and family members put into final form and published as The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann. For a thoughtful review of the book, it’s hard to beat Richard John Neuhaus’ treatment in the January 2001 First Things. Neuhaus, who worked with Schmemann for a few years on a major ecumenical project, calls Schmemann’s theology, half-jokingly, “Barthianism with a real Church and a real Liturgy.”

In these journals, Schmemann writes evocatively about subjects that will be familiar to readers of his published works: church, liturgy, society, literature, Russia. But he also vents about his frustrations in a way that he wouldn’t have done in ordinary print, comments on political events, records his emotional states and the little epiphanies of daily life. If his journals are a reliable guide to his daily state of mind, Schmemann invested a lot of mental attention and emotional responsiveness in weather, trees, and variations in lighting conditions. He also jotted down a series of disconnected notes on several large, amorphous ideas that would have made for wonderfully instructive books if he had lived to develop them more clearly. Instead, though, we have these scattered pensees, well worth reading.

One of the things that Schmemann circles back to again and again in these private thoughts is the beauty he remembers from his childhood in Paris. He often says that everybody should stop chattering so much and just attend to the wonder of existence. They should just be, and not dash around trying to cobble together the meaning of life, even in religious activity. For Schmemann, this intuition is identical with his Paris. Sometimes he’s Van Morrison with mystic recollections of Paris instead of Belfast. Other times he’s a middle-aged Holden Caulfield waving incense at all the phonies.

I’ve especially learned a lot from Schmemann’s intuition that our best learning takes place when we start out from something already accomplished without any of our own doing, rather than when we are engaged in a struggle to build up and construct understanding from disparate parts. This is probably an important insight for many fields, but it is decisive for theology. Sometimes theologians talk about doctrines as if everything depends on the skill of the theological argument that yields the properly-constructed doctrine. Terrible! As if theology’s way of knowing did not take as its starting point God’s own self-revelation, and launch out on its first steps by obedient response. Too often, theologians begin speaking by pretending not to know things they know. Schmemann had a particular way of putting this: If only people would just live in the liturgical life of the church, instead of arguing and defining and debating and clarifying as if their lives depended on it.

I strongly feel that theology is the transmission in words –not of other words and beliefs, but of the experience of the living Church, revealed now, communicated now. The theology that is being taught has estranged itself from the Church and from that experience; it has become self-sufficient and wants above all to be a science. Science about God, about Christ, about eternal life; therefore it has become unnecessary chatter.

Outside the journals, Schmemann would write more carefully, recognizing the legitimate place of doctrinal clarification and even of theological controversy. That recognition rescues him from being a naive romantic about the relationship between the thick reality of the Christian life and the necessarily more abstract and propositional doctrines that make up theology. I appreciate the sharpness and purity of the way he puts it in the journals, but after all there must be such a thing as good theology, maybe even written in books with sentences. And for my own part, I would like to hear much more emphasis on Scripture and salvation, which for Schmemann are characteristically so thoroughly intermingled into the liturgy and sacraments that only with great difficulty can they be teased out or perceived. Nevertheless, Schmemann’s journals are a rich reading experience, communicating something of the man and much more of his central insights as a Christian teacher.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the journals.

Monday, January 29, 1973 (p. 1)
Yesterday, on the train coming back from Wilmington, Delaware, I thought: “Here I am, fifty-two years old, a priest and a theologian for more than a quarter of a century –what does it all mean?”

“What is there to ‘explain’? The surprising combination in me of a deep and ever-growing revulsion at endless discussions and debates about religion, at superficial affirmation, pious emotionalism and certainly against pseudo-churchly interests, petty and trifling, and at the same time an ever-growing sense of reality. Just yesterday, I felt this reality while walking to church for the Liturgy, in the early morning, through the emptiness of winter trees…”

Friday, April 6, 1973 (p. 10)
“Happiness –no need for words”

“Yesterday was little Vera’s birthday… What is happiness? It is to live as we do now, with L., just the two of us, savoring every hour –morning coffee; two, three hours of quiet in the evening. No ‘special’ conversation. All is clear, and therefore so good! If we were to start trying to define the essence of that obvious happiness, we would each do it differently; we might even have an argument! My words would not seem right to her, and vice versa. Misunderstanding! And happiness would become clouded. As one approaches the essence of a thing, fewer and fewer words are needed. In eternity, in the Kingdom, only “Holy, Holy, Holy” will be needed, only words of praise and thanks, only prayer and the brightness of fullness and joy. This is why the only profound and needed words are real in themselves, and as such are the very symbol, presence and mystery of reality.”

“The word of God, prayer, art– there was a time when theology was that ‘word of God,’ not just words about God, but divine words, a revelation.”

Bright Tuesday, May 1, 1973 (p. 13)
“Pascha. Holy Week. Essentially, bright days such as are needed. And truly that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is there. All that is needed for one’s spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It is all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one’s heart and mind. The more I live, the more I am convinced that most people love something else and expect something else from religion and in religion. For me this is idolatry, and it often makes contact with people so difficult.”

Friday, October 12, 1973 (p. 16)
“There is no point in converting people to Christ if they do not convert their vision of the world and of life, since Christ then becomes merely a symbol for all that we love and want already –without Him. This kind of Christianity is more terrifying than agnosticism or hedonism.”

“Theologians have connected their fate with erudition, with learning, whereas they would be better off following poetry, poets and art. Genuine poetry is hard to come by, while erudition is endlessly easy…”

Monday, December 10, 1973 (p. 20)
“This experience remains with me forever: a very strong sense of “life” in its physical, bodily reality, in the uniqueness of every minute and of its correlation with life’s reality. At the same time, this interest has always been rooted solely in the correlation of all of this with what the silent Mass was a witness to and reminder of, the presence and the joy. What is that correlation? It seems to me that I am quite unable to explain and determine it, although it is actually the only thing that I ever talk and write about (“liturgical theology”). It is not an “idea”: I feel repulsed by “ideas”; I have an ever-growing conviction that Christianity cannot be expressed by “ideas.” This correlation is not an “idea” of the Christian world, Christian marriage, etc. This correlation is a tie, not an idea; an experience. It is the experience of the world and life literally in the light of the Kingdom of God, revealed through everything that makes up the world: colors, sounds, movements, time, space –concrete, not abstract. When this light, which is only in the heart, only inside us, falls on the world and on life, then all is illumined, and the world becomes a joyful sign, symbol, expectancy. That’s why I love Paris, why I need it! …”

Wednesday, December 12, 1973 (p. 21)
“To be close to people, but alone, and suddenly to feel with extraordinary force these woods, these empty wet branches against the gray sky, all the things that are stifled by the presence of people coming to life, living their own independent existence, every minute whole, not fragmented.”

Friday, December 14, 1973 (p. 23)
“I love my home, and to leave home and be away overnight is always like dying –returning seems so very far away! I am always full of joy when I think about home. All homes, with lit windows behind which people live, give me infinite pleasure. I would love to enter each of them, to feel its uniqueness, the quality of its warmth. Each time I see a man or a woman walking with shopping bags, that is, going home, I think about them: they are going home, to real life, and I feel good, and they become somehow close and dear. I am always intrigued: What do people do when they do not “do” anything, when they just live? That’s when their life becomes important, when their fate is determined. Simple bourgeois happiness is often despised by activists of all sorts who quite often do not realize the depth of life itself; who think that life is an accumulation of activities. God gives us His Life, not ideas, doctrines, rules. At home, when all is done, life itself begins. Christ was homeless not because He despised simple happiness –He did have a childhood, family, home– but because He was at home everywhere in the world, which His Father created as the “home” of man. “Peace be with this house.” We have our home and God’s home, the Church, and the deepest experience of the Church is that of a home. Always the same and, above anything else, life itself– the Liturgy, evening, morning, a feast –and not an activity.”

Thursday, January 24, 1974 (p. 31)
“For the early Christians, the Body of Christ is on the altar because He is among them. For the contemporary Christians, Christ is here because His Body is on the altar. It seems to be analogous, but in fact, there is an essential difference between the early Christians and us. For them, everything is in knowing Christ, loving Him. For us, everything is in the desire to be enlightened. The early Christians came to Communion to follow Christ, whereas now Christ is not the unique reason for partaking of Communion.”

Saturday, February 16, 1974 (p. 32)
“A strong faith attenuates the intensity of problems. In those rare moments when through religion one manages to reach God, there are no problems, because God is not part of the world. In those moments the world itself becomes life in Him, meeting with Him, contact with Him. The world does not become God, but life with God, joyful and full. This is God’s salvation of the world. It is fulfilled every time that we believe. The church is not a religious establishment, but the presence in the world of a saved world. But so often the church is entangled in problems that in faith are nonexistent and harmful. “Spirituality,” “churchiness” –dangerous and ambiguous concepts. So often many people whom I knew as seekers of spirituality were narrow-minded, intolerant and dull, joyless, quite often accusing others of not being spiritual enough. They were often the center of their conscience, not Christ, not the Gospel, not God. In their presence, one does not bloom; just the opposite, one crouches. Pride, egocentricity, self-satisfaction and narrow-mindedness; but th en, what is the use of spirituality? …There is nothing worse than professional religiosity. All this fingering of a rosary in the midst of church gossip, the whole style of sighs and lowered eyes, seem so often terribly fake.”

Thursday, February 21, 1974 (33)
“Being in church should be liberating. But in the Church’s contemporary tonalilty, church life does not liberate, but narrows, enslaves, weakens the man. One starts to be interested in the Old and New Calendars, in what the bishops are doing, one assumes a kind of unctuous sweetness. A great deal of so-called spiritual literature is of dubious quality. Instead of teaching man to look at the world through the Church’s vision, instead of transforming man’s view of himseslf and his life, one feels obliged –in order to be “spiritual”– to clothe oneself in an impersonal, soiled “garment of piety.” Instead of at least knowing that there is joy, light, meaning, eternity, man becomes irritated, narrow-minded, intolerant and often simply mean. He does not even repent of it because it all comes from “churchliness,” whereas the meaning of religion consists only in filling life with light, in referring it to God, transforming it into a relationship with God.”

Thursdsay, May 23, 1974 (p. 41)
“After Vespers, confessions. I try to tell everyone the same thing: to liberate oneself from “pounds” of pettiness. Pettiness –of the heart, of relationships, of cares –does not leave room in the heart for God, it is truly demonic. The fallen world is a petty world, a world in which a high vision is not perceived, a high note is not heard. In a petty world, even religion becomes petty. The perversion of Christianity does not come from heresies, but from the fall. A fall downward, and pettiness is down there.”

Wednesday, October 9, 1974 (p. 50)
“I remember in the days of my youth when, walking to church in the golden morning light, there was a breakthrough, a touch with a mysterious bliss. And all my life, deep down, has been a search for this contact, this bliss. To feel it again! The rest is all relative, forced labor.”

Friday, November 1, 1974 (p. 52)
“When I think about seminarians … I see that one can love religion like anything else in life: sports, science, stamp collecting; one can love it for its own sake without relation to God or the world or life. Religion fascinates; it is entertaining. It has everything that is sought after by a certain type of person: esthetics, mystery, the sacred and a feeling of one’s importance and exclusive depth, etc. That kind of religion is not necessarily faith. People expect and thirst after faith –and we offer them religion– a contradiction that can be quite deep and awesome.”

Friday, February 27, 1976 (p. 110)
“Last evening I met with the faculty for drinks and was immersed in talks about Orthodoxy, ecumenism, etc. And, as usual, I felt how far apart we are in the essential intuition, vision of the world, in the very perception of faith. Put simply: the Orthodox man begins with the “end,” with the experience, the breakthrough, the very reality of God, the Kingdom, Life –and only afterwards does he clarify it, but in relation to the experience he has had. The Western man rationally arrives at and evokes the “end” from a series of premises. The Orthodox often expresses that “end” quite poorly in theology. For the Westerner, the end somehow disappears, is diluted in elaborate constructions. (I need to express this problem better…)”

Holy Thursday, April 7, 1977 (157)
“I am more and more convinced that nothing, absolutely nothing is achieved or solved through discussions, arguments, debates –an aberration of our times. It’s hard to imagine Tolstoy, Rembrandt, or Shakespeare at some colloquium, dedicated to the ways of contemporary art. Anything that convinces, or converts others, grows in solitude, in creative quiet, never in chatter. … The error of our times is the belief in words, leading to their complete devaluation. People will tell me, “What about Plato’s dialogues?” But they support precisely what I am saying. These dialogues are not just a recording of a particular debate, but the demonstration of an ideal debate in which every word has its full weight, and, in which everything is built on hearing what the other one is saying.”

Friday, September 30, 1977 (p. 173)
“I am quite convinced that the fundamental error of the contemporary man is his belief that thanks to technology –(telephone, Xerox, etc.)– he can squeeze into a given time much more than before, whereas it’s really impossible. Man becomes the slave of his always growing work. There is a need for rhythm, detachment, slowness. Why can’t students grasp all they’re taught? Because they do not have time to become conscious of, to come back to, what they heard, to let it really enter their minds. A contemporary student registers knowledge, but does not assimilate it; therefore that knowledge does not “produce” anything. A downpour of rain is immeasurably less useful for a drought than a thin, constant drizzle! But we are all the time under a thunderous downpour –of information, reports, knowledge, discussions, etc. And all of these flow around us, never sticking to us, immediately pushed away by the next deluge.”

Thursday, October 13, 1977 (p. 174)
“While rereading my articles, I realized that “theologically,” I have one idea –the eschatological content of Christianity, and of the Church as the presence in this world of the Kingdom, of the age to come –this presence as the salvation of the world and not escape from it. The “world beyond the grave” cannot be loved, cannot be looked for, cannot be lived by. Whereas the Kingdom of God, if one tastes it, be it a little, cannot be not loved! Once you love it, you cannot avoid loving all creation, created to reveal and announce the Kingdom. This love is already transfigured. Without the Kingdom of God being both the beginning and the end, the world is a frightening and evil absurdity. But without the world, the Kingdom of God is incomprehensible, abstract and in some way absurd. “Today the fragrance of Spring, and the joy of new creation are with us…”

What a tedious torture to reread one’s self. All that is written seems awful, unnecessary, totally invalid. Maybe God is being merciful by not giving me time to write! But I do not want to talk about myself.”

Wednesday, October 19, 1977 (p.. 175)
“Dinner yesterday with two couples –one a lawyer, one a doctor– L’s trustees. A certain image of America, a specific American mixture of good nature, idealism, materialism, activism, psychological “keep smiling.” Pleasantly at ease with them, but one realizes why, as soon as a sort of superficial harmony is broken, a frightening collapse occurs (depression), because in this mixture there is no room for genuine grief, tragedy, and perhaps, genuine joy. The American obsession with psychotherapy comes from that –from the necessity to maintain this equilibrium, from a subconscious fear that it might break down, and then, right away –an abyss. And the essence, the function of therapy is that it explains and explains and explains that essentially there is not, and cannot be, grief, tragedy, etc., but there is only some defect in the mechanism, like a garage whose only importance is to make a car run well.”

Sunday, March 5, 1978 (191)
“One thing is clear to me: Only failure is beautiful in this world, only poverty, pity, compassion, vulnerability. … Everything that is fat, loud, successful — is awful. The most talented symbol of Dostoevsky: “the little tear of a child.” It is never a part of the music of the Right, and maybe generated the music of the Left!”

“The Right is incompatible with today’s Gospel: “…sick and in prison and you did not visit Me…” (Matthew 25:43) The Left is incompatible with the prayer of thanks: “Great are You, O Lord…””

Friday, October 2, 1981 (300)
“I strongly feel that theology is the transmission in words –not of other words and beliefs, but of the experience of the living Church, revealed now, communicated now. The theology that is being taught has estranged itself from the Church and from that experience; it has become self-sufficient and wants above all to be a science. Science about God, about Christ, about eternal life; therefore it has become unnecessary chatter.”

Monday, March 15, 1982 (318)
“It occurred to me that I should write not just memoirs –it sounds pompous — but a sort of report, testimony about how generously, throughout my whole life, God gave me gifts; about the ray of light which I almost always felt and saw.”

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