Fr Alexander Schmemann in Russia
Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was probably the most influential Orthodox theologian in the English-speaking world, at least in the 20th century. His writings certainly changed my life, and probably many others.
What is less known, in the English-speaking world, is how influential his writings were in Russia, and Bishop Seraphim Sigrist has shared in his LiveJournal a review of Father Schmemann’s journals by Gregory Yavlinsky.
Father Alexander Schmemann has never been to Russia but his presence was felt during the most important moments of our life. By the end of the Eighties many people, among whom were my friends, began to seek a way to faith. Temples were opened, thousands were baptized. There was enthusiastic talk about Russia’s religious revival. This quest was perhaps, truly strong and pure, in many respects an intuitive internal movement toward truth by people which felt it impossible after so many years to remain under a bushel of lies. This thirst for the truth spilled over into the country’s political life briefly perhaps, with a powerful moral momentum.
Today it is difficult to imagine how scarce such books were and how difficult they were to come by and with what passion they were read! For many, Christianity had its beginning with the words of Father Alexander. His books were passed from hand to hand, they were discussed, and when priests saw a serious interest towards faith they advised: “read Father Alexander Schmemann’s books.”
Today such a source as Father Alexander is simply indispensable. Father Alexander’s “Diaries”, published by “Russkiy Put’”, are his most timely words for today. These words are not addressed to servants but to friends (Jn 15:15). Today people who, ten or fifteen years ago, felt that they were coming to Christ find themselves inside a complicated structure of Church life. Many things there are not customary for them nor are they understandable. They may be confusing and lead them to a search for answers and they, more than anyone else, are in need of pastoral counsel to explain what is what, to clarify doubts, strengthen their faith, establish a line between the search for Christ and those manifestations of Church life which can not only disturb but even destroy the beginnings of faith.
I first read Father Alexander Schmemann’s The world as sacament at a time when Western theology was split into warring factions of pietists and secularists (today often called “conservatives” and “liberals”), neither of which appealed to me very much. But if one did not fully support one side, one was immediately taken by its champions to be a supporter of the other, and therefore the Enemy. There was no middle ground. Reading Fr Alexander’s book was like a breath of fresh air: this is what I’ve been trying to say!
I’ve continued to read that book, and to recommend it to friends. It is now published as For the life of the world, with two extra chapters. And his Journals, too, make very good reading.
But it was something of a surprise to find that he had been equally influential in Russia, where very different conditions prevailed. That makes his writing more universal, and more universally significant.