Audio length: 44:11 minutes
Transcript published: December 03, 2011
Ancient Faith Radio travelled to Ellwood City, PA, to capture this warm and wonderful conversation with the widow of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Matushka Juliana Schmemann. Get a glimpse into the personal side of Fr. Alexander as well as Matushka's thoughts about his greatest legacy.
So this was it. This was the life that we had, and this is the inspiration that I have to try to maintain in myself, which was first working for years without him, and then, now. He died a year today. I don’t know how many I will have. I’m afraid that my dying is more difficult because there’s so much physical pain that goes with it, with old age. He was young.
Ancient Faith Radio presents a special conversation with Matushka Juliana Schmemann, the widow of the well-known and -loved protopresbyter, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who fell asleep in the Lord on December 13, 1983. Fr. Alexander is remembered for many things, not the least of which is his legacy as a theologian, seminary dean, evangelist, writer, and thinker. His dear wife, Mat. Juliana, spends part of her time in her Québec home and part at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, near her daughter Anne and son-in-law Fr. Thomas Hopko. It was in Ellwood City that we were able to sit down with her and marvel at her undiminished ability to communicate as well as her wit and wisdom for the Church today. We take you now to Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, with Mat. Juliana Schmemann.
AFR: What a treat it is for me to be sitting next to one of my heroes, Matushka Juliana Schmemann, a name that is familiar to virtually everyone in our audience, of course: the wife of Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory. And we’re sitting at Ellwood City, at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration, in her apartment. Mat. Juliana, thank you so much for giving us this time today!
Mat. Juliana: Well, I am extremely thankful to have the privilege to speak to the ones, John and his wife, who started this wonderful missionary work of Ancient Faith, and giving the people, Orthodox people, the way to let America know what Orthodox music, preaching, thinking [are], then events that happen in the Orthodox Church—make it all available to Americans, who often wonder, “What is this Orthodox faith?” and are used to seeing it mainly expressed in different ethnic churches or missions or groups of people.
[Which was] what we are trying, what my husband, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, [was trying] when he came to this country 70 years ago with a very young wife, not knowing a word of English (that’s me), and three children, when we came, we came with the idea and with the hope and being the fire, being inspired by the fire of mission. That’s why we came from France where we both grew up, where we both were born and grew up and had our children. We came to this young, hospitable, open country, knowing that we could use the God-given talents, whatever they were, to preach and to open up the treasures of Orthodoxy in this country.
When my husband died—much too young—he was probably just totally exhausted of what he has been doing. What I personally try to do [is] to take, first of all, to use a lot of his manuscripts that were not yet published, so to do some publishing work, to develop, to continue his legacy which was, at that point, not his legacy but the legacy of the many, many, many students, the many, many, many converts, all the people who were as intent as we were to bring even more, to bring more and more of the Orthodox treasure to the people and work continuously.
Maybe [it is] more important than ever, right now, 2011, and it needs to be continued because, quite often, in our church, in the OCA or in the other Orthodox churches, the pull back to ethnic, purely ethnic traditions and “we always did it like that” type of thing, [is] still very strong. The traditions are beautiful and the traditions are precious, but, nevertheless, it’s a new country. It’s the same old Orthodoxy. But locally [it is] important to reach this country and to continue the work of the Orthodox Church in America and never be worried or troubled too deeply about all the possible difficulties that every single church [has had], through the ages, since the very beginning of times, beginning with St. Paul who was in prison most of the time, and the Fathers and [now] this.
So what is going on which could, at this point, bother people in the newly born church in America? What could bother people is: are we ready for that? Yes, we are! We are just as ready as we were when there were twelve disciples, and then it became… [We are] just as ready and not-ready. We’re ready only because we know that we speak for the truth, because we love the truth. We love our faith.
As Fr. Thomas Hopko said in a homily that we heard today, we have two things: we will never compromise the truth of Orthodoxy, but we will never compromise, also, the truth of love for the neighbor. “And who is our neighbor here?” as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say. I asked him once, “Who is my neighbor?” and he said, “Your neighbor is the one who is now in your line of vision, whoever he is.” And this is what we Orthodox have to continue to feel: that our neighbors, because we live here, are the people of America. Our duty is a missionary duty. The missionary: any Christian is. It is the duty is to give them what we have, not keep it for ourselves in our little comfortable cells, but to give it out, to show.
I am, right now, sitting, already for two weeks, in the wonderful, beautiful monastery of Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has a lot of Orthodox churches and it very much can be considered one of the cradles of Orthodoxy in this country. This monastery, which has been created and founded by a Romanian princess, Mother Alexandra, was built with the missionary goal of bringing Orthodoxy to America, of spreading Orthodoxy in America. And that’s what they are doing at this monastery which I would urge anyone to come and look at, because it is fully American and fully and totally Orthodox. Most of the nuns, actually, are converts.
What they do, what they do and what every, every mission in America should do—like Ancient Faith, like many others, like St. Vladimir’s Seminary, like our chancery, a new chancery in the OCA—we keep to this first foundation of the Orthodox strength. It came. It was a difficult beginning. It still is a difficult task, but we live here, and our duty is to [keep this foundation], whether through the monastery, whether through media, whether through some internet stations, whatever they are, to each his own, we can only be extremely careful and grateful, mainly grateful, for all those unnamed heroes who continue in a tiny mission somewhere in a hidden one of the Canadian or American states, at that little mission which slowly grows. It grows and becomes a force and a spiritual source of love of the Lord, where it should be, really, all anchored in. As I recently heard myself say on the tape: “Hear and listen to, proclaim the small, still voice of the Lord.”
AFR: We’re talking with Mat. Juliana Schmemann, and a lot of people would love to know a little bit about your background. Tell us where you were born and a little bit about your family as you grew up.
Mat. Juliana: I am from a Russian refugee family. My parents were kicked out of Russia at the point of the revolution. My father was a White Army Russian man, very devoted to Russia and to Church. Thus I grew up already outside of Russia; I grew up in France. My first two languages were Russian and French, and my whole education was French, in a Catholic, very prominent school, baccalaureate in the Sorbonne in Paris, then met my husband.
And when we were married, he was 21, I was 19. We were children, actually, but we didn’t think so. We thought we were grown up and started having children, had three children right away. We then came to America. The children were very small: 7, 6, and 3. I didn’t know a word of English, so I had to learn that. It was rather sad, because I had to leave my parents in Paris. They later came. They couldn’t resist it, because they loved their grandchildren, so they came.
When we came to America, to the seminary, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for my husband to be, first a teacher, then very soon he became a builder of the seminary, etc., but for me, it was right away getting a job. And I worked, from day one, as a French teacher. So I didn’t need… My not-knowing English was very helpful, because I could speak French and teach better French by not knowing English.
AFR: So you taught in the school system in New York?
Mat. Juliana: I taught for 40 years in New York. I taught in a private school, all girls, very elite type of school, very, very, very nice, where I learned English, actually, in the faculty room. After a few years, they made me the headmistress; after quite a few years, actually: after 25 years. I became the headmistress of that school. So I had a wonderful, absolutely miraculous so-called “American career.” That’s how we called it back in Europe: “Oh, you are going there for an American career.” Yes, my husband became the dean of his school, and I became the headmistress of a private school. And it helped us, first of all, not to depend on his salary, which was close to nonexistent at the very beginning, then became sort of decent at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, but I had to provide, really, the backbone of the family life.
My children were able to go to private schools, which was very important, because the seminary was in a rather sad area of New York City. So they came, and my son went first to a boarding school, then to Harvard University; then my girls went to Columbia and to Barnard. So my aim at that point was to help the family, enabling my children to become truly normal, well-educated American citizens and church-goers. So that is what I did, and I taught, before I became the head, I taught French. Not just the language, but the literature which I was trained to, having had good university degrees in.
Until my husband died, I spent my life taking care of him and of the children and pursuing my own work which I loved. I love teaching. I love teaching—you can hear how I talk without stopping, because I love to do that. Since age four, I wanted to be the head of a school, and I became one. So I have been extremely blessed until the day that the doctor told us that my husband had cancer and he had a year at the most to go. And that’s indeed what it was, and I cannot even say that it was an unhappy… It was a difficult day. But he died beautifully, adding his dying, for a year, to the happiness of my personal life, because he did it so beautifully and allowed me and us, as a couple, to really slowly, together, reach the kingdom, reach paradise.
After he died, I had my job. It became very hard. I got very busy with working with his manuscripts and trying also to write my own things, very clumsy, but whatever they were, I felt full of so much things unfinished yet that need to be continued.
AFR: Let’s talk a little bit about Fr. Alexander. Many people, like myself, came into Orthodoxy after he was gone. We’ve never had the privilege of meeting him, knowing him personally. We feel like we know him because we’ve read the books, and we’ve just so intimately communed with him through his published material, but we would love to hear from you: What was he like? What was his personality like? What did he do for fun? Just to help us get to know Fr. Alexander.
Mat. Juliana: What a wonderful question. Of course, what I have to try to do is to be concise, which is difficult, because I live by his legacy to me; not just to me: to the Church, to his books. But mainly what you are asking is of personality. I would say what he did for fun. He lived life. He lived it fully. He never “coped” with life. He lived it. He lived it from early morning until late at night. He had difficult times, because he was too much in demand, and then he would say, “I want to stay home. I want to write.” Then he would go visit a former student’s parish and come back, elated with happiness at human contact, of people who loved Christ as much as he did.
This is probably one of the main things that I can say about him, that he managed to enjoy every facet of his life, including in the business of the seminary and building it, and dealing with students. He was very, very, very true to the Gospel that we read today, about every person earning and deserving compassion, deserving to be listened to, deserving to be looked at, and to help. He was such a completely free man. The Galatians, part of the Galatians epistle of St. Paul, about freedom, I would say maybe it was his main trait of character, that he was so free.
He didn’t have to make himself be free. He freely loved people, and freedom came before even love, for him. He was free. So that’s why so many people now who never knew him, who just heard what the general tone of what he was preaching and what he was saying, [felt like they knew him]. A freedom that allowed him to be completely himself and completely listening to and giving to every person that he would meet.
He simply loved people. That was without any doubt. His faith was simply wise. There is nothing to say about it. He was not one to push his faith down anyone’s throat, because it was just him. So if you wanted him, then you want his faith.
Then, coming out of that, he, as I said in the beginning, he loved life. He lived life. He lived life, and he celebrated life. He celebrated every minute. The cup of coffee of the morning, which he had a passion for. The walk—we used to, as a couple, walk wherever: snow, winter, summer. We took a walk every day, in the city. For a while we lived in New York City; when I was a girl, I had an apartment. He loved the city; he loved city people. He loved the country; he loved change of seasons. So there was that enjoyment which was always new every day. It was not something just taken for granted. It was: “Oh! Look!”
So this was it. This was the life that we had, and this is the inspiration that I have to try to maintain in myself, which was first working for years without him, and then, now. He died a year today. I don’t know how many I will have. I’m afraid that my dying is more difficult because there’s so much physical pain that goes with it, with old age. He was young. He had suffered from his cancer, but his death was quick.
AFR: How old was he when he died?
Mat. Juliana: 62.
AFR: And what year was that, that he died?
Mat. Juliana: ‘83.
AFR: So this was before the advancement of technology, of the Internet, of blogs, of all of the computer technology. What do you think Fr. Alexander would have to say about the Internet today?
Mat. Juliana: He would say—I know exactly! First of all, he was blind to technology. He couldn’t type. He had no idea what… Well, I will just give you a concrete example. He died, and I was sitting about five minutes before that, and I was sitting next to him on the sill, and I was just moaning.
My children—my three children were all grown up, with children themselves, etc.—were sitting next to me and doing whatever had to be done after death, which is quite complex, and I, all of a sudden, told my son, “I can’t! I can’t! When he would leave for two weeks I would be ... and now it’s forever.” When all of a sudden—why it came to my mind, I don’t know—I said, “Who will now change the oil in the car?” And my son, all of a sudden, stopped what he was doing, turned to me, and said, “Mom, don’t you know Father didn’t know that there was oil in the car?”
And, indeed, to answer your question what he would think about the Internet: he would be blind and would probably learn maybe to write an email, although I doubt it. Every time, in his homilies (which he didn’t do often), he would refer to some chemistry or physics or outer space. It would be with a little mistake in it. Any new things that would be comfortable for the car—we had cars—he would appreciate it, but having no contact, true contact, except for saying, “Isn’t it wonderful how much talent they have?” Things like that.
What he would certainly, I think, appreciate is, for instance, the help that [the] Internet and all connected with the media, etc., would have [is] how wonderfully it can be used for the work of the Church. He certainly would not have encouraged an ascetical view of things: “No, it’s too modern; we can’t have TV.” No, we did enjoy [The] Carol Burnett Show, and things like that, and news. Not much: no sports, ever. I love sports; he didn’t. But he certainly would have been all for using it for the glory of the Lord, without a doubt.
AFR: After we became Orthodox, in 2000, I started hearing the name of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. What seemed to be always associated with it was his legacy. Someone would say, “Well, what Fr. Alexander taught us was…” And I heard this so many times I really was compelled to read more about what he had to say. I’d be interested, from your perspective, if you could identify one thing that you feel was his most significant legacy to the Orthodox Church. What do you think it would be?
Mat. Juliana: The Eucharist.
AFR: What do you mean by that?
Mat. Juliana: What do I mean by that is exactly that, in the largest sense of the word. First of all, his book, The Eucharist, has been written about for 20 years. He wrote it little by little for The Messenger in Paris, and then put it together and actually finished it on the first of December, ‘83, and it was twelve days before he died. The book, the explaining, that’s one.
Two, actually, should be more important, certainly more important than the book. The Eucharist as being the center of our lives, of our lives as Orthodox, as Christ-centered. The Eucharist, which means in Greek “a thanking”: evcharistō, I thank the Lord. And I identify and become the lord when I take, when I received, worthy or not worthy. We are never really worthy. Even being unworthy, the Eucharist remains a moving, a pushing, a life force that is in each of us and is the summit of the contact and the total belonging to and being made of the Lord.
So I would say the Eucharist, for him, would be, as you asked for one word. But I have my preference for… The book, Eucharist, is really difficult to read, actually, but that’s what he really studied and knew. But I like enormously his Great Lent, and if it comes to recommending, I think in Great Lent—which has the pre-Lenten, the Lenten, and ends with Pascha—that is the concrete way what expresses his focusing on the Eucharist.
AFR: Frequent partaking of the Eucharist: I’ve heard it said that before he started emphasizing this, it was rather common for people to wait six months to a year before presenting themselves to the Eucharist, and he emphasized frequent participation, didn’t he?
Mat. Juliana: I wouldn’t use even the word “frequent,” because, simply, every Liturgy, whatever your [way], or everybody has one’s own way—the Sunday Liturgy or the feast or the special occasions or Lenten, etc.—every time there is a Liturgy, there is Eucharist, and it is to be taken part of.
But you mentioned at what happened much earlier in my life, for instance, and in his life. The way we were brought up as children was communion once a year. Once a year, on Holy Thursday or Holy Saturday, and as children we would ask each other, “Are you the Holy Thursday?” “Yes.” “Are you the Holy Saturday?” But once a year, with a preparation before, etc. Very soon there was a liturgical movement in France that would be much too long to talk about now, but well-taught and well-known by all the theologians of St. Sergius Institute where he was, his seminary in Paris. So the liturgical movement became what many, many, many Orthodox, beginning in France, got into, and, for my husband, it was the aim and goal.
The main goal of him as a teacher was to teach that, as the sine qua non condition of being a church-goer: go to a Liturgy, you receive communion. And if you can [do] the fasting, and how much fasting, and the preparation, and how much preparation, all that is important for everyone, but totally individual. Eucharist is not individual, but all the rest is, what goes around. How many times confession a year: once, twice, three times. There has to be confession. And the way to praise the Lord, be it monastics, be it simply any work that you do, as long as it [was] ethically acceptable, is the way to the Lord.
AFR: As you’ve lived today, well beyond the passing of Fr. Alexander, I’d be interested in your perspective. What gives you the most encouragement about the Church today, and what are you most concerned about?
Mat. Juliana: The most encouraging in the past, say, ten years, was and is, among all the difficulties encountered by our Church, the most encouraging is the extraordinary alive reaction of parish priests. I see, and of course I am an optimist, but nevertheless, I see that so many parishes, quite a diversity of parishes, in the midst of the astounding news that we would get through that famous Internet, and quite of them very scary, very scary, where our OCA was becoming a question: should it be? was it a good idea? didn’t we go too far? We are not recognized by the world, etc. By the way, what is this world that one has to be recognized by is a good question. But nevertheless…
So what was encouraging in these past years was the strength, sometimes a little quiet, sometimes not loud enough, but then, right and left and north and south, appeared little centers of some very clear-headed strength from very, very places that were not unexpected words, but that helped create a feeling of solidarity among parish priests, among the clergy, and, as a result, among some lay people who felt that their clergy was beginning to react to feel their responsibility, whereas before that, it was just doing their thing, very well or less well, or actively or less actively, in a given parish.
But at that point in this past, immediate past, which was rather difficult, there was a growing feeling of: “Come on, people. Let’s get together, and we have to stand for what we believe in.” And the strength of the OCA, the missionary zeal, the missionary zeal felt more than it ever did, felt stronger than it did before. If at the very beginning it was fun: “We’re all the OCA,” etc., etc. We do this. We do that. We are not recognized by some, blessed by some, but it was sort of a fact of life, a happy one, that made one smile and rejoice. But then it became a fact of life, the OCA: it has to be protected. And why does it have to be protected? Why not Russia? Indeed.
So people began to think. Instead of taking things for granted, and the OCA, why would it be? Yes, because of this, etc., it was in danger, and any danger creates necessity. And there was a necessity, and I think and I hope that this last assembly… But again, as I say, I am an optimist, but the last assembly is beginning to feel more transparent, that there is less behind the doors or under the blotter or in just the mind of and in reality.
Now it seems that these people wouldn’t stand for that any more, that they ask questions, that they demand answers, that they demand some action to be taken, not necessarily for a wind or earthquake like in [the] Old Testament, no, but in seeing what—and I’ve said it again and again, because I love it—seeing that, in what we work for, what we want to continue, what we want to grow, what we want to purify, to purify, is worth doing and worth putting all our energies in it, all our energies. If something else is in mind, invent it, besides the Internet: some station, some theological station on the moon. Work for it.
Anyway, just believe in the impossible. Believe in tenacity, in perseverance—tenacity, perseverance, go on and on and on, and not worry about what will happen. Indeed, there might be some punishments or some suspensions or whatever happens. Go on.. Go on, and continue to believe, and the Lord will help as long you help yourself.
AFR: As difficult it is, as an eternal optimist, to think about something that might concern you about the Church today, could you pinpoint anything?
Mat. Juliana: I think that leadership—any leadership—has always with it—and I would like to put that very strongly—a sign of danger. There should be leadership, and next to it, in black or yellow: danger, because a leader is bound to do difficult things, to do unpleasant things, unpopular things, controversial (because he’s not always right with them), but nevertheless—and especially in this very democratic country where the best leaders sometimes lack precisely that: they want to be accepted by everyone, so they go right and left and say (if you are whatever you are, but the other party), “Ah, well, I’m with you [too]”—in this very democratic country, the leadership—beginning [from the top] of the pile, and mainly the bishops and the clergy and the laypeople (who are entitled to leadership by their having knowledge by [being] lawyers or whatever knowledge they have, it can be put to the surface)—need to be open, not be afraid of the big, bad wolf, whatever it be, and be leaders. That is my answer.
I think that quite often we use: “Oh, yes, but we don’t want to be unkind. We want to understand.” No. We want to understand, yes. We want to be kind, yes, but for the sake of the Lord and for the sake of the Church. Leaders, wake up and be leaders!
AFR: Well, I could spend all day with you. Mat. Juliana, this is just a delight, and I want to thank you for taking the time to do this. We’re here in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, visiting for the weekend, just so thankful for you and for your vision. You just glow, and we’re so appreciative of you, and we love you and appreciate you very much. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mat. Juliana: And I appreciate Ancient Faith and admire their devotion and dedication to the Church, which glows out of them.