Father Alexander Schmemann and Monasticism
January 31, 2009 Length: 1:13:10Sr. Vassa Larin, nun of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad; currently teaching Liturgical Studies at the University of Vienna.
Very Rev. Dr. Alexander Rentel: So welcome to our third session of talks, papers being presented today. We had a lively session this morning; last night we had a wonderful paper by Fr. Robert. Today I think we will continue, this afternoon we’ll continue with more excellent talks. One of the things that emerged this morning, especially between Professor Spinks and Fr. Stefanos’s paper is a reminder to us here at St. Vladimir’s that we’re not the sole repository of the Schmemann phenomenon, as Fr. Robert termed it last night, but this phenomenon extends both far and wide, both within the larger Orthodox tradition, but also within the traditions of other Christian communities, at least throughout North America and western Europe.
Also out of this morning’s discussions, kind of at the end of Fr. Stefanos’s talks, the co-question of monasticism and monasticism in the life of [the] Church and monasticism in liturgical renewal emerged. So it’s perfectly appropriate that our next paper exactly addresses Fr. Schmemann and monasticism.
Our speaker this afternoon is the Rev. Dr. Sr. Vassa Larin. She’s a nun of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and she recently received her doctorate in Orthodox theology at the University of Munich. She wrote her dissertation on the hierarchical celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine rite under the direction of Professor Robert Taft. In that way we are academic kin. Congratulations. She is now at the University of Vienna continuing her research and teaching at the Institute of Liturgical Studies. As I say, the topic of her paper is Fr. Alexander Schmemann and monasticism.
Rev. Dr. Sr. Vassa Larin Thank you, Fr. Alexander, and thank you for this great honor of inviting me to speak at St. Vlad’s. It’s my first time here, and I have benefited and been a student of Fr. Alexander and of Professor Meyendorff and the other wonderful professors and luminaries that have taught here and that still teach here. Prof. Paul Meyendorff in his study in his study, Russia, Ritual, and Reform helped me a great deal in my dissertation, and Fr. Alexander [Rentel]‘s study of the diataxis of Gemistos was also very important. So thank you very much, and I’ll begin.
The topic of my paper today—Schmemann and monasticism—is not a simple one. One finds contradictory portrayals, both negative and positive, of the institution of monasticism in the Schmemanns’ earlier works. His later personal diaries reveal a constant irritation with monastic spirituality and culture, together with a self-critical struggle against his own irritation. There is, in short, a poignant tension between Schmemann and monasticism. I believe this is because the phenomenon Alexander Schmemann on the one hand and the phenomenon monasticism on the other are representative of a fundamental Christian antinomy.
This antinomy, which Schmemann himself often thematized in his works, is the existence of the Church in this world while being not of this world. It is the same antinomy that lies at the heart of the tension between Martha and Mary in the Gospel, between the empire and the desert in the Christian East throughout the centuries, between the so-called incarnational and eschatological dimensions of the Church, and between the white and black clergy even today; I mean, of course, the married and not-married or monastic clergy.
So the tension between Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a married priest and ardent missionary of Orthodoxy in the West, and traditional Orthodox monasticism is almost inevitable. Indeed, the tension created by this antinomy seems inherent to the very existence of the Church, whose life pulsates in a productive, albeit tense, interplay of both the contemplative and active charismas. For this reason, a reflection on Schmemann’s place within this antinomy can elucidate more than anything else his ecclesiology, that is, his vision of the Church as well as his special vocation in it.
In what follows, I shall first let Fr. Alexander himself speak on monasticism and related topics, quoting his monographs and diaries generously. At the same time, I shall take a critical look at certain aspects of his ecclesiology, eschatology, and finally of his own very unique charisma, which, when taken together, seem to make traditional monasticism simply go against his grain, because any attempt to understand the tension described above must view Schmemann’s comments on monasticism within this broader context of his theology and genius.
It is in Fr. Alexander’s earliest monograph, Istoricheskii put’ Pravoslaviia, or The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, first published in Russian in 1954, when the author was 33 years old, that we find his most positive thoughts on the institute of monasticism. Here Schmemann offered a proper apologia of monasticism, defending its ethos of renunciation of the world as a fundamentally Christian concept against Harnack and other historians that saw it as a derivation from Manichaeism or Neo-Platonism. The author builds his defense of monasticism on a rather toned-down eschatology, stressing the continuous need for ascetic struggle in the face of the evil that continues to reign in this world. I quote:
In Christ, the glory of the coming Kingdom was revealed to man [...] All is now driven toward that final point, and everything is measured by it. In this world, however, evil continues to reign; it hinders us from reaching the Kingdom, tearing us away from it by thousands of temptations and illusions. The road of the Christian is to be the narrow road of struggle; does not the Gospel speak of the strength of evil, of the struggle against it, or of renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom? (he asks).
Schmemann goes on to praise the impact of monasticism on Church history in the highest of terms. He writes:
It must be flatly stated that until now monasticism has shown us the only practical success of Christianity, unique in a nature tested by experience and confirmed by thousands of examples. This does not, of course, exclude the possibility of other approaches to the spiritual life. In the course of the centuries, the visage of the sainted monk has towered over the whole Christian world and illuminated it.
In this work, Fr. Alexander is nonetheless aware of the problem that monastic solitude presents for what he called the original experience of the Church,
...the unity and assembly of all together, crowned and expressed in the sacrament of communion by all with one bread and one cup. (So he asks,) Does not the monastic ideal of solitude as a condition for salvation contradict the original experience of the Church?
Coming again to the defense of monastics, he answers:
[Monastic solitude] was a reaction to the danger of easy sacramentalism, which had gained strength in the fourth century. [...] While practicing asceticism in solitude, the monks convened on the Lord’s Day for the Eucharist, the assembly. Yet in their solitary asceticism they reveal the whole range of responsibility imposed on the Christian by his participation in the Sacrament, and demonstrate what absolute demands it makes upon the conscience of those whom it sanctifies.
It is remarkable that here Fr. Alexander is lending his support to individual, even solitary, ascetical preparation for holy Communion as distinct from his later thoughts on the topic. For it is precisely the ascetical individualism of monastic Eucharistic practice that Schmemann later, in his well-known Introduction to Liturgical Theology, held responsible for the regrettable shift in the Church’s liturgical piety.
But before proceeding to that later work, I must quote Fr. Alexander’s conclusive statement on monasticism in this earlier monograph, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. This passage will reveal an evident struggle in his thinking, a sincere attempt to reconcile monasticism with the problems it posed for his own vision of the Church, to reconcile those in the Church who renounce the world with those who deal with it.
How can we reconcile the almost complete dominance of this monastic image in the history of the Church with the development of the Christian world? Would not the triumph of monasticism deprive it of all meaning? If monasticism and the desert were recognized as the highest norm even by those who were building that Christian world or dealing with it, would not this building itself become an illusory and sinfully vain matter? Here we touch on the last and most important apparent contradiction of the age of Constantine in Church history.
In what follows, Schmemann succeeds in reconciling the desert-dwellers with the builders of the Christian world, offering an eloquent synthesis of the two. I quote him once again:
If each approach had constituted a condemnation of the other (he means the builders on the one side and the desert-dwellers on the other), there would be only absurdity, but the uniqueness of the age of Constantine was that both monasticism and the building of a Christian world were regarded, not in terms of theory but in living experience, as equally essential and complementary. Harnessed together, they preserved the integrity of the evangelical outlook. The world receives a Christian sanction and is blessed by the Church, but monasticism became the salt which does not allow the world to absorb Christianity and subject it to itself. In the light of this eternal reminder, the world already regarded itself as an image that passes. The monks withdraw but from the desert they bless the Christian empire and the Christian city, and they never weary of praying for them.
Schmemann immediately admits that this image of symphony between the desert and the empire was scarcely embodied as a reality, since the world, as he writes,
...continued to be the same unadmitted idol, requiring services to itself, while monasticism frequently turned into spiritual individualism and disdain for the rest of life. Nonetheless (he concludes), an inner standard for Christian action in history had been found.
Thus, from the outset of his theological writing in 1954, Fr. Alexander recognizes the problem of mutual condemnation between the desert and the empire, rejecting it as absurdity. He also sees in monastic renunciation, struggle, and solitude, Christian phenomena rooted in the Gospel, and bases his defense of monastic practice on a very moderate ecclesiology that stresses the not yet of the Church’s experience in this world. What is more, he accepts the dominance of the monastic ethos in Church history.
Five years later, Schmemann defended his doctoral dissertation, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, at the Saint-Serge Theological Institute in Paris. In this work, first published in 1961, we find a decisively tuned-up eschatology that stresses the already, that is, the fullness of the Church’s experience in this world. In this work, Fr. Alexander is also more critical of the institution of monasticism. I shall first take a look at this development in Schmemann’s eschatology, which forms the cornerstone of his liturgical theology, and establish its relationship to his changed perception of monasticism.
As before, the theologian recognizes the ephemeral quality of this world. This world shall pass, he writes; the Lord shall reign in glory. The Church awaits this completion of time. She is focused on this final triumph. But throughout this work, Fr. Alexander decidedly stresses the this worldly aspect of Orthodox eschatology, repeatedly regarding the eschaton as something already present, already given in the Church. For Schmemann, the Church experiences the eschaton of the kingdom now, in the time of the Church, most of all in the Eucharist.
In other words, the eschatologism (eschatologism, he writes) of the Eucharist lies not in renunciation of the world or in any escape from time, but first and foremost in the confirmation of the reality, the actuality, the presence of Christ’s kingdom, which is within the Church, that is to say, already here, but which will be revealed to all in glory only at the end of this world. This is an overcoming of time, not in the sense of its negation or devaluation, but in the sense of the possibility to be communicants of or participants in the coming aeon of the fullness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit while living in this world.
In other words, Christ’s kingdom is already here for the Church, but will be revealed to all, as Schmemann writes, to those outside the Church, only at the end of time. This is why, for Fr. Alexander, the real raison d’etre of the Church and her most important objective in this world is the spread of the fullness of this eschaton from within her to the outside world.
The Church is left in the world in order to continuously save it through her eschatological fullness in order to illuminate, judge, and fill its life, its history, and its time with meaning through the parousia, that is, through the coming presence and expectation of Christ.
This accentuation of the outer mission of the Church, to which Fr. Alexander had a true vocation as a powerful and even brilliant speaker, seems to neglect the existence of an inner mission of the Church and of the sacrament closely related to that inner mission, repentance, metanoia. That is to say, Schmemann’s inspiring vision of a Church illuminating the world with its eschatological fullness does not make clear that her own members are often in need of illumination and restoration, that they lead a life of struggle in a world that lies in evil. In other words, there is little, if any, place in this picture for a repenting or struggling Church.
This is precisely why Schmemann runs into problems with monasticism which now begins to clash with his vision of the Church. We have seen that in his earlier work, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, Fr. Alexander defended the renunciation of the world, solitude, and ascetic struggle of the early monastics as legitimate, Gospel-rooted Christian phenomena. Now, in his Introduction to Liturgical Theology, he begins his discussion of monasticism in a similar vein, agreeing with the commonly held premise that monasticism was essentially rooted in the maximalism and eschatologism of the early Church. Yet, Schmemann continues, there was something “radically new” about monasticism as distinct from the life of the early Church, and that novelty was the anachōrēsēs, withdrawal, of monastics from the world.
This anachōrēsēs or separation was the fundamental novelty of monasticism as it unfolded from the beginning of the fourth century, a phenomenon that was unprecedented in the life and consciousness of the Church.
It is difficult to see Fr. Alexander’s point if only because Christ himself withdrew to the wilderness and thus offered an important enough precedent for Christian anachōrēsēs. Be that as it may, Fr. Alexander goes on to note the ascetical and individual metamorphosis of the approach to the Eucharist which occurred under the pressure of monasticism, pod dav liniiam monashestva, and has a very negative note in Russian. As distinct from his earlier defense of monastic Eucharistic piety, Schmemann now repeatedly bemoans the “ascetical individualism” that entered popular piety as a result of monastic influence.
The most obvious cause for this change in the theologian’s attitude toward monasticism is his focus on the antinomy of the Church in this world yet not of this world. As we saw above, Schmemann arrives at an increasingly eschatologized vision of the Church, according to which the Church’s principal calling is to illuminate, evangelize, fulfill this world and this life. Monasticism falls short of this objective.
Monasticism was a departure from life and its cares for the sake of prayer. It was not a matter of illuminating life and its cares with prayer, nor of uniting them to prayer, not even of turning life into prayer, but it was about prayer understood as life. More exactly, the replacement of life with prayer, because monasticism is born in the experience of failure, in the weakening of the initial objective, in the experience of the impossibility of uniting the two poles of the fundamental Christian antinomy, not of this world and in this world.
I think it is Fr. Alexander’s focus on the one “Church in this world, not in this world” dichotomy to the exclusion of others that results in this somewhat awkward depiction of monasticism. Remarkably, in this work Fr. Alexander devotes almost ten pages to the origins of monasticism and monastic piety without ever using the word “repentance.” Fr. Alexander will mention repentance only later in his book and in a negative light to say that it was monastic piety that contributed to the ascetical repentant approach to liturgy that dominates the Typikon to this day.
And yet, it is the mystery of repentance that sheds light, not only on monasticism but on important Christian antinomies that Schmemann excludes from the picture of the Church’s lex credendi: the life-giving Cross, victory through death, joy creating weeping, etc. It is in the productive tension of all these antinomies that the Church’s experience finds expression in her lex orandi or rule of prayer.
More important for the bigger picture of Schmemann’s ecclesiology is that its virtual silence on repentance inevitably results in an inattention to the Church’s inner mission. This inner mission, which is accomplished through the continuous restoration, renewal, and fortification of the fallen pieces of the Church’s ediface through the mystery of repentance, plays no visible role in Fr. Alexander’s conception of the Church’s lex orandi. This is particularly important for our topic, since the constructive force of repentance makes not only rebirth possible within the Church, it is also what makes possible the quest for this rebirth in the form of monasticism.
So although I would agree with Fr. Schmemann that monasticism is “born in the experience of failure,” as he writes, I would formulate it more precisely and say, “Repentance is born in the experience of failure.” For this is an experience common to the entire Church, monastic and non-monastic alike. I believe that a recognition of this common experience, and a productive one, could bridge the gap between Fr. Alexander’s thinking and traditional monasticism. It also expands his somewhat reductionist ecclesiology that tends to focus on only one of the paradoxes in the life of the Church.
Aside from the theological premises underlying Schmemann’s picture of monasticism, there is also a rather non-theological dimension to our topic, and that is: He was simply not the monastic type. [Audience laughter] In other words, his particular vocation or charisma in the Church, his unique disposition, personality, genius—whatever we choose to call it—was of a non-monastic nature. At the risk of venturing onto wholly unscientific ground, I would suggest that this is the most important factor in the Schmemann-monasticism dilemma that I have attempted to disentangle.
Clearly, the question of any given individual’s unique charisma in the Church is a mystery that is not open to judgment or evaluation by our inevitably limited observations. Moreover, I did not have the honor or joy of having known Fr. Alexander personally, as some of you here did. So forming an impression of his personality is all the more difficult. But I do have at my disposal an invaluable witness to his character, Schmemann’s personal diaries, that is to say, his own observations of himself during the last ten years of his life, 1973-1983. Some excerpts from these diaries do allow us to discern a certain incompatibility of this extraordinary man with the dynamics and demands of the Church’s inner mission as well as with the spirituality and culture of traditional monasticism.
At the same time, this very disposition enables Fr. Alexander to take a refreshingly honest look at his own Church’s tradition in both its positive and negative manifestations. He saw life and asked questions about it in a way that others simply did not. He talks about this gift in the following entrance in his diary from March 11, 1980.
My principal and constant feeling (he writes) is a sense of life. It is very hard to express this in words. Perhaps the word “amazement” comes closest to this feeling, a perception of each moment in each state of mind as a gift, as distinct from something self-explanatory or self-evident. Everything is always new. Everything is always not simply life but a meeting with life, and hence something of a revelation. As I write this I realize that these are not the appropriate words, but I cannot find others. I only know that this gift, this revelation, demands attention and answer. Maybe everyone feels this way, but sometimes it seems to me that they do not, that many people, perhaps even the overwhelming majority, lives not noticing life.
So this was this prophetic cross that Schmemann carried, and he writes in some of his articles of the necessity of the theologian to go ahead and take the risk of saying what he thinks, so this is his very special gift to his Church.
Together with his capacity for self-critical Orthodoxy, Fr. Alexander’s capacity for faith-inspired joy and gratitude is an inspiring model for monastics and non-monastics alike. But let us take a look at some of those areas to which he was less disposed. In one of many similar entries in his journal, Fr. Alexander writes on February 22, 1973, about his dislike for personal conversations, hearing confessions, giving spiritual counsel. He writes:
Confession. You give counsel to someone else. One must begin with the insignificant, then build, collect oneself, gradually liberate oneself, but you yourself? The horrible difficulty for me of personal conversations, almost an aversion to any intimacy, a torturous dislike for hearing confessions—what is there to talk about so much in Christianity, and what for?
A lot of these quotes are a lot of fun. I mean, he’s very honest. It is not only hearing confessions, but generally dealing with the dynamics of guiding parishioners in the so-called spiritual life or spiritual struggle that really did not appeal to Fr. Alexander. This is consistent with the inattention to repentance and inner mission in his works as described above. Moreover, the very idea of a “spiritual” life—and this is almost always in quotation marks in Schmemann’s diaries, the word “spiritual”—annoyed him, as he admits in this entry from September 10, 1980.
Everything I read about this “spiritual” life, everything I see in people who supposedly live it, somehow irritates me, meyna razdrazhayet. What is this? Self-defense? Jealousy toward those who live that life and hence a desire to put it down? But then somewhere I happened to read a quotation from Symeon the New Theologian about the necessity to hate the body, and immediately I feel that it is not only the worst in me that does not accept this, but also something else. Why has this “spiritual” tendency resulted in the faithful somehow not feeling the Church herself, nor the Eucharist, nor gratitude, nor joy, and not wanting this, but wanting fear, grief, and some almost-malevolent rejection of all this?
In an earlier entry in his journal, Fr. Alexander similarly questioned both this spirituality and his own aversion to it.
I keep reflecting on spirituality (he writes), duhovnosti. To put it simply, I will say the following: I am amazed by the egocentricity of this spirituality, the me that protrudes from it. It has been my experience for some 30 years that students with tendencies toward spirituality are almost always unpleasant trouble-makers. [Audience laughter] “I will write an essay on ascetical theology,” they say, and immediately, automatically, a whiff of pride, that is, the most deadly enemy of spirituality. Priests who insist on services with no omissions—bez sokrashcheniy—are almost always mediocre pastors, and so on. Sometimes I think that this type of “spirituality” is a real temptation—samaya nastoyashee iskushenye. Pride. Self-confirmation. I don’t know. I know that I am not spiritual. I know with certainty that in this area there is something I do not sense, that is, I feel no attraction to Theophan the Recluse and Ignatii Brianchaninov. [Audience laughter] That here something repulses me—menya ottalkivayet—but I don’t know whether I’m mistaken in this repulsion. Maybe there is something I don’t see, don’t hear…
Whatever it is that Fr. Alexander fails to sense in this area, he is able to both see and hear the deficiencies of an Orthodox piety that often indeed lacks the capacity for self-criticism. One of these deficiencies intuited by Schmemann, a dearth of joy in Church life, contrasts with his own experience of life as joy. Indeed, Fr. Alexander experienced his faith, his life, his family, his natural surroundings, as joy. He often reflects on the words from Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” Schmemann called this the epistle of epistles.
For him the Gospel is first and foremost about joy, about great joy. “With the proclamation and arrival of great joy, the Gospel begins,” he writes. And he repeatedly laments the fact that Christians reject or neglect this gift. Fr. Alexander’s accentuation of this gift, this charisma with which he was endowed in abundance, is remarkable and uplifting. I would like to note, however, that it does not exclude the possibility of other charismas or—let me put it this way—spiritual types in the Church, who may experience that Christianity is first and foremost about love, for example, about compassion, about sacrifice, about humility or something else. This doesn’t exclude joy, nor does Schmemann exclude the things that I just mentioned, but there’s a difference in the emphases here.
While for Schmemann the Gospel begins with the proclamation of great joy, and indeed one of the gospels does have a proclamation of great joy in its second chapter, another theologian might say, no less accurately, that the Gospel begins with repentance or even asceticism, for the first words uttered by Jesus Christ when he begins to preach are: “Metanoite—Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And three of the gospels do have this. Three of the four gospels begin with the birth and preaching of the ascetic John the Baptist.
It is not my point to argue against Fr. Alexander’s experience of the Gospel as joy. That would be absurd. I would simply like to establish that different personalities or, if you will, spiritual types, can read the same Gospel but single out different aspects of it, reflecting their own charismas. And it’s not necessary for everybody to have the same experience. This type of divergence in emphases seems to be at the heart of the Schmemann versus monasticism antinomy.
Another such divergence appears in the area of asceticism or spiritual struggle as already mentioned above. We know from Fr. Alexander’s diaries that he was extremely busy, was often forced to engage in activities, conferences, meetings, conversations, and so on, whereas he would rather be working on his books, be with his family at Labelle or somewhere else, so his life was hardly devoid of a struggle with the self, a putting himself last after his service to others. However, he did not perceive of his life as struggle, and criticized himself very strongly in this regard.
This is my main sin: I do not refuse myself anything. Perhaps it is true that, compared to other people, there is not that much that I would like as distinct from the moral decisive “I want,” but nonetheless I do not at all oppose this “would like,” and when I realize this, I am horrified—mne stanovitsa strashna—a complete absence of struggle of that invisible warfare about which there is so much written in spiritual literature.
So again Fr. Alexander questions his own approach to Christian life, noting its difference from the ascetic tradition and even condemning himself for it.
At the same time, his frustrations and doubts concerning spirituality, and more precisely monastic spirituality, continued. In a diary entrance of September 19, 1981, Fr. Alexander comments on the difficulties of some newly organized monastic communities in the United States.
What amazes me most of all about these ceaseless difficulties is ingratitude. All these monks are always unhappy—Vse eti monakhi segda ploha. People don’t understand them, hinder their monasticism, offend them, and so on. There is always some kind of crisis, and always, alas, egocentrism.
What remained a source of frustration for Schmemann, however, was not only the spiritual shortcomings of monasticism but its outer Byzantine form and culture and most of all its relation to this world. This is what he had to say about a well-organized Serbian women’s monastery on the outskirts of Belgrade during his visit there on September 26, 1980:
A female monastery. With us is the young Abbess Evgenia. Everything is in the classical style: the downcast eyes, the gait, the quiet voice. But doubts creep up into the soul, not about her, of course. She is evidently impeccable in this classicalness, but about this whole style: the heaps of icons, mostly horrific ones in church. [Audience laughter] The rock-solid fidelity to form, to the absolute sameness of type, a departure not so much from the world but from this world in the name of another, previous world that is archaic, waterproof, and void of any problematics. I don’t know. I just don’t know. On the one hand, I feel admiration—voskhishcheniye—for this all-powerful, for these nuns and others like them, antipode to the demonic ugliness and greyness of socialism. But on the other hand (I remind you he’s writing in socialistic Serbia), the feeling that this antipode in this form is powerless and condemned to failure. Destroy the outer form and perhaps nothing will remain.
So Fr. Alexander was concerned about a disharmony between monastic culture and this world. He saw the otherness—and that is the meaning of “inochestva” in Russian—of monasticism as escapism that lacked inner Christian content and also Christian joy. In these last two years of his life, Fr. Schmemann was disturbed by the dominance of this monastic line in Orthodoxy, as he writes in his diary on October 2, 1980.
Now we have the triumph in theology and in piety of the monastic line. Everywhere, patristics. What troubles me is the identification of this line with Orthodoxy. This is not just pars pro toto, a part instead of the whole, but a confusion of this line with the toto itself. I cannot shake off the feeling that all of this is a certain romanticism, a love for this image of Orthodoxy and a love precisely because this image is so radically different, distinct from the image of the contemporary world. It is an escape, a departure, a reduction of Orthodoxy to oneself.
Somewhat later Schmemann imagines his own version of monasticism that would avoid these pitfalls, as he describes in his diary.
More and more often it seems to me that a rebirth of monasticism, which everyone is talking about with rapture, or even an attempt to do so can only be possible with an initial liquidation of the monastic institution. That is, this whole vaudeville of klobuks, mantiyes, stylizations, and so on. If I were a staretz, I would say to the candidate who was seeking the monastic life—zhizn’ ishchet inochestva—more or less the following:
Get a job, the simplest possible one, involving no creativity. As a bank teller, for example. [Audience laughter] As you work, pray and accumulate inner peace. Do not harbor malice. Do not seek your own rights, fairness, and so on. Perceive each and every one—the colleague, the client—as if they were sent to you. Pray for them. Having paid the rent for the humblest of apartments and for the humblest of food, give the rest of your money to the poor, but precisely to the poor, to individuals, and not to charitable organizations.
Always go to one and the same church, and there try to help in a real way, not by reading lectures about spiritual life or about icons, not by teaching. Hold fast to this service and be completely obedient to the parish rector in Church matters. Do not seek to serve of your own volition. Do not be grieved if your talents have not been used. Help out and serve where it is needed and not where you think it is needed. Read and study as you can, but do not only read monastic literature, but more broadly. This point needs more precision (he notes to himself).
If your friends and acquaintances invite you over because you are close, go, but with differentiation—razgraincheniye—and do not go often. Do not stay for over an hour and a half or two hours. After that, any even most friendly atmosphere is harmful. Dress absolutely like everybody else, but humbly and with no visible signs of dedication to spiritual life. Always be simple, light-hearted, and joyous. Do not teach. (He underlines this.) [Audience laughter]
Avoid spiritual conversations like fire, and also any empty religious and Church talk. If you act in this way, everything will be beneficial. Do not seek out a spiritual staretz or director. If he is needed, God will send him and will send him when he is needed.
Having served and worked in this way for ten years, and nowise less than that, ask God whether you should go on living like this or whether you are in need of some sort of change. And wait for an answer. It will come, and its indications will be joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.
Not surprisingly, Fr. Alexander’s idea of monasticism places the monastic in the world. He also eliminates the monastic community so that his monastic interacts with the everyday world and is in no way singled out in its everyday life. More interestingly, he does not want monastics to teach, that is, to conduct spiritual conversations or to read lectures. [Audience laughter]
This is interesting in light of the fact that we do have monastics in the world in the Orthodox Church today: bishops, for example, and so-called “learned monastics”—ucheniy monashestvo. And these are almost all involved in teaching and sometimes even in reading lectures. Would Fr. Alexander allow an exception in the case of bishops? Probably, but I think I would have been in trouble were he here with us today. [Audience laughter]
This brings us to the last point I would like to make today. The boundaries between monastic and worldly are not as clear-cut in Church practice as they seem to be in theory. Indeed, the antinomous poles of desert and empire, Mary and Martha, etc., often exist side by side in one and the same individual, just as they are both reflected in our liturgical tradition. It is not that Ignatii Brianchaninov had nothing of the Martha in him, nor that in Aleksander Schmemann had none of the Mary, but the varying accentuation of the one pole or the other produces different areas of activity in the Church, different approaches. It can also produce a tension, a belittling of the value of one approach or the other, or even mutual condemnation.
But I would like to conclude on a reconciling note and recall that Fr. Alexander wrote in his earliest monograph:
If each approach had constituted a condemnation of the other, there would be only absurdity.
Indeed, the Lord said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” and a discussion of the superiority of one mansion over another would be absurdity. For the same Lord forbade his disciples to dispute amongst themselves which of them should be the greatest. So can we lay aside the seemingly irresolvable tension between white and black in the Church? I think that both in the spirit of the Lord’s words that are not of this world as well as in the spirit of the recent union of white and black in our government in this world, we can confidently answer: “Yes, we can!”
Thank you. [Applause]
Fr. Alexander Rentel: Thank you very much. That was a wonderful presentation, and I just have a couple of comments. One is, I mean, not only in your presentation but in fact in many others, there is a hermeneutical problem with how you read Schmemann, because if you try to read Schmemann as a scholar, it doesn’t work. He used to say, “Leave it to the Germans,” I remember. Of course, he had a German name himself, but he was not infected by that. [Audience laughter] If you read him as a… He said of Fr. Bob’s book on the great entrance, 750 pages, “Never has so much been written about so little for so few.” [Audience laughter] And that’s a quote.
Nor can you read him as a systematician. I mean, it’s very hard to find a consistent kind of definition of anything there. I mean, it keeps changing, because you have to read him essentially as a pastor, very much in his time. You mentioned, for example, the lack of emphasis on repentance. Well, it’s certainly there in his book on Great Lent, but certainly not as a dominant theme. But again, in the context out of which, in which he grew up and in which he was working, everything in Church life had been reduced to repentance; even the Eucharist had been understood primarily as a penitential act, and so if you see him in context as “Repent because the kingdom is at hand,” he wanted to really focus on the kingdom and the joy that that kingdom brings, which makes sense out of repentance. Repentance in and of itself doesn’t mean much. So, again, if you see him in that context, primarily as a pastor rather than as a systematic theologian, then I think his vision begins to make, at least to me, a little bit more sense.
But obviously, for those of you who are reading him now, 30, 40 years after he wrote, the problematic has changed a little bit, and it becomes difficult to simply transpose what he said 40 years ago to our contemporary situation. And, no, I don’t think he would object to your being up there, either. [Audience laughter]
C1: I was wondering if we would have one of Fr. Schmemann’s monastic students. [Audience laughter and applause]
His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah: Matushka, I very much appreciated your paper.
Sr. Vassa: Thank you.
His Eminence Jonah: It was always quite a challenge, having been a student of Fr. Alexander’s and having also been under his spiritual guidance, to reconcile some of what he wrote about and his attitudes towards monasticism when indeed it was my obedience to go and found a monastery and be its abbot. I used to kid that we, our brotherhood, were the most traditional Russian Orthodox Old Calendar modernistic humanist Schmemannist monastery in the OCA! [Audience laughter] And several of the brothers who are here now [Laughter] will understand exactly what I’m talking about.
I interpret it a little bit differently. I think he never saw… I don’t think he ever experienced authentic monasticism. I think his experience was external. You know, you go to a monastery and you visit for a few days and you never get past the guest house and maybe the abbot’s quarters and maybe tea with the abbot or abbess, and you see the monastics working, and they don’t talk to you… [Laughter] All of this other stuff. And you have no idea of what’s really going on there.
Sr. Vassa: Lucky you. [Audience laughter]
His Eminence Jonah: Yeah, hopefully. Hopefully. But for myself, I always took it as a challenge, because I think some of his fundamental insights are absolutely correct. When monasticism is reduced to external formalism, when it’s reduced to—this is really slightly over the top—a bunch of old queens going around in Byzantine drag [Audience laughter], you know? Who needs it? It’s meaningless. When it becomes an assertion of egocentrism and of ego, when people get all dressed up and then they expect to be respected and they expect to be listened to just because they’re all dressed up, it’s pathetic. It’s tragic.
A lot of Fr. Alexander’s experience was at a time when monasticism was in one of its darkest holes in many centuries: the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s. Even Mount Athos was half-dead at that time, and many other places, too. But yet there were some bright lights.
My own approach, my own thought towards this, is that there is a certain kind of false spirituality which he exposes extremely articulately, which is also exactly the same insight as many of the great Fathers, precisely when it’s all about egocentrism, when it’s all about building up one’s self-opinion and all of this other kind of stuff, instead of an authentic movement towards humility, an authentic experience of that radical joy that comes through repentance. I think very often there was a caricature of that, and I always took it that it was precisely that caricature that he was writing against, rather than the authentic spiritual task of overcoming self-centeredness, of overcoming the ego, so that one truly, through that life-giving repentance, can embrace that deep joy which is nothing other than the very working of the Holy Spirit on the soul.
Sr. Vassa: Thank you, Vladyka. [Applause]
I want to say one thing. It’s true that I couldn’t… It’s a very complicated and deep issue here, and Schmemann has other moments in his diary. He visits Egypt and he’s thrilled with the monasticism he sees there. He says they’re really in the desert, they don’t care who sees them, and so on, and he says, and there’s none of this Byzantine stuff. [Audience laughter] Here it’s pure.
But I was thinking about this. Does it really change anything, because he actually works into his system, as far as he has one, a criticism of the actual ethos of monasticism. So it doesn’t really change what… Okay, he also didn’t think that the whole world would be reading his diaries and knowing what he thought about the whole enterprise. He had the right to feel irritated, and I think that was just his personality. That’s not the way he approached the spiritual life, but here he had this gift of joy that clearly came from his faith, so where did that come from? He writes that it’s the week of the Akathist in the middle of Lent. He has an egg sandwich and goes on somewhere else in the city. Okay, so our antennas come up, like: An egg sandwich in the middle of Lent, you know. So our monastic hypocrisy is working all the time.
But he has these gifts, so this is a model of sanctity in the Church. Look at his death, look at his family, his wonderful marriage. This is a problem that comes from this tension that is very present in our Church. A neglect of this kind… This is a different path. He didn’t have that kind of asceticism, clearly, that’s according to the rules of the Philokalia, but he, clearly, is a man of God and a man of the Church, of the Orthodox Church. So where do we go with this?
And it’s true that, as Fr. John Behr has mentioned in his wonderful work on this whole problem, if we have most of our saints, even if we have saints that were married, they became saints despite their marriage, because they lived, this one, like brother and sister, or because they both decided to go, where? into the monastery. So then they become saints. But that their marriage produced this kind of joy and this kind of revelation of their faith doesn’t really seem to be our focus in the Church. Schmemann could be annoyed by this situation. He never said, “Why doesn’t anybody consider me a saint?” [Audience laughter] but he does feel that it’s a problem.
Fr. Alexander Rentel: Richard, and then Fr. Robert.
Richard: I have three questions, which is a little bit greedy of me, but it’s what happens when you hear a marvelous paper. Your head fills up with questions. But they’re all about possible pieces of information or knowledges, and I’m curious to know from your research you found out whether Fr. Schmemann knew these things or thought this way.
One is the degree to which in the earliest desert monasticism there really wasn’t this antinomy between fleeing to the desert and being available as pastoral advisor or teacher or, to use their language, “having a word” for the people. If you look in, for example, the Vitae Patrum, it’s fascinating. The people go on pilgrimage down into Egypt, down the Nile, to talk to these people, to meet them, to encounter the great Fathers. They come even from Jerusalem, which is, of course, the locus classicus of pilgrimage, and yet those who are resident in Jerusalem need to go to Egypt to get the word, and by and large the Fathers don’t begrudge them. They take them in, they give them hospitality, they offer them their word.
Even in the Life of St. Antony, he keeps fleeing further and further away, and yet people come to find him, and then he gives them a teaching and a word. So the notion that there’s a barrier, so to speak, between the monks and the rest of the world isn’t so much part of the ethos of that earliest literature. It’s rather the monks engaged in the spiritual warfare, seeking to perfect what they’ve got so that they’re capable of giving that word.
Just on a personal basis, Vladyka, one monastery that I’ve known quite well for many years has an abbot who really would like to be a desert father and live as far away from everybody as possible, and yet the doors are wide open, and he knows that this is a necessity, that people have to come. This is something that grew on him from his years of monastic experience. So the first question is whether Schmemann might have been familiar with this so-attractive earlier literature and contrasted it, as Vladyka said, with the misanthropic monasticism of his own day.
The other two questions are much simpler. One is that… It’s about the concept of spirituality which has become one of those Orthodox knee-jerk words but is in fact an abstract noun invented by Protestant theologians, and it’s not… As an abstract noun, it doesn’t really suit a vision of Orthodoxy in which Orthodoxy is about the perfection of life and the care for life: pastoralia. And I wonder if that’s perhaps part of Fr. Schmemann’s knowledge, too, that this is not an ancient word or an ancient concept, either, as an abstraction.
The last question had to do with living in the world and getting a job and so on. Part of his context in the early days in Paris would have included the circle of the worker-priests and Marie[-Dominique] Chenu, and their ideas were very potent, and I wonder how much he might have been influenced by that.
Fr. Alexander Rentel: Response? Fr. Robert.
Fr. Robert Taft, S.J.: As an old monastic celebrating this year 60 years of monastic life or life, I hope, of this learned monasticism in the world, for a change I have decided to be provocative. [Audience laughter] In your excellent paper, you used a phrase that really should be chiseled in stone and put up at the entrance to every Orthodox institution—“self-critical Orthodoxy.”
It’s no secret that taking a hard look at ourselves is a very difficult human process. It’s something that we don’t like to do. I, as a Jesuit, haven’t won any friends by doing it with respect to the religious order that I belong to. I think that this connects with part of the discussion that followed Stefanos’s paper in the last session. The notion that monasticism throughout history, Eastern or Western monasticism, has not been problematic as simply false. From the very beginning there’s been a tendency of monasticism to kind of drift to the fringes of the sacramental life of the Church, and this has been a constant source of problems.
One of the difficulties is that, from the academic point of view, we don’t have enough studies. We have plenty of studies of the Fathers of the desert, maybe too many. But we don’t have… For example, there is not a single decent history of Constantinopolitan monasticism except for a lengthy article in Travaux et mémoires in French a couple of years ago.
From the discussion of Fr. Stefanos’s paper, I would like to say something that certainly will sound heretical. That’s okay. Wouldn’t be the first time. [Audience laughter] I think that the non-critical canonization in contemporary Orthodoxy of Athonite monasticism and whatever it says and does is an enormous block to the kind of self-critical Orthodoxy that Orthodoxy in today’s world needs, just like everybody else does. [Applause] And I think it’s time somebody said that out loud. What do you think? [Audience laughter]
Sr. Vassa: That was the provocative part. Yes, I attended a conference, I took part in a conference in Istanbul of the patriarchate, and present were very well-known Greek professors and a few abbots from Athos, and the patriarch himself was there, and some very charismatic monk got up and started crying and just… He really made a scene, and it was clearly very spiritual, but he was saying about the betrayal of Orthodoxy by these ecumenists… The patriarch is sitting there, who has his own set of problems, who does live in the real world… And these monks that should be, according to Schmemann’s synthesis, praying for him day and night because they have the luxury of sitting over there, blocking out women and stuff [Audience laughter], so they could be at least praying for him.
But they were attacking him, and there was a clear tension between this academic part of the Greek Church and this monastic part that was completely… The abbot or—I don’t remember what his name was. You were also there, Fr. Taft. He did not try to present an academic paper, but he was… Yeah, so I think that that type of thing just really… There’s a mutual condemnation there that really doesn’t take into account the special calling of the other side, and in this case they read some text that was produced by some commission, some ecumenical I-don’t-know-what, and they read it on Athos and then produce some really… Yeah, the thunder-and-lightning kind of condemnation of it, not recognizing what he has to go through. He is a monastic, but with a special calling. It’s not as clear-cut, again, monastic versus worldly.
So that was a clear case of condemnation from the monastic side that is, I think, really out of place, and very presumptuous. That’s what I think. [Audience laughter]
Q1: Father, do we have time for one more question?
Fr. Alexander Rentel: Is it long or short or…? [Audience laughter] No. Not long, then, yes. I will cut you off.
Q1: Well, that’s a risk you take. It’s safe. Metropolitan Jonah hit all the high points I was going to mention anyhow, but I want to say one thing. Mother Vassa is a perfect example of the joy, of the humor. If you have people, a cranky monastic is an oxymoron. It’s worse than that; it’s a contradiction. So thank you, Mother. That’s a good example.
I want to know primarily, again, back to Metr. Jonah’s remarks… the caricature. I felt, going through this list of things he would have, somebody who felt an inclination toward monastic life would go through all of these things for ten years and so on, I found no joy in that except at one point he said you might get it eventually, but monasticism is relational. All Christian life is relational, and it bothered me greatly when he excludes the idea of a spiritual father. I have to do this kind of really brutal self-examination all the time, and it’s a whole lot easier when you’ve got the feedback from your spiritual father or mother. This is not really possible to accomplish alone.
So when I had a conversation with him—oh, maybe 30 years ago; he was in Kansas City—I asked him, because I believe in getting it from the horse’s mouth if I can. I said, “You keep saying these things and there are priests you’ve trained to keep saying these things. What exactly do you mean when you say these dire things about monastic life?” And he spluttered and sputtered and finally he said, “Well, I mean that only because there are monks who are not authentic.” He says, “I would never say these things about authentic monasticism.” And my question to you is: In your studies here, have you come up with such a distinction? Can you see what would be authentic monasticism and how Father—
Sr. Vassa: Okay, could I just shortly answer that, because I know we’re out of time? This thing about hypocrisy, it’s not authentic, and look at the way they’re dressing up: it’s not really… These people didn’t invent that. So if I could take it from that side, yes, you could look at tradition as being pretentious. What is the meaning of a bishop wearing imperial clothing today? He’s wearing the clothes of a Byzantine emperor, so do we see… Do we need an emperor still? I think we probably do, and so we create one, and we did… Right, I studied the hierarchical liturgy, and this is what you see. The bishops are taking on this role of the emperor who ceases to be in the Byzantine empire.
So, but every concrete bishop today—I say this with all due respect to present company—they didn’t think of this today. They are part of something bigger. They are part of also the cross of history that we all carry, and whether you like it or not. If you today want to become a bishop and say, “I’m going to wear my own style of clothing that has nothing to do with a Byzantine emperor,” that doesn’t have any value. It’s not about you.
So this is also very perhaps instructive for all of us to contemplate why this is so, and to have a part in that tradition just by seeing the things that might be positive and negative, Fehlentwicklungen, as they’re called in German, a false sort of development, perhaps, but if you just take it away, you are losing contact with what you really are, and it’s not only you; it’s also the future, it’s the past. So monastics are also part of a tradition. Their clothing has developed this way, and I’m not always excited about wearing a klobuk. I look pretty bad in one [Audience laughter], but I wasn’t asked to dress up in what I think that looks a little better.
Fr. Alexander Rentel: Thank you, Sr. Vassa. [Applause]
" I come from a Protestant/Evangelical background, so am used to an emphasis on the preaching and exposition of Scripture, but your site shows me that this gift is not lacking among the Orthodox—and you have fantastic music, too! "