Schmemann’s Journals

Schmemann’s Journals November 30, 2003

The journals of Alexander Schmemann were published in 2000 by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, and they are simply mesmerizing. The same rich voice ?Ethe same rich soul ?Ethat is evident in Schmemann’s classic published works shines through in these journals. His semi-“outsider” status as an Orthodox Christian in a Protestant nation gives him a unique perspective on American life (like other Orthodox thinkers; Vigen Guroian is a good example). His long experience as a theology teacher with pastoral responsibilities gives him rare insight into the church and human personality. And he is altogether human. A moment of solitary silence at a train stop fills him with overwhelming joy, but in the next entry he is despairing of the direction of his life (he began the journal when he was 52). Schmemann’s descriptions of his several intense encounters with Solzhenitsyn are worth the whole book; Solzhenitsyn, by Schmemann’s account, is absolutely committed and obsessed with his own calling and vocation, uninterested in anything outside of that, ascetically single-minded. The description rings true, and indicates one of the key reasons for the later strain between the two men, given that Schmemann describes himself as a man who instantly sees both sides of a question.

The whole volume is wonderful, but I confine myself to just one sample: “why am I drawn from America to Europe and from Europe back to America? I feel that the usual answer is, Europe is culture, roots, traditions. America is freedom and also lack of culture and rootlessness. This answer is incomplete, one-sided, simplified and incorrect. Tentatively, I would say that in America, one finds everything that Europe has, while in Europe there is hardly anything of what America is. One is drawn, not so much TO Europe as OUT of America because in Europe one is spiritually more comfortable. There is always something to lean on, almost physically, whereas America is spiritually difficult. For years, people have rushed to America for an easier life, not realizing that deep down, life is much more difficult there. First of all, America is a country of great loneliness. Each one is alone with his own fate, under a huge sky, in the middle of a colossal country. Any culture, tradition, roots seem small there, but people strongly cling to them, knowing full well their illusory character. Secondly, this solitude in America demands from everyone an existential answer to the question, to be or not to be, and that requires effort. Hence so many personal crashes. In Europe anyone who falls, falls on some ground; in America he flies into an abyss. So much fear, such angst.

“What draws a person to America is the possibility of having one’s own individual fate. Once you have tasted it, it becomes impossible to be just a Finn or a Frenchman; in other words, to be determined once and for all. Once is liberated from it. And although liberated, one is often drawn again to the illusory stability of Europe, to dreams and fantasy . . . While walking from Notre Dame to the Seine, to Place des Vosges, I realize that all that I like so much is illusory, not needed, that it has no relation with the France of Mitterand and others. The real France wants to become America. America does not want to become Europe, therefore it is genuine, while Europe is steadily losing its genuine character.”

Browse Our Archives