"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bill Mills on Alexander Schmemann

Recently I drew attention to the publication of a wholly welcome new book on the thought of the most influential liturgical theologian of our time: William C. Mills, Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology (Hillenbrand, 2012), 144pp.

I asked the author, my friend Bill Mills, a priest of the Orthodox Church of America, for an interview. (Previous interviews with him may be read here and here.) Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us what led you to write this book.

WCM: I was encouraged by my adviser to choose a topic that was narrow in scope and that I would complete in time. After all, there’s a reason why there are so may ABD’s around!  A lot of people can do the coursework and complete their exams, but then get stuck in the muddy and murky waters during the dissertation phase. After browsing my bookshelves I started re-reading The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983 and then some parts of his magnum opus The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom and some of his essays in Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann and Church, World, Mission: Reflections on Orthodoxy and the West

After reading Schmemann again I noticed that he actually had a lot to say about the priesthood, ministry, vocation, clericalism, and pastoral care. I then started doing some preliminary research and found that until now most scholarship on Schmemann focused on his work on the Eucharist in particular. Nothing had been done on his thoughts or teachings on pastoral theology. The culmination of this research eventually became my doctoral dissertation which was titled: "Church, World, and Kingdom: A Study of Alexander Schmemann’s Pastoral Theology" (2004).  My book,  Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology, is a complete revision of that dissertation. My dissertation focused more on the priesthood and clericalism but the book deals more with Schmemann’s overarching views of pastoral ministry and theology.
AD: A few years ago at a conference, Robert Taft noted that virtually no other modern Orthodox theologian's writings have had the same long "shelf life" as those of Alexander Schmemann, who died nearly thirty years ago. Why do you think that Schmemann remains so popular and influential today, nearly thirty years after his death?

WCM: I fully agree with Father Taft. Schmemann’s books are read, not just by those of us in the East but also those in the West, especially in some Catholic circles and in mainline Christian Churches too. A few years ago I attended a conference at Princeton Seminary. During a break I visited the seminary bookstore and what did I find but a two foot stack of,  For the Life of the World and The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom which were both required reading for a course on worship and prayer.
I was stunned. It was then and there that I realized how important Schmemann was in academic circles, even thirty years after his passing. While doing some online research I also found that his books are required reading at such places as Gordon Conwell Seminary, Princeton Seminary, Westmont School of Theology, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, as well as others. It goes to show how universal and important his writings are today as they were in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Furthermore Schmemann’s writings have a clearness and simplicity about them and Schmemann had the ability of explaining very complicated and complex issues, such as the Ordo for example and then in a local parish he can preach on Zachaeus and our need for repentance. His writings speak to both the academy as well as to what the late liturgical theologian and Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh called “Mrs. Murphy” a.k.a your average parishioner. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Schmemann’s books have been translated into eleven languages including German, French, Russian, Japanese, Finnish, and Spanish among others. His work has been and continues to be read long after his death.

If you have not read any of Schmemann’s writings please visit www.schmemann.org where you will find many of his essays, sermons, and book reviews. You can read all of this for free thanks to the work and vision of the now deceased Father Victor Sokolov, the former dean of Holy Trinity (OCA) Cathedral in San Fransisco. This is a wonderful online resource for those of us who still read and enjoy Father Alexander’s writings.

AD: Your preface notes that you provide a "new grammar" for pastoral theology. Tell us a bit about that "grammar" and how you understand "pastoral theology."

WCM: I borrowed this term from David Fagerberg’s work, especially his Theologia Prima: What Is Liturgical Theology? Fagerberg talks about creating a new grammar or a new way of speaking about liturgical theology vis a vis the work he did on Schmemann. I liked Fagerberg’s use of the grammar metaphor since I was trying to create a new way of speaking about pastoral ministry. So much of pastoral ministry today is discussed in terms of fundraising, administration, events, programs, and so forth, which leaves very little of its theological underpinnings left. Of course this is not the case everywhere and in every seminary, but when surveying seminary curricula across the board you’ll be surprised what you see in terms of pastoral formation.

In Church, World, and Kingdom, I attempted to redirect the discussion from merely secular and business terms like programs, administration, and so forth, to a theological discussion about pastoral care based on the saving work of Jesus Christ which we express and experience in the Eucharist--the Divine Liturgy. My book is certainly not a panacea to the many problems regarding pastoral theology, but it does offers direction and guidance as we move the discussion forward.

AD: Your preface notes Schmemann's presence as an observer at Vatican II, and his influence on that council. Tell us a bit about what he thought about Vatican II and how he influenced the council.

WCM: Well, I’m not sure how much he really influenced the Vatican Council but he certainly attended as a peritus, an observer, and was there in October 1963. In his recently published diaries of Vatican II, Yves Congar  mentions that he had lunch on a few occasions with Schmemann and enjoyed his company very much. Congar notes Schmemann’s apprehension about the then growing power and authority of the papacy versus the more open nature of conciliarism, a theme which was repeated again and again in the various sessions of the council. Of course these themes also appear a lot in Schmemann’s own work, not so much as a critique of the papacy as such, but against the increasing power and authority of bishops. It is sad to say that even fifty years after Vatican II we are still dealing with these same issues, and even those of in the East as well.

AD: You note that your book draws on previously unpublished material in the archives at St. Vladimir's. What was it like working in those archives? Are there other important materials there still in need of publication?

WCM: One of my friends is an archeologist who does research in the Galilee in Israel. He told me once that when digging you often find things that you were not originally looking for. And he is right. Digging leads you in all sorts of directions. I cannot remember exactly how I came across Schmemann’s archives but there were two or three large Xerox boxes full of his notebooks, journals, letters, and essays stacked away in the library. Some of these papers were typed on very thin onion skin paper that was used a lot last century and it was strange touching these papers since they are quite old and faded. Many of Schmemann’s essays were originally talks that he delivered at the annual St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary Education Day lecture, or from clergy retreats and gatherings, or sermons delivered in parishes, or talks at colleges and conferences. Very often Father Alexander dictated these talks to his longtime secretary Ann Zinzel, who passed away in September of this year, and she typed them up. He then edited and made corrections, then she retyped them, and voila, they were published. All of this was before computers so you can imagine the hard work, persistence, and patience involved in the process.

I also came across a treasure trove of student notebooks from his time at the Saint-Serge Theological Institute in Paris. These notebooks were very simple, plain covers with lined paper and were filled with his tiny handwriting. Schmemann had very good penmanship and those notebooks were filled with copious notes, mostly in Russian but some in French. He also kept not only letters and notes that he received but also their envelopes as well. Of course I was thrilled to have access to those archives and to actually be able to touch and see Schmemann’s work. For a researcher this is akin to finding the motherlode of gold in a mine or cave!

In addition to his personal papers and notebooks there are over five hundred “reel-to-reel” tapes  of talks that he gave in Russian for Radio Liberty. Once a week for nearly twenty years Schmemann left the seminary campus and drove down to Manhattan where he taped his weekly radio broadcast for Radio Liberty. During the cold war period Radio Liberty broadcasted programs, lectures, and music to the former USSR and other Eastern Block countries. These talks were originally delivered in Russian but thankfully, due to the work of Father Alexis Vinogradov and Father John Jillions, some of those talks have been translated into English, namely the little books Our Father and Death Where is Thy Sting. However there are still hundreds of additional talks and lectures that exist and from what I gather have been published in Russian but have not yet appeared in English. I hope one day some of these talks would be translated and published here in our country. 
I have met many people who still read and re-read Father Alexander's Journals and other writings. I would hope that more of his writings become available to this next generation who needs to hear his words of wisdom! 

AD: You speak in your first chapter of the "disconnect" between what is often taught academically in seminaries and theology faculties, and the realities faced by pastors in parishes today. How does Schmemann help bridge that gap?

WCM: There are a few major “disconnects” as I mention in the book, which are noted by both scholars in the East and West alike. First and foremost is the tragedy that so many seminaries and schools of formation have professors who have very little or no experience in parish life. In his magnificent introduction to The Power to Comprehend with All the Saints: The Formation and Practice of a Pastor-Theologian, Wallace Alston, Jr. the former director of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, states that the gap between the academy and the local parish is widening. Seminarians are being steeped in academic theology, which is very important, but they are leaving with very little pastoral and practical training. Unfortunately the academy has looked down on pastoral or practical theology a “lesser sister” so to speak and not a bona fide area of study or investigation on its own. It is one thing to read and study Sts. Augustine or John Chrysostom in class or listen to lectures about Serbian Church history,  but then something other to not have compassion or care at the bedside of a sick or dying parishioner. This is not the case of an “either/or” choice but of a "both-and." Seminaries can and should provide both types of training for future clergy and lay leaders.

The beauty with Schmemann’s writings is that he seems to transcend theological topics or subjects as they are often seen as “separate” or “disconnected” or “disjointed.” He envisioned liturgical theology, as what David Fagerberg has called prime theology or theologia prima. Schmemann envisioned the study of theology as one seamless whole rather than a collection of separate parts. Most of Schmmeann’s writings can be categorized or labeled or identified as pastoral liturgy, since he envisioned the liturgical celebration not as a mere theological subject to study in the academy but as a source and wellspring for theology in general. Again, as the great Robert Taft said in his keynote speech at the Schmemann lecture a few years ago, the academic study of liturgy was like Humpty Dumpty. There were all these parts and various pieces that people were talking about and studying but Schmemann’s contribution, perhaps his greatest contribution, was that the managed to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And for this purpose we are all grateful and that is why Schmemann has enjoyed a long shelf life.

AD: Your second chapter notes numerous Orthodox influences on Schmemann. Which ones do you think were most influential in shaping his eucharistic and pastoral theology?

WCM: As a researcher and historian one must always keep in mind that everything has a context. One cannot talk about World War II for example without talking about the aftermath, namely, the  ramifications, and personalities  of World War I. So too with how Schmemann became the person that he was. Schmemann certainly did not come up with all of his great ideas on his own, but stood on the shoulders of some very formidable theologians such as Fathers Nicholas Afanasiev, Sergius Bulkakov and Kyprian Kern as well as his mentor the Church historian Anton Kartashev. Each of these people, in their own ways, helped form and shape Schmemann into the priest, professor, and writer that he was. If your readers are interested in learning about some of these people I encourage them to read Living Icons: Persons of Faithin the Eastern Church and Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life in Our Time, both written and edited by my friend and colleague Father Michael Plekon. Living Icons provides some very good biographical sketches and outlines of these formidable theologians and provides the reader with a sociological and historical context and their place in theology. 
It was Anton Kartashev, a major figure in the great All Moscow Council in 1917-18 who eventually found his way to the Saint Sergius Institute in Paris, who inspired Schmemann to work on Byzantine Church history. Kartashev was grooming Schmemann to take over his teaching post, but eventually Schmemann changed direction and took up liturgical theology instead, taking the lead of both Nicholas Afanasiev and Kyprian Kern. By the time Schmemann was studying at Saint Serge, Afanasiev already had published several very important volumes in ecclesiology and theology and was actually cited in some of the proceedings of Vatican II. Schmemann served as Kern’s assistant and intern at the Saint Constantine and Helen Russian émigré parish in Clamart, just a few miles southwest of Paris. Clamart was also the home to Nicholas Berdiev  the famous Russian philosopher who hosted a weekly Sunday evening salon in his house where Jacques and  Raissa Maritain together with Mother Maria Skobtsova would often show up and attend lectures, talks, and gatherings. 
Finally, in his journals Schmemann often pays homage to Professor George Weidle, his teacher at the Lycee Carnot who taught Schmemann about literature, music, poetry, and art, all of which Schmemann loved dearly. His mentor Kyprian Kern also enjoyed art very much and would often invite students to his office for tea and talks about current topics of interest including art and culture. It is amazing that when you read Schmemann’s  Journals you get a sense of the depth and breadth of his many cultural experiences and love of literature. He read widely, Russian and French poetry as well as mystery novels and the short stories of Chekov. But he was also well versed in both national and international news and life and read The Tablet, The New York Times, Time Magazine, as well as the French weekly newspapers.

AD: Your third chapter, similarly, notes Catholic influences on, and interlocutors with, Schmemann. Tell us about a few of those.

WCM: There are so many to name. Living and studying in France meant that Schmemann was friendly with a wide variety of Christians from both East and West. He attended for example the World Council of Churches during its early years as well as the annual Summer Liturgical Institutes hosted at Saint Serge, which was started by his mentor Kyrpian Kern as a way to bring Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutherans, and Methodists together to learn from one another. During the fourth annual liturgical week he mentions the following persons who were there, a real “who's who” of liturgical studies: Dom Bernard Botte, OSB; Dome J. Capelle, OSB; Rev. Balthasar Ficher; Prof. Andre Grabar, and R. E.C Varah. He was also acquainted with the work of Yves Congar, Oscar Cullman, Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, and others. So what we have basically is a very strong interest and devotion to ecumenism and openness--which, unfortunately, we do not have today.

AD: Tell us a bit about "clericalism" and how Schmemann can help overcome it.

WCM: I encourage every deacon, priest, and bishop and anyone who is seeking to be ordained a deacon or priest to re-read The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983 at least once per year. When you skim his entries you will find many scathing remarks he makes about the real temptation for some people who seek the priesthood just to “dress up” and be different so to speak. Take for example the following: 
General assembly of all students. I told them all the things that I believe in my heart to be right and necessary. Did I reach them? I do not know. They are so armored in their cassocks, so convinced that they know and can do anything in their youthful self-assurance.” (Feb. 10, 1977, p. 146).

And to the seminary come so many tortured people, torturing themselves, obsessed with heavy maximalism.” (April 6, 1978, p. 218).

Some priests only accuse, only frighten, only threaten, and nothing else.” (April 2, 1982, p. 318)

“…but I am always worried because of the inexplicable transformation that often occurs when a man becomes a bishop. Ambiguity and temptation of sacerdotal power!” (May 25, 1982, p. 333)

These are just a few of the many very pointed remarks he makes throughout the Journals. And from what I gather--I have not read them--the original largely un-edited Journals published in Russian and now more recently in French contain even stronger comments about clericalsim! I think Schmemann saw the reality of ecclesial life. His mentor Sergius Bulgakov wrote a very powerful and inspiring essay simply titled “The Episcopate” where he writes about the downfall of the Constantinian imprisonment of the Church with all the eagle rugs, mitres, cassocks, and so forth, all the external trappings of ecclesial life that really get in the way of the preaching of the gospel. So too you’ll find similar lines of thought in the work of Elizabeth Behr-Sigel and also Mother Maria Skobtsova and Paul Evdokimov as well.

We also must remember that as dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and as basically the chancellor or adviser to the Holy Synod of Bishops he saw first hand what power and authority can do, how it can change people, and how it can destroy people at the same time.

Schmemann’s writings about the Eucharist remind us that while the priest is ordained or set apart to serve the services and preach the gospel and visit the sick, that in the Divine Liturgy we are all equal before God, breaking bread with one another and sharing the common love and joy of Christ. If we always remember that in our baptism we all become members of the royal priesthood then we’ll be okay. It is when we as clergy begin to think and act as if we were a separate “caste” or “class” of Christians that trouble arises. Unfortunately, many of the troubles that we are having in the Orthodox Church in America have arisen due to rampant clericalism and lack of transparency and accountability.

AD: More than a decade ago, when I read the version of Schmemann's diaries published by SVS Press, I noted that there were many things Schmemann complained about, but he always seemed happiest--exuberantly joyful even--when celebrating the liturgy. Is that how you see him?

WCM: Yes, he certainly talks a lot about either looking forward to a feast or a liturgical celebration. He really enjoyed the eucharistic services very much. In his Journals for example he talks a lot about attending Church with his mother and brother in Paris as well as the services at Saint Serge with his wife Julianna.

 AD: Sum up your book Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology for us and what you hope it will do.

 WCM: Up until now most scholars and theologians have focused soley on Schmemann’s writings on the Eucharist and overlooking his other theological interests. Yet when we dive in and read his entire corpus we see that he also has a lot to say about priestly ministry and pastoral theology, a theme which I take up in Church, World, and Kingdom. My hope is that both students and theologians will use Church, World, and Kingdom as a way to once bring renewal and revitilization to our seminaries, graduate schools of theology, and to our parishes. Schmemann died in December 1983 and there is an entire generation of people who never had the chance to learn from Schmemann himself. One of my goals in Church, World, and Kingdom is to re-introduce Schmemann’s writings, specifically those on pastoral theology and ministry, to a new generation of readers. 

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