All who are familiar with the life of the Orthodox Church will be aware of the important role played in it by the wives of parish priests. In this article, which is the text of a talk given on French television, Juliana Schmemann, the widow of Father Alexander, describes, with clarity and depth of feeling, her experience as a participant in her husband\’s life and ministry. She is herself a remarkable woman and her story is all the more interesting because her husband was a remarkable man. The French text appeared in Le Messager Orthodoxe, 133 (January 1986), pp. 121–123.
In France, with its Roman Catholic tradition, the very idea of marriage to a priest must seem rather strange and out of place.
Especially when we are experiencing the liberation of women, their independence and equal career opportunities for both men and women, the position of a priest\’s wife, given the absolute impossibility of the ordination of women to the priesthood, may well appear to be an anomaly. Yet this anomaly – this absurdity – is not only accepted by the wife of a priest, but even incorporated into her existence with joy, yes, with pride and thankfulness that she is part, though indirectly, of the priestly ministry.
It is not easy to speak impartially of a husband who has died recently, to speak with objectivity; yet on the other hand it is a joy to speak of him and to share with others one\’s memories.
There was nothing out of the ordinary in our youth or in the way we met: he was a graduate of the Lycee Carnot and the Gymnase Russe, I of the College Sainte Marie de Neuilly; both of us had been brought up on the one hand in the enduring idealistic structures of Old Russia, with the whole of life patterned on the rhythms of the Church, her feast days, on that Russian heritage and tradition which implied obligations of loyalty and of service; while, on the other hand, we lived in the world of Voltaire, of Verlaine and Proust, of Parisian beauty and the phantom past of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. And in the midst of these varied influences came my meeting on the church steps, at the age of seventeen, with a nineteen-year-old seminarist, the very day he entered the St Sergius Theological Institute: \’Pleased to meet you … and do bear in mind that I have no intention of becoming a monk!\’ The same evening he remarked to someone that he had just met his future wife.
He entered the Institute with the intention of becoming a priest, and at nineteen he was already fully that which he was to be all his life. He had dedicated himself to priesthood from childhood, the Church was in his blood, and he wanted to be a priest before anything else and more than anything else. His priesthood, his desire for priesthood, reflected his nature, reflected that for which he had been created. There was no conflict in him.
He was a fully balanced man: educated first at the Russian military high school, then at the Lycee Carnot and the Gymnase Russe, he developed a passion for two literatures which he came to know very thoroughly: Russian literature which he later taught in New York, and French literature which he knew not only while he lived in France, but which he never ceased to read, appreciate and imbibe with love – one might say, almost greedily. He loved both French and Russian poetry, and could recite by heart from them for hours on end without ever getting tired.
Neither poetry nor literature were for him mere pastimes. And in general he was a voracious reader: works on politics and philosophy, contemporary ideas and theories. His interests and his curiosity were truly universal. In poetry he saw a transcendental beauty and took delight in it. Rather than seeking to find his soul in poetry, after the manner of the Romantics, he followed with openness and sincerity the path taken by the poets themselves in their creative endeavor. He loved Baudelaire and his inclination to the ideal; he loved Voltaire and Rimbaud: he was never one to look for morality in art (his love for Baudelaire and for Proust are proof enough of that!). In poetry, as in literature in general, he saw the spoken word, the word which expresses life.
He enjoyed reading the notebooks of Gide and of Leautaud; he enjoyed biographies, works on Talleyrand, on Proust, on the life of Simenon and others, following in them the development of human lives, of suffering and joy. All of these works brought him close to other human beings, to the most diverse human destinies and he gave himself up to them.
Language was of primary importance for him, more than music, which he enjoyed, but not passionately, more than the visual arts to which he was basically indifferent. He loved the streets, cities, houses, curtains at windows, cemeteries, cafes, evening papers – everything which reflected human life. I remember well how, young thing that I was, I was rather taken aback, not to say more, when he would take me to the Pere Lachaise cemetery, then for walks along the
Grands Boulevards, to the country of Maigret, and finally to sit in the cafe Lutetia, well ensconced with black coffee and a copy of Le Monde. The passers by, the world of the street… I confess that I remained somewhat reserved and on my guard. Yet I was gradually achieving a greater measure of independence and a deeper degree of understanding.
I have mentioned his equilibrium, his tastes, his education at once both French and Russian, the systematic, constant, continual reading, which resulted in a very broad and comprehensive culture, close to life and to the development of mankind. But in the midst of all these concerns, what as strongest and most sincere in him was his joy in the priesthood, his joy in being a priest. The character of his ministry was determined by the influence he was able to exercise through speech, by the immediate influence, direct and almost inevitable, which he had on those he met. As a result he was always absorbed by other people, sought out by them; he never said \’no\’. If in conversation he was asked peculiar or muddled questions, he had the ability to understand what the questioners wished to ask, why they had difficulties, and he gave them an answer without ever imposing a solution, without ever moralizing. He had a marvelous way of relaxing people and putting them at their ease, encouraging them, communicating to them what was essential, in the light of which all would become simpler, happier, more reassuring. Truly he lifted up people\’s hearts. Some were almost disappointed, since they hoped to obtain solution or a judgment and he gave them rather a vision.
One of his students recently said to me ( I quote from memory): \’I used to come to see Father with a list of problems, problems which appeared serious to me, with no solution. We would discuss politics, literature, my children, the Church, the feasts, nature, and in the end Father used to put his heavy and gentle hand on my shoulder and say: \”Well, everything\’s alright, isn\’t it? No more problems?\” And I would go away, my spirits and my heart warmed by his joy and his radiance, somewhat confused, but in peace.’ One could not help laughing with him, even over theological issues.
His feeling for the true perspectives, his good common sense, his vision of life which would not admit of false problems, together with his ever-present sense of humor and a certain inner reticence, a certain reserve vis-a-vis any emotion or feeling which was too personal, made of him a man who was often sought out as a source of comfort, of well-being, of the confidence which he dispensed so profusely. More than a thousand people came to his funeral and I received hundreds of letters, all witnesses to the number of people he had touched.
In 1951 we left Paris for New York with our three children, and it was in America, at Saint Vladimir\’s Seminary where he was professor and dean, that he assembled a group of workers, teachers and administrators, all his friends, who are carrying on the same mission, who speak with one voice of the Church, the Liturgy, the Eucharist. It was at St Vladimir\’s that he wrote his books and realized his full potential, there that he truly worked for the renewal of the liturgical life, for the renewal of the feeling for the Eucharist.
Other people will speak of his theological mission. What I know is that this mission was fully at one with his function as a priest, as the servant and instrument of the Lord. He did not have a feeling for social problems: ‘Others do this better than I,’ he used to say.
What saved both of us from a fragmentation which would have been difficult to avoid, from a pull into different directions – the children, their education (our three children who, by the way, never gave us anything but happiness), the seminary, the difficulty of making ends meet each month, students and all the rest – what saved us was above all our belonging to the Church, the services, the joy of Great Saturday or of a simple weekday Liturgy. And all this came to us by and through his priesthood.
To preserve our sanity we used to spend long summers in the Canadian countryside on the shores of the Lake Labelle, where we went to steep ourselves once more in the fount of life which is Nature, in the northern beauty of the Canadian forests, in family life, the wooded chapel on Sundays and feast days, the arrival of his brother Andrei whose importance in his life I cannot exaggerate. Our summers were marked by the rhythm of his eagerly awaited arrival, the joy of his stay with us and the sadness of his departure. Our summers were truly a haven of peace.
I would like to add to these somewhat disjointed remarks some words on Father Alexander\’s illness and death, on the feast of his death, for such it truly was.
When he learned, in a totally unexpected and unforeseeable manner, that he had cancer in his lungs and in his brain, already in a rather advanced stage, he accepted his destiny in the full meaning of the word, calmly and serenely, without useless words, and with an immense strength which was altogether hidden. I remember very well the exact time when this took place. It was a moment of total clarity and total lucidity, and the signal for departure on a journey. His acceptance was without emotion, but a great joy entered our lives. It was not the joy of self-sacrifice or of a martyr who accepts his fate. It was joy pure and simple, the joy he had preached all his life, but which was now intensified because one felt that he was seeing the Kingdom, the doors of the Kingdom. Everything else was finished – or rather was about to begin. A lifetime\’s struggle to preach, to communicate, to convince was past, while the great journey which, in effect, would set him free had begun. He was like the women to whom Christ appeared after his Resurrection and said: \’Rejoice!\’ His illness and progress towards death were without a doubt an even more immediate vision of the Lord. With even greater simplicity, with total faith, he waited, as he had once written, for \’the never-ending day of the Kingdom’.
His death was in truth an act of life, the feast of his death.
As death approached, it was like a train which, after the whistle, moves off, puffs and begins to roll slowly at first with all the sounds of the wheels and the steam, then travels even faster and even more quietly towards… towards the goal of everyone\’s journey, towards the doors of the Kingdom which were standing open for him and which he approached with peace and thanksgiving. Never had I seen him so radiant, so thankful, so patient.
Three days before his death he was anointed. He was very weak, and we were not sure how he would react, but at the end of the prayers, he said in a clear and strong voice: \’Amen, amen, amen.\’
This was the fiat, the \’so be it\’, of his whole life.
I would like to conclude with an extract from the end of the chapter on death in his book For the Life of the World (this passage is the only one written in the first person):
\”. . . And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst of the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, my very death will be an act of communion with Life. For neither Life nor death can separate us from the love of Christ. I do not know when and how the fulfillment will come, I do not know when all things will be consummated in Christ. I know nothing about the \’whens\’ and \’hows\’. But I know that in Christ this great Passage, the Pascha of the world, has begun, that the light of the \’world to come\’ comes to us in the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, for Christ is risen and Life reigneth.\”
Translated by Elisabeth Obolensky
Reprinted from the Sourozh.