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Good Morning Nanty Glo!
                 Friday, June 20 2003 

Jon Kennedy, webmasterWord pictures

Continuing the discussion of my current read, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, begun on Wednesday.

The old saying, "I don't know art, but I know what I like," seems to fit the way I feel about many passages in Alexander Schmemann's journals. Even though I've been a teacher of college-level creative writing seminars for years, just what makes his brief descriptions of his surroundings, the beauty of nature, or even its inhospitality on less benign days, defies my powers of definition. For one thing, his prose seems effortless. He's writing "for the drawer." Even his beloved wife, whom he refers to constantly as "L" (short for Liana), didn't know through the decade that he was keeping it that he had a journal, only discovering it after his death.

In some of my journal experiments in my youth, I tried addressing my journal like it was an audience, a variation on the "Dear Diary" seen occasionally in comic strips portraying teenage girls anxious about whether they'll get asked to the dance. If I were to commend this approach to a class or writers group, I would reinforce the endorsement with something like "approaching the journal entry the way you would a letter to your parents or close friend may bring the task down to manageable size." But there's little of that in Schmemann's entries. I first wrote "there's nothing of that," but remembered that several times he does take up a sentence or two beginning, "I reread what I've written up till now and find...," or, "I began writing this to help me sort out my thoughts."

I've known of Schmemann since the early days of my investigation of Orthodox Christianity, which began nine years ago this month. He was one of a dozen or so authors whose books were recommended to me, and his history of the Orthodox church was one of the first dozen or so volumes I read. Ironically, however, that book didn't strike me nearly as deeply as these Journals. Journals should always be candid and never strike false notes; perhaps this is why I find it somewhat painful to read my own journals from my late teens, as they reveal levels of naivete and awkwardness, and a cockiness based on nothing more than ignorance mixed with bravado, that I don't want to remember. Schmemann is very frank, even expressing often deep doubts about the "obsession" and self-centeredness of his friend, Alexander Solzhenitzyn.

Though he never comes across in these journals as an innovator in the church (something Orthodoxy generally disdains, discourages, and occasionally despises), his opinions of many things that every other Orthodox writer I've read consider to be settled and fundamental are up to question and re-examination in Schmemann. I mentioned on Wednesday his dislike for "theology" as the word is generally used. Probably most Orthodox commentators dislike theology in the Protestant and Catholic senses of the word, as a science or an academic course of study. In Orthodoxy, "a theologian is someone who prays," and "one who prays (effectively, I presume—in other words, someone who really is in touch with God), is a theologian."

But whereas he has lots of company among Orthodox writers on theology, he seems quite alone when he expresses doubts about the sacrament of repentance, confession, especially as it is generally practiced, as "a three-minute recitation of sins and self-centered doubts." As one of the best-known priests and the dean of the seminary, he was one of the most popular confessors in the New York area, it's safe to say, but few I'm sure had any inkling about their confessor's reservations about the meaning of the process.

As I've mentioned repeatedly over the past couple of years, my most frequent reading has been about spiritual directors or "elders" or "eldresses" who have special charismas to direct the spiritual lives of their disciples, most of whom have been monks and nuns. Schmemann has strong reservations about this whole aspect of Orthodoxy, even suspecting that it undermines the parish or what he prefers to call the eucharistic community. Even in his appreciation of literary lights, his opinions seem to represent a minority. For example, Dostoyevsky is generally regarded the greatest Orthodox author, but Schmemann likes a dozen other poets and writers before him. Though he mentions many writers of his own generation, thus far I've seen only one reference to C.S. Lewis in more than 275 pages I've read, and he's not enthusiastic (though not sharply critical, either).

In many ways, Schmemann seems to be a uniquely original thinker, but unlike most writers who fall in that category, he doesn't seem to be "trying" to be original...he just is. And that may be one of the great charms of his art which, even though it challenges and doesn't match much of my own thinking, I know I like.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Gardening Rule

When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.

— Sent by Judy Rose

Thought for today

How beautifully leaves grow old.
How full of light and color are their last days!

— John Burroughs
Sent byTrudy Myers

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