Thursday, February 28, 2019

Schmemann in Paris.

It strikes me that it has been a while since I've written about Alexander Schmemann on this blog. Though it may be said that Schmemann's work no longer enjoys the same place in my intellectual universe that it once occupied, I still count his Journals as one of my favorite books. I will add, as I have probably not said it before in this space, that the French edition of Schmemann's journals is infinitely superior to the English translation; the French text contains a lot of material that was cut from the American edition prepared (and heavily censored) by his widow, and the added material offers a richer understanding of the man and his thought. So if you are interested in Schmemann and can read French, get a copy of the French edition.

Since I moved to Paris a couple of years ago, I have occasionally thought about writing something about Schmemann the Parisian. Though he was born in Estonia, Schmemann spent his formative years in Paris and was deeply marked by the experience. The Journals make it clear that Schmemann felt more at home in Paris than he did anywhere else, and the 'Parisian' dimension of Schmemann's self-understanding is a theme worth exploring. This post is not the comprehensive study of that theme, but rather a sort of teaser. To offer a sense of the place of Paris in Schmemann's life, I would like to share some lines from his Journals, taken from an entry dated December 10, 1973:
. . . During my school years in Paris, on my way to the Lycée Carnot, I would stop by the Church of St. Charles of Monceau for two or three minutes. And always, in this huge, dark church, at one of the altars, a silent Mass was being said. The Christian West: it is part of my childhood and youth, when I lived a double life. On the one hand it was a worldly and very Russian émigré life; on the other, a secret, religious life. Sometimes I think of the contrast: a noisy, proletarian rue Legendre (a small street in the 19th arrondissement, in Paris) and this never-changing Mass (. . . a spot of light on the dark wall . . .) – one step, and one is in a totally different world. This contrast somehow determined in my religious experience the intuition that has never left me: the coexistence of two heterogeneous worlds, the presence in this world of something absolutely and totally 'other.' This 'other' illumines everything, in one way or another. Everything is related to it – the Church as the Kingdom of God among and inside us. For me, rue Legendre never became unnecessary, or hostile, or nonexistent – hence my aversion to pure 'spiritualism.' On the contrary, the street, as it was, acquired a new charm that was understandable and obvious only to me, who knew at that moment the Presence, the feast revealed in the Mass nearby. Everything became alive, intriguing: every storefront window, the face of every person I met, the concrete, tangible feeling of that moment, the relationship between the street, the weather, the houses, the people.

This experience remains with me forever: a very strong sense of 'life' in its physical, bodily reality, in the uniqueness of every minute and of its correlation with life's reality. At the same time, this interest has always been rooted solely in the correlation of all of this with what the silent Mass was a witness to and a reminder of, the presence and the joy. . . . This correlation is a tie, not an idea; an experience. It is the experience of the world and life literally in the light of the Kingdom of God, revealed through everything that makes up the world: colors, sounds, movements, time, space – concrete, not abstract. When this light, which is only in the heart, only inside us, falls on the world and on life, then all is illumined, and the world becomes a joyful sign, symbol, expectancy. That's why I love Paris, why I need it! It is because it was in Paris, in my Parisian childhood that this experience was given to me, became my being. . . .
This post may or may not be one in a series; awaiting a possible sequel, may these lines remain suspended in air, as it were, as a kind of placeholder and a reminder of a theme that I find very interesting but have not yet found the time to write about as I would like.