Moscow, December 16, 2013 (Julia Zaitseva, Blagovest-info). The presentation of the book “The Liturgy of Death and Contemporary Culture” (Moscow: Granat, 2013) by Alexander Shmemann was held on December 15 at the Pokrovskie Vorota Cultural Center. The book recently came out with a number of copies of 3,000 and is now almost sold out. So many people came to the presentation on Sunday evening that some of the speakers could not even make it to the presidium. The event was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the death of Fr. Alexander Shmemann (1921-1983).
At the beginning of the meeting the representative of the Orthodox Church in America, Archimandrite Alexander (Pihach), read a address by Archbishop Tikhon of Washington, Metropolitan of all America and Canada. The new book is “a living memory of a man who lived and died in the hope of the Resurrection,” the message said. Archimandrite Alexander shared his most personal recollections of his meetings with Father Alexander and his lectures at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York City.
Elena Dorman, initiator of the publication and translator, presented the “paradoxical history” of the book: “Fr. Alexander did not write it, but really wanted to write it. In 1981, Father Alexander gave a series of lectures at St. Vladimir’s Seminary devoted to the attitude toward death in modern society, its pre-Christian and Christian understanding, reflection on Funeral Services and funeral rites of the Orthodox Church. In his diary records, the priest repeatedly mentioned his intention to write a book about death, but did not make it in time. An audio recording of these lectures, preserved by an audience member, was transcribed, translated, edited by Elena Dorman and turned into a small book. “This book appeared at just the right time: in our society, the question of death has finally begun to be discussed, in a variety of ways. As always, Fr. Alexander came to our rescue in time,” said the translator.
Analyzing secular culture’s attitude toward death, Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes: “The meaning of death in contemporary culture is that it has no meaning.” This is as true today in America in the 1970s as it is today in Russia, says Sergei Chapnin, Executive Editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. According to him, the book by Fr. Alexander allows us “to rediscover the liturgical context of commemoration of the dead.” “It is a challenge to our faith – not just publicistic, not ‘church-public,’ but in essence. This book is a cornerstone, forcing us to think: what is death in the light of the Gospel?”
О. Alexander Schmemann explains in the introduction to the course of lectures why he chose this title: “I use the word ‘liturgy’ here not in its narrow, exclusively liturgical meaning, but in the sense that it had in the early Church, where it denoted an essential ministry and function, including both the Church’s vision of and response to death.” As for the “ecclesial vision,” he does not propose to “reform the liturgy of death (God forbid!) or modernize it (God forbid!).” “The time has come for the Orthodox Church … simply to rediscover it (the liturgy of death – note Y.Z.), to see it again in its truth and glory, that is, in its connection with the faith of the Church, with the meaning of Christ’s immortal death for the departed, … for all Creation, in its connection with Baptism and the Eucharist, with the life of the Church and with the life of each of us, its members,” writes Fr. Alexander.
“This is a book not of answers, but of questions,” the well-known biblical scholar Andrei Desnitsky commented on the volume. Anticipating the reproaches and suspicions that are sure to fall to the fate of this book, he noted: “What ‘modernism’ is there! Here is simply an attempt to make sense of it, to look into the huge chest that is Tradition, without changing anything.” His colleague Mikhail Seleznev, head of the department of biblical studies at the All-Church Postgraduate and Doctoral School, pointed out that the new book contains the same “rejection of inner triumphalism” that permeates Fr. Alexander Shmemann’s Diaries. “The legacy of Fr. Alexander gives us an image of the preservation of faith and joy in a world of bitterness and simulacra,” believes M. Seleznev.
Next it was the time for poets: about the importance of the books of Fr. Alexander in his life, about “the paschal nature of his faith,” the priest Sergius Kruglov spoke. He read a poem written for the publication of The Liturgy of Death, dedicated to the “not always easy fate” of the pastor’s books in Russia (it mentions the demonstrative burning of his books in Yekaterinburg).
Poet Olga Sedakova testified to the perception of Fr. Alexander and his broadcasts on Radio Liberty in the late 1970s and 1980s in the USSR. Thus Sergei Averintsev saw in Fr. Alexander’s message was “the eschatological fire of first-century Christianity.” While appreciating the new book, O. Sedakova disagreed with some of the assessments of pre-Christian beliefs that Fr. Alexander. According to her, the Christian and pre-Christian visions of death are linked not through opposition, but through “the sprouting in Christianity of that expectation of immortality which in earlier times was expressed in the concept of “glory.”
The evening was also addressed by Alexander Kyrlezhev of the Synodal Theological Commission; Andrei Efimov, Deputy Dean of the PTSU Missionary Faculty; Victor Averkov, administrator of the VKontakte group dedicated to the legacy of Fr. Alexander Shmemann; physician Anna Sonkina-Dorman, who personally knew Fr. Alexander, and others. The cultural attaché of the Apostolic Nunciature in Russia, Giovanna Paraviccini, spoke about the importance of books by Fr. Alexander Shmemann for Europe. According to her, the priest reveals the meaning of death as “a celebration of real life.” “This is the experience of the early Church, where Christ was seen as all in all, Life eternal. Death is not something that terrifies us, but something to which we are all called. It has everything to do with all the problems of our lives,” J. Parravicini concluded.