Masha Tkachuk: Although you have spent more than half your life in North America, your childhood and youth were spent in Paris, where you grew up and were educated. How did your life as an Orthodox Christian mix with your secular education? Were the two completely separate, or did your Orthodoxy influence the direction that your education took?
Juliana Schmemann: My education was anything but secular. I was educated in a prominent Catholic boarding school, headed by the mother of (later) Cardinal Jean Daniélou. The school had been founded as a very liberal, yet thoroughly Catholic center for women. From an early age we were made to realize the strength and potential influence of women in society, in the Church, in the world of culture. This Catholic upbringing did nothing to undermine my Orthodox faith. On the contrary, it enforced the universal character of the Orthodox faith in contrast to the strictly ethnic and often parochial character of my home parish in the suburbs of Paris. It gave me, at an early age, a detailed knowledge of Church history and liturgics and an intense desire to continue, in my own Church, the great teachings of Eucharist-centeredness, tolerance, questioning, and total dedication.
M.T.: Your education led you to become an educator. For a number of years you were the head of a very large girls' private school in New York City. Did you feel free to make use of your beliefs as an Orthodox Christian in your leadership of a large secular educational institution?
J.S.: Feel free? I was always free to be myself and never felt the need to compromise with my girls. Had I lied, they would have known it! Joy of life, respect for life, to live rather than cope with life, life as a gift - these were the things that I talked about with my agnostic, atheistic, falsely liberal students. I remember so many conversations with older girls trying to pull them to a higher way of thinking, having very little in common with them as far as dogmas, rites, traditions were concerned. But I felt completely at ease in taking them from love, poetry, history, real joy, a respect for truth, to the evidence of eternal life, the evidence of a Lord, the Lord, the open-ended striving for a simpler, better life, for what is real and true.
M.T.: Since the death of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, you have traveled extensively, addressing the concerns of Orthodox Christian women in this troubled secular world. What concerns have you encountered most often, and how did you attempt to address these concerns?
J.S.: Most of the time women wanted to know what should be their role in the Church. That question troubled me, since I think that playing a role is not a Christian way of looking at one's life. Did Mary think of her "role," her "rights," her "privileges"? Women are often quite confused about the way the Church views them. In fact, in the Church's tradition, beginning with the Virgin Mary, women have a unique and most beautiful place. There are the Myrrhbearers with their total dedication, love, and faithfulness; Martha and Mary who knew the one thing needed and chose it; the Samaritan woman who experienced the joy of faith at her encounter with Jesus. The Church is us - now. The ethos of the world changes, evolves, so do ways of dressing, appearances, but the total gift of self by women, as well as by men, is where it starts. Dedicating one's talents and faithful service to the Lord are the responsibility of all.
Whatever the needs of the Church are, or the demands of the job, or of the family, or of the parish, that is where the woman (as well as the man!) serves, in whatever capacity that she is called to serve. Since ordination [to the priesthood] is not an option, there are so many other ways to use one's talents, not by playing a role, but by being a role model, by giving oneself. What should be nurtured is the unique gift of womanhood, of a woman who follows Mary's living example.
M.T.: What do you feel has been your contribution to Orthodox Christians today?
J.S.: What I wish that my contribution may have been, is to have given women a feeling of intense joy in being women, without rancor, comparisons, needless speculations, but with a sense of gratitude in being themselves and in giving, endlessly giving . . . .
M.T.: Gratitude! How well I know that word!
J.S.: Indeed, gratitude is the only possible answer to God's gift to us: the gift of His Son, of life, of the world. "And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good." Whatever our life is like, our occupation, our beliefs, how can there be anything but an enormous surge of gratitude? Yes, I know: suffering, inadequacies, unfairness, et cetera ; but also a firm belief that essentially the world is good, very good . . . and that the Lord is good, and that it is good to be here . . . .
M.T.: Hanging on your kitchen bulletin board is J. W. Krutch's quotation, "Joy comes easier the more often one is joyous." Can you expand on that beautiful thought?
J.S.: Joy is not light-hearted laughter - it is an effort, a daily exercise of seeing the beauty of one's life, through thick and thin; of singing "Alleluia!" on a happy day as well as on one's dying day. And then truly "joy comes easier the more often one is joyous!" Joy then becomes a habit, an attitude, a state of being.
M.T.: Joy and gratitude are certainly two words that I have heard from your lips throughout the years. Another word is freedom. I'd like to hear your thoughts on freedom to conclude our dialogue today.
J.S.: Freedom. The world advocates freedom for women, total freedom. Christ advocated freedom of the spirit: "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). Among many other goals, I hope for women to possess a free vision of their life, of the Church, of their allegiance to Christ - through total freedom of choice, of love, of free acceptance, of humble obedience.
Freedom in choosing the kind of job that would not interfere with one's beliefs. Freedom in having a partner/husband, with whom one would share one's convictions and faith, with whom one would find respect, love, and communion. Freedom instilled in children, along with respect and trust for authority. Freedom: much more difficult than blind obedience to rules. Free and humble loving acceptance of Christ, His teaching, and His Church.
M.T.: I'm so glad that you shared your thoughts with us, those thoughts and beliefs that I grew up with and that I try in my own life to carry in my heart and in my actions. Thank you!