Many simple people have received.

Whenever I think of St. Innocent of Alaska, I see him in a dogsled or kayak making the rounds to visit his flock, or at a desk creating an alphabet for the language of the Aleuts. But he started life as Ivan Popov, born in a village in Siberia in 1797. When he was six years old his father died, and at the age of ten he entered seminary, “…where the rector renamed him Veniaminov in honor of the recently deceased Bishop Veniamin of Irkutsk.” At the age of twenty he became a deacon, and married, and began to serve at the Annunciation Church in the same village where he had always lived and studied, Irkutsk.

Not long after he was ordained to the priesthood, a call went out for a priest volunteer to become a missionary to the Aleutian Islands, and Father John was the only one willing. It took him and his pregnant wife and small child fourteen months to make the journey; they arrived on the island of Unalaska in 1824.

Father John continued his missionary and pastoral work in Alaska for many decades, during which time he translated parts of the Bible into indigenous languages, designed and built churches with his own hands, and founded a seminary. After his wife died he was tonsured a monk, given the name Innocent, and appointed bishop. Over the course of his life he traveled tens of thousands of miles, sometimes for months at a time, just to keep up with his vast diocese, in which he catechized and baptized more than 10,000 people.

Michael Oleksa writes in Orthodox Alaska, “John Veniaminov was probably the most remarkable Alaskan of his century, perhaps of all time… In popular histories he has often been singled out as the one truly bright spot in the darkness of the Russian-American colony.” His faith and bravery, and his dedication to his flock, are certainly inspiring, but the breadth of his skills in carpentry, clock making and organ building, and his accomplishments as a naturalist and linguist also capture my imagination.

St. Michael’s Cathedral, Sitka, before 1895

About his linguistic study of the Aleutian-Fox language, Fr. John wrote, “In compiling the grammar of a language like the Aleutian, at first I deemed it to be useless; I knew it was of no use to the Aleuts, for without this grammar they can express themselves correctly to each other; neither was it of any particular value to foreigners. But knowing with what… eagerness many scientists are collecting all sorts of information, and how important every little discovery is to them, I decided to compile a grammar… It cannot be possible that the Aleutian language had any other spoken tongue similar to it, but that the grammar could show some evidence of its origin.”

Sketch by Louis Choris – 19th century

The quote above comes to us from Fr. Andrew Kashevarov, whom Oleksa also quotes about Fr. John’s naturalist studies: “Having thoroughly acquainted himself with the fauna of the islands, especially the fur seal… he offered as a result of his extensive investigations certain valuable suggestions to the fur company for more sensible and scientific modes for harvesting these animals. The suggestions were accepted and applied, and not only saved the seal herd from depletion, but also from complete extermination….”

When as a priest he was transferred to Sitka, he designed and built St. Michael’s Cathedral, which continues as a house of worship today. I wonder if I might one day visit this church… I haven’t read all of Orthodox Alaska, but stories of St. Herman and St. Innocent, and accounts of friends who have visited, are seeds that could sprout into my own tiny adventure.

I started writing what I intended to be a short introduction, on the feast day of the canonization of St. Innocent, to a quote from him that I found in our church bulletin. I began to wonder if the quote (below) was from the guide Fr. John wrote in Aleut and Russian in 1901, Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven. I discovered that the whole article on the Christian life is available to read on the site linked, but the quote doesn’t seem to be from that work.

Whatever its source, I find it lovely that this word about the Holy Scriptures is the one to conclude my post; of all the people who might have cause to glory in his human knowledge, St. Innocent is a shining example. But he clearly understands the incomparable value of Divine Wisdom and exhorts us to humbly pursue it above all:

The Holy Spirit may be received by reading and listening to the Holy Scripture as the true Word of God. Holy Scripture is a great treasury from which we can draw light and life—light to enlighten and inform every man, and life to quicken, comfort and delight everyone. Holy Scripture is one of the greatest of God’s blessings to man, and it is a blessing which can be enjoyed and used by anyone who wishes to do so.

And it needs to be said that Holy Scripture is divine wisdom, and wisdom so wonderful that it can be understood and comprehended by the simplest and most unlearned person; that
is why many simple people, by reading or listening to Holy Scripture, have become pious and have received the Holy Spirit.

But there have also been people, and even educated people, who read Holy Scripture and erred and were lost. This is because the former read it in simplicity of heart and without sophistry and rationalizations and did not seek learning in it, but grace, power and spirit; while the latter on the contrary, regarding themselves as people who were wise and knew everything, sought in it not the power of and spirit of the Word of God, but worldly wisdom, and instead of humbly receiving all that Providence was pleased to reveal to them, they tried to discover and learn what has been hidden; and that is why they fell unto unbelief or schism.

It is easier to pour the whole sea into a tiny cup than for a man to comprehend all the wisdom of God. And so, when you read or listen to Holy Scripture, lay aside all your wisdom and submit yourself to the Word and will of Him Who speaks to you through Holy Scripture; and ask Jesus Christ to instruct you Himself, to enlighten your mind and give you a desire to read Holy Scripture and do what it says.

—St. Innocent of Alaska

11 thoughts on “Many simple people have received.

  1. Good information, inspiring. Thanks for this, Gretchen. A helpful addition to my Sunday communions.

    I think you should go,

    but I doubt that the adventure will be “tiny.” Not spiritually, not educationally, not personally. Alaska was a “whole new world” for us, and we didnt even get to the Orthodox churches and communities–treasures well beyond my range of experience or, until recently, knowledge and appreciation.

    Regarding scripture and the saint, by now I finally realize that I dont have much wisdom to lay aside, not my own at least.  And when I try to do that with the other wisdoms presented by priests, the books-blogs-essays I read, and the complex religious culture I have grown old in, I am left wondering why read at all, why not just pray. But also keep listening and joining in at liturgies. ( Exaggerating of course. Reading here and elsewhere keeps me joining in.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s no doubt true, Albert, that if we knew how to really pray, God could enlighten us about everything necessary. But that’s very theoretical, a big IF… I am comforted by the example of St. Innocent who surely was a man of prayer, but still took time to study and learn — and it sounds from the quote about the grammar he wrote, that he did it because he enjoyed it! Of course, linguistics and natural history aren’t as tempting to spiritual pride as the type of Bible learning he warned of.

      The modern saints are easier to relate to not because they are modern, but because we have so much historical record of them, and their lives weren’t written according to a formula as many of the ancient ones were, where they all sound alike. I’m sure they were just as interesting as St. Innocent, but it isn’t given to us to know as many details.

      I suppose that just being a missionary makes for a more colorful story of one’s life, because of the intersection of cultures and the special challenges of being in a new place among strangers. Our church school lesson this week was on Abraham and I couldn’t help seeing parallels in their stories of going in faith to “they knew not where.”

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      1. Hadn’t thought about the possible reason for formulaic “hagiography,” which I’m often put off by, so your comments about that and the interesting details of Innocent’s experiences (and his wife’s– very real and understandable) give me a new appreciation of all the names and stories in the daily Orthodox calendar. Good stuff. Another thankyou!

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  2. I found this a wonderful read! What a wonderful man he was and so interesting and clever! God does bestow many skills on those who truly seek him! He offers our modern world inspiration in many ways, even ecologically! Thank you for sharing him here!

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    1. I actually read a sort of “whisper” that she wasn’t too happy about him volunteering to go where the natives had a reputation for being fierce savages. But Fr. John had heard other stories about the Alaskan people, and probably his obedient wife also found them easy to love in the end. I’m sure the whole experience gave her plenty of opportunity for developing her saintliness! 😉

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  3. Fr. Andrew Kashevaroff is, himself, a very interesting person. His grandfather was Russian, but the rest of his family Tlingit. He was born in the waning days of Russian America, but ended up in San Francisco at about the age of 10. (Many of the males in his family were leaders in the church; I suspect he was accompanied by a brother, uncle, cousin, etc, especially because he wasn’t the only Kashevaroff from Alaska in San Francisco at the time.) He seemed to be very devoted to the Church, despite, perhaps, a little bit of a “wild” streak (reportedly, he was suspended as a deacon because the Bishop didn’t approve of his pick of a wife, and he went and married her anyway). He became a priest, and when the Russian Church could no longer pay priests’ salaries, he continued on, finding outside work as a library “collections” manager, so to speak, and because of his connections to the Russian, Native Alaskan, and American cultures, he helped collect a lot of pieces of Alaskan history that probably otherwise would have been lost. His wife died long before he did, and apparently, he was offered the position of Bishop of Alaska, but he turned it down, as it would have meant having to give up the library/museum work. His work, though, is still considered so instrumental to Alaskan history that a couple of years ago, the State of Alaska named their new state library/museum facility after him: https://www.pcl.com/Projects-that-Inspire/Pages/Featured-Projects/Father-Andrew-P-Kashevaroff-Library-Archives-and-Museum-Building.aspx

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There are truly some amazing characters to be found in the history of the Orthodox Church in this country. 🙂 I highly doubt that Fr. Kashevaroff will ever be named a saint, but he lived an amazing life and used his many talents for the glory of God and to the benefit of others.

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