Category Archives: saints

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

Wordless flowers, and myrrhbearers.

When I had brought flowers into the house this afternoon, I thought to share them, by way of one of those “Wordless Wednesday Saturday” type of posts, because what could one say that’s better than what the flowers themselves are are already communicating? Unless they are communicating to you what a failure at flower-arranging I am…. My excuse is that I have such atypical flowers for arranging, excepting the callas. This is the first time I’ve used acanthus. The purple blooms are chives, and the white that aren’t callas are ixia.

I wouldn’t have written any of those words, if I hadn’t remembered that it’s Myrrhbearers’ Sunday: I always want to express appreciation for my patron saint Joanna who is numbered among the women who came to anoint the Lord’s body. Flower essences were likely used in the ointments that the women brought to the tomb, and flowers are often given to one’s mother around this time, so let my flowers be in her honor, who is one of my mothers in the faith.

The following I found on our parish announcement page:

Joanna the Myrrhbearer was the wife of Chouza (he was the steward-administrator of King Herod Antipas). She is listed as one of the women, along with Susanna, Mary Magdalene, and others, who “had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities” who accompanied Jesus and the Apostles, and “provided for Him from their substance.” (Luke 8:2-3)

In Luke 23:55–24:11, we have the story of how these same women went to the tomb of Christ as Myrrhbearers to finish the job of embalming Jesus’ body, which was hastily begun by Joseph and Nikodemos. They were perplexed when they found the tomb empty except for the grave clothes. An Angel appeared to them and proclaimed the Resurrection of the Lord. They believed and became the first evangelists of the risen Christ, and became “Apostles to the Apostles.”

Although not mentioned by name, Joanna is most likely counted as one of the women who joined the disciples and Mary, the mother of the Lord, in the upper room in prayer. She was among the group of 120 who chose Matthias to fill the vacancy that was left by Judas, as well as being present on the Day of Pentecost.

According to tradition, Joanna recovered the head of St. John the Forerunner after Herodias had disposed of it (Feb. 24). When Herodias had John beheaded, she cast the head out into an unclean place. Joanna took the head and buried it with honor on the Mount of Olives, on Herod’s land. Later, in the reign of Constantine the Great, the head was found.

An ossuary has been discovered in Israel bearing the inscription, “Johanna, granddaughter of Theophilus, the High Priest.” Whether this is the same Joanna as the Myrrhbearer is unknown.

Just as Joanna stood beside the tomb,
So also she stands beside the throne in the age to come.

—Liturgical verse

The moral is short — one word.

“Turn your cares into prayers and you will change ice to flowing water.”

This is my paraphrase of a quote from St. Nikolai that we heard in church this morning. His feast day is March 18. St. Nikolai Velimiroviç was born in Serbia in 1880. He graduated from seminary in Belgrade in 1905, and then got two doctorate degrees. The doctoral thesis in theology was presented in German; his thesis in philosophy was prepared at Oxford and defended in Geneva, in French. I am amazed at the academic intensity represented by these facts.

At about the same time he was also entering a monastery and advancing from monk to priest to archimandrite, and becoming a professor at St. Sava Seminary in Belgrade. St. Nikolai was ordained Bishop of Žiča in Serbia in 1919. The Nazis arrested him in 1941 and he was confined and possibly tortured until the end of the war, when he came to the United States and taught at Orthodox seminaries. He has often been referred to as Serbia’s “New Chrysostom.”

Many times I have quoted from his Prologue of Ohrid, but today I offer in his honor a portion of one of his Prayers by the Lake (Lake Ohrid). This is from Number 13:

Stories are long, too long; the moral is short — one word. You are that word, O Word of God. You are the moral of all stories.

What the stars write across heaven, the grass whispers on earth. What the water gurgles in the sea, fire rumbles beneath the sea. What an angel says with his eyes, the imam shouts from his minaret. What the past has said and fled, the present is saying and fleeing.

There is one essence for all things; there is one moral for all stories. Things are tales of heaven. You are the meaning of all tales. Stories are Your length and breadth. You are the brevity of all stories. You are a nugget of gold in a knoll of stone.

When I say Your name, I have said everything and more than everything….

Lake Ohrid in Macedonia

His pure soul.

Today — or yesterday if you want to be strict about liturgical time — is the commemoration of the repose of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a beloved holy father in the Orthodox Church and beyond. And while I was in church remembering him with hymns and prayers, this icon was waiting in a package on my front porch, painted and sent by my goddaughter Rosemary. It says right on the package: “Expected delivery date: January 4.” But it would be rude to make him sit in a truck or depot on his memorial day. Perhaps it was an angel who sped him along to my house two days early; it fulfilled my joy to have his icon with me and to be able to see through this particular “window into heaven,” on his very feast day.

“On January 2 [1883], Father Paul, the saint’s cell-attendant, left his own cell at six in the morning to attend the early Liturgy. He noticed the smell of smoke coming from the Elder’s cell. Saint Seraphim would often leave candles burning in his cell, and Father Paul was concerned that they could start a fire.

“’While I am alive,’ he once said, ‘there will be no fire, but when I die, my death shall be revealed by a fire.’ When they opened the door, it appeared that books and other things were smoldering. Saint Seraphim was found kneeling before an icon of the Mother of God with his arms crossed on his chest. His pure soul was taken by the angels at the time of prayer, and had flown off to the Throne of the Almighty God, Whose faithful servant Saint Seraphim had been all his life.”

-From oca.org