In December we Orthodox commemorate the repose in 1837 of Saint Herman of Alaska, who came as an Orthodox Christian missionary to America in 1793. When he was glorified as a saint in 1970, Fr. Alexander Schmemann was present for the ceremonies. He wrote a non-official account of the event, seemingly from an overflow of joy that compelled his “weak attempt to express to those who were not there that which I cannot call anything other than a miracle of the mercy of God.” You can read it here: Days of Light and Joy.
Of the last of the three days of services and celebrations, Fr. Alexander writes:
“… very early in the morning, five priests with Archbishop Kiprian go to Spruce Island where for almost thirty years the Elder Herman lived as a hermit. And I know that we have never in our lives experienced anything better, purer, more joyful than what we’ve experienced there that morning: the walk through the wooded paths along the towering evergreens keeping their eternal vigil before their Creator, to the little chapel over the cave of the elder, and the liturgy in that chapel. I served the liturgy; but to say this is totally inaccurate. The liturgy served itself. It was only necessary for us to give ourselves to it completely, to immerse ourselves in it, to enter into the thanksgiving without reservation. I know as well that we did not deserve this at all but that it was given to us as a gift. I can only pray that it will also be given to us to preserve but the smallest portion of this gift of grace.”
This was in August of 1970, and since then a steady stream of pilgrims from across the globe has visited St. Herman’s grave, including descendants of the Aleuts who knew and loved him before his repose. In 2020 for the 50th anniversary of his glorification there were many festivities and pilgrims there in Kodiak and on Spruce Island.
Father Herman’s repose was in December, so we commemorate him at this time of year as well. I leave you with the closing paragraph of Fr. Alexander’s report:
“In this light and in this joy, all of our human disagreements, accusations and condemnations become so petty, so human, so sinful. The whole time it seemed: If only we could give ourselves humbly to this joy we would understand without words in what and for what the Church exists, and the scales of our wickedness and suspicions and divisions would fall from us. There, at the tomb of Saint Herman, in the splendor of his humility, it was given to us to see that reality which alone gives authentic life to the Church, that reality which is indeed the only thing which the Church has to reveal to this world, that reality by which alone the Church will be able to overcome every power of evil in this world.
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.
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.”
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 into 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.
“O blessed Father Herman of Alaska, North star of Christ’s holy Church, the light of your holy life and great deeds guides those who follow the Orthodox way. Together we lift high the Holy Cross you planted firmly in America. Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ, singing his holy Resurrection.”
-Troparion for the feast
Today we celebrated Divine Liturgy (Holy Communion) in honor of St. Herman of Alaska, a monk missionary sent from Russia in the late 18th century. He was known to feed animals such as ermine and bears, as in this icon.
The saint lived many years on Spruce Island, near Kodiak Island in the Aleutian group. Just hearing and thinking about the setting for his life and labors makes me shiver. I am such a lover of comfort! While I like to warm a rice bag in the microwave to put under piles of blankets at the foot of my bed, when the temperature outdoors is well above freezing, Father Herman would warm a board on the stove and use it for his only covering. Not cozy. But then, monks are known for seeking warmth not for their bodies, but in their souls, and they use their beds as reminders of the grave.
Father Herman was beloved of the people of Alaska for his intercessions before the civil authorities on behalf of the Aleuts who were often mistreated and enslaved. He prayed to God and he served those thankful people for over 40 years.
The icon is by L. Kintsurahvili of the Republic of Georgia.