Tag Archives: St. Innocent of Alaska

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

How Not to Use the Vernacular

In those long-ago days when new cars had built-in cassette players and we were a large homeschooling family, I invested in a set of tapes of the New Testament, narrated by Alexander Scourby. Those were the only straight readings of the Bible I heard until last week, when I popped The Message into my CD player.

Eugene Petersen is a man whom I admire and respect. The first I ever heard his name was as the author of a book with a compelling title, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. To hear him speak, as I have recently on the Mars Hill Audio publications, is to know that he has received a goodly share of grace and wisdom from God. In introductions to the recordings he explains that his motives for writing The Message paraphrase of the Bible were to make it accessible to the everyday English speaker as a “reading Bible,” to introduce them to God’s words and God’s ways, with prayers that they would go on to read a study Bible, and learn to participate in the life of God.

A couple of years ago I read a few passages in the printed version of his translation, as he loosely calls it, and was neither impressed nor offended. But I’m past the stage of needing an introduction, so I didn’t pay much attention. I bought the recording because it was the least expensive experiment I could make in a newer format, and I didn’t imagine that the experience would be so far removed from listening to Alexander Scourby.

It was only a year ago that Scourby read the entire gospel of Matthew to me while I was driving to the mountains and back in my old car. It was a flood of God’s blessing to hear that much of the earthly life of my Lord — His words, His being the Word — in one sitting, and I thought my heart would burst with the overflow. The several hours’ drive was over before I knew it.

But the narrator of The Message series makes me remember why we always chant or sing the Scripture in the Orthodox Church. The first portion I listened to was Matthew’s gospel, in which John the Baptist and Jesus appear early on, and the narrator gives them the voice and intonation of an actor over-dramatizing his role. In tone, it is so not the vernacular, unless you are a football coach at half-time when your team is losing, or a political talk-show host on a rant. To have the words of Christ spoken that way is to make Him out to be a cheerleader or an ad-man. Even the most Pentecostal preachers I have heard do not speak with such urgency through their whole sermon.

If only Eugene Peterson had been the one to read aloud his rendition of the Bible. He would not have been capable of such a style, nor would he have thought it necessary. He knows that the words of God do not need hepping up. Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay. But he speaks more slowly even than Scourby, whose pace sacrifices speed to dignity.

I had to dig out our old cassettes to check who the narrator was, and then I googled his name. Wikipedia says, “Although Scourby made voice recordings of over 500 different books, he considered the Bible to be his most important,” saying “‘…it is the one book that has the power to inspire, encourage, comfort and change the life of the person who hears it.'”

The Orthodox believe that worship services should be in the language of the people, the vernacular, so priests and missionaries through history made great efforts and sacrifices to translate the Bible and prayer books. St. Innocent is one I have heard the most about; he traveled by kayak all over the frozen north to minister to the native peoples of Alaska, and learned several languages besides his native Russian.

But we do not read the Scriptures aloud in church in the tones of our everyday speech, even though the words are in our respective languages. If you do that, it is nearly impossible not to emphasize one word over another and lend changeable meaning to the sentences depending on who you are and what assumptions and personality, not to say errors and misunderstandings, you bring with you. The only way to let the words speak for themselves is to chant or sing them without emphasizing one over another.

Scourby was Greek and baptized Orthodox. I wonder if he had a sense of how to read the Bible from hearing it chanted or sung in his youth. His reading resembles the way many ministers in Protestant and even Evangelical churches used to read, and I’m sure some still do, not with a lot of expression, but clearly and reverently.

And why did someone decide to intersperse jaunty electronic quiz-show music in between some tracks? Is that supposed to be the vernacular as well? Petersen says that he wants people to become familiar with “the way God speaks,” and he wants us to be mindful that God in the Incarnation did not take “the role of a sophisticated intellectual.” The style of The Message‘s narrator may not be sophisticated, but it is affected and distracting.

Not that I would give anyone even Alexander Scourby’s Bible readings with the thought that they could know from them alone what Petersen calls “God’s grand rule of love and justice.” God has spoken through His Son, the Word, and the words of the Bible testify that it is the Church, not the scriptures, that is “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:23) The Church is the only context in which one can learn and live the full meaning of Holy Scripture.

The Scourby readings were, it seems until recently, available for listening for free online. They have been replaced with readings by another man; I haven’t tried them yet.  Audio-Bible provides those new readings online and sells recordings of Alexander Scourby’s Bible in various modern formats. I can see making that investment at a future date. And for the present, I have a portable cassette player for playing my valuable antiques.