It’s Personal: 50th Anniversary Reflection on St. Herman of Alaska
On August 9, Orthodox Christians throughout the world celebrate the God-pleasing saint, Herman of Alaska. Orthodox Christians celebrate his memory, marvel at his great asceticism, and adore his humble and pious demeanor. These are appropriate reactions when thinking about St. Herman. However, for those Orthodox Christians in North America, it is much more personal.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the canonization of our holy missionary, St Herman. He was the first to bring Orthodoxy to this part of the world. It was 177 years prior to August 9, 1970 that St. Herman began to plant the seeds of the gospel in the New World. They would grow and yield spiritual treasure with such abundance that 227 years later, Orthodox Christians in this land are still reaping its harvest.
Who would question this plan from God to send us Father Herman? Our Almighty Father could have sent great delegations, hierarchs, pious rulers, envoys of theological minds and teachers; but, he sent us a humble delegation of monks from Valaam Monastery carrying our beloved saint.
How appropriate, how fitting it is that Fr. Herman is the first to bring us the Faith of Christ and the Apostles! Through his simple and God-pleasing life, he provided us in North America with the spiritual map for living our life so that we draw near to the Immortal King.
St. Herman did not conquer America by great acts, institutions or intellect. He captured the attention of divine Grace with his humility. He was in a foreign land surrounded by strangers who did not know God; yet, he made them his family by his kindness filled with the compassion of Christ. He was overwhelmed by uncertainty. But, he showed us that through prayer and steadfastness, the Lord will hear us and provide for our needs. He had little to no possessions, but through his tireless labor, he provided shelter and food for himself and others. He did not have the pleasure of hearing the bells of the Lavra, or entering the beautiful cathedral of his beloved Valaam. But, by his purity, he entered into the very presence of the Holy Trinity, the Mother of God, and the saints.
So many examples of Fr. Herman’s legacy have been left for his children in North America! His life makes visible the path on which we find ourselves in the New World: small, humble, lonely. We are overwhelmed by the challenges surrounding us in a world that has forgotten God, and shows little interest in seeking Him; and yet, we are shown the impact that can be left by living simply and staying true to the gospel and cultivating the love of Christ for our neighbor.
Fifty years ago, at the canonization of St Herman, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America proclaimed: “We believe that it was the will of God to reveal to us on this continent, and in this country, the Spiritual Father Herman as a sublime example of the Holy Life, for our spiritual benefit, inspiration, comfort and the confirmation of our Faith. Therefore, we the Bishops of the local Orthodox Church of America, the beginning of which was laid in Alaska, have decided by the manifest will of the Holy Spirit, and our Archpastoral action, to canonize the Spiritual Father Herman of Alaska of blessed memory, and to enter his name in the catalog of Saints of our local Church in America.”
One feels the joy of Pascha in this proclamation. There is a special intimacy one feels with Father Herman in his canonization effected by the newly autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. St. Herman dug his very hands in the soil of North America while his prayers ascended into the heavens. He walked through the great Spruce trees of Alaska; he endured its harsh and turbulent weather, and he remained obedient to God’s will.
Orthodox Christians throughout the world venerate and call on the name of St. Herman for help; but for us struggling to live the Orthodox life in the New World, he is our great pillar and intercessor. He is our father, the North Star guiding us to the bosom of our Heavenly Father.
Message of His Grace, Bishop Theodosius on the Canonization of Saint Herman of Alaska
St. Herman, wonderworker of-Alaska and All America, spiritual physician, averter of disasters by prayer, teacher of the oppressed and their benefactor, pray now for the Orthodox Church in America, your spiritual child!
May Your truly wonderful example and Your truly effective prayers sustain our faith in purity, save us from the temptations of strange creeds and false idols, and strengthen us all for the time of testing which God in His mercy now grants us, His new Church.
Let us all seek and find in St. Herman of Alaska our true way in this time. Let us seek out his prayers for us. Let us read and contemplate in the depths of our hearts the gracious life of our heavenly patron. May we rededicate ourselves now at this time of founding to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit which is the permanent goal of Orthodox life, as St. Herman’s contemporary and fellow-student, St. Seraphim of Sarov, taught.
And as St. Herman himself said, “From this time forth, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all.”
Bishop of Sitka and All Alaska
August 9, 1970
“Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12,1).
This passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is from the reading for All Saints Sunday, is appropriate for our consideration on this occasion, because it covers the main points of the Church’s attitude and teaching concerning her saints.
The Church on earth lives in a loving fellowship with the saints who have already run their race, who have fought the good fight, and have received their crowns (11 Timothy 4,7) (James 1,12). This is what the Apostle means when he says that we are compassed about or surrounded by the witness-martyrs or saints. We are assured both of their presence and their interest in us. In fact, they are concerned about the whole world and its salvation, for “there is joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner”, (Luke 15,7).
It is striking, too, that the writer refers to the multitude of the saints as a cloud, for a cloud covers, as do the prayers and good deeds of the saints, the sins of many, just as “the good example and deeds of men like Father Herman cancelled out the evil deeds of the rest” of the colonists, traders, and settlers. “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” (James 5, 16) even that which is offered for the unrighteous.
Further, and this is the most important point, it is because we have this great cloud of witnesses that we have any hope of running the race that is set before us. We have their example to imitate, and we have their guidance, intercession, protection and loving fellowship.
In spite of the profound truth of all that was said above about the example and intercession of the saints, there is no doubt that a general neglect of the saints and their place in the Church is fast becoming characteristic of our contemporary Church life. This development may be due to a number of different influences, but, whatever the causes may be, it is of vital importance that we realize that Orthodoxy’s traditional approach to saints and sainthood is an integral part of her understanding of Christ’s way.
Our Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to reconcile man to God, and to show, by taking on human nature and by living the life of a man, what man’s response to God was supposed to be. We are convinced that if there were no saints the way of Christ would be an abstraction, an ideal impossible and unattainable for man.
Christ promised to send and did send the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, “to endow His Apostles with power from on high” (Acts 1, 7) (Luke 24, 49), to sanctify the Church and to guide her in all truth (John 16, 13). Holiness is the real proof that Christ did send the Spirit and that the Spirit fills and permeates the Church. The reality of the saints demonstrates that the holiness to which Christ calls us all is a definite possibility, that in all generations since the time of Christ, holiness has been attained in spite of all the world’s evil and all the temptations and obstacles that would keep Christians from reaching their goal. Holiness is our primary vocation as Christians in this 20th century, in the face of all the greed, power, madness, collapse of morality, cruel exploitation, and the loss of practically every spiritual value in life. Although we are concerned here with a saint who fell asleep over a hundred years ago, we see, on reading the history of St. Herman, that the human failings, the sinfulness with which he was confronted are the same basic sicknesses of mankind today.
The canonization of a saint in our time is of great significance. First, it shows that Christ’s Church is just as convinced now as it has always been of the possibility of sainthood. Further, it is evidence that the Holy Spirit still works in the Church, for it is the Spirit that has brought us to the realization, the recognition, and finally the canonization of St. Herman.
The Church in America in the first year of her official “autocephaly” faces many serious problems. As a matter of fact, for many different reasons, she is in a very weakened and ineffectual position. For one thing, society’s attitudes easily become the attitudes of the members of the Church, because they are tempted by the desire to be just like everyone else. But the generation in which we live is a faithless and perverse generation, like the one that Jesus Himself rebuked; ours is a cynical generation, and, sad as it may be, that cynicism has found its way into the Church. Particularly, the world’s cynical judgment of the idea of holiness is sometimes reflected in Church life. In general, I think it is no exaggeration to say that saints have come to mean very little to the average Orthodox Christian in our country.
There is no better medicine, however, for a cynical generation such as ours than the glorification of a saint. What we are doing here may seem like utter foolishness to a world that prides itself on its scientific attitude, but notice how society has taken an interest in this canonization and respects us for our seriousness. The world, without knowing it perhaps, needs and wants holiness, for holiness means wholeness, integrity, meaning, real humanity, because humanity is real only when it knows and loves God. Therefore, this must be far more than a series of impressive ceremonies; it must be the very source of inspiration that will set the direction of our Orthodox Church in America for her future.
St. Herman came to America as a missionary. He had not only the task of preaching the Gospel to the natives of this land, but he also had to protect them from people who already had the Christian faith. He truly followed Christ. He took up his cross and followed Him faithfully. Those whom he taught and served were convinced of his sanctity even during his lifetime.
This canonization can do much for our Orthodox Church in America. We are assured that one more witness has joined that great cloud of witnesses. We have another intercessor before the throne of God, and, in this case, a special intercessor; because he was truly interested in America and its evangelization, obeying the commission of Christ to “go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28,10). Thus, we have also a special example, not only in his personal holiness, but in the very purpose for which he came to America.
Very simply, his purpose must become our purpose, and his goals our goals. God has guided us to a new position of responsibility in two things. We have taken the name of America and consequently the responsibility before Christ for America’s salvation. And then, He has given us a saint, as both example and protector. It is now left to us to respond. God grant that we may no longer misunderstand our purpose here.
Through the prayers of our Venerable Father Herman, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.
Bishop of Berkeley