25 December 2009

'Good Hope of America, Grace-bearing Witness of the Orthodox Faith'—St Herman of Alaska


Today, 12 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy and God-bearing Father Herman, Wonderworker of Alaska. Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, speaking on the occasion of the reception in Greece of a large relic of St Herman, said, ‘This saint was a wonderful ascetic, a true monk. He was also a missionary and miracle worker.’ [1] Later, in the same speech, he pointed out that St Herman ‘fed on, was satiated day and night with God. He knew that his monastic rason was his greatest glory, and by virtue of his monastic life he arrived at those heights that we men usually think are superhuman and unattainable.’ [2] Fr Michael Oleksa places St Herman in the context of a theology of mission:

Perhaps as important as explaining or translating, the example of the missionary’s own life convinced doubters and converted them to an authentic Christian life. Such was the influence of St Herman’s ascetic labors on the spirituality of the Kodiak Aleuts, not only during his lifetime, but for two centuries after. [3]

Here is the account of St Herman’s life in the Great Horologion:

Saint Herman (his name is a variant of Germanus) was born near Moscow in 1756. In his youth he became a monk, first at the Saint Sergius Hermitage near Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland; while he dwelt there, the most holy Mother of God appeared to him, healing him of a grave malady. Afterwards he entered Valaam Monastery on Valaam Island in Lake Ladoga; he often withdrew into the wilderness to pray for days at a time. In 1794, answering a call for missionaries to preach the Gospel to the Aleuts, he came to the New World with the first Orthodox mission to Alaska. He settled on Spruce Island, which he called New Valaam, and here he persevered, even in the face of many grievous afflictions—mostly at the hands of his own countrymen—in the loving service of God and of his neighbour. Besides his many toils for the sake of the Aleuts, he subdued his flesh with great asceticism, wearing chains, sleeping little, fasting and praying much. He brought many people to Christ by the example of his life, his teaching, and his kindness and sanctity, and was granted the grace of working miracles and of prophetic insight. Since he was not a priest, Angels descended at Theophany to bless the waters in the bay; Saint Herman used this holy water to heal the sick. Because of his unwearying missionary labours, which were crowned by God with the salvation of countless souls, he is called the Enlightener of the Aleuts, and has likewise been renowned as a wonderworker since his repose in 1837. [4]

Here is a description of St Herman from one who knew him well, colonial Governor S.I. Yanovsky:

‘I clearly remember,’ he says, ‘all the features of the Elder’s face, which shone with grace: his pleasant smile, meek and attractive gaze, his humble, quiet manner, and his amiable words. He was not tall, he had a pale face, covered with wrinkles, his eyes were gray-blue and full of brightness, and on his head he had a few gray hairs. His speech was not lout, but very pleasant.’ [5]

A few incidents of St Herman’s life are worth quoting or remarking on at greater length. First of all, the Theotokia from the Akolouthia for the Saint published by the St Herman Brotherhood make frequent reference to the healing by the Mother of God referred to in the Horologion account. Here for instance is the Theotokion from the first Ode of the Canon:

Seeing his fervent prayer, O Mother of God, Thou didst heal the young Herman of a mortal infirmity: likewise do not disdain even us who fall down before Thee and call upon him to pray to Thee. [6]

So here is the account of this miracle from the Life compiled by the St Herman Brotherhood:

During Yegor’s [St Herman’s] youth the following incident occurred. On the right side of his neck under his beard there appeared an abscess. The pain was horrible. The swelling grew rapidly and disfigured his whole face; it was very difficult to swallow and there was an intolerable smell. In such a dangerous condition, expecting to die, Yegor did not turn to an earthly physician, but, with warm prayer and tears he fell before the icon of the Heavenly Queen, entreating healing from her. He prayed the whole night, then with a wet towel he wiped the face of the icon of the Most Pure Theotokos, and with this towel he wrapped his swelling. Continuing to pray with tears he fell asleep on the floor in exhaustion and saw in a dream that he had been healed by the Most Holy Virgin. In the morning he awoke, stood up and, to his great amazement, found himself completely healthy; the swelling had dispersed without rupturing, leaving only a small lump as a reminder of the miracle. The doctors who were told about this healing did not believe it, insisting that the abscess must have burst by itself or must have been cut out. However, the words of the physicians were the words of the experience of human weakness; for where God’s grace acts, the order of nature is overcome. Such manifestations humble man’s mind under the mighty hand of God’s mercy! [7]

Second, it is important to remember that at Valaam, he was the disciple of the great hesychast, St Nazarius, an advisor on obscure points of teaching to the Russian editors of the Slavonic Philokalia. Thus it is no surprise to find that St Herman had a copy of the Philokalia with him in Alaska, [8] or to find that after a description of his physical ascesis, the Life tells us:

The above-described characteristics of the Elder refer, so to say, to his outward activity. ‘But his main activity,’ as Bishop Peter of New Arkhangelsk (1889) said, ‘was the exercise of spiritual labors in the seclusion of his cell, where no one saw him. Only from outside his cell was he heard singing and performing the services in accordance with the monastic rule.’ The bishop’s testimony is confirmed by the following reply of Fr Herman himself. The Elder was asked: ‘How do you, Fr Herman, live alone in the forest? How do you keep from being bored?’ He responded: ‘No! I’m not alone there! God is there, as God is everywhere! Holy angles are there! Can one be bored with them? With whom is it better and more pleasant to converse—with people or with angels? With angels, of course!’ [9]

Grasping the deep significance of all this, Elder Aimilianos concludes:

Thus, deep in those dark woods and alone with Christ Alone, he spoke with Him and heavenly heights were revealed to him. Spiritual sights were unveiled for him, and our Lord placed before him all the powers of heaven concealed in the Church. It was thus that he knew at last what he had to have and to say to the world. [10]

Finally, it is worth giving on full the story of St Herman’s conversation with the officers on the Russian frigate, which has become an important part of the Saint’s spiritual legacy to the Orthodox of America. From the account of the Governor Yanovsky:

Once the Elder was invited to a frigate that had arrived from St Petersburg. The captain of the frigate was a rather learned man, highly educated. He had been sent to America by imperial decree to inspect all the colonies. There were at least twenty-five officers with the captain, likewise educated men. In this company sat a man of rather short stature, with worn-out clothing—a desert-dwelling monk, who with his wise conversation brought all these educated men to such a state that they did not know how to answer him. The captain himself related: ‘We were at a loss how to answer, like fools before him!’ Fr Herman posed one common question to all of them: ‘What do you, gentlemen, love more than anything else, and what would each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various responses began to pour out. Some wished for riches, others glory, others a beautiful wife, others a beautiful ship that he would command, and so on in the same vein. ‘Isn’t it true,’ said Fr Herman to them, ‘that all your various wishes could be summed up in one—that each of you wishes that which, according to his understanding, he considers the best and most worthy of love?’ ‘Yes, that is true!’ they all replied. ‘Tell me,’ he continued, ‘what could be better, higher than all, more superlative and most worthy of love if not the Lord, our Jesus Christ Himself, Who created us, adorned us with such good qualities, gave life to all, maintains and nourishes everything, loves everyone, Who is Himself love, and is more wonderful than all people? Shouldn’t one therefore love God far more than all things, and desire and seek Him more than anything?’ All began to speak: ‘Well, yes! That is self-evident! That is true in itself!’ ‘But do you love God?’ the Elder then asked. All replied: ‘Of course we love God. How can one not love God?’ ‘And I, a sinner, have been trying to love God for more than forty years, and cannot say that I perfectly love Him,’ replied Fr Herman, and he began to demonstrate how one must love God. ‘If we love someone,’ he said, ‘we always remember him and try to please him; day and night our heart is occupied with that object. Is that how you, gentlemen, love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always remember Him, do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?’ They had to admit that they did not. ‘For our good, for our happiness,’ concluded the Elder, ‘at least let us make a vow that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will!’ What a wise and wonderful talk Fr Herman conducted in society: without a doubt this conversation must have been impressed in the hearts of his listeners for the rest of their lives! [11]

The final sticheron from ‘Lord, I have cried’ at Great Vespers for the Saint is a reference to this story:

What is above all, * if not the Lord our Creator, * Adorner of beauty, * Giver of life, * Maintainer and Nourisher of all things: * is it not Him that it is befitting to love, * as most worthy of love, * and to place one’s happiness in Him, * thus, O Saint, didst thou teach; * likewise teach us also * with all our heart to love God. [12]

Situated between the feasts of St Nicholas and the Nativity, it is interesting to observe a couple of connections between St Herman and these more famous celebrations. First, there is a passage in the Life that reminds one of the Western conception of the Wonderworker of Myra: ‘Fr Herman especially loved children. He would give them crackers, and bake pretzels for them; and the little ones were especially attracted to his gentleness.’ [13] It is a characteristic well-portrayed in Dorrie Papademetriou’s delightful children’s book, North Star: St Herman of Alaska. [14]

Second, while there seem to be fewer anticipations of the Nativity in St Herman’s hymnography than in some of the other Saints’ services celebrated during the fast (see here and here for instance), there are a couple of passages worth mentioning. First, here is the lovely Dogmaticon in Tone 6 from the stichera at ‘Lord I have cried’ at Great Vespers for the Saint:

Who will not glorify Thee, O Most Holy Virgin; * who will not hymn Thy most pure giving of birth; * the Only-begotten Son, Who hath shone forth from the Father before the ages, * hath come also from Thee, O Pure One, * unutterably incarnate, * being in nature God, * and having become in nature man for our sake, * not divided in two persons, * but made known in two Natures without fusion, * to Him pray, O Pure and All-blessed One, * that there may be mercy on our souls. [15]

But it is perhaps more interesting to note the references to St Herman’s sod hut as a ‘cave’, [16] which remind one of the cave of Christ’s birth, and then to consider the sticheron after ‘Glory’ and immediately preceding the Dogmaticon above:

What cavern of the earth, what lapse of time, * O holy Father Herman, * can conceal thy glory which is in heaven; * wherefore, now glorifying, we fall down before thee, * having thee as an intercessor before the Lord, * pray then to Him to grant deliverance * to the suffering Russian land, * to this land prosperity, * and to our souls great mercy. [17]

Compare with this the troparion in Tone 6 from Vespers for the Nativity: ‘Thou wast born secretly in the cave, but heaven spoke through a star and proclaimed Thee to all, O Saviour. And it brought to Thee Magi, who worshipped Thee with faith: have mercy upon them and upon us.’ [18]

There is a good account of St Herman’s life, together with some teachings of the Saint, at the website of Bishop Alexander of blessed memory. Here is a passage from a letter of St Herman on Bishop Alexander’s page:

A true Christian is made by faith and love of Christ. Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity, according to the word of the Savior Himself. He said: I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance; there is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over ninety and nine just ones. Likewise concerning the sinful woman who touched His feet, He said to the Pharisee Simon: to one who has love, a great debt is forgiven, but from one who has no love, even a small debt will be demanded. From these judgements a Christian should bring himself to hope and joy, and not in the least accept the torment of despair. Here one needs the shield of faith.

Sin, to one who loves God, is nothing other than an arrow from the enemy in battle. The true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland. According to the word of the Apostle, our homeland is in heaven; and about the warrior he says: we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph.6: 12).

The vain desires of this world separate us from our homeland; love of them and habit clothe our soul as if in a hideous garment. This is called by the Apostles the outward man. We, traveling on the journey of this life and calling on God to help us, ought to be divesting ourselves of this hideous garment and clothing ourselves in new desires, in a new love of the age to come, and thereby to receive knowledge of how near or how far we are from our heavenly homeland. But it is not possible to do this quickly; rather one must follow the example of sick people, who, wishing the desired health, do not leave off seeking means to cure themselves.

It is also my delight to point out that in a wonderfully Logismoic post, the good John Sanidopoulos has tracked down some translations of a poem that Yanovsky tells us St Herman loved:

‘Once,’ he writes, ‘I read Derzhavin’s ode “God” to Fr Herman. The Elder was amazed and ecstatic, and asked that I read it once more, which I did. “Is it possible that this was written by an ordinary scholar?” he asked. “Yes, he was a scholar, a poet,” I answered. “It was written by the inspiration of God,” said the Elder.’ [19]

According to Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Derzhavin (1743-1816) ‘combined a grand classical manner with several new features—such as the emphasis on emotional subjectivity and on the world of nature—which were further developed by poets of the early nineteenth century.’ [20] Here is the more ‘literal’ of the two versions John posted:

ODE TO GOD

(Translated by Nathan Haskell Dole)

O Thou, infinite in space,
Living in the motions of matter,
Eternal in the course of time,
Without persons in the three persons of the Godhead!
Spirit everywhere permeating, and One,
Who hast no place or condition;
Unto whom no one can attain,
Who fillest all things with Thyself,
Embracest, vivifiest, preservest,
Whom we call God.

To measure the ocean deep,
To count the sands, the planet's rays,
Might be in the power of lofty intellect,—
For Thee there is no number and no measure;
Powerless are the enlightened spirits
Though born of Thy light
To explore Thy decrees.
So soon as thought dare mount towards Thee
It vanishes in Thy majesty,
As a passing instant in eternity.

Existence, forth from chaos, before time was,
Thou from the gulfs of Eternity didst call forth;
And Eternity, before the birth of the ages,
Thou didst found in Thyself:
By Thyself, self constituted,
Of Thyself, self shining,
Thou art light, from whence light streamed.
Creating all things by Thy single word,
In Thy new creation stretching out
Thou wast, Thou art, Thou ever shalt be.

Thou containest in Thyself the chain of beings,
Thou sustainest them, and givest them life,
Thou joinest together the end and the beginning,
Thou grantest life unto death.
As sparks are showered forth, and rush away
So suns are born from Thee.
As on a bright, frosty winter's day
The spangles of hoar-frost sparkle,
So whirl, flash, shine
The stars in the gulfs beneath Thee.

Millions of kindled luminaries
Flow through infinity;
Thy laws they operate,
Pour forth revivifying rays.
But these fiery lamps
Whether piles of ruddy crystals
Or a boiling throng of golden billows,
Others glowing
Or all alike worlds of light,
Are in Thy presence as night before day.

Like a drop drowned in the sea
Is all the shining firmament before Thee;
But what is the Universe that I see?
And what am I before Thee ?
If yon aerial ocean exist
Millions of worlds,
Hundreds of millions of other worlds, and yet,—
When I venture to compare them with Thee,
They are but a single dot,
And I in Thy presence am naught.

Naught! But in me Thou shinest
In the majesty of Thy goodness;
In me Thou reflectest Thyself
As the sun in a tiny drop of water.
Naught! But life I feel,
Unsatisfied with aught, I soar
Ever aloft unto the heights;
My soul yearns to be Thine,
Penetrates, meditates, thinks:
I am, therefore Thou art also.

Thou art! the order of Nature proclaims it,
My heart tells me the same,
My reason persuades me;
Thou art, and I am therefore not nothing!
I am a part of the universal All,
Established, methinks, in the reverend
Midst of Thy Universe,
Where Thou hast ended Thy corporeal creatures,
Where Thou hast begun the heavenly spirits
And the chain of all beings is linked to me.

I am a bond between all worlds everywhere existent,
I am the utmost limit of being;
I am the centre of living things,
The initial stroke of Divinity;
In my body I perish in dust corruptible,
In my spirit I command the storms;
I am a tsar, I am a slave; I am a worm, I am god!
But marvelous indeed as I am,
Whence did I have my being? Unknown
But by myself I could not have been.

Thy work am I, Creator!
I am the creation of Thy wisdom,
Source of life, Dispenser of all good,
Soul of my soul, and Tsar!
It was necessary for Thy righteousness
That the gulf of mortality should be spanned
By my immortal existence;
That my spirit should be wrapped in mortality
And that through death I should return,
Father, to Thy immortality.

Incomprehensible, Ineffable,
I know that my soul's imagination is helpless
To paint even Thy shadow;
But if it is necessary to sing Thy praise,
Then it is impossible for feeble mortals
To reverence Thee in any other way
Than by yearning toward Thee
By losing one's self in Thy endless variety,
And by shedding tears of gratitude.

I highly recommend a thorough look through the beautiful photos taken by Reader Patrick Barnes during his pilgrimage to Spruce Island. In conclusion, here is the sticheron in Tone 8 at the Litia for the feast of the Saint:

Ascetic of new Valaam, * thy brethren were dear to thee, * for with them thou didst dwell in thy native Valaam. * Yet a hundredfold more desired were thy fleshless friends, * who transported thy soul to divine vision, * with whom thou now dost dwell. * Rejoice, O Father, for us who glorify thy memory, * invisibly instructing us in profitable repentance; * fruitful shoot of the Russian land, * upbringing of Ladoga’s waters, * church blessing of Alaska and the Aleutian Isles, * good hope of America, * grace-bearing witness of the Orthodox Faith, * O God-pleasing Herman, * obtain for us the peace of God, surpassing every mind, and great mercy. [21]


[1] Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), ed. & trans., The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mt Athos (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1999), p. 232.

[2] Fr Alexander, p. 240.

[3] Fr Michael J. Oleksa, Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1992), p. 38.

[4] The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 340.

[5] St Herman of Alaska: His Life & Service (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009), p. 15.

[6] St Herman, p. 38.

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

[8] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), trans., Little Russian Philokalia, Vol. II: Abbot Nazarius of Valaam (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 24.

[9] St Herman, p. 10.

[10] Fr Alexander, p. 237.

[11] St Herman, pp. 14-5.

[12] Ibid., p. 31.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Dorrie Papademetriou, North Star: St Herman of Alaska (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2000).

[15] St Herman, p. 31.

[16] For instance, in the third troparion of Ode V, ibid., p. 40.

[17] Ibid., p. 30.

[18] The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Metropolitan] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998), p. 256.

[19] St Herman, p. 15.

[20] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, ed., The Heritage of Russian Verse (Bloomington, IN: Indiana U, 1976), p. xii.

[21] St Herman, pp. 32-3.

2 comments:

solzemli said...

There is so little out there on St. Herman, so your post was a real treat!

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad you liked it, Andrew. I'm always afraid some of these might be overkill!