St. Herman of Alaska: August 9
A Necessary Witness and Example
Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
The elder Herman of Alaska, missionary monk of Spruce Island, near Kodiak, died on the December 13, in 1837. He is the first formally canonized saint of the Orthodox Church in America, glorified on August 9, 1970. (Both dates are annual feasts of this beloved father in Christ.)
For those familiar with the actions of the Lord in history, who have heard of the Passover of His people from Egypt, who have been struck by the Word of God from the mouth of His prophets, who have believed in the Gospel of the Kingdom of His Incarnate Word Jesus, the fact that the elder Herman should be the first glorified saint in His Church in America comes as no surprise whatsoever. How like the Lord it is – Who has His only begotten Son born on earth of a lowly woman in a cavern, nailed to the Cross with thieves outside the wall of the Holy City, witnessed in His resurrection by a former prostitute out of whom came seven devils, and preached by the greatest apostle who had previously acted as an accomplice to the murder of the first Christian martyr – how like this Lord it is to raise up first among the holy ones of the Church in the new lands a person like St. Herman.
The young monk Herman was a hermit in the monastery of Valaamo in Russian Finland. He was chosen to be a member of the first missionary team being sent to the Russian lands in Alaska. He was not ordained. He was not formally educated. He had no particular human skills. His only grace was that he was a holy man, a person of genuine faith and continuous prayer.
Herman came to America with the first group of missionaries. He alone survived, living for many years as a simple monk on Spruce Island. He taught the people the Gospel. He attended to their spiritual and physical needs. He defended them against the cruelty of the Russian traders. He pleaded their cause before the imperial throne. He was beaten and persecuted by his own people for his condemnation of their injustices and sins. He identified wholly with the afflicted and oppressed. He died in obscurity, foretelling his glorification in future years by the Church that would emerge from his own humble efforts and those of the waves of immigrants who would inhabit the continent. And he revealed himself from heaven to those who, like him, remained faithful to God, including the great missionary bishop, the widowed priest and “Apostle to America,” Saint Innocent Veniaminoff. (Bishop Innocent died in 1879 as the Metropolitan of Moscow and was officially canonized on October 6, 1977, which day remains his annual feast, together with the day of his death, March 31.)
American Christianity desperately needs the witness of Saint Herman, for the American way of life is so radically opposed in so many ways to the life of this man and the Lord Jesus whom he served. Power, possessions, profits, and pleasures: these are the things that Americans are known for. These are the goals that we are schooled to pursue. These are the things in which we take pride. And, sadly enough, these are also the things that many of us are taught to value by our “religious leaders,” both by their words and their examples. But this was, and is, not the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is not the way of His saints.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon…But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Matthew 6:19-21, 24-25, 31-33.)
By American standards, Saint Herman of Alaska, like the Lord Jesus Himself, was a miserable failure. He made no name for himself. He was not in the public eye. He wielded no power. He owned no property. He had few possessions, if any at all. He had no worldly prestige. He played no role in human affairs. He partook of no carnal pleasures. He made no money. He died in obscurity among outcast people. Yet today, more than a hundred years after his death, his icon is venerated in thousands of churches and his name is honored by millions of people whom he is still trying to teach to seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness which has been brought to the world by the King Who was born in a cavern and killed on a cross. The example of this man is crucial…especially in America. (From The Winter Pascha, pp. 45-48, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)