09 August 2016

Remembering Saint Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska

One of the first Orthodox Christian monks to set foot on the North American continent was Herman of blessed memory, later to be known as Saint Herman the Wonderworker. This extraordinary ascetic, blessed both with a meek and mild personal comportment and an unwillingness to let injustices slide (quickly making him a thorn in the side of the more unscrupulous administrators of the Russian-American Company) was a successful missionary among the Inuit, Yupik and Aleut peoples, even among the adverse conditions he faced and the reticence of the very people who sent him there.

Not much is known for certain of Blessed Herman’s secular life before entering the cloister. Some biographers – including his official biographers at Valaam Monastery – allege him to be the son, whose name in the world remains unknown, of merchants from Serpukhov, a city south of Moscow; others associate him with a young military clerk of the Russian southwest, named Egor Ivanovich Popov, who took the name Herman upon taking the tonsure at the stavropegic monastery at Valaam. Regardless of which version is true, the young monk Herman quickly grew to love the life of ascesis at Valaam, his brothers in it, and his elder, the Abbot Nazarius of Valaam. Recognising his zeal and his aptitude for the hesychastic life, Abbot Nazarius sent Herman into the wilderness a little more than a mile outside the monastery, and gave him the task of founding a hermitage there: a hermitage which bears the holy monk’s name to this day (Germanovo). He was offered twice, and twice turned down, authority over the Russian Orthodox mission in China – preferring as he did the life of the hermit.

The founders of the Russian-American Company, Grigory Shelikhov and Ivan Golikov, had expanded into the Alaskan frontier with the promise of profit – trappers from the Russian East had for the past decades rushed further eastward, tempted by the lucrative southward trade in fur pelts. These adventurers, these promyshlenniki, often abused their powers under the Company, and pressured the native Inuits and Aleuts, often at gunpoint, to hunt and trap beyond their means, out of season and in dangerous conditions; to add insult to injury, many of the promyshlenniki kidnapped Aleut wives and daughters for immoral purposes. When Tsarina Ekaterina of Russia sent Herman as part of a missionary delegation to the Alaskan natives, he and his fellow-monks were shocked and appalled at the treatment they were receiving at the hands of the Company, as well as the lax morals and alcohol abuse they found rampant among the Russian trappers. Even the facilities to be used by the monks were crude and under-supplied, and they had to till the ground they were given with wooden hand-tools.

Blessed Herman began his work in America as a baker and steward for the monks who had come as missionaries, but he quickly earned a reputation as a defender in writing of the dignity of the Alaskan natives, earning him their trust and respect: to many of them he became ‘Apa’, meaning ‘elder’ or ‘grandfather’. This has led one of his modern biographers, Sergei Korsun, to compare him with the Latin friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who similarly advocated for the rights of American Indians oppressed by the Spanish. His mission was characterised by great fellow-feeling for the Aleuts; he would offer them aid and shelter, or intercede for Aleut workers with the Company, or healed their wounds and illnesses, or discussed their spiritual problems, or mediated their family disputes. He also showed great love toward children; as the baker of the monastery, he would make large numbers of biscuits to give to them.

But conditions in Alaska were hard enough that many of the monks – including Archimandrite Joasaph and Blessed Hieromonk Juvenal – met their deaths there. Others of them returned to Russia. At the last, Herman, who was not a priest, was left to keep the mission alive by his own efforts, which he did with his usual mild and uncomplaining nature and hard work. He ran an orphanage for Aleut children whose parents had been killed or who had died of disease, he taught a parish school and a catechumenate, and he even managed to patch over his relations with the Company. But he longed for the solitary life, and when he was able, he retired to Spruce Island and settled in a hermitage there.

On Spruce Island Blessed Herman grew his own vegetables and mushrooms, drying them or preserving them in brine made from sea-water. He wore the same rough leather smock under his cassock regardless of the season, and slept on a bench made of deerskin with two bricks for his pillow, which he would cover over with a skin when visitors were with him. He ate little, and subjected himself to rigorous ascetic disciplines, including wearing chains which weighed around 16 pounds. But the most important work he is considered to have done, according to his bishop, is the work of worship: alone in his cell he would sing hymns and praises to God according to the rule of his order. When asked by his bishop if he ever felt lonely, he answered thus: ‘No, I am not there alone! God is here, as God is everywhere. The Holy Angels are there. With whom is it better to talk, with people, or with Angels?’

Blessed Herman the Wonderworker was among the first to hear of the martyrdom of one of fourteen Aleuts who was captured by the Spanish and pressured to convert to the Latin faith. The Jesuits tried at first to convince their Aleut captives that they had accepted a heretical and schismatic faith, and when this didn’t work, they began to torture the Aleuts, beginning with one particularly bold one. They cut off his fingers joint by joint, then his hands and his feet, but the brave Aleut endured to the end with a martyr’s patience, and insisted even as he bled to death: ‘I am a Christian’. The Jesuits promised the other Aleuts that they would be dealt with as their dead comrade had been, but the Spanish transferred them instead to Monterey, where they were able to escape imprisonment and return to their homes. Blessed Herman asked, ‘And how did they call the martyred Aleut?’ The witness answered, ‘Peter – I do not remember his family name.’ Father Herman then stood up and made the sign of the Cross before an icon, exclaiming with reverence: ‘Holy newly-martyred Peter, pray to God for us!

Blessed Herman even during his life gained a reputation for working wonders through his faith in Christ and the Holy Theotokos. At the mouth of a small stream on Spruce Island, he raked away some of the sand so that fish could swim upstream, and they did so in great waves – so that whenever he asked his disciple Ignatius, he would go and catch fish without any difficulty. At another time, a flood struck Spruce Island and the inhabitants went to Father Herman in dread of their lives. Blessed Herman took from the parish school an icon of the Holy Theotokos, placed it on a sandbank and began to pray to it along with all those who feared the flood. After his prayers were finished, he turned to the people and told them that the flood-waters would rise no higher than the bank on which the Blessed Virgin’s icon stood – and his words proved true. He then gave the wonder-working icon to his disciple Sofia, and told her to take the icon to the same place whenever future floods would strike, and the Theotokos would protect them. At another time, a fire struck Spruce Island, and Father Herman and Ignatius went and cut a yard-wide swathe through the forest and turned the moss over, assuring the island’s inhabitants that the fire would not pass the line they had made. This wonder also came to pass – the fire was borne about the island by strong winds, but it never crossed the moss that had been turned over by the holy monk and his disciple. Blessed Herman had a great gift of foresight, and predicted a number of things which eventually came to pass: most importantly, that America would one day have its own bishop – a thing thought absurd at a time when the only Orthodox mission on the American continent, Herman’s mission, was struggling to survive.

Sensing that his earthly death was near, the holy elder and hermit told his disciple Gerasim to light the candles before the icon and read to him from the Acts of the Apostles. After some time, the elder’s face began to glow and he cried aloud, ‘Glory to thee, O God!’, telling Gerasim that the Lord had willed it that his life should go on another week. The following week at the same time, this was done again, and Gerasim read to Blessed Herman from the Acts, when he bowed his head and rested it on Gerasim’s chest. The cell was filled with a sweet scent – Father Herman had departed this life. From off the island, a pillar of light was seen by many of the Aleuts reaching from Spruce Island up to Heaven, which signified to them that Father Herman had left them.

Blessed Herman’s body was held in the open by order of the Company man Kashevarov, who forbade his burial until a finer coffin could be outfitted and he could return to Spruce Island with a priest – however, a storm blew up and prevented their landing on the island for a full month after Herman’s repose; all the while, his body underwent no corruption. When a coffin was obtained at last, the inhabitants of Spruce Island buried the beloved Elder themselves without waiting for the priest, as he had told them it was to be done. After this, the storm abated and the sea ‘became as smooth as a mirror’. Not without reason did his bishop Peter declare that, ‘in general all the local inhabitants have the highest esteem for him, as though he was a holy ascetic, anti are fully convinced that he has found favour in the presence of God.’
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.

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