Annual Pilgrimage to Spruce Island
August 9, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christ is in our midst!
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today, as we celebrate the feast of our Father among the Saints, the Elder and Wonderworker of Alaska, Venerable Herman of Spruce Island, we recall the long history and witness of Orthodoxy in North America, a history and witness that have been inspired and blessed by the prayers of this great saint. From the time of his arrival, with his monastic and missionary companions, on the shores of Alaska in 1794, to our own day, 225 years have flowed by. This may seem like a long time for us who live in the 21st century, but our celebration of the Divine Liturgy today, here on the very spot where St Herman lived, prayed, and worked, is a reminder that our communion with God, with the saints, and with one another, is something that transcends the boundaries of time and space.
Today, I would like us to consider four events that all happened, not 225 years ago, but fifty years ago, in 1970, or very close to it. A few of us had been born into the world then, but probably only our elders remember those times very well. As we approach the close of this half-century, I would like to draw our attention to these four particular events, events that had significance for our life as a Church in 1970 and have some continuing significance for us today.
First of all, we remember one of the first acts of the new autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, the canonization of the saint we commemorate today, Venerable Father Herman of Alaska, our great American missionary and monastic saint who labored here on Spruce Island for the salvation of the local people, as well as for the salvation of his own countrymen. With his compatriots he came to Alaska to bring the Gospel, the Good Tidings, to the North American land. As we are reminded in one of the hymns for his feast:
"On a fragile vessel, O Saint, thou didst cross the sea's stormy depths, coming even to a distant land, where Spruce Island was to thee a spiritual vessel, on which by the word of Good Tidings -- of the Gospel -- and by deeds of piety thou didst attain to heaven's harbor, rejoicing in the Lord." (~ from Matins, after the Polyeleos)
Many missionaries lost their lives crossing stormy seas, drowning in sunken vessels. It's important to remember how dangerous sea travel is, as those of us who set sail this morning to Spruce Island have experienced, at least in a small measure. But we should also take to heart the metaphor that the hymn is using. St Herman's Spruce Island -- this place where we now stand -- was St Herman's spiritual vessel, the "ark" on which he sailed "to heaven's harbor, rejoicing in the Lord." Like a sea vessel, the place where we abide, our house on earth, is a place of spiritual travel, bringing both gospel opportunities and the very real and present danger of drowning! This is often the reality of our spiritual journey: it presents at once with great blessings and great challenges.
We recognize St Herman as a saint because he navigated his spiritual journey safely. His many deeds of piety, his virtues of humility and gentleness, and especially his teaching of love for God, and of our human need to remember God and to work to please him, kept St Herman spiritually alive on his island ark and allowed him to live out the gospel for the sake of so many others.
I commend to you to carefully read the well-known account of St Herman's encounter with two dozen officers -- "learned men, highly educated" -- aboard a frigate that had arrived in Alaska from St Petersburg. Here we have a different kind of ship, a boatload of seekers. St Herman asked the sailors, "what do you love more than anything else, and what would make you happy?" After listening to various answers, the saint proposed: "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, who adorned us with such good qualities, who gave life to all, who maintains and nourishes everything, loves everyone, who is himself love...?"
This was St Herman's gospel, preached not only to the poor and oppressed native peoples of Alaska, but also to sophisticated and educated maritime officers. He preached constant remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ who "adorns us with such good qualities," who "loves everyone," who "is himself love" -- and who is worthy of our love more than anything else.
St Herman helped those sailors remember why they should love and seek to please God-made-flesh, the creator Word who came into creation. When St John in his Gospel says that the Word, the logos, "was made flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1.14), the actual term there for "dwelt" is "tabernacled." God the logos "pitched his tent" in human flesh. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who as St Herman says "gives life to all, maintains and nourishes everything," is God who made his "house" here among us on earth, so that he might sojourn together with us wherever we are, guiding our small, fragile, spiritual vessels on the way to "heaven's harbor." (Cf Jn 2.19)
The second event I'd like us to remember, which also took place in 1970 is one that took place, not immeditatelywithin the Church, but within the wider society. This event was the first Earth Day, which some may remember as the culmination of a whole decade during the 1960's of increasing environmental and ecological concern, when humanity woke up: to how much pollution was being poured into the air, the rivers, and the oceans; to the dangers of nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout; to the increasing numbers of plant and animal species that were going extinct. Soon scientists started warning of many other environmental dangers caused by industrialization, urbanization and population pressures, the cutting down of rainforests, famine and desertification, and even on a planet-wide scale, the atmospheric consequences of burning off the earth's carbon fuel resources.
Today, the most talked about environmental issue is of course climate change -- global warming -- which here in Alaska you are particularly aware of in the form of melting polar ice caps. Rising sea levels make coastal life increasingly at risk from flooding, storm and tempest. What are Christians to make of the ecological movement? What is to be our environmental ethic, we who St Herman admonished to love the Lord more than anything else? -- More than anything "worldly" or "merely earthly"? What does Earth Day have to do with remembering St Herman, who remembered God and wanted to please him more than anything else on his way to a heavenly abode, a heavenly harbor?
I think we can answer that question if we keep two things in mind.
The first is our third event from 1970 -- actually 1968-1969. The news lately has been full of Apollo 11, whose 50th anniversary we're also celebrating this year. Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on the moon, saying famously, "That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." Amidst growing environmental concerns during the '60's, it suddenly became possible for human beings to contemplate leaving planet earth! If we ruined this world, could we possibly escape to build another? Now as then, environmental advocates often sound an apocalyptic alarm, suggesting to us that the planet is doomed! If Earth Day and landing on the moon coincided in human consciousness in 1970, does the answer lie in an "escape to the heavens"? – Surely, we as Christians should have something to say to that!
I have always found that God provides the solution to new theological problems right in the midst of the problem itself, if only we're willing to see. It shouldn't surprise us that something else happened at the same time human beings became able to leave our planet behind. At the same time, they also became able to turn around in space... and to look at our planet and see it in a whole new way. As a species, for the first time, human beings became able to see Earth as a whole, from "the heavens" as it were, from "outside." And we saw how fragile it looks, how much it seemed to be an "earthen vessel" floating in space. In 1968, the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission turned around, looked back at earth, and took the first photograph of our planet from space. This image is the famous picture called "Earthrise," and ever since it has captured the attention of human being for its astonishing beauty -- and the sense of humility it arouses in the human heart. One of the Apollo 8 astronauts reflected at the sight, "We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing that we discovered is the earth."
The second thing to keep in mind is of course the gospel itself. When St Herman preached constant remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ, God-made-flesh, who "gives life to all, who maintains and nourishes everything," he was exhorting us to remember that Christ made his "house" here together with us on earth. God the word "tabernacled" with us. In fact, the very word eco-logy is made from this fundamental gospel, this central belief of Christian faith. "Eco-logy" comes from the Greek wordsoikos (meaning house) and logos (meaning word). "Ecology" is the science, we might say then, of "the word in the house," or "the word about the house." If theo-logy is the word about God as such, about God the word, eco-logyis its exact counterpart. As we as Christians constantly remember our greatest love, how Christ as creator was made flesh in order to accompany us and guide our spiritual journey, "giving life to all and maintaining and nourishing everything," we are in fact living out a Christian ecology.
The astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission turned and saw, for the first time, our fragile planet, hanging as a vessel floating in space, beautiful and vulnerable. What they saw in fact is our God-accompanied spiritual house -- a much larger version of St Herman's spiritual Spruce Island. They were given a "word in the house," the gospel, all over again. Perhaps this is what evoked in them such awe.
And this brings us to the fourth event we remember from1970, which is the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America by the Russian Orthodox Church. Wisely, St Herman was canonized at the same time as autocephaly was granted because the OCA needed a virtuous and missionary American saint to accompany our new "house of Christ," our new tabernacle-vessel, our new apostolic church, planted in North America to consecrate a new place of sojourn. Saint Herman’s virtue and missionary labors revealed him to be a true ascetic – not just because he was a monastic, but because he saw things correctly: his own heart, the hearts of those around him, and even the physical world that he lived in.
Asceticism is not the rejection of the world or of other people but is our path to communion with God. "For us," Archimandrite Sophrony write, "Christ is the absolute truth. He is God-the-Creator and God-the-Saviour. His commandments are the Uncreated Light of divinity. The essence of Orthodox asceticism lies in striving to make these commandments the one law of our whole temporal and eternal being."
This is what St Herman strove for in his own life and in his own simple way. As we live into the 50th anniversary year of St Herman, of Earth Day, of our recently gained new perspective on Planet-Vessel Earth, and, not least, of our beloved Orthodox Church in America, our gospel task is to remember Christ dwelling among us for the sake of his love, for the sake of our life, and to love him more than anything else by seeking to please him "eco-logically" here in return.
May the intercessions of St Herman, who serves for us as a joyful North Star on our evangelical journey here in North America, continue to guide all of us in the direction of our true homeland, the heavenly kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
(Courtesy of the “Metropolitan’s Schedule” daily email)