Our Founding Father: Saint Herman of Alaska

I recently heard a podcast of an interview with the newly elected Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America, Tikhon, in which he was asked what he thought the strengths of the American Orthodox Church were. He began by noting the legacy of Saints that have already been recognized in the relatively short (in Orthodox time) history of the Orthodox Church on this continent. He really felt that learning about them, and imitating their example, even as they followed the example of Christ, keeps us grounded in the things that are needful, and essential to witnessing to Christ in our land.

Today the Orthodox Church remembers and celebrates the memory of St. Herman of Alaska. He was an 18th-early 19th century missionary to Alaska from Russia and the first who labored in North America to be officially recognized as a Saint by the Church. His remarkable biography can be found here: http://oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=103530

He was a humble monk who was obedient to his call to leave his beloved homeland to serve the people of Alaska. He cared for the poor. He taught them practical skills as well as providing spiritual guidance. He loved the people and defended them against abuse from Russian Trade Companies. He was a quiet man of great faith.

It is fitting and good that he would be the first “founding father” of Orthodox Christianity in North America. When we think of “founding fathers” in our country, images of Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Franklin, etc. come to mind. In the best light, we consider how we benefit from the work they did to establish this Republic. We value liberty. We study the documents, words, and actions of those who had the vision and foresight to put in place a system that has at its core the foundation that persons are created free, and should be able to express and live in that freedom. Of course, these men and even some of their ideas were imperfect. Our Constitution had to be amended, by fathers and mothers that followed in their footsteps. But nevertheless, we can’t help but hearken to our founding fathers if we are honest about the legacy we have inherited as Americans.

So, how much more, as Christians, should we consider the documents, words, and actions of our spiritual “founding fathers”?  In the Orthodox Church, on the Feast Day of many Saints, especially those particularly dear to a specific land, we read the Beatitudes of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount at the Liturgy. If we think of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence when we think of the “founding fathers” of the United States, then, it is fitting for us to always think of the Beatitudes when we think of our spiritual founding fathers. Of course, St. Herman, for example, did not write the Beatitudes, but he strove with all his being to live it. And the Beatitudes proclaim a freedom that is even greater than the freedom promised in the foundation documents of our land, because the freedom promised by Christ is eternal and not passing.

Let us consider, then, briefly, three ways that St. Herman of Alaska, one of our founding fathers in the faith, lived the Beatitudes.

1) He lived in profound humility. When the missionaries from Russia braved the cold waters of the Bering Sea, they did not arrive as kings or conquerors; they did not meet with nobles or expect accolades. They moved in among the people and began to do the work of Christ. It is notable that St. Herman was never ordained into the priesthood. He remained a simple monk until his death. In many icons he is shown wearing a large cross, which he did wear under his clothing to remind him constantly of his master.

2) He loved, cared for, and defended the poor and vulnerable. Among the greatest legacies of the Alaskan missionaries was their respect for the native peoples. Famously, St. Innocent first set about learning the languages of the various tribes, but beyond that, he studied the wildlife, the plant life, the seasons – everything about the way of life for the Alaskans. St. Herman was not the scholar that St. Innocent was, but he did begin by finding what crops he could plant in order to help feed the people. And when some Russian Trade Companies began unethical practices which took advantage of the native people, St. Herman sided with his new neighbors. This simple monk who preferred to be alone whenever he could, defended those who were being abused. Why? He knew it was what Christ would do, and He was living the Beatitudes to the best of his ability.

3) St. Herman was a man of great faith. The miraculous stories surrounding St. Herman have the common thread of never being about bringing glory to himself, or even about making a big impression. Rather, the miracles occur in an almost ordinary fashion, as if he is expecting it. He lived his life with the absolute assurance that God was real, and that Christ was faithful to those who would have faith in Him. He taught by example that the one thing needful was to remember God, to know Jesus Christ, and to keep His commandments. All else would follow from this foundation.

Holy Father Herman, one of our founding fathers, Pray Unto God for Us!