The Message of St. Herman
by Fr. Thomas Hopko
At the time of the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America (in 1970) the Lord gave the Church in this land another marvelous gift: its first canonized saint in the person of the blessed elder Herman of Alaska. The official glorification of Saint Herman was celebrated on the ninth of August, 1970, in the Church of the Resurrection in Kodiak where the body of the saint still rests.
A Special Message
The history of Orthodox America is filled with the lives of holy people whose prayers and labors have established the Church in this land and nurtured its growth and development for us all. Most of these holy people are known only to God and to the blessed few who have been inspired to recognize their wonderful deeds. Without these many secret saints there would be no Orthodox Church in America today.
The formal canonization of a saint, however, is a special gift of God to His people bearing a special message. It is a special act of divine revelation, a special lesson from the Lord for very particular reasons. It is the official recognition by the Church of the holiness of a particular person through whom God wills to manifest a particular "image," and to speak a particular "word," for the salvation of His people.
What is it that Almighty God wants us to see and hear in the life and work of Saint Herman of Alaska? What is the particular message which He wants us to understand? Why has He chosen, of all people, exactly this person to be, as the troparion says, the "joyful North Star of the Church of Christ," called to guide us in America to God's heavenly kingdom?
A Mere Layman
Certainly a significant point in the life of America's first canonized saint is the fact that he was a layperson. Father Herman of Alaska was not a bishop, nor a priest, nor a deacon, nor even a sub-deacon or reader. He had no clerical status in the Church at all. He was not formally educated in any way. And he certainly was not a theologian in the modern sense of the term. He was a monastic. And monks and nuns are in even a "lower position" in the Church, so to speak, than other lay people because of the penitential nature of their calling which fulfills itself by poverty, humility and obedience in the smallest aspects of their everyday activity. This fact is important for us because of the overwhelmingly "clerical" and "professional" character of churchly life today, here in America and around the world.
How many of us think that the "serious Christians" are the clergy and the professional church workers, with the rest of the people being "mere laymen" called to live a second-rate spiritual life in the world? How many of us "professionals" support such an attitude? And how many lay people welcome it because it gives them the license to pursue what contemporary American secularists insanely call "the good life," devoid of responsibility, before God, not only for the Church, but for their own lives, and those of their children?
There is little doubt that the Lord had something in mind for us to think about when He made our first canonized saint in America a "mere layman," without position or authority in the structure of the Church seen as an institutional organization.
A Monastic Saint
That Saint Herman was a monastic saint is also of obvious significance for us in America today. By this fact we can see that the Lord was not only raising up the monastic way as a challenge to us secularized Americans whose values and goals are primarily, if not exclusively, worldly and materialistic; but that He was reminding us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ demands ascetic exercise and spiritual struggle from all of its followers.
All those who claim to find meaning and fulfillment in Christ and the Church are called to poverty, chastity and obedience — not just the monastics. All are called to forsake carnal pleasures and material possessions as ends in themselves. All are called to abandon earthly power and prestige. All are called to fast and to pray, to participate in liturgical worship and to pursue the unceasing adoration of God through lives of service, submission and sacrifice in love for the Lord and their neighbors. All are called to obey Christ's command when He says, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things (food, drink, clothes) will be yours as well" (Matt. 6:33).
The evangelical teachings of Jesus are not directed to monastics. They are spoken for all people who will be Christians, whatever their particular calling in life. Saint Herman reminds us of this in no uncertain terms. When we look at his icon and sing the songs of his services in church we can never forget it. Christ's radical gospel is for everyone.
A Hidden Life
Another clear message from God for us Americans through the Church's "North Star" is the fact that his life was hidden from the eyes of the world. Hardly anyone knew about Saint Herman in his lifetime. He was taken from his hermitage in the stone quarry of Valaamo Monastery on an island in Lake Ladoga and placed by God on an island in the waters of Alaska to live the monastic life among a small group of Aleuts. He was known only to them, and to a handful of his fellow countrymen, most of whom despised and persecuted him for his defense of the oppressed native peoples, and his cries of intercession on their behalf before the imperial powers of Russia.
For our present American way of life, with our obsession, even in the churches, for prestige and publicity, for a place in society and a good image before men, the example of Saint Herman speaks loudly and clearly. The holy elder had no "P.R. office" to publicize his way of life. He had no programs for publicity, no press releases, no plans for church growth and development. He never went to a workshop or consulted at a conference. Yet all America sings his praises today as the first among the Church's saints who continues to bring thousands to the Lord for the salvation of their souls.
We now, of course, live in different times, with different conditions. We have to use contemporary methods which accord with our calling and mission. But the truth still applies that it is God alone who brings people to Himself through the sanctity of His servants without whom the best laid plans of men remain fruitless and without power or effect in the lives of His people.
A Missionary Saint
Finally, it is certainly a message from the Lord that Saint Herman was a missionary. He was sent to America to witness to Christ. He was sent to share his faith with an alien people. He was sent to surrender his own life for the sake of others, and so to receive and retain everything that God had given to him. Those to whom he was sent were humble, simple, poor, persecuted, exploited, even enslaved. They were, by worldly standards, the outcast, the oppressed, the unvalued and unneeded, whose very lives, not to mention their culture and customs, were considered to be wholly expendable for the sake of the "progress" of others who dared to call themselves Christians. How can this fail to speak to us today in Orthodox America? How can this fail to challenge us who have hardly yet begun to believe God's only Son who has said that "the measure you give is the measure you get?" (Matt. 7:2)
Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life will lose it, but he who hates his life in this world will keep it for everlasting life. If any one serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant be also. If any one serves Me, him will the Father honor (John 12:24-26).
God has honored Saint Herman because he followed Jesus Christ and served Him. God has glorified Saint Herman because he hated his life in this world, and lost it in order to find himself in Christ for everlasting life! The saint died to himself and brought forth much fruit. For this reason he does not remain alone. He remains forever with us, and we with him, with Christ our Lord, and God our Father.
As we celebrate the (twenty-eighth) anniversary of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America let us labor and pray to receive the Lord's special message given to us in the first-glorified guardian and guide of our Church in this land. Saint Herman is God's gift to us which we dare not refuse.
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America