After church a few Sundays ago I found myself once again roaming around our little church library. I go up there from time to time to see what’s new. There’s never anything new. We’ve had the same books for years; I just like being in the presence of books, so alas, I roam.
My typical routine is to roam around a bit, take one home, fall in love with it, litter it with underlines and margin notes, then reason that due to all the markings I couldn’t possibly return it, so I keep it and buy the library a fresh copy. (For anyone from my church who might be reading this, before you go snitching on me to father George just know that I probably only have 27 or so that I haven’t replaced yet, but I will. I swear it.)
For years I’ve been seeing the Little Russian Philokalia, Vol. III, featuring St. Herman sitting on the shelf. Year after year just sitting there, all lonely, yearning to be read, but nobody interested. So I took it. And minus a single rouge underline, I haven’t marked it up because this time I’m seriously planning on returning it. Seriously.
As with most of the Orthodox saints that I’ve studied, St. Herman of Alaska has filled me with inspiration beyond words. He was a Russian missionary to Alaska who settled on a tiny island just off Kodiak called Spruce Island. The mission began in 1793 and St. Herman made Spruce Island his home until his repose in 1837.
His life story can be found in abundance online, so I will leave the curious reader to search it out for himself. What I want to do with this article is recount a portion of the book which lists 5 “basic attitudes” a Christian should take towards his journey of faith in this life. They are short and sweet but they made a profound impact on me, waking me from a spiritual sleep. I will give portions of each attitude with a bit of commentary, St. Herman’s words in italics.
I. Make the step of determination!
“Should we not above everything else love God, more than everything else desire Him and seek Him?… For our good, for our happiness, let us at least make ourselves a vow: that from this day, from this hour, from this minute, we shall strive to love God above all and do His commandments!”
As I’ve experienced time and again there is something about the point of decision, this step of determination, that serves as a rite of passage for the believer both psychologically and spiritually. It need not be a single moment, but can be a point of determination revisited as often as needed.
II. Have a conscious faith!
“A true Christian is made by faith and love toward Christ. Our sins do not in the least hinder a Christian, according to the words of the Savior Himself. ‘I am not come to call the righteous, but the sinner to repentance…’ By these reflections a Christian should lead himself into hope and joy and should pay no heed whatever to an inflicted despair. Here there is needed the shield of faith.”
The editor of this section in the Little Russian Philokalia wrote the following concerning this passage: “In our time [this ‘conscious faith’] is (1) knowledge of and love for the Orthodox divine services, traditions, history, and (2) a fuller understanding of the spiritual side of contemporary heresies and sects, ecumenism, the charismatic movement, communism, and what is happening in the Soviet Union and the whole world.” (note: the author wrote this in the mid 1970’s, had he written it today the list would likely include many contemporary issues facing our civilization).
I find it fascinating that St. Herman links having a conscious faith with how one is orientation towards despair over sin. He recognized the propensity for an Orthodox Christian to subvert his conscious faith with a consciousness of sins. This is a point which I have found in my own experience gets easily confused. In ascetic Christian writings there is a heavy emphasis on defeating sin through ascetic practices; however, the emphasis is always for the reason of breaking one’s slavery to sin, and becoming a partaker of true freedom in Christ–becoming a ‘partaker of the divine nature.’
I have experienced the extreme easy with which I lose my way internally during the pursuit of virtue, and instead turn the pursuit into a ledger of wins and fails, which always leads to an entrenched despair over my fails. Interestingly, in my morning devotions this very day I read a passage from St. Mark the Ascetic where he provides a lengthy list of vices, the chief of which is despair. He does not list despair as the chief vice only to further entrench his reader in the vice of despair, but rather to inform his reader of the serious consequences of despair on one’s pursuit of God. The pilgrim must understand that, “for one who loves God [sin] is nothing but an arrow from the enemy in battle,” as St. Herman puts it in the next attitude.
III. Wage ceaseless warfare!
“We are not tossed about on the waves of the sea, but we suffer and wander about in the midst of a deceptive and much-disturbed world… our warfare is against the same fleshless power and authorities, against he power of the darkness of this world, against the spirits of wickedness under heaven, which strive to intercept all the pilgrims and travelers to the homeland and keep them from entering therein… Sin for one who loves God, is nothing but an arrow from the enemy in battle.”
As St. Herman said in the 2nd attitude, “A true Christian is made by faith and love towards Christ.” In his wisdom and divine insight gained after several decades of ascetic works of love on Spruce Island, St. Herman teaches what every Christian MUST realize about their life–that we are essentially pilgrims who, raptured by love for our homeland in Christ, navigate this world as if warriors on a return journey from a war already won; our mission being the maintenance of Christ’s victory over sin and death through faith and love. This is made explicitly clear in his 4th attitude.
IV. Have always before you the purpose of life!
“The true Christian is a warrior making his way through the regiments of the invisible enemy to his heavenly homeland… The vain desires of this world remove a man from this heavenly homeland.. we, pilgrims in the journey of this earthly life, calling on God for help, must put off this hideousness and be clothed in new desires, a love of the future age… But it is impossible to do this quickly; one must follow the example of sick people, who, desiring dear health, do not cease to seek out means for healing themselves.”
Once believers are equipped with the ‘step of determination’ and a ‘conscious faith,’ they maintain their ‘ceaseless warfare’ with an ever present ‘purpose of life.’ Without a sense of meaning, without a purpose of life, we simply burn out. Viktor Frankl, the famous psychologist and holocaust survivor, once said, “Man does not want to be happy; he wants a reason to be happy.” With love for God the Christian has a transcendent, ceaseless, all-encompassing meaning and purpose for life.
V. Be a missionary of true Orthodoxy!
This final attitude is probably best quoted in full in order to not impede the full flavor of the saint’s words:
“Oh, how enraptured I was in spirit! Finding myself between fair weather and foul, between joy and tedium, between sufficiency and insufficiency, satiety and hunger, warmth and coldness, in all my sorrows I find something that cheers me, when I hear conversations between the brethren about their preaching, and about their dividing up various regions among themselves for this purpose.
“Glory to the decrees of merciful God! By His unutterable Providence He has shown me now something new, which I had never seen while living in Kodiak for a long time. Just now after Pascha a young woman who did not know me and had never seen me, came to me and heard about the Incarnation of the Son of God and concerning eternal life, and she became so inflamed with love for Jesus Christ that she does not in the least wish to leave me. Looking at this with great astonishment, I remember the words of the Savior, Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Seeing her, there are already other volunteers; and there are also many young men.”
This recounting of the saint concerning the woman who stayed on the island is profound when one considers the austere ascetic life and seclusion in which St. Herman lived. The saint recounts how amazed he was when after a full month this woman had not given up. Most Navy Seals wouldn’t last a month living the life of a Russian ascetic in the uncharted Alaskan wilderness. So, to find people suddenly gripped with love for Christ after learning about the Incarnation, to the point of immediately taking up the ascetic life, was simply the icing on the cake of his journey with God. As St. Paul said, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things! (Rom 10:15)
Thanks for reading.