The Rev. Canon Laura Howell
Trinity Church, Bethlehem
In the farthest Russian north, on the island Valaam in the middle of Lake Ladoga, sits the ancient Valamo monastery, which some traditions claim was founded almost 1,000 years ago. Around 1778, a young monk named Herman made the long pilgrimage from Sergius-Trinity Monastery near St. Petersburg to Valamo, seeking God. Monastic records say he was a quiet man, willing to take on any task, and much loved by his brothers. But Herman longed to leave the busy monastery, to live in silence with nature and God, and eventually he received permission to move deep into the forest by himself. Several times he refused ordination to the priesthood, so he could preserve his solitude and simple life.
When he was asked if it was not terribly lonely in the deep forest, he answered, “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? Most certainly with Angels.”
In December 1793, Herman was sent with several other monks on a missionary expedition to the newly settled Russian territory of Alaska. They arrived at Kodiac Island in September 1794, and began to build chapels and housing.
The Russian-American Company, the Russian corporation whose job it was to exploit the riches and natural resources of the new province, was not pleased with the missionaries’ presence. Their preaching and baptizing new Christian converts, providing education to the locals, and healing the sick began to interfere with the company’s near enslavement of the native Aleut people. As early as 1796, one of the monks, accompanied by some Aleuts, returned to St. Petersburg, to complain about the brutal treatment of the locals by the company and foreign traders. Herman was particularly troublesome, as he intervened time and again on behalf of his new brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ. On several occasions, he and the other monks were placed under house arrest for long periods of time by corporate officials, and they were forbidden to speak or meet with Aleuts.
Eventually, sometime between 1808 and 1818, the call to the hermit life re-surfaced for Herman and he moved to Spruce Island, where once again he could be alone with God. Rumors abounded of the holy saint, who spent his life in extreme asceticism, and was so gentle that wild birds and bears came to be fed by him. Soon pilgrims came to his quiet island, seeking to share his spiritual wisdom. For more than forty years, he lived there, caring for his own garden, cutting his own wood, drawing his own water, and tending to those hungry for spiritual food that showed up at his door. Those hungry for physical food were never sent away, either. A helpful chronology of his life may be found here.
This is one of Herman’s typical comments: “If we love someone,we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject of love. For our own good, and for our own fortune, let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!”
As St. Herman prayed so often, “We who are wanderers in the journey of this life call to God for aid.” Let us do the same.
Holy God, we bless your Name for Herman, joyful North Star of Christ’s Church, who brought the Good News of Christ’s love to your people in Alaska; and we pray that, following his example and admonition, we may love you, God, above all; through Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, throughout all ages. Amen.