Days of Light and Joy: On the Canonization of St. Herman - August 7-10, 1970

The Orthodox Church Newspaper
August-September, 1970, pp. 5-6

How can I tell about this? How can I express in human words the light and joy experienced —as a gift, unmerited, truly by the grace of God—by the hundreds of people who travelled to far-off Alaska for the glorification of the righteous Elder Herman? My remarks are not an official report about the celebrations of the canonization but rather the weak attempt to express to those who were not there that which I cannot call anything other than a miracle of the mercy of God.

After our flight across the whole of America, in Seattle we began our ascent into that almost involuntary, inexpressible, very particular spiritual atmosphere in which we were to remain during all of those unforgettable days. There is a very special light to that seemingly endlessly lingering northern evening, and in that light, far below, is the Russian capital of Alaska. And then on the horizon, the eternally snowy mountains with the very highest of them, that of the Prophet Elijah.

In Kodiak, in the tiny airport there is already a crowd of clergy and pilgrims, we are immediately caught up in that which will be the setting of all of our services, vigils and prayers—the primordial beauty of Alaska, its mountains, waterfalls, majestic evergreens, humble fishing boats…something truly genuine of the silence and peace of God. Over the village stands the blue cupola of the little white church to which the pilgrims are thronging from every direction. The vigil service has just ended. There are greetings and embraces all around of priests coming from all ends of America, among whom the young, born, and raised in America, clearly dominate. In the church, although the service is over, there are crowds of worshipers, and in the midst of them—a perfectly simple wooden casket illuminated with the brilliance of the hundreds of candles shining around it. This wooden casket was the shining focal point of all of these days, for the stream of people coming to it never ceased; the waves of love were almost physically touchable…

st herman

On Saturday morning, August 8, there was the hierarchal liturgy followed by the final memorial panikhida for the elder. Our primate, Metropolitan Ireney led the prayer. Near him was Archbishop Paul of Finland, our special guest during these days; the Bulgarian Metropolitan Andrew, and our bishops, Archbishops John of Chicago and Kiprian of Philadelphia; Bishops Theodosius of Alaska, Ioasaph of Edmonton and Dmitri of Berkeley (the last being the first bishop from the American converts to Orthodoxy). There are already hundreds of worshipers, among whom are the children of Alaska, so memorable with their festive spirits, their childlike rapture, and their humility so rare in our times. (How strange to hear the names preserved among them as they approach Holy Communion: Agripinna, Athenogenes, Panteleimon, Eusebius…) Literally the entire city participates in the celebration; in all the doorways and windows are images of the Elder Herman, greetings of pilgrims and decorations.

Saturday evening approaches. The vigil service begins which, I am certain, will never be forgotten by those who were present and praying there. After the psalm, “Lord I call upon thee…”, the verses and hymns are sung for the very first time for the holy Father Herman; “With humble joy, O Blessed Herman, you accepted the labor of a novice…” In the church you cannot move because of the crowd, but what light, what joy on every face! We go into the center of the church for the litya. The encyclical of the Great Sobor of Bishops about the glorification of Father Herman is proclaimed from the ambo. We lift the casket with the relics of the saint and we make the solemn procession around the church. We stop for the first time. The protodeacon begins the first petition of the litany. And suddenly, after the enumeration of the entire company of saints; apostles, hierarchs, martyrs and monks, the heart is struck by those words which resound from heaven itself: “…and by the prayers of our venerable and God-bearing Father, Herman, the Wonderworker of Alaska and All-America…” People are weeping with the tears of joy and contrition, and the faces of the Aleuts glow with the long-awaited glorification of their Apa—their beloved grandfather Herman…

It is already night, but it is bright not only with the flames of the candles; it shines also with the spiritual light of this joyous vigil. How wonderful the choir of young priests and pilgrims sings! They sing in Slavonic and English and Aleut. And how easy is the continual passing from one language to the other! How clear it becomes that this, our common joy, our common prayer, breaks all the boundaries of this earth and makes our human quarrels and divisions vain and useless. We go around the church slowly. We stop often. Each time the men carrying the relics change. Everyone wants that blessed weight upon his shoulders; everyone wants at least for a few minutes to cling close to this casket.

We enter the church once more. For the first time the troparion of the saint thunders forth. On the tomb they bless the bread, wheat, wine, and oil. They sing the psalm of many mercies—the polyeleion. Joyful and delightful are the waves of the magnification: “We bless you, Father Herman, Instructor of monastics and Converser with the angels!” And then in unending lines, late into the night, the faithful approach the relics and the anointing which being done by two bishops. No one is tired, not sensing the time, and the heart realizes that the whole essence of faith has been expressed once and for all by the apostle on the mountain of the transfiguration when he said to Christ: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Many remain in the church the whole night by the relics—to sing the akathistos hymn to the saint, to go to confession, to prolong the vigil at this human tomb which once more, by the power of God, becomes a life-bearing tomb.

On Sunday the first liturgy begins at seven o’clock in the morning. Bishop Theodosius of Alaska celebrates with two bishops and a whole assembly of priests on the very casket of the elder. The whole church sings and hundreds of faithful receive Holy Communion. In the poor little church nearly touching the artic circle the Eucharist of the early Christians is resurrected, the Eucharist as celebrated in the catacombs on the tombs of the saints. “We have never experienced anything like this,” people say as they come out of the church.

At ten o’clock in the morning, in the brilliance of sunlight, with the festive ringing of the bells of the church, Metropolitan Ireney enters in his light blue metropolitan’s mantle. He is surrounded by archbishops as the second liturgy begins, the summit of this three-day spiritual celebration. The service lasts almost five hours, but not for a moment does the spiritual intensity weaken, the intensity of the presence of the “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” as the Apostle Paul defined the Kingdom of God. Bishop Dmitri preaches. People receive Holy Communion from two chalices. And finally we leave the church for the solemn procession with the holy relics. Everything blends together into one great festive rejoicing; the choir singing, the bells ringing, the light of the sun and the fathomless blue of the sky, the far-off mountains the fathomless blue of the sea. Next to me is walking an old, humbly, dressed Aleut. He is weeping. And remembering those days I see him each time again and again, the living icon of the very essence of that which was happening there. I will never forget his face, nor his poor clothes, nor his entire image of humility and light. If such people exist —the Church is living, living in its very essence! This is the humility and light of the Elder Herman; it comes from him, from his spirit. May it spread from him to the ends of the earth, especially in these days when the life of the Church is torn apart by such evils and passions.

We enter the Church once more and this time we carry the casket of the saint directly to the place especially prepared for it where we seal the holy relics. “To our venerable and God-bearing Father Herman, let us pray!” All kneel down and in the name of all, in the name of our entire Church so in need of help, Bishop Theodosius reads the prayer: “…and now, when the word of the Lord has been fulfilled for you, and when the Lord has set you over our whole Church…we call to you in fervent prayer, pray for our Holy Church, may the Lord keep her pure in Orthodoxy…may He grant purity of faith and beauty of soul…the spirit of peace and love, the spirit of humility and meekness. Drive out the sin of pride, save us from self praise…”

Finally on the next day (Monday, August 10), very early in the morning, five priests with Archbishop Kiprian go to Spruce Island where for almost thirty years the Elder Herman lived as a hermit. And I know that we have never in our lives experienced anything better, purer, more joyful than what we’ve experienced there that morning: the walk through the wooded paths along the wooded paths along the towering evergreens keeping their eternal vigil before their Creator, to the little chapel over the cave of the elder, and the liturgy in that chapel. I served the liturgy; but to say this is totally inaccurate. The liturgy served itself. It was only necessary for us to give ourselves to it completely, to immerse ourselves in it, to enter into the thanksgiving without reservation. I know as well that we did not deserve this at all but that it was given to us as a gift. I can only pray that it will also be given to us to preserve but the smallest portion of this gift of grace.

I will not write about the other events of these days—about the festive banquet at which were gathered more than five hundred people; about the joyful meetings of people with each other; about the official receptions with the governor of the state, the senators, admirals from the Unite States Navy. All of this was fitting, proper and necessary. However, all of this was of the earth and earthly, and God gave to us to have communion with the heaven and the heavenly! I want especially to note the delightful image of Archbishop Paul of Finland who touched us all with his wisdom, humility, and love.

In conclusion, I will only say that in this light and in this joy, all of our human disagreements, accusations and condemnations become so petty, so human, so sinful. The whole time it seemed: If only we could give ourselves humbly to this joy we would understand without words in what and for what the Church exists, and the scales of our wickedness and suspicions and divisions would fall from us. There, at the tomb of Saint Herman, in the splendor of his humility, it was given to us to see that reality which alone gives authentic life to the Church, that reality which is indeed the only thing which the Church has to reveal to this world, that reality by which alone the Church will be able to overcome every power of evil in this world.

Holy Father Herman, pray to God for us!