Living simply… What a difficult concept this is for us in the world today. We believe that unless we have a full bank account, triple locks on our doors to protect our valuables, security systems, cars with 15 air bags and surround sound satellite radio that we are somehow ‘not living at all.’ When did such an idea creep into our way of thinking? I suppose that Madison Avenue has a lot of blame to accept in all of this, but rather than blame, let us look at the simplicity of Saint Herman.
It’s believed that Saint Herman was born in 1756, and from the age of 16 he lived the life of a monk at the Valaam Monastery, which is still present in Russia to this very day. Valaam is located on an island inside Lake Lagoda, which is just northeast of the city of Saint Petersburg. The missionary group sent from Valaam to Alaska would have traveled overland – a distance of more than 4000 miles through some of the most severe travel conditions imaginable. There were nine others who made the journey with Saint Herman from Valaam to become missionaries in Alaska. We are told from the historical accounts that “very quickly” several thousand native Americans accepted the faith!
How could this have happened? Did the native Aleuts not have SOME kind of faith, a god or gods to whom they prayed? Clearly, they found in the faith and the LOVE shown them by our beloved Patron and those with him that the God known to these pious Russians was to be desired! By their LOVE. By their FAITH. It’s a simple message, is it not?
The group built a school for the native children. They built a church. But things were severe. Think Alaska. Think 1798. Some of the monastic party died from the elements. One perished in a boat that sank as he was returning to Russia. Some were martyred. After several years of working this missionary effort, only Saint Herman remained from that original group. Yet, he continued! It was a simple plan. God sent him to reap where he had not sown. And God sent him to sow where others would come later to reap.
His home? A simple cave, dug from the ground with his bare hands, which was converted to his grave after his falling asleep in the Lord. By the love of those whom He had brought to the faith, a cell was built for him later near this cave – a simple building to keep him warm during the severe winters. He remained there until his death.
He sustained himself from a garden which he worked with his own hands. Potatoes, cabbage, mushrooms, vegetables,…. All of which he dried to provide a means of carrying himself through the severe winters. His labors? The natives used large wicker baskets to haul seaweed to fertilize their gardens. It took at least two people to carry a fully laden basket. Saint Herman was observed doing this alone. His disciple once observed him carrying a log that would have taken four men to carry – and he was barefoot. Strong but simple!
His clothes were the same whether summer or winter – no shirt, just a smock of deer skin. He had boots or shoes, and the inner and outer cassock and klobuk (hat) of a monk. Three garments, a hat, and shoes. I tried to teach four daughters that you CAN indeed live with one pair of shoes, but they never would believe me. Saint Herman proves me right! Simply clothed!
His bed? It was a wooden bench covered with a deer skin. His pillow? Two bricks. His blanket? A wooden board which he warmed by a stove, which he left with instructions to cover his body after his repose. He lived simply!
His ecclesiastical garb was completed with a cross, only his was not something like that you on today's priests. Saint Herman made his own cross. It was quite large, made of common metal, not anything precious. It hung about his neck using common available shipping chains. The combination weighed about 16 pounds! It was simple!
Saint Herman had a pleasant tenor voice, and those who knew him loved to hear him come to the church to sing. Once he was offered ordination to the priesthood, but he refused the honor, a fact that must give pause to any of us who stand today and wear the vestments of a priest. Saint Herman preferred to serve his Lord as a simple monk.
The missionaries to Alaska had been sent as a means of bringing the native Aleut people into submission – teaching them ‘obedience’ from the Church so that the furring companies operating in Alaska could more easily exploit the people there. Those who had this perspective had no understanding of our Lord, of His commandments, and of the way that faithful clerics would apply those teachings. For Saint Herman, his love for the people God had entrusted to his care reflected his own simplicity, as well as his tenacity. This use of the word 'simple' should in no way be construed as indicating that his work or care was small or meaningless, but rather it was pure. Saint Herman came to the defense of those entrusted to his spiritual care, going to battle with the authorities in Russia on more than one occasion. He wrote to the authorities with such words as these:
"Our Creator granted to our beloved homeland this land which like a newly-born babe does not yet have the strength for knowledge or understanding. It requires not only protection, because of its infantile weakness and impotence, but also his sustenance. Even for this it does not yet have the ability to make an appeal on its own behalf. And since the welfare of this nation by the Providence of God, it is not known for how long, is dependent on and has been entrusted into the hands of the Russian government which has now been given into your own power, therefore I, the most humble servant of these people, and their nurse (nyanka) stand before you in their behalf, write this petition with tears of blood. Be our Father and our Protector. Certainly we do not know how to be eloquent, so with an inarticulate infant's tongue we say: Wipe away the tears of the defenseless orphans, cool the hearts melting away in the fire of sorrow. Help us to know what consolation means."
You could say that Saint Herman knew how to use words….
Saint Herman loved children, and the natives loved him for this. He baked biscuits and cookies for them, often denying himself of his own provisions to give to those he loved, and who so loved him in return.
His care for his people? Once a bitter and fatal illness was carried to the area from an inbound ship. Those infected contracted a fever, which became a heavy cold, then difficulty in breathing, chills, and in three days it brought death. There was no doctor. There was no medicine. There was no hope. The disease infected all ages. So many died that there were not enough remaining to dig graves. People infected were gathered into barracks where many died and lay for lack of workers. Children lay at their dead mother’s bodies longing for food that was not to be forthcoming. Saint Herman labored throughout the month that this pestilence lasted, never tiring, never leaving the sides of those in need. For some he admonished their fear. For and with all, he prayed. Some he brought to repentance and prepared them for death. But he never considered his own health, only the pressing need of those whom God had given into his pastoral care. It was a simple plan – Do what God has sent you to do!
The school cared for the orphans of the Aleuts. From here Saint Herman taught them the faith and how to sing the Divine Services. On Sundays his disciple would read Hours, and Saint Herman would read the Epistle and Gospel and then preach to the people. The natives gathered in large numbers to hear his words, and his explanations of God’s plan for all of us.
Saint Herman brought people to an understanding of God through simple argument. Once a ship was sent to inspect Russian holdings in the area. It was manned by a captain and twenty-five officers, all very well educated. Saint Herman boarded the craft to teach. He asked them all what they loved most, and what they desired to bring about their own happiness. Various answers were given, mostly focused upon material things. Saint Herman offered to them an argument. “Isn’t it true that all of your desires come to one singular conclusion – that each of you desires what you understand to be most worthy of your love?” It was a simple question. The answer of course had to be, “Yes.” So our patron continued. “Wouldn’t you agree that our Lord Jesus Christ, who created us, gives us life, sustains us, and loves us is that most worthy goal of your love?” Again the answer of, “Yes!” resounded through the room. The Saint continued, “Then should we not love God above all, desire Him more than all, and seek Him out?” Again the answer was, “Certainly! Yes!”
Now our Patron had them where he wanted them! So he asked, “But do you love God?” To a man, they answered, “Certainly! How can we not?”
Saint Herman’s reply to them is one that we must burn within our memories and our hearts until our own final day. He replied, “I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, but I cannot say that I love Him completely.”
And from this argument, we have perhaps the most famous of our Patron Saint’s expressions of faith. “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all.”
It’s a simple expression of faith. But that is what our beloved Patron brings to us. Simplicity full of faith.
We've not touched upon his many wondrous deeds. Known as a wonderworker, no doubt we could fill hours outlining and discussing these deeds as well.
For us, for today, through the prayers of Saint Herman, let us seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and filled with the burning desire to follow our Patron’s path of simplicity. The lives of all of us right now are far too complicated! We live in a world where expressions like “mind traffic” and “information overload” are the norm. Only one thing is needful – and that is finding Christ while we live, and then living as He commanded, in short, “loving Him above all”. It is still a simple message. In our search, let us take recourse to Saint Herman, asking for his intercession before the Lord, to seek forgiveness of our sins, to ask for mercy, and to come to the love of God that our beloved patron taught to all he encountered. His simple plan of following where God would lead still can work for us today!
Within the Akathist to Saint Herman, we offer the prayer, “As a good laborer you did your great spiritual work in a harsh climate in this land. In your service to God, you were faithful in the little things. And, as the Lord said: ‘You have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much.’”
We may not “be much”, but we are who we are by the grace of God, and that means that we are under the patronal protection of this wonderworking saint. As he loved the spiritual children he was given by God in Alaska, we can imagine his love for us as well. As he cared for them, he cares for us. To him we can run for protection and help, just as they did in times of need.
But on this day, we run to him not for help, but instead to offer our thanksgiving for that which he has already accomplished here amongst us. Truly, God is wonderful in His saints!