Today we celebrate the memory of the Venerable Herman of Alaska, the patron saint of North America. There is so much that is praiseworthy in this man of God that one hardly knows where to begin. He was an ascetic who dwelt as an anchorite in the forests from the time of his early childhood. He was a zealous missionary who, like the righteous Abraham, left his home and his fatherland for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, not for himself only but for all of us who have received the precious gift of Orthodoxy on this continent. Though a hermit and a lover of solitude, he nevertheless joyfully took care of his orphans and fearlessly defended the native Aleuts from exploitation by his own people. He was a monk who, out of his deep humility, refused ordination to the priesthood, and so was sent an angel from heaven on the day of the Lord’s Theophany to bless holy water for him. He was a man who lived so wholly in the Kingdom of Heaven even during this earthly life that, when asked whether he became lonely living alone in his island hermitage, he did not even comprehend how such a thing could be possible when he was surrounded by all the hosts of angels.
How far removed are our lives from everything that has just been spoken about this saint! When we stand in the church and gaze at the icon and relics of this living vessel of the Holy Spirit, and we look then into our own hearts, we see all too clearly our vanity, our all-consuming self-love, our petty weakness, our filth, our emptiness. Here before us there shines radiantly an example of what it really means to be a Christian, and the light of that truth reveals all too clearly the darkness in which we walk.
When we begin to understand, even a little, how far short we fall from what we are meant to be and from what the grace of Christ can allow us to become, we are forced to ask ourselves why. What is it that prevents us from acquiring this grace, from truly changing our lives? For all of us here, simply by virtue of the fact that we are here, have tried in some way to leave the things of this earth behind; all of us here have, to one extent or another, failed.
We might be tempted to doubt God, or we might resolve to force ourselves to try harder. Yet St. Herman is living proof of the power of the grace of God, and the experience of our own lives will sooner or later show us the futility of our own striving, no matter how fervent or well-intentioned it may be. Why, then, do we still fail?
Let us not underestimate the importance of this question: it poses perhaps the greatest spiritual danger of all to a Christian, for behind this question stand the threats of apostasy on the one hand and despair on the other. There are no more sure roads to perdition than these.
Simeon Yanovsky, one of the colonial administrators in Alaska who knew St. Herman, wrote down a story about the saint. It is a famous story, and rightly so, for it contains a great truth. The first part of the story especially is important for the question at hand:
Once the Elder was invited aboard a frigate which came from St. Petersburg. The Captain of the frigate was a highly educated man, who had been sent to America by order of the Emperor to make an inspection of all the colonies. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. In the company of this group sat a monk of a hermitage, small in stature and wearing very old clothes…
“Father Herman gave them all one general question: ‘Gentlemen, What do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered … Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. ‘It is not true,’ Father Herman said to them concerning this, ‘that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?’ They all answered, ‘Yes, that is so!’
This is the truth that reveals to us the mystery of our sinful hearts. It is almost painfully simple: we seek the things that we love. And as long as we love our own pleasure or power or praise, or anything else of ourselves or of this world, it is impossible that our lives will ever be any different. It does not matter how much we struggle: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.” And this is why our Saviour also said that upon the two great commandments of the love of God and the love of neighbor “hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Our hearts, and not our lives, are what first must change.
How can this happen? How does a heart turn away from earthly lusts and begin to truly love Christ? Simply by keeping Him always before the eyes of our heart. By walking always before the face of God. The beauty of the love of Christ has the power to break even the hardest of hearts. This is the reason that we fast, and this is the reason that we pray: so that we might simply pay attention to God. He Himself will do the rest.
This is also why the Holy Scriptures and the holy monastic fathers tell us that the remembrance of death is enough to overcome every sin: more than anything else, the remembrance of our death reveals to us the hollowness of this fleeting world and the eternal beauty of the Heavenly Kingdom. St. Isaac the Syrian says that we will never be able to overcome the love of this world and its pleasures unless we set before the eyes of our soul the beauty of the age to come. A lesser love can only be overcome by a greater. In the words of Dostoevsky: “The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but also mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.”
For most of us, this struggle will last a lifetime. Our hearts are hardened and slow to change. But nevertheless let us try as much as we can to remind ourselves of these truths, to see through the lies of sinful pleasure, and let us as often as possible, and with all the love that we can find within ourselves, set before ourselves the holy things of God: the icons, the divine Scriptures, the beautiful and compunctionate hymns of the Church, the writings of the Holy Fathers and the lives of the saints. Let us also set before ourselves our brothers and sisters among us in whom Christ mystically dwells, and let us open our hearts to be moved and inspired by their love and self-sacrifice. Let us especially with humble gratitude remember our Saviour Himself, the love with which He has loved us, and the grace and mercy and Providence which He unfailingly bestows upon us despite our innumerable failing and falls into sin.
Above all, let us pray. Let us pray especially that the light of Christ with which St. Herman was so abundantly filled would illumine our own souls also, that it would reveal to us not only the depths of our sinfulness but also the inexpressible beauty of Christ and the glory and riches that await those who love Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. And in the words of St. Herman himself: “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all and fulfill His holy will.”
Through the prayers of our venerable and God-bearing father Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.