September 10, 2018 Length: 1:52:43
Archpriest Michael Oleksa delivered a powerful, enlightening, and heart-felt message on the campus of St. Vladimir's Seminary Saturday, September 1, 2018, as part of the Seminary's celebration of the Ecclesiastical New Year. The distinguished alumnus and author beautifully weaved the history of the Alaskan Mission and the work of St. Herman and others into the present, as the Orthodox Church continues to defend the native peoples of Alaska and uphold the sanctity of the created world. Fr. Michael passionately implored Orthodox Christians everywhere to draw upon the past and modern-day experience of Orthodoxy in Alaska in witnessing Christ to all nations.
Rev. Fr. Chad Hatfield: Welcome to everybody who’s here. I know some of you were here when we started praying at 11 o’clock, and some of you have enjoyed lunch, and some of you have had a tour, and you’ve been introduced to things, what is referred to as the St. Herman’s Society, which is a student-born initiative which we’ve actually had now in place for several years, which focuses on environmental, ecological issues, particularly the Orthodox theology as it’s associated with these particular issues. I had someone say to me recently at a conference they attended they were disappointed because they said we had a lot of environmental activists but we didn’t hear anything about theology; we didn’t hear why that’s a theological issue for those of us who are Orthodox Christians. So it’s one of the things that we try to do here.
I remember coming down from Alaska where Fr. Michael and I were brother priests for a period all too short of a time. I was there for five years; you’ve been there for probably close to 50, right?
Rev. Fr. Michael Oleksa: I’m afraid so.
Fr. Chad: Yes, exactly. [Laughter] But I had been the dean of St. Herman’s Seminary, as Fr. Michael was one of my predecessors there as the dean. I remember looking at some publications that have the SVS Press label on environmental issues, and at that point the campus didn’t recycle even basic sorts of things, and there were small kinds of issues. So we had that next year the first “going green” initiative here. We made a lot of adjustments, a lot of changes, and all the rest. As with many things, it sort of peaks and drops depending on which students are here, sort of driving the interest. But I can say that this year in particular we’re off to a great start, because not only is the sort of first event by one of the student societies this year, but there is a lot of energy behind the students and their faculty sponsors and others.
It was very important that since this is a Saturday that we observe, as we’ve done the last couple of years, the new ecclesiastical year, beginning September 1, with a tree-planting, a tree-blessing. If you didn’t hear me this morning in chapel, we’re doing something a little different this year. We’re planting a rescue tree, one that was in danger of being cut down because it was in the wrong place. In that area down here we hope to eventually develop into a kind of meditation garden, park-like area that was there.
Again, welcome. We’re glad you’re here. We’re glad we’re able to kind of share the treasure that we have, the person, our speaker today, Fr. Michael Oleksa. As I said, Fr. Michael and I served together in the Diocese of Alaska. We’ve known each other many years and have done different things. You’ve been in my time here a commencement speaker at graduation and at least a couple of other events that happened. If you don’t have his books, please go across the hall. The bookstore is open. I have no shame when it comes to selling books, by the way. It’s part of my job; it’s in my contract: sell books. [Laughter] Alaskan Missionary Spirituality.
Actually, I was at a parish once in Indiana, and I had several of these that were sitting, not moving. I don’t know what happened, but I said, “Look, I’ll sign the foreword underneath which I wrote, and that increases the value when you sell it on eBay.” And every single book disappeared off the table, and I was signing. [Laughter] Well, you can really get your money’s worth now, because the actual author is here, and I know that for a fee he’ll be happy to sign those books. [Laughter] That’s a donation, of course, to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, which is his alma mater.
Fr. Michael’s been active in so many ways as a missiologist. He and I are both part of a newly formed group. IOTA is the acronym: International Orthodox Theological Association. He and I were together in Jerusalem in January as part of the initial planning for the real conference that will take place, God willing, in Iași, Romania, in January 2019. It was really amazing for us to be able together again. A couple of times we took off on our own and did adventurous things, including getting locked out of a church standing in the rain.
Fr. Michael: At Gethsemane.
Fr. Chad: At Gethsemane, yes. So not everybody can say that’s happened in their lives, but we can. [Laughter] So when that group was actually being formed, one of the things that came to my attention was we did not have a section in missiology, a stand-alone, and the usual question which came up is: Is that a proper subject for a theological group? And we won that debate, and Fr. Michael actually chairs that particular section of IOTA.
But he’s also known strongly because out of his experience as a missiologist, as a priest, as a theologian, he has been able to kind of thread through his own Alaskan experience the advocacy that is traditional to an Orthodox priest in Alaska. Orthodox priests historically are advocates and defenders of the faith, but advocates and defenders of the people as well. That often involves being the voice literally for the voiceless, people who usually don’t have a standing or a way of being involved when they’re actually in a place of danger. This has happened a couple of times that I know of personally where Fr. Michael has used his gravitas to sort of step in and bring things into a public arena so these things could be addressed.
This is a real treasure, to have him here today. We have, as I said, all three of his books across the way. It’s with absolute great pleasure that I welcome you back to your alma mater, and I look forward to hearing more as you make your presentation this afternoon. [Applause]
Fr. Michael: I put all my notes on the board already, so I won’t get lost myself. I’m here to talk, first of all, about St. Herman. I was here at St. Vladimir’s when the canonization of St. Herman was announced in 1969, 50 years ago. The holy synod had obviously examined the life and the writings of St. Herman and decided it was time for an official canonization. The services were written, of course, and published, some translated from Russian, mostly newly composed in English. The whole world began to celebrate the memory of our holy, venerable, and God-bearing Father Herman of Alaska—all for the wrong reasons.
I’m here to rewrite history, or at least respeak it, because if you just read the liturgical commemoration of Fr. Herman, the akathist that we sing every week in Kodiak, before his relics, the troparia that almost everyone has memorized since the last 50 years, they glorify him as a holy hermit, as a monk who retreated into the wilderness and kept the fasts and said his prayers and performed miracles. The problem with that is—well, of course he did retreat into the wilderness and say his prayers and keep the fasts—that’s not why they people of Alaska venerated him, and that’s not why they built a chapel over his gravesite on the hundredth anniversary of his arrival, and that’s not why they made pilgrimages to his gravesite continuously since his death in 1837.
So what’s the real story behind the veneration? because if the Aleut people on Kodiak Island had forgotten about Fr. Herman, the rest of the world never would have heard of him. It’s their veneration that they continue during his life and then after his death that eventually led to the canonization. They’re the ones who wrote down and gathered the stories of his life and his miracles and sent them to Valaam, his mother house, his monastery back in Finland.
Well, let’s begin. First of all, there’s Alaska. Most people who live this far east haven’t been there—although we have popular cruises now and you’re all welcome; we’re going to do another one next September—but only through the southeast portion of Alaska. [Inaudible] We’ll come to that later. The bulk of Alaska is… When I went first there it was four time zones wide. It was as big as the entire 48 contiguous states from east to west. We used to have four time zones. It was very inconvenient. If you lived in the Aleutian Islands and got up at eight in the morning, Washington, D.C., was already closing down. You could never make a phone call to the national capitol because we’re just too far away. So we took it back to Congress, but we have one time zone now. We’re only four hours away from New York. The sun has nothing to do with what’s going on on the clock and vice-versa. We’re too far north anyway. [Laughter]
But we are four time zones wide with 20 indigenous languages. It’s like a subcontinent. I think there’s more in Kenya, though, like 55, in a very small… and in Uganda, how many? 32 languages. So in a very small area, Africa of course has even more variety, but 20 isn’t bad. And they are totally different languages, one from the other. They are grouped into three different families, but from one to the other, you cross the river and suddenly you can’t understand anything I’m saying. But that’s true in Europe, too. You cross one river from France to Germany, and the language changes from French to German. It’s perfectly natural, except 20 in Alaska.
So how did we have Alaska in the first place? It’s one of the things we can start blaming Peter the Great for. We in the Church have many things to blame Peter the Great for, but Alaska is one of the more positive ones. Alaska is one of the last places on the planet to be mapped or charted by Europeans. You can see globes of the late 1600s, and everything is there except Antarctica and Alaska. No one somehow made it to the northwest coast of North America. So on his deathbed, Peter the Great signed orders commissioning Vitus Bering to build a ship on the Siberian coast and to sail along that coast until he came to America. The supposition was that North America and Asia were joined by land, and that if he sailed along the coast, he would eventually wind up in San Francisco.
Well, it’s not possible, of course. Bering came up in 1728. He built a ship. He sailed right into the Arctic Ocean. Then he went back and reported to the Academy of Sciences: It’s water—which of course it is. But this is the first piece of Russian propaganda in Alaskan history. 13 years later, the imperial government sent a very: “We do not accept your findings,” sort of like climate change today. “We don’t accept your findings. Do it again, and reassess your work, and report back again.” So in 1741, two ships—the St. Peter and the St. Paul, St. Peter manned by Bering, and the St. Paul manned by Captain Aleksei Chirikov, a Russian.
They both set out together, and they never entered the Bering Sea. Now, if they were supposed to reconnoiter and get the Bering Sea thing straight, they went in the wrong direction. They sailed straight east, as far as they could go. Alaska was discovered here, not over here close to the Russian—I mean, it’s only 80 miles here, but that’s not where they discovered Alaska, at the closest point, or even here, where the Aleutian Islands joined to the Kamchatka Peninsula. They sailed past all this in the fog, and they landed here, sighting on that day, on the feast of the Prophet Elijah, late July, the tallest coastal mountain in the world, and they named it for the Prophet Elijah. It’s called Mount Saint Elias in English. Not a very good translation; we would call it the Holy Prophet Elia, but it’s Mount Saint Elias, and it’s a mountain that comes right out of the ocean and ascends 18,000 feet. Most mountains like Everest, Denali, McKinley, they sit on a plateau already about a mile high, so you don’t really see all 20,000 feet of Denali when you get there, because it’s already sort of propped up. But this mountain comes right out of the ocean.
And that famous day, on the feast of St. Elijah, Bering said, “I hereby draw an imaginary line from the tip of that mountain to the north pole,” and that’s how Alaska got this border. Chirikov, on the other hand, landed here a day earlier. They were both equipped with brass plaques. This sort of tips the Russian government’s hand. It’s supposed to be a purely scientific expedition, but they had little plaques about a shoebox, mid-size, inscribed, “This land is under Russian sokhrannyy, protection. And they had dozens of these, and they were putting them onto trees and rocks everywhere along the coast, letting any Europeans who sailed by know that “we got here first, nyah-nyah-nyah.” [Laughter]
We’ve only actually found one of these plaques, but it’s numbered ten, so you know there were at least nine others. But you see, this is probably the first metal introduced into this entire region. The local natives came out and said, “How nice of those visitors to drop off this stuff,” and it became axes and arrowheads and spears and knives. That’s why probably we’ll never find any more of them, because they were put to more utilitarian uses almost immediately after being dropped off by Bering and Chirikov.
Chirikov actually got here first, a day earlier, as I mentioned, and made it back to Russia in one piece. Bering wrecked his ship and died—but I bet you’d never heard of Chirikov. I must say, as someone of Slavic descent, it kind of irks me: every Alaska history book I’ve ever read will say something like this: “Vitus Bering, a Dane in the service of the Russian navy, was commissioned by the tsar,” etc. The implication is that there weren’t any Russians capable of pulling this off, so they had to hire someone from Denmark to do it, but the facts of the case are in fact that it was the Russian sea captain who got here first, made it back in one piece; the Danish captain wrecked his boat and died and gets all the credit. [Laughter] It happens this way with the reigns of tsars and the tenures of bishops. Anything that happened during their time, they get credit for, whether they deserve it or not. So Bering gets the whole ocean named after him.
The important part about Bering is this: his shipwrecked sailors survived, most of them, and they built a new ship out of the wreckage of the old, and they survived on this little island, hunting. They hunted walrus and brought back ivory tusks from the walrus, but they also hunted sea otters and brought back the first sea otter pelts to be introduced into the Chinese fur trade. This was a sensation. I should have brought a sea otter pelt just for you to feel the softness of it. It’s the softest and densest fur in the world. Now, we’re talking about ecology, and fur coats are not exactly fashionable these days, but in the 1700s, a fur coat was not a luxury item. It was a necessity, especially if you lived in Siberia; it wasn’t something optional. The only way to stay warm half the year would be a parka or a fur coat. These were necessities, and the fur trade was as important in these years as the oil business is today in modern world economics.
So these critters, these sea otters, set off not a gold rush but a fur rush to Alaska. Hundreds of men stampeded to the Russian coast—and then they were stuck. There’s no wood on the coast; it’s tundra, it’s bare. There’s grass; you can’t build a boat out of grass. So they had to shoot moose or elk and build leather boats, a little bit bigger than two good bathtubs, and set sail to Alaska in these leather tubs. You wouldn’t want to go across the Hudson River in one of them today. And they were coming from Asia to North America in these sewn-together leather boats, with trade goods: pots and pans, metal axes, woollen blankets—things that they hoped the native people—we call them Aleuts today, but in their own language they’re called Unangan. Unangan means “we the people” [Inaudible]—things that human beings might want.
And they were right, except they soon discovered the Unangan valued more than anything else—blue glass beads. And they were willing to trade one sea otter pelt the size of these tables for one blue glass bead that cost pennies. I have to admit, though, the Unangan to this day have no use for sea otters. They’re pests. First of all, their fur is much too dense to be used practically for clothing except in the most arctic regions. Even in Siberia probably nobody would wear an entire sea otter coat. First of all, it would weigh like 50 pounds, and secondly it would only be useful at 30 or 40 below zero. In the Aleutian Islands, where it barely goes below freezing, sea otter pelts were useless. You would never make a coat from a sea otter. And they eat all the shellfish. So if they’re taking all your mussels and clams, get rid of them! They’re a nuisance! They’re like rabbits in the garden over here. You just don’t want them. And there were lots of them, thousands of them. So these people are going to give you valuable—they treated them like diamonds—beautiful blue glass beads, but they wanted [to trade] treasure like a diamond worth thousands of dollars for these critters that we don’t want anyway. What a deal! [Laughter]
So it was a deal on both sides, because the Russians were picking up the sea otter pelts, which they could not harvest themselves. The sea otters live in the sea; that’s why they’re called sea otters: they very seldom come on land. You need to get into a kayak, and you have to be able to be agile enough to throw a spear at them, in the waves, on the ocean. The Unangan were proficient at this; the Russians had no clue. So they had no choice but to, in a sense, purchase the sea otter skins from the Unangan people, and the Unangan people were very happy to sell them, because they were useless to them, for the reasons I’ve cited. So for 50 years, 1791 to 1841, these Siberian entrepreneurs, or promyshlenniki, came in these leather boats. They took back a few dozen at a time—the leather boats couldn’t carry many pelts, but if you’re getting $10,000 a pelt, then that was worth the trip, and that was what was happening, but 10, 15 pelts at the max, because they had to take their food with them for the voyage. Of course they were fishing and trying to hunt.
But in any case, it was a dangerous enterprise. One out of five of these skin boats sank, but 80% was a good enough probability of return that for 50 years the fur trade brought the sea otter pelts to Alaska. Then some businessmen sitting in Irkutsk, the center of the fur trade at this time, were watching these frontiersmen—like mountain men, revenants of the new di Caprio movie, as these kind of guys; you get the idea: it’s those kind of frontiersmen—they’re allergic, you see, to settling down.
When they made these fortunes, they squandered it. They could make $100,000 on a trip. They gave very generous donations to churches, monasteries, orphanages, charities. They partied mightily. And then they came back and did it again, and sometimes again and again and again. They never settled down and bought a mansion and hired a butler and got season tickets to the opera. That would have been their idea of hell. I hear people say that they did this out of greed. No, greed does not explain this behavior.
They came and they went, they came and they went—and then they stayed. The evidence of this is clear. They stayed. They had their eye on that Unangan cutie the first time they visited. The second time, they got really friendly with her dad. The third time they paid the dowry and moved in. So this is 50 years of the evangelization of the Unangan people—by marriage. Orthodoxy was introduced by laymen in North America, without any clergy support or any affiliation with the Church. The laity, the men, the promyshlenniks, married their Unangan sweethearts. They gave birth to children. They served as each others’ godfathers. Some of them took their godchildren to Russia and back, so there were Unangan children who spoke both Russian and Unangan in these early years. It became a sort of bi-cultural society, where it was normal both for people to speak Russian as had been introduced by the Siberians…
And I call them Siberians specifically, because we discovered that the Russian imperial government insisted that those who engaged in the fur trade apply for and pay for a license, just like getting a driver’s license or a hunting license today. A friend of mine a decade ago now discovered a file cabinet in Irkutsk filled with thousands of these license applications. And on the applications they asked: What’s your ethnic identity? And almost none of them are Russian. These are Siberian native people, who speak Russian and are part of, are citizens of the Russian empire. But one third of them are from the Kamchatka Peninsula, 100% Kamchadal. Another third of them are of mixed Russian, Ukrainian, Siberian native ancestry. Only about 30% declared them to be actually Slavic, of European descent. So this whole enterprise, this first 50 years, is really native people from the Siberian side intermarrying with native people from the Alaskan side. But the Siberians are bringing Orthodoxy to that population.
When the first missionaries passed through the Aleutian Islands, the homeland of the Unangan, every village has a church, and the entire population is already baptized. There’s a principle of missiology here: Never underestimate the importance of marriage, because that’s really what brought the Unangan people to Orthodoxy. They can trace their Orthodox heritage on their father’s side back to Vladimir in Kiev, a thousand years; and on their mother’s side, a couple hundred years already. So that’s basically our faith. I was at an Unangan funeral on Wednesday. They sang in Slavonic, they sang in English, and they sang in Unangan. That’s their history, that’s their culture, that’s who they are, to this day.
So that’s the first 50 years. But Shelikhov, Mr. Shelikhov, was one of these investors in Irkutsk, watching the frontiersmen come and go, 10, 20 pelts at a time. He said to his investors, “This is ridiculous. The Chinese are paying top ruble for these furs. Let’s get serious about this. Let’s build some ships. Of course, that means carrying the lumber out to the Pacific Coast; there’s no lumber there. It’s going to be a huge expense and undertaking, but let’s build some ships and bring shiploads of fur back. Let’s become billionaires.”
And that appealed to some of the bankers of Irkutsk, and they built three ships, and Shelikhov sailed eastward toward—not the Unangan. These people already have their commitments; they already have the trade relations. We’re going to skip ahead to Kodiak Island, 1784. Shelikhov also realized that he would not even have enough blue beads to buy all the fur he needed, and the Kodiak people weren’t interested in blue beads anyway, and they had resisted any intrusion onto their land successfully for the last 50 years. They just wanted nothing to do with the Russians, with the Siberians, with anybody else, and they were militarily equipped to drive them away.
So Shelikhov, knowing all of this, came with cannon. We’re not going to bother to trade for the furs; we’ll extort them. From the very beginning, Shelikhov and his enterprise… The cannon, by the way, were not Civil War cannon that needed draw animals, horses or mules, to drag them through the mud; these were more like rocket launchers, bazookas. They shot a cannonball the size of a small fist. Couldn’t do that much damage, but it could sure scare you, and they could blow up your smoke houses that you had just filled with fish from the summer salmon runs and blow them up in two minutes, and you’d be hungry for the rest of the year. Using this technique, which we know they used, they came to the island with armaments—this was the military conquest of Kodiak; it was not intermarriage to start with, and it was not a very friendly encounter. There was a battle in 1784. Hundreds of Aleutic people, who were in their territory now, were killed, actually massacred by Shelikhov and his men.
Then Shelikhov made a trek all the way back to St. Petersburg to claim that he had, single-handedly practically, conquered 20,000 new tax-payers for the empire, at his own expense and risking his own life. There was nothing humble about Grigory Shelikhov—or honest. So he appealed to Catherine the Great. He wanted to put everybody else out of business and—let’s get efficient about this—he wanted a monopoly for his company, the [Shelikhov-Golikov] Company, to completely control the fur trade, not only in Alaska, but all trade with Japan, Korea, and the Philippines as well. There was nothing bashful about Shelikhov, either.
But Catherine the Great had been reading lassiez-faire economics, and she was against monopolies and that kind of thing, so she turned him down flat. Shelikhov made one tactical error from his point of view, a blessing from ours. He also proposed in his petition to finance a religious mission to Alaska, and he asked for permission to recruit a priest to come with him back to Kodiak. But Catherine questioned this proposal, saying, “Mr. Shelikhov, you’re saying that you want to recruit a priest to go with you.” She was already thinking, “Yeah, there’s no matushka in her right mind that’s going to do that.” [Laughter] “But you said you conquered 20,000 new subjects. One priest won’t be enough. He’ll be overworked; he’ll be exhausted. I give you permission to recruit ten. At your expense.” [Laughter]
You see how that backfired for Mr. Shelikhov, and now he was stuck, because she granted that part of his petition. Alaska hadn’t even been mapped. It would have been like asking someone to go to another planet in those days. And she was right: no matushka in her right mind would have volunteered. You might find a zealous new seminary graduate who would do… [Laughter] But Valaam Monastery was just up the river. Monks don’t have wives! [Laughter] Better recruit ten missionaries from there.
And that’s where he went, and he recruited Fr. Joasaph, who was the only seminary graduate in the group; Fr. Juvenaly, who was a 35-year-old military chaplain—no, military officer—who had just joined the monastery after he became a widower, after his wife had died he resigned his commission in the Russian army and had just recently become a monk at Valaam; Fr. Makary, Fr. Afanasy—these were the clergy; and the monk Herman, who was the oldest member of the delegation but had never attended any theological school. He was a man of prayer. He had gone to the monastery as a teenager, in fact, and had lived all his life, pretty much, at the Valaam community, and he volunteered as well, as the senior, the elder of the group, but not ordained.
Shelikhov was supposed to provide transportation. From St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea to Alaska in North America is the entire length and breadth of what is today Russia: 8,000 miles. But Shelikhov’s idea of transportation was to buy the monks new boots. [Laughter] They walked 8,000 miles. It’s the longest missionary journey ever undertaken by any Orthodox evangelical enterprise. 8,000 miles, almost a year of walking, all the way across Siberia. Now, these were mostly uneducated men, as I mentioned; only one had ever been to seminary. So where did they stay from night to night, transversing north Asia? Well, they were monks. Every 20 or 30 miles, there was another monastery. They had no Hiltons or Marriotts, or even Motel 6s, but they had monastic communities. Each of those monasteries had, in their turn, been founded beyond the frontiers of the empire. The frontiers in most cases were the first people to venture into that territory, and the next generation it was the monks.
So without consciously planning this, as the Valaam monks walked across north Asia, they were reviewing the missionary expansion of the Orthodox Church throughout that region, and they got to learn: How did you go about meeting the local tribes, and how did you go about evangelizing them? What did you do? They’re all Christian now, but when your monastery was new—100, 200, 300 years ago—what’s the history here? So without realizing it, the Valaam monks actually got a very good missiological education. It wasn’t intentional; it was providential. It was God’s will, because by the time they got to Kodiak, in 1794, they were ready.
Of course, they went into culture shock almost immediately. They’d been told by Shelikhov that he’d built a church—there was no church. They were told by Shelikhov there was a house for them to live in—there was no house. They were told by Shelikhov that all their supplies had already been delivered ahead of time—there were no supplies, not even food. And as for church supplies—flour for prosphora, incense, wine—nothing. None of Shelikhov’s promises proved valid.
What did they find? The people they were sent to evangelize—being extorted and oppressed and virtually enslaved by the company whose chief manager was Alexander Baranov. He got there in 1791. He was already pretty much in charge, and he was virtually the dictator of the colony. The hundreds of promyshlenniks who were his employees [were] taking orders from him and extorting the furs from the local people. And these were the people they’d been sent to evangelize.
The monks at that point had to decide: Whose side are we on? To get food, to get a house built, to get supplies to survive, you’d think they would have to support Mr. Baranov or at least keep their mouths shut. They didn’t. Their first dispatches back to Russia were sent, innocently enough, to Mr. Shelikhov. Fr. Joasaph, in May of 1795—they’d been there about six months—writes to Shelikhov, “It’s rather odd. We really love and respect you, but it’s really odd: none of your promises, none of the things you told us to expect have come true.”
And they blamed Baranov, of course. “There’s no house, there’s no church, there’s no supplies. We’ve been scrounging on the beaches for clams and oysters and whatever seafood we can grab from the rocks, because that’s how we’ve survived the winter, no thanks to Mr. Baranov who gets whatever he wants by clapping his hands and snapping his fingers. He gets everything; we’re out here starving. And the way the native people are being treated is criminal. We should report this to the government, but that would get you into trouble, and we don’t want to do that. So please take care of this, Mr. Shelikhov. Our suggestion would be to send a different manager.”
Shelikhov doesn’t. Shelikhov knows exactly what’s going on in Kodiak; it’s the monks who have been deceived. Then they begin writing letters back to Russia the following September, after they’d been there about a year, and that’s going to be my main focus for this part of the lecture.
Because they had walked across Siberia, the monks in a sense knew the right questions to ask. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in this very room I remember when I was in seminary, used to say, “There’s no right answer to a wrong question.” [Laughter] But the monks in this case knew the questions to ask. “What do you already believe about God?” And the answer from the Kodiak Aleutic people was, “There is one Supreme Being, the Creator of heaven and earth.” Well, we can cross that off our list. We don’t have to teach that; they already believe that. “What do you believe about human beings?” “All human beings are descended from the same original parents.” We don’t have to teach them about that, either. Cross that off the list. “In the past there was a huge flood where, because of the sins of human beings, all people perished and were drowned in the flood.” How did they know these things!? And the monks themselves write back to their headquarters in Valaam: “The Holy Spirit was here before we showed up.” [Laughter]
I say to you, that’s an amazing missiological observation. We should count on that. There have been unfortunately, in the history of Christian missions, the attitude that we Christians have the Holy Spirit in our back pocket and nobody else does, and that anything that was there before we got there had to be, by definition, evil and demonic, and has to be replaced or eradicated first before we can even begin planting the seeds of the Christian Gospel. That’s some other people’s missiology, but fortunately it was not the history of us in Alaska. They started saying, “The Holy Spirit was here before we arrived. These people were guided by God. They have certain stories,” and they began listing them, recording them, “that inform them about spiritual matters, spiritual truths.” I would say that there is, in a sense, among most tribal peoples in the world, a sort of curriculum. It’s not written; it’s not in books. It’s not something you can verify in the archives, but Mircea Eliade, the historian of religions, the famous professor of theology at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s—a Romanian Orthodox man—studied traditional tribal religions all his life. His book on shamanism, nearly a thousand pages long, is a classic study in that very religious form. Although our monks, they didn’t read Eliade, of course, that came later, but they discovered the same principles.
If we draw, for example, a line representing the experience of Homo sapiens on the planet earth, how long has our species been here? Hundreds of thousands of years. Round it off to a million. We’ve been reading and writing only for the last 5,000. For most of our history, for most of our experience, our ancestors learned by the telling of stories. Written language hadn’t been invented. There were no sacred scriptures in any religion; there couldn’t have been. For the vast majority, 90%, of our human experience on the planet earth, this was the religious structure, I would say, of traditional peoples, and it still is today among the tribes where literacy has still not become prominent or predominant. This line: 5% is us, the invention of literacy and those who rely on books. There’s a certain amount of brain damage that is associated with that. [Laughter] I think it’s continuing now with electronic media, where we remember less and less in our own brains and store it someplace else, as if we can go back and retrieve it any time we need it, but for now it’s irrelevant. I’m afraid even our educational system is based on this notion, that you don’t really have to know it, you just have to know how to find it.
But these people had to remember everything, and it had to be told and retold in order for it not to be lost or forgotten. What was it that from generations people told? All tribal societies—[Inaudible] is my source for this more than St. Herman, but it’s clear that they did exactly the same thing. There’s stories, first of all, about origins. What’s the structure of the world? Arctic peoples—I’m going to use my wife’s Yupik culture from Alaska, but Arctic peoples throughout Alaska and certainly Canada and Greenland and Siberia—all have pretty much the same idea of what the world is like. It’s really a big bowl of water. In the Yupik culture it’s [rilemeq tik, ril emeq]. It’s a bowl, and in it there’s a raft or sponge of land floating, called the nuna. Then the whole thing is covered with a kind of lid—the sky—called the qilag. It’s not much different, actually, from the Genesis sense of the world—the firmament in the midst of the waters, the one above and the one below. It’s pretty much the same structure.
But the Arctic peoples have a story that in the beginning when the world was new, there was a ladder, a rope, a tree, a pole—something—like Jacob’s ladder, actually—that held the whole thing together. So that the first people, when the world was new and people were innocent and basically, we would say, sinless—it’s the garden of Eden story told in Arctic terms—the first people have the option of climbing this rope-ladder-tree-pole and ascending into the spirit world beyond—into heaven—and to communicate there with the gods or goddesses or spirits or whatever was up there. They could ascend this rope-ladder-tree-pole and communicate with the birds and understand what the birds were saying, because each bird species has their own language, just as each human tribe has their own language. And they could live on the earth and communicate with all the animals—mammals and birds and the bears, the elk, the deer, and the moose, the pigeons and the eagles. They could understand, and they would learn from all the other creatures. And they could descend even into the sea and learn from the sea mammals, the whales, and understand what they’re trying to say. This possibility of gathering all the wisdom from all the creatures was exclusively human prerogative.
But this ladder-rope-tree-pole, whatever it was, in everybody’s story, got broken. And who broke it? The first kids. [Laughter] Because human children are different from all other species. Whale calves become whales. Wolf cubs become wolves. Eaglets become eagles. But human children don’t listen. [Laughter] And some of them don’t grow up to be human. They have the possibility of becoming like the angels. They also have the possibility of becoming evil. It’s a matter of choice when it comes to humans. It’s not in our DNA. We can either listen to the wisdom of the elders and conform our behavior to those truths, or we can go off on our own and insist on having it our way, which is almost always fatal. That’s the way the world is.
You see, those are basic truths about the origins and structures of the universe, and that’s the Arctic story. And it’s the first kids that mess things up. So you’ve got to raise your kids right, because it’s the parents who fail. You can’t blame the kids, because they were never taught right. It’s up to the parents to train—and the whole community to raise the children to become Unangan human beings, to become Aleutic human beings, to become Tlingit human beings, to become Yupik—real human beings. [Laughter] And that’s a matter of teaching and guiding and correcting.
Now, how do you do that? With more stories! Besides the origin stories—I call them the sacred stories; ethnographers call them Myths, with a capital M. I object to that, because the connotation of a myth in English also means a story that’s not really true, but the way I’m defining it, it’s a sacred story like Genesis. It might not be historically the case at all, but it reveals certain fundamental spiritual truths that are eternal truths and apply to everyone everywhere. That’s why I think “sacred stories” is a more accurate term than the word “myth.” But technically in secular universities these are called myths.
Supporting the myths are stories that happened later along this timeline, and they are stories mostly about boys and mostly about boys who didn’t listen. [Laughter] There’s a wonderful story that I heard from the Aleutic people. I guess I could tell you; it’s quick. The boy and his grandmother are living alone, and they have no food. Hundreds of stories start this way: they’re always out of food. And the grandmother says to the boy, “We have no food. You’re going to have to go hunting.” He says, “Fine. I’ll get ready.” And as he’s getting ready, Grandma starts giving him advice. “You see that mountain over there? It’s very dangerous. People who go up to that mountain never come back. Don’t go near that mountain; don’t touch that mountain.” On that day? Same thing. “That’s a very dangerous place, because people who go in there never get back out. They die or they’re eaten alive or we don’t know what kind of monster is back there, but don’t go into that bay.” And that forest. All the other forests are fine, the bays are fine; all the other mountains are fine. Just not that mountain, not that bay, not that forest.
Clear enough. Where do you think he’s going? [Laughter] And when I ask my teenage boys in my high school class, “How do you know that? Why is he doing exactly what he was told not to do?” And they say, “Because he’s interested to find out why he’s not supposed to go there.” [Laughter] It’s the Adam and Eve story in a different way, isn’t it? They are specifically told not to do something, and that’s exactly what [they do]. That’s how we humans are; it’s not just boys. Men are just bigger boys, after all.
Oh, and she says one more thing: “Take this with you.” Of course it’s a [reminder of where he’s been]. It’s a mink skin. “Why are you giving me this old mink skin, Granny?” She said, “It can save your life.” “How’s this old piece of fur going to save my life?” “You’ll see. If you find yourself in any dangerous predicament, you chew on it, soften it up, stretch it, and pull it over your head.” “Yeah, right.” Well, he had no pockets, so he took this big skin, stuffed it up his sleeve, and paddled straight to the mountain he wasn’t even supposed to touch. And he doesn’t just touch it; he starts to climb it. Halfway up the slope, there’s a tremor, a minor earthquake, and the landslide that it triggers buries the boy alive. He’s in the dark. He’s running out of oxygen. He’s going to suffocate in a few minutes. He’s going to be dead. And then he remembers granny’s mink skin. So he reaches down his sleeve and retrieves it. He chews on it, he stretches it, he pulls it over his head, and he’s transformed into a mink. In the shape of a mink, he burrows his way out to the surface. Sunshine, blue sky, fresh air. The mink skin, as she said, saved his life.
I’ll skip ahead. He goes to the bay and the forest, too, and gets himself into trouble, but he survives by turning himself into a mink and then back into a boy. On the way home, skipping to the end of the story, he comes to a lake the size of this campus, in which there is a colony of mink, hundreds of mink, fat, contented, frolicking mink! It looks like they’re having so much fun. He pulls out the mink skin once more. He chews on it, he stretches it, he turns himself into a mink and lives happily ever after. [Laughter]
Now the first time I heard that story, I was perplexed. I had in my culture never heard of a human being deciding to be an animal. In European folklore, being turned into an animal is always a curse: someone changed the prince into a frog, that kind of story. Now you need a princess to kiss the frog, etc., so they can get married and live happily ever after. That’s that kind of story. This boy decided to be an animal. So I went back to the elders of the village. Why do you tell your kids this story? And their answer was: So they will respect the animals. What do you mean by that, respect? And their answer was, in a sense: The life of the animal and the life in us is the same sacred reality. The outer form is different, but the reality inside is mysterious and sacred, and it has to be treated with respect. Life in anything has to be treated respectfully. It can’t be treated as if it’s nothing, as if it has no value, as if it’s worthless. We want our children to treat the animals with respect.
And then what exactly do you mean by that? I had to go to another culture to figure this out. The first time I went to the Yupik region—from Kodiak it’s a different language, a different culture; it’s further north, colder—my high school students invited me to go hunting with them. I’d never hunted, even in Pennsylvania. This time, we went out on this huge lake, because there was an ice jam: there was water everywhere. And we came home—the home was a log cabin half the size of this auditorium, one room. I was living with an elderly couple who didn’t speak English; they spoke only Yupik. I had immersed myself in that language because I wanted to learn it. That was my favorite way of learning, but I was like a baby. I couldn’t say anything to anybody. I was just learning to understand what was going on.
We brought my teacher to this one-room cabin half a dozen muskrats. She was delighted to receive the muskrats. She skinned them and put the fur on little twigs to dry out behind the wood stove. They’ll be somebody’s coat eventually when we get enough. But she put all the meat into one 20-gallon cookpot. I realized… I tease my Yupik wife. The Yupik cultural cookbook has only one recipe: Boil water, add ingredients, season to taste, serve when done. That’s pretty much it. It’s going to be muskrat soup for supper, and the host, my teacher, set the table with spoons around the circumference. She brought a bucket of water—we didn’t have plumbing—into the house, put washcloths into it, wrung them out, and put the washcloths down the middle of the table. I’d never seen anyone set the dinner table this way, but I had learned: Be quiet and watch; you’ll see.
When dinner was served, she brought us our meal. The usual procedure is to go to the stove and ladle out what you want. Not this time. She played waitress and brought each person—our guests as well as the hunters and myself—our soup. And it was soup: potatoes, rice, onions, carrots—and in each bowl… [Laughter] one whole muskrat. Claws, teeth, eyes. [Laughter] I tell you, I didn’t know how to handle this. I didn’t know how to approach this. I look around, and everyone is looking at me, like: Go ahead! [Laughter]
Could someone give me a clue here? So finally the elder across the table reached into his bowl and removed the meat with his fingers and ate it, and then everybody else did. Oh, I can do that. Of course, I had a high school senior sitting next to me, relishing, enjoying my introduction into his culture for a change. [Laughter] He kept nudging me with his elbow, pointing out my supper and whispering into my ear: “Raats. Rats. You’re eating rats.” [Laughter] He meant to stimulate my appetite, right? [Laughter] I remember consciously thinking, “You’re eating it, too, buddy.” [Laughter] And I don’t know what they put into hot dogs either. [Laughter]
Psychologically, I thought I finished my meal. My teacher, the cook, came over to me and asked me in her language, “[Da korn ha?] You’re done, aren’t you?” I thought I was done, so I said yes. And she started clearing my bowl, but she was my teacher, remember, and when I answered her correctly in her language, she smiled at me and nodded. I found a blank stare now as she removed my bowl. The signal was not the right answer. So I quickly changed it to “[Da si da]. I’m not done yet.” And she returned my bowl and walked away.
The problem was I didn’t know why I wasn’t done yet. [Laughter] Everyone else at the table was still very busy. They were separating each little bone from every other bone, and wherever there was the tiniest little speck of meat in between, one way or the other they were consuming that meat. [Smacking and slurping] Ten people at the table. There’s a word for this in Yupik. It’s called bokok. To bokok means to assiduously and carefully remove and consume the meat from the bones of an animal so that none of it will be wasted, as a sign of gratitude and respect for the animal that died to feed you. That’s what they were doing. So I had to bokok for the first time in my life. I separated every little bone. [Slurping] My teacher came back. “[Mu den tata ke? Now you’re done, aren’t you?” Not so confident the second time around, I responded hesitantly, “Hee.” And she said, “Hee?” [Laughter]
I tell the story to a principle. Missionaries have to be willing to adopt as much as possible the culture to which they’re sent. You have to love the culture and the people to whom you are sent. I would go so far as to say you can’t save what you don’t love. And St. Herman and the monks loved the Aleutic people, and they solidly stood on their side against the Russian traders, against Baranov and Shelikhov’s policy of extorting the furs. They stood against that, and they spent all the pen and ink they ever got—because they had to get that from Baranov, too—they expended all they could appealing to the government back in Siberia to intervene and to alleviate the suffering of the Aleut people.
This led to several assassination attempts on the life of St. Herman. That’s why he moved to Spruce Island. He didn’t move to Spruce Island because he needed a quiet, secluded place. There was a quiet place five miles from town. Kodiak town was only a few square miles. He didn’t have to move—but he wouldn’t have been safe there. They were trying to kill him. It’s quite clear that the company was reading the letters that the monks were sending out, even from the beginning. Fr. Joasaph writes to Chilikov and then to the government officials in Irkutsk: If I had to write everything down, it would fill a book, and I don’t have enough pen and ink to do that anyway. I’m telling you, in a sense, the tragic highlights of what’s going on here.
Baranov is writing to headquarters in St. Petersburg and saying, “These monks create nothing but trouble for me. They’re constantly stirring up the natives against our policies. If I could tell you everything, it would fill a library.” You can sense from that who’s reading whose mail, and who’s covering up their tracks.
When St. Herman finally meets Baranov’s replacement, Semyon Yanovsky, Yanovsky comes to Spruce Island and says, “What in God’s name has been going on here? I’ve read the correspondence back in St. Petersburgh. Baranov says one thing, you monks write something else. Back and forth, line by line, they contradict each other. No one in the capital can figure out what is going on in Kodiak, because of course Baranov had access to what the monks were saying and could cover and…” St. Herman says, “Our people cried tears of blood.” You can almost get no more dramatic than that. “Our people cried tears of blood. Help us to know what mercy is.”
And the new governor of course reverses all the policies, so things get much better. Fr. Herman dies in another two decades; he’s there another 20 years. There were no recorded miracles during his life. There’s a prophecy about a tidal wave coming and he says, “Don’t worry. It won’t go beyond this place.” And the forest fire sweeping through: “Don’t worry. The fire won’t go beyond this log.” But those are prophecies, not really miracles. All the miracles of healing occurred at Fr. Herman’s grave, posthumously, as the Aleut people came there to pray, recognizing him as their defender, as the one who, against his own safety and his own security, stood up for them.
They had no idea what his prayer life was like. They knew he lived ascetically. He slept on a board with another board as his blanket, a stone has his pillow. He dug a cave when he got to Spruce Island, Monk’s Lagoon, and lived in that cave in the tradition of St. Anthony the Great of Egypt and St. Anthony of the Caves in Kiev. He lived in that cave and was buried in that cave when he died. And he gave strict instructions not even to try to take his body to Kodiak for a funeral. They tried, but his coffin, halfway down to the beach, suddenly became so heavy that they couldn’t lift it any more, and when they tried to take it back to the cave, they had no problem. There’s a cross that marks that spot in the life, the story of St. Herman on Spruce Island.
So St. Herman visited the sick. He went to Kodiak during an epidemic and prayed and even cured—was seen responsible for the cure of some of the people who were infected with the smallpox that an American ship actually had brought. The Russians were on top of this, by the way. There was a worldwide smallpox epidemic in the mid [1830s], and another one in the 1840s, and in the 1830s, they sent vaccine to Alaska to have the people vaccinated, and those who accepted the vaccination survived the epidemic, and those who rejected it, of course, perished. This gave the missionaries some credence: they’re here to help us; they’re here not to do us harm but to prevent the disease from spreading.
In any case, Fr. Herman’s gravesite became a place of pilgrimage, and miracles of healing occurred on a regular basis. I met dozens of people when I went to Alaska who could say, “I was very sick as a child. My parents took me” or brought water or earth from Spruce Island, they were anointed, and they were miraculously cured. I won’t put people on the spot, but I know people in this room whose relatives were cured the same way, miraculously, of diseases that doctors had given up all hope or had to perform very serious operations, on children as well as adults. The stories of healing are legion and so undeniable that no one in Kodiak, even our rivals—the Protestant missionaries who came later—they can’t deny the sanctity of Fr. Herman.
Back to my curriculum, the legends like the mink-boy story. They, almost all of them, lead to the composition of songs to keep that story alive, because you can’t tell the same story over and over and over again. You know how kids are: That’s boring; we heard that story already. [Laughter] What has the Church done with Christian stories? We’ve created hymns and songs. There’s only a few verses about Christ’s nativity in the Gospel of Matthew—that’s when the kings arrive—and there’s only a few verses in the Gospel of Luke—when the shepherds arrive. But these few verses have produced in the history of Christianity thousands of songs, hundreds of Christmas carols in every nationality and tradition. So we’ve got way more songs than stories. Same thing for these cultures. The stories are told, but the songs that people remember—but the songs are a way of reminding people of and celebrating the story and its meaning. So just like Christmas carols, the people of Kodiak, the people of the Aleutian Islands, the Yupik people, they all have songs and rituals to keep the stories alive, because you don’t have written language.
The stories get told, and it’s like reciting a Shakespearean play. If you’ve ever been in any kind of dramatic production, you know this is possible. At opening night or at dress rehearsal, everybody is all but shaky about their own lines, but by the time you’ve been in a few performances, you not only know your lines, you know everybody else’s lines. And if you have to recite the play every day for the rest of your life, you would never forget it. And if you had to recite it in front of an audience who also knows the play and will correct you if you miss anything—well, that happens with little children, doesn’t it? You read a little story, and the next time you want to tell it a little bit faster and you want to skip a page? “Tell it right, Grandpa.” [Laughter] Same in these stories.
The stories are not the personal composition of the person telling it. They’re the heritage of that tribe. They’re the cultural heritage of the people, of the human beings, and the elders have the responsibility of maintaining that story verbatim—the way it has always been told.
By the way, as a footnote here, I remember when Professor Kesich of blessed memory from our school came to Alaska and talked about the origins of Christian Scripture. I discussed this with him. I said, “You know, I think they started writing down the gospels because the people who were actually there and had been telling the story for the last 30, 40, 50 years were being martyred or dying off.” And that’s the impetus for getting them written down, because the next generation can’t claim eyewitness prestige. Therefore I believe that what we now have as the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were simply the stump speeches. You know what I mean? The apostle told the story the same way, village after village after village, as he traveled around the eastern Mediterranean, and eventually it became the way he always told the story. If you tried to change it, the audience could say, “Tell it right.” [Laughter]
You see what I mean? And that’s how the Gnostic gospels got rejected, because no one had heard those stories, and how the canonical gospels got accepted, because that’s the way we always heard it. It wasn’t the angel whispering into St. Matthew’s ear, dictating to his pen; it was the way the Gospel had always been told and the way the Church had already accepted it, and they could identify the counterfeits and throw them out when the Gnostic gospels arrived with stories that no one had ever heard before. You see? It was no central authority. They didn’t send it to the Vatican for approval. The Church itself, the body of believers, could detect the true from the false gospels—the same way as in these cultures.
Now, of all of these things, the sacred stories of the origins that contain the patterns, the paradigms, the ideals, and then the legends that kind of back it up, and the ritual songs and dances and ceremonies that keep all this alive, and the carvings—the characters in these stories are embedded into, precisely, the weapons—the knives, the bows, the spears, the arrows—to remind the hunter how to behave in a respectful way in relation to the animals, because in the beginning, the first humans arriving in Alaska—and this was an Unangan story, it’s an Aleutic story, it’s a Diné story, it’s a Tlingit story—it’s one of the few stories all the tribes tell.
The first human beings arrived in Alaska thousands of years ago. They washed ashore in a landing craft shaped like a clam shell. Why? I don’t know. Because everybody says so. And ask this clam shell opened, Raven, the leader of the animals, was walking along that same beach. And Raven watched these new creatures disembark. Raven was not impressed. Raven examined them from head to toe, walked around the men, the women, and the children, shaking his head negatively. “What kind of creatures are you? I’ve never seen anything like you before. Stumpy little legs: obviously you can’t run very fast. No claws worth anything: I don’t know what you’re going to catch. No fangs worth anything: I can’t even tell what you’re going to eat. You obviously have no wings or feathers: you can’t fly. And worst of all, hardly any fur. We have the season called ‘winter.’ It lasts half the year. You’re not going to make it. The first blizzard, you’re out of here. Hypothermia is going to extinguish all of you in one night. Go back where you came from.”
But the first humans refused. “We’re staying here.” “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” Raven said. So he called a convocation of all the Arctic animals. “Look what I found on the beach this morning.” [Laughter] They examined the first humans and came to a similar conclusion: pathetic, pitiful, ridiculous—doomed. “Exactly,” Raven said. “I tried to tell them, but they don’t listen.” The other animals said, “Don’t worry. They’re kind of cute. Let’s keep them.” [Laughter] Raven said, “I have no objection, but I don’t see how it’s going to be possible. I’m open to hear your suggestions.”
So the animals huddled. They conferred that day, and they came back by evening with this proposal. They said to raven, “What if we give these pathetic, pitiful human creatures our fur and feathers for covering? And what if we give them our bodies, our flesh, as meat? Couldn’t they survive then?” And Raven considered this. “You know? That might work. But why would you do that? What’s in it for you?” And the animals said, “We will give these pathetic, pitiful new creatures our fur and feathers for clothing, and we will give them our bodies as food, in exchange for gratitude and respect.”
That’s the deal. That’s why the elders told that mink-boy story. We want our children to respect the animals. And how do you do that? Point one: Be careful what you say. We’re on probation, and they’re listening. Don’t talk about the animals like they’re nothing or like they’re inferior. In many ways, they are superior to us. Animals see things humans can’t see. Animals hear things humans can’t hear. Animals smell things humans can’t smell. Animals know things people don’t know. And they’re in cahoots. [Laughter] So if the moose, the deer, the caribou with their big noses don’t smell the hunter coming, or with their big ears don’t hear the hunters coming, the sparrows tip them off. You can never outsmart them, overpower them, or trick them. As a hunter, your success depends exclusively on their willingness to die to keep you alive. That’s the way the world is, and that’s the way these people lived and believed for thousands of years before the missionaries arrived.
Just think of one hymn in our vast repertoire that resonates with that belief. Holy Saturday, the entrance hymn that replaces the cherubic hymn. “Let all mortal flesh keep silent.” Why? “The King of kings and the Lord of lords comes to be slain, to give himself as food.” You see how Orthodoxy made sense to these people? That’s what we always believed, but we thought it was only the animals—but God does this. The paradigm is beyond this world. God comes to us to be slain, to give himself as food. That’s what we always believed. We had no clue, however, that God would do this. But we’ve got to hear their stories first, or you don’t know how to connect, you don’t know how to build that bridge.
Last of all, there’s the shaman. I didn’t get to him, but that’s important. The shaman in the traditional culture is believed to have been a human being who, one way or the other, usually by a traumatic event, like falling into the ocean and drowning, or into a river and freezing, having been caught in a blizzard and physically dying—their soul, their spirit leaving their body—and the shaman spirit goes to the world above or to the spirit world below, which is a passage we all get to make. But the shaman is one who has made that passage—and returned. He’s been there, where we all get to go now only at death, but they are the first people who are capable of going where the world was made. And because they’ve made this passage to the spirit world above or the spirit world below, they’ve learned. They’ve developed a special relationship with particular spirits or animals. They have new abilities, primarily prophecy and healing. Their existence, therefore, reaffirms all of this as somehow true and related to Reality with a capital R. The shamans’ existence is the verification that all of this is true and right and somehow relates to how the world really is.
Fr. Herman was a prophet and a healer. So notice, as the monks themselves had planned, you’ve got stories about structures and paradigms; we’ve got the Bible: we’ve got lots of stories about that. And your stories contain the ideal, and we have the ideal, and it’s not a story: it’s a Person. And you have legends, historical episodes in the history of your religion, and we have the Lives of saints. And you have rituals, ceremonies, songs, dances, and art? We’ve got all of that, too. What they could not have predicted at the time they were there, still on earth, was that they would also have the equivalent of a Christian shaman, the one who could prophesy and heal, and that’s who St. Herman was.
He completes the paradigm: the Christian fulfillment of what the people already knew. And that’s how St. Innocent began his mission in the 1820s. He starts with the Gospel of Matthew, because the Gospel of Matthew refers back to the Old Testament prophesies: “And this was done that it might be fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets, saying…” That’s why Matthew comes first, even though Mark was written earlier. Matthew was put first in the New Testament because he’s the bridge referring back to the Old Testament. But St. Innocent translated the Gospel of Matthew into Unangan in 1824 to be able to say to the Unangan people: What we have is the fulfillment of what you already knew. And when the Gospel was translated into Alutiiq in the 1840s, Ilya Tyzhnov, the translator, could say to the Aleutic people, “We’re translating this book because we brought you the rest of the story. Not to abolish your old stories. Your old stories are fine, as far as they go, but here’s the rest of it. God comes to be a slave, to give himself as food, to establish communion.” No one could have predicted that.
St. Jacob goes to the Yupik people in the 1840s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and preaches to the warring tribes of the interior. There are twelve Diné tribes, all of which warred with each other, killed each other, and enslaved each other. He is kidnapped by them because they say to him, “You’ve been down with these Yupik guys for 20 years. You never come up the river to us.” Well, they weren’t his assignment; the Yupiks were. He was in his own territory; he had plenty to do. He kept coming up with excuses: I’ll come next year, I’ll come next year. Finally, they got tired of it. They just grabbed him. “Get in the boat. Come with us.” [Laughter] And in 1853, I think it is, hundreds of people from all these different tribes gather at their own initiative, and he preaches the Gospel to them. There are enough promyshlenniks who have intermarried with them by now, to translate what he is saying into the different languages.
He spends a week from the book of Genesis to the book of Acts, telling the Scriptures orally. At the end, hundreds of them unanimously petition to be baptized. He baptizes over 300 people on the shores of the Shaviovik River. Men first on one day, women the second, teenagers and kids on the third. At the end of this, he writes to the bishop: “From this activity, I became dreadfully tired.” [Laughter] And then he adds, “But the sight of so many new believers, people gathered together, worshiping the true God, now as brothers and sisters, people of different tribes, former enemies, gives me such joy that all my physical aches and pains have left my body.” Because this is what we often neglect: the Christian Gospel says something that makes logically no sense: Love your enemies. It’s a contradiction. Your enemy by definition is someone who hates you, and you usually hate them back. That’s why they’re your enemy. Loving your enemies makes no sense, but this is the Good News for the tribes who, from that day on, stopped fighting each other and embraced each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
All of this is made possible because at the very foundation in all of these tribes, there’s a respect for the natural world. The animals are not to be exploited or exterminated. They see things we don’t see. They hear things we don’t hear. They know things we don’t know. They are not inferior creatures; they can’t be treated as such. The earth is somehow responsible for propagating them. What does it take? What does it take to celebrate the liturgy?
Probably an apocryphal story from the American southwest. The Navajo people—we call them Navajo in English; they call themselves Diné in their language—this is the twisted proof that they’re really Alaskans—who couldn’t hack it [Laughter] and hoofed it sun-ward hundreds of years ago. Their own stories say they moved there during the ice age and they never came back, and the other Diné returned to their homeland after the world became an ice age. Either way, they’re our cousins. And the Diné in the early days of television were taking a course on how to do television shows. A group of them—Diné, Navajo men—said, “For our final exam, we’re going to make a TV show on Navajo weaving. Now, if you don’t know anything about them, they’re the most wonderful weavers. They raise their own sheep, they spin it into yarn with their own natural dyes, and they make the most extraordinary tapestries and rugs.
So everyone else in the class was excited: We’re going to find out the secrets of Navajo weaving. Well, the premiere of this half-hour show began with a beautiful Navajo Arizona sunrise, and some Navajo men sort of stumbling out of their bunk beds in their traditional holding, which, by the way, has the same structure as the Yupik universe; and saddling their horses and galloping across the desert. Sheep, sheep, lots of sheep, wild flowers and cacti, a cloudburst on the mesa, rain falling, thunder, lightning in the distance, galloping home, taking the saddles off their horses. More sheep. And then—splash—a Navajo rug half-woven on a loom.
Needless to say, the class in Flagstaff was puzzled by this presentation. “You said this was going to be on Navajo weaving, but we didn’t learn anything about Navajo weaving.” They expected to see the wool being sheared off the sheep, spun into yarn, dyed, and then the loom set up. None of that was in the movie. Sunrise, rain, grass, sheep, wild flowers, cacti, wind—what are you trying to tell us? It took another week to debrief. What the Diné were saying was, “What does it take to make a rug?” We focused on the yarn, the dye, and the loom. No. Where does the wool come from? The sheep. Okay, what keeps the sheep alive? Grass. And what keeps the grass alive? The earth and the rain and the wind. They were basically saying to us: Your focus is too narrow. Think about it. It takes the whole world to make that rug.
Apply that to the Eucharist. What does it take to make a loaf of bread? Flour, yeast, water, an oven… a matushka, usually. [Laughter] And there? No. We don’t grow any wheat in Alaska. It has to be grown and flown in in sacks. Betty Crocker did it. But you realize what I’m trying to say. That wheat had to be planted by some farmer, probably in the Midwest, somewhere in Iowa or Nebraska or another state I haven’t been to. And the rain had to fall and the sun had to shine and the wind had to blow and the ground had to be fertile, and after months of human import and labor, it had to be harvested and then ground into flour and then packaged, and Alaska Airlines flew it to Anchorage, and them some stockboy put it on the shelf, and then we finally bought it and brought it home. All of that is what we are saying when we say, “Thine own of thine own we offer to thee, on behalf of all and for all.” That sunshine—there couldn’t be communion without the whole world being in balance and harmony. That’s what the Navajos were trying to say about their rugs.
That’s what we can say, even more, about the vineyard. You can grow a wheat crop twice a year; it takes a generation to plant a vineyard and expect it to produce any major production of grapes. When the bishop comes out and says, “Lord, Lord, look down upon this vine which thy right hand has planted and establish it,” it’s from the prophecy of Isaiah after the vineyard had been burned and they were just replanting it. In other words, we’re replanting this vineyard as a sign of optimism and hope, that we’re still going to be here 30 years from now when those grapes are finally going to come into maturity, because that’s how long it takes. And then we’ll crush it. It always takes this mixture of what’s natural and human effort put into it, human creativity, human energy. Put it all together and offer it up to God. It becomes the heavenly bread and the cup of life.
That made such perfect sense to these people they have been Orthodox Christians to this day. And there are certain other ceremonies. I think maybe the most—the great blessing of water at Theophany. They have the tradition—the Yupik people have the tradition of going in winter to the river and putting into the river the parts of the animal they couldn’t eat, but with respect. They cut a hole in the ice and they put these through the ice and thanked the animal one last time for sacrificing itself to keep the human people, the human beings, alive. When they saw the priests go forth in Theophany out to the frozen lakes and rivers and put the holy cross— because we don’t have liquid water in January; you realize that? Where we live, water is a frozen commodity from December till May. You have to cut a hole in the ice, the same way people did in the past, only now immersing the cross and invoking God’s blessing on that lake or that river, the lake and the river from which we draw the fish and our sustenance for more than half the year. We’ve been doing that for two centuries.
30 years ago, a consortium of Canadian and British mining corporations discovered that, at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, on the north shore of Lake Iliamna, was one of the largest gold and copper deposits remaining on the planet. And they announced plans for the world’s largest open-pit gold mine at this site. The problem is, of course, that to extract the one-tenth of one percent of gold and copper that’s in this mineral deposit, you have to use cyanide poisoning. So you’d have to take truckloads of rock and crush it into bowling-ball-size deposits of rock, and then crush it into marble-size pieces of rock, and then into dust. Once you’ve crushed it down to that level, you somehow apply these chemicals and extract whatever gold or copper is in this deposit. Then the water that you use is poisonous and cannot be put back into the river or lake; it had to be stored somewhere. So their plan was to dig pits, 40 miles long and several miles deep, to deposit the poisoned water, which they promised would never escape or leak into their lakes and the ponds and the rivers nearby, which are the source of the world’s largest salmon fisheries.
You couldn’t have a more black-and-white confrontation, between people who love the earth and the fish and all that is natural, and the major international corporation who saw billions of dollars in profit on the horizon. The native people of this region are all Orthodox. They were evangelized by St. Juvenaly, which is another story that would take another two hours. We have to skip that today. But they’ve been Orthodox since the beginning of Christianity in Alaska. St. Innocent visited the region in 1828 and baptized the first Yupik converts to Christianity, and he said, “And the Nushagak River became a new Jordan for them.” He is the first to invoke God’s blessing on that river. But it’s threatened; it’s threatened by this mine. Our people have no money. In the 1960s, the Yupik people were assessed to be the poorest group of human beings in the United States. It was a miscalculation, by the way; they only judged their poverty by how many dollars they earned. But these people hunted and fished and gathered. If a moose is worth the same as a side of beef and every family had two moose… They filled their freezers. They weren’t going to be hungry. They didn’t need food stamps. They provided for themselves, as they had for thousands of years. Nevertheless, these people don’t have a lot of money, and they sure don’t have a lot of political savvy when it comes to opposing an international mining consortium, who are foreigners, from Britain and from Canada.
The Diocese had to stand in solidarity with them. That’s our tradition. You understand, since the time of St. Herman, when the native people—our people—are threatened by somebody who’s out to make a lot of money—hmm: when has that happened before?—it’s our history. [but we shouldn’t have—couldn’t remain silent]. So at our diocesan assembly that year—I think it was 2004—there was a resolution, quoting holy Scripture: Since God blessed the whole world in the beginning and called it good, very good, and since God has used water for his purposes in the history of salvation, and it’s everything that we celebrate at Theophany—Moses in the basket floating down the Nile, Noah in the Ark, Joshua crossing the Jordan River into the promised land, Elijah dousing his offering with water…
I was once in Ethiopia for this feast. I think they read in their paroimia, every verse in the Bible with the word water in it. It was at least three hours long. And then came the final blessing, the baptism of Christ. And the patriarch came with a censer and there was a whole bunch within this group, cruciform, and the patriarch censed around it three times—same tradition. And then there were hundreds, literally hundreds of thousands of people watching. So to bless that crowd, his subdeacons climbed up onto this bas-relief of Christ—Christ being baptized by St. John the Baptist, out of which came three fountains. One of the subdeacons attached a garden hose to this fountain, and the patriarch came [Laughter] with that hose, and these thousands of people pushed forward to receive this blessing. And the Japanese tourists nearby, with their very expensive Nikon cameras, fled in terror. [Laughter]
But you see, our native people watched the priests do this for hundreds of years, and the blessing of their lakes and rivers is basic to their survival, and this mine represented the destruction of that culture and those villages. So we passed this resolution: Wherefore, wherefore, wherefore—all the quotes from the Old Testament and the New about water. And then finally: Be it resolved that we, the Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, will invoke God’s blessing on—about to say “improvement”—any development that will enhance the lives of our people—but we cannot invoke such a blessing on any development that threatens to poison the very lakes and rivers upon which we depend and upon which we have invoked God’s blessing for two centuries. We didn’t say we cursed the mine; we didn’t even mention the mine. We just said we couldn’t bless any development that wouldn’t…
Oh, the mining people went crazy. I have to say, I upped the ante. I went on TV and said, “We view the poisoning of these lakes and rivers”—which is, in fact, inevitable… They said, “Oh, no, we’re going to do it differently. We’re never going to poison rivers.” We researched this. There has never been an open-pit gold and copper mine that did not poison the lakes and rivers. So why will this be an exception? We have no reason to believe that. In any case, I called it sacrilege, because if you’re violating what is holy, isn’t that by definition what sacrilege is? This really made them angry. They called Syosset. [Laughter] “We want to talk, here. Is this true? Is this your theology?”
I don’t know who answered the phone, but they answered and said, “Yes. It is our theology. You can’t bless something for 200 years, year after year after year, then stand silently by and allow it to be poisoned.” This is where liturgy and mission come together in the real world. I’ve been telling our friends in Africa: You should get together and bless Lake Victoria, real quick. We should be known as the… Our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is known as the Green Patriarch, with good reason. He’s been speaking out about these issues for decades. I have friends in mid-America who say, “That’s just the PR stuff. He wants to keep his name in the headlines.” I say no. Based on my experience in Alaska, standing up for the environment is a theological necessity for our tradition. We cannot remain quiet and let the world be poisoned, especially if we…
I told my grandmother about going to the river in Alaska when I first moved there. She was always asking me, “So when you coming back to America?” She was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, and she could not believe that there was any place in this hemisphere that was so much like the culture she came from. “So when you coming back to America?” So when I told her about the blessing of water, going out on the lake or the river, frozen though it might be, cutting a hole in it, putting the cross through, she said, “Just like Allentown!” [Thump, laughter] That’s Allentown, Pennsylvania, by the way, 90 miles to the west of us. I said, “Baba, what do you mean, ‘just like Allentown’?” She said, “We built our church on the shores of the Lehigh River precisely so we could go every year to bless the river. “I never saw it.” She said, “Oh, no, we stopped doing that years ago.” Now, the only reason I can imagine that they stopped doing it years ago was that the neighbors, who were Polish and Slovak and German, were making fun of these Ukies going down to the river every year, in January of all times—so it’s not the thing you do in America.
I think that has to be reconsidered. I think it’s part of our mission in America to be known as the ones who bless the lakes and the rivers, and not just in America: everywhere. We should be known as the Church that cares about an invokes God, renews God’s blessing which has never been revoked. God saw the world as good and blessed it. At Theophany, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove on the water—not just on Christ, but on the water. The world is being renewed, the whole creation. Here’s something for our fundamentalist friends: John 3:16, the one you see at every NFL game, right? Somebody always has to put that out somewhere.
But they don’t understand the verse. What’s the original Greek text? “God so loved the world.” In Greek there’s several words for world. There is oikoumeni, the people of the world, the inhabited world; and there’s kosmos, the whole creation. Which one is it in John 3:16? Kosmos. God so loved the kosmos, the whole creation, that he sent his Son. The mission of the Church extends to the whole creation. It’s not just the salvation of souls and of human beings; it’s the consecration, the transfiguration, the sanctification of this world, of the created universe. Our mission on earth is to remind people of that. God will take care of it in the end. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, not because this one will be abolished—this one will be fulfilled.
This is our mantra, isn’t it? Missiologically, we present the Gospel not as the abolition of what people already have, but as its fulfillment. The Gospel comes to fulfill what was already good and noble and beautiful and pleasing in those people’s lives in that culture in that place, not to abolish it, not to replace it. These are basic missiological principles that we have to embrace and then, more importantly, employ, put them to work. The blessing of water is not just a local custom for preparing holy water for the parish for the coming year, a private ceremony inside the church where it’s nice and warm. We’ve got to get out there. If we can do it at 30 below with a hole in the ice, you can do it in New Jersey. [Laughter] Right?
And I’m saying this: We should be known for this. We should be famous for this. It’s not just the Green Patriarch in Istanbul—who does go to the Bosphoros, across the street from the patriarchate, once a year, to bless the ocean. I happened to be there this year, so I can vouch for him who did it. It’s the only time of the year the Turks let him do it. He’s under Muslim occupation for the last thousand years—800, anyway. He doesn’t have much option, but he still does it, and we in America? “It’s too cold.” Uh-uh. Just look to Alaska.
I wanted to bring in Alaska magazine. The summer after we were on the lakes—oh, I forgot to mention that. To highlight our resolution, I convinced our acting bishop, our locum tenens at that time, Archbishop Benjamin, Bishop of San Francisco and the Diocese of the West, to come to Alaska for the Great Blessing of Water that January. He agreed, and I pointed out to him this is going to be logistically something of a difficult process. We’re going to fly into a village on a five-seater plane, and someone’s going to have to meet us, because the landing strip is miles from the village. And the people in the meantime will be gathered at the church and will go by snow machine or car or bus or taxi or whatever to the church at the village, will be waiting for us, and then we’ll go in a procession with banners and a cross down to the lake or river. But someone has to go ahead of us to cut a hole in the ice, usually in the shape of a cross, and stay there to keep it from refreezing. We can’t keep that guy waiting all day, because he’ll freeze, right? [Laughter] So all this has to be coordinated: the landing of our plane, the gathering of the people, the procession to the lake or river, and then get there before the hole in the ice freezes. The bishop wrote back, “Hole in the ice!?” [Laughter]
Now, we could never have done this except for a critical element here that we also have to keep in mind. In this region, around Lake Iliamna, not only are there native villages, but there are people who have their permanent homes and also fishing lodges that make their annual living, bringing sportsmen who come with rod and reel and catch wonderful fish. There are literally millions of fish, so we can afford to let some sports people take a couple dozen each; it won’t matter so much. It’s magnificent, huge. They have their support, too, of course. The richest man in Alaska has his permanent home on the shores of Lake Clark, north of Iliamna Lake. It wouldn’t be feasible for us to get the bishop from village to village to village. There’s no roads; there’s no way to drive. You have to charter an airplane at hundreds of dollars to go from one village to the other, and then hundreds more… And we have 12 villages there. It would cost a fortune just to get the bishop, to get the clergy around the lake, because we’re going to make a statement. This time the bishop is coming to do the Great Blessing of Water, and we’re going to have television coverage for the Great Blessing of Water, and everybody’s invited.
But we have to have food. So I went to Mr. Gillam, the billionaire, banker, who has the house near the lake. “Do you have an airplane?” He said, “I am a pilot. I have seven airplanes.” [Laughter] “What do you need an airplane for?” And I explained the Great Blessing of the Water and how we’d like to invite the bishop and so forth. He said, “Fine. He will fly to my house. I will fly my cook out to make sure you’re well fed, and my plane will take you from village to village to village for as many days as you need to go.” So that’s how we did it. We had the support. Mr. Gillam was the one who put advertisements on TV, and he got the people of Alaska, not just the people of this region who were very much aware of the lake—he got the people of the whole state—in Anchorage, in Juneau, in Sitka, Kodiak. And Mr. Gillam hired… He spent millions, basically giving the people who had no voice a microphone. We had given them a voice.
We went to the other churches in Anchorage and Alaska—the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians—“Sign on. Join our petition.” [None of them did.] We had a political or economic potato. We stood alone. But Mr. Gillam gave us a microphone—and an airplane. And we went from village to village, it was covered on video and television, and in the end the Alaska magazine had as a back cover for several months: the bishop with hundreds of people around him and a three-bar cross, 20 feet long, cut in the ice, with the headline: “Someone Has to Speak for the Water.” And that was us.
The following November, there was a referendum on the state ballot, November ballot: Should the Bristol Bay area be declared a permanent fisheries reserve, in which no mining will ever be allowed? The referendum passed in all 411 precincts. It’s the only vote in the history of Alaska where it was unanimous, where every precinct voted against the mine and for the preservation. The mine stock dropped to pennies for value and pretty much went out of business. The Trump administration is still considering their application, but they have no investors. Tiffany’s of New York says, “We’ll never take an ounce of that gold.” The voice of the native people was heard. We spoke up, and that was the point of the bill. You can have the high ground, you can have the moral high ground, you can have the truth on your side—in the modern world, if you don’t have money to get your position broadcast and declaimed and out there, you can still lose.
So although Christ said it’s hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven, I know my billionaire’s going to get in there, just because he took the moral high ground this one time. He’s Donald Trump’s roommate from college; they’re buddies. But on the Pebble Mine, apparently they stand on opposite sides, and I know who’s going to win in the end, because I know who’s the smarter one. [Laughter]
But this was our Church standing up for what we believe. It’s not an economic issue; it’s not a political issue; it’s a moral issue involving our theological and spiritual concern for the natural world which God so loved. Thank you for being here today. [Applause]
I’m allowed 15 more minutes. Does anyone have any comments or questions, or is it just too warm in here? Class is dismissed, but you can stay. [Laughter]
Q1 I know that St. Moses the Black society tries to promote the outreach of the Orthodox Church to black people or other ethnicities which we haven’t historically reached. But do you think a part of that is advocating for their social justice issues?
Fr. Michael: I think so. How can we stand in the name of Christ and then ignore the injustices that are perpetrated. It’s not a matter of pointing back at the past. I think this is a big issue and a big problem. The injustice of the past is not our fault. We weren’t even alive. What we have to be careful of is not to continue to perpetuate them into our time and into the future. What Robert E. Lee did, I don’t know, but I do know that what happened in the past was extraordinarily unfair and unjust, and that has to be lamented and repented of, and repentance doesn’t mean feeling sorry; it means not perpetuating it, turning away from that. I don’t see why that should even be controversial to any thinking human being in the 21st century.
But I think you’re right. We’ve never spoken out in any way, but we don’t really have the moral right to do it until we have. It’s the chicken-and-the-egg phenomenon. You don’t have the right to speak out on behalf of someone else’s problems when they’re not yours. We could speak out on behalf of the Alaskan native peoples because they’ve been our people for centuries, but to speak out on behalf of African-Americans, a handful in our Church, we really can’t say, “These are our people.” But we could stand up with them. It’s certainly a missiological principle. It would be a missiological principle to speak up on their behalf because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not a matter of judging things of the past; it’s a matter of saying, “Okay, those are the mistakes of the past; we simply don’t want to see these things continue any further into the future.” That we have control over; what happened in the past, we can’t do anything about, but we shouldn’t be perpetuating or justifying it.
Q2: Father, in the experience of the Alaskan mission and your experience, how do you address aspects of the culture that may be leaning away from [their customs]?
Fr. Michael: Right, well, you know, for example, the slavery: the different tribes took POWs from different tribes and put them to work. It happened perpetually. Temporarily sometimes until their ransom was paid. And there was polygamy in some communities. Our experience, though, in the rest of the world, has been: You can say the Church does not bless or approve this. You can also push for its ending, abolition. You can’t send the second and third wives back to their parents after 20 years of marriage. You can spend several generations allowing those institutions to disappear, because there’s no kind way of eliminating it. And freeing the slaves doesn’t help unless they have an economic base to go to, and if they’re prisoners of war, POWs, that are really being ransomed, you can say to that person holding the prisoner: You can preach freedom to the captives, for the captives. But it’s tradition.
In our case, I would say that polygamy on Kodiak Island took two to three generations to disappear, but eventually the economic situation made it nearly impossible for anybody to have three or four wives anyway, because in the old days a successful life was the only way. When you needed cash, you couldn’t afford three or four wives. The fur coats even cost too much. But we can let it die out. You let your position known. It would be dishonest not to. It’s another quote from Fr. Schmemann: Reform by abolition almost never works.
The Akathist this morning: I thought to myself, wonderful as it is from our theological perspective, our views of the world and how God speaks to us through all creation, that’s what we celebrated this morning. It’s the most anti-Lutheran prayer we could have, because it’s completely antithetical to sola scriptura, that we only know God through Scripture and Scripture alone. No—[Laughter]—we know God first of all—Maximus the Confessor: “The word of God has been embodied three times…” Interesting, not “incarnate,” but: “The Word of God has been embodied three times.”
The first was when God spoke: Let there be light, and there was light. God said, and it was so. The word God is embodied in the whole creation, and if we had not sinned that’s all we would have needed. The Word of God embedded in all creation. The Logos in every living thing. But because of sin we can’t see it any more. Or, as C.S. Lewis, commenting on this, said: If the word or the message was written out in letters too large for us to read. So the word of God had to be embodied a second time, and that’s in the holy Scripture, in the written word of God, in the Old Testament. But people misunderstood that. They started quoting it as rules: This is forbidden; this is not forbidden. The interpretation of the law. It was being misquoted and misunderstood, so the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and the ultimate embodiment of the Word of God is the Incarnation of Christ. So that’s three embodiments.
I think about the thing in this way, you can see in our theology, helping people see the word of God in letters written sometimes too big for us to read is an important missiological effort we have to make. I don’t think it’s too big of a leap. In my generation already—and certainly it’s accelerated in the last decades—more and more kids, raised Christian, as adults are drifting off into other faiths, because their spiritual life is enriched by their apprehension, their truthful apprehension, that God is present in the whole creation. But the Christian traditions negate that as something pagan, as something inappropriate. We Orthodox are the ones who say: No, you’re right on target. The Word of God is embodied three times: in the creation, in Scripture, and in Christ—and it’s the same word of God.
Fr. Schmemann also says at the very end of For the Life of the World: “A Christian is a person who, wherever he or she looks, sees Christ and rejoices.” That means we can see Christ in the cucumbers in the garden. [Laughter] You see? And there’s a quotation from St. Nikolai Velimirovich where he says, “If you can’t find God in the sands of the desert, no one crying in the wilderness there will have anything to say to you.” He’s saying the same thing, really. If you can’t find God in nature, in creation, there’s no book that’s going to explain it to you. You’ve got to be able to see the word of God embodied in all of those to get the full picture.
I think we Orthodox are the ones responsible for helping our neighbors see. Those drifting off into Buddhism or Hinduism or Indian or New Age faiths, they’re drifting off because they don’t see in Christianity any articulation or appreciation for the created world. They’re looking for it, because that’s where their spirituality is coming from. They climbed this mountain and they saw this beautiful sunset, and they’re convinced that God spoke to them in that moment—and he did. Can we bless that? Can we say, “You’re right”? That may be the beginning of your conversion, your faith in God, your faith eventually in Christ, but it’s a start, and the word of God was there on that mountaintop or in that thunderstorm—or in that death, because you were touched at the funeral of that grandma, and it wasn’t something you’d ever experienced before. “Everywhere present and fillest all things”: if that’s what we believe, we’ve got to do a better job of preaching it and articulating it. As with the Great Blessing of Water and celebrating it as a public event is a great place to start, because it’s the best place where we articulate all of this, invoking God’s blessing on the earth and saying it’s our Christian responsibility to speak up for the water. Someone has to speak up for the water, yeah.
Okay, we did it once and we got headlines for it. It shouldn’t be news. It should be ordinary. It should be what we’re known for. If you wanted to speak in sort of crash economic terms, it’s our niche. [Laughter] Because nobody else will do them. And the ecological sensitivity on this campus is precisely another way of articulating and demonstrating precisely that central Orthodox concern for the environment. It’s not peripheral; for us it should be central, and not just at the seminary, but everywhere and on all continents, not just in Alaska, and not just in Crestwood. It should be what we’re known for. But we have to work to make that so. I’m out of time; the clock is my enemy. [Applause]