St Herman of Alaska 


Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the life of St Herman of Alaska.

His great object in life was to help and uplift the native Aleuts, whom he regarded as mere children in need of protection and guidance. He was ever pleading for them with the officers of the Russian-American company. ‘I, the lowest servant of these poor people,’ he wrote to Yanovsky, ‘with tears in my eyes ask this favor: be our father and protector. I have no fine speeches to make, but from the bottom of my heart I pray you to wipe the tears from the eyes of the defenseless orphans, relieve the suffering of the oppressed, and show them what it means to be merciful.’

[St Herman’s regarding the Aluets as mere children is a common paternalistic attitude of many European colonialists of his day regarding native Americans. For some today, this attitude is very condescending and led to abuse of the native people. Many native Americans were unprepared to deal with the attitudes, prejudices and values of the Europeans and so were often manipulated, cheated and abused because they didn’t understand the rules and paradigms by which the Europeans lived.  Whether Herman’s attitude was simply paternalistic colonial or not (or maybe it was only the view of whoever wrote his bio), in his life he did demonstrate a Christian love for the native Americans which they themselves acknowledged.  He also went to their defense against the powerful Russian traders and nationalists, who Herman criticized and condemned for abusing and cheating the native Americans.]


Father Herman was a nurse of the natives in a literal as well as a figurative sense. When an epidemic broke out in Kodiak and carried off scores of people, he never left the village, but went from house to house, nursing the sick, comforting the afflicted and praying with the dying. It is no wonder that the natives loved him and came from afar to hear him tell the story of Christ.


One day the captain and officers of a Russian man-of-war invited Father Herman on board to dine with them. In the course of the conversation he put this question to them: ‘What do you, gentleman, regard as most worthy of love?’ Each answered in his own way. Finally Father Herman said: ‘Let me beseech you, my friends, that from this day forth, from this hour, from this minute, you will love God above all.’  (THE TIME OF THE SPIRIT, p 71)


[One comment on the saints who are especially noted for their works of charity and for being merciful. Their icons should show them in relationship to these poor and needy for their holiness and godliness is in relationship to these people around them and from their loving action towards those in need, rather than being some private spiritual possession which icons of a saint alone can convey. Their salvation is in the very people they helped.  Portraying saints alone in icons feeds, especially in the very individualistic American culture, a notion that one is holy as distinct from all those around you or that salvation is a private and individualistic affair, just between you and God. But the Gospel is all about love for the other, not love for the self. Icons could help us understand Christianity better if they showed the saints in relationship to those who were their salvation. Thus, the notion expressed by some saints that your neighbor is your salvation for you cannot be saved unless you are loving your neighbor. St Herman is especially noted for his love for the native people of Alaska. It is in relationship to them that he is shown to be a saint, and so they should be in his icons since they help show him be holy. Even our fasting is supposed to be connected with our love for others rather than a private, pious practice. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7) There is no such thing as salvation “alone” for we are always saved in relationship to Christ and to all the members of His Body.]