August 9, 2012

  • St Herman of Alaska
  • 2 Corinthians 1:1-7
  • Matthew 21:43-46
  • Feelings of Weakness and Superiority

    I find the opening chapter of St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians to be one of the most moving in his epistles (especially 1:1-11). He admits his feelings of distress, fear, despair and desire for comfort and encouragement. “For we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” Yet he also understands that whatever distress he faced can be used as spiritual raw material to help him rely not only on God, but on the goodness and prayers of others. This is what helps bring the Body of Christ together. And only such an experience can enable someone to appreciate and minister to the affliction of others. In Orthodox clerical circles it’s sometimes said that clergy should not show their feelings, or even admit to having them—especially to parishioners. “Might make you lose your authority.” A prominent Roman Catholic cardinal was once asked about his feelings regarding his impending retirement, and in a moment of candor replied, “Feelings? I haven’t had a feeling in twenty-five years.”  How sad. This is not St Paul’s way, and we could all learn from him the power of God’s strength that comes through awareness and admission of our weaknesses.

    In stark contrast, Matthew 21:28-46 is a sharp rebuke to deceptive feelings of communal superiority. Jesus tells two parables, the first about a son who makes big promises and never delivers, the second about tenant farmers who refuse to give the owner any of the fruit and then kill his son. The farmers don’t accept that they are just tenants. Their delusions of grandeur are so complete that they think they can just take the vineyard by violence and have no regard for rights of the true owner. This, Jesus is saying, is what the religious leaders had done.  “Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Mt 21:44).  This was a repeated theme in Jesus’ teaching.  “I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 8:11-12).

    The Church in every age faces this temptation to superiority and possessiveness, especially among those of us who give our lives to serve. But we are just God’s tenant farmers for a very brief time.

    Spruce Island Pilgrimage

    Sts Sergius and Herman of Valaam Chapel
    St Herman Chapel on Spruce Island (Library of Congress Survey of Historical Buildings, 1989)
    Sts Sergius and Herman of Valaam Chapel
    St Herman Chapel on Spruce Island today

    Today at the Chancery began with a divine liturgy for the feastday of St Herman. The annual pilgrimage to Spruce Island is going on right now too, this year with a delegation from the Czech Lands and Slovakia (see story here). On this day I always think about the pilgrimage in 1978. Four seminary friends from St Vladimir’s went to spend that summer working for the church in Alaska. We boarded a Greyhound bus at the Port Authority terminal in New York, drove cross-country and landed in Seattle 84 hours later. After memorable visits with local church people we flew to Alaska. John Shimchick and I spent the summer in Old Harbor on Kodiak (with a week in Kwethluk, on the Kuskowim River) teaching vacation church school to children while their parents were out on fishing boats (we also were a hit duet for singing children’s songs, with John on guitar and me on very rough violin.) Eric Wheeler and Paul Jannakos went to Sitka to give tours of the cathedral to the hundreds of cruise-ship visitors passing through. We came back together in Kodiak for the pilgrimage, and what profound joy. What a sense of St Herman’s presence. The vigil through the night at his casket in the cathedral. The crab-boat trip to Spruce Island. Landing by skiff on the stony beach. The single-file walk under towering moss-covered pines to his chapel (built over his grave).

    If you have the opportunity to go one day, do it.