A Pilgrimage to the Earth

The meaning of a pilgrimage is never exhausted by the journey itself. The anthropologist Victor Turner described pilgrimage as a rite comprised of three stages: separation (leaving home), liminality (the journey), and reaggregation (arriving home). The liminal, journey stage receives the most attention from specialists, but it seems to me that the meaning of pilgrimage really begins to unfold after the return home, at least for the pilgrim. This is a post-reaggregation account of my own pilgrimage this summer, to Alaska.

When I was planning this long-awaited trip to celebrate my wife’s and my wedding anniversary, I mentally separated it into two parts. The first part was to be tourism: a five-day trip to Denali National Park. The second part was to be pilgrimage. Each year on August 9th, a boat full of pilgrims sails from the city of Kodiak to nearby Spruce Island, the site of the hermitage of St Herman of Alaska (d. 1837). The arrival of St Herman in Alaska in 1794 along with nine other monks from northwest Russia is considered by my church, the Orthodox Church in America, to be its founding event and the beginning of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in North America.

The Earth Corrupted

The tourism part of the trip began with an all-day train ride from Anchorage to Denali with breathtaking views of mountains, rivers, and valleys. But as the train moved north and conifers, predominantly spruce, overtook deciduous trees, the ride became eerie. It seemed as though next to every healthy spruce was a dead one, leaning to one side, with long, thin needles dangling like horsehair. It was dry, too, and it looked like the forest could burst into flames at any moment.

The spruce beetle is most immediately to blame for this. It burrows into the bottom of its namesake to lay eggs, which in turn soak up the nutrients from water and soil meant to spread through the tree’s veins. It used to be that these parasites died off in droves in the harsh winters. But in recent years, because of climate change, it hasn’t gotten cold enough to regularly reduce their population. Hordes of beetles live on while the spruce starve and die.

Beetle-infested spruce forest
Beetle-infested spruce forest

The train chugged northward, nearer to the peak of Denali itself. It was hidden that day, wrapped in wispy clouds. Denali is a mountain so vast and so cold that it creates its own weather, showing itself to only three out of ten visitors. Happily, a few days later, while we were on a bus traveling ninety miles into the heart of the Park, Denali suddenly parted the clouds and appeared.

Denali makes a claim on you. When it deigns to reveal itself in all its magnitude it commands that you look and admire it. It dares you to conquer it. It dares you merely to comprehend it. But despite the unforgettable feeling of the sublime that Denali provoked in me then, it later provoked in me a concern for its survival. Of course, the rock that makes up Denali is going nowhere fast. Yet for how long will it be so cold as to command the clouds and the snow to obey it? How long will it sustain the glaciers at its foothills? Just days after we left, the very road we took to the center of the park collapsed because of permafrost melting beneath it.

Denali
Denali

It also dawned on me only later that what I had considered a tourist destination was of course a locus sanctus, a holy place. I was already on pilgrimage. But to what, exactly? Like a Christian holy site with, say, faded pictures or tattered garments once worn by a saint, Denali reminded me that this age is passing away (all too quickly). What it lacked was some sign of hope, like an incorrupt relic or a graffito of thanks for healing. Majestic though it was, Denali was surrounded by creeping death.

The earth itself, the Alaskan earth, was corrupted, perhaps irreversibly. Or so it seemed to me as I passed once again through the macabre spruce forests, half-alive, half-dead.

The Earth Renewed

A few days later I stood in Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak, listening to the choir sing at the evening vigil for the feast of St Herman of Alaska. For this special occasion, the saint’s body, shrouded in a black monastic cloak, was lying visible in an open casket in the middle of the church. (It was moved to the cathedral from Spruce Island some years ago.) But this was not a funeral; it was a celebration of incorruptible life.

Father Herman and his companions were sent to Alaska to provide spiritual support for Russian traders stationed there, and to preach to the Americans (as they called the native Alaskans). But when the monks arrived at Kodiak, they found their fellow countrymen oppressing and enslaving the local Aleutians. Father Herman took up the natives’ cause, which brought him into bitter conflict with the traders. Baptizing natives afforded them certain protections under the tsar and made them harder to exploit. St Herman moved to Spruce Island to escape persecution by his own people. And as he lived out his days there as a hermit, he sanctified the island with prayer and cared for of scores of native children who were orphaned due to diseases brought by the foreigners.

The Aleutians remained fiercely loyal to St Herman and to the faith that he lived and preached. Yet at the time St Herman died in 1837, the Russian Orthodox Church had officially closed down the Alaskan mission and folded the diocese. It seemed unlikely that Orthodox Christianity in Alaska would survive another generation.

St Herman of Alaska
St Herman of Alaska

But the choir at Holy Resurrection Cathedral told of a different story as I listened to them sing. Some of the singers descended from the same people that St Herman took under his care, as well as members of other Alaskan tribes that also embraced Orthodox Christianity in the 19th century. These “spiritual children” of St Herman, as they are referred to in the hymns sung on this occasion, were standing here, in the flesh. It was because of their ancestors that I came to Alaska for this pilgrimage, and that I too could become his spiritual child.

Early the next morning as the sun rose, we pilgrims sailed to Spruce Island—a damp, mossy, and completely noiseless island—to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy at the chapel. After the liturgy, a local priest waved me over to a small opening in the side of the building, and we crawled under the floorboards. “What’s down here?” I asked. “It’s where Father Herman used to be buried,” he said, smiling. “He’s not here anymore but you can take some of his earth.” I didn’t have a bag with me but I found a surgical mask in my pocket, tied up the moist dirt inside of it, and squirreled it away in my bag.

Spruce Island
Spruce Island

The earth itself, the Alaskan earth—St Herman’s earth—was my relic, my pilgrimage souvenir. A sign of hope amidst corruption. “Behold, I make all things new.”

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His most recent book is a translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, released this year by University of Notre Dame Press.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this rich reflection, Mark. So much to ponder here. What resonates most with me right now is the sense of pilgrimage that can be [and must be these days?] earth-encompassing: that is, walking reverently and in communion with everything created — from the sand corn to the saint and the seraphim — for the greater glory of God.

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