Moss piles eight inches deep round each spruce branch in this northern forest; mushrooms cling to stumps in colors of orange, green and brown; rain, in a never-ending, gentle spray, rolls down the hills in rivulets, joined to a boisterous little stream at my feet. The calls of birds, undaunted by the rain, can be heard, mixed with the voice of my tour guide, a nun. "This is chicken of the forest" she says, pointing to a bright orange fungus ringing a tree stump, "it's edible ..." Her voice trails off in a way that suggests it may not be the thing one would generally choose to put in one's mouth. Clad in bright colored Grunden's rain gear and rubber boots, my wife, parents and I gather round for a closer inspection. The dubious culinary value of this particular mushroom aside, I am filled with calm and quiet joy as I tromp through the woods on this remote island in Alaska. I am on Pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage? A once-popular religious practice, now dwindling to near non-existence in this era, its the practice of getting oneself up off the couch, out of the house, and on the road to visit some place holy. It was a common practice in Christianity throughout the east and west, but has dwindled in the west. Being a convert to Eastern Christianity, to the Orthodox Christian Church, I am still learning about the role and importance of pilgrimage. After my most recent foray, I begin to learn its importance. Pilgrimage is like a vacation, but is no mere vacation. It is one designed to rejuvenate the spiritual life. In a regular vacation, getting away from home and visiting a beautiful place is refreshing in its way. However, when it's over, it's over and soon forgotten. Not so with a pilgrimage, where the effects not only linger, but often grow over time.
Pilgrimage differs in other ways as well. Pilgrimage often involves hardship, to some extent or other. Historically, pilgrims often walked vast distances on the way, whether they were English pilgrims walking to Santiago de Campostela in Spain (a popular pilgrimage); or Russian pilgrims walking all the way to Jerusalem. Today, the hardships may be lessened (I flew to Alaska), but are still present: fasting, early morning prayer services, physical labor, prostrations and some hiking were all present in my recent pilgrimage. Though not the thing one generally puts on the "to do" list on a normal vacation, they are not unpleasant. Pilgrims tell me, and I agree, the hardships are indispensable - part of the lesson, part of the spiritual rest.
Most notably, the focus of pilgrimage differs widely from vacation. Both provide rest. Vacation gives rest to the body, pilgrimage to the spirit. Vacation is a time when I think mainly of indulging myself. Pilgrimage, rather, is self-focused in a spiritual way. It provided me with time to slow down, like vacation, but unlike vacation, prompted me to examine myself in the light of something and someone holy, something bigger than myself, something beautiful, inspirational.
As we move from the mushrooms and down the forest path, a cross appears through the woods, quietly, yet dramatically floating atop a cupola, the top of the Chapel dedicated to Saint Herman of Alaska. In the middle of the forest, on the edge of this nearly uninhabited island, miles and miles by foot, sea or air from the nearest dwelling, this Chapel sits over the grave site of Alaska's most famous, yet not famous, Saint.
There at his grave site sit numerous flowers and lamps left by the great-great-great-grandchildren of this saint's spiritual children, the native peoples of the area. I prostrate three times and take some of the earth from the grave as the locals do for healing when they are ill.
We find the chapel unlocked and furnished with all that is necessary for Orthodox services, left by previous pilgrims and local caretakers. We light the candles, lamps and censor. Taking up the books left on the chanter's stand, we find prayer services to Saint Herman.
My wife, parents and the nun chant the service as I swing the censor over Saint Herman's tomb: "Saint Herman, pray to God for us," we sing to this humble saint, known for his life of unceasing prayer, ascetic labor, protection of the indigenous Alaskans, and many miracles. Quietly we end, put out the lamps, sweep up and leave the chapel ready for the next pilgrims.
This hike was the culmination of three days on Spruce Island. Two I spent on the other side of the island at a small monastery; praying, reading, helping with the morning and evening prayer services, conversing with the lone monk there. Outside, rain poured and a storm blew up over the ocean and battered our windows. Inside, I rested from the worries of the world, prayed, read. Today, though weeks have passed, I am still fed by this experience.
My soul calms down thinking of it. Some spiritual lesson or virtue has been lodged in me through it, though I cannot understand or name it, other than to call it Pilgrimage to Saint Herman of Alaska.
Recommended reading about Saint Herman and Spruce Island:
"Father Herman: Alaska's Saint," by F.A. Golder.
"St. Herman of Alaska: His Life and Service," by St. Herman Press.
"Spruce Island, Alaska: A Pilgrim's Guide," by St. Herman Press
Online, www.stherman.com .
The Rev. Fr. Jesse Philo serves as a priest at St. Silouan Russian Orthodox Church in Walla Walla. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should telephone Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org