ALASKA OF MY HEART
The Shaman and the Saint
St. Innocent, Equal to the Apostles had an illustrious career – he began as a simple missionary priest to the Aleut people of Alaska, and wound up as Metropolitan of Moscow. But even though he was an important and influential man, he was humble and unassuming, very aware of his failings and his temptations. Because of this, St. Innocent managed to miss meeting angels.
St. Innocent’s first parish was a series of islands spread over 1700 miles of the Bering Sea. He and his family settled on Unalaska Island, and he made a point of traveling by kayak and ship to as many islands and villages as he could during the year to attend to the needs of his parishioners.
In April of 1828, some people from Unimak Island arrived in Dutch Harbour. They had come to ask him if he would visit them. Unimak is about four hundred miles north east (as the crow flies) from Unalaska. He told the delegation that he’d be happy to come with them, but on the way, he wanted to stop at Akun Island, which lies halfway between Unalaska and Unimak.
We have to remember that in 1828, the telephone hadn’t been invented yet. Mail service was nonexistent, except when the company ships brought parcels and letters from Russia or Sitka, and in any case, the Aleut people, until St. Innocent arrived, hadn’t needed a written language, so they didn’t read or write. St. Innocent’s visit to Akun would be a complete (although welcome and happy) surprise to the villagers there.
Innocent and his escorts arrived at Akun Island on a bright sunny day. On the beach, to their surprise, was a group of people dressed in their best clothing and welcoming their new priest by name.
St. Innocent was more than surprised, since there was no normal way the people could have known he was coming. So he asked them. They replied that their shaman had told them of St. Innocent’s arrival: the time, the day and the exact location of his landfall. The Shaman, they said, also described his appearance and his clothing.
Naturally, St. Innocent wanted to meet this person. He was told that John Smirennikov (which was the shaman’s name) would be happy to meet the priest, just as soon as he returned to the village.
Mentally shrugging, St. Innocent put the incident out of his mind. He had a lot to do. The people needed to be taught. Many of them had been baptized, but as there hadn’t been a priest on the island for many years, they needed to be chrismated. Several couples wanted to have an Orthodox wedding. St. Innocent wanted to celebrate a liturgy, and for that, the people needed to confess. After vigil on Saturday evening, he heard confessions. What he didn’t realize at the time was that one of the parishioners was John Smirenikov, the shaman. St. Innocent didn’t notice him among all the other people there.
It wasn’t until the chieftain came up to him after Liturgy on Sunday that St. Innocent remembered the unusual arrival. Apparently, Mr. Smirenikov was upset that the priest had called him a shaman, and he wanted to make sure that St. Innocent knew he was a good Orthodox Christian!
St. Innocent and John Smirennikov sat down to talk. The Aleut elder knew an amazing amount of the Gospel and many of the prayers, but couldn’t read Russian. The Aleuts didn’t have a written language, and John had never been educated in the faith. St. Innocent was the first priest to visit these islands who had an interpreter and the time to teach the people.
How did he know all these things, St. Innocent asked. John replied that his two companions had told him.
What companions? St. Innocent wanted to know.
John said, “White men. And they told me that soon you’re going to see your family off on shore and sail away to see some great man, and you’ll talk to him.”
“What do they look like? What kind of people are they?”
The men he described looked very much the way angels are portrayed on icons: white robes and rose-colored bands across their shoulders, like a deacon’s vestments and stichars.
The men, John went on to say, had appeared to him shortly after he had been baptized by Heiromonk Macarius, and came to him almost every day. They taught him the Christian faith, they brought help to him and sometimes to others during times of sickness and famine. But, said John, whenever he asked for their help for other people, they always said they had to ask for God’s permission. Sometimes these men would tell him about things that were going to happen, like St. Innocent’s arrival at Akun Island.
St. Innocent tested John’s knowledge of the faith and of doctrine and found it sound and true. John told the saint about the instructions the men had given him – to pray not to them, but to God, and to live a pure and faithful life, to listen only to his priest, and not to traders when talking about the faith.
St. Innocent asked if he could meet them, and John replied that he’d have to ask them if it was all right. A few days later, he came back to the village and said yes, that they would meet him. But St. Innocent had a change of mind, and decided, as he wrote to his bishop, that he was “a sinful man, unworthy of talking to them. If I were to decide to see them it would be nothing but pride and presumption on my part. If I were to meet real angels, I might exalt myself for having such great faith, or start thinking too highly of myself . . . No, I’m unworthy, I’d best not go.”
He sent his letter about the men to his bishop, back in Irkutsk in Siberia. Three years later, (remember – sailing ships and bad weather for half the year and slow, slow mail delivery) he received a letter back from the archbishop, requesting St. Innocent to visit these beings “for the greater glorification of our pious faith.” Unfortunately, by the time St. Innocent received the request, John Smirennikov had died, and the angels hadn’t appeared to anyone else.
OCN – ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN NETWORK