The next morning, after Pieter and Isabel had awaken and prepared themselves for the day, Brother Herman arrived as promised. The old couple were the first people he had seen since arriving at the mountain so he was happy to meet them, and to have someone to talk with. As the three sat warming themselves around the fire, he regaled his inquisitive guests with a brief history of his life and how he came to be here now with them.
Brother Herman was born Dmitri Lestenkov, son of a chief of the Unangan people of the Pribilof Islands. This small group of islands is located in the Bering Sea, roughly two-hundred miles northwest of the Aleutian Island chain, and five-hundred miles east of the Siberian coast. His heritage, on the Russian side, traces back to the late 1700’s when Russian fur traders began settling the islands. And on the Unangan side, his ancestry went much further back of course, with family-members having settled much of the Aleutian archipelago for many centuries, or more.
Dmitri had a sharp intellect coupled with an astute interest in the things of God. Even as a young boy he set his sights firmly upon the altar of the Lord, both figuratively and literally. He great joy was serving in the altar during Sunday Liturgies and indeed throughout all the services of the Church. By the time Dmitri was sixteen, his uncle Mikhail Lestenkov, himself a deacon in the Orthodox Church, began preparing him for seminary. So that by the time Dmitri turned nineteen he was already thoroughly familiar with church doctrine, the great mysteries of the Church, the cycles of worship, hymnography and hagiography. So when he enrolled and began his first year at St. Herman Theological Seminary, on the island of Kodiak, he was already well on his way to becoming a knowledgeable and competent priest.
Following seminary, Father Herman, as Dmitri was now known, joined a small group of monks on nearby Spruce Island, the former home of North America’s first Orthodox Saint—St Herman of Alaska, for whom Dmitri had taken his new name. He served this fledgling monastic community, becoming one of the brothers and also serving as priest there for a number of years, and even acting as abbot for a brief time. Brother Herman would have been completely satisfied to have lived his entire life on Spruce Island within the monastic community there—and likely would have done so—were it not for the unexpected request by the diocesan bishop late one winter, that he should move and begin serving as priest for St Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka, some six-hundred miles to the east.
The weather delayed his move until later that summer. When he finally arrived he was greeted gratefully by the bishop and expectantly by a great throng of parishioners, everyone placing their hopes desperately in Father Herman. The parish in Sitka had suffered a number of recent and rather severe challenges, and the people were in need of someone who could guide them with a wise mind and a steady hand. In a short time, Father Herman restored faith in the church, and gave the parish new hope, even bringing a heightened sense of loving communion throughout the surrounding community. Father Herman expertly exercised his office as priest, for over a decade in Sitka. However, while he loved his church and the people in it, he was personally dissatisfied. The seemingly endless tide of administrative tasks made him weary—administration was never his forte or his interest—and he longed for a more contemplative life.
He made several petitions to the bishop over the final years of his tenure at St. Michael’s, to be granted leave to pursue a monastic life. Eventually, after the bishop secured a trustworthy replacement for the church, he granted Father Herman’s request. Upon leaving, he was offered by several members of the church to settle on some land owned by their tribe, located a day’s journey to the southeast. He had been considering a return to the skete on Spruce Island and to his former community there, but this new offer intrigued him. The land had a cabin by the water which he could use, and also a small chapel further up a nearby mountain. Both had been built by a local priest over a half-century ago, but had been sitting unused for decades. They would certainly need a lot of work to become livable and usable again, but he was welcome to live there as long as he wished—for the rest of his life if he desired.
Brother Herman’s life always moved in an eastward direction. He always sought the stars of morning and the risen sun. From the far-western regions of the Bering Sea as a child, to the Island of Kodiak and Spruce Island as a young man, to Sitka as an adult, his life had been a constant migration eastward; so that when faced with this decision, whether consciously or not, he felt an inner calling, or a compulsion to continue east. He moved to the Tlingit land with a feeling of deep gratitude and reverence, and with a joy inside he hadn’t really felt in many years. He was ready to pursue an intimate life with God within the throne room of the natural world.
“I wonder if that is what I’ve been feeling too,” Pieter mused, after Brother Herman had finished his story. “I felt drawn here too…almost like a compulsion. It’s a strange thing. I had never paid any attention to this place before…but, maybe it’s because you’re here now!” Pieter suddenly exclaimed, looking at Brother Herman’s face for an answer.
“God’s call is irresistible, once we begin to hear it,” Brother Herman suggested.
Isabel interjected then, “The thing that surprises me, what I can’t understand, is that I never noticed that chapel before, at the top of the mountain here…it stands out like a bleached bone.”
“Not always,” Brother Herman answered. “I just gave it a fresh coat of paint two days ago. It was woefully dilapidated prior to that. You would never have seen it, the wood had aged to the color of rock, blending into the surrounding granite.”
“It’s beautiful now,” Isabel reflected.
“Then let’s go see it!” Brother Herman stood, while nodding encouragement to his new-found friends.
“Let’s do it!” Pieter agreed.
On the way up the mountain, Brother Herman led the way, several paces ahead of Pieter and Isabel. The path was narrow, and led first through a dense covering of trees, and then opened onto a slight meadow, before it turned and grew steeper as it ascended. The mist was heavy so Pieter and Isabel pushed themselves to keep pace with Brother Herman, to keep him in view. For his part, Brother Herman slowed his pace to make it easier on the older couple who were following. Isabel leaned close to Pieter as they walked, “He reminds me of my father. Doesn’t he remind you of dad?”
“I hadn’t thought of it, but yes, now that you mention it…yes, quite a bit,” Pieter agreed.
“I like him,” Isabel stated.
“Yes, isn’t that interesting. Hmmm…I’ve missed him,” Pieter observed.
“Me too!” Isabel agreed.
And then the couple fell silent, as they continued to follow the monk up the mountain through the cool, white mist. At the summit, the chapel gradually appeared through the clouds as they approached it. Brother Herman turned and waited as the couple caught up.
“I saw you coming across the water yesterday, in your boat. I’ve made prosphora…I’ve made bread for us to celebrate if you’d like. I have the wine and the bread prepared for us…if you would like.”
“A liturgy?” Isabel asked with surprise.
“Yes…and communion…the eucharist together in the chapel,” Brother Herman motioned towards the door.
“Let’s do it!” Pieter exclaimed, as he headed to the chapel.
Inside, they celebrated the liturgy together—Brother Herman leading, and the couple singing along when they could remember the words. Pieter felt the liturgy wash over him, as if it were a spring, or a cascade of warm joy, which seemed to bathe him in a buoyant light, and his smile grew broader as the service carried him along. And Isabel felt the chapel was strangely familiar. She glanced curiously around the interior of the little room and felt extraordinarily at home, and safe. And as Brother Herman moved about the room, and the fragrant incense from his censor filled the air, her gaze was led to the altar, where it rested for a time, as she took in the details of the old wooden artifact. And a dawning recognition formulated in her mind—the memory of her father, long ago, carving with his own hands, this very altar. She could remember it clearly now, when she was only a little girl, how she loved to watch him carve—his strong and able hands shaping the wood into these images from his imagination. And as the images from her past swirled and then solidified in her mind now, she caught her breath in surprise, and then tears of happiness filled her eyes. No wonder she felt so at home here, this truly was her father’s house, which he had built so long ago. Amazement filled her heart, and gratitude, that she was here now. How could it be that she had never known about this place, or had she forgotten? And how could it be that she had found it now? These were questions that didn’t really need an answer, it was enough that she had made it, and she was here—with Pieter—and at peace.
Isabel felt Pieter take her hand in his, as Brother Herman continued to sing. Pieter leaned over and whispered into her ear: “Well, wife, are you glad you came all this way, for this?”
“I am, my love,” she replied with a smile. “And what about you, husband? Is it what you hoped for?”