With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Inculturation Through the Ages IIB: The Russian Mission to Alaska

Catholics are not the only ones who have inculturated the faith. What might surprise many, but should not, is that Orthodox missionaries attempted to transmit the faith according to the needs of the peoples they encountered. Even before Vatican II, Orthodox tradition was that the liturgy should be prayed in the every day language of the people. The Orthodox undersand that the liturgy is not only the work of the people, bringing the people together as they worship God in common, but also that the liturgy, as the prayer of the people, is the primary place where we join in with our theological and spiritual heritage. The Christian East holds an old understanding of what it means to do theology: it is the experience we receive when we speak with and pray to God. Our prayers show what it is we believe, and in our communal prayers, we show what it is that the Church has been taught about God and the Christian faith. The Divine Liturgy can be seen as the purest act of Christian theology. How is this possible if we do not understand the words we speak?

Early in the 18th century, Russians discovered Alaska, and by the end of the 18th century, Russia had established a trading colony in Alaska and the scattered island surrounding the mainland. The Russian Orthodox Church saw the need to send priests and monks to Alaska, not only to meet the spiritual needs of the Russian traders, but also to evangelize the natives. The first group of eight religious priests and monks to go to Alaska founded the Kodiak Mission, and saw, to their horror, that the natives were being mistreated by the traders. They sided with the natives against their own kinsmen. By 1796, Hieromonk Makarios returned to Russia with some Aleuts in order to launch a complaint against the way the traders were abusing the natives. Disaster struck the first mission, and either by accident or by martyrdom, one by one most of the eight missionaries were killed. The last survivor was St Herman of Alaska, who developed a close, loving relationship with the Aleuts. He created the New Valaam hermitage on Spruce Island, and continued for more than forty years in his mission with the Aleuts, adapting himself as he could to their culture and tradition, teaching them in their language, and defending them and their rights against the Russian colonists.

Father Michael J. Oleksa, in his online text, The Alaskan Orthodox Mission and Cosmic Christianity, shows us how the early Orthodox missionaries saw the Christian faith as the fulfillment and not the annihilation of the native beliefs:

In Alaska the Valaam monks reported that the Aleuts believed that the which animated the sea mammals they hunted was a sacred reality which had to be treated reverentially. Their Eskimo and Indian neighbors to the north and east shared this belief. The Church could affirm rather than condemn this humble, respectful attitude toward life, for Christ is the life of not just all people. The Church blesses by putting His Name, proclaiming His sovereignty, not just over human life, but over the entire cosmos. It is at this deeper, essentially spiritual level, that the Christian Gospel, proclaimed and celebrated liturgically and sacramentally within Eastern Orthodoxy, converged with the pre-Christian spiritual tradition of ancient Alaska. Christ comes not to condemn but to save the world, and this salvation is a cosmic process inaugurated on Pentecost, continuing to the end of .the age, and fulfilled only in the Second Coming, when He comes not to annihilate but to renew;, purify, and sanctify the world He so loves.

This same remarkable spirit continued in Alaska under St Innocent of Alaska. Born as John Evseyevich Popov-Veniaminov in 1797, he was married in 1817, and ordained a priest in 1821. He volunteered in 1823 to go with his family as missionaries to Alaska. In nearly fifty years of mission work, John was constanlty on the move around Alaska, and he encountered several different native peoples, learned more than six different dialects and local customs, and translated hymns and scriptural texts into the local languages. His interest in the native languages led him to writing the Notes on the Kolushchan and Kodiak Tongues As Well As Other Dialects of the Russo-American Territories. His education of the natives did not end with the proclamation of the Gospel. He took an interest in their welfare, as can be seen in the vaccination program he created for the Tlingits. His wife died in 1838 and by 1840 took monastic vows and changed his name to Innocent. On December 15, 1840 he received the honor of being consecrated the Bishop of Kamchatka and Kuril Islands in Russia and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. St Innocent, like St Herman before him, loved the natives, and worked for their betterment, while preserving the elements of their culture which he believed were compatible with his Christian faith. To be sure, he took a criticial view on certain aspects of the native religious traditions, and sought to eleminate shamanistic rituals from among the Aleuts. But the Aleuts did not take his action as condemnatory of their people. They saw the love and zeal he had for their people, and welcomed him amongst their own and worked with him in producing a envigorating combination of Russian Orthodox and Aleutian traditions. Some of his works are freely available on the internet at the Alaskan Orthodox Texts website. Even after Russia had sold Alaska to the United States, and many of the Russians traders moved back to Russia, the work started by Sts Herman and continued by St Innocent allowed for the Christian faith to take hold upon the natives, and provided for the foundation by which the natives continued to follow their inculturated Orthodox faith, and even to this day, a majority of the Orthodox in Alaska come from the native peoples.

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