We commemorate this Sunday our first American saint, St Herman of Alaska. As we sing in the hymns to St Herman, he is our “Northstar”, not only because he worked out his salvation in Alaska, but more importantly because he points us to the True North of the Kingdom of God. In his famous conversation on board the ship with the Russian sailors, St Herman gave them clear, compass-like, direction when he instructed them with his famous word:
Hidden within the simple and seemingly obvious exhortation is the profound wisdom that Saint Herman gained through years of daily prayer, fasting, and keeping the Commandments of Christ. If I could summarize this wisdom I would say it in this way: in the spiritual life we must always be beginning. Every day, and in fact every moment, must be for us a new beginning in prayer, in keeping the Commandments, in seeking the kingdom of God.
The unfortunate reality for most of us is that we live much of our lives either in the past or the future because that is where we allow our minds to go. Memories of the past and anxieties and fears about the future dominate our minds with the result that our inner compass is constantly disoriented, unable to find True North. Even when we do manage to remember God our minds often immediately run off to think about past sins and failures which overwhelm us, suggesting to us that we cannot live the spiritual life. Or, similarly, we think about God and our minds run to the future and how - someday soon! - we will finally begin to pray, to fast, and to take the commandments of Christ seriously.
But all of us know, if we're honest, that such thinking is a recipe for doing absolutely nothing. If we undertake an exercise program in this way or set out to clean our house in this way we can be guaranteed that we will be out of shape and messy forever. Our minds have an amazing ability - or maybe we should say disability - to avoid present discomfort by instead thinking about either the past or the future.
The simple truth, however, is that the only time we can live the spiritual life is right now. And to do this we must be always, every moment, beginning again. The failures of yesterday or ten years ago do not matter and neither do we have any real control over whether we will even live to see tomorrow. The present moment is all that we have and we must begin right here and right now to follow St Herman's guidance. The prayer of another great saint, St Arsenios, must be ours, as well:
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
Everything that happens has a small beginning, and grows the more it is nourished.
~St Mark the Ascetic
We will travel the road of repentance correctly if, as we begin to give attention to the intellect, we combine humility with watchfulness, and prayer with the power to rebut evil thoughts. In this way we will adorn the chamber of our heart with the holy and venerable name of Jesus Christ as with a lighted lamp, and will sweep our heart clean of wickedness, purifying and embellishing it.
~St Hesychois the Priest
The fathers of the Orthodox Church feel the need to make a beginning, namely to start living rightly at each moment, to start the spiritual life at every instant. Every day the saints made a start and without realizing, reached the ultimate destination. Therefore, while making a beginning, someone appears to be at the start and on this side, and yet doing this, he finds that he has reached his ultimate destination.
~Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos