A Pilgrimage to the Earth

The meaning of a pilgrimage is never exhausted by the journey itself. The anthropologist Victor Turner described pilgrimage as a rite comprised of three stages: separation (leaving home), liminality (the journey), and reaggregation (arriving home). The liminal, journey stage receives the most attention from specialists, but it seems to me that the meaning of pilgrimage really begins to unfold after the return home, at least for the pilgrim. This is a post-reaggregation account of my own pilgrimage this summer, to Alaska.

When I was planning this long-awaited trip to celebrate my wife’s and my wedding anniversary, I mentally separated it into two parts. The first part was to be tourism: a five-day trip to Denali National Park. The second part was to be pilgrimage. Each year on August 9th, a boat full of pilgrims sails from the city of Kodiak to nearby Spruce Island, the site of the hermitage of St Herman of Alaska (d. 1837). The arrival of St Herman in Alaska in 1794 along with nine other monks from northwest Russia is considered by my church, the Orthodox Church in America, to be its founding event and the beginning of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in North America.

The Earth Corrupted

The tourism part of the trip began with an all-day train ride from Anchorage to Denali with breathtaking views of mountains, rivers, and valleys. But as the train moved north and conifers, predominantly spruce, overtook deciduous trees, the ride became eerie. It seemed as though next to every healthy spruce was a dead one, leaning to one side, with long, thin needles dangling like horsehair. It was dry, too, and it looked like the forest could burst into flames at any moment.

The spruce beetle is most immediately to blame for this. It burrows into the bottom of its namesake to lay eggs, which in turn soak up the nutrients from water and soil meant to spread through the tree’s veins. It used to be that these parasites died off in droves in the harsh winters. But in recent years, because of climate change, it hasn’t gotten cold enough to regularly reduce their population. Hordes of beetles live on while the spruce starve and die.

Beetle-infested spruce forest
Beetle-infested spruce forest

The train chugged northward, nearer to the peak of Denali itself. It was hidden that day, wrapped in wispy clouds. Denali is a mountain so vast and so cold that it creates its own weather, showing itself to only three out of ten visitors. Happily, a few days later, while we were on a bus traveling ninety miles into the heart of the Park, Denali suddenly parted the clouds and appeared.

Denali makes a claim on you. When it deigns to reveal itself in all its magnitude it commands that you look and admire it. It dares you to conquer it. It dares you merely to comprehend it. But despite the unforgettable feeling of the sublime that Denali provoked in me then, it later provoked in me a concern for its survival. Of course, the rock that makes up Denali is going nowhere fast. Yet for how long will it be so cold as to command the clouds and the snow to obey it? How long will it sustain the glaciers at its foothills? Just days after we left, the very road we took to the center of the park collapsed because of permafrost melting beneath it.


It also dawned on me only later that what I had considered a tourist destination was of course a locus sanctus, a holy place. I was already on pilgrimage. But to what, exactly? Like a Christian holy site with, say, faded pictures or tattered garments once worn by a saint, Denali reminded me that this age is passing away (all too quickly). What it lacked was some sign of hope, like an incorrupt relic or a graffito of thanks for healing. Majestic though it was, Denali was surrounded by creeping death.

The earth itself, the Alaskan earth, was corrupted, perhaps irreversibly. Or so it seemed to me as I passed once again through the macabre spruce forests, half-alive, half-dead.

The Earth Renewed

A few days later I stood in Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak, listening to the choir sing at the evening vigil for the feast of St Herman of Alaska. For this special occasion, the saint’s body, shrouded in a black monastic cloak, was lying visible in an open casket in the middle of the church. (It was moved to the cathedral from Spruce Island some years ago.) But this was not a funeral; it was a celebration of incorruptible life.

Father Herman and his companions were sent to Alaska to provide spiritual support for Russian traders stationed there, and to preach to the Americans (as they called the native Alaskans). But when the monks arrived at Kodiak, they found their fellow countrymen oppressing and enslaving the local Aleutians. Father Herman took up the natives’ cause, which brought him into bitter conflict with the traders. Baptizing natives afforded them certain protections under the tsar and made them harder to exploit. St Herman moved to Spruce Island to escape persecution by his own people. And as he lived out his days there as a hermit, he sanctified the island with prayer and cared for of scores of native children who were orphaned due to diseases brought by the foreigners.

The Aleutians remained fiercely loyal to St Herman and to the faith that he lived and preached. Yet at the time St Herman died in 1837, the Russian Orthodox Church had officially closed down the Alaskan mission and folded the diocese. It seemed unlikely that Orthodox Christianity in Alaska would survive another generation.

St Herman of Alaska
St Herman of Alaska

But the choir at Holy Resurrection Cathedral told of a different story as I listened to them sing. Some of the singers descended from the same people that St Herman took under his care, as well as members of other Alaskan tribes that also embraced Orthodox Christianity in the 19th century. These “spiritual children” of St Herman, as they are referred to in the hymns sung on this occasion, were standing here, in the flesh. It was because of their ancestors that I came to Alaska for this pilgrimage, and that I too could become his spiritual child.

Early the next morning as the sun rose, we pilgrims sailed to Spruce Island—a damp, mossy, and completely noiseless island—to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy at the chapel. After the liturgy, a local priest waved me over to a small opening in the side of the building, and we crawled under the floorboards. “What’s down here?” I asked. “It’s where Father Herman used to be buried,” he said, smiling. “He’s not here anymore but you can take some of his earth.” I didn’t have a bag with me but I found a surgical mask in my pocket, tied up the moist dirt inside of it, and squirreled it away in my bag.

Spruce Island
Spruce Island

The earth itself, the Alaskan earth—St Herman’s earth—was my relic, my pilgrimage souvenir. A sign of hope amidst corruption. “Behold, I make all things new.”

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His most recent book is a translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, released this year by University of Notre Dame Press.

Rita Ferrone at the Helm of Pray Tell

Dear Pray Tell friends, for the following month, Rita Ferrone will serve as moderator of Pray Tell, and then I’ll be back near the end of June.

I recall a monk (now gone to his reward) who would post on the abbey bulletin board that he was to be away for a “well-deserved vacation.” Not sure why that anecdote is popping into my head just now…

But I won’t entirely be away – I’ll still chime in as contributor the next few weeks when the occasion presents itself.

Rita is well known in these parts. We give her a warm welcome. Address all correspondence to her.


Catholic Academy of Liturgy Meeting – UPDATED 1/10

The Catholic Academy of Liturgy met last week, as they always do before the January North American Academy of Liturgy meeting. (Check out the new CAL webpage, BTW.)

Topic this year: The Future of Liturgical Studies and the Mission of CAL. The panel had a nice variety of perspectives:

  • Report on the survey of CAL members by Mark Wedig, OP. The survey is still in progress, but preliminary results show some hopefulness in the group. A few tidbits: the largest cohort of respondents are in their 60s, and well over half the respondents see themselves continuing in their present profession for 10 years or less. Most respondents (about ¾) see their current position continuing after they retire. A minority, but a fairly sizable one, would not counsel young people to go into graduate studies in liturgy – I’ll wait for the final result before saying more. But the vast majority of respondents, more than 9 out of 10, would pursue grad studies in liturgy if they themselves had it to do over. Optimism that the quality of liturgical music will improve in most places, that preaching training will improve, that laity will increasingly claim their baptismal dignity and insist on active liturgical participation, that institutional support for academic liturgy will remain strong. But concern about training in presiding skills, about whether preaching will improve (despite the improved training they foresee??), about diocesan support for good liturgy, about future rates of Mass attendance, about bishops wanting liturgical experts in their diocese, about bishops’ commitment to multicultural issues (questions concerned Asians, African-Americans, Native Americans). Slight majority favors CAL becoming more institutionalized with dues and newsletter; many favor a more formal relationship with the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship at the national conference. Most don’t want to see CAL issuing position statements.
  • Preliminary results on the study of Roman Catholic liturgical faculties by Tim O’Malley (report read in his absence). I hope to say more about this soon. UPDATED 1-10: Tim O’Malley has been in conversation with 8 graduate and 15 undergraduate theology faculties. He identifies three trends: a decrease in the number of students applying for graduate programs in liturgical studies, a possible coming decrease in the number of liturgy professors, and a clash of generations in thoughts about liturgy. He has four recommendations: that liturgical studies not be narrowly specialized by enter into dialogue with other areas of theology (historical, systematic, biblical, philisophical); that more liturgical focus and education at the undergraduate level is needed, that liturgy needs to be a stronger part of already packed M.Div. programs, and that we get beyond the liberal-conservative divide and improve the culture of conversation.
  • Publisher’s perspective by Hans Christofferson of Liturgical Press.
  • Perspective of a young scholar by Annie McGowan, postdoc fellow at Notre Dame. She surveyed a good number of liturgy grad students and recent grads, most of whom are teaching or eventually hope to. A fair number are pessimistic that they will find a satisfying position in the next three to five years (19%) or in the next ten years (25%). Those who are in a position are almost unanimously “thrilled” or “satisfied” with their position – more of the former. Most – more than 7 out of 10 – would pursue liturgy grad studies if they had it to do over, with most of the rest unsure. But only 4 in 10 would advise others to go into liturgy studies, with most (43%) unsure.
  • Blogosphere by Anthony Ruff, OSB. I spoke of the amazing power and potential of internet, shortened attention spans, short news cycles, unrepresentative web presence by liturgical conservatives (or traditionalists or whatever), bad info and urban legends that flourish on the web (e.g., that most people didn’t like or accept the reformed liturgy after Vatican II), the challenge in fostering a constructive discussion, gender disparities (90% of comments at Pray Tell are from males), the difficulty of promoting ecumenical liturgical discussion when there is so much Catholic stuff to talk about, the sizeable number of people who comment or write to me privately about their hurt and disappointment at the direction of the Catholic Church leadership, and the challenge and call to rise above old polarities and work toward the development of new syntheses.

The afternoon business meeting had the usual reports from ICEL by Fr. Paul Turner and the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship by Msgr. Rick Hilgartner. Revised translations for Marriage and Confirmation are in process. Everyone looks forward to the leadership of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, just elected chair of the BCDW. There is to be a U.S. national scholarly symposium this coming fall on liturgy 50 years after Vatican II. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) is to do research on effectiveness in catechumenate ministry. The newly approved USCCB document on preaching does not replace, but builds upon Fulfilled in Your Hearing.

Nearly 70 people were at the CAL meeting; NAAL had about 280 participants this year.


Top Commenters at Pray Tell

One of the features of CyStats is that it keeps track of how many people comment on the blog, and it provides a list of the twenty most frequent comment authors and how many comments they each have made. Pray Tell averages 1.75 posts per day and 46.6 comments per day.

Frequency of Comments

Since the blog began in January 2010, nine people have commented over 1,000 times, one of whom has made more than 2,000 comments. All twenty of the most frequent commenters have posted over 500 comments.

Gender Balance

The top ten most frequent commenters are all men. Three of the top twenty commenters are female; the rest are male. The ratio of men’s comments to women’s comments shows an even greater disparity. The total number of comments from men is 19,466, and from women, 2,208. In other words, 15% of the top commenters are women, but 89.81% of the comments were made by men, and only 10.19% by women.

Although in theory this disparity might be mitigated by the remainder of the commenter pool, a general scan of the comment boxes suggests that this does not really happen. A nine-to-one ratio seems, if not exact, at least close to what we see overall.

Contributors and Commenters

Contributors to the blog made up 25% of the top 20 commenters. The number of their comments, however, added up to only 4,037, which is 18.63% of the total comments among the top twenty comment authors.


The number and frequency of comments says nothing, of course, about their quality. But the information here can help us to see a few things clearly that may be of real value.

First among them is the fact that so much of the discussion at Pray Tell is among men. (This does not correlate with ordination, for the great majority of the most frequent commenters at Pray Tell are lay.) It seems fitting to ask why women comment less frequently, and whether one thinks this is a problem.

Second, the considerable participation of blog contributors in discussion is a good sign, I think. It suggests that there is mixing between contributors and commenters in the threads, rather than an Olympian distance! At the same time, the numbers suggest that the greater part of the discussion is carried on by commenters who are not contributors, which is as it ought to be.

Third, it is only to be expected that some readers will comment more frequently than others. But the great disparities among just the top twenty contributors, from the lower 500s up to 2,000 or more, is interesting. It shows that a rather small group of people has had a large role in shaping the blog discussion.