Some time ago, in the 1990s, our parish invited a local “tree surgeon,” Leo M., to cut down a couple of dead trees in the back of the church property. He came and worked with his wife, Kathleen, doing the job quickly and with kindness to the rest of the surroundings. But they strongly resisted being paid, insisting on offering their work gratis to our church. They were non-Orthodox, and we wondered about the reason for such generosity. The reason, as we learned from them later, was to be found in something that happened a few years before, just after they had been married.
Both Leo and Kathleen were serious enthusiasts of mountaineering and rock climbing, and so for their honeymoon trip they decided to go to Alaska to bag the highest peak of North America, mount Denali (aka McKinley), 20,320 feet. While living at the camp at the foot of the mountain, they thoroughly prepared their expedition: talking to guides, studying the maps, checking the equipment, and waiting for a long stretch of good weather.
When they finally started their exciting, but extremely difficult, ascent, everything went just fine for a few days. But at the end of one day, on a narrow path, they met an old, strange-looking man in a long dark robe. He was walking in the opposite direction, down the mountain. In a friendly manner he greeted them and advised them to turn around and return to the base camp as quickly as possible because the weather was changing into a severe storm. Soon, he said, it will be very dangerous around here. And, as if in answer to their unasked question of how could he know such a thing, he explained that he was local and knew the climate very well. Leaving them surprised and uneasy, he continued on his way.
Some minutes later, after Leo and Kathleen made the wise decision to turn back, and then tried to recall the appearance of the old man, they realized that they hadn’t seen a backpack or any other hiking gear with him. How could he have made it up so high in the bare, rocky mountain in sub-zero temps, without any food or protection?!
A few days later, almost at the bottom of the mountain, they were indeed caught by a severe storm. They survived it, constantly in their minds thanking the old man who had warned them of the danger. A week later, still staying at the base camp, they learned that some other climbers, who happened to be at higher elevations than they were during the storm, never came back.
Then, as if in answer to their curiosity, Leo and Kathleen noticed something at the camp cafeteria. It was a picture of their rescuer, pinned on a bulletin board between some miscellaneous ads and photos of the mountain. They recognized him at a glance. When they asked the waiter for his name, he told them, ” It’s an Orthodox saint who lived in Alaska. His name is St. Herman.” And the photo showed the icon of St. Herman from the Orthodox church nearby.
The Saint had told them the truth. He was indeed a local guy…
“By enduring the trials of nature, the storms’ cold and wind together with hunger, thou didst kindle spiritual peace, warmth and satiety, and become unaffected by the elements, truly a heavenly man and earthly angel, O wondrous Herman; so wishing to honor thee as is meet we cry out: Rejoice, conqueror of nature’s hardships! Rejoice, thou who wast arrayed in the virtues! … Rejoice, O venerable Father Herman, adornment of Alaska and joy of all America! “ (From Akathist to St Herman)
Matushka Galina Tregubov and Lee Browne-Beed
Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, Claremont, NH