Orthodox, Or Not?
Kodiak Monks Reach Out To Troubled Youth While Battling For Respect
This is the first of two articles examining the monks of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.
They were a band of brothers in faith, guided by the tide, the seasons and the light.
They began each day with prayer. What work awaited was raw and satisfying in its simplicity. Like castaways, the brothers gathered driftwood for lumber and fashioned rusty chimes of discarded metal cylinders. Lean-faced and hungry, in unkempt beards and black cassocks, they fished for meals, picked mushrooms and berries, and tended a primitive garden.
In 1994, this group of Orthodox monks began camping on a remote shore of Spruce Island, north of Kodiak. The young men, some teenagers, were exploring a whole other way of living. In the monastic tradition, they were ”desert dwellers,” living in isolation, suffering, to be closer to God. They disdained the material world, finding meaning in deprivation. They believed in the sanctity of the island’s towering spruce, where sunlight cut in like angels’ wings.
Their tranquil lagoon was more than an island wilderness. It was a holy sanctuary, a destination for pilgrims. Eventually, for the monks, it was paradise lost.
People in Kodiak know the monks as gentle, well-meaning peddlers of Russian Orthodoxy. Around town, their cassocks and work boots resonate with the Alutiiq, whose culture is steeped in centuries of Orthodoxy.
Despite their wholesome mission, the monks soon attracted controversy in the town of 7,000. The established Orthodox parish publicly questioned their motives and credentials. Ouzinkie Native Corp. evicted the monks from its land on Spruce Island last May after learning the young men were raising a monastery there without its permission.
While the monks have strong supporters on Kodiak, few have asked hard questions about their origins or their leader, Gleb Podmoshensky, whom followers consider a Russian ”staretz,” or mystic. Podmoshensky runs an isolated religious community on 160 acres of mountainous land near Platina, Calif., about 40 miles west of Redding.
Once a priest, Podmoshensky was defrocked by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1989 after ”a series of moral charges” never publicly defined. Yet he continued to head his own Orthodox order, the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, which operates outside the realm of the established church. The Kodiak monks were recruited through Podmoshensky and answer to his authority. Observers within the mainstream church are uneasy about the young followers’ devotion to him.
What’s more, Kodiak’s young monks are inherently linked with a fringe religious order whose roots lie in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Nicknamed ”The Church of Anything Goes,” it amassed millions of dollars in its heyday. Now, its countercultural movement of the 1960s has been recast as Russian Orthodoxy, with a mission to appeal to the spiritually thirsty of the 1990s, especially troubled youth.
In his cassock, scraggly beard and unwashed hair, a tall, young monk mixed another round of mochas. Traditionally, monks are not baristas, but since the brotherhood’s mission in Alaska includes youth outreach, in October 1997 the monks established Monk’s Rock, a bookstore and coffeehouse located at Kodiak’s busiest intersection. In a back-room chapel, the monks hold weekly services, their stately baritones reverberating.
On this morning, John Marler arrived at Monk’s Rock in a beaten, rust-spotted, yellow Volvo the monks call ”The Banana.” He braced its wheels with rocks and sprang into his day, peripatetic, infused with energy.
For Marler, a monk, joining the brotherhood at age 19 meant trading one fringe lifestyle for another. Before, he’d played guitar in two successful California punk bands. His was a bleak existence, he said, that brought him nothing but despair. Yet he found serenity as a monastic with the brotherhood and turned his energy and creativity to work on a ”zine” called Death to the World. He later co-wrote ”Youth of the Apocalypse,” a manifesto for troubled teens.
Personable and articulate, Marler has served as a spokesman for the monks and once organized an information booth at the Alaska State Fair. His ministry on Kodiak has included counseling drug abusers and suicidal teens, good deeds Marler hopes will atone for his own past sins. By his own account, he might never have lived to tell his story if not for the priest who led him to Orthodoxy — Gleb Podmoshensky.
‘A NEW RELIGIOUS CONSCIOUSNESS’
Podmoshensky, the man who collects lost souls, was born in Latvia in the 1930s but fled to America with his mother in 1949 after the Soviet army imprisoned his father. He attended seminary in New York before settling in California. In his youth, Podmoshensky corresponded with a Russian monk named Father Gerasim, who lived on Spruce Island for 30 years before his death in 1969. Podmoshensky made a pilgrimage to visit Gerasim and the grave of Alaska’s revered St. Herman, a monk who lived on the island two centuries ago. There, Podmoshensky dedicated his life to furthering Herman’s monastic ideology.
Back in California, Podmoshensky and others founded the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. In time, he paired with a young man named Eugene Rose, and they opened a bookstore in San Francisco and published ”The Orthodox Word.”
In 1967, the growing brotherhood purchased 80 acres of land in the California woods for $14,000 and eventually raised a monastery. As a monk, Podmoshensky took the name ”Herman” while Rose called himself ”Seraphim.” Their mission was to guide converts to Orthodoxy and one day establish a monastery on Spruce Island.
In religious tracts, Rose, a prolific writer, cited a ”new religious consciousness” leading the world to Orthodoxy, waging unseen warfare, saving it from the calamity of the 20th century. He lauded the suffering of ascetics and warned against a ”self-pleasing Orthodoxy.” In his mind, the true path of righteousness lay outside the authority of the established church.
Podmoshensky once described Rose as ”a man who was very contemporary, a rather depressed person, someone … you could call an angry young man. He even knew Jack Kerouac personally. … But actually, inside, he was a deeply concerned young man who wanted to know what this civilization was turning into.”
In 1976, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia ordained Podmoshensky as a priest. When Rose died suddenly of an intestinal ailment at age 48, the future of the order fell to Podmoshensky. Since 1982, according to the group’s web site, ”the brotherhood has spent much of its energy trying to reach the so-called ‘Lost Generation,’ the Misfits, the ones no one seems very much interested in.”
ATTRACTING YOUNG DISCIPLES
Today, according to Marler, the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood has about 80 members. Its web site lists six monasteries and a school for young women. Since his 1989 dismissal from priesthood, Podmoshensky has attempted to regain footing in the church. Despite his tenuous connections, he continues to attract young disciples.
”He’s very energetic and erudite. … I would say he has almost a magical ability to enthuse people spiritually,” said Siobhan Houston, a former student of Harvard Divinity School. In a series of 1991 interviews with Podmoshensky’s followers, Houston found that many considered him their spiritual father and afforded him powers of clairvoyance. She called Podmoshensky apocalyptic in his vision and said he was viewed by mainline Orthodoxy as a ”fanatical throwback” to pre-revolutionary Russia.
Podmoshensky could not be reached for an interview, but described his personal mission on the brotherhood’s web site: ”I guess it’s my task to try to inspire the young generation, my young monks, to go and take over. My monks, writers, are preparing a whole revolution of spiritual things. … The young generation, the punks, the teenagers can understand … and that gives us hope.”
Over the years, Podmoshensky never abandoned his devotion to St. Herman. He claims that before Rose died, he gave a deathbed blessing for the expansion of the brotherhood to Alaska. The first set of monks arrived on Spruce Island in 1983 but eventually dissipated. The second, Marler’s group, came 11 years later.
In between, the brotherhood’s mission took a dramatic turn when the charismatic Podmoshensky attracted a prosperous but rudderless religious sect called the Holy Order of MANS.
Reporter Eric Burkett contributed to this story. Reporter Sandi Gerjevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday: Who are the monks, and what is their mission?