Saint Set Precedent For Monastic Life On Island

Author: Sandi Gerjevic
Date Published: 01/31/1999

”Unleaded?” ”Yeah,” Martyrius said.

The young monk hoisted the tail of his cassock and pried a crinkled $20 bill out of his jeans. While a fellow monk gassed up the Archangel, Martyrius stowed gear in the 21-foot aluminum skiff for a run to Spruce Island.

Shy and polite, Martyrius, 23, has the reedy frame of someone who doesn’t eat every day. His forked red beard flashed back in the wind. Out in the world, he once was known as Ryan Hope of Chico, Calif. He took the name Martyrius after dropping out of college and giving up his skateboard to join the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood and live as an Orthodox monk on Spruce Island.

The story of why a spirited young man would choose a life of isolation and poverty begins on the island more than two centuries ago. These lush, coastal woods can’t have changed much since a Russian missionary known as Herman walked their mossy paths in 1794. Herman came to Alaska to convert Aleuts to Christianity. At first, he dug a cave on Spruce Island, but later slept in a wooden hut. In honor of his monastery back in Russia, he called the island New Valaam and lived there 40 years until his death in 1836.

As an ascetic, Herman tried to live a Christlike life. He dressed in a deerskin smock, worn glossy from years of never removing it. He slept at night with two bricks for a pillow. His body grew emaciated from fasting, and he secretly wore 16-pound chains beneath his garments to take on more suffering.

While he deprived himself, Herman was generous to others. He sheltered orphans and drew an Aleut following, whom he defended against the Baranof government. When the old monk died at the age of 76, the Aleut buried him in the cave he’d dug his first summer. By his grave, they built a chapel. The Orthodox church canonized St. Herman of Alaska in 1970.

Because of Herman, Spruce Island holds spiritual appeal to Orthodox Christians all over the world, especially young monastics like Martyrius. He and several other young men began camping on the island in 1994, near an area called Monk’s Lagoon. Their purpose was to emulate the humility of Herman and establish a monastic presence on this holy island. With their wispy beards and antiquated dress, they affected the look of another time and place.

When Ouzinkie Native Corp. evicted the monks from its land last May, some left Alaska. But Martyrius and one other monk moved to nearby Nelson Island, hoping Ouzinkie would relent. In August, Martyrius agreed to ferry a family of pilgrims, the Hortons of Post Falls, Idaho, to Spruce Island for a tour. Orthodoxy is one of the fastest-growing religions in America, and a number of faithful visit the island each year.

At Monk’s Lagoon, Martyrius soaked the hem of his cassock in the surf while helping Father Gregory and Cindy Horton and their two sons ashore. He led them along the beach and into a stand of tall woods. At a clearing, he pushed open the door of a sod house, where icons and a few books framed a smudged window, etched with spiders’ webbing. This had been Martyrius’ home.

During his time at Monk’s Lagoon, Martyrius helped shore up existing religious structures and build a monastery, the eventual reason for the monks’ eviction. The monastery was no boys’ summertime clubhouse, but a substantial structure. Built of washed-up logs the monks hand-milled, it included a dormitory, a library, a kitchen, a dining hall and a three-story, gold-domed, octagonal tower. It stands empty now, a rambling hall of raw beams and exposed insulation.

When Martyrius led the Hortons to the chapel built over St. Herman’s grave, they kneeled and crawled beneath the structure, praying and singing to venerate the site. Cindy scraped soil from the grave and filled a series of vials to present to parishioners back home who, like her, believe in the healing power of St. Herman. The Hortons were Catholics before converting to Orthodoxy about 15 years ago. In Idaho, Father Gregory heads a budding parish of 40 families. In the Orthodox way, he called his wife ”Matuskha” or ”little mother.” She called him ”Father.” Their visit to Spruce Island was the apex of their trip to Alaska.

From the lagoon, Martyrius continued on to Sunny Cove, where high over the water a handful of nuns live in seclusion at St. Michael’s Skete, a small monastery that belongs to the brotherhood.

On their perch, the black-habited nuns have a million-dollar view but live on rice and beans. The plank floor of the monastery is chinked with duct tape. There is no electricity and no generator. The nuns move in silence about the chilled, darkened rooms, knotting prayer ropes by lamp light. In summer, they collect rainwater from their roof, raise a garden, keep llamas and chickens and haul supplies up the hill on their backs.

The nuns offered their visitors homemade tea and salmonberry pie. As he left, Father Gregory pushed a donation into the hand of a nun who said she’d lived on the island six years. She’d come north from Wildwood, Calif., another convert attracted to Orthodoxy as a religion that ”still demanded things of you.”

She described her new-found faith as ”Christianity with the meat still in it.”