Monday, April 07, 2008

Where are the American saints?

A couple of things I've come across recently have got me thinking again about the American saints. There are about a dozen recognized saints associated significantly with the territory of North America. Of these, most were immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe. Only two were born and died on the continent (both Alaskan); one (Varnava of Hvosno) was born in the contiguous U. S. (Gary, IN) but left as a child, never to return. About half a dozen others were born elsewhere but died here.

Although many of them were not ethnically Russian, all but two of the American saints belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. For the sake of convenience, we could divide the American saints into three periods:
  • the foundation, from the start of the Russian mission in 1794 to the departure of St. Innocent in 1867
  • the zenith, from the arrival of St. Alexis in 1889 to the death of St. Raphael in 1915
  • the struggle, from St. Nikolai's first visit in 1915 to the death of St. John in 1966
Naturally, the first stage would be exclusively Russian, because it falls during the time when the Russian church was planting Orthodoxy on American soil. Russian dominance in the second stage also makes sense, though I guess there are some who argue that by this point Greek Orthodoxy already had an independent existence in America. In the third stage, there's not much to show in any case, but we have two Serbians--one going, one coming--and another Russian.

In the first two periods, there were almost always multiple saints at any given time. In the foundation period:
  • 1794-96 St. Herman and St. Juvenaly
  • 1802-16 St. Herman, St. Peter, and St. Jacob
  • 1816-23 St. Herman and St. Jacob
  • 1823-37 St. Herman, St. Jacob, and St. Innocent
  • 1837-64 St. Jacob and St. Innocent
In the zenith period, the concentration was even higher:
  • 1895-1898 St. Alexis, St. John, St. Alexander, and St. Raphael
  • 1898-1907 St. Alexis, St. John, St. Alexander, St. Raphael, and St. Tikhon
  • 1907-1909 St. Alexis, St. Alexander, and St. Raphael
  • 1909-1914 St. Alexander and St. Raphael
Of course, everything changed with the Russian Civil War (1917-22). Around this period, we have the three brief visits of St. Nikolai to America (1915, 1921, 1927) and the American childhood of St. Varnava (b. 1914). After WWII, St. Nikolai spent the last decade of his life in America, from 1945 to 1956. Finally, St. John of Shanghai arrived in San Francisco in 1962 and reposed in 1966. From a high point of five saints at the turn of the century, we've seen more than 90 years in which only two saints lived here as adults, one of them for four years, the other for 11. From the standpoint of the chaotic condition of Russian Orthodoxy during this period, the dearth makes a fair amount of sense; but does it in any way indicate an American Church that is ready to stand on its own?

Various groups argue that our fate has long been detached from that of the Russian Church. But where are the Greek saints? Where the Arab? Where the distinctively American? Should we really care which group is the largest, or the fastest growing, or the most at home in American culture? Should we ascribe weight to claims of universal jurisdiction? What would it mean to follow this strategy: the Church in America is founded on her saints; when those saints are distinctively American, she will be ready to run her own affairs. It is also interesting to consider that, in the age of ecumenism, the saints we see in America (and, I have heard, the saints in historically Orthodox lands) have been anti-ecumenist. Indeed, when we turn to the third period, it may well be that the forces of ecumenism have been at least partially responsible for the dismal numbers.

Now, I'm not saying that any of this is terribly conclusive. I set out mostly to get a clearer picture in my own mind of when the saints lived, where their lives coincided, and what any of this might show us about Orthodoxy in America. And I doubt that there's anything profound here. I'm sure plenty of people before me have seen these trends. They don't say much in themselves, without some kind of interpretation of what's going on. Is it the fragmenting of Orthodoxy in America that has caused the lack of saints (or perhaps vice versa)? Is it ecumenism? The New Calendar? The loss of Russian leadership? A general apostasy? I'm hardly the person to say what caused what. But it does seem to me like we should pause over these trends. In a century when the Old World has seen the ranks of its saints swell with new martyrs, American Orthodoxy has offered very little. I don't want to wholly discount whatever benefit we have experienced here from relative religious freedom; but when we leave things like saints and monastics out of the equation, are we perhaps adopting the wrong standards by which to measure maturity?


Joanna Farkleberry said...

Saints are considered "Fruits"
You will be known by your Fruits.
If a Church does not produce Fruits, then...

Esteban Vázquez said...

Trevor, I think you're mistaken: all this is terribly conclusive. There is something profound here. These trends do say much.

You have hit the nail square on the head, I think, in noting that leaving monastics and saints out of the equation results in the wrong standards by which to measure maturity. The sheer numbers of people that belong to one diocesan structure or another (Orthodox Christians, I should note, belong to dioceses, not to "jurisdictions," which might as well be called "denominations") is irrelevant in the end. After all, thousands upon thousands of people belong to Joel Osteen's and Robert Schuller's respective congregations, so by that measure they must be more mature than the Orthodox. A strong, authentic monastic life is the true measure of a Church's maturity, because the radical evangelical witness of monasteries continually calls us new heights spiritual efforts. This, in turn, results in fruits of sober praxis in Church life and personal holiness in the people. Needless to say, we Orthodox in the Americas (not "American Orthodox," because that doesn't exist) are a long, long way away from any of this. Our Church life (and I speak here not of "jurisdictionalism," but of our basic parish life and praxis) is in utter disarray, and authentic monastic life is nearly non-existent. Some people think that they way to fix this is by some ghost called "administrative unity," but this is wishful thinking. The way out of the pit is to progress towards perfection by embracing, again, an authentic monastic witness and authentic (that is, not made-up, not hodge-podge) Church praxis, both of which things, empowered by God's Grace, produce order and holiness.

In short, the Church's job, as has been said, is to produce relics. This "takes a village" (and one, at that, with a monastery). They way to get there, and out of our mess of deficiencies, is by walking in the way our Fathers have lead. So, do we want American saints? Do we want a local American Church? Fast. Pray. Make the services central to your life. Have frequent services. Establish monasteries when an authentic ascetic life is lived. It is these things that make for mature Churches with relics to show.

Trevor said...

Yeah, but I'd bet you already thought all that anyway. So there's still not much credit to assign to my little post :-)

And your point is well taken about jurisdictions and dioceses. (Would you take offense if I pointed out that Clark Carlton just said the same thing in his AFR podcast?) It's an important perspective to acquire, but there's also a cynical side of me that says they amount to the same thing in our present situation. I belong to the diocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic, in the sense that I attend regularly a parish under Bp. THOMAS. But I live geographically in the archdiocese of Washington and New York (Met. HERMAN), the diocese of Eastern America and New York (ROCOR-vacant), the Eastern eparchy (Abp. ANTONY), the metropolis of New Jersey (Met. EVANGELOS), the diocese of the USA (Met. NICHOLAS), the diocese of Eastern America (Bp. MITROPHAN), and apparently the diocese of Zaraisk (Bp. MERCURIUS). Any way you slice it, it's a mess of overlapping domains, and I as a lowly convert have to figure out where I fit in all of it.

Peter Gardner said...

It should also be noted that saints don't get canonized until they've been dead a while. So we probably will be able to look back in a century or so, note all the saints in the 19th and 20th centuries in America, and bemoan the lack of 21st century saints. These things become far clearer after a century or so.

Trevor said...

Perhaps. I did consider that there might be a lag. But are there really even any widely acceptable candidates left? Also note that the three canonized saints we've had since the early part of the 20th c. have already been canonized. So apparently it doesn't always take that long.

Roland said...

Whenever I hear someone say it is time for America to have a united, independent Orthodox Church, it has the ring of a 16-year-old who proclaims, "I'm an adult now, and I want to be treated like one." Orthodoxy in North America is simply not mature enough to function as an indigenous church that is both authentically Orthodox and authentically American. Parishes like ours notwithstanding, it is still largely a church that is not far removed from the immigrant experience. Therefore, it should not be surprising that most "American" saints have foreign ties.

Ecumenism per se is not a problem. But the tolerance of 20th century American culture, which gave rise to ecumenism, just doesn't produce martyrs. Even the Jews, who have been persecuted and ghetto-ized all over the world for 1,700 years, were able to assimilate here. This assimilation has taken the edge off of Jewish identity, as it has with most other immigrant groups. It should not be surprising if Orthodox identity has suffered in a similar way. I think the 21st century, for better or worse, is already remedying that, with a general atheist rebellion against any expression of any religion. How long can it be until we see a new crop of martyrs?

Brief comments:

St. Raphael (Hawaweeny) was an Arab - he was born in Damascus, Syria.

Any application of the term anti-ecumenist to anyone before, say 1920, is anachronistic. Anti-ecumenism is an obsession peculiar to the 20th century.

Trevor said...

To clarify, I was in fact referring to the post-WWI saints when I used the term "anti-ecumenist."

I know St. Raphael was an Arab, but he studied in Russia, represented Antioch in Russia, and in the early 1890s transferred to the Russian Church, all before he arrived in America. He remained Russian Orthodox until his death.

I don't deny Antioch's claim to him as one of their saints, but as an American saint, he was exclusively Russian Orthodox.

Trevor-Peter said...

I just noticed another American saint in the OCA lives for May 4. From 1900 or 1901 until 1912, the new hieromartyr Vasily Martysz served under the Russian Orthodox Church in North America. He was initially appointed to a parish in Alaska, then moved to PA, and eventually finished his North American service in Canada before returning to Poland. His time in America overlaps with that of Ss. Alexis, John, Alexander, Raphael, and Tikhon in what I called here the zenith period. From 1900 to 1907 there were actually no less than six canonized saints present in North America.

Holy Martyr Vasily, pray for us!