We were sitting on the steps of an orthodox church, its gold-tipped dome above shimmering like a glorious crown in the sun, an equally glorious bald eagle circling round it in a wide halo. The church stands on a bluff above the sandy clamming beaches below, overlooking Cook Inlet, and from our vantage point we could see in the distance over the water the snowcapped range of Redoubt volcano.
We were in Ninilchik, Alaska.
And we weren’t alone. Cyril was with us.
“Ah, that’s my father up there, watching out for me,” he said, waving his oily hand up towards the bird as he swallowed his piece of king salmon. “His spirit hovering.” The rich smell of fish mixed with iodium, kelp and salt from the sea below us…
Cyril was a still-to-be-ordained orthodox priest who was standing in at this Church of the Transfiguration until the new priest came to replace the one who’d just died.
We’d first found him in the church hunched up in a chair over a laptop propped on his knees. When we walked in he’d stood up quickly, his black cassock falling down to cover the jeans and Nikes underneath, and he welcomed us in with a kindly smile through his long, dark beard.
We knew he was Cyril because on the door outside a note had been pinned for visitors saying ‘Cyril” could be contacted at such and such a number if they wanted a tour.
We hit it off well with Cyril, as we stood all three of us in the vestibule of this charming little church, drawn in by the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska into which he launched, lacing it with tidbits of his own points of view. We were also intrigued by his personal itinerary which he seemed eager to hint at in his little asides.
The Orthodox Church of America, he told us, was set up by eight Russian Orthodox monks in1794 at Kodiak Island when Alaska was part of Russian America. The first American Bishop was appointed In 1799 and in 1808 they moved down to Sitka where they built a cathedral, cathedral, St. Michael’s. St Michael’s became the seat of the Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and Alaska — an area covering over 2,000 miles. This was the “Golden Age” of the Orthodox Church in Alaska, a golden age which ended when the United States purchased Alaska in 1867.
I thought of the golden dome above us, and my mind wandered slightly, back down to the crinkled sand with the tide out below us. We’d just visited a small shop in the little village down there, a small and intriguingly untidy shop run by a young woman. We’d browsed over the odds and ends of trinkets on sale: Russian dolls, Native American beads and basketry, silver Russian orthodox crosses, books on old dying cultures and I wandered too far into the nooks and crannies and came face to face with a hot samovar and a table covered in a white frilly tablecoth. “No, that’s private, sorry…” the lady came up, coaxing me away. She lived here with her Russian elderly mother, she explained. Shop and home merged together in a weird mixture of cultures and time warps. We were in this curiosity shop lost in a receding landscape of cultures, the objects on sale representing a desperate attempt to keep them alive somehow against all the sad odds. Indeed, the Orthodox Church as well as Native American culture here has seen better days.
I homed back in to the conversation. Cyril was still talking with my husband: ‘Difficult to take a vow of poverty when your salary is only 200 dollars month,” Cyril was saying.
Well, what had I missed? He was talking about his personal situation and the flood gates had opened. “But we were sent to be tried, weren’t we? I’m not fully ordained. And won’t be able to be…” his face went grave. “Because I don’t have a wife. You have to have a wife if you want to be ordained. I did have one, but we divorced. So I suppose I’m lucky the Church accepted me.”
We smiled, not quite sure where to go with this information, until my husband steered the conversation away. “Are you originally from Ninilchik?” Because Cyril’s face was particularly unusual, and striking: ample, with dark, wide set, passionate eyes to match the bushy black long hair; “No, I’m from the southeast, I’m Tlingit.”
My ears pricked up. A Tlingit turned Russian Orthodox.
‘I’m leaving soon for the seminary on Kodiak to train and be ordained,” he went on, “starting in September, for three years.”
Did I catch a quick grimace? Three years… Cyril didn’t look young. He must have been in his mid forties; he was in a hurry. “How can I find a wife there? Pray for me, will you? Our Lord has called me, it was His Will. So I’m doing God’s Will. Here too: I’m showing up here.
My mind slipped back to the lady down in the shop; she’d seemed about the same age as him, selling Tlingit wares. Perhaps he was trying something there with her? But that was none of my business…
He took us outside and we wandered round the graves in the churchyard. One was cluttered with garden ornaments, miniature wheelbarrows, a gnome leaning on its side nonchalantly, propped up by the elbow, as if dreaming. Further along a tiny polar bear stood stone upright at the head of an infant’s grave, surrounded by a plethora of toys the poor baby had not been granted time to play with. Sad, infant, graves which we walked round in silence, each grave with the three barred Orthodox cross.
We came back to the church and this was when we found Cyril sitting on the steps tucking into his king salmon, delving his large fleshy index finger into his jar it pulling out pink lumps soaked in oil. “Take some,” he held the jar out to us. It was more than delicious, it melted like cream in our mouths. Perhaps it was the unique setting, the blazing sun with the magnificent scenery and the tales told by this exotic trainee priest which made it taste so wonderful.
I looked up at the eagle, still circling round the brilliant dome. “I tell you, that’s my father watching out for me,” he said, pulling out another lump of salmon. “I am from the Eagle clan.”
“Tlingit,” my husband started, “I mean, that’s unusual, a Tlingit Orthodox.”
We’d read about Christian missionaries in Alaska who suppressed traditional Native American ceremonies – particularly dancing – and who fiercely forbade the indigenous population from speaking their language, whipping children at school who dared slip up. But that was a long time ago.
“Ah, but the Russian missionaries were different,” he explained. “They let us speak our own language. And they let us dance. I have all my costumes and jewelry, I still wear them sometimes, I still dance. No, the Orthodox Church lets us have our ceremonies too. They are not incompatible. You saw in the church that we have the bible in local native languages, too.”
I thought yet again of the lady down in her shop by the sand, selling Tlingit cloaks. Perhaps she’d seen him dressed up and what a sight it must be. All the villagers must know him in his different guises. I secretly wished we could see him in that guise too, because he was an impressive looking man, tall, dark and well built. He went on to tell us that he was raised in Sitka with his father. His father had been an Orthodox priest but he – the son – first resisted his father’s influence and enrolled in the Army, stayed in the Army for six years. Then he became a truck driver in Philadelphia and sometime during this time he married. Then something, we weren’t quite sure what, made him turn back to what his father wanted, and now here he was, training to become the Orthodox priest in his father’s footsteps.
He looked up again at those outstretched feathered wings. “He’s looking after me,” he repeated. “But I”ll need a wife. Please pray for me.”
Razor clams here are the size of babies’ hands
opened up to catch the midnight sun.
They roll in with the tide and lie on sand
full and fleshy, their tumbling journey done.
Above, a Russian church, its golden dome
a gleaming refuge for those who seek a home.
But eagles, ravens coast with eager eye
and clammers armed with spades and knives arrive –
clams bury downwards as the shadows loom
of wings or claws or the clammers spoon
a feast for those who have the craft to find
those rippled markings camouflaged like waves
in sand so fine which cossets them like babes –
babes of the sea who cry on land exposed
under cliff and cloud their little hands tight closed
while up above a Tlingit pastor’s hands
are held in prayer for those who come to land
in Ninilchik, in Cook Inlet, across a glacial bay.