"Giving and Receiving"


Giving and Receiving

By Father Michael Oleksa

AGAIN, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall 2005


The first story I ever heard from my Yup’ik Eskimo friends centered on the First People and their encounter with Raven, the mythic creature of heaven and earth. Native Alaskans never worshiped ravens or big black birds, but their stories related how, whenever the Creators wanted to appear in some visible form on earth, the preferred shape was that of raven. They understood the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dive readily, remembering that the Raven was originally white too.


            According to the ancient story, raven was walking along the beach one morning and discovered the first people, naked in their primal innocence, and strolled around them, inspecting these new creatures.


            “What kind of animals are you?” Raven exclaimed. “ No feathers and not enough fur! Pitiful! Hopeless! You’ll die in the first frost in this Artic Paradise!


            But Raven had second thoughts about letting these helpless folks perish. Raven called a convocation of all the animals and noted that without fangs, claws, feathers, or fur these newcomers had no chance of survival. He asked the animals for their advice.


            Their response was generous. “They are pretty ridiculous,” the animals agreed, “ but they are kind of cute. Let’s keep them.”


            “That’s very kind of you,” said Raven, “but how will that be possible?”


            The animals replied, “We’ll give them our skins and hides for clothing, and they can use our flesh for meat.”


            “That’s very generous of you,” said Raven, “but would you want in return?”


             The animals answered unanimously, “We will require gratitude and respect from the human beings.”


            And so it was, at the beginning of human history, that a covenant was conclued between the people and animals. The animals see what humans cannot see. They hear what humans cannot hear. They smell what humans cannot smell. They know things humans do not know, and can do things humans cannot do. Besides this, they cooperate. They are in cahoots. They understand each others languages, so that if the moose with his big ears and nose does not hear or smell the approach of a human hunter, the sparrow will certainly alert him. Humans cannot succeed as hunters in this world unless the animals give themselves, so that the otherwise helpless and hopeless human beings can survive.


            Humans, for their part, must express there gratitude and respect by speaking humbly about the animals, using and consuming their hides and meat without abusing or wasting them, decorating their weapons, their utensils, and even their homes with the images of animals whose self-sacrifice sustain them. They musteven return the portions of the animals bodies, the bones that have no further use, to the animal has harvested, as a final gesture of appreciation.


             Giving back to the source of our life some portion of what was feely given has been a fundamental principle of life in Alaskan cultures. Failing to offer something back upsets the balance of the universe, distorts, the proper cosmic balance, threatens the very survival of human beings.  Hunter/gatherer cultures can never forget to express their gratitude to the animals who give themselves, sacrifice themselves, to sustain the People.


            Only when we live so isolated from the very sources of our lives, only when we develop a distorted and haughty view of the place humanity occupies within nature, only when we no longer can appreciate that life is a gift, and that our survival depends on the continuation of this gift, to which we have no “right” – only then will we question our need to respond in gratitude and love to the “Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life.”


            The biblical standard of giving back to God was ten percent, but when we think in terms of the ancient Alaskans, we actually owe God one hundred percent.  It is Christ who fulfills the ancient spiritual intuition of the Native Alaskans, by revealing the ultimate Self-Sacrifice for the salvation of the world, the destruction of Hades and death itself, and the transfiguration of the creation into God’s Kingdom.


            The Liturgy challenges us, in fact, to “commend ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God.”  If we offer only our tithe, we, in fact, are getting off cheaply.  Christ offers us Himself totally, and God will not really be “satisfied” until we reciprocate, with all.


-       Fr. Michael J. Oleksa is a missionary priest in Alaska, and formerly an adjunct professor at the St. Patriarch Tikhon’s Theologicsl Institute, Moscow.  He is the author of several books, including “Alaskan Missionary Spirituality” and “Orthodox Alaska:  A Theology of Mission.”


This article is re-typed from:  “Giving and Receiving”, Fall, 2005, AGAIN, The Ancient Christian Faith Today, Vol. 27, No. 3, P34.