13 February 2009

A Conqueror of Prelest—St Nicetas of the Kiev Caves, Bishop of Novgorod

On another blog, Journey of Fasting, I have already posted a wonderful excerpt from the terrific book, The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and the Pentecostarion, ed. Fr David (Kidd) and Mother Gabriella (Ursache) (Rives Junction, MI: HDM, 1999), pp. 13-5, concerning ‘the Week of Proclamation’, that is, the week that follows the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, which we have nearly completed. In that post, I also mentioned the Saint whom I’d like to look at today as being particularly appropriate for this week, Saint Nicetas of the Kiev Caves, bishop of Novgorod (†1109). Here is the brief Life given for St Nicetas on the Holy Trinity (MP) calendar page:

Sainted Nikita, Bishop of Novgorod, in his youth entered the Kievo-Pechersk monastery and soon wished to become an hermit. The hegumen cautioned him that such an exploit for a young monk was premature, but he trusting in his own strength would not take heed. In the hermitage Saint Nikita fell into temptation. The devil appeared to him in the guise of an angel, and the inexperienced ascetic bowed down to him. The devil gave him advice, as it were to one having attained to perfection: ‘Bother not to pray, but only read and study other things, and I shall pray in place of thee’, – and he stood about the hermit, giving the appearance of seeming to pray for him. The seduced monk Nikita came to surpass everyone in knowledge of the Books of the Old Testament, but about the Gospel he would not speak, nor wanted to hear it. The Kievo-Pechersk elders went to the seduced monk, and having prayed, they drove out the devil from him. After this the Monk Nikita, remaining an hermit with the blessing of the elders, lived in strict fasting and prayer, more than anyone else practising obedience and humility. Through the prayer of the holy elders, the Merciful Lord brought him up from the depths of his fall to an high degree of spiritual perfection. Afterwards he was made bishop in Novgorod and for his holy life he was rewarded of God with a gift of wonderworking. . . .

This is a particularly vivid illustration of the danger of spiritual delusion (прелест or πλάνη), which seems to be emphasised uniquely in the Orthodox Tradition. Many of the Fathers have written extensively on this danger. To take just one example, over 800 years after St Nicetas reposed, St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) wrote some words on the subject that seem particularly appropriate to the 11th-12th-c. Saint (‘On the Jesus Prayer and Prelest’, Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith, No. 8 [Presentation of the Theotokos, Nov. 2008], pp. 94-5):

Silence is beneficial for those who have already made some progress in prayer and who understand the battle from within, who are steadfast in the morality of the Gospel, having acquired it as the absolute foundation of their lives, and who renounce the passions. All this must be acquired beforehand, in a community, for silence will bring the greatest harm to a soul if approached without preliminary and satisfactory training in a monastery: it robs one of success, reinforces the passions, causes haughtiness, self-aggrandizement, and demonic prelest.

Interestingly, St Nicetas seems to be frequently depicted in iconography as beardless. One can, however, see a slight moustache and goatee in the detail of an of icon of St Nicetas here. This link is to an article in Russian that talks about the reasons for this oddity, but unfortunately, my Russian is not good enough to learn much from it. It seems unlikely that St Nicetas would have anticipated the trend among some modernist Orthodox bishops by deliberately shaving, and indeed, the article seems to support this assumption when it says, 'Тогда, быть может, владыка, по заведенному в Европе обычаю, брился?! И бритье исключено.' But without some assistance, I for one can only speculate that perhaps God did not grant him abundant facial hair in order to help this holy hierarch preserve his humility! Certainly many Orthodox today will be aware of at least one other example of a holy monk who is nevertheless beardless—the renowned Elder Raphael of Valaam.


Anonymous said...

Don't worry, St. Nicetas was not into modernism or European styles, as it says in the end, he just had trouble growing a beard.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I've really been enjoying your posts, keep it up!

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you for the kind comment and the clarification of the article! I studied Russian in college, but it's quite rusty these days. I have every intention of brushing up one day, but at the moment I'm afraid it would distract me too much from Modern Greek, which I need to keep up for my thesis work! Очень жаль!

Anonymous said...

Every once in a while, it is actually nice that we follow different calendars: when I miss reading the Synaxarion for whatever reason and miss the opportunity to seek blessings from a saint like St. Nicetas, and you post about it 13 days later, thus giving me another chance! Forgive me for taking up so much space, but I thought you might like to read the somewhat fuller presentation of his life, present in the translation of 'The 'Paterik' of the Kiev Caves Monastery' (trans. Muriel Heppell):

Discourse 25. Nikita the Solitary, who later became bishop of Novgorod.

While the venerable Nikon was superior (i.e. between 1078-1088) there was [in the monastery] a brother named Nikita. He wished to be honored by men and conceived a great deed, but not for God's sake: he began ti ask the superior to allow him to withdraw into solitude. The superior forbade him to do so, saying, "My son, it is not profitable for you to sit idle, since you are young. It is better for you to stay among the brethren and work for them. You will not risk losing your reward. You yourself have seen how our brother the holy Isaakij the Cave-dweller was seduced by demons. Had he not been saved by God's grace, through the prayers of the venerable fathers Antonij and Feodosij, who to this day work many miracles, he would have been lost." Nikita said, "I will certainly not be seduced by such a trick. I will ask the Lord God to grant me the gift of working miracles." Nikon answered, "What you are asking is beyond your powers. Take care, brother, lest you exalt yourself and then have a fall. Our humility orders you to serve the holy brotherhood, for whose sake you will be crowned as a reward for your obedience." Nikita remained unmoved by the superior's words and did exactly what he wanted: he shut the door behind him and remained [in the cave] without going out.
Before many days had passed he was seduced by the devil. While he was singing, he heard a voice praying with him and smelled an indescribably fragrant odor. He was deceived by this and said to himself, "If this were not an angel, he would not be praying with me, nor would there be this fragrant odor of the Holy Spirit." He began to pray diligently, "Show Thyself plainly to me, O Lord, that I mat see Thee." Then a voice said to him, "I shall not reveal myself to you because you are young and lest you be puffed up and then fall." The solitary said with tears, "I shall in no way be deceived, O Lord, since I have been instructed by my superior to pay no attention to the wiles of the devil; but I shall do everything that Thou dost command." Then the serpent, that slayer of souls, assumed power over him and said, "It is impossible for a man to behold me while he is still in the flesh. I shall send my angel to stay with you. Act according to his will." Straightway a demon stood before him in the guise of an angel. The demon said to him, "Do not pray, but read your books. Through them you will find yourself conversing with God, and you will be able to give useful advice to people who come to visit you. I shall pray continually to my creator for your salvation."
Having been seduced, the monk did not pray, but applied himself diligently to reading and studying. He would see the demon continuously praying for him, and he rejoiced that an angel was praying for him. He conversed for the good of their souls with those who came to visit him, and began to prophesy. This brought him great fame, so that everyone marveled at the way in which his prophecies were fulfilled. One day Nikita sent a message to Prince Izjaslav, (note: three times Prince of Kiev: 1054-68, 1069-73, 1078) saying, "Today Gleb Svjatoslavic has been killed at Zavoloc'e. Quickly send your son Svjatopol to rule in Novgorod." And it happened exactly as he said; a few days later Gleb's death became known. From then on the Solitary became famous as a prophet, and princes and boyars paid close attention to him. In fact a demon does not know what will come to pass but, acting on his own, instructs evil men either to kill or to steal and makes those things known; the monk would prophesy these things, which did indeed come to pass.
No one could dispute with him about the books of the Old Testament, since he knew them all by heart: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, Kings, and all the Prophets in order; and he knew all the Jewish books as well. But as for the Gospel and the Apostle, the holy books given to us by grace to confirm us [in the faith] and set our live on the right path, he did not wish to see, hear, or read them. From this it became clear to everybody that he had been seduced by the enemy.
The venerable fathers–the superior Nikon, Ioann who succeeded him as superios, Pimin the Faster, Isaia who became bishop of Rostov, Matfej the Percipient, holy Isaakij the Cave-dweller, Agapit the Physician, Grigorij the Miracle-worker, Nikola who became bishop of Tmutorokan', Nestor who wrote the chronicle, Grigorij the creator of the canons, Feoktist who became the bishop of Cernihiv, and Onisifor the Percipient – could not accept this. These God-bearers came to the man who had been tempted, prayed to God, and expelled the demon from him; after this Nikita did not see him. They led him outside and questioned him about the Old Testament, as they wished to hear something [about this] from him. He swore that he had never read these books. This man, who had known the Jewish books by heart, now did not know a single word, to put it simply. The blessed fathers could scarcely teach him letters.
From then on he devoted himself to self-denial and obedience and to living a pure and humble life, so that he excelled everybody in virtue; later he was made bishop of Novgorod (note: 1096-1108) on account of his many virtuous deeds. He performed many miracles: once during a drought he prayed to God and brought down rain from heaven and extinguished a fire in the town. Now this holy and blessed Nikita is honored with the saints.

Whew. Lots of lessons here. St. Nikita intercede for us!- Oh and wishing you a blessed Fast!- Symeon