20 April 2009

'With Joyful Soul Thou Didst Settle in the Wilderness'—St Nilus of Sora


Today, 7 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Nilus (Nil Sorsky), Wonderworker of Sora (1433-1508). I’m afraid, dear readers, that I’ve not fully recovered from the weekend’s various activities (hence the late hour) and thus am not able to do a proper post for St Nilus. I will limit myself to a couple of statements about him from other writers, plus a small excerpt from the Saint’s own writings.

The Life of St Nilus in the Patericon of the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra (1896), which was translated into English in The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) and Herman (Podmoshensky) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), tell us, ‘St Nilus was for Russian monasticism an instructor and writer such as Ss Isaac the Syrian, Abba Dorotheus, Barsanuphius the Great, John of the Ladder, Nilus of Sinai, and other Holy Fathers were for Orthodox monasticism in general’ (p. 89). Fr Georges Florovsky (in Ways of Russian Theology, Part I, trans. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979], p. 23) has written of him:

St Nil of the Sora was a ‘silent one’ [bezmolvnik]. He had no need to speak or teach. Although not a thinker, writer, or theologian, Nil appears in history precisely as an ‘elder’ [starets] or teacher. He was a teacher of silence, an instructor and guide for ‘mental construction’ in the spiritual life.

Upon comparison with the wider contemplative tradition of Greece and Byzantium or after comparison with the Philokalia [Dobrotoliubie], one discovers nothing new in St Nil. Usually one cannot easily distinguish or separate his personal views and thoughts from the uninterrupted stream of excerpts and citations in his writing. Perhaps St Nil’s moral themes and, to a lesser extent, his definitely formed outlook provide his most distinguishing traits. However, if Nil expresses little that is his ‘own’ which is distinguishable from generally accepted spiritual tradition, then at least he expresses it independently. He lives in the patristic tradition. That tradition lives and is alive in him.

In his commentary on the writings of St Nilus, Elder Basil of Poiana-Marului writes (Elder Basil of Poiana Marului [1692-1767], His Life and Writings, trans. A Monk o the Brotherhood of Prophet Elias Skete, Mt Athos [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1996], p. 88):

Concerning the order and artful learning of this mystery [the Jesus Prayer] the great elder, our holy Father Nil the desert-dweller of Sora, composed this little book in which he explains the beginning of noetic work, the victory and our conquest of invisible assailants.

Here is an excerpt from ‘this little book’, translated by Helen Iswolsky in A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, ed. George P. Fedotov, Vol. 2 in The Collected Works of George P. Fedotov (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1988), p. 66 (a good collection of primary sources in English, but with ridiculously misguided introductions by Fedotov—see Fr Seraphim’s comments here):

When we rise from sleep, we must first of all glorify God and make our confession to Him, and then we must turn to prayer, chanting, reading, manual labor, and various minor occupations. We must continually keep our mind in a disposition of great reverence, piety and trust in God, and do all we can to please Him, and not for the sake of vainglory or to please other men; for we know for certain that God is with us, since He is everywhere and fills everything. He Who has created the ear, hears all, and He Who has created the eye, sees all. If you enter into conversation, let it be one that will please God; refrain from murmuring, from judging others, from idle words and quarrels. Also, take food and drink with the fear of God. Most of all during sleep, be piously recollected, and let your body recline in decency. For our sleep is the fleeting image of the eternal sleep—that is, of death—and resting on your couch prefigures lying in your coffin.

There is an enormous collection of resources related to St Nilus here, but unfortunately it appears that all of it is in Russian only. For English readers, here is a long Life of the Saint, here is a short one, here is an Akathist, and here is another excerpt from his writings. Also, there are extensive excerpts from the account of St Nilus in The Northern Thebaid (from which I’ve quoted above) here. I shall conclude with the Kontakion of the Saint (Tone 8) as given in this book (p. 109):

Having gone far away from worldly tumult for the love of Christ, with joyful soul thou didst settle in the wilderness, and there thou didst labor well like an Angel on earth, O Father Nilus, wearing out thy body by vigil and fasting for the sake of eternal life. And now, having been vouchsafed this life, thou standest in the light of the unutterable joy of the Most Holy Trinity together with the Saints. Pray, we thy children beseech thee, that we thy flock may be preserved from every snare and evil condition brought about by enemies visible and invisible.

2 comments:

The Ochlophobist said...

Thank you for this. I am just days away from speaking on Sts. Nil and Joseph, thus I was quite pleased to see this post.

aaronandbrighid said...

I'm glad you liked it. Sorry I didn't do more!