08 January 2009

'A Hesychast Missionary'--St Nicodim of Tismana

Today, 26 December on the old Orthodox calendar, among the more obscure Saints we commemorate is Romania’s great transmitter of the hesychast tradition, St Nicodim of Tismana (there is a complete Life in Romanian available here). In the sadly out-of-print English translation of his study, Roumanie: Tradition et Culture hésychastes (published by Fr Placide’s old monastery, Bellefontaine), Bishop Seraphim (Joantă) writes:

. . . [W]hen the Romanian nation came to manifest itself in the 14th century in the two states of Wallachia and Moldavia, there arose at the same time—through St Nicodemus of Tismana (an Athonite monk)—a great enthusiasm for the hesychast renaissance initiated by [St] Gregory the Sinaite on Mount Athos; an enthusiasm which reverberated intensely and immediately in Romania. (Bishop Seraphim [Joantă], Romania: Its Hesychast Tradition and Culture [Wildwood, CA: St Xenia Skete, 1992], p. xiv)
Although not himself a native of Romania—Fr Ioanichie [Bălan] says he was a ‘Macedo-Romanian’ born in Serbia (Romanian Patericon—Saints of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Vol. 1: Third to Eighteenth Centuries [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994], p. 143), while according to Paul of Aleppo, he was half-Greek, half-Serb (Seraphim, p. 45)—one can see clearly from Bishop Seraphim’s statement the magnitude of St Nicodim’s impact on the Romanian Church.

Described by the Life of Abbot Isaiah of Hilandar as ‘a man honorable and holy, versed in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, with a penetrating spirit, and strong in dialectics’ (Seraphim, p. 46), St Nicodim was tonsured at Hilandar, where, according to Fr Ioanichie, he was even made abbot (Ioanichie, p. 145). After some years there, he went to Serbia to found a church and two monasteries (Seraphim, p. 45), before finally settling in Romania at the prompting of a ‘divine revelation’ (Ioanichie, p. 146). His first monastery east of the Danube was founded ‘according to the [Athonite] principles of hesychast life’ to defend the Orthodox against Hungarian attempts to impose Catholicism on them (Seraphim, p. 46). Unfortunately, it fell into the hands of the Hungarians while St Nicodim was accompanying Abbot Isaiah of Hilandar to Constantinople to intercede on behalf of the Serbian Church with the hesychast patriarch, St Philotheos (Kokkinos). It was then that St Nicodim founded Tismana, his most famous monastery which is still inhabited today. There, as well as at the later foundation of Prislop in Transylvania, he would retire to a cave for five days a week to give himself up to prayer and ascesis, returning to the community on Saturdays and Sundays to liturgise and heal the sick (Ioanichie, p. 149; Seraphim, pp. 47-8). He fell asleep in the Lord at Tismana Monastery in 1406. Unfortunately, none of his own writings are extant, although a Gospel he copied at Prislop has survived.

Bishop Seraphim concludes his study of St Nicodim:

A hesychast missionary in the spirit of St Gregory the Sinaite, whom he had known in his youth, St Nicodemus established his rule of life in the many communities founded by himself or his disciples in the three Romanian lands. Romanian monasticism thus owed to him its hesychastic orientation in the 14th century. The cultural and spiritual blossoming which was its result was to continue, more or less without interruption, for the next three centuries. (Seraphim, pp. 48-9)

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