05 April 2009

'A Priest & Experienced Monk'—St Nikon of the Kiev Caves

Today, 23 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Nikon (†1088), Abbot of the Kiev Caves Monastery. According to Bulgakov, St Nikon was the first disciple and co-struggler of St Anthony of the Kiev Caves. The Life of St Theodosius calls St Nikon ‘a priest and experienced monk’ and tells how St Anthony gave St Nikon the obedience to clothe and tonsure St Theodosius himself (Paul Hollingsworth, trans., The Hagiography of Kievan Rus’ [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1992], p. 42). The Kiev-Caves Patericon also mentions at least three others tonsured by St Nikon—Ss Varlaam and Ephraim in Discourse 8, and St Alypius the Iconographer in Discourse 34 (Muriel Heppell, trans., The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1989], pp. 37, 193; Hollingsworth adds the account of the first two from the Patericon to the Life of St Theodosius [pp. 46-7], where there is a corresponding lacuna). Because Discourse 7 speaks of St Anthony tonsuring some monks (Heppell, p. 21), Heppell suggests that at the time of St Theodosius’s arrival, St Anthony may have been living as a recluse, already leaving St Nikon as the acting abbot (p. 33, n. 117). At any rate, the tonsures of Ss Varlaam and Ephraim, a boyar and eunuch of Prince Iziaslav Yaroslavich respectively, got St Nikon into trouble. According to the Patericon (Heppell, pp. 38-9):

When Prince Izjaslav found out what had happened to his boyar and his eunuch, he was very angry and gave orders that he who had dared to do such things should be brought before him. [His servants] quickly went out and at once brought the great Nikon before him. The prince looked at Nikon angrily and said, ‘Are you the one who tonsured the boyar and the eunuch without my permission?’ Nikon answered, ‘By God’s grace I tonsured them with the permission of the heavenly King and of Jesus Christ, Who called them to the ascetic life.’ The prince said, ‘Either you persuade them to return home or I shall send you and your companions to prison and dig up your cave.’ To this Nikon answered, ‘My lord, you do whatever is pleasing in your eyes, but it is not fitting for me to turn away a soldier from the heavenly King.’

Antonij and those with him took their clothes and left their own place, intending to go to another district. While the prince was still angrily reproaching Nikon, one of his servants entered and informed him that Antonij and those with him were about to leave the city for another district. Straightway the prince’s wife said to him, ‘Listen, my lord, and do not be angry. The same thing happened in our country: the monks fled because of some trouble, and much evil was done in the land on their account. Take care, my lord, lest this happen in your district.’ [Heppell points out in n. 132 on this page that this is ‘the Polish princess Gertrude, the sister of Bolesław II of Poland’ referring to an incident told in detail in Discourse 30, pp. 162-9.] When the prince heard this, fearing the wrath of God, he dismissed the great Nikon and told him to go back to the cave. He sent after the others with a message begging them to return. When they were told this, just three days later, they returned to their cave, like brave men from battle who had vanquished their foe, the devil, and they prayed to God continually day and night. But even so the devil took no rest in his struggle with them.

After further difficulties with St Varlaam’s father, we are told (Hollingsworth, pp. 49-50):

At that time the great Nikon and another monk of the Monastery of St Menas, who was called ‘the boyar’, made an agreement and thus departed, wishing to reside on their own. They came to the [Black] sea and there went on their separated ways, just as the apostles Paul and Barnabas did to proclaim Christ, as is written in the Acts of the Apostles [15:36-41]. . . .

The great Nikon departed for the island of Tmutorokan’, and there he found a deserted spot near the town and resided in it. Through God’s grace this place flourished, and he erected a church dedicated to the holy Theotokos on it. It became a glorious monastery, which exists to this day, modeled after this Caves Monastery [Hollingsworth adds, ‘This apparently is all the available information on Nikon’s monastery’—p. 50, n. 128].

I should mention that Heppell tells us that it is not clear from the sources why exactly St Nikon left Kiev. She suggests he may have disapproved of Prince Iziaslav’s establishment of the St Demetrius Monastery as a sort of ‘rival’ to the Caves, ‘or he may simply have wished to establish his own monastery, which is what he actually did’ (p. 40, n. 137). At any rate, the account of St Nikon is picked up again sometime later (Hollingsworth, pp. 60-1):

. . . At that time [1067] the prince of Tmutorokan’, Rostislav, died, and the people entreated Nikon to go to Svjatoslav and request him to send his son to settle on the throne. When Nikon arrived [in Kiev], he came to the monastery of our blessed father Feodosij. When they saw each other, they both fell down together and prostrated themselves. Then they embraced again and wept a good while, because they had not seen each other in a long time. After this the holy Feodosij entreated Nikon not leave him again while they were both still alive. The great Nikon promised him this, saying, ‘Only let me go and make arrangements for my monastery, and I shall return here directly.’ This he did.

After Nikon arrived in Tmutorokan’ with Prince Glěb, and the latter had settled on the town’s throne, Nikon returned directly. When he arrived at the monastery of our great father Feodosij, he gave all his goods to the blessed one and submitted to him with complete joy. The divinely-inspired Feodosij loved him greatly and regarded him as a father, so that whenever he went away, he would entrust Nikon with looking after the brethren and teaching them, since he was the most senior of all the monks. In addition, whenever Feodosij would teach the brethren in church through spiritual discourses, he would bid the great Nikon to read aloud some edifying lesson for the brethren. . . .

Immediately after the repose of St Theodosius in 1074, a monk named Stefan, later to be Archbishop of Vladimir, was made abbot, but sometime in the late 1070s (Heppell suggest c. 1077—p. 11, n. 36) he was expelled by the monks for unknown reasons (Hollingsworth, p. 75, n. 186). The Life of St Theodosius tells us (Hollingsworth, pp. 94-5):

After Stefan’s expulsion the monks in blessed Feodosij’s monastery by common consent appointed the great Nikon as their superior (he had come to the monastery from his place after the blessed one’s repose). I believe that his appointment was by God’s design, because he was the most senior of all the brethren and because our blessed father Feodosij had been vouchsafed to be tonsured by his hand and receive the holy angelic monastic habit. Many times the adversary tried to sow discord among the brethren and get them to conspire against him, but he was unable to do so. . . .

Thus, St Nikon seems still to have been alive when the monk Nestor was writing the Life of St Theodosius. Fortunately, we know from the Patericon of a couple of incidents that occurred during his abbacy. I have already mentioned his tonsuring of St Alypius the Iconographer, told in Discourse 34, but he is already mentioned quite early on (Discourse 3) in connection with a very interesting miracle manifesting the sanctity of Ss Anthony and Theodosius:

Here is a remarkable miracle which I shall tell you. Some icon painters came to the superior Nikon from the God-guarded city of Constantine and said, ‘Bring those two who contracted for our services. We want to dispute with them. They showed us a small church, and on that basis we agreed to decorate it in front of many witnesses, but this church is very large. Here, take back your gold, and we shall go to Constantinople.’ The superior replied, ‘What sort of people were they who made this agreement with you?’ The painters described their likeness and appearance and mentioned the names Antonij and Feodosij. The superior said to them, ‘My sons, we cannot show you these men; they departed this world ten years ago. They pray for us without ceasing and constantly keep watch over this church, and protect their monastery and take thought for those who are in it.’

Hearing this reply, the Greeks were awestruck and brought many other merchants, Greeks and Abkhasians, who had made the trip with them. And they said, ‘We made an agreement in front of these people and took the gold from the hands of those two men, and you do not want to show them to us. If they have died, show us their image, so that these people may see if they are the ones.’ Then in front of everybody the superior brought out their icons. When the Greeks and Abkhasians saw their image, they prostrated themselves and said, ‘They are indeed the ones, and we believe that they still live after death and that they can help and save and protect those who have recourse to them.’ Then they donated the mosaic which they had brought to sell and with it constructed the holy altar.

The Patericon goes on to tell of how the craftsmen repented and were tonsured, relating that they had been prevented from leaving Kiev by a miracle and told in a dream that they would be monks there (Heppell, p. 12). Based on St Nikon’s statement that the holy Fathers had been dead for ten years, this incident must have occurred around 1082 or 1084. St Nikon himself fell asleep in the Lord in 1088.

Concerning the appearance of the monastery founders, although I firmly believe this story, it is interesting to note its resemblance to the many variants of the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' story involving the leaving of some tangible token and mention of an address where it is learned that the hitchhiker has been dead for some time. According to Bernd Wechner, the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' 'is the only urban legend with a specific motif number assigned to it in the standard folkloristic reference works' (see 'Notes' here). The sheer number of documented modern reports of these incidents (versions of which are actually recorded as early as the 17th and 18th centuries) suggests there is something more at work than the vague rumours by which other 'urban legends' are passed on.

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