08 March 2010

'A Theologian by Virtue of Thy Life in God'—St Nazarius of Valaam

Today, 23 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Nazarius (1735-1809), Abbot of Valaam. The Life of St Nazarius compiled and translated from 19th-c. sources by Fr Seraphim (Rose)—who, providentially, was tonsured on the day of St Nazarius’s repose [1]—describes him as ‘a man of virtue who loved the solitary life of silence in the wilderness.’ [2] We Orthodox in America are indebted to St Nazarius for sending us the extraordinary missionaries to Alaska, including the great St Herman. Here is the brief account of his life from the Valaam Patericon Book of Days:

A severe Sarov Monastery ascetic from the age of 17, and a counselor during the publication of the first Philokalia in Russia, he revived ancient Valaam, after almost two centuries of desolation, by installing the Sarov Rule there. Living such a refined spiritual life he inspired a whole army of holy monks for a century hence, including such saint-disciples as Herman of Alaska and later, Seraphim of Sarov. After sending off the first Orthodox Mission to America, he left Valaam to retire to Sarov, where in the bosom of nature he wandered the forest in a state of ecstasy, truly a monk not of this world. Abbot Nazarius was formed by great luminaries of his time: St Tikhon of Zadonsk, Elder Theodore of Sanaxar and St Paisius Velichkovsky. Even during his lifetime the holy foundress of Diveyevo Convent, Alexandra, would pray before his portrait when in trouble, and he would always hear from afar. Abbot Nazarius possessed a poetic gift of speech, which can be seen from his ‘Counsels’ to monks on daily life. . . . [3]

St Nazarius was a simple, unlearned man, but according to his Life, ‘The reading of the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers was the daily food of his soul.’ [4] Because of this study of the truly essential writings of the Church, and because of his great spiritual experience and wisdom, he was also able to contribute to one of the most influential literary endeavours in the Orthodox world since the 14th and 15th centuries: the translation and publication of the Philokalia in Slavonic. According to the biography of Metropolitan Gabriel of St Petersburg (1730-1801):

Metropolitan Gabriel, having received from Elder Paisius [Velichkovsky] from Moldavia the translation of the book, the Philokalia, chose Father Theophanes as one of the advisors together with the scholars of the seminary of St Alexander Nevsky. To them he entrusted this translation, because in this work was required not only a precise knowledge of the Greek language, but also a faithful and experienced understanding of spiritual life. Those who labored in the comparison of the translation of this book with the Greek original, according to the Metropolitan’s instructions, were obliged to constantly take counsel concerning all necessary corrections with spiritual elders who had actual experience in conducting their spiritual lives in accordance with this exalted teaching set forth in the Philokalia. [5]

Met. Gabriel himself told the editors, ‘These fathers, although they do not know the Greek language, out of experience know better than you the truths of the spiritual life and therefore understand more correctly the teaching contained in this book.’ [6] Concerning St Nazarius’s rôle, not only in the preparation, but in the dissemination of the Philokalia, Fr Placide (Deseille) writes:

One of the reviewers of the Dobrotoliubie [Philokalia] . . . —designated by Gabriel, the Metropolitan of St Petersburg—was Fr Nazarios . . . When Catherine II charged Metropolitan Gabriel with sending missionaries to Alaska, Gabriel asked hegumen Nazarios to confide this task to some of his monks. They left in 1793, taking with them the Dobrotoliubie, which had just been published. . . .

In 1801 Fr Nazarios gave up his position as hegumen [at Valaam] and retired to Sarov to live in solitude. He brought the Dobrotoliubie to St Seraphim (1759-1833), who was living in the forest as a hermit. [7]

St Nazarius was first and foremost a solitary ascetic and afterwards a father of monks. When he re-established Valaam, he took care to reintroduce all three modes of monastic life: coenobitism, the skete life, and anchoretism. According to his Life, ‘He began the building of the Great Skete in the woods beyond the Monastery enclosure as well as other sketes, and encouraged anchorites—making himself the first example of eremitic life.’ [8] As a ‘monk’s monk’, St Nazarius was different from many of the famous elders of subsequent decades. While St Nectarius of Optina deliberately cultivated an ability to converse on nearly any subject (see this post), the better to relate to the countless lay pilgrims who sought his help, St Nazarius’s Life tells us, ‘As for worldly things, he knew not at all how to speak of them. But if he opened his mouth in order to speak of ascetic labors against the passions, of love for virtue, then his converse was an inexhaustible fount of sweetness.’ [9] But that is not to say that St Nazarius was of ‘no use’ to lay people. A delightful story has come down to us of a trip the great ascetic once made to St Petersburg:

In the reign of Paul I, the Elder Nazarius was once invited in St Petersburg to the house of a certain K., who at that time had fallen into the Tsar’s disfavor. The statesman’s wife begged the Elder: ‘Pray, Father Nazarius, that my husband’s case will end well.’ ‘Very well,’ replied the Elder; ‘one must pray to the Lord to give the Tsar enlightenment. But one must ask also those who are close to him.’ The statesman’s wife, thinking he was referring to her husband’s superiors, said: ‘We’ve already asked all of them, but there is little hope from them.’ ‘No, not them, and one shouldn’t ask in such a way; give me some money.’ She took out several gold coins. ‘No, these a re no good. Haven’t you any copper coins, or small silver ones?’ She ordered both kinds to be given him. Fr Nazarius took the money and left the house.

For a whole day Fr Nazarius walked the streets and places where he supposed poor people and paupers were to be found and distributed the coins to them. Towards evening he appeared at K.’s house and confidently said: ‘Glory be to God, all those close to the Tsar have promised to intercede for you.’ The wife went and with joy informed her husband, who had become ill out of sorrow, and K. himself summoned Fr Nazarius and thanked him for his intercessions with the high officials.

Fr Nazarius had not even left the sick man’s bed when news came of the successful end of K.’s case. Immediately K. in his joy felt already stronger, and he asked Fr Nazarius which of the Tsar’s officials had shown the more favor to him. Here he found out that these ‘officials’ were paupers—those close to the Lord Himself, in the words of Fr Nazarius. Deeply moved by the piety of the Elder, he always kept for him a reverent love. [10]

As was mentioned above, although St Nazarius was an unlearned man, he was ‘a theologian by virtue of thy life in God’, according to a sticheron in his honour by Fr Seraphim (Rose). [11] He had read much in the Scriptures and the Fathers, he had great spiritual experience, and he had ‘a poetic gift of speech’. All of these are on full display in his simple but insightful ‘Counsels’. I shall first offer a quite practical example:

When the time for morning worship arrives, with all zeal arise and hasten to the beginning of the Church’s Divine service; and having come to church for the common prayer, stand in the appropriate place, collect all your mind’s power of thought, so that you will not dream or fly away in every direction, following evil qualities and objects which arouse our passions.

Strive as well as you can to enter deeply with the heart into the church reading and singing and to imprint these on the tablets of the heart.

Pay heed without sloth, do not weaken the body, do not lean against the wall or pillar in church; but put your feet straight and plant them firmly on the ground; keep your hands together; bow your head toward the ground and direct your midn to the heavenly dwellings.

Take care, as well as you can, that you do not dare, not only to speak about anything, but even to look at anyone or anything with the eyes. Pay attention to the church reading and singing, and strive as much as possible not to let your mind grow idle.

If, in listening to the church singing and reading, you cannot understand them, then with reverence say to yourself the Prayer of the Name of Jesus, in this way: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. [12]

On the more theoretical side of things, it is interesting to see that, although unlearned, St Nazarius echoes the Socratic injunction to ‘Know thyself’, which was very much affirmed by the Fathers of the Church as an essential component of the true ‘philosophy’ of Christianity: [13]

Self-knowledge is needful; this is the knowledge of oneself and especially of the limitations of one’s talents, one’s failings, and lack of skill. From this it should result that we consider ourselves unworthy of any kind of position, and therefore that we do not desire any special positions, but rather accept what is placed upon us with fear and humility. He who knows himself pays no heed to the sins of others, but looks at his own and is always repenting over them; he reflects concerning himself, and condemns himself, and does not interfere in anything apart from his own position. He who is exercising himself in self-knowledge and has faith, does not trust his faith, does not cease to test it, in order to acquire a great and more perfect one, heeding the word of the Apostle: Examine yourself, whether ye be in the faith (II Cor. 13:5). [14]

Finally, imbued as he was the practice and spirit of hesychasm, it is not surprising to find that a later Abbot of Valaam, Igumen Chariton, included a passage of St Nazarius’s ‘Counsels’ in his famous anthology known as The Art of Prayer:

With reverence call in secret upon the Name of Jesus, thus: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.’

Try to make this prayer enter ever more deeply into your soul and heart. Pray the prayer with your mind and thought, and do not let it leave your lips even for a moment. Combine it, if possible, with your breathing, and with all your strength try though the prayer to force yourself to a heart-felt contrition, repenting over your sins with tears. If there are no tears, at least there should be contrition and mourning
in the heart. [15]

In conclusion, here are the Troparion for St Nazarius in Tone 2, and three stichera to follow ‘Lord, I have cried’ in Tone 1, composed by Fr Seraphim (Rose):

Troparion, Tone 2

Humility is thy power, * patience thy rampart, * and love crowns all thy ways, * O Nazarius, chieftain leader of Valaam monks. * Call us to duty and order * that we may inherit God’s heavenly realm. [16]

On ‘Lord, I have cried’, Tone 1, to the Special Melody, ‘Rejoicing of the Heavenly Hierarchies’:

Ye islands of Valaam, rejoice, * be glad, ye forest of Sarov, * in you hath shone forth a wondrous teacher, * the glorious Nazarius, * who enlightened a multitude of monks * with the rays of true patristic teaching, * and taught all to wage unceasing warfare * against the world, the flesh, and the devil * unto the salvation of their souls.

Dance for joy, ye waters of Ladoga, * leap up, O brook Sarovka, * by your side walked the wondrous anchorite, * the abbot and instructor of many monks, * the wise Elder Nazarius * who could not be hid in the wilderness, * but was placed upon a candlestand * that he might shine for the salvation of our souls.

Instructor of St Herman, * and conversor with our holy Father Seraphim, * O Nazarius, wise in God, * by thine angelic life and teaching, * thou wast a model for holy men, * a theologian by virtue of thy life in God. * Now dwelling in the choirs of those who praise God without ceasing * do thou entreat Him to save our souls. [17]

[1] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim Rose: His Life & Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003), p. 429.

[2] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), ed. & tr., Little Russian Philokalia, Vol. 2: Abbot Nazarius, 2nd ed. (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 19.

[3] Valaam Patericon Book of Days (New Valaam Monastery, AK: Valaam Society of America, 1999), p. 25.

[4] Fr Seraphim, Abbot Nazarius, p. 20.

[5] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), ed. & tr., Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky: The Man Behind the Philokalia (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), p. 237.

[6] Fr Seraphim, Abbot Nazarius, p. 24.

[7] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 163.

[8] Fr Seraphim, Abbot Nazarius, p. 23

[9] Ibid., p. 22.

[10] Ibid., pp. 26-7.

[11] Ibid., p. 121.

[12] Ibid., p. 56.

[13] On this, see Constantine Cavarnos, The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1989), p. 105.

[14] Fr Seraphim, Abbot Nazarius, p. 88.

[15] Igumen Chariton of Valamo, comp., The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, tr. E. Kadloubovsky & E.M. Palmer, ed. Timothy Ware [now Met. Kallistos of Diokleia] (London: Faber, 1997), p. 279; cf. the equivalent passage in Fr Seraphim, Abbot Nazarius, p. 56.

[16] Ibid., p. 122.

[17] Ibid., p. 121.

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