On Patriarch Nikon
by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky
Lectures by His Eminence, Archbishop Anthony of Volhynia, on His Holiness Nikon, Patriarch of All Russia, recorded by Fr. P.L.
The most holy Patriarch had a special veneration for the memory of the martyred Metropolitan Philip, who had struggled ascetically in the Monastery of Solovki, where the most holy Nikon had also begun his own monastic struggle. The image of this martyred bishop was ever before the Patriarch’s spiritual eyes. When he was still Metropolitan of Novgorod, he took care that the precious relics of the hieromartyr be translated solemnly to Moscow and, in general, all throughout his long life he strove to emulate that great saint of God, the valiant champion of righteousness, who sealed his loyalty to it with his life and was therefore accounted worthy of a magnificent crown – that of a martyr. Especially in the final period of his life, amid sorrow and confinement, the most holy Patriarch found support and encouragement in the image of Metropolitan Philip. Only pliable characters are able to live under every regime and amid every intrigue; and the most holy Patriarch Nikon was a straight-forward open man of blunt honesty: he was incapable of guile: he did not wish to be a hypocrite and therefore drank the bitter cup of sufferings and tribulations.
After he withdrew voluntarily from Moscow, but before he was deprived of the patriarchate, the most holy Patriarch Nikon lived in the Monastery of the Resurrection, where at that time he composed the Russian Chronicle, which covers the period from Rurik down to the repose of Tsar Michael Feodorovich, with extracts from Greek history added. Depicting the vicissitudes of reigns and nations, in sweet solitude, the most holy Nikon became all the more aware of the value of his via dolorosa: each day he spent working on the construction of the stone cathedral, which has him to thank not only for its erection, but also for the exact siting of all its churches according to a unique model, which even to our day are in the same form as that in which they were originally set out and built. This huge magnificent building, unique in Russia, which has won praise not only from our compatriots, but even from foreigners, was executed not only with care and funding, but even by the labors of Nikon: he himself helped the workmen by carrying stones, lime, water, etc. like a simple stonemason. Moreover, before receiving the model, he built a hermitage with two churches about 350 yards from the Monastery of the Resurrection, on the bank of the River Istra, for solitude and stillness, such as the desert fathers on Mount Athos have, and there he withdrew for Great Lent. In this solitude he provided a model of true contrition for his sins, wearing himself out with fasting and, bearing all the difficulties of the life of a monk and a worker, he wore heavy iron chains weighing fifteen pounds, remaining untiringly in patience and prayer.
Despite the final break with the Tsar, the Patriarch always sought the means to regain their closeness and to effect a reconciliation: the Tsar also dreamed of this. But the deceitful and base nobles, whom the Patriarch had continually humbled for dereliction of duty, that servile palace nobility of Moscow, had a fatal influence on the lot of the most holy Patriarch. The nobles hated the Patriarch because he was a complete democrat . . . strictly speaking, a Russian peasant. The nobles could not bear having this man of low birth rise to the rank of Great Sovereign, have complete control over the soul of the most gentle Tsar, and push them – the puffed-up, self-seeking, servile-spirited – away from the throne; moreover, when he had the opportunity, he also chastised and humbled them severely. These dishonorable men would not allow the Tsar to meet with the Patriarch; they knew that a mutual, sincere explanation between them could awaken in their hearts their former love and trust, which had been broken by circumstantial displeasure. Jealousy and perfidy persuaded the Tsar that Nikon was seeking absolute power; at the same time, they poisoned Nikon’s mind against the Tsar, for whom he had more than once subjected his own life to danger; in a word, they looked for every opportunity to blacken his name. Thus, depressed because of their calumnies, envy, and hatred, the Patriarch departed from Moscow; angry with the Tsar, he refused even the carriage sent for his use and left the Kremlin for the metochion of the Monastery of the Resurrection on foot. But later, when the bitterness of the insult had passed, the keenness of the first impression and the troubled soul of the Patriarch (and the Tsar’s also) calmed down, he sought contact with the Sovereign; he wished to be reconciled with him, desired to return again to Moscow, but it pleased God, apparently, that this not take place. When, for example, Nikon wished to make his peace with the Tsar, the deceitful nobles slandered the Patriarch, angered the Tsar, and the Patriarch’s attempts came to naught. If, on the other hand, it happened that the Tsar sought reconciliation, the Patriarch was grieved and spurned the Tsar’s mercy (as happened in the St. Therapont Monastery).
In 1667, an unjust sentence was pronounced upon the most holy Patriarch by Patriarch Paisius of Alexandria and Macarius of Antioch and a multitude of Russian and Greek bishops and members of the lower clergy. The Patriarch, at the Tsar’s command appeared at the Council, but in patriarchal rank, i.e., preceeded by a cross; but seeing that there was no place prepared for him on a footing equal with that of the Eastern Patriarchs, he did not sit, but, standing, listened to the accusations from the lips of the Tsar himself, who complained to the Council about the disturbances caused by the Patriarch in the Church, his voluntary abandonment of his flock, his peevish letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople (it had irritated the Tsar more than anything else and was the principal cause of Nikon’s condemnation at the Council, whom Nikon quite rightly considered the judge of highest appeal for bishops in ecclesiastical affairs, in accordance with Canon 17 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Nikon replied to the Tsar’s accusation, bearing witness that he harbored no malice toward him personally, and that he had withdrawn to a monastery only to subdue the Tsar’s anger, without, however, leaving his diocese.1 When at that time Metropolitan Paul of Krutitsa and Archbishop Hilarion of Riazan began to insult the Patriarch verbally, and Bishop Methodius of Mstislavl even raised his hand against the condemned hierarch, tears flowed from the eyes of the meek Tsar. The trial of the Patriarch was a great moral torture for the benevolent and kind-hearted Tsar; to see and reproach his one-time “bosom” friend, who was then in sorry straits, and to be aware in his soul that he himself was partly to blame for all the misfortunes and tribulations which had fallen upon the head of the most worthy and foremost of God’s hierarchs, was beyond Alexis Mikhailovich’s strength. The Patriarch, in actual fact, had expressed himself quite sharply in his letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, which was intercepted and which, more than anything else, set the Tsar against Nikon; in this written complaint, the Patriarch compared himself to a prophet, persecuted and maltreated, and the Tsar to Ahab and Jeroboam, the impious Kings of Israel who had persecuted the true prophets. All of this not-withstanding, the Tsar did not postpone this great tragedy, the staggering scenes of the trial of the most holy Patriarch, whom the venal Greek bishops and the dishonorable Russian men condemned because of his straightforwardness of character, for the truth, for his tremendous zeal for the Holy Church, which neither his contemporaries nor those who came after him, down to the present day, have been able to understand when it was especially difficult for the Patriarch at the trial, Archbishop Hilarion of Riazan cruelly offended him, not so much with the effrontery of insults, as with false accusation; here the loving heart of the Tsar could not bear the pitiful state of his former friend, who at times objected, at times remained silent. The Tsar descended from his throne and, drawing near to Nikon, took him by the hand and said: “O Holiness, wherefore has thou so besmirched me, preparing for the Council as though for death? Thinkest thou that I have forgotten all thy merits shown to me personally and to my family during the outbreak of the plague, and our former love?” But later he reproached him for a gramota addressed to Patriarch Dionysius III of Constantinople, expressing a desire for peace. The Patriarch replied to him very gently, setting forth all the instances of sedition directed against him; he begged pardon for the secret gramota; but, despite the assurances of the Tsar, sensing that what had transpired could not be ignored, he foretold his bitter condemnation. And this was their last meeting in this life and their final conversation after an eight year separation. This took place at the second session to deal with the case of Patriarch Nikon, which was held in the palace. At the third session, which was held in the Church of the Annunciation above the portal of the Chudov Monastery, in the absence of the Tsar, who did not have the heart to participate in the condemnation of Nikon, they read the following accusations to him: “That he had brought turmoil upon the Russian realm, meddling in affairs inappropriate to the patriarchal authority, and that he had abandoned his see because of the insult of a servant; that, withdrawing from the patriarchate, he had arbitrarily retained the governance of his three monasteries and given them the names of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Golgotha and other similar appellations; that he had hindered the election of a new patriarch, committing many to anathema; that he had arbitrarily deposed Bishop Paul of Kolomna and was cruel to the clergy; that he had complained against the Tsar to the Eastern patriarch, misused the canons of the Councils, offending the patriarchs themselves by his haughtiness.” And after this they read to Nikon the verdict, by which he was indicted in the name of all the patriarchs and the Russian clergy and sentenced to deposition, being permitted only to retain his monastic rank, and to imprisonment in St. Therapont’s Belozersky Monastery for perpetual penance.
After the Patriarchs themselves removed from Nikon the hierarchal insignia, they left him in the rank of a simple monk and set on his head the plain klobuk of a monk; yet they did not deprive him of his patriarchal mantle and staff. After such a sentence had been read to him, Nikon made bold to declare the Council illegal and the Greek patriarchs strangers, hirelings, and throneless.2
Nikon asked them why at that time they were unjustly deposing him in secret, in the absence of the Tsar and in a small church, not in the Cathedral of the Dormition, where they had once entreated him to accept the patriarchal throne. “For I was elected,” he said, “in the presence of the Sovereign, who urged me with tears to accept the staff of office and I must be condemned in his presence; the Russia people were witness before God to my oaths; but ye have secretly conducted an unjust trial. I took up the pastoral staff in the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, not at my own demand, but at the desire and tearful entreaty of a countless multitude of the people; yet ye have condemned me in a private monastery church, in the presence of only those who slander me”. But they made no reply, for they knew in their hearts that they had committed a terrible iniquity and had condemned a righteous man. Therefore, neither the Tsar, nor the nobles, who had once promised perpetual obedience to the Patriarch, heeded his just words.
VIII. Nikon Banished
In the midst of his tribulations, Nikon humbled himself. The imprisoned Patriarch rejoiced at the Tsar’s new marriage and the birth of the Tsarevich Peter and, where before he had spurned all of the Tsar’s gifts, declining even to accept money in memory of the Tsaritsa Marina Ilyinishna, he began to accept them from the Tsar and lovingly sent him gramotas in expectation of his own return to the Monastery of the Resurrection in which he remained in hope until the repose of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich. Yet neither poverty nor humiliation could shake Nikon’s spirit. He endured all these sufferings without complaint and, cleansing his mind and heart with humble prayer and repentance, mortified his body with constant labors; he wore iron chains and a little silver pyx containing the Holy Gifts, which is now preserved in the sacristy of the Monastery of the Resurrection. With such a disposition of spirit and with such provisions he was a true warrior of Christ the Lord, arrayed in the full armor of God against weaknesses and temptations, and aware of all the vanity of earthly glory and pomp. By his via dolorosa he attained humility and the submission of his own will to the will of God. In this imprisonment, Nikon considered himself far more fortunate than his slanderers and enemies.
Meanwhile, not only the people, but the Tsar himself, in the tenderness of his heart, felt the loss of so great a man, his friend and counselor; he often mentioned him with sympathy and, emulating the great philanthropists, sent him various gifts, commended himself and all his house to his prayers; and remembering on his deathbed his former bonds of friendship with Nikon. Alexis Mikhailovich not only felt pity for him, but, disquieted in spirit because he was deprived of his blessing, he repented of his deposition; before his death he sent to him requesting for himself a gramota of absolution, and in his last will and testament he asked his forgiveness, calling him his father, great lord, most holy hierarch and blessed pastor. The Tsar considered the Patriarch’s misfortunes his own misfortunes, for after him three patriarchs succeeded one another in his sight – a secret reproach, as it were, for the Tsar. Despite all of this, the Tsar was unable to resolve to restore Nikon, even though he always regretted his loss. Probably, the enemies of the expelled Patriarch were men close to the Tsar and exercised influence over his will. On hearing of the Tsar’s repose, Nikon said “May the Will of God be done! If I have not bade him farewell here, we will still be judged at the Dread Coming,” and to the messenger who asked him for a gramota of absolution, he would not give one in writing, absolving him orally, that it might not appear to have been wrested from one deprived of freedom.
Nikon remained in this imprisonment until the accession of Tsar Theodore Alexievich to the throne, a just and merciful sovereign, who was on the point of returning him from imprisonment; but Nikon’s ill-wishers slandered his monastic life; they did not hesitate even to implicate him in the revolt of Stenka Razin and to impute an impure life to one whose monasticism had been immaculate from his youth; they accused him of setting up on an island near the Monastery of St. Therapont a cross with the inscription: “Patriarch Nikon, imprisoned for the Word of God and for the Holy Church”, and that he quarreled incessantly with those around him. Hence, from the Monastery of St. Therapont Nikon was transferred under guard to the Monastery of St. Cyril, and there he languished for three years in poorly ventilated cells, forgotten by the Tsar. Patriarch Joachim, fearing to have a rival in Nikon, who was once his benefactor, on various pretexts opposed his liberation from that place and his return to the Monastery of the Resurrection; but he ordered better quarters arranged for him and that he be allowed some relaxation with the monastics who were with him. But under the influence of his aunt, the Great Princess Tatiana Mikhailovna, who was always well-disposed towards Nikon, and at the request of the monks of the Monastery of the Resurrection, the Tsar visited the Monastery of the Resurrection. Struck by the magnificence of the buildings which had been begun, modeled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Sovereign declared it his will to continue the construction; and after his return he ordered Nikon freed from incarceration and returned to the New Jerusalem. Yet it was not Nikon’s destiny to return to his beloved monastery alive; on the way, at the Tolga Monastery near Yaraslavl, Nikon sensed the approach of death; looking back, as though someone had come to him, he arranged his own hair, bearing, and vesture, as though preparing himself to go further; then he lay down on his bed, crossed his arms, breathed his last, and peacefully departed to the Lord.
The burial of the most holy Patriarch was a great ecclesiastical solemnity. The Tsar took part in it (the Patriarch declined to), as did the whole royal family, prominent persons, and a multitude to the people. The funeral was celebrated by Metropolitan Cornelius of Novgorod, with prominent clergymen and chanters from the palace assisting. His Holiness was interred according to the patriarchal rite. The Sovereign himself, accompanied by his council, with an innumerable concourse of the people, bore the relics of Nikon on their own shoulders from the Eleon cross to the Church. The body was then placed in the vestibule of the New Jerusalem Cathedral, as yet unfinished, where Metropolitan Cornelius celebrated the Divine Liturgy and funeral service with honors as befitted one of patriarchal rank. At the Tsar’s command, the departed was commemorated as patriarch in all the prayers. The liturgy and funeral service lasted more than nine hours. During the funeral, the Tsar himself read the kathismata and the epistle; and when Nikon was given the last kiss, weeping, he kissed his hand, according to the ancient custom; and all the court, the clergy and people followed his example, their signs finally turning into lamentation. When the lid of the coffin was closed, candles which had been blown out were set upon it, as a sign that all enmity was extinguished. Then the body was carried by priests to the Church of the Holy Forerunner, near Golgotha, the place of the burial of the priest-king Melchizedek, where the most holy Patriarch himself, when at the monastery between 1658 and 1666, had dug his own grave; and therein the Sovereign and the Metropolitan interred the coffin. The crypt was no more than seven feet deep; a slab was laid over it, on which were set the 15-to-16 pound bronze chains which the most holy Patriarch had worn all his life.
At the request of Tsar Theodore Alexievich, the four Eastern Patriarchs sent their gramotas of absolution in which they absolved the most holy Nikon of everything in which he had been bound by their predecessors and admitted him among the ranks of the Patriarchs of All Russia.
Centuries have passed, passions have cooled, the malice and irritation caused by the mere mention of the name of the most holy Patriarch, that greatest of hierarchs not only of the local Church of Russia, but of the Church universal, have abated. And among the universal hierarchs of God the name of the holy hierarch Nikon shines like a brilliant star of the highest magnitude in our spiritual firmament.
IX. Later Information on Patriarch Nikon
The more the monuments of our history are studied, the clearer the radiant image of His Holiness Patriarch Nikon, that great and righteous man, becomes before our spiritual sight. In 1893, several documents relative to the most holy Patriarch were published in The Russian Archive from which we see that the principal moral rule of this great man was love. The Russian Archive has printed very moving petitions addressed to the Patriarch, his resolutions, full of love for all the poor, the sorrowful, those who were in need of help. The following moving incident from the life of the most holy Patriarch is, for example, related. Peasants had requested assistance from one of the patriarchal monasteries, in the form of grain; the monastery refused, but the Patriarch, intervening in the affair, wrote: “Even if it were necessary to refuse, I would be afraid to do so, lest our holy God become angry with us.”
Russians, especially those in the north, who are crude by nature, do not immediately lay bare their soul to a stranger, especially a foreigner; they lack kindness and that courtesy of manner which is greatly to be desired. But the most holy Nikon differed significantly in this regard from other Great Russians: he had a mild, gentle, good, loving soul. He showed fatherly solicitude for all foreigners, particularly the Greeks, whom the Russians treated coldly at times, although they always donated and continue to donate generously to their holy churches, especially in Jerusalem and on Mount Athos. But they did not always intervene in the fate of a Greek who found himself in a far-away and unknown Russia. The most holy Patriarch always intervened in a most lively fashion in the fate of such unfortunates and strove to better their lot, to show them kindness, to warm them with his love. A document has come down to us which shows what a lively part the most holy Patriarch played in the fate of a certain hapless Greek: he put him up in the Iveron Monastery, wrote to the archimandrite instructing him to take care to clothe, feed, and, in general, provide sufficient maintenance for the Greek; that he surround him with love and kindness so that he would not feel the bitterness of his position in a strange land. Is this the coarse, callous, and cruel man that nearly all scholars try to represent? There is another similar letter from Patriarch Nikon to the archimandrite of the Valdai Monastery, concerning a baptized Kalmyk.
The great soul of the most holy Patriarch is all the more in evidence in his sacred edifices: the churches erected by him are the most beautiful in Russia (see the beginning of this article). Now; in conclusion, we will speak of the marvelous iconostases set up in them.
In general, huge iconostases, lofty, comprising an entire wall, completely closing off the altar, are good and desirable in our churches. Such are our best churches and the iconostases in them. But there is not one iconostasis in Russia which surpasses the iconostasis of the Valdi-Iveron Monastery, constructed by Patriarch Nikon. The magnificent pale green of the body and background of the iconostasis imparts a special spirituality to the multi-tiered disposition of the sacred images; the saints themselves not only seem to be drawn up towards heaven, but it is as though they were also drawing the one praying up with them, and he would almost be ready to cry out with Peter: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” The most holy Patriarch placed in this iconostasis a remarkable image of the Saviour. The visage of the Lord in this icon is meek, kind: the Russian artist has expressed all the feelings of compunction and gentleness which are more rarely imparted by Greek artists, and which are characteristic of the Russian soul.
Figures approach the meek Saviour and kiss His all-pure feet. On one side (the right), in splendor, is St. Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow, whom the most holy Patriarch especially venerated; and on the other side (the left), the Patriarch placed himself; yet lest anyone reproach the most holy Patriarch, he had inscribed about his head the words of the kontakion for Great Wednesday: “Having transgressed more than the harlot, O Good One, I have in no wise brought forth streams of tears for Thee: but in silence I supplicate Thee and fall down before Thee, kissing Thine immaculate feet with love, so that, as Master that Thou art, Thou mayest grant me the forgiveness of debts, as I cry to Thee. O Saviour: From the mire of my deeds do Thou deliver me, Thy servant, the lowly Nikon.”
And, in accordance with the deep convictions of the pious Russian people, the time has come when this great favorite of God will be glorified on earth and enrolled in the Church Triumphant in the heavens. Even during his lifetime, the most holy Patriarch performed healings, possessed clairvoyance and other exalted gifts; and after his death he grants healings and renders gracious assistance to all who have recourse to him with love and faith (especially to mothers and to those unjustly persecuted). Many simple Russian people who visit New Jerusalem in great numbers and bow down before the relics of the holy hierarch of God, share this belief. And the monks of New Jerusalem especially credit this, believing in the incorruption of his precious relics; and they daily celebrate a pannykhida for him, at which they intone a special dismissal: “May Christ our true God . . . commit the soul of His servant, the most holy Patriarch Nikon, who hath departed from us, to the tabernacles of the righteous, give him rest in the bosom of Abraham, and number him with the righteous; and have mercy on us through his holy prayers, for He is good and the Lover of mankind.” The body of Patriarch Nikon remained incorrupt up to the time of his burial, despite oppressive heat and a lengthy journey which took more than a month. In a book preserved at his grave are recorded the many healings and visions wrought after his repose, down to the present day.
The time will come when the most holy Patriarch will be depicted not with the humble supplication of a penitent sinner, but with a troparion glorifying his exalted virtues and the ascetic labors he undertook for the glory of God.
This great man understood that there is nothing on earth more holy than the temple of God, and therefore he diligently erected magnificent churches. He understood that a church is, in a certain way, a book, a living entity, the incarnation of religious ecstasy. And so, humbly reflecting upon this great man, I think: with what gifts did he not abound?! An ascetic and an orator, a ruler and a recluse, democrat and friend of the court, patriot of his nation and universal hierarch, champion of education and strict maintainer of ecclesiastical discipline, gentle soul and stern denouncer of injustice.
1) Thus, even at the present time, do the Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople do, when the Turkish Sultan violates the rights and privileges of the Orthodox Church; and the Church enjoys great gifts, so that the Church in Turkey enjoys the same (and perhaps greater) freedom with regard to its inner self-determination than in Christian lands. In Turkey, governmental principles are still weak, and there they tolerate, for the time being, a free Church. In European countries, where the state is elevated to the sole principle of social life, and to the government, as to Moloch, are sacrificed its personality and higher spiritual needs and interests; in European states they do not allow the church autonomy, as though it were a government within a government; therefore, everywhere within them a savage struggle is waged with the church, more savage in some countries, less in others. When the Sultan violates some ancient right of the Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople, by way of protest, voluntarily leaves the patriarchate and betakes himself to some monastery, lives there without a diocese and without any more authority. His Holiness, Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople (+1913), voluntarily abandoned his cathedra, departed for Mount Athos, and lived there as a simple monk for eighteen years.
2) A dreadful fate overtook the judges of Patriarch Nikon. Both patriarchs, upon returning to their flocks, were hanged by the Sultan for traveling to Russia without being ordered to do so by him. Paisius Ligarides, the principal figure at the Council, was a suspended Greek bishop; he was soon driven from Russia. The Russian bishops who were the most rabid opponents of the Patriarch also got what was due them for their actions: Metropolitan Hilarion of Riazan and Murom was condemned for certain reprehensible activities and expelled from his diocese; and Bishop Methodius of Mstislavl was removed as locum tenens of the Metropolitan Diocese of Kiev, stood trial in Moscow for treason and mutiny, and died under guard in the Novospassky Monastery. Among the bishops at the Council were friends and defenders of the Patriarch: Archbishop Lazarus Baranovich of Chernigov, Archbishop Simon of Vologda, and Bishop Michael of Kolomna; may their names be blessed!
Translated from the Russian by Isaac E Lambertsen from The Biography and Works of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev and Galicia, Vol. XVI, ed. By Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky) (New York: Diocesan Publishing House, 1969), pp. 105-134.
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 36, No. 5, September-October 1986, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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