Friday, November 9, 2012

A Brief Life of Saint Nektarios (1846-1920)


St. Nektarios was born in Selybria of Eastern Thrace to the family of Demos and Maria Kephalas on 1st October 1846. He was named Anastasios at his baptism, a name which suited perfectly his early behavior. As a child he was distinguished for his piety and devotion to ecclesiastical literature. He received his first education in Greece and at the age of 14 he went to Constantinople to live with a relative of his. Soon afterwards he joined the school of the Metochion of the Holy Sepulcher as Paidonomos, i.e. teaching the younger and being taught by the elder students. At the age of 16 he went to Chios to become a teacher in the village of Lithion for a period of seven years. It was there that he developed his religious interests through frequent visits to the Sacred Monastery of the Holy Fathers and long conversations with Elder Pachomios, who was renowned for his advanced mystical life and mature Christian perception. On November 7 in the year 1876 he received the tonsure in the New Monastery of Chios and was named Lazaros. Soon afterwards he was elevated to the office of the secretary in the Monastery.

In 1877 he was ordained Deacon, on the same date as his baptism (15th January) in the church of SS. Menas, Victor and Vikentios the Martyrs, receiving the name Nektarios. With the support of John Choremis, a rich Chiote, he came to Athens, the city where St. Basil and St. Gregory, the great theologians of the Church, had been educated in secular wisdom, to study theology at the University. But suddenly his sponsor Choremis died and he was unable to continue his studies. He came to Alexandria to serve Patriarch Sophronios. Sophronios heard of his misfortune and paid all his expenses to return to Athens and finish his studies at the University.

In 1885, Nektarios graduated in theology from the University of Athens. On receiving his degree he returned to Alexandria and was ordained priest by Sophronios at the sacred Patriarchal Church of St. Savas on 23rd May 1886. In August, he was appointed Priest of St. Nicholas Church at Cairo, Preacher of the Patriarchate of Alexandria and Patriarchal Supervisor. In 1889, he was ordained Bishop of Pentapolis by Patriarch Sophronios. His heart was overflowing with thanksgiving to God who answered his prayer and made him a theologian and even more a bishop. But false accusations soon removed him from his position and he came back to Athens with the intention of retiring to Athos. He did not do so, because in 1891 he was asked to become a Preacher in the diocese of Phthiotis and Phokis. After a fruitful ministry there, he was called to become the Head of the Rizareios Ecclesiastical College at Athens.

It was in the Rizareios Seminary that his great work was accomplished through teaching and writing. In spite of his heavy College duties he continued to preach every Sunday at the College Chapel, which was always packed with visitors from outside. But he was always ready to celebrate the Liturgy and preach wherever he was called in the parishes of Athens and Piraeus. In the summer of 1898, he visited the monasteries of the Holy Mountain and the impression he left on the monks became memorable. At that time Sophronios died and Nektarios was asked to become Patriarch of Alexandria. He refused. His call as he said was to become a theologian and a monk devoted to prayer and the praise of God. His monastic ideals and aspirations were finally fulfilled when he was able to erect the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Aegina in 1904. It was the site of an older Monastery, called the Zoodochos Pege (The Life-giving Fountain) where the blind nun Athanasia had lived.

In 1907 Nektarios moved to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, having resigned from his college post at Athens. The first prioress of the Monastery was a blind woman who had heard Nektarios preach at Athens at the College and her parish church. It was there that Nektarios’ sainthood emerged most clearly. His life was given wholly to prayer, and the Lord made him worthy of many miracles. Finally, in a vision in 1920 he was told that his time had come to depart to the Father in heaven. His vision was fulfilled two months later on the 9th November. He died in utter poverty at an Athens hospital for the poor and destitute. It was said that during the preparation of his body for burial the healing of a paralytic took place. His sacred body was brought to Aegina and buried at the Monastery. When his tomb was reopened so that his relics could be kept elsewhere, his body was found intact and it was therefore necessary to close the tomb again. Meanwhile, various miracles were reported, so that the Monastery of the Holy Trinity became a place of pilgrimage. From all over Greece people would come to venerate the new saint and to pray for healing and divine assistance.

Shortly afterwards, a St. Nektarios Society was established in Athens and churches dedicated to St Nektarios began to be erected in various places, in Laconia, in Crete and in Lesvos. This amazing recognition of the Saint’s grace brought about The Synodical Act of the Ecumenical Patriarchate dated 20th April 1961, which stated: “... Therefore, we Synodically institute and determine and order in the Holy Spirit, that from now on and in the entire age, the unforgotten hierarch Nektarios Kephalas should be numbered with the Hosioi and the Saints of the Church, be honored by the faithful and be venerated with encomia on 9th of November on which day he ended the life in the body.” Two encomia had already been worked out by the Hymnographer of the Great Church of Christ, the monk Gerasimos Mikragiannanites, which present two aspects of the personality of the Saint. The 1926 encomium reads as follows:

Selybria’s offspring and Eoa's pride, Orthodoxy’s pillar and Aegina’s support, Nektarios, let the faithful honor for he sprang up to us as nectar from the sources of salvation watering afresh those who cry: Glory to Christ who glorified you, glory to Him who made you incorruptible, glory to Him who in these last days wonderfully sanctified you.

The second encomion written in 1955 reads as follows:

Selybria’s offspring and Aegina’s overseer who appeared in these last years as a genuine lover of virtue, Nektarios, let the faithful honor as an inspired servant of Christ, for he is the source of all kinds of healings to those who piously cry: Glory to Christ who glorified you, glory to Him who dressed you in miracles, glory to Him who works all the miracles through you.

But Nektarios has not been acclaimed only as the saint of prayer and healing. As I said earlier, he is also a saint of theology and teaching. He was a prolific writer who emphasized the necessity of education and theological training. His book A Pastor’s Manual (Poimantike), speaks of ‘the friends of ignorance who reject the strength and power of reason,’ and rebukes them by citing St. Gregory the Theologian’s disapproval of ‘certain obscure incompetent persons who wished to defend themselves from criticisms by hiding behind their emptiness’. Nektarios teaches that faith cannot be divorced from knowledge. Indeed in his life work we see both faith and knowledge, piety of heart and mind, combined to form a harmonious ideal. As one of his biographers writes:

“Nektarios was unquestionably a brilliant example of virtue, a most saintly figure, full of love, forbearance and humility; but he was also an erudite teacher, a prolific writer and a brilliant Christian apologist. As such, Nektarios takes up and extends the tradition of the Holy Fathers, which will continue since the Holy Spirit will continue to blow in the Church and lead Her to all the truth (John 16:13) by means of god-bearing men who are raised by Him. This will continue as long as the Church exists unto the completion of the ages.”

St. Nektarios’s writings are full of Christian insight. The range of topics discussed in them is very wide. There is hardly a contemporary question which is not touched upon. Particularly instructive are his expositions on faith and knowledge, Christianity and science, Christian revelation and the Christian attitude to materialism, Christianity and philosophy (especially Greek philosophy), Theological education, prayer and spirituality. On the relation of Orthodoxy to Western Christianity, although he believes that historically speaking the West has been unfair and unjust to Orthodoxy, he maintains a friendly and conciliatory disposition, which perfectly illustrates his general attitude of ecclesiastical “epieikeia” and “oikonomia.” It is because of this attitude, that he has been accused of being “latinophron kai oikoumenistes” (Latin-minded and ecumenist). But as the monk Theodoretos the Hagiorite has shown in his book, this accusation is based on the one hand on a misunderstanding of the Saint’s writings, and on the other hand on an ill informed and excessive orthodoxism.

The main writings of St. Nektarios are as follows: Ecclesiastical Discourses (Athens 1884), Ten Ecclesiastical Discourses for Great Lent (Athens 1885), Various Discourses (Alexandria and Cairo 1887-1890), On the Sacred Synods and the on the First two Ecumenical Synods (Cairo 1888), Discourse on the Three Hierarchs at the Achillopoyleion Parthenagogeion (Alexandria 1889), An Outline on Religious Toleration of Eugenios Voulgaris (Alexandria 1890), The Ecumenical Synods of the Church of Christ (Athens 1892), The Sacred Memorial Services observed by the Orthodox (Athens 1892), On God’s Revelation in the World (Athens 1892), A basic treatise on Man (Athens 1893), N. Bambas’ Natural Theology and Christian Ethics (Alexandria 1893), On the results of true and false knowledge and on suicide (Athens 1894), On caring for the soul (Athens 1894), A Treasury of Sacred and Philosophical Sayings (Athens 1894), Epic and Poetic views of lesser Greek Poets (Athens 1896), A Study of Christian Ethics (Athens 1897), A Study of Pastoralia (Athens 1898), Orthodox Sacred Catechism (Athens 1899), Christology (Athens 1900), A Study on the immortality of the soul and on Sacred Memorial Services for the departed (Athens 1901), A Study on the Holy Icons (Athens 1901), On the Mother of the Lord (Athens 1902), On the Saints of God (Athens 1902), On Holy Tradition (Athens 1902), On the Church (Athens 1902), Gospel History through a Harmonization of the Holy Evangelists and a Paschalion Eternal (Athens 1903), A Katanychtic Prayer Book (Athens 1904), Know Thyself (Athens 1904), A Study of Repentance and Confession (Athens 1904), A Study on the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist (Athens 1904), A Study on the Saints of God (Athens 1904), A Study on the Mother of the Lord, the Superlatively Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary (Athens 1904), A Small Theotokarion (Athens 1905), A Pandektes of the Holy Scriptures by Antiochos Hagiosabbites (Athens 1906), On Oath taking (Athens 1906), A Priest’s Manual, i.e. On the Priesthood, On Primacy in the Hierarchy and On the Equality in the Hierarchy (Athens 1907), Theotokarion, 2nd edition (Athens 1907), Psalterion of the Prophet-King David .. with expository notes (Athens 1908), Triadikon, or Praises and Hymns to the One God in Trinity (Athens 1909), Kekragarion of Augustine of Eugenios Voulgaris vols 1-2 (Athens 1910), A Historical Study of the Causes of the Schism, its Perpetuation and on the Possibility or Impossibility of Uniting the Eastern and Western Churches vols 1-2 (Athens 1911-1912), On the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and on the Holy Tradition (Athens 1913), A Historical Study on the Holy Cross (Athens 1914), Prayer book katanychtic (Athens 1914), Studies on the Divine Sacraments (Athens 1915), On the Church (in the Panegyric Tome for the 70th anniversary of Rizareios, Athens 1920), Christian Ethics of the Orthodox Eastern Church 2nd ed. (ed. By T. Matthaiakes, Athens 1955). To the above we must add the various articles of the Saint in theological periodicals such as Ieros Synthesmos, Anaplasis, Anamorphosis, etc.) and the various unpublished manuscripts which he left at the Sacred Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Aegina and some of which have begun to appear; e.g. The Divine Liturgy of St. Mark (Matthaiakes, Athens 1955), The Historical Study on the ordered Fasts (Matthaiakes, Athens 1955), the work On the Middle Ages and the Byzantine Hellenism (Resos, Athens 1991), as well as his Epistles which have been edited by His Em. Metr. Titos Matthaiakes and Archimandrite Kleopas Strongyllis.

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