By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou
Saint Papa-Nicholas Planas was distinguished for his blessed simplicity in his actions, his movements, his behavior, and in his ecclesiastical life in general. This simplicity was an expression of his character, but especially and above all it was an expression of his liturgical and ascetical experience. It was not only an external simplicity in the way he did things, but his simplicity mainly came from the unity and purification of his inner world.
We will highlight some points of this simplicity of Saint Nicholas Planas and then it will be explained theologically and liturgically.
The book issued about Saint Papa-Nicholas Planas, which is a biography of the Saint by one of his disciples, the nun Martha, who in the world was known as Ourania Papadopoulos, bears the title The Simple Shepherd of the Simple Sheep. He was a simple shepherd who taught some simple and guileless sheep. This is clearly shown throughout the book. This characterization was given by the ever-memorable Photis Kontoglou which is written in the Introduction to this book.
Indeed, Saint Nicholas Planas was a good shepherd, but also a good and chosen sheep of the Great Shepherd Christ, and by his simplicity, guilelessness and humility glorified the Great Shepherd Christ, who is also the "slain lamb" of the Apocalypse. It is characteristic that the Evangelist John preserves in his Gospel the word of Christ: "I am the good shepherd" (Jn. 10:11), and the same Apostle in his Apocalypse presents the good shepherd as a slain lamb Who sacrifices Himself for the world, and eventually this slain lamb is the judge of the world. Christ Himself is at the same time shepherd and lamb, and whoever is associated with Him also has these two properties.
Photis Kontoglou writes at the beginning of the text about Papa-Nicholas: "Blessed, therefore, is the man whose life is told in this humble little book. Blessed too, is the person who tells it. But blessed too is the person who reads it and rejoices because of its simplicity. Simple was he whose life is told, simple is the teller, and simple must be those who read it... An evil and unbelieving heart should not apply to open this book." Papadiamantis felt the same way about Saint Papa-Nicholas Planas, which is why he wrote: "I know a priest in Athens. He is the humblest of priests and the simplest of men." And Photis Kontoglou, the historian of the humble and simple people, wrote: "To know Orthodoxy is to know the simplicity of heart which brings faith." The entire biography of Saint Nicholas Planas shows this simple Cleric who knows how to shepherd, to tolerate, to love, to be a burning heart on behalf of all creation.
2. The Simplicity of the Heart
The Apostle Paul urges Christians to gain simplicity, which is a basic element of the life in Christ. He hopes the Corinthians will enrich themselves in this simplicity which pleases God: "in everything being enriched in all simplicity, which doth work through us thanksgiving to God" (2 Cor. 9:11). He employs himself in not allowing Christians to be deceived by the devil and corrupt the meaning of "from her simplicity in Christ" (2 Cor. 11:3). This simplicity is not an external virtue, but is connected with the regeneration of humanity that takes place with our union with Christ, which is why the Apostle Paul advises Christians to obedience that is to be made "in the simplicity of our hearts to Christ" (Eph. 6:5).
This connection of simplicity with the Christian life and the experience of the heart shows that Christian simplicity is different from any other human simplicity. One can be simple in their ways, due to character or origin, but this could be a natural condition that does not save. In the Church simplicity is associated with the second birth and not the first birth, and it is the fruit of the former rather than being biological. Thus, one can be poor and uneducated but have a high mindset and a complex composition, as well as be wise according to the world yet, because they are permeated with love for Christ, they can be simple in heart and condescending towards his brothers. How can someone be selfish and proud when, despite their internal state, they have experienced the love and mercy of God?
The blessed Fr. Paisios spoke about simplicity in Christ which he connected with the sanctified life. Once when referring to simplicity he said: "If it is a child, they will have simplicity. If it is a saint, they will have simplicity." Another time he said: "For one to live the mysteries of God, they must be stripped of the old man, to return somehow to a state before the fall. Have innocence and simplicity, to have unshakeable faith and absolutely believe that there is nothing that God is not able to do." And yet another time he said: "If someone has simplicity, they have humility, there is divine illumination, they are ablaze." Thus, the simplicity that comes from the energies of divine Grace and the synergy of man is associated with holiness.
3. The Theology of Simplicity
If we want to give a theological interpretation to spiritual simplicity we would say that God is simple and for this reason when a person is associated with Christ they acquire this blessed state of simplicity.
God, according to the Fathers of the Church, has no composition, but is simple. Western scholastic theology, to safeguard the simplicity of God, introduced the so-called actus purus (pure energy), a heretical view of God that equates His uncreated essence with His uncreated energies, and thus God comes in contact with creation and man with created energies. The heretical view that in God there are created energies was formulated to preserve the teaching of the simplicity of God, because the scholastic theologians believed that the alleged distinction between uncreated essence and uncreated energies in God introduces a composition and abolishes His simplicity.
Saint Gregory Palamas, refuting these views which Barlaam also had, teaches that "according to essence the Divinity is one and simple", and that the uncreated energy of God does not abolish His simplicity, since His uncreated energy does not introduce composition in God, because God is understood by us as "all good and all wisdom and all just and all power".
Moreover, the energies of God are not something different from His essence, but they are an essential part of His nature-essence, which is why they are called essential energies.
Then, God, according to Saint Gregory Palamas, is not only simple, but simplicity. Every angel and rational soul of man is simple, but they do not have simplicity, because they are simple by partaking and in comparison to bodies. But God is not simple by comparison and partaking, because He transmits from Himself simplicity appropriate for each. Thus, God is not only and primarily simple, but also simplicity.
Therefore, God is simple and simplicity. Man is complex because he consists of soul and body. The soul of man is simple by nature, while the body is complex because it consists of several elements. The passions are that which introduce composition to the soul. When man is freed from the energies of the passions, that is, when by the power of God and the synergy of man he transforms the powers of his soul to walk according to nature and for nature and partakes of His Grace, then, despite his complex existence (soul and body), he acquires simplicity according to God. Thus, composition is not introduced by the distinction of essence and energies in God, but with the existence of the passions. God does not have passion, but is simple, while man becomes simple when he is united with God and transforms his soul and body.
Saint Maximus the Confessor analyzes in detail this way of man acquiring simplicity in Christ. We see it in the subject on thoughts. In his texts he teaches that thoughts are distinguished as simple and complex. The simple thought is the simple concept of a person or object, while the complex thought is the combination of concepts with desire and passion associated with a person or object. In the process of sin the simple thought becomes complex, while with ascetic struggle and the energy of divine Grace the complex thought is made simple by separating the concept from desire and passion. So man goes from multifaceted, due to sin, and becomes simple by the Grace of God and his own struggle.
The same happens with the passions and dispassion. "Every passion always consists of a combination of some sensible object, a sense faculty and a natural power - the incensive, desiring or intelligent, as the case may be - whose natural function has been distorted. Thus, if the nous investigates the final result of these three inter-related factors - the sensible object, the sense faculty and the natural power involved with the sense faculty - it can distinguish each from the other two, and refer each back to its specific natural function. It can, that is to say, view the sensible object in itself, apart from its relationship to the sense faculty, and the sense faculty in itself, apart from its connection with the sensible object, and the natural power - desire, for example, - apart from its impassioned alliance with the sense faculty and the sensible object. In this way, the nous reduces to its constituent parts whatever passion it investigates" (St. Maximus the Confessor, Philokalia, "200 Texts on Theology", 66). Thus the passionate man becomes dispassionate and consequently simple.
Abba Dorotheos identifies as false the one who is not "a simple person, but double-minded". He explains that double-minded (not the simple) people are those who are "one way within and another way on the outside, and his life is duplicitous and malevolent."
Thus, the person who struggles within the Church, partaking of its sacraments and observing the commandments of Christ, walks along the path of dispassion, which is the life of simplicity. Indeed, when they reach the illumination of the nous and theosis, namely when they experience the Grace of God as Light, then they acquire simplicity according to God, whether they be wise or illiterate. This means that all the powers of the soul walk according to nature and for nature, they reshape and transform the body also, which is made dispassionate. This is why the Fathers teach that dispassion is not a natural virtue, but the fruit of the vision of God, the result of partaking in the uncreated Grace of God.
4. The Ecclesiastical and Liturgical Ethos of Simplicity
From the biography of Saint Papa-Nicholas Planas his simplicity is shown, apart from the natural condition of his character, but he also had elements of an ecclesiastical life, an expression of his inexhaustible love for God and fathomless love towards neighbor. After all, God transforms the natural traits of man and makes them spiritual gifts.
Saint John of Sinai refers to the simplicity of the saints, which he differentiates from natural simplicity. He writes: "Excellent too is that simplicity which is in some by nature, yes, and blessed, but not as much as that which is grafted into a guileful soul with toil and sweat. For the former is sheltered and protected from much complexity and passion, but the latter leads to the highest humility and meekness. The former has not much reward, but the latter - surpassingly infinite." Simplicity is connected with meekness, which is why "a meek soul is a throne of simplicity". Ultimately, simplicity is defined as the "constant habit of soul that has become immune to crafty thinking". Adam had this simplicity before the fall, as uniform simplicity was "the first property of the age of childhood".
Saint Papa-Nicholas Planas had such a blessed and uniform childlike simplicity according to God, which was the fruit of his love towards God and the communion with Him. Thus his naive behavior is justified by his equal love for all. In this light we should interpret how others saw him, during the Divine Liturgy, above the ground, or when they saw the Light of God surrounding him, or when he was led by an Angel of the Lord, or when he behaved with great humility and simplicity, and so many other incidents.
As seen from above, this holy simplicity of his was the result of the visit of divine Grace, as it was embodied in some places.
The first is that he was watered by the "spirit" of the Divine Eucharist, which is the ethos of the extreme humility of Christ, His Passion, His Cross, His Burial, His Descent into Hades and His Resurrection. The "spirit" of the Divine Liturgy is the "spirit" of emptying, offering, sacrifice. The Divine Liturgy is a nuclear reactor in which all conventional thermometers break.
The second is that his simplicity was shaped by the ethos of his vigilance, the offering to God of his nightly sleep. He deeply loved vigils, because during the night the soul of man, especially when praying, acquires another rhythm, coordinated with the life of the pre-fallen Adam and the eschatological man, hearing the beat of eternity, experienced by incomprehensible words.
The third is that Papa-Nicholas Planas had adapted to the ethos of extreme simplicity, humility, meekness, purity and landlessness, which one encounters in the hermits of Mount Athos and other monks inspired by the atmosphere of this desert of Athos. Of course, I do not mean the Athonites who have become secularized and distanced from holy simplicity. A true Athonite accepts every man as a saint, according to the patristic saying: "When you have seen your man you have seen your God."
Saint Gregory the Theologian, when speaking of his father according to the flesh, describes him as a man of simplicity in Christ. He says that his father Gregory was "most high in his life, most humble in his mindset". And in regards to virtue he was unreachable, while in his interaction he was "easily accessible". The greatest virtue that characterized him and which many do not love was "simplicity, and his ethos was unadulterated and did not remember wrongs". It seems here that simplicity is closely linked with an unadulterated ethos that does not remember wrongs. Simplicity according to Christ is the true and stable, "while all is false, and not permanent".
Saint Papa-Nicholas Planas reached the depth of ecclesiastical life, acquired the Grace of God, which is why he was not complex but simple, not false but true, not seasonal but permanent, timeless. He lived the simplicity of Adam before the fall and of man in the eschaton.
There passed from the earth a bright star and he showed us some highlights of the simplicity of eternal life, where all complexity will be eliminated, and lives will be completely simplified by the Holy Spirit, since in eternity we will only hear "Alleluia", the incomprehensible words, the terirem of the angels, and not simply vigils, but life according to God in the Light of the Three-sunned Divinity.
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η απλότητα τού αγίου παπα-Νικόλα Πλανά ως έκφραση λειτουργικής καί ασκητικής εμπειρίας", March 2009. (Published in the Journal of the Holy Metropolis of Piraeus Peiraiki Ekklesia, p. 202, March 2009). Translated by John Sanidopoulos.