September 15, 2012

The Orthodoxy of St. Basil and the Extremism of Patriarch Nikon

By Riassophore-nun Paisia (Reid)

History offers many lessons, and the nearly 2,000 year existence of the Church is replete with illustrations of what and whom to emulate and what to avoid. The following essay concentrates on two celebrated hierarchs who, although widely separated in time and culture, were both faced with periods of severe ecclesiastical unrest which threatened to tear the very fabric of the Church. The fourth-century Cappadocian Father, Saint Basil the Great, and Patriarch Nikon of Moscow from the 17th century, are an unlikely pair. But the similarity of their respective situations allows for an interesting comparison of the effects they had on their times, and the divergent legacies they have left the Church. Patriarch Nikon's character and attitudes foreshadowed in many ways the temperament often found in Orthodoxy today, and his effect on the Church in Russia offers a timely warning whose importance cannot be minimized. St. Basil, on the other hand, provides a sobering and inspiring counter balance, to the trend of much current Orthodox inclination.

St. Basil grew up in a family which numbers among its members several illustrious saints--both men and women. It is therefore not surprising that even after being steeped in the Greek classics and having tasted glory as a talented rhetorician, St. Basil should abandon the secular arena and passionately devote himself to serving Christ. Full of pastoral and monastic idealism, he did not shrink from shouldering the yoke of the episcopacy, but willingly sought it out when he saw that his energies and talents could be used to defend the Faith against the tide of heresy and apostasy which threatened both, Church and Empire in his time. Bt. Basil was richly gifted, ascetic, learned, tireless in pursuit of his object--in a word, he was eminently suited to the task before him.

His surpassing spiritual and intellectual capabilities gave him a broader scope than many who, as St. Gregory Nazanzius wrote, used the Faith "as a weapon in their private differences." Basil's efforts to steer the Church onto the Royal Path met with resistance on both sides. The "liberals" and Arians he opposed in matters of dogma called him proud, hard, self-seeking, disobedient, power-hungry; the Orthodox zealots, dissatisfied with his carefully worded public statements on the nature of the Trinity, called him a crypto-Arian more concerned with keeping peace with heretics than with preaching the True Faith.

What both sides refused to admit (or failed to see) was that St. Basil was determined to preserve the good order of the Church, and the balance between Church and Empire, at a time when both were in danger of buckling under the assaults of heresy and anarchy. With an Arian in almost every episcopal seat, and the barbarian tribes pounding at the gates of the Empire, he refused to compromise the integrity of the Faith or jeopardize the fragility of the Empire.

When the Arian emperor Valens subdivided St. Basil's see, in a deliberate attempt to weaken the Orthodox presence in the region, Basil retaliated by immediately creating new bishoprics in his remaining territory so as to consolidate a power-base and slow the Arian advance. He defied and rebuked the Imperial emissaries sent to threaten and flatter him into compromising or abjuring the Nicene Creed. Nonetheless, when the Emperor came to Basil's church, the Saint communed him, as Emperor, and remained unmoved by the impassioned outcry of the anti-Arian zealots who were outraged by the Saint's breach of "purity" and "correctness." When at last he was sentenced to banishment and exile he submitted meekly and even volunteered to leave his city secretly by night, to prevent the danger of revolt in his defense.

He, as an anointed defender of the heavenly realm, was willing to suffer whatever God willed for the sake of his faith and his flock. But he was not willing to rebel against the anointed ruler of, the earthly realm, even in the ostensible defense of Orthodoxy, because he knew he could not hope to preserve the Faith by rending the fabric of God-established order. He prepared, in all humility, and faith, to obey. Twice he was sentenced, and twice God dealt with the Emperor so overwhelmingly that Valens cancelled his decrees himself. St. Basil, so unyielding and imperial as a Bishop, so meek and humble as a subject, was saved by the God in Whom he trusted, through the king whose order he helped preserve.

Basil spent only a few more years in freedom before he died. Although he continued to preach a true and undefiled Orthodoxy, he never saw the full restoration of the faith. When he died in 379 an Arian still sat in the seat of the Emperor, and heresy seemed almost to have devoured all the light of truth. Small wonder St. Basil wrote of the Church in his time, rife with faction and apostasy, "How terrible is the famine of love among us!" Truly it seemed, then and for a long time to come, that the love of God and the knowledge of True Orthodoxy were gone from the earth. Where then is St. Basil's triumph? What is his witness to us today?

Although he surely knew he could do very little to influence the final outcome of events in his lifetime, St. Basil never deigned to use the apparent bleakness of the external situation as an excuse for indulging his passions, his arrogance, or his despair (even in a "spiritual" disguise). This worthy hierarch, who passed his life in genuine persecution and struggle for True Orthodoxy, remained to the end as he had always been—a strict monk, a loving shepherd, a humble servant of God, a loyal subject of Church and State, a defender of the Faith who loved God too well, and knew his own weaknesses too clearly, to risk using his position and the circumstance of his time as cloaks for faithlessness, self-opinion, and pride. In this way he is a supreme example of godly courage and balance for al! who seek to preserve Orthodoxy in the face of apostasy without losing sanity and sobriety of soul.

Patriarch Nikon and the 'Correctness Disease'

In Patriarch Nikon we find similar talents and character traits, but his love for the Church was tainted by his weakness for power and an unyielding self-opinion. Aflame with an all-encompassing vision of Orthodoxy and its possible effect on society, he devoted himself entirely to the "best," the "purest," the most "traditional," the most "otherworldly'' form of Orthodoxy he found available, and was resolved to awaken the souls of the indifferent and revive what he considered a moribund Church Establishment. Although he remained confident to the end, assured of the purity of his intent and the nobility of his stand, he succeeded only in bringing the Russian Church to a grievous schism. [1]

It would have been hard to predict such an outcome on the basis of Nikon's outwardly exemplary life as a monk wherein, his biographer Philip Longworth writes, "he had been guided by the rule of St. Sabbas in his extreme asceticism and by St. John Chrysostom in his charity." Although of peasant origin, and lacking any formal education, he was truly gifted, perhaps even a genius. Few could fail to be impressed by this "towering figure of a man" whose physical dimension was matched by his charisma and indefatigable energy. Small wonder that when he came to Moscow in 1646 to collect alms for his monastery in the far north, the young Tsar Alexi Mikhailovitch, pious and impressionable, was swayed by his dominant personality and sharp mind.

A close relationship soon developed which had the potential of benefiting both Church and State. Nikon influenced Alexis to issue decrees against drunkenness, and the Tsar began to raise the level of piety throughout the realm, beginning with his own court. His confidence in Nikon prompted the Tsar to entrust him with the reigns of government when he himself had to go off to war. It was not long before Alexis begged Nikon to join him in fatherly joint-rule of the Russian Orthodox. In fairness to Nikon it must be said that he did not reach greedily for power by seeking the throne himself, and even refused it several times. But at last he could resist the fatal temptation no longer and accepted the patriarchy, on one condition--and in this condition we have a "key" to the complex and tragic personality of Patriarch Nikon. Nikon insisted that everyone, whether in secular or spiritual life, must unceasingly honor him as chief shepherd and allow him to "regulate the affairs of the Church" without interference. Once assured of the full allegiance of Church and State he consented to sit on the patriarchal throne, "and thus pronounced against himself the sentence of his own doom."

Although he remained a strict monk throughout his life, utterly pure, utterly “correct” in his observance of the monastic rule, he had set foot on a dangerous path by aligning himself so completely with the temporal affairs of Russia; here was the "beginning of those strong temptations of spirit, under the weight of which he gave way at last and, from being exalted, was led to exalt himself."

Nikon tried to justify his intrusions into the affairs of state by promoting the idea of a theocracy according to a dubious Byzantine model which he interpreted to his own advantage. His authoritarian nature began to reveal itself, and although his manner of life continued to be above reproach--he was generous in almsgiving, Unexcelled in pastoral zeal, solicitous in promoting a "due magnificence" in church services--his high-handed manner in dealing with any opposition and his increased isolation in his own self-opinion, created an upheaval which had a calamitous and long-lasting effect on both Church and State.

The correction of the Russian Church's Slavonic books is usually seen as the match that touched off the explosion, although the need for some correction of texts had hardly been discovered by Nikon. The Council of the Hundred Chapters had recommended a review and reform of liturgical texts long before, and a number of corrections had already been effected. Graduates of the theological academy in Kiev, established by Metropolitan Peter Mogila earlier in the century, were invited to Moscow in 1649 to apply their knowledge of Greek and Latin in examining the service books. The task of reform was complicated by the widespread suspicion of Greek Church authority which had been compromised in its acceptance of the union with Rome in 1439. Nevertheless, the Tsar himself supported the reform movement, and it could very conceivably have proceeded with success were it not for the growing excesses of the Patriarch's zeal and the ruthless manner in which he forced the reforms to be carried out.

"There is a way which seemeth right unto a man but the end thereof is death." (Prov. 14:12)

Waving all caution aside, Nikon pressed the Tsar and Synod for faster, more wholesale changes, modeled after the newest Greek texts. In this he was supported and encouraged by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Paisios, who "at the same time entreated [Nikon] to he indulgent to those who had erred not in any essential doctrine of the faith but only in some unimportant external matters, so that he might retain them within the pale of the Church, and it would have been more prudent had the mild counsel of Paisios been followed; but unfortunately the natural hastiness of Nikon's temper, joined to his ardent zeal..., carried him beyond the bounds which pastoral longsuffering might have observed." 

What made Nikon's passionate concern for correctness still less tolerable is the fact that many things in the Russian books which he and his followers perceived as being incorrect, "impure," "modernist," or otherwise "un-Orthodox," in reality in no way compromised the integrity of the faith. Nikon, and the Nikonian reformers, lacked an understanding of the essential Orthodox concept of living continuity with Holy Tradition, a concept intimately linked with all aspects of daily Orthodox life, including texts of services, rubrics; etc. While "reforming" a few real errors, Nikon committed the far greater mistake of breaking continuity with the living Orthodox past of the Russian people.

Not satisfied with reforming the books, Nikon launched a crusade against icons which showed Italian-style influence. Houses were searched and the Patriarch personally took part in burning the sacred images which the simple people held in veneration. His Savonarola-like character, nurtured on the throne of power, fired his opposition: "Traditionalists hated him for enforcing the liturgical reforms;...churchmen feared him for his harshness; ministers resented his highhandedness.., the environment of hostility towards him extended even to members of the Tsar's own family."

Sensing the waning of his authority, Nikon petulantly declared himself unable to continue in his rank because of the Tsar's "weakness," the corruption of the government, and the lack of support for himself and his reforms. The "roar of a wounded lion and a forsaken friend," it marked the end of his reign. A Church Council of 1660 decided his abandonment of the Patriarchy constituted abdication and permitted them to proceed to the election of a successor. But since no precedent for this existed the question could not be easily nor immediately resolved. Nikon did not agree that he had effectively resigned, and it therefore became necessary to depose him. In 1666 he was tried in the presence of the Tsar and Greek and Russian clergy, including the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch. It was a long dramatic struggle, suitable for Shakespeare, but ill-befitting a monk, a bishop, a Patriarch. Finally deposed, Nikon was sent to a monastery for "perpetual confinement,'' calling out along the way to any who would listen, "Blessed are the persecuted!"--a cry that echoes even today wherever proud churchmen are criticized.

Even though Nikon remained personally "correct" in all his external behavior, he had departed from the path of True Orthodoxy. By chasing after an ephemeral phantom of "pure Orthodoxy," he became like those who today dismiss the living witness of Orthodoxy as being filled with "error" and "Westernism" and seek fruitlessly after some abstract and self-created fourth-century perfection.

For all his desire to increase the power and prestige of the Church, Nikon, like all extremists, actually helped further the process of spiritual decline. By attempting to usurp secular authority, and by disrupting the organic continuity of the Russian tradition. he upset the dynamic tension between Church and State, creating an instability and conflict that led to Peter the Great’s Westernization of society and shackling of the Church.

By contrast, St. Basil poured out all his passion, his willfulness, his pride, not on the Nikonian forging of a new society, in which a reformed Church could dictate to a chastened State, but on the preservation of all that which he was given, and on the restoration of that life-giving synergy between "pious Kings and right-believing Bishops," between the City of God and the City of Man, which was the golden dream of Byzantium, the hope of Holy Russia.

By preserving the hierarchical interplay of spirit and state, St. Basil's real meekness barred the door Nikon's presumption cast open. Once Nikon lost sight of the Royal Path in his own life he became quite unable to preserve the flock given him by Christ. Having failed to achieve, or preserve; an understanding of himself he became blind to everything outside, unable to admit his errors or profit from counsel. He sank deeper and deeper into the self-righteous isolation  of his "unjust" punishment at the hands of an "apostate" power.

The bitter chill which emanated from the heart of this proud patriarch finds its antithesis in the radiant warmth of St. Basil who suffered no less at the hands of an apostate power. Though there may indeed have been a famine of love around this holy hierarch, in him there was no lack, and all who came to him found food for their souls and peace for their hearts, courage to persevere and wisdom to rise above despair. It was indeed fitting that St. Ephraim the Syrian, when told by God in a dream to "feed upon intellect," was sent to find St. Basil preaching undaunted in his ruined diocese, and saw the Holy Spirit sitting dove-like on the hierarch's shoulder, giving him the words of sober endurance and mystical joy that still feed the flock of Christ today.

St. Basil, by humbly preserving in his teaching, and embodying in his life, all he was given by his Fathers in the Faith, saved many and preserved True Orthodoxy. Nikon, by attempting an artificial, academic recreation of a theoretically superior Orthodoxy having nothing in common with the organic continuity of Holy Russia, destroyed himself and shattered the Church. Choices like these face every Orthodox Christian at many points in his life, in many guises. Let us take a lesson from history--and be wise.

There are many who will come to us and tempt us with all manner of subtle rebellions and impassioned causes. It is important that we preserve a true fidelity not to the letter of the law--which will only infect us with Nikon' s 'correctness disease,' but to the living Faith as we received it. If we struggle to acquire a sober humility and trust not to our own opinions, we can hope that through the prayers of our holy Father Basil, God will grant us the wisdom to persevere to the end on the narrow path of the King's highway - despite the passions of our times, the weakness of our faith, and the darkness of our age. Amen.

[1] Those who refused to accept Nikon's reforms, the "Old Believers," were persecuted and alienated from the fold of the Church.