March 19, 2015

Adaptations of Roman Catholic Texts for Orthodox Readers by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite

By Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

All the books of Nikodemos that have been discussed so far [Philokalia, Evergetinos, Concerning Continual Communion of the Divine Mysteries, Alphabetalphabetos, Handbook of Counsel, Extant Works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Manual of Confession, New Theotokarion] show him thoroughly Orthodox, steadfastly attached to the Tradition of the Eastern Church. It would be a mistake to infer from this that he was religiously intolerant, closed to everything coming from Western Christendom. Actually, he was a broad-minded man, who abided by Paul's counsel to the Thessalonians: "Test everything; hold fast that which is good."1 While critical of the Western Church, St. Nikodemos was open-minded with regard to what in his judgement was good in it. His position is summed up in the following statement of the Heortodromion, one of his last works: "We must hate and detest," he says, "the misbeliefs and unlawful customs of the Latins and others who are Heterodox; but if they have anything sound and confirmed by the Canons of the Holy Synods, this we must not hate."2

That he took the second part of this statement seriously, and not merely the first, is evident from the fact that two of his works, The Unseen Warfare and Spiritual Exercises, are adaptations for Orthodox readers of works by Roman Catholics. The first is an adaptation of Spiritual Combat (Combattimento Spirituale) by the Italian priest Lorenzo Scupoli (c. 1530-1610) and of a little treatise titled Path of Paradise (Sentiero del Paradiso), which was considered Scupoli's work, but is now regarded as the work of some other author. The second book of Nikodemos is an adaptation of the Spiritual Exercises (Esercizi Spirituali) by the Jesuit Giovanni P. Pinamonti (1632-1703).

While he does not name the original authors of these books, Nikodemos makes it clear in the subtitle of each that he has taken another's work and diligently corrected and otherwise greatly improved it. In translating them from Italian into modern Greek, Nikodemos removed or corrected whatever was objectionable from the Orthodox standpoint, made numerous additions within the text itself, and contributed copious footnotes drawn from Scripture and the Greek Fathers, and thus made the books thoroughly Orthodox in content.

The Unseen Warfare3 deals with the warfare against demonic suggestions, against the passions, against improper imagination, against evil in general, and gives instructions as to how this warfare is to be waged successfully through constant vigilance, meditation, prayer, especially mental prayer, and Holy Communion.

This book has enjoyed great popularity. It has been reprinted many times since it was first published in 1796. A Russian version of it was made by Bishop Theophan the Recluse, which appeared in Moscow in 1886; and an English translation of the Russian version, done by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, and introduced by H.A. Hodges, titled Unseen Warfare, was published in 1952 at London.

In his long and valuable Introduction, Prof. Hodges at times plays down the differences between Nikodemos' Unseen Warfare and the Roman Catholic originals. Yet, in his comparison of Nikodemos' book with them, he makes the following important observations, which establish that the differences between them are many and often substantial: (1) Nikodemos omits two chapters of the originals. (2) He inserts an entirely new chapter, dealing with the correction of the imagination and memory. (3) He expands Scupoli's brief chapter on mental prayer, setting forth the hesychast doctrine. (4) He introduces a higher form of ascesis than that given by Scupoli. (5) On many occasions, he rearranges, expands, or condenses the original texts, or even alters the substance of a passage here and there. (6) He removes various Latinisms of phrase and doctrine - e.g. he changes "images" to "icons", and removes references to Purgatory and to the cult of the Sacred Heart. (7) Finally, Nikodemos amplifies the chapters by a considerable body of footnotes, in some of which he expounds doctrines not contained in the original texts.

Spiritual Exercises4 is quite extensively revised and a greatly expanded version of the Italian original. Nikodemos was evidently attracted not only by the topic of Pinamonti's book, but also by his subdivision of the topic, his mode of approach and manner of organizing his material. The book produced by Nikodemos is a monumental one, devoted to the great goal of human salvation and perfection. The greater part of it comprises thirty-four Meditations on various subjects pertaining to salvation and self-perfection. Next come thirty brief Meditations, one for each day of the month. These are followed by eight Exercises in self-examination. Finally, there are eight Readings.

The book bears throughout the impress of St. Nikodemos, and evinces his strong yearning for perfection and the great riches of his wisdom and understanding. Throughout his enormous contribution to the original work by way of addition, expurgation, qualification, correction and amplification, Nikodemos succeeded in producing a book which is, as Father Theoklitos of Dionysiou remarks, "a masterpiece of Eastern spirituality" that has "all the essential characteristics of the Orthodox spirit."5


1. 1 Thess. 5:21.
2. Venice, 1836, p. 584.
3. Ho Aoratos Polemos.
4. Gymnasmata Pneumatika.
5. Hagios Nikodemos ho Hagioreites, Athens, 1959, pp. 197, 199.

From Modern Orthodox Saints 3: St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite by Constantine Cavarnos (Institute For Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, MA 1974) pp. 30-35.