May 16, 2015

Saint Nicholas I Mystikos, Patriarch of Constantinople (+ 925)

St. Nicholas the Mystikos (Feast Day - May 16)


Nicholas departed this life of shadows,
Entering a land of shadowless light.

Saint Nicholas the Mystikos is considered one of the most remarkable patriarchs of the Ecumenical Throne, who played an important role in the public and ecclesiastical life of the Roman Empire of Byzantium.

Born in 852, he came from an illustrious Roman family of southern Italy and was a relative of Patriarch Photios, who was his teacher and role model. Having received a remarkable education, and having been a classmate of the Emperor Leo IV the Wise (886-912), he was hence honored by the emperor with the office of "mystikos," serving as his personal consultant,* adjacent to his relations with Patriarch Photios.

He was a successor of Anthony II to the Patriarchal Throne, and continued the policy of Saint Photios to reorganize the Ecumenical Patriarchate which consisted of 624 Metropolises and Dioceses, and raise its influence, in particular through missionary activity to the people at the northern border of the empire.

The first period of his patriarchate (901-907) was terminated due to the notorious issue of the fourth marriage of Emperor Leo. The emperor wished to enter a fourth marriage with his mistress Zoe Karbonopsina, to make lawful the rights of his succession to the fruit of their relationship, the future Constantine VII, since he was not been able to bear children with his previous three wives. Nicholas excluded the possibility of a fourth marriage, but allowed for the baptism of Constantine, on the condition that Zoe would be removed from the Palace. Leo, having accepted this condition, restored Zoe back into the Palace three days after the baptism, and was married to her with the blessing of the priest Thomas. Nicholas did not recognize this marriage, he excommunicated the priest Thomas, and forbid the emperor entry into the church. For this the emperor had Nicholas removed from his Throne and shut in the Monastery of Galakrinon in the region of Chalcedon, although he managed to submit a written resignation from the Patriarchal Throne (February 1, 907). Euthymios came to the Patriarchal Throne, and accepted the fourth marriage recognizing it "according to oikonomia".

During the period of his illness and before his death, Emperor Leo VI requested the return of Nicholas to the Patriarchal Throne, and his wish was fulfilled by his brother and successor Alexander (912-913).

Euthymios was removed from the Patriarchal Throne, but upon the return of Nicholas there were significant reactions. A protracted struggle with the supporters of Euthymios followed, which did not end until the new Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos promulgated the Tomos of Union on July 9, 920. It was at this time that a synod condemned the fourth marriage of Emperor Leo, proclaiming it uncanonical.

In the meantime Alexander had died in 913 after provoking a war with Bulgaria, and the underage Constantine VII succeeded to the Throne. Nicholas Mystikos became the leading member of the seven-man regency for the young emperor, and as such had to face the advance of Simeon I of Bulgaria on Constantinople. Nicholas negotiated a peaceful settlement, crowned Simeon emperor of the Bulgarians in a makeshift ceremony outside Constantinople, and arranged for the marriage of Simeon's daughter to Constantine VII.

This unpopular concession undermined his position, and by March 914, with the support of the magistros John Eladas, Zoe Karbonopsina overthrew Nicholas and replaced him as foremost regent. She revoked the agreement with Simeon, prompting the renewal of hostilities with Bulgaria. With her main supporter Leo Phokas crushingly defeated by the Bulgarians at the Battle of Acheloos in 917, Zoe started to lose ground. Embarrassed by further failures, she and her supporters were supplanted in 919 by the admiral Romanos Lekapenos, who married his daughter Helena Lekapene to Constantine VII and finally advanced to the Imperial Throne in 920. The Patriarch Nicholas came to be one of the strongest supporters of the new emperor, and took the brunt of renewed negotiations with the Bulgarians until his death in 925.

The letters of Nicholas to Simeon remain as outstanding documents of the political theory and practice of the Roman Empire of Byzantium. The patriarch presented his political theory and urged Simeon to respect the peace between the members of the same ecclesiastical body and avoid bloodshed between spiritual brothers.

Saint Nicholas reposed on 11 May 925, was buried in the Monastery of Galakrinon, and has been remembered by the Church as one of its greatest patriarchs who sat on the Ecumenical Throne. He was proclaimed a saint and is celebrated on May 16th.

His most important works are his Letters, which show the personality and education of this great patriarch. He also wrote a homily on the sack of Thessaloniki by the Arabs in 904. Finally, during his patriarchate, the Menologion of Saints Lives by Symeon the Translator was ordered.


* Mystikos is often mistranslated in English as "mystic." A more literal translation of mystikos would be "secretary."