June 20, 2016

The Life and Teachings of Saint Nicholas Cabasilas

By Anthony Papantoniou

St Nicholas Cabasilas and his background

On 20th of June, the Orthodox Church commemorates the feast of our Father among the Saints, St Nicholas Cabasilas. St Nicholas was born in the city of Thessalonica around 1320-23 into a prestigious family. It has been thought in the past that he was born in 1300, however recent and more accurate research places his birth in the early twenties of the fourteenth century, perhaps in 1322. This is witnessed by the fact that in 1351, a letter addressed to Anna Palaeologos indicates that Cabasilas had not yet reached the age of thirty. Similarly, the estimation of the year of his death varies – some believe that it took place in 1371, while others argue for 1380. The year that is most probable is 1391, which means that St Nicholas would have seen the fall of his native Thessalonica to the Turks in 1387. Although St Nicholas’ paternal name was Chamaetos (the rampant eagle), he preferred to be known by his mother’s family name, Cabasilas. The aristocratic family name of Cabasilas was well-known in both the political and ecclesiastical life of Constantinople.

Furthermore, St Nicholas’ uncle Nilus Cabasilas, a prominent theologian, succeeded St Gregory Palamas as Archbishop of Thessalonica. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Nicholas chose to be called by this prestigious name, although at times he is known by both names together. St Nicholas received his early education in his native city and went to Constantinople for further studies. The fourteenth century marked a turbulent era in Byzantium where cultural, intellectual and religious flowering co-existed alongside political unrest. This is seen explicitly in the bitter social struggles and civil wars which raged through the Empire as a result of the conflict that ensued between the rightful heir of the imperial throne – John V Palaeologos and the co-Emperor John IV Cantacuzenos. In 1342, when Cabasilas returned to Thessalonica, he found himself in the midst of civil war between the nobility who had sided with the co-emperor John Cantacuzenos and the zealots. In 1345, Cantacuzenos sent Cabasilas together with his compatriot Gregory Pharmaki as envoys to his son Manuel II in the city of Beroia, in order to reach a compromise, yet another uprising broke out and Cabasilas narrowly escaped being killed.

In 1347, once an agreement was finally reached, Cantacuzenos gave Cabasilas and his friend Demetrios Kydones the position of chief advisors, which indicated the beginning of Cabasilas’ political career. In the same year, Cabasilas accompanied St Gregory Palamas to Thessalonica for his enthronement, however, as Palamas was not accepted, both Palamas and the young Cabasilas went to Mount Athos, where they remained for a year. In 1353, St Nicholas, still a layperson, was chosen as one of three candidates for the election of the new Patriarch of Constantinople. Cabasilas was not elected, possibly because of his affiliation with the Emperor Cantacuzenos. Nonetheless, this shows the high intellectual and spiritual qualities Cabasilas possessed, even though he was just over the age of thirty.

In 1354, the conflict which continued between the two co-ruling emperors (John V Paleologos and John Cantacuzenos), ended with the abdication of Cantacuzenos who entered a monastery. Cabasilas also retired from political life but began his ecclesiastical career, working closely with the Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos (1353-1355, 1364-1376). In 1362, Cabasilas’ father died and a year later his uncle, Nilus Cabasilas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, likewise. Cabasilas’ mother also entered the Monastery of Saint Theodora. Although it has been argued that Cabasilas was a layperson, it has now been established that Cabasilas entered the Manganon Monastery near Constantinople, where he became a monk and most likely ordained. The belief that Cabasilas was ordained to the priesthood is strengthened through the witness of his own works, which do not simply signify liturgical knowledge, but liturgical experience. His expression presupposes “priestly qualities” (κληρική ιδιότητα). It was thought that St Nicholas succeeded his uncle Nilus Cabasilas as Archbishop of Thessalonica, but this is very unlikely because there is no historical evidence to support such a position.

The tradition, which affirms that St Nicholas was elected Archbishop of Thessalonica, goes back to the sixteenth century. It is sometimes stated that Nicholas was confused with his uncle Nilus, especially since Nilus was also named Nicholas before his ordination. There is one historical portrait of Cabasilas, which depicts him wearing hierarchical liturgical vestments. This is a fresco found in the Chapel of the Forerunner in the Church of the Protaton in Karyes on Mount Athos that dates from 1526. A list of all the bishops of Thessalonica, published in the Greek Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics volume 6 (Athens, 1965) indicates that Cabasilas was archbishop.

There is a slight complication with the dates. Nilus held the see between 1360-61, while St Nicholas occupied the throne during 1361-63. However, the successor to the see between 1363-1371 is unknown. More accurate information places Nilus’ episcopate during 1361-63 and not 1360-1. Furthermore, the hagiologion of the Metropolis of Thessalonica commemorates St Nicholas Cabasilas as Archbishop of Thessalonica, although at his official canonization on 19 July 1983, this is not stated. The problem lies in the lack of historical facts to support St Nicholas’ consecration. Even his correspondence up until 1391, where Cabasilas received epistles by Manuel II Paleologos and Joseph Bryennios make no mention of his episcopate. Nonetheless, whether or not Cabasilas became archbishop should remain an open question. If this icon portrays St Nicholas as a hierarch, even though he may have not been consecrated, they are perhaps symbolic in order to honor Cabasilas as one of the greatest liturgical mystics of the Church.

St Nicholas is undoubtedly the last of the greatest Byzantine theologians. The fourteenth century was well known for the movement of humanism which had become a prominent and dominant influence among the intellectuals, attracting many personalities both in the West and the East, including St Nicholas Cabasilas. Humanism affirmed an absolute anthropocentrism where the human person was perceived as ‘the center of the universe’ and ‘the measure of all things’. This did not imply that God did not exist, but rather that the divine and human realms were disparate, with humans being the ultimate source and principle of their own greatness, possessing within themselves all qualities of power and virtue.

The theological tradition of the Church never denied that human beings possessed greatness; the Church Fathers strongly affirmed that it was the divine Creator who sowed this seed of eminence within human nature. The glory of the human person created in the image and according to the likeness of God was ‘the crown of creation’. St Nicholas Cabasilas, following the Fathers of the Church, exclaimed that the human person’s true life does not essentially lie within oneself, but in Jesus Christ. For Cabasilas, Christ incarnate becomes the source and criterion, ‘the center of the universe’ and ‘the measure of all things.’ Humanity is joined to Christ and consequently receives an even greater and everlasting prominence through this union; thus the life in Christ begins, where human beings become partakers of the divine nature by grace.

St Nicholas Cabasilas was a gifted writer, composing many works ranging from political and social issues to theological, philosophical and scientific treatises. His style of writing was renowned for its liveliness and persuasion. His readers were mesmerized by his powerful and graceful expressions and especially for the authenticity of his ethos and religious phronema. This admiration by others is clearly shown in a letter written to Nicholas Cabasilas by Gregory Akindynos who writes:

"If I, who love wisdom and virtue excessively, though I do not possess them, (if I) do not both love and admire the man who possesses them more than anyone else and who collects them most diligently, I shall blame myself for unfitting character and judgment. Thus it is that I love and justly admire Cabasilas who possesses these (qualities), and you, the beloved, are not unaware of this either. I am also enamored of your letters which are altogether so well composed that – though I would not say, of course, that their music moves stones, for I fear that this would be contrived – a man seems to be somehow an irrational animal, if he is not captivated by them, or if he does not realize that in this case captivity is quite to the advantage of the captured…"[1]

St Nicholas Cabasilas not only influenced his contemporaries, but also later generations – Symeon, the Archbishop of Thessalonica (1410-29) and George Scholarios were among others who praised him. Among the theological works, St Nicholas had composed a polemic treatise against Nikephoras Gregoras, who was an opponent of the hesychast movement, in which he defends the teaching of St Gregory Palamas and many panegyric homilies that are devoted to the Passion and Ascension of Christ, to the Three Hierarchs, Sts Demetrios, Nicholas, Andrew the Neomartyr and Theodora. He has also written sermons on the Nativity, the Annunciation and the Dormition of the Theotokos. The only exegetical work composed by Nicholas deals with the vision of Ezekiel, while there are short tracts interpreting Gospel passages and liturgical hymns.

The major theological works written by St Cabasilas are A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, explaining the symbolism of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in 52 chapters. The liturgy for Cabasilas is the sacrificial body of Christ. This Eucharistic sacrifice is not a mere symbol but a reality; it is ‘the Body and Blood of Christ, which to the Church are true food and drink’[2]. Through the initiation into the mysteries and the participation in the liturgy, humanity and all creation are transfigured, they become θεοειδείς (God-like) and χριστομίμητοι (imitators of Christ). These are the central themes in Cabasilas’ masterpiece The Life in Christ.

It is important to note that St Nicholas does not formulate new dogmas. Rather by presupposing them, he brings together the entire ecclesial tradition from St Paul and St John the Apostle, through to Ignatius, the Alexandrians, the Cappadocians, Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas in his own unique way, expressing its mystical and experiential dimension. His theological vision is not mere abstract speculation but rather a way of life in Christ here and now within the sacramental life of the Church, where Christ unites Himself to us, indeed He comes ‘closer to us than our own heart.[3]

The concept of ‘double Christ’ – Salvation through Jesus

The ultimate purpose of humanity is, according to Cabasilas, union with God. The first created humans were able to commune directly with their Creator, but with the fall this blessing was lost as a consequence of the misuse of their free will and the image and likeness of God within them was blurred. Thus the ultimate purpose of history is according to Cabasilas, the union of human beings with God. This re-unification of God and humanity was achieved through the incarnation, life, passion and resurrection of the God-man. This divine economy belongs to all three persons of the Triadic Godhead, for Cabasilas writes: “Even though it is by one single act of loving-kindness that the Trinity has saved our race - it is the Father who is reconciled, the Son who reconciles, while the Holy Spirit is bestowed as gift on those who have become friends”. However, it is the par excellence work of Christ who transfigured and restored all living beings to their original splendor – Christ became the new Adam, giving the fullness of life as a potentiality (δυνάμει) to all.

According St Nicholas there are three obstacles which separate God and human beings – nature, sin and death. The first barrier that separated the divine and human is abolished through the incarnation where Christ partakes in humanity. Thus the new Adam who possesses two natures – the divine and human - united within His one Person is the ‘double Christ’ or 'διπλούς Ιησούς'[4]. Cabasilas writes:

"Our Lord not only assumed our body, but also the soul, the intelligence, the will, all that is proper to human nature, in order to be able to unite Himself with the whole of our being, and penetrate into our entire being… Between Him and humans, everything is common except sin…"[5]

The remaining two barriers are eliminated in succession by Christ’s death on the cross and by His glorious resurrection. With these obstacles removed ‘there is nothing’ then ‘which prevents the Holy Spirit from being poured out upon all flesh’[6]. Therefore the distance separating the divine and human realms has been bridged through the person of Christ, who inaugurates a new creation, ‘a new human ontology’[7]; Christ as the ‘first born over all creation’ (Col. 1:15) ‘constitutes the real progenitor of a new humanity’[8].

It is Jesus the God-man who through His whole life and compassionate works reveals the Godhead to the world and manifests the true nature of the human person, which has been restored to its original beauty. Cabasilas states: ‘From the beginning our nature has as its aim immortality; but it only achieved this later in the body of the Savior who, when He had risen from the dead to immortal life, became the leader of immortality for our race’[9]. However, for St Nicholas, the flesh of Christ is none other than the Church in which the life in Christ is lived by the faithful and salvation becomes a concrete and continuous reality. It is within the ecclesial body of Christ that humans are transfigured spiritually.

This metamorphosis of humanity is the beginning of the life in Christ that is inaugurated through the mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation and is sustained through the participation of the heavenly liturgy and especially the Eucharist. ‘O wonder of wonders,’ cries Cabasilas ‘that Christ’s spirit is united to our spirit, His will is one with ours, His flesh becomes our flesh, His blood flows in our veins. What spirit is ours when it is possessed by His, our will when led captive by His, our clay when set on fire by His flame!’[10]. According to our Church Father, the sacraments function as new modes of existence in which human beings are united to Christ and through Christ become Christ-like. Thus the process to salvation and deification begins – it is nothing else but the life in Christ, which ‘originates in this life and arises from it. It is perfected, however, in the life to come, when we shall have reached that last day. It cannot attain perfection in men’s souls in this life, nor even in that which is to come without already having begun here.’[11]

The contributions of Baptism, Holy Chrism and the Eucharist to the Life in Christ

In the same way that Christ was born within history taking flesh from the Virgin, He is born a second time within every human person through baptism. Simultaneously, man also is born again through the baptismal waters that graft him into the side of Christ. The whole of the human person’s biological being participates through baptism in the death and resurrection of Christ thus becoming a new person, a new creation. In Christ, the human person realizes their fullness and potential. Human beings on the biological level possess no form or name; they are simply shapeless ‘matter.’ However, when they descend into the baptismal font as ‘shapeless and formless matter’ they arise out ‘meeting the beautiful form’ of Christ.[12]

According to Cabasilas, Christ gives ‘form, shape and definition’ to man’s ‘shapeless and undefined life.’[13] As a result the union and communion of man with Christ begins, and intentionally leads to theosis or deification. The nature of man ‘assumes the form – that is, the structure and mode of functioning – of the deified human nature of Christ.’[14] For ‘Christ did not merely bring the light to the world’ through His incarnation and resurrection but ‘created within the human organism which He assumed, those new dimensions and functions by which man is able to assimilate the divine life.’[15] In the words of Cabasilas – ‘when we come up from the water we bear on our souls, on our heads, on our eyes in our very inward parts, on all our members the Savior himself, free from any taint of sin and delivered from corruption, just as He when He rose again, and appeared to His disciples, and was taken up, and just as He will be when he comes again to demand the return of His treasure.’[16]

While Baptism sets human persons free from sin and reconciles them to God and indeed makes them one with God – opening the eyes of their soul to perceive the divine ray and to receive divine knowledge – the sacrament of Holy Chrism ‘activates the spiritual energies’ within them. ‘Christ the Lord himself was anointed, not by receiving chrism poured on the head, but by receiving the Holy Spirit. He is not only Christ (the Anointed One) but also Chrism (the anointing).’[17] Through the union of Christ and humanity, Christ as Chrism spiritually anoints human beings who in turn receive the gifts of the Spirit. However, it is through the Lord ‘that we receive the participation in the Holy Spirit.’[18] The gifts of the Spirit are many and are apportioned to each individual to the measure the Spirit wills. Cabasilas states that not all who have been initiated into this mystery perceive immediately the gifts they have received because of their immature age; others may have been unprepared or have failed to give effect to their preparation.

He admonishes his readers with the words of St Paul: ‘Do not neglect the gift that you have’ (1 Tim. 4:14). St Nicholas argues that the Spirit imparts His gifts abundantly on human beings, but there must be a synergetic co-operation on their behalf with the grace of God – ‘there is need of effort and vigilance on the part of those who wish to have these things active in their souls.’[19] Thus ‘if one of the righteous appears to excel in love, in purity and self-control, in abundant humility, or piety, or in any such thing above what is common to man, it ought to be ascribed to the most divine Chrismation. We should believe that the gift was bestowed on him when he partook of the Mystery and that it became active afterwards.’[20] After speaking about the sacrament of Chrism that makes us partakers of Christ who is the Anointed One, Cabasilas describes the Eucharist, which is the greatest of all the Mysteries. Through Baptism we are washed in Christ, while through Holy Chrism we are anointed with Christ.

In the Eucharistic celebration, we partake of Christ as food and drink. The Eucharist for St Nicholas is ‘the perfection of the life in Christ; for those who attain it there is nothing lacking for the blessedness which they seek. It is no longer death and the tomb and a participation in the better life which we receive, but the Risen One Himself.’[21] However, all three sacraments are interdependent – ‘the first Mystery (Baptism) clearly needs the middle one (Chrismation), and that in turn stands in need of the final Mystery.’[22] The Eucharist is the sacred feast in which we partake of Christ’s deifying flesh and blood that impart the remission of sins and the inheriting of the future kingdom. It is interesting that Cabasilas emphasizes ‘the idea of continuity rather than frequency in receiving the Eucharist.’ This is because the sacramental life is not merely ‘a series of separate emotional experiences…’ but a whole way of life ‘…whose very reality demands constant sharing in the sacramental mystery that incorporates us in Christ.’[23] Thus through this heavenly banquet to which Christ himself invites us, we come to dwell in Christ and simultaneously Christ dwells in us.

Cabasilas asks ‘when Christ dwells in us, what else is needed, or what benefit escapes us? When we dwell in Christ, what else will we desire? He dwells in us, and He is our dwelling place. How blessed are we by reason of this dwelling place, how blessed are we that we have become a dwelling for such a one as He!’[24]

For St Nicholas ‘this is the virtue and grace of the Eucharistic meal for those who draw near it with a clean heart, and who keep themselves from all evil afterwards; with those who are thus prepared and well disposed, nothing prevents Christ from uniting Himself intimately.’[25] He writes elsewhere that ‘this is a great mystery, for this is the celebrated wedding, during which the divine Bridegroom unites himself with His Church as with His virgin bride.’[26]

As a consequence of the union of Christ with humanity brought about by the sacraments of the Church, the human person’s biological dimensions and functions are changed into functions of the Body of Christ. However, this does not imply that the former man has been destroyed, rather that he has been transfigured. This Christification of the being of the human person is not a mere symbol; Christ ‘makes these functions His own ("assimilates" them), He mixes and mingles Himself with all our psychosomatic faculties, without confusion but nevertheless in a real way.’[27] Cabasilas states:

‘Blending and mingling Himself with us in this way throughout our whole being, He makes us His own body and becomes to us what a head is to the members.’ Thus ‘the soul and the body and all the faculties immediately become spiritual, for our soul is mingled with His soul, our body with His body, and our blood with His blood.’[28]

The life in Christ is essentially the life of love, for ‘the grace of the mysteries implants true love into the souls of those who have been initiated.’[29] There is only one law – the law of love that ‘demands no arduous nor afflicting work, nor loss of money; it does not involve shame, nor any dishonor, nor anything worse; it puts no obstacle in the pursuit of any art or profession. The general keeps the power to command, the laborer can work the ground, the artisan can carry on with his occupation. There is no reason to retire into solitude, to eat unusual food, to be inadequately clothed, or endanger one’s health, or to resort to any other special endeavor; it suffices to give oneself wholly to meditation and to remain always within oneself without depriving the world of one’s talents.’[30]

For Cabasilas ‘God is present everywhere and fills all things’, He penetrates into the daily lives of human beings, who go about their daily activities, which are continuously sanctified by the grace of God. Through this, the admonition of St Paul ‘whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him’ (Col. 3:17) is followed. Thus even these may be done ‘to the glory of God' (1 Cor. 10:31). St Nicholas writes, ‘At every hour invoke Him, He Who is the object of our meditations, in order that our spirit may be always absorbed in Him and our attention each day centered on Him. To call upon Him there is no need for any lengthy preparation in prayer, nor for some special place, nor for reiterated groans. In effect He is nowhere absent; it is impossible that He should not be in us, for all those who seek Him He is closer than our own heart.’[31]

Even though the thought of Cabasilas emphasizes that the life in Christ is lived here and now, his orientation is towards the eschaton for it cannot be attained in the life to come if it has not begun here and now in this life. We may characterize this aspect of Cabasilas’ thought as inaugurated eschatology, which is realized within the life of the Church. The kingdom of God is present but not identified as the Church. Rather through the sacramental life of the Church we receive as a foretaste the majesty of the kingdom to come.

Thus ‘the body of the historical Jesus, which is the bread of the Eucharist and the body of the Church, will shine forth at the second coming as the great cosmic body of Christ the Savior.’[32] Cabasilas writes, ‘this bread, this body, to which people in this life draw near in order to carry it away from the altar, is that which in the age to come will appear to all eyes upon the clouds and in one instant of time will display its splendor to the east and to the west like lightning.’[33] Christ is the fullness and culmination of all things past, present and to come. Therefore ‘the risen body of the incarnate Creator will shine forth as the real center of universal attraction which will draw all things to itself.’[34]


We have briefly examined the theology of St Nicholas Cabasilas. The central theme of his thought is our union with God that has been realized through the incarnation, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ was born historically uniting humanity to his divinity and He is born again within the being of the human person through the mysteries of the Church. Indeed, human beings also receive a new birth by ‘putting on Christ’ and thus they are transfigured and become Christ-like, however without losing their identity or greatness. Rather, they realize the fullness of true humanity through Christ. The image and likeness of God that belongs to their nature is restored to its original beauty and glory. Through the mystery of the Eucharist, human beings receive continuously the flesh and blood of Christ, which gives them everlasting life, for Christ is life itself. However, there must be a synergy between God and human persons in order that the life in Christ is sustained and brings forth fruit. For St Nicholas, the life in Christ is the prefiguration and the foretaste of theosis, which is nothing else than the vision of God ‘face to face!’


[1] Cited in Letters of Gregory Akindynos, trans. Angela Constantinides Hero (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1983), 61-63.
[2] St Nicholas Cabasilas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, trans. J.M. Hussey and P.M. McNulty (London: S.P.C.K., 1978), 91.
[3] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, trans. Carmino J. de Catanzaro (Crestwood, New York: SVS Press, 1998), 192.
[4] Furthermore, this concept of ‘double Christ’ refers to Christ’s second ‘birth’ within the human person, which is realized through the sacrament of Baptism and Chrismation; this will be seen further on in this paper when we will treat the mysteries.
[5] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 122.
[6] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 105.
[7] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person,
trans. Norman Russell (Crestwood, New York: SVS Press, 1987), 112.
[8] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 112.
[9] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 190.
[10] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 23.
[11] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 43.
[12] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 79.
[13] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 68.
[14] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 122.
[15] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 122.
[16] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 62.
[17] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 104.
[18] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 106.
[19] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 109.
[20] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 109.
[21] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 113.
[22] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 114.
[23] John Meyendorff, St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, 138.
[24] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 115.
[25] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 122.
[26] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 123.
[27] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 123.
[28] Cited in Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 123.
[29] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 224.
[30] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 173-74.
[31] St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 191-92.
[32] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 157.
[33] Cited in Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 157.
[34] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ, 158.

Source: Greek Australian Vema, English Section, June and July 2009 Issues.