June 25, 2018

Life and Sayings of Saint Nikon of Optina (+ 1931)

St. Nikon of Optina (Feast Day - June 25)

Saint Nikon was born on September 26, 1888, the son of Metrophanes and Vera Belyaev, and was named Nicholas at his Baptism. His parents, who were both very devout, belonged to one of Moscow’s merchant families.

Even in his childhood, there were events that were like signs in his life. In 1888, St. John of Kronstadt visited the Belyaev home. After serving a moleben, he blessed the young mother and gave her his photograph with his autograph and date: “1888, the year of the birth of your son Nicholas.”

The second event was the miraculous healing from a fatal illness. At age five, the boy fell seriously ill. All the doctors’ efforts to save his life were without result. Embracing the body of her cold and breathless child, his mother prayed fervently to Saint Nicholas to save his life. Then, a miracle happened. The dead child came back to life. Later Elder Barsanuphius of Optina especially emphasized the mysterious significance of this event as a clear indication of Nicholas’s calling to monastic life.

Belyaev brothers. Nicholas sits to the far right.

Both Nicholas and his brother John loved going to church and reading the Holy Scriptures and other spiritual books. When John and Nicholas decided to embrace monasticism, they cut up a list of Russia’s monasteries from an old book, and Nicholas was asked to pick one of the strips after praying to God. The strip he selected read, “The Optina Hermitage of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, Kozelsk.” Until that moment, neither of them had ever heard of this monastery.

The brothers traveled to Optina on February 24, 1907 with their mother’s blessing, and were accepted into the monastery on December 9, the commemoration of the Unexpected Joy Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos.

Nicholas was assigned as secretary to Father Barsanuphius, the Superior of the Skete, in October 1908. Except for reading and serving in church, this became his chief monastic obedience for the rest of his life. Saint Barsanuphius (Apr. 1) foresaw that he would become an excellent monk as well as a worthy disciple. Nicholas was devoted to the Elder, and followed his will in all matters. Father Barsanuphius gave him the benefit of his knowledge and experience, guiding him to ascend the spiritual ladder of virtues.

Belyaev Family. Nicholas stands to the far left.

Nicholas was tonsured into the Lesser Schema on May 24, 1915 with the new name Nikon in honor of the martyr Saint Nikon (Sept. 28). He was ordained as a deacon on April 30, 1916, and as a priest on November 3, 1917. Father Nikon could not help but remember the prophecy of Father Barsanuphius made several years before the Russian Revolution. Saint Barsanuphius foresaw times of difficulty for monasteries when Christians would be persecuted and suffer martyrdom. He predicted that he himself would be dead before this happened, and that Father Nikon would live through those terrible times.

Father Nikon was arrested and jailed on September 18, 1919 without the benefit of a trial, just because he was a monk. He was later released and permitted to return to Optina, where the monks had formed a farming cooperative.

The Soviets closed the cooperative in 1923, and the monastery was turned into a museum. Two monks were allowed to stay and work in the museum, while the others were expelled and told to go wherever they wished. Father Nikon was blessed by Father Isaac to serve in the church dedicated to the Kazan Icon and to receive visitors. When people came to him for advice, he always quoted the words of the Optina Elders.

Nicholas in February 1907

The last church at Optina was closed early in 1924, and Father Nikon was obliged to leave in June. He went to live at Kozelsk with Father Cyril Zlenko. There he continued to receive visitors and offer spiritual counsel, sharing money and food with those who were too old, or too sick to work. Father Nikon was a wise spiritual Father, who was able to help people overcome their shame and reveal the sins which had troubled them for a long time. People would leave Father Nikon feeling cleansed and renewed.

Father Nikon, Father Cyril, and Father Agapitus Taub were arrested and thrown into prison in June of 1927. Father Nikon and Father Agapitus were sent to the Kemperpunkt camp, where Father Nikon was assigned the duty of guarding the storehouses.

Saint Nikon wrote to his spiritual children from the camp with cheerful words of encouragement. Although he accepted his imprisonment as God’s will, it was nevertheless difficult for him to endure. When their prison term ended, the two monks were sent into exile at Archangelsk. Before leaving the camp, Father Nikon was examined and found to have tuberculosis. The doctors advised him to request that his place of exile be changed to a place with a more suitable climate.

Novices Nicholas and Ivan Belyaev

He asked the advice of Father Agapitus, who told him not to make such a request. At Archangelsk, Father Nikon lodged in the home of an elderly woman who gave him little rest or peace, who lent him his lodgings under the condition that he perform all the difficult physical work around the house. Every week he had to travel three kilometers to present himself before the authorities in the city of Pinyega.

While shoveling snow at the beginning of Great Lent, Father Nikon’s leg began to hemorrhage, and he developed a high fever. His landlady did not feel any pity for him, but told him that he must leave her house so that the others would not become infected with tuberculosis.

Soon, Father Nikon was visited by Father Peter, who had once lived at Optina. He begged Father Peter to take him in at the village of Valdokurie , which he did. Father Peter cared for the Elder to the best of his ability. For the last two months of his life, Father Nikon received Holy Communion almost every day, and his sufferings seemed to grow less severe. He often dictated letters to his spiritual children to Father Peter. One day, Father Nikon saw Saint Macarius of Optina (Sept. 7) in a vision and told Sister Irene to pull up a chair for him. She was slow to obey him so he said, “Forgive her, Father, for she is not very experienced.”

On June 25, 1931 Father Nikon was so weak that he could not speak. Archimandrite Nikita was called to bring him Communion, and to read the Canon for the Departure of the Soul. That night the Elder fell asleep in the Lord at the age of forty-three.

He was buried according to the monastic rite at the cemetery in Valdokurie. Many of those in exile came to say farewell to him on his final journey. By Divine Providence, there were alone as many as twelve clergymen at Saint Nikon’s funeral. Despite the fact that all were working (sixty miles or more from Valdokurie), they suddenly received a day off—as if they had been given leave to attend the funeral.

The Moscow Patriarchate authorized local veneration of the Optina Elders on June 13,1996, glorifying them for universal veneration on August 7, 2000.

Spiritual Counsels of St. Nikon of Optina

Counsel to those living in the world

“If you are a layperson, live among laypeople and do their works…” This should be understood like this: Every form of Christian life has its own virtues and occupations. The works of those whose manner of life differs from ours are inaccessible to us. For example, a mother with nursing infants cannot go to church every day to all the services or read long prayers at home. Doing so would only cause confusion, and even sin, if for example while the mother is gone the child is left to itself and injures itself or makes mischief as it grows.

She cannot completely divest herself of personal property for the sake of her own podvig, because she is obligated to support and feed the children. She has a duty to please God by the deeds that are natural to her: patient endurance of the burdens of family life, prayer and almsgiving according to her strength, teaching and raising her children, keeping the fasts, going to church on feast days, abstaining from murmuring, gossip, etc.

On talents and abilities

By talents we mean not only wealth, education, or fame. Talents are good conditions for salvation of the soul. Each of us has his own given talents. Poverty, sickness, various sorrows—these are all talents.

From the worldly point of view, talents mean scholarly, musical, or artistic abilities. They are not sinful; it is good when such abilities are combined with a Christian life, and when they are dedicated to God.

If an ability prevents us from living in a godly manner and saving our souls, then it should be abandoned. It is better to be a little stupider and simpler, but to be saved. What benefit is it to you if you gain the whole world but destroy your soul?

On sorrows

“A life without sorrows is a sign of God’s disapproval. We should not envy those who live without sorrows, for the end of their sorrowlessness is grievious.”

“We must not boldly throw ourselves into the abyss of sorrows; this would be prideful self-reliance. But when sorrows come of their own accord do not be afraid of them; do not think that they came by accident or circumstance. No, they are allowed by God’s unfathomable Providence.”

“The fruit of sorrows is in the purification of the soul and its spiritual state. It must be preserved.”

“There is not, never has been, nor ever will be a place on the earth without sorrows. A place without sorrows can only be in the heart, when the Lord is in within it.”

On vainglory

We shouldn’t be vainglorious about health, or beauty, or any other gifts of God… All that is earthly is inconstant—both beauty and health. We have to thank the Lord—thank Him with humility, recognizing our unworthiness, and not be vainglorious about anything.

Grave of St. Nikon

When you feel an aversion for someone

When you feel an aversion for people, or anger, or irritation against them, you have to pray for them, regardless of whether they are guilty or not. Pray in the simplicity of your heart, as the holy fathers counsel: “Save O Lord and have mercy on Thy servant (name), and help me, a sinner, through his/her holy prayers!" The heart will become peaceful from this prayer, although not always right away.

On prayer

“On our own, without Divine help, we are not even capable of praying. We can not pray as needed, and we do not know how to pray or what to pray for.”

“All the time, no matter what you do, whether you are sitting, walking, or working, say with your heart, “Lord have mercy!”

“Everything is gained by prayer. You are only approaching the first step, you haven’t yet ascended it, only approach it and you still have to enter the door, but you can’t go in by any effort if God’s mercy is not there. That is why you first of all need to ask, “Open unto me the doors of Thy compassion, O Lord!”

“When you are in sorrows or despondency and heavy temptation has found you, keep repeating this: “O Lord spare, save, and have mercy on Thy slave!” and the sorrow will be eased.”

“Try not to skip your prayer rule, morning or evening. But if you skip it sometime for some reason, especially if it is due to circumstances beyond your control, do not be upset, but humbly reproach yourself for your weakness; for self-reproach is an unseen ascent, while getting upset, in the words of Elder Ambrose, is not listed anywhere in the virtues.”

On passions

“Victory over the passions is accomplished through God’s power. Our feeble powers are not enough for this. We need to be humbly aware of this and with humility attract God’s mercy and help to ourselves.”