August 11, 2020

Saint Nephon of Constantinople as a Model for our Lives

By Protopresbyter George Papavarnava

Saint Nephon lived from the middle of the fifteenth to the early sixteenth century. He came from the Peloponnese, from noble parents who were especially pious and virtuous, Manuel and Mary. His name was Nicholas and during his monastic tonsuring he received the name of Nephon. His first Elder was the monk Anthony. After his repose, he became subservient to the virtuous Athonite Hieromonk Zacharias, together with whom he settled in the Holy Monastery of the Theotokos in Ochrid. However, when the Hieromonk Zacharias was elected Metropolitan of Ochrid, Nephon left for Mount Athos and settled in the Holy Monastery of Saint Dionysios. He was then called by the Church to become Metropolitan of Thessaloniki, and in fact ascended the throne of that Holy Metropolis. He was then elected Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch. His Patriarchate was always revered, but, as is always the case with the Saints, he was very much fought against by the devil and his contrivements, thus he was slandered and removed from his throne twice. He took refuge in Wallachia and from there back to the Holy Monastery of Saint Dionysios of Mount Athos. The last time he was called to the Ecumenical throne he did not go, but remained in the Holy Monastery, where he wanted to live the last years of his life and end his earthly life as a simple monk, and as a model of humility. While he hid his identity in order to avoid the praise and the glory of the people, Christ revealed him through the Theotokos. Then his fellow monks were amazed at his simplicity and humility, and he became for them a shining example and model of life.

His life and conduct give us the opportunity to highlight the following:

First, apart from the external life of every human being, which can be seen, there is also the internal life, which is hidden from the eyes of human beings. Only God knows it, who "searches the hearts and reins" and knows all the secrets of men, since everything is "uncovered and laid open before His eyes". Also, the Saints, who received the gift from God to have "double vision", that is, the external and the internal, know it to a certain degree. That is, to see people externally and at the same time to understand their thoughts, their mental images, their perceptions, their internal situation. There is therefore the external man and the "internal man", the "hidden man of the heart", which is hidden from the eyes of most. However, to a certain extent, the inner life of each one is perceived by the spiritual fragrance and the stench which he emits with his words and deeds. In other words, no matter how much a person tries to hide, he cannot achieve it completely, because he is "betrayed" by the way he behaves, especially during the difficult and critical moments of his life, such as with sickness and death, where it cannot be easily hidden or faked, and thus it is revealed who he is in reality.

Humble people, who hide diligently in order to avoid the praise and glory of men, are finally revealed and glorified by God, who glorifies those who glorify Him.

Secondly, the high peaks of the mountains are "conquered" after a persistent and painful struggle. But after the climb to the top, the joy of the climber is so great that it makes him forget the fatigue and the difficulties. There are, however, some other peaks, the conquest of which causes greater joy and spiritual rejoicing, and these are the peaks of the virtues, virtues that are not mere emotions, but which receive the fruit of the Spirit. When we are baptized and in order to keep the Holy Spirit we receive at our Baptism, we must toil daily, exercising in asceticism and shedding tears, sweat and blood.

The Holy Spirit before Baptism does not dwell in the heart of man, but acts externally, while in the heart of man "nests" the evil spirit, that is, the devil. For this reason and in the ritual of the exorcisms performed before Baptism, the priest asks God to cast out the evil spirit from the heart of man. He says: "Drive out from him every evil and unclean spirit, hiding and lurking in his heart". After the Mystery of Baptism and Anointing, the Holy Spirit comes and dwells in man and enlightens his mind and heart, which is why Baptism is also called Illumination. In order for the Grace of the Holy Spirit to remain in the existence of man, in his soul and body, it takes a lifelong effort, a struggle "until the end". That is why it is necessary for the believer to live with repentance, which is called by the Fathers of the Church a "second Baptism", because with sincere repentance the Spirit returns into the heart of man, with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, who departs when we consciously sin and do not repent.

Therefore, the conquest of the highest peaks of the spiritual life is done with pain and toil, and is not a characteristic of the cowards and the well-to-do, but of all those who possess spiritual courage and valor, who do not abandon the spiritual struggle, but continue to face the difficulties and adversities with patience, courage and trust in the love of God. Thus, they reach the high peak of the empirical knowledge of God, who is known, as Saint Silouan the Athonite says, by the Holy Spirit.

In order to ascend, however, to heaven, one must first descend "to the lowest parts of the earth", that is, to the depths of "extreme humility", according to the example of Christ, who was humble until death, even death on the Cross, for which God exalted Him. In other words, the ascent to God is done through the descent, that is, humility, according to the example of Christ, the Theotokos and the Saints.

The cultivation of the inner man, with effort and pain, bears the fruit of humility, which raises man to the peak, that is, to the glory of the splendor and Kingdom above, in the Light of the Triune God.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.