Monday, 14 July 2014

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite and a life of purpose

Today we celebrated the memory of one of my favourite Fathers of the Church, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite. His written work, which is extensive, is characterised by a wonderful talent for synthesis. When reading his works, one hears not only the voice of St. Nicodemos himself, but that of St. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Nilus, and other pillars of the faith. The Hagiorite was blessed with an extraordinary memory, and quotes at length from these texts which he knew by heart, word-for-word. His works are therefore a great entry point for anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with the wider patristic corpus.

What I particularly love about St. Nicodemos is his insistence that everything be done with purpose. The Kollyvades movement, for example, of which he was a part, opposed the practice of conducting memorial services on Sundays, the day of the Resurrection, instead of the Sabbath (Saturday), when we remember those who have gone to their rest in the Lord, and of course the Lord’s own burial and descent into Hades. For St. Nicodemos, the moving of memorials from Saturday to Sunday undermined the theological significance of both those days, as well as the memorial service itself. Not only this, but the habit of moving things to the nearest Sunday so as to accommodate those who do not attend church during the week risks making Christianity a Sunday-only religion, rather than an integral part of ones daily life. Indeed, in his Christian Morality, the saint laments how laypeople in his day only attended church twice or thrice a week, rather than twice a day (for Vespers and Matins) as had always been the norm for pious Christians since the early Church.

Yet this tendency is also what makes St. Nicodemos, like many of the other Fathers, unpalatable for some modern readers. They find him overly harsh for calling condemnable everyday things that most of us consider perfectly harmless. He is dismissed as a fanatic, a monastic zealot, not suitable for lay readers. Yet his apparent fanaticism stems precisely from this insistence that all we do must have purpose and meaning. It is the very antithesis of the pharisaism and legalism of which he, and those like him, are often accused. A Pharisee is one who does things for their own sake, without care for or to the detriment of their actual purpose or meaning. St. Nicodemos strict approach, however, stems from his desire to avoid precisely such an empty and meaningless observance of ritual and rules. For him, conducting memorials on Sunday for the sake of convenience, for example, is a pharisaic act, reducing the memorial to an empty ritual by removing it from its theological context.

As men of constant prayer, the Church Fathers made no real distinction between the religious and secular. God must stand at the centre of all aspects of life. For this reason, St. Nicodemos’ insistence on purpose extends beyond what we normally think of as exclusively religious. He condemns, for example, the playing of board games, secular music and dancing. He does this not because they are in and of themselves wicked things, but because they are distractions and a waste of time, time given to us for repentance, for drawing nearer to God, time which we will never be able to regain once lost, precious hours, minutes and seconds those who died without repentance would give anything to get back. Had he lived today, I am confident the longest chapters in Christian Morality would have dealt with all the time wasted on YouTube and social media. If something cannot bring us closer to God, then it is void of purpose, and if it is void of purpose it is ultimately destructive, no matter how benign a thing it may seem to be in and of itself. If we are offended by such admonitions, it is ultimately because we view the call to repentance, the call to a closer relationship with Christ, as something negative. Rather than seeing this as a positive call to lay aside our earthly cares to make room for something deeper and better, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, we staunchly cling to the various comforts and addictions from which we derive temporal pleasure, and interpret any attempt to call us out of our complacency as an unwarranted attack on our person.

The extent to which we apply his words to our own lives is naturally a matter of personal discretion and requires the discernment of one’s spiritual father. As with any spiritual text, including the Divine Scriptures, caution is needed, as many fall prey to “temptations from the right”, attempting to do too much too soon, burning out and falling into despair or faithlessness as a result. Nonetheless, when we analyse our reaction to his words, we see that they become a mirror in which we can catch a glimpse of our true spiritual condition. When the saint calls us to this higher, more purposeful way of life, it is one thing to answer “I’m not ready” or “I’m too weak” in honest humility and quite another to proudly dismiss the call as foolishness or backward extremism. We seem to forget that it was not a zealot monk, but the Lord Himself, who said, “If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.”

May the prayers and wisdom of our holy father Nicodemos help us lead a life of greater purpose and to meet the call to turn to Christ with enthusiasm and joy, not prideful resistance.

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