If for a time, the duration of which is known to God alone, the New Jerusalem, that icon of Heaven built by the holy Patriarch, lies silent and deserted in the Moscow countryside, it in no wise signifies that our hearts, also called to be icons of Heaven, need lie silent and deserted. For as long as Christ lives within us, the New Jerusalem also lives within us.
Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, October 1985
Introduction: Crucified between Two Thieves
The Church is not of this world, She is the House of the Holy Spirit, spiritual and unattached to material things. For material things are only outward forms, representing inner content, which is the definition of the sacraments and of prayer.
However, since the Church is in the world, She also has an incarnate, material form. She is the Body of Christ. Though spiritual, as a Body She is not a disincarnate imagination from the realm of pure thought, a fantasy of intellectualism, spiritualism and emotionalism. Indeed, since She is incarnate, She has sacraments, rituals, icons and our bodies and all our five senses take part in worship. This is through reading, singing, standing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating, blessing, anointing, signing ourselves, looking, using colours, kissing and censing.
For the above two reasons, as a result of her divine and human dual nature, the Church has always been crucified between two unspiritual extremes. First, there is the extreme of intellectual delusions, the attachment to dangerous, fundamentally pagan ideas, mingled with impure emotions or passions, which mistake the created for the Creator. Then there is the extreme of material delusions, the attachment to physical things, including eating, drinking, sleeping and the sexual function, which also mistake the created for the Creator.
Already, in the very first centuries, the Church found Herself crucified between these extremes, known as the left and the right. On the one hand, there were the delusions of intellectualism, the refined speculation of secular Hellenist, gnostic philosophers. On the other hand, there was the coarse, materialist, fleshly ritualism of the Jews.
Neither of them could accept the Cross of the Incarnate God. To the Greeks the Cross was foolishness and to the Jews a stumbling block (I Cor. 1, 23). On the one hand, there were the liberal, gnostic, pagan philosophical speculations of Origenism and Arianism. On the other hand, there were the persecutions of ritualist, puritanical zeal, the love of the outward and the love of intellectual hair-splitting, the pharisaical zeal not according to knowledge, that of Montanism, Novatianism and Donatism.
Thus, the Church and all who follow Her are crucified between these two spiritual thieves. In Russia in the seventeenth century they took particular forms. On the one hand, there was aristocratic Westernisation, liberalism, the delusions of novel ideas and so lapses from the saving Orthodox Church of Christ. On the other hand, there was xenophobic ignorance, nationalist exclusivism, obscurantist superstition and peasant ritualism. Not for nothing called the greatest man in Russian history, Patriarch Nikon (1605-81) was crucified on the cross between these two spiritual thieves. Here follows his life:
The Early Life of a Confessor
It is perhaps fitting that the greatest man in Russian history was born to the lowliest peasant family in a village in the provincial region of Nizhny Novgorod in 1605. His mother died soon after his birth and his father remarried. The young Nikita, as he was then called, was brought up by a wicked stepmother. At the age of seven, he left to live for the kinder conditions of a monastery. Here he spent five years and his deeply pious nature and talented intelligence soon became apparent. Indeed, a prophecy was made to him at this time that one day he would one day become Patriarch.
At the age of twelve, Nikita was tricked into returning to his family and at eighteen he was married off, so that he could attend to the family smallholding. Since in the local village there was no priest, when this devout young man was twenty, he was ordained village priest. However, his abilities were such that two years later he was transferred to Moscow, where it was rightly felt that he could do much more than in a provincial village. Here, aged thirty, he took up the monastic life, his wife having become a nun. This was the result of their losing three children.
He became a monk, under the name of Nikon, in the north of Russia and eight years later he became Abbot of the monastery of Kozheezersk. Here again his asceticism and unusual abilities were noticed and in 1646, aged forty-one, he was taken back to Moscow and there met the Tsar. In 1649, Abbot Nikon was consecrated Metropolitan of Novgorod by the Patriarch of Moscow and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who was at that time in Moscow seeking alms. The presence of the Patriarch of Jerusalem was, as we shall see, deeply significant. Once more, at this time the prophecy was made that one day he would become Patriarch.
Having shown extraordinary abilities as Metropolitan of Novgorod, Nikon was indeed later chosen to be Patriarch. However, already foreseeing great difficulties from the boyars (aristocrats and courtiers), the most senior of whom had already lapsed into decadent, Western ways and had become indifferent to the Church, Metropolitan Nikon refused the Patriarchal honour. It was only when officials of State and Church pleaded with him and promised on oath that they would obey the Church and the Gospel that Nikon agreed to become their Patriarch.
Patriarch Nikon: 1652-1658
For six years after this, until 1658, the Russian Church and State experienced a period of extraordinary ‘symphony’, that is harmony and balance of mutual interests. In this period the tireless Patriarch carried out an incredible number of reforms and improvements in Church life. In the field of education he encouraged studies, the printing of books, translations, the preaching of sermons, he spread the knowledge of the Bible and the Fathers and he himself wrote. Pastorally, he reformed the services, ensuring that only one part of the service was sung or read at the same time. Previously, in order to go faster, different parts of the services had been read and sung at the same time, making a mockery of Church order.
From Kiev the new Patriarch introduced the present form of polyphonic Church singing. In particular, he gathered an immense number of Greek manuscripts of the services and had corrected the Slavonic liturgical translations, into which copyists had down the centuries introduced errors. He did much to beautify churches and improved standards of iconography, which were even then slipping into the Polish and Italian decadence of portraiture. Western style painting, for example that of the Stroganov School, admired by decadent Russian boyars and courtiers, was condemned as ‘Frankish’ and ‘Carolingian’.
In matters of Church administration the Patriarch did his utmost to stop the secular interference of jealous aristocrats in Church matters and property rights, brought back the relics of Metropolitan Philip to Moscow, corrected the canons, improved clergy morals and stemmed Roman Catholic influence. He discouraged impiety and disorder, including the use of organs by Polish-influenced aristocrats in their homes.
Although stern with criminals, the Patriarch was very generous in giving alms and was always most merciful to the repentant. He built homes for the handicapped. He also greatly encouraged missionary work in eastern Russia and Siberia and himself actively engaged in missionary work, baptising many Jews, Muslims and Westerners in Moscow. He received back into the Church many Uniats. He also built three monasteries. In particular, he began building the great monastic complex of New Jerusalem to the west of Moscow, starting work on the Church of the Resurrection there. The New Jerusalem Monastery of the Resurrection contained replicas of the sites, scenes and shrines connected with the life of our Lord in and around ‘Old’ Jerusalem, then occupied by Muslims.
With regard to the State, the Patriarch took action against the decadent aristocrats who oppressed and unjustly taxed the poor, who often revolted against their exploitation. In this way the Patriarch supported Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, who was loved by the people and remained untainted by the corruption of the power-hungry aristocratic elite. The Patriarch also took over control of foreign merchants and ensured that they did not spread heterodoxy. However, he rejoiced whenever they repented and accepted Orthodoxy. Through his preaching and example he quelled a revolt in Novgorod and encouraged the Tsar to free Orthodox from Swedish and Polish oppression in occupied Russian lands in the west.
In this way the Orthodox in the Western borderlands of Russia, called ‘Ukraine’, were at last freed from appalling Polish persecution and tortures. In 1654 the Ukraine was at last joined back to Russia. Campaigning in 1654 and 1655 made for further military victories over Poland and Lithuania and freedom for what is now Belarus. The Patriarch also brought hope to the oppressed Orthodox of what is now Moldova, then under the Turkish yoke. And in 1654, 1655 and 1656 the Patriarch helped the relief effort for those suffering from the plague which was then sweeping the country.
The Rejected Patriarch: 1658-1666
Their first attempt to destroy the Patriarch had actually come in 1656 with the unsuccessful war against Sweden to regain Russian lands. The Patriarch was blamed, slandered and an attempt was made to poison him. The State began to interfere in Church affairs, lands and courts. With their love of money, power and with their jealousy of the Patriarch’s success, the boyars used the influence of the Tsarina (from the aristocratic Miloslavsky family) to set the youthful and inexperienced Tsar Alexis against the Patriarch. He had frustrated their westernising ambitions for too long. Now they wanted power for themselves.
With their Polish organs, Italian ‘icons’ and German dress, the boyars cleverly exploited the ignorance and superstition of simple people to support their cause against the Orthodox Patriarch. In the summer of 1658 the situation really deteriorated. Seeing the disobedience and oath-breaking everywhere around him, on 10 July that year Patriarch Nikon withdrew from Moscow to a self-imposed exile at his new monastery of New Jerusalem. He expected to be called back very quickly to Moscow by the Tsar.
However, the latter, mistakenly believing in the slanders against his Patriarch, did not do this. The Tsar had tragically fallen victim to the plotting and intrigues of his Tsarina and the boyars. At the boyars’ demand, another bishop, Metropolitan Pitirim, assumed control of Church affairs in the absence of the Patriarch. In effect now in exile, the Patriarch now lived a strict ascetic life in his monastery, working hard as a simple monk, fasting strictly, sleeping only three hours a day, giving generous alms, feeding 200-300 poor every day and washing the feet of beggars. In 1659 another attempt to poison the Patriarch took place.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, the situation had gone from bad to worse. The boyars encouraged the uneducated to reject the Patriarch’s liturgical corrections, thus creating an absurd but full-blown schism of Old Ritualism. This was an often fanatical and isolationist movement which tried to make out that the only correct form of Christianity required the use of old and often incorrect rituals and liturgical practices. In reality, however, these were out of step with those of the rest of the majority Orthodox world.
At the same time secular interference in Church affairs was growing. In 1660 a Church Council was unsuccessfully summoned to discuss the problem of the crisis of authority in the Church. The Vatican also meddled and sent to Russia a sodomite Uniat, the deposed Greek Metropolitan of Gaza, Paisios Ligarides, to try and take control of the Russian Church. He did much to exploit the situation and at one point later there was even a danger that this thorough-going Uniat traitor would become Patriarch.
The slanders against the great Patriarch continued and from July 1663 Patriarch Nikon was virtually held prisoner at the New Jerusalem monastery. In response to the slanders the Patriarch wrote a very detailed and lengthy ‘Refutation’, consisting of 27 Answers to Qusetiona, which was completed in 1664. In this we can see his extraordinary learning, knowledge of the Bible, the Fathers, the Lives of the Saints and the canons of the Church. In 1663 the four Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs were consulted about what should be done to solve the crisis. Their answers were received in May 1664. Poor captives of Muslims, they were eager to please the Russian Tsar and also obtain alms. Therefore, in order to please him, they suggested the deposition of the Russian Patriarch, if necessary. However, in fairness, their answers were also evasive and suggested reconciliation. We should recall that the answers were based only on information which had been fed to them. In any case, in October 1664 the Tsar did write what seemed to be a conciliatory letter to the captive Patriarch.
In December, under the impression that the Tsar wanted reconciliation, Patriarch Nikon set off to Moscow to meet the Tsar. However, all this had been ‘arranged’ by letter written not by the Tsar, but by a boyar called Zuzin, who was zealous for reconciliation. The Patriarch was labouring under the delusion that his exile might be at an end, that the Tsar was ready to repent. Once he had arrived in Moscow, his enemies at court sent him back, Zuzin was arrested and tortured and his wife died from fear. Others who had encouraged the Patriarch to return to Moscow were exiled and punished. After this episode, seeing that he was unwanted, Patriarch Nikon, accepting his de facto ‘retirement’, agreeing to the election of a new Patriarch. All he asked for was to have oversight of the three monasteries which he had founded.
Meanwhile, the situation with the Old Ritualists was worsening with the encouragement of the boyar enemies of the Patriarch. A Council of Russian bishops could not decide what to do and so again invoked the authority of the other Orthodox Patriarchs. Finally, in 1666, a date not without significance for some, a Church Council met in Russia with the presence of two of the Orthodox Patriarchs and instructions from the two others who could not attend. This was in effect a show trial of Patriarch Nikon.
Trial, Captivity and Exile: 1666-1681
The Patriarch was mistreated and slandered even on his way to trial in Moscow, even his entourage was not fed. On 12 December 1666 he was deposed, not having been allowed to defend himself properly. The sentence was a foregone conclusion. Reduced to the status of a simple monk, the Patriarch was exiled to the Ferapont monastery in the north of Russia and his many supporters were tortured. His jurors, it should be noted, all finished badly, as is the fate of all jealous clergy, for Patriarch Nikon had annoyed them by telling the truth. Ironically but very importantly, the Council upheld virtually all of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms. Yet he who had strengthened the unity of the Orthodox world had been imprisoned by its representatives.
In the early morning of 13 December 1666, almost in secret, Patriarch Nikon left Moscow. He was escorted by 200 soldiers who feared rioting. The State feared the piety of the people. His journey into exile was highly unpleasant. In two separate accidents, the Patriarch was nearly killed when his sledge overturned. When he at last arrived, the monks of the Ferapont Monastery were surprised to see the exile; nobody had told them what had happened. Once at the Monastery, the Patriarch, together with faithful monks who had volunteered to go into exile together with him, were badly looked after, living as prisoners under guard. The exile was now a simple monk once more. The Tsar, no doubt with a guilty conscience, began sending the exile extra food. This the Patriarch refused at first, but from Easter 1667 he accepted the gifts. His living conditions also much improved.
Meanwhile in Moscow a new Patriarch, Joasaph, had been chosen. Affairs went badly for both Church and State. The Old Ritualists gained strength. Battles were lost on the Russian borders. A new Patriarch was chosen. In 1669 the Tsarina died and in 1671 Tsar Alexis remarried. Although his personal relations with the deposed Patriarch improved, nothing changed in substance and in 1676 Tsar Alexis died, having asked forgiveness of the exiled Patriarch only in his will.
The new and very young Tsar Theodore, also Patriarch Nikon’s godson, was to hear the same slanders about the exiled Patriarch as his father had done before him. The Patriarch was exiled again to another northern monastery, this time at Beloezersk. Here living conditions were worse and the exile suffered much from terrible headaches, the result of the sledge accident ten years earlier. However, in his old age, the exile’s thoughts turned once again to finishing his great building project, building the New Jerusalem and the Church of the Resurrection.
In Moscow, Tatiana Mikhailovna, sister of the deceased Tsar Alexis, always a supporter of the Patriarch, interceded on his behalf. In December 1680 her nephew Tsar Theodore actually visited the New Jerusalem complex and was very impressed. He too wanted the project to be finished and began thinking of freeing the Patriarch. Very sadly, he was opposed in this by the new Patriarch, Joachim. Although the Tsar began building again at New Jerusalem, it was not until 1681, by which time the exiled Patriarch was very ill, that the Tsar was able to call a Church Council in order to allow him to return to New Jerusalem to die.
Thus, the great Patriarch was at last called back. However, he passed away on his return towards Moscow on the River Volga at Yaroslavl, nearly one hundred and fifty miles to the north-east of the capital. It happened at 4.00 pm on the afternoon of 17 August 1681, outside the gates of the Monastery of the Merciful Saviour. The Patriarch was 76 years old and he had spent the last 23 years of his life in exile - a huge loss and waste for the Russian Church.
On 26 August the earthly remains of Patriarch Nikon were buried at New Jerusalem. Patriarch Joachim still refused to bury him as a Patriarch, only as a simple monk. Patriarch Nikon’s earthly remains lay incorrupt and were venerated as wonder-working by the people. At last, the Tsar took care to complete the New Jerusalem complex. In atonement for the sins of his father, he also asked the Four Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs to reinstate Patriarch Nikon. However, Tsar Theodore himself died in 1682, shortly before the great Patriarch was finally ‘forgiven’ and duly reinstated.
In the seventeenth century, the great Patriarch Nikon had another vision, a spiritual one, that of Moscow the New Jerusalem. In 1917 the concept of Moscow the Third Rome fell. That of Moscow the New Jerusalem was put on hold. It is our express hope that his vision of multinational Orthodoxy at the New Jerusalem Monastery, west of Moscow, will one day rise again.
The Greatest Man in Russian History, Orthodox Holiness, 2005
For over 300 years the memory of Patriarch Nikon has been slandered by Western, Russian and Soviet historians, enslaved all alike to their anti-spiritual, materialistic and atheistic ideologies of left and right. Many of them justified their theories by repeating the slanders of the aristocrats of the Patriarch’s own time. They were of course all spiritual kin, western materialists. On the other hand, among the people, the Patriarch was always venerated locally. Thus, on my pilgrimage to New Jerusalem in 2006, I was able to pray at the tomb of this ‘local saint’, as confirmed to me by the local people with their icons of ‘St Nikon’.
Of course, it is true that Patriarch Nikon was a human-being. He could be stern and stubborn; sometimes he was undiplomatic, sharp and too categorical. Sometimes he was too trusting of Greek visitors. But these are traits of character, not sins. His stubbornness can be seen as the virtue of faithfulness to Christ, his strictness as integrity of character and his admiration for things Greek the natural gratitude of a Russian who knows that the saving Faith came from Greece. Similarly, the fact that his feelings were hurt by the evil slanders against him is only natural and there is no need to see in this overweening vanity or bad temper.
Today, some are at last also beginning to see through the greatest slander of all – that the Patriarch was responsible for the Old Ritualist schism. That schism was in fact the doing of the Patriarchless State, as it persecuted the simple and faithful. Patriarch Nikon had wanted to introduce necessary liturgical reforms gradually and lovingly, without upsetting the simple who were attached to rites. He had wanted Russian Orthodoxy to take up its cross and role as the loving protector of the whole Orthodox world and therefore knew that it should conform even in ritual norms to it. The State, however, tragically applied the reforms as an ideology and brought about reactions from some of the most pious if uneducated Russian Orthodox.
In reality, the period of 1667-1917, after which the legitimate Russian Patriarch had been deposed, represents two hundred and fifty years of injustice. It is clear that the deposition of Patriarch Nikon made the State ever more hungry for power. Seeing its chance, it was able to abolish the Russian Patriarchate completely in 1700. Under the Protestant erastianism of Peter I and those who followed him, this led to the virtual enslavement of the Church and the people by the treacherous westernised elite which governed Russia. This in turn brought about the treachery of 1917, the rejection of the Christian monarchy and the blood-soaked persecutions of the Church and genocide of the Orthodox race by the westernising Bolsheviks.
Now, nearly three hundred and fifty years later, there has come one of the first opportunities to set the historic injustice right. The monastic complex of New Jerusalem is now being restored after the destruction wreaked there by yet new invaders from the West in the Second World War. And the Patriarchate in Moscow has also been restored. Under the remarkable Patriarch Alexis II (+ 2008) and the present Patriarch Kyrill, who strangely resembles Patriarch Nikon in his universal understanding of Orthodoxy and Russia’s role in its worldwide spread, decisions are being made of which Patriarch Nikon would have approved.
At last people are even beginning to speak of the eventual canonisation of Patriarch Nikon (and also of his admirer and imitator, Metropolitan Antony of Kiev, whose holy relics await their triumphant homecoming to Russia from Belgrade). On the day of Patriarch Nikon’s canonisation, and only on that day, shall we at last be able to speak once more of the restoration of Holy Rus, brought to life by the remembrance of the New Jerusalem of St Nikon.
4/17 June 2009
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