Saint of the Day: St. Nikon and the 199 Martyrs

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Myron, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Nikon and the One Hundred Ninety-Nine Martyrs

The cruelty of the third-century pagans in their persecution of Christians is nowhere more savagely recounted than in the story of St. Nikon and the One Hundred Ninety-Nine Martyrs, for here was brutality at its very worst, a bloodletting that is unmatched for sheer horror. It is one thing to suffer an agonizing death, but to witness the systematic murder of beloved friends is unspeakable suffering impossible to describe. If St. Nikon had done nothing but bear this horrible torture, he would have earned a place of serenity among the saints, but, happily, he was a monk of such stature that during his lifetime his service for the Lord placed him among the great holy ascetics.

St. Nikon was born in Neapolis, Italy, during the third century, to a pagan Greek father and a Christian mother of unknown national origin, presumably Greek. He was outstanding in his studies, with a penchant for the military, as a result of which he enlisted in the Roman army. His excellence earned him an extended leave of absence, which he chose to spend in the distant city of Byzantium. The ship he boarded was forced to put in at the island of Chios for some minor repairs and as he lingered ashore he met a holy man who engaged him in conversation about the Church and all its good works. He was so absorbed in this that he failed to return to the ship when it departed, but it mattered little, for by then he had acquired a deep interest in religion and had to hear more from the holy man of the island.

Convinced that his career lay not with the military but with the Lord, Nikon entered a monastery and in due course was tonsured a monk, thereafter advancing rapidly to become a priest, in which capacity he was to serve only three years before becoming a bishop in charge of one of the largest monasteries of the time in Sicily. Under his direction the cloister progressed and membership swelled to one hundred ninety monks, all of whom were carefully selected for their proven piety and dedication. A contingent of nine monks was accepted from another island and that brought the number of monks to the fateful number of one hundred ninety-nine, none of whom dreamed what lay in store for them.

The monastery gradually became a haven for countless Christians who went to the cloister to hear the sermons by the various monks and in turn brought many who had been pagans and were converted to Christianity. While the crowds grew in number the monk membership remained at one hundred ninety-nine, all of whom applied themselves to the spiritual needs of the community. Representatives were sent from the mainland churches to observe the activity of the Nikon cloister and to learn from him the methods applied to the service of God and man.

With all this traffic of Christians, the monastery was a beehive which attracted the attention of authorities who heretofore had considered the monks an innocuous band of recluses. An agent was sent from the governor’s office to see firsthand what transpired, and when he noted the influence that the monks had over such vast numbers of people, he returned to the governor to report what he had found. The governor was unconvinced at first, but after listening to some of the details, decided to see for himself what these holy men were doing.

After his visit he held a council in which all agreed the influence of the monks was undermining their own power over the people, and Nikon was ordered to appear before the governor. Pagan though he was, the governor did not see the necessity for killing an entire colony and called upon Nikon to abandon his project and leave the island or face certain death. Nikon declared that he was there to stay and was given another alternative, which was to disavow Christ and revert to paganism. That idea was even more repulsive to Nikon and he was summarily dismissed.

It was then that the governor selected his most hard-bitten lieutenant, who was told to take a detachment of soldiers to the monastery and do whatever he had to do. That was tantamount to signing the death warrant for each and every monk. Once again the demands were made, and when they were not met, the soldiers turned on the hapless monks while Nikon was forced to witness a carnage without parallel, until every monk had been slaughtered, whereupon Nikon was tortured unmercifully before joining his one hundred ninety-nine brethren in death for Christ on March 23, 251.

Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia

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