(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. Nilos, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Nilos of Sora
The monasteries of fifteenth-century Russia, as in other countries, swelled in size and numbers rather than spirituality, resulting in scandalous practices that could never have been anticipated by the early monastic fathers, and called for sweeping reforms to insure a permanent return to monastic purity. Like the moneychangers at the temple, certain corrupt elements in the monastic order had to be driven from those hallowed halls. The architect of this emendation was a man who came to be known as St. Nilos of Sora (Nil Sorski), selected by the hierarchy not only for his erudition but for his undisputed integrity as well.
In an era when only the affluent could afford formal education for the young, the monasteries attracted many underprivileged young men whose thirst for knowledge sometimes subordinated their love for Jesus Christ. Consequently, the cloisters that were intended to be auxiliaries to the Church in the service of the Lord became instead centers of an agrarian economy for personal gain. It is to the everlasting credit of St. Nilos that he chose the tuition-free monastery because of its alliance with the house of God and not with the counting houses.
Born in about the year 1433 of extremely poor but deeply religious parents, Nilos followed others of his impoverished class into a monastery, where his high intellect and sincere dedication earned him the highest honors and the respect of the ascetic colony. In recognition of his scholastic achievement and dedicated application, he was allowed to enter the Russian Monastery of St. Pan-teleimon on the Holy Mountain of Athos, overlooking the Aegean Sea of Greece. In the ensuing years, he was an outstanding proponent of Jesus Christ. His life on Mt. Athos is best expressed in his own words: “I lived like a bee flitting from one fine flower to another in order to know the garden of life and Christian truth, and in order to revive my flagging soul and to prepare it for salvation."
In all phases of theology, particularly written expression, a command of the Greek language was imperative, and at Mt. Athos the exceptionally brilliant Nilos mastered this beautiful language. He absorbed the writings of a great number of the church greats, expressing a special fondness for the writings of St. Pachomios and St. Isaak, and a boundless admiration for St. John Chrysostom. Anticipating the need for reform in monastics, he studied St. John of the Ladder, Nilos of Sinai, and John Cassian and in addition to becoming an authority on the rules of monasticism, he became a disciple of deep mysticism.
Returning to Russia with a fund of theological and monastic knowledge, Nilos spent the next few years at the Monastery of St. Cyril at Belozersk, after which he founded his own monastic retreat in a sylvan setting bordering the river Sora, hence his surname of Sorsky. It soon became evident that his cloister was out of step with others in Russia and he was considered a rebel. It appears that monasteries, whose image of purity guaranteed them considerable latitude in their undertakings, had employed thousands of unsuspecting peasants who labored in the field for what they considered the glory of God, but glorified only the unscrupulous monks in an affluence which not only defiled their image but the image of God as well.
The church authorities deplored these conditions and issued edicts for a return to asceticism, but matters had gone beyond the power of written admonitions to correct them. A council held in Moscow in 1503 at the direction of Archbishop Gennadios of Novgorod gave Nilos unlimited power to institute his articles of reform, and in a short period of time he put to rout the rascals who had for years taken advantage of the peasants. Exhibiting great skill, Nilos restored not only the monasteries to their original purpose but restored the confidence of the people in monasticism and Christianity itself, which had suffered. Thereafter, Nilos engaged in prolific writing, notably his Lives of the Saints, completed before his death on April 7, 1508.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.