(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. Nikephoros, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Nikephoros the Hesychast
Unique in all the world, the monastic cloister of Mt. Athos has given to Christianity over a period of more than a thousand years some of the finest minds since the dawn of civilization. A training ground for men who pledge their lives to Jesus Christ, this mighty bastion of Christendom casts a beam of spiritual light whose candlepower is beyond measure. Unique among the thousands after thousands of the monks who form the populace of this rugged but sacred mountian was a man called Nikephoros, called “the Hesychast of Mt. Athos,” who stood out in the ranks of his fellow monks as a general stands out among a sea of troops.
Nikephoros was far from a general, although he had qualities of leadership which would have assured him a field command had he chosen to serve in the military, but he chose not to pick up a sword and armor but a holy cross with the truth of Jesus Christ as his panoply. In a city of the blind a one-eyed man is king, but in a city of extraordinary minds such as those on Mt. Athos, a man needs something beyond an extraordinary mind to stand out as did Nikephoros from among his peers. He did not invent a new method of attaining spiritual perfection, but he did improve on the existing ones with such phenomenal success that for years he was considered to be as near to God as the human spirit would allow. Time had not only worn that concept a little thin, but Nikephoros has, like so many other saints, been allowed to diminish to a barely perceptible image, emerging to the discerning reader, however, with a brilliance that places him in proper and conspicuous perspective.
There are no events of distinction in the life of Nikephoros prior to his ascent of Mt. Athos, but once there he assumed the stature of a spiritual giant in swift fashion, applying himself with an intelligence which indicated that he had prepared himself extremely well in the unnamed town in northern Italy from which he came. Resolute and dedicated, he became a part of the spiritual revival of the late thirteenth century, eschewing the cerebral gymnastics of the deep thinkers to find an expression of a monastic-spun philosophy in the simple terms to be found in what is known as hesychasm.
The primary purpose of hesychasm has been misunderstood by some to be a form of guru-like meditation, aimed at making the mind a total blank, but it is far from that. Its purpose is to attain a divine serenity, a complete peace of mind with an unceasing communion of the spirit through uninterrupted prayer. It is not to be sought in the clamor of the streets or in the distraction of others about you, but in the quiet solitude, wherever it may be, that allows a continual flow of thought in a stream of pious consciousness that empties itself into the sea of love of the Savior.
Nikephoros attained a mastery of this simple but subtle form of mysticism, which was given added dimension by Nikephoros and reached its zenith in the fourteenth century with St. Gregory Palamas. The monks who attended the training classes of Nikephoros found that this simple procedure called for much more than bowing, kneeling, or prostrating oneself in prayer. The proper frame of mind, according to Nikephoros, called first for a training of the body so that mind and body would be synchronous and not in conflict with one another in hesychasm.
The breathing in and out, with heads bowed to a certain angle with the body itself bent at the waist, synchronized with the utterances as well as the meditation and contemplation. The continuous recitation of what is called the Jesus Prayer, calling audibly “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” blended with the life-giving breathing and the positioning of the body. This made for what St. Gregory was to define as “the continuous prayer of Jesus as a constant, uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of his constant presence.”
The denunciation by Nikephoros of the Emperor Michael Paleologos for courting the favor of Rome in the face of Muslim aggression brought only exile for the famed hesychast, who returned after the death of the emperor. Nikephoros died on his beloved Mt. Athos in 1300.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.