Orthodox America

Faith in Obedience Schema-Monk Nikodemos of Mount Athos

Fr. Nikodim's name in the world was Nikolai Ivanov Sanin. He was from the city of Sychevok in Smolensk province in Russia, from a family of craftsmen. He was of the Orthodox faith and was married. From his childhood he lived in the city with his parents and made his living with small-time merchandising. Then he moved to St. Petersburg where he first mopped floors but then moved up and started employing his own workers and made a lot of money.

However, his family life was not happy. He and his wife did not get along well because she was not faithful to him. This upset Sanin no end, and in his frustration he began to lead a corrupt life himself along with some of his employees.

His conscience gave him no peace, constantly telling him that in times of sorrow he should seek his consolation from God and not from sensual gratification. Sooner or later he would not escape death and God's judgment. Such rebukes of his conscience slowly began to move Sanin to correcting his way of life. He started remembering death and God's judgment. He began to fear death without repentance. All this inspired him to good works.

He began to give generous alms, attended church, read religious books, made pilgrimages to holy places and to Jerusalem. When he returned from the Holy Land he made up his mind to leave the world for good and withdraw to Mount Athos to devote the rest of his days to repentance.

At that point his wife experienced a dramatic change. She abandoned her former way of life and also began to take care for the salvation of her soul. When Nikodim asked her to give permission for him to become a monk, she did not object in the least and even wanted to follow his example herself and go to a convent. They decided to devote themselves to the monastic life.

In 1846 Nikolai arrived on Mount Athos and entered the Monastery of St. Panteleimon, called Russikon. He was accepted as a member of the Russian brotherhood. At first he carried out various tasks and although he fulfilled them diligently and eagerly, he did so simply and without attention to his internal state. When it was explained to him that while the body is active at external tasks it is absolutely necessary for the mind also to be occupied with internal obedience to his conscience, then Nikolai began to be more attentive to himself. After becoming a monk with the name Nikodim, he began to live even more strictly, reigning in his tongue and belly.

His spiritual father saw that he was especially devoted to him and noted his simplicity and decisive readiness to obey and took steps to draw him closer to himself. With the blessing of the abbot, the spiritual father took Fr. Nikodim as his cell-attendant. While carrying out these duties, Fr. Nikodim also served as the steward, looked after the supplies of clothing, woke the brothers up for the morning services and cared for guests. Amid all these various duties Fr. Nikodim proved himself a genuine struggler. Fulfilling all these duties which involve so much distraction did not prevent him from perfecting himself in spiritual life. He overcame all his difficulties with a childlike, Gospel faith and obedience and he acquired such lofty virtues as are seldom to be gained in solitary life with great toil by persons more suited to watching over themselves than Fr. Nikodim, who was very simple and did not know the Holy Scriptures very well. But he recompensed for this shortcoming, as was said above, by his faith and obedience.

Those with experience know the difference between the spiritual warfare with things at hand which arouse the passion and those at a distance. It is one thing to overcome the passions in solitude and quite another in a community. Moreover in a community there are different difficulties in the struggle with the passions because of the different duties and tasks. It is one thing to keep a peaceful state of soul while sitting at handiwork in one's cell. It is something else to do so while carrying out various tasks in meeting a variety of needs of the brotherhood. This latter requires redoubled effort.

Fr. Nikodim took on himself four different tasks at once. At first he met up with great difficulties in performing them all because of his worldly habits. When he lived in the world he was used to eating and drinking and sleeping without measure and also talking a lot. How could he overcome these habits when everything was before his eyes and at his fingertips? He did not know what to do and asked his spiritual father how he should act, where should he begin?

His spiritual father told him to begin by fulfilling the commandment: Do all things with counsel, that is, speak about everything with his spiritual father, both good and bad. And if he ever had some good idea for combatting his worldly habits, not to do it until he had first discussed the matter with his spiritual father. He should begin to uproot his habits not all at once but little by little and only with the counsel of his spiritual father.

From that time, Fr. Nikodim began to tell everything to his spiritual father and did nothing without his advice. He could say the words: I made ready, and I was not troubled, that I might keep Thy commandments (Ps. 118:60), because he accepted everything his spiritual father told him with unquestioning faith and for this reason he was able to do what he was told. In the world, Fr. Nikodim liked to drink wine. For this reason his spiritual father condescended to his weakness and did not forbid him to drink wine but allowed him to drink only a little. But even this little amount bothered him because he stammered and had a speech defect. He could not talk to others without difficulty and if he had drunk a little red wine it was even more difficult for him to communicate.

Once his spiritual father saw him at the end of a meal in the refectory. Fr. Nikodim was talking with some others. The spiritual father said, "Fr. Nikodim, I told you that it is not good for you to drink wine like everyone else. You should drink less, only half as much, because even when you do not drink at all you speak so indistinctly that the pilgrims are scandalized, because they think you are drunk."

Fr. Nikodim made a bow and replied: "Forgive me, father. Ever since you told me I have done as you said and have been drinking only half as much as the others. But even this bothers me and I would like to stop altogether. But I don't dare do that on my own. Will you bless me to stop drinking wine altogether?"

His spiritual father replied, "God bless you."

From that time Fr. Nikodim drank no alcoholic beverage until his death.

His complex duties required him to consult his spiritual father very frequently, so his spiritual father appointed him a special time in the evening, after compline. At this time he would usually tell his spiritual father everything that was on his conscience and asked about everything he needed to.

Once during such a conversation, he asked, "The holy fathers recommend that once you are in a monastery, you should strive to find causes for tears each day. Tell me, father, can I find them?"

"Why should you not be able to find them?" his spiritual father asked.

Fr. Nikodim replied, "Because of my complicated and distracting duties."

His spiritual father replied, "If you think that your demanding duties keep you from acquiring the gifts of God you are belittling the grace of God which is all-powerful. Do you believe that Christ is powerful enough to give you what you want to receive from Him?"

"I believe, father," replied Fr. Nikodim, "that the Lord is powerful enough to give me what I want." He made a bow and added, "Bless me to work at this."

His spiritual father replied, "May God bless you and grant you according to your faith."

From that time Fr. Nikodim forced himself every day to weep and he either laid aside or overcame all the difficulties he encountered. He knew from experience that eating a lot dries up tears. To overcome this he first gave up sweets and then began to refrain from regular food. On Fridays he did not eat at all. He slept on the bare ground and put a stone inside his pillow case. In order to overcome idle talk and anger he kept a rock in his mouth. He did all this with his spiritual father's advice and told no one else.

Because of all his duties he did not have much free time, but he devoted it all to fervent prayer. Frequently he would pray to the point of total exhaustion so that after making a prostration to the ground he would fall asleep in that position. When he woke up he took great consolation in having woken up in the midst of such a struggle to pray. He liked this kind of prayer very much.

The brothers did not know why he was keeping quiet. They started to say, "Our Fr. Nikodim has gone deaf and fallen silent in his old age." But some of them caught on to his spiritual disposition, especially the late Fr. Gregory who had great respect for Fr. Nikodim and often said of him that he is a rare kind of elder both because of his obedience and patience and because of his silence.

Fr. Nikodim was also exceptional because of his exemplary simplicity. When this Fr. Gregory, after suffering from consumption for years, became completely bedridden, his spiritual father told Fr. Nikodim to look after the sick man and to take special care that he not die unattended.

Fr. Gregory was an exemplary monk and had a great love for mental prayer. For this reason Fr. Nikodim had great respect for him and was eager to serve him at the end of his life. Also, Fr. Gregory's cell was near Fr. Nikodim's. But with all his other duties, he often had to leave Fr. Gregory alone and he was afraid that he might die in his absence.

But Fr. Nikodim's simplicity delivered him from this difficulty. He came to Fr. Gregory and explained his problem to him; he asked Fr. Gregory to tell him when he was going to die. Fr. Gregory with the same simplicity and trust replied, "Don't worry, my father. I'll tell you when I am going to die."

In a few days he told Fr. Nikodim, "Father, now I am going to die soon." Fr. Nikodim asked him how he knew. The dying monk replied, "Don't you see, father, that two have come for me and told me, 'Let's go home.' "

Fr. Nikodim began to ask hurriedly, "Where are they? Where are they? I don't see them."

Fr. Gregory motioned with his hand and said, "Quiet, quiet. I'll tell you over there." With these words he peacefully ended his life of suffering. One of the Russian hesychasts who lived in Kapsala used to come to the spiritual father in the Russian monastery for confession. His name was Anastassy. Fr. Nikodim had instructions to receive him. Once the spiritual father told Fr. Nikodim to pay stricter attention to this elder and to console him in any way he could because this elder had attained a very high spiritual state and could help him with his prayers to perfect his spiritual life.

When he heard this, Fr. Nikodim bowed his head to his breast and after a moment of silence prostrated himself on the ground and asked with obvious compunction, "Is it possible, father, for me to know what Fr. Anastassy's high spiritual state consists of?"

The spiritual father replied, "It is possible and it is profitable to reveal to you concerning his virtues in order to encourage you." Then the spiritual father told him about the struggles of Fr. Anastassy, about his fasting and non-possessiveness, that he forced himself to tears for many years with great fervor and God had given him the great gift of tears at his wish; he weeps whenever he wants to. All this is because of his obedience to his spiritual father; he does nothing without his advice.

When he heard this, Fr. Nikodim was moved to ecstasy and was captivated by the idea of voluntary tears. He fell at his spiritual father's feet and asked with fear, "Can I attain that, father?"

"Why should it be impossible for you?"

"Will I have to endure for a long time?" asked Fr. Nikodim.

"You're lacking in faith again," his spiritual father rebuked him. "I told you before that your duties do not prevent you from rising to perfection in Christ and that by our lack of faith we belittle the grace of God which is all-powerful and can do everything. Therefore there is no doubt that amid your distracting and demanding duties He can give you what we ask for with faith in God. Do you believe that the Lord can give you this gift?"

At these words Fr. Nikodim once again bowed to the ground and said, "I believe, father, that the Lord is powerful enough and can give me this gift by your holy prayers."

To this the spiritual father said, "And so, if you believe, may God bless you, as He Himself said, Seek and ye shall find; he that seeks shall find and to him that knocks it shall be opened (Matt. 7:7; Luke 11:9)." He gave him his blessing and dismissed him.

After this conversation, Fr. Nikodim began to increase in fear of God, because he began to speak with his spiritual father more about eternal torments, sometimes expressing his horror over how he would die, how he would pass through the demonic trials and his fear that the demons might detain him in their trials for the many sins he had committed in the world.

Often he would say, "I am afraid of the demons lest at the hour of my death they bring me to despair. They say that they attack a dying person with all their might, remind him of all his sins, accuse him, scream and shriek terribly: Your soul is ours; we are going to take you with us-and such things as these. What should I do in that case? How can I get free from them? I think that at that time because of fear and horror a dying person is beside himself and loses control."

His spiritual father replied to all these questions by saying the following: "We must prepare in good time and think about this frequently. Many of the holy fathers spent their entire life thinking mostly about death. The word of God teaches us to remember our end. We must pay attention to the Church's petition and pray with these words to the Lord all the more frequently: "A Christian end to our life, painless, shameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the fearful judgment seat of Christ, we ask of Thee, O Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we ask for the sake of His all-holy name." And we must confess every sin to our spiritual father and grieve over it, weep and seek our spiritual father's counsel about how best to prepare ourselves for death. And we have to learn in good time how to fight off the demons at that terrible hour of death, how to struggle against them, contradict them and not believe their slanders, not fear their threats and not to accept the despair they usually inspire in the dying person.

"Before death the demons try to inspire the ailing person with doubts about salvation and disbelief about receiving the mercy of God. They suggest such thoughts as: You won't be saved; God will not accept you; you are too sinful; you do not have worthy fruits of repentance; you did not confess your sins purely; you forgot many of them; you are going to hell; God will not forgive you; you have lived your life as a hypocrite and your place is in hell; maybe you were predestined to damnation.

"Such thoughts as these are what the enemy suggest to us before death and at the hour of our death, and so we must prepare ourselves in advance in the mystery of faith, confirm our faith in our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ and trust in Him. He became incarnate for our sake, suffered, shed His blood and died on the Cross. To those that believe in Him and repent of their sins He gives forgiveness and leads them into eternal life and blessedness. This is the foundation of our salvation. On this firm foundation we must always stand firm and especially at the hour of death; we must stand on this and defend ourselves from the attacks of our enemies, drive them away from us, put ourselves at rest and console ourselves with this and this alone. For even if we had many good deeds, we must not hope in them, because the Lord Himself said: If you do all that is commanded you, even then say that we are worthless servants (Luke 17:10).

"No matter how great our sins or how many they are, we must never despair of finding the mercy of God. The word of God assures us that there is no sin that surpasses the lovingkindness of God. Despair is born from pride, because when a person gives in to pride, he finds fault with God, as if God were the cause of his sins (as if he created him with a disposition to sin) and so he does not blame himself and ask for God's forgiveness. Instead he becomes angry with God.

"On the other hand, the person that hopes in God's compassion, does not excuse himself for all his many and grave sins but condemns himself like the thief and the publican-he prays and begs for forgiveness. "But if a person listens to our enemies' suggestions and accepts their ideas about not being saved or being damned or rejected by God or about being predestined to damnation, the demons will drag such a person's soul down with them, because by his despair he has rejected redemption and belittled the mercy of God. Like Cain, he considered his sins greater than God's mercy.

"It is beneficial to conduct yourself throughout your entire life as you would at the end of it, with fear and hope, as the Apostle says, we are perplexed but not in despair (II Cor. 4:8). But the most beneficial of all is to hope at all times in the mercy of God, for the word of God blesses all such persons: Blessed, it says, are all that have put their trust in Him (Ps. 2:13).

"So, Fr. Nikodim, I have told you briefly how you should prepare for your departure from this life and, with the help of God's grace, the proper way to act before death and at the actual hour of death. You have understood this well and now you know about this. But the fulfillment of this counsel you must also entrust to God's mercy and lovingkindness. You must beseech Him to bring what has been offered to you into fulfillment, to give you at the terrible hour of death firm faith and hope and the necessary good boldness.

"You must do this in good time. You know that without the hope of grace we cannot live a single moment well or even think about good and cannot wish for anything good without the grace of God.

"For this reason at night the Church prays to God, 'Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this night without sin,' and likewise during the day, in the evening, in the morning and noonday. All the more then must we pray frequently for the Lord to grant us to pass well through the gates of death and the trials of the demons and attain the heavenly kingdom and blessedness promised to us."

Fr. Nikodim faithfully kept the advice of his spiritual father and from frequent tears his eyes were constantly red. Sometimes his spiritual father would ask him whether or not he has tears and does he weep? He would reply, "I weep." The brothers said that in his old age his eyesight had gone bad and he was hard of hearing, and for this reason some of them out of compassion for him asked the spiritual father to give him some rest. His spiritual father called him in and asked him: Was he not suffering from poor eyesight or hearing. Fr. Nikodim told his spiritual father that he was in good health.

His spiritual father looked him in the eye and noticed how red his eyes were. "Why are your eyes so red and puffy, and why don't you have any eyelashes? Do you weep frequently?"

"I weep, father, whenever I want to."

His spiritual father asked, "Have you had this for a long time?"

Fr. Nikodim replied, "Two and a half years-ever since I spoke with you about the gifts of God, made a prostration and asked your blessing, for three years I forced myself with great labor to weep every day." His spiritual father remarked on this, "You see, you received this gift through faith in obedience and not by you own labors. Remember that every gift of God is retained by humility. Guard yourself from being haughty; do not judge anyone; constantly rebuke yourself; other people have this gift also and they consider themselves to be worse than everyone else." After this conversation, his spiritual father wanted to relieve him of his demanding duties so that he could quietly spend his time in his cell in prayer and tears. But God provided otherwise: Fr. Nikodim passed directly from his labors into eternity.

Soon Fr. Nikodim fell ill. He was sick for forty days. Before his death he constantly read a note that he kept under his pillow. After his death, we found this note. It read, "I hope in the mercy of God, in the salvation of Christ. He is my Judge and not you, you cursed one. What do you have to do with me? I sinned against Him; I repent before Him. You have no place in me, wicked demons; depart from me to your satan."

Fr. Nikodim was not tall, had a pleasant face, was bald, had a long thick beard that was graying. He spoke very rapidly and stammered somewhat, but in church he read and chanted without any difficulty. When his spiritual father served after early Liturgy he almost always chanted alone. Fr. Nikodim died in 1854; his life in the monastery lasted for eight years.

(Translated from the account in Russian written by Fr. Nikodim's spiritual father, the Priest and Schemamonk Ieronim, published in the pamphlet, "Contemporary Athonite Ascetics", Moscow, 1900)