Wednesday, May 2, 2012

St. Nicodemos and Renewal

     One of the greatest contributors to our Byzantine tradition was St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain. His contribution was not necessarily in his wisdom but rather in his ability to translate the traditions of our Byzantine fathers into his modern time. Many of us are familiar with his greatest work the Philokalia, which remains 2nd to the bible as a source for Byzantine spirituality. Among many other works that we have today from the saint we see in his testimony an important aspect for spiritual renewal. The aspect that we see in him is the ability to communicate Jesus Christ in a way that people can respond to. He even had the following to say about reading the Philokalia, "Come all you who are participants in the Orthodox way, together, laymen, monks, all of you who seek to find the kingdom of God which is within you, as well as the treasure which is hidden in the field of your heart. And this is the sweet Christ".
     St. Nicodemos lived in a time when the Church of the East was under siege by the forces of an Islamic dominated society. There was no freedom of religion that we are used to and at times to stand up for what was right could mean the end of your life. It was under this context that we find St. Nicodemos trying to communicate Byzantine spirituality through his writings. It was essential that his brothers and sisters in Christ have immediate access to the message in his works because their lives might end soon. We may not be with these types of circumstance that the saint was in but it's vital that we to learn to communicate our spirituality effectively to others. If we take a quick glance at our own society the church seems to be under the domination of the secular forces that are slowly dismantling a culture that was once known as Christian. Those in our churches may not be losing their lives for their faith but the atmosphere that once nourished it is slowly being destroyed.
     The teachings of St. Nicodemos worked well in his time and his approach of making spirituality accessible to the common man is a pattern we should follow. Unfortunately, the saint lived over 200 years ago so what might have worked in his time might not in ours. It's a fact that if we handed out copies of the Philokalia to those in our churches most of them would have no clue at the message that it contains. Many of the teachings of St. Nicodemos are pretty much "greek" to the contemporary man and need to be translated into common understanding. The words do not need to change but rather it's the context that people are unfamiliar with. It's up to us to internalize his teachings and the teachings of our Byzantine spiritual tradition and communicate them in a way that a common person could grasp.
     What we find in the essence of St. Nicodemos and in the Byzantine tradition is the spirituality of Hesychasm. Hesychasm seems like a foreign concept to many Byzantine Catholics but this shouldn't be so. It's our own fault that we have failed to communicate this tradition properly by not teaching it in a way that people can understand. Basically, the word means to seek stillness in Jesus Christ. Stillness in this context means bringing your body and mind into a place where they can properly experience the presence of Jesus Christ. Being sinners we find that the body and the mind do not relate the way that they should to God. Hesychasm as a practice teaches the body and the mind to discover the gift of God's presence that is hidden within us.
     It is from the point of view of understanding Hesychasm that what we do as Byzantines begins to make sense. One example that I like to use in this regard is the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. A visitor seeing this tradition would be bewildered at the many prostrations that take place. However, a proper understanding of the tradition demonstrates that the body is being trained for the presence of Jesus Christ. In fact going through the Philokalia from this perspective we discover that its teachings show us various ways to train the body and mind to experience Christ. One way that many are acquainted with is the Jesus prayer. What is funny is that I have found many people using a prayer rope and practicing controlled breathing while saying the Jesus prayer without realizing what they're doing. It is in this Byzantine tradition as well as others that we find the body and mind  being trained for the presence of Jesus Christ.
     I believe if St. Nicodemos was among us today he would encourage us to learn how to communicate our traditions more effectively to others if we want to see renewal. The best way to start doing this is to learn to internalize what the spiritual fathers of our tradition have left us. We don't need to go around quoting the Philokalia we need to become a Philokalia. There are many riches that God wants to offer others from our tradition. It's up to us to make them accessible to others. The teachings of our fathers like St. Nicodemos are not difficult to grasp but we need to learn to speak them afresh in every generation.


  1. Nicodemus is indeed a crucial and important figure - we owe him what we know as the Philokalia to this day. But I wonder, as an Eastern Catholic, how you feel about his views on the Catholic Church? Did you know that he thought Catholic baptism was invalid?
    What are your thoughts?

    Great job on this site by the way - one of my favorites.

    Jason @ Ascending Mount Carmel

    1. The saint had an interesting philosophy when it came to the Latin Church because he had no problem taking what he felt was good from it. Haven't heard about the negativity that you mentioned or maybe I just forgot because there is a lot of it. The monks on Mt. Athos have a long history of anti-Romanism. However, The Byzantine tradition would not be what it is without this saint. When it comes to the negativity there are plenty of saints in the Church(EAST and WEST) that had some strange or even outrageous positions. Even though I am not a saint I can relate because I too had some crazy ideas and there was even a period in my journey that I was angry at the Latin church for how it has treated my people. It took a lot of grace to get over this in my life and it will take much for many of the people of my tradition.