St. Nil Sorsky
Written By: Holden Hooper
Column: Featured Saint of the Month
Issue: Set to Appear in the April Issue of the Newsletter
Born in the year 1433 and reposing in the year 1508 on May 7 (his feast day), St. Nil Sorsky was one of the most important Early Russian saints of the Hesychastic tradition. St. Nil grew up in a family of nobility which gave him the ability to become a scribe and do book engraving while growing up. Later he became a monk and then went on a holy trip to Palestine, Mt. Athos, and Constantinople were he was able to observe monasticism in 3 of it’s hotspots during those days. Knowing how to read he had the great advantage of being able to read the works of the Great Hesychastic Fathers of Mt. Athos and of the Syrian/Sinaitic tradition based off of Evagrius and Sts. John Climacus, Isaac the Ninevite, and Macarius the Great. He then brought this patristic style of monasticism back to Rus’ and started a skete on the Sora river with a band of devoted monks.
Later in his life St. Nil got involved in two seperate debates in the Tsarist courts of Holy Rus’. The first of these debates was over the Novgorod Judaizers, a group claiming to be Russian Orthodox Christians but who came from a Jewish background of either Karaite or Talmudic Judaism and followed the Mosaic law, denied the virgin birth, denied the Trinity for a unitarian god instead, believed in a 2nd coming of Christ with only a thousand year reign (chiliasm), and were iconoclasts. This group of Judaizers were obviously heretics but the question was over how they should be dealt with. St. Nil and his group sought out a way of allowing the Judaizers to repent and return to the Church after giving up their heresies. While St. Joseph Volotsky who was a friend of St. Nil supported the idea of having all the heretics burnt at the stake and of strengthening the Tsar’s powers and emphasizing the symphony of powers of Church and State together as one (so heretics would be both the Tsar and Church’s problem not only the Church). Negotiations were made with the Judaizers and they were defrocked and only a few priests were burnt but most of the group ended up moving to further edges of the Russian Empire to peacefully keep their strange sects undisturbed. These Judaizer groups along with priestless Old Believer sects would become the creators of the various spiritual christian groups in Russia like the: Doukhobors, Molokans, Pryguny, Khlysts, Skoptsy, Ikonobortsy, Zhidovstvuyushchiye, and Popovtsy .
The second debate that St. Nil got himself involved in also happened to include his friend St. Joseph Volotsky again. But this issue was over the question if monasteries should be funded by the state and have huge lots of property supported by the serfs or if monasteries should be self-supported and more skete like. St. Joseph was in support of the first style and was pushing for a monasticism that heavily revolved around the Liturgy of Hours/Horologion and that was more ritualistic in it’s spirituality (remember this was in pre-nikonian Russia). While St. Nil was in support of the 2nd style of monasticism and placed more emphasis on the prayer of the heart/Jesus prayer in the monk’s daily life in comparison to the highly ritualized style already in Russia at that point. Ultimately in the end St. Joseph won, but this did have its drawbacks, since the monasteries were apart of the state and political life when Peter the not so great became Tsar he dissolved a lot of the monasteries and their power since he thought that they had gained too much control of land and had too much of a voice in politics. But later in the 19th century with the Hesychastic revival headed by St. Paisius Velichkovsky and then later the Optina Elders, the teachings and monasticism taught by St. Nil was brought back and his writings had a profound influence on these elders. St. Nil is known to have written the Predanie, Ustav, and Letters. The Predanie was a nine page monastic rule about following the hesychastic life on the skete and living as a community with obedience to ones spiritual father (pretty much a condensed Russian version of the Rule of St. Benedict). His Ustav is an eighty page ascetical treatise on mental activity and the avoidance of different sins. And his Letters are just 5 letters that he wrote to people that were asking for his spiritual advice which shows us the starets side of St. Nil.
In the end both St. Nil and St. Joseph are Russian saints and show us different sides of Russian piety long liturgical services and support for the Tsar, and hesychasm with mercy on all humans. So instead of just choosing one of these two styles, it is best to find a way where they can both be incorporated together to get a true taste of Russian Orthodox spirituality from tw of it’s earliest monastic saints and founders.