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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Saint Nikon “Metanoeite,” the Patron Saint of Sparta

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Memory of our Holy Father NIKON the PREACHER of REPENTANCE

 

(He is named Metanoite – ‘Repent’ in Greek – (cf. Matt. 3:2), since, as a preacher, this was his constant exhortation).

 

 

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Our holy Father Nikon was born about the year 930 into a rich and pious family from near Trebizond in Pontus.  From early youth, he showed great wisdom and deep love for godliness in all that he did.  As he was making a tour of inspection of their estates for his father, he was deeply affected one day by the wretched conditions and back-breaking toil that was the lot of many of the poor fieldworkers.  He did not rise in anger at what he saw, but it led him to consider the vanity of what this world offers: so much toil and so many disappointed hopes in a short life that inevitably ends in the grave for rich and poor alike! So he decided to leave everything that tied him to the earth and to join the monks in labouring for everlasting life. 

 

Unknown to his relatives, he made his way to the Monastery of the Golden Stone in the wild country between Pontus and Paphlagonia.  His arrival was revealed in a heavenly manner to the Abbot as he was serving the holy Liturgy.  He welcomed the young man with joy and clothed him straight away in the great angelic Habit, passing over all the tests that aspirants to the monastic state usually undergo.  Even the most experienced among his brethren were soon struck with wonder at his absolute obedience, his readiness to tackle the most uninviting tasks, and his humility and patience.  He practiced all the holy virtues with the same zeal, but above all excelled in fasting and prayer.  He ate only once a week, after communicating in the holy Mysteries, limiting himself to dry bread and a little water.  Unweighed down by the body, he spent every night in prayer, his countenance bathed in tears. 

 

After leading a more than desert life in the monastery for two years, Nikon was blessed by the Abbot to retire alone to a cell and to devote himself entirely to prayer.  His struggles in fasting, in vigils and above all in holy compunction became yet more intense.  He shed so many tears that the floor of his cell was always damp.  Asked why he wept so, he would reply that, when he considered the eternal good things in store for the Saints which God granted him to look upon in the depths of his heart, even while clothed in mortal and corruptible flesh, he was unable to hold back his tears.  He wept abundantly from a sense of unworthiness and from fear of being deprived of eternal life, of which every day he had a foretaste.  He stayed in that cell for twelve years and acquired blessed impassibility and purity of heart.  His spiritual father then learnt in a new revelation from on High, that God was calling Nikon to go out from his retreat in order to dedicate himself to the greater ministry of an Apostle – greater because it derives from the grace of God and not from human initiative (1 Cor. 12:28).  He charged the Saint to go wherever Providence led him, to make known the mercy of God to men and to proclaim everywhere, like the Saviour and his holy Forerunner John the Baptist: Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17).  After a prayer by the Abbot, the assembled brethren tearfully bade Nikon farewell. 

 

Some days later his father came out with his servants intending to seize him and fetch him home, whereupon the Saint miraculously crossed a river in full flood and, having three times cast himself to the earth towards his father on the opposite bank, he went his way without looking back (cf. Luke 9:62).

 

Preaching repentance and the imminent coming of Christ like Saint John the Baptist, Saint Nikon took to the roads, barefoot, clothed in a poor tunic, without thought of food or shelter.  He cried out to everyone he met in towns and villages, ‘Repent!’ and he proclaimed that message that salvation comes through conversion of heart, through tears, and the labour of a life lived in the spirit of the Gospel.  Observing the Lord’s word, he took nothing in his travels, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money (Luke 9:3).  Going wherever God led him, and liable to numerous temptations of demons, he unfailingly placed his entire hope in everlasting life.

 

After three years’ preaching he took ship for Crete, recently liberated by the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas (961), from a long and oppressive Arab occupation.  Here morality was at a low ebb, and people ignored or despised the Christian virtues.  Nikon spent seven years on the island, spreading the message of repentance and greatly contributing to the restoration of the Christian way of life.  Then he left for Greece, preaching at Epidaurus and Damala before going by sea to Athens, where he became beloved by the people. The next stage of his missionary journey took him to the island of Euboea whose inhabitants came day and night in their eagerness to hear him.  His words were confirmed by miracles and healings, and many were converted to righteousness and holiness of life.

 

Then he went on foot by way of Thebes to preach at Corinth, like his illustrious exemplar Saint Paul.  Next, passing through Argos and Nauplia, he sowed the good seed of the Gospel in the Peloponnese as far South as Sparta (c. 970).  Having spent some time there, he attempted to continue his pilgrimage but fell ill on the way and had to stay for awhile in a cave, where he caused a spring of health-giving waters to gush forth for the use of the many faithful who visited him.

 

On his recovery, the people of Sparta, afflicted by a plague, came asking for his help.  Saint Nikon went to their aid with joy; the plague ceased through his prayer, and he resolved to extend his apostolate among them for the remainder of his days.  He was beloved by the inhabitants of the city, who resorted to him in a constant stream for the healing of their diseases and to listen to his teaching.  With the blessing of bishop Theopemptus of Sparta, the Saint set about building a magnificent church, zealously assisted by all the townsfolk under his watchful eye.  He obtained the intervention of God on several occasions by his prayers: rocks were removed, necessary materials and food for the workmen were miraculously supplied.  Even so, he had to put up with some rough treatment from them when he was unable to pay their wages on time.  The Church was soon completed and here the Saint lived for the rest of his life, preaching and receiving many visitors.  Later, a small monastery was added to the Church for the reception of his disciples.

 

When he had shone for some years more by his miracles and teachings, Saint Nikon fell ill and prepared to leave this world.  Gathering his disciples and fellow-workers, he told them the story of his life, with its struggles and the innumerable wonders that Grace had shown forth in him.  He stressed the urgency of repentance and of speedy return to God, because after death repentance is no longer possible.  He spoke to them of the resurrection of the dead lest they grieve at his departure, and he urged them to keep their love for God and for all men as their dearest possession, for love is the bond of perfection (Col. 3;14).  ‘Flee pride, cleave to humility; do not despise the poor; keep clear of all evil, of all envy and of the remembrance of wrongs; forgive your brethren.  Go regularly to church and confess your sins often to the priests and spiritual fathers.  If you keep these counsels, I will never abandon you.’  After commending all his spiritual children to the protection of God, he lifted up his hands to heaven for the last time, and gave back his soul to the heavenly Father (c. AD 1000).

 

Saint Nikon was immediately venerated as a Saint by the people of Sparta.  He is regarded as the protector of the city and his relics are venerated there with faith to this day.

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