Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain

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Icon of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain

Our venerable and God-bearing Father Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, also Nikodemos the Hagiorite and Nicodemos the Athonite, was a great theologian and teacher of the Orthodox Church, reviver of hesychasm, canonist, hagiologist, and writer of liturgical poetry. His life and works helped provide (among other things) an experiential Orthodox response to contemporary Western Enlightenment culture.

St. Nicodemus was born Nicholas Kallivourtzis c. 1749 in Naxos, Greece. According to his biographer, he was possessed of "great acuteness of mind, accurate perception, intellectual brightness, and vast memory", qualities which were readily apparent to those who furthered him along in his learning. He passed from the tutelage of his parish priest to that of Archimandrite Chrysanthos, who was the brother of St. Cosmas Aitolos. From there he made his way to Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), where he studied at the Evangelical School. Here he studied theology, as well as ancient Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. Persecution from the Turks, who ruled the Greek world at the time, cut his schooling short, and he returned to Naxos in 1770. He studied at Smyrna but was forced to abandon his studies during a time of Ottoman persecution.

In 1775 he became a monk of Dionysiou on Mount Athos. Upon being tonsured a monk, Nicholas' name was changed, as is the custom for those who had abandoned the world, to Nicodemos. He was initiated into the practice of hesychia, a method of prayer involving inner stillness, controlled breathing, and repetition of the "Jesus Prayer" (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). Nicodemos aligned himself with the monks known as Kollyvades, who sought a revival of traditional Orthodox practices and patristic literature, and he would spend the remainder of his life at work translating and publishing those works. He would also compose many original books of his own.

In 1777, Saint Makarius of Corinth visited him and gave him three texts to edit and revise: the Philokalia, a defining work on monastic spirituality, On Frequent Holy Communion and the Evergetinos, a collection drawing on the lives of the desert fathers. He also wrote original works such as Lives of the Saints. He also later compiled the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian and the writings of St. Gregory Palamas, although the latter collection was sadly and mistakenly destroyed amid political controversy over Greek revolts.

While some modern scholars have criticized his writings for influence from Roman Catholic spirituality, canon law, and theology, his life work clearly focused on reviving traditional Orthodox texts and ascetic practices, making use of limited materials at hand amid the Turkish occupation of the Greek world, which involved sometimes adapting Catholic materials. He translated and revised "The Spiritual Combat" (1589) by Lorenzo Scupoli, a Catholic priest of Venice, renaming it "Unseen Warfare," as well as the "Spiritual Exercises" of J.P. Pinamonti (sometimes wrongly thought to have been Ignatius Loyola's work), probably via a Greek translation by Emmanuel Rominantes. While "The Rudder" centered on canons of the Ecumenical Councils and important local councils of the Orthodox Church, he drew also in it on Roman canon law. He articulated the Atonement at times in Anselmian terms, although upholding the Orthodox hesychastic sense of salvation in his writings. There is an extant letter by St Nicodemus to Bishop Paisios of Stagai requesting an indulgence, and promising financial payment for it, and his manual on sacramental confession, the "Exomologetarion" is a reworking of two books on confession by Paulo Segneri, a Jesuit. However, as revised by him in Orthodox terms, the latter became a standard confessional guide in Greek Orthodoxy. The influence of Western pietistic moralism has been alleged in his "Chrestoethia of Christians" (1803), in which he condemns musical instruments, dancing, (non-liturgical) singing, the telling of jokes, etc., and tells Christians that such conduct can lead not only to their own punishment.

Recent new attention to the Saint's works in their primary Orthodox context reflects the expanded availability of English translations of his major works, as well as greater awareness of the cosmopolitan contexts of Christian sources in the early modern period, the latter involving both scholarship on the sequences of translation and adaptation of Roman Catholic texts in the East, and understanding of the influence of the Orthodox ascetic texts of the Macarian homilies on Pietism in the Eighteenth Century. In this light, the main context of his works can be appreciated as firmly in the tradition of Orthodox asceticism--exemplified by the influence of his compilation of "The Philokalia"--applicable in varying ways to monastics, clergy, and laity alike. The legacy of St. Nicodemus' voluminous scholarship thus can be understood from a larger perspective in part as an Orthodox response to a variety of eighteenth-century cultural movements in Europe, including not only the Enlightenment, but also the aftermath of the Counter-Reformation, Pietism, and Romanticism.

St. Nicodemus reposed in the Lord in 1809 and was glorified by the Orthodox Church in 1955. He is a local saint of the Metropolis of Paronaxia and the Holy Mountain. His feast day is celebrated on July 14.


"The Synaxrion," compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra (an adaptation of St. Nicodemus' work), "July 14," pp. 146-153, including the current editor's footnotes. Trans. Mother Maria Rule and Mother Joanna Burton. Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia (Chalkidike), 2008. Vol. 6.

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