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. He labored for restoration of the practice of Saturday commemoration services, for patristic ecclesiology, and generally for a synthesis of akribeia (adherence to traditional principles and canons) and oikonomia in Orthodox practice.
St. Nicodemus reposed in the Lord on July 14, 1809, and was glorified by the Orthodox Church on May 31, 1955. He is a local saint of the Metropolis of Paronaxia and the Holy Mountain. His feast day is celebrated on July 14.
St. Nicodemus was a prolific translator and editor of texts. 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.
The Orthodox theological professor Fr. Stanley Harakas, in his preface to the 1989 English translation of the saint's "A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel" in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, wrote that "He embodied the best traditions of Orthodox Christianity, which may be characterized as holistic and integrative." And Dr. George Bebis, in a survey of St. Nicodemus' prolific writings in the same volume, describes him as "A man who grasped both the letter and the spirit of the canons of the Church....also a pastor par excellence."
Although some critics 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, while making use of limited materials at hand amid the Turkish occupation of the Greek world, which involved sometimes adapting Catholic materials. Accusations of Catholic and Pietistic influences on his work, a topic of controversy going back to divisions over the Kollyvades ascetic reform movement with which St. Nicodemus was associated in the Greek Church in his day, have been disputed. For a recent detailed discussion, see the introductory materials to "Christian Morality," a 2012 English translation of his 1803 "Chrestoethia of Christians." A current commentator in the new translation remarks on how that handbook on moral behavior reflects Orthodox ascetic tradition and Athonite "monastic propriety of his age," responding at times to "conventions upheld by the civil authorities" for a populace under a Muslim colonial regime, rather than Catholic or Pietist influence. Archimandrite Chrysostom Maidones, Chancellor of the Metropolis of Hierissos in Greece, in a recent English translation of St Nicodemus' "Concerning Frequent Communion," suggests how past neglect by academic theology of the "Fathers of the Philokalic movement," including St. Nicodemus, contributed to a lack of proper context for the Saint's work among modern scholars.
Recent renewed attention in the West to the primary Orthodox context of the Saint's writings reflects the expanded availability of English translations of his major books in the past decade, as well as greater awareness of the cosmopolitan contexts of Christian sources in the early modern period--through, for example, scholarship on the sequences of translation and adaptation of Roman Catholic texts in the East, and better understanding of the influence of the Orthodox ascetic texts of the Macarian homilies on Pietism. In this light, the main context of St. Nicodemus' works can be appreciated as firmly in the tradition of Orthodox asceticism--exemplified by the sources and influence of "The Philokalia"--applicable in varying ways to monastics, clergy, and laity alike. The legacy of St. Nicodemus' voluminous scholarship can also be understood from a larger perspective as an Orthodox Christian alternative, from Mount Athos, 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 the beginning of Romanticism.
The Controversy Concerning Western Influence
An ongoing controversy concerns the extent of Western influence over the writings of St Nicodemus. What is not disputed is that some of his works are translations of Roman Catholic works, in particular (1) Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, using an Italian edition with commentary by Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti (1632-1703); and (2) Unseen Warfare, which was a translation of Spiritual Combat by the Catholic priest Lorenzo Scupoli, He was not the first Athonite monk to translate a Catholic work as an Orthodox one: in 1641, Agapios Landros (17th c.) published The Salvation of Sinners, but it was simply a translation of Dialogus Miraculorum, written in the early 13th c. by a German Cistercian, Cæsarius of Heisterbach Abbey. Such works were influential at least in part to the assumption that they were products of the Athonite monks who published them, rather than works by Roman Catholics.
There is continued disagreement about the provenance of Nicodemus' Exomologetarion, his manual for confession. Like most of his writings, it is not an original work; Nicodemus says he compiled it from "various teachers." Protopresbyter George Metallinos argues that his sources were Eastern, alleging that "he had no direct contact with Western sources," but we know with certainty the Catholic provenance of Unseen Warfare and Spiritual Exercises, which means he did have such contact. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware holds that the Exomolgetarion is "mostly a direct translation" of two books on confession by the Italian Jesuit, Paolo Segneri (1624-1694)
Christos Yannaras is perhaps the severest critic of St Nicodemus' influence, seeing the negative effects of the West not only in his repackaging of Catholic books, but by his use of Roman canon law in The Rudder, his adoption of the Anselmian view of the Atonement, and his acceptance of the Catholic practice of indulgences. (There is an extant letter by St Nicodemus to Bishop Paisios of Stagai requesting an indulgence, and promising financial payment for it.) Yannaras also sees the influence of Western pietistic moralism in Nicodemus; 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 will lead not only to their own punishment, but to the death of their unborn children.
Although Metallinos is keen to defend the Orthodoxy of Nicodemus' writings, in his introduction to the Exomologetarion he admits that its language "appears intensely scholastic" and "is repugnant to today's believer." He acknowledges that NIcodemus says things about sin, God, and God's wrath that sound quite unorthodox, writing: "Admittedly, if these phrases are detached from their context, they immediately take on a cruel, sadistic character, overturning the theology of divine love which permeates the spirit of Orthodox (ecclesiastical) soteriology (see Jn. 3:16, Rom. 5:8, etc.). For this reason, it is necessary to place them in the entire context of St. Nikodemos’ thought and activity.” Bur his attempt at such placement is unlikely to convince critics.
- Christian Morality. With Scholarly Introduction and Commentary by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna. Etna: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2012. ISBN 9781884729973
- Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ (The Works of St Nikodemos the Hagiorite, vol. 2). Uncut Mountain Press, 2006. This Is a popularization of the earlier edition complied by St Makarios of Corinth. Preface by Archimandrite Chrysostom Maidones. ISBN 9789608677852
- Confession of Faith (The Works of St Nikodemos the Hagiorite, vol. 3). Uncut Mountain Press, 2004. Translated with an Introduction By Fr. George Dokos with a Preface by George S. Bebis. ISBN 9789608677890
- Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession (The Works of St Nikodemos the Hagiorite, vol. 1). Uncut Mountain Press, 2006. Preface by Bishop Basil (Essey) of Wichita and Introduction by Protopresbyter George Metallinos. ISBN 9789608677845
- A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, published as Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel (Classics of Western Spirituality). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988. Translated by Peter a. Chamberas, with Introduction by George S. Bebis and Preface by Stanley S. Harakas. ISBN 9780809130382
- In addition to twentieth-century English editions of "The Philokalia," "Unseen Warfare," and "The Rudder," new twenty-first century English translations of St. Nicodemus' writings (some of them collaborations with St. Makarius of Corinth), often with new prefaces by Orthodox scholars, include the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies' "Christian Morality" or "Chrestoethia of Christians," the Uncut Mountain Press editions of "Exomologetarion--A Manual of Confession," "Concerning Frequent Communion," and "Confession of Faith," and the English translation of "The Synaxarion" adapted by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra.
- The account of St. Nicodemus in the above-mentioned translation of "The Synaxarion," compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra and an adaptation of St. Nicodemus' work, "July 14," pp. 146-153, includes helpful footnotes by the editor. Trans. Mother Maria Rule and Mother Joanna Burton. Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia (Chalkidike), 2008. Vol. 6.
- The Introduction to the translation of St. Nicodemus' "A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel" in the Classics of Western Spirituality series from the Paulist Press (1989), written by Dr. George Bebis, contains a helpful survey of the saint's writings.as well as a brief preface by Fr. Stanley Harakas on the importance of the saint's life and work to Orthodox history.
- Preface by Bishop Basil of Wichita to the English translation of the "Exomologetarion" from Uncut Mountain Press, http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/exo_preface.aspx.
- Modern Orthodox Saints (Vol. 3) by Constantine Cavarnos. Published by the Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994 (ISBN 0914744410)
- Christos Yannaras, Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age. Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007. (ISBN 978-1885652812)
- Kallistos Ware, "St Nikidimos and the Philokalia" in D. Conomos and G. Speake, Mount Athos the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain. Peter Lang, 2005. (ISBN 978-0820468808)
- "Nicodemus the Hagorite." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicodemus_the_Hagiorite
- Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Roman Catholic)