Nikon of Optina
New Hiero-confessor Nikon (Belyaev) of Optina was a schemamonk among the group of monastics of Optina Monastery in the nineteenth century who were known as the Optina Elders. The Elder Nikon is venerated on June 25 and with all the Optina Elders on October 11.
Nicholas Belyaev was born on September 26, 1888, the fourth of six sons of Metrophanes Nikolayevich and Vera Lavrentyevna Belyaev who were devout parents and belonged to one of Moscow's merchant families. During Nicholas' first year, the Belyaev family received a visit from St. John of Kronstadt who blessed Vera and gave her a signed photograph of himself.
Nicholas and his brother John enjoyed going to church and reading the Holy Scriptures and other spiritual books. As they grew, John and Nicholas decided to embrace monasticism. To aid in their search, the brothers cut up a list of Russia's monasteries from an old book. After praying to God, Nicholas was asked to pick one of the strips from the pile. The strip he selected read, "The Optina Hermitage of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, Kozelsk." Until that moment, neither of the boys had heard of this monastery.
With their mother's blessing, the brothers traveled to Optina on February 24, 1907 to request entry to the monastery. On December 9, they were accepted into the skete. In October 1908, Nicholas was assigned as secretary to Fr. Barsanuphius, the Superior of the Skete, a position, that except for reading and serving in church, became his chief monastic obedience for the rest of his life. Fr. Barsanuphius foresaw that he would become an excellent monk as well as a worthy disciple. Nicholas was devoted to the Elder and followed his will in all matters. In turn, Fr. Barsanuphius gave him the benefit of his knowledge and experience. During those years before the Bolshevik Revolution, Fr. Barsanuphius foresaw times of difficulty for monasteries when Christians would be persecuted and suffer martyrdom. He predicted that he himself would be dead before this happened, and that Nicholas would endure those terrible times.
On May 24, 1915, Nicholas was tonsured into the Lesser Schema and given the new name Nikon in honor of the martyr St. Nikon. On April 30, 1916, Nikon was ordained a deacon, and on November 3, 1917, a priest, as the Bolsheviks began to gain control of the government.
On September 18, 1919, Fr. Nikon was arrested and jailed without the benefit of a trial for being a monk. Later released, he was permitted to return to Optina, where the monks had formed a farming cooperative.
In 1923, the cooperative was closed by the Soviets, and the monastery was turned into a museum. Two monks were allowed to stay and work in the museum. The others were expelled from the grounds of the monastery and told to go wherever they wished. Fr. Nikon was blessed by Fr. Isaac to serve in the church dedicated to the Kazan Icon and to receive visitors.
In early 1924, the last church at Optina was closed, and Fr. Nikon was forced to leave in June. He joined Fr. Cyril Zlenko to live at Kozelsk where he continued to receive visitors and offer spiritual counsel and share money and food with those who were too old or too sick to work. As a spiritual Father, Fr. Nikon was able to help people overcome their shame and reveal the sins which had troubled them for a long time and leave Fr. Nikon feeling cleansed and renewed.
In June 1927, the Fathers Nikon, Cyril, and Agapitus (Taube) were arrested and sentenced to prison. Fathers Nikon and Agapitus were sent soon to the "Kemperpunkt" camp, where Fr. Nikon was assigned the duty of guarding the storehouses. From the camp, Fr. Nikon wrote to his spiritual children with cheerful words of encouragement. Although he accepted his imprisonment as God's will, it was nevertheless difficult for him to endure.
When their prison term ended, the two monks were sent into exile at Archangelsk, at the Arctic Circle. Before leaving the prison camp, Fr. Nikon was examined and found to have tuberculosis. The doctors advised him to request that his place of exile be changed to a place with a more suitable climate. He asked for advice from Fr. Agapitus who told him not to make such a request. At Archangelsk, Fr. Nikon was lodged in the home of an elderly woman who gave him little rest or peace. Every week he had to travel three kilometers to present himself before the authorities in the city of Pinyega.
At the beginning of Great Lent, Fr. Nikon's leg began to hemorrhage while shoveling snow. He also developed a high fever. On hearing this, his landlady, who felt no pity for him, told him that he had to leave her house so that the others would not become infected with tuberculosis.
At the time, Fr. Nikon was visited by Fr. Peter, also formerly from Optina, who took Fr. Nikon in and cared for the Elder to the best of his ability. During the last two months of his life, Fr. Nikon received Holy Communion almost every day, and his sufferings seemed to grow less severe. He often dictated to Fr. Peter letters to his spiritual children. One day, Fr. Nikon saw the Elder Macarius of Optina in a vision and told Sister Irene to pull up a chair for him. Being slow to obey him, Fr. Nikon said, "Forgive her, Father, for she is not very experienced."
On June 25, 1931, Fr. Nikon became so weak that he could not speak. Archimandrite Nikita was called to bring him Communion and to read the Canon for the Departure of the Soul. That night the Elder Nikon fell asleep in the Lord at the age of forty-three.
Elder Nikon of Optina was glorified with all the Elders of Optina by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1990. The feast day for St. Nikon of Optina is June 25.