One thing that I have found out since being in Russia is that there were a lot more elders and spiritual fathers of a great degree during the Soviet years. I had long been under the impression that with the death of the last Optina elder the sources were pretty much dried up. This, however, turns out to be far from the case the more I am able to read in the original Russian sources. With this I begin what will be a long series of translations of Letters to Spiritual Children of Hegumen Nikon (Vorobyov) who is one such example of the continuation of the depth of Orthodox spirituality and wisdom through the second “time of troubles.”
About the author
Igumen Nikon (Nikolai Nikolaevich Vorobyov) was born into a large peasant family in the Bezhetsk district of the Tver region in 1894. During his secondary school studies he showed talents in various subjects – music, art, mathematics, and foreign languages. Desiring to become a psychiatrist he entered the St. Petersburg Neuropathological Institute but suddenly underwent a crucial turning point in his worldview. He became dissolutioned in the ability of science to understand man and experienced a sincere conversion to God, dropped out of the institute after the first year, and began to live an ascetical life of solitude studying the Gospel and the Holy Fathers, in which he found the “one thing needful” [Luke 10:42]. In 1917 he entered the Moscow Theological Academy which he wasn’t able to finish as it was closed by the government in 1919. Upon this, he returned to his life of podvig and spent ten years in solitude and prayer in the small town of Sukhinichi. He was tonsured a monk in 1931 in Minsk and ordained a priest the following year. On March 23, 1933, (the same date as his tonsure) he was arrested and sentenced to four years in a Siberian camp. After his release he settled in Vishniy Volochok as a servant for a private doctor. When, towards the end of the war, churches were opened Fr. Nikon was assigned first to Kozelsk [village near Optina Pustyn], then to Belov, Efremov, and Smolensk from which he was sent, as if in exile, to Gzhatsk. Here he spent the remainder of his life (passing away on September 7, 1963) and acquired much love as a pastor and spiritual father. His popularity was so great that at one time he was forbidden from accepting visitors. By his own admission, only in this final period did he reach the “beginning of humility,” that is, a distinct understanding not with the mind but with the heart; the understanding that we are nothing by ourselves, but the creation of God; and that “we have nothing which is really ours, but only the mercy of God.”
In the collection of his spiritual letters one senses the strong yet simple faith “not subtly reasoning” [Boris Godunov, Alexander Pushkin] but having the knowledge of human psychology and culture which responds to the relevant issues of the day. The foundation of his instruction is the incarnation of God as a manifestation of His infinite love towards man, and the reality of hell for those who knowingly reject that love. From the pillars of Eastern ascetics he sources St. John Climacus and St. Isaac the Syrian and from the Russian St. Ignaty (Brianchaninov) “who presented the fathers in a more accessible form taking into account new psychology.” Like them, Hegumen Nikon calls people to active humility, without which “it is impossible to have success in the spiritual life, nor to be saved.”
Carrying within themselves the highest and pure Orthodox tradition, the letters, nonetheless, seem new, for they are written not from the mind, not from books, not with another’s words, but after many years of inner struggle from the innermost depths of authentic spiritual experience.
My dearest one! There is so much to write in reply to your letter; I will set forth the most important. The Wisdom of God is so great that the Lord turns even evil into man’s benefit. This idea is laid bare by many holy fathers. This is how it is: man can be saved through faith and through the fulfilling of all the commandments. The fulfilling of the commandments changes the psyche (soul) of man, renews him, makes him new in the the image of God, more exactly, in the image of our Saviour Jesus Christ. The most important characteristic of the new man is humility (“learn of me; for I am meek and lowly…” [Matt. 11:29]), without which even the fulfilling of all the commandments not only will not bring man closer to God but will make man an enemy of God. For if there is no humility then it follows that there is bound to be pride. Particularly applicable to this charactaristic of the soul, I believe, is the thought in the Gospel that Satan, having been driven out, wanders around and then, looking back, seeing that his former home is tidied up and decorated but not occupied, takes seven other spirits, worse than himself, settles in, and in the end the soul is worse off than it was in the beginning. St. Macarius the Egyptian’s understanding of humility in relation to other virtues is seen in his proverb about a magnificent meal, arranged for the a king and the nobles. As everything had been prepared without salt (that is, humility), in the place of thankfulness to the ones who prepared the meal, they were subject to the wrath of the king. Therefore without humility all virtuous acts are in vain… With attention to oneself and a constant battle against sin it will be revealed how deeply depraved man is and how permeated he is with pride. Vanquishing every opinion of oneself, all vanity, all pride, is equal to conquering all sin. It turns out that man’s falling into sin can even help him in obtaining humility (if he doesn’t blame anyone else but accepts his own guilt, an attitude which is quite right. Man is himself guilty in everything, Satan and circumstances only assist and tempt him to sin; the final decision belongs to man, therefore he is responsible in full. This is confirmed by the pings of conscience after falling into sin.)
Struggling with sin, living within oneself, and constantly falling into one or another sin, man experientially and not theoretically comes to know his own deprivation, his own weakness, which gradually helps him to acquire humility. Everywhere and at all times vanquished by sins, man, finally, in deep contrition of heart, with tears, falls before the Lord and admits, from the depths of his soul, to his sinfulness. In his powerlessness he is unable to defeat sin and cries out to the Lord, “God, if thou wilt, thou canst make cleanse me (as the leper said [Matt. 8:2]), I cannot do anything myself… Lord, teach me to do Thy will [Ps. 142:10], Lord, bring my soul out of prison [Ps. 141:7].” Here is where man perceives the great mercy of God towards fallen man, for in sincere repentance the Lord shields man, removes his sin, heals the wounds of his soul created by sin, and man, by his own experience, comes to know God in His being, His providence for man, and perceives that “the Lord is near to them that are of a contrite heart” [Ps. 33:18], that He is truly the healer of our souls, among other things.
In this manner, falling into sin, though evil, becomes the cause of a great good. In this is the marvelous Wisdom of God, as it is in all things, in all things…
Therefore, my dear, don’t despond when you fall into sin but admit your guilt before God, confess to Him your sin, not blaming anyone, humble yourself, perceive your feebleness in everything and ask of the Lord that He will fulfill within you His holy commandments. But this doesn’t mean that you yourself don’t have to fight sin with all your efforts. You need to fight sin with all your efforts, to learn the techniques of the Holy Fathers to fight with sin, to anticipate all circumstances leading to either victory or defeat, to avoid the latter and seek the first, and, most importantly, at the beginning of sinful thoughts, don’t stop calling, with all your heart, to the Lord for help knowing your own feebleness to defeat sin. Even if you fall into sin, then, even while committing it, you should call out to the Lord and not be ashamed, place your thoughts before God saying, “Look, Lord, you see what I’m doing, have mercy on me, help me to gain freedom from the devil.” And then cry before the Lord internally, appeal to Him more often to help you throughout your life in everything, for it is hard to fulfill the commandments in this world. This is why the ancient fathers cried for the people of our time, that many would perish from sin.
There is another powerful means in the fight with sin: as soon as you have fallen into a major sin, go and confess before a priest. If you aren’t able to immediately then confess at the first chance; in no case put it off until tomorrow or later! The one who often and immediately confesses sin proves that he hates sin, that he hates the devil’s captivity, and is prepared to endure the shame of confession if it rids him and cleanses him of sin, for which he receives from the Lord a complete victory in the future, and does not fall into pride and a high opinion of himself. Pay attention to this! (The nets of the devil are everywhere).
And so, make a good beginning [Fourth evening prayer of St. John Chrysostom]: struggle according to your strength; don’t despair when you fall into sins but grieve the fall; cry out to the Lord; anticipate circumstances; and avoid the harmful and dangerous; confess immediately before a priest; acquire humility by remembering your former and present sins and falls and the Lord will help you; then you will be a skilled powerful warrior of Christ, who subsequently will be able to help others.
Don’t give way to laziness… Don’t abandon your little rule of prayer. Make a habit of, at least once an hour, turning to the Lord and the Mother of God with prayer for forgiveness and help. If you have the ability and strength then do this more often.
The Lord help you through the prayers of St. Sergei and the other Radonezh wonderworkers!