The following article, on His Holiness Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681), was written twenty years ago, in 1985. Ten years later it was published in the first and second editions of our Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition. We now publish it unchanged, this time on the internet, in commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of Patriarch Nikon’s birth. For, in the words of His Beatitude Metropolitan Antony of Kiev (1863-1936), exactly seventy-five years ago, Patriarch Nikon was ‘the greatest man in Russian history’.
Now that the Church inside Russia is rising from the tomb of the Soviet Golgotha, this short essay represents our very modest contribution to the efforts of those pious Orthodox who wish to see both the canonization of Patriarch Nikon and Metropolitan Antony inside Russia. On 17/30 August we commemorate the 324th anniversary of the repose of Patriarch Nikon. Like Metropolitan Antony long after him, Patriarch Nikon believed that the role of Russian Orthodoxy was not merely national but universal.
After the fall of Rome into heresy in 1054, and then the Fall of Constantinople, New Rome, in 1453, there came to Russia the concept of Moscow the Third Rome (‘a Fourth there will not be’). However, in the seventeenth century, the great Patriarch Nikon had another vision, a spiritual one, that of Moscow the New Jerusalem. In 1917 the concept of Moscow the Third Rome fell. That of Moscow the New Jerusalem was put on hold. It is our express hope that, one day, his vision of multinational Orthodoxy at the New Jerusalem Monastery south of Moscow will one day rise again.
On 17/30 August may all commemorate memorial services that, ‘by his holy prayers also’, we may be saved.
Patriarch Nikon and the New Jerusalem
The year 1453, the year of the Fall of Constantinople, New Rome, was a fateful year for all Orthodox Christendom in the Middle East and the Balkans. For them it meant that any hope of pushing back the Muslim Turks and freeing their Orthodox homelands from oppression would be definitively lost for some 400 years. However, for Russia and the Russian Church the significance of this date was no less great.
Firstly, it meant that the Russian State was the only Orthodox land free to protect and conserve Orthodoxy from the dual threat of Islam and Roman Catholicism. From history we know that the realization of this Messianic task came to be called the idea of ‘Moscow the Third Rome’. Secondly, it also meant that Russia lost touch with ancient centres of Orthodoxy in the Holy Land and the Holy Mountain. In this way Russia lost touch with a broader, more catholic vision of Orthodoxy, that had been the norm in Constantinople, with its cosmopolitan relations and missionary efforts.
The temptations that the Russian people and State underwent after the fall of Constantinople can clearly be seen in a number of events in the 15th and 16th centuries. There was, first of all, the conflict between the ‘Josephites’ and the Transvolga Elders, followers of St. Nilus of Sora. This was in fact a conflict between those who supported the growing influence and power of the expansionary Russian State over the Church, and those who considered the role of the Church and, especially monasticism, to be purely spiritual and independent of the State.
The second notable conflict was at the end of the 1560s, when Ivan the Terrible had St Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow, murdered. Here again the conflict was that between Church and State. Ivan, torn between the duties of the Orthodox Emperor, or Tsar, and the increasingly Western, especially Renaissance Italian, influences of his entourage, had become what today we would call a ‘schizophrenic’. Only this can explain his alternating outbursts of Christian fervour and Machiavellian megalomania. This tragic personality split mirrored a potential split between Church and State. This split would continue until either the two sides could be welded together in the symphonia of Orthodox Theology, or else, until one side totally dominated and subjugated the other. When this moment came, when, in other words, Russian history came to a turning-point, the Russian Church was presided over by its greatest Patriarch: Nikon.
Of peasant origin, a man of the people, this brilliant bishop was above all a monk, whose inner life was centred on monastic feats and ascetic endeavours. Such were the qualities of this monk that it soon became clear that the Church would call him to serve in another capacity also. And so it was that in 1652, he was called on to become Patriarch. Here we must be quite clear, Nikon himself never desired to be Patriarch. Indeed, at first he refused the proposition, and finally accepted only on condition that all the Russian Orthodox would be obedient to the Tradition of Holy Orthodoxy and to him as their Patriarch.
Here we see that the holy hierarch sensed the manifold temptations that Russia was undergoing at the time and saw that the only solution was the full confession of Orthodoxy. Russia should become like a monastery. The Russian people, Tsar included, should owe him obedience in all spiritual matters. He would be ‘the Abbot of Russia’. Herein there was no arrogance - for his part he had refused to be Patriarch, it was the Tsar and the people who had pleaded with him to be Patriarch. Nikon must have understood what would be necessary if Russia were to remain an Orthodox land and the measures that would have to be taken if the problems that had accumulated were to be dealt with. These problems were such that only a monastic and ascetic attitude towards them on the part of the whole land would lead to a solution: hence his call to monastic obedience - which he obtained.
How then did the Patriarch, unanimously elected, deal with the problems that had come to a head, and what was the exact nature of these problems? How did the Patriarch nearly succeed and how was his work undone? Is there any truth in the accusation that the Patriarch was responsible for the Old Ritualist Schism through his overbearing pride? This accusation was continually made against him throughout the Synodal period of Russian Church history, when the Patriarchate was abolished and the Church run on Protestant lines by a Ministry, and the accusation was then faithfully repeated by Western historians. Let us attempt to answer these questions in the light of the Orthodox Faith.
The first great issue in Russian Church life of the time of Patriarch Nikon was perhaps the conflict between the spiritual descendants of St Joseph of Volotsk and St Nilus of Sora. St Joseph and his disciples had said that monasteries could be landowners, working together with the State. St Nilus and his followers had said no. As a man of prayer and fasting, Nikon could not help sympathising with the monastic and hesychast tradition of the ‘Nilites’. On the other hand, as Patriarch, Nikon was fully aware of the need for close collaboration between Church and State, as in the tradition of St Joseph, who had already been canonized by the Church. He knew well the dangers of a disincarnate mysticism and spiritualism, but he also knew of the dangers of the Church being subordinated to the State.
The Patriarch was a deep theologian and wished to see a full Orthodox symphonia, or harmony, between Church and State. He was a theologian of the Incarnation, but he was perhaps above all one who valued balance and harmony, understanding that Nilus was also a saint, one day to be canonized also. In Church-State relations Patriarch Nikon desired to see balance and harmony. The ramifications and implications of this appreciation of the traditions of both St Joseph and St Nilus, we shall further see below.
The second issue was not an internal problem, but an external one. It concerned the differences between Russian liturgical books and practices and those of the Greeks. Being himself of the people, the Patriarch knew how attached the devout peasant was to the rites of the Church. He knew therefore that any harmonization of Russian practices with the Greek ones, any ‘reform’, would have to be carried out with a certain suppleness and diplomacy. On the other hand, he also realized that it was necessary to bring Russian liturgical practice into line with the practice of the ancient Orthodox East.
This was because he saw the need for Orthodox unity on a worldwide level against the twofold menace of Islam and the West. Russia could not truly accept the responsibility of being ‘the Third Rome’, if the Russian Church did not agree in all things with the rest of the Orthodox Church. Russia could not remain an isolated province when the rest of the Orthodox world was calling on her to defend the integrity of the Orthodox Faith. If Moscow were to be the Third Rome, it would have to assume responsibility seriously, otherwise the title would remain hollow. The breadth of vision of the holy Patriarch continues to astonish us at a time when we consider ourselves to be international. And not only did he have the vision of a strong and solidly unified Church, unified even to the point of liturgical custom, but he was also ready to put this vision into practice, staking his own position on it.
In considering Moscow to be the Third Rome, the Patriarch could not but take into account the fates of the first two Romes. The first had fallen to the temptation of worldly power, offered to it by the semi-barbarian Franks, in exchange for the right to corrupt Western Christendom by altering the Creed with the addition of the filioque. The second had fallen to a similar temptation, that of selling its faith to the West at the Council of Florence in exchange for the dream of military protection against the Turks. It must have been clear to the Patriarch that the same fate could befall the Third Rome, if it should agree to exchange its faith for worldly power and glory.
Already there were those who, bigoted and ignorant considered the Russian State infallible and were ready, under Western ideological influence, to sacrifice all to the State. In order to counterbalance the growing dangers of this ideology, the Patriarch put forward a new notion - that of Moscow the Second Jerusalem. But this was not a mere notion, an idea; the ever energetic genius of the Patriarch implemented the idea by building the New Jerusalem complex south of Moscow. Choosing an area that resembled quite remarkably Jerusalem and a river, the Istra, that resembled remarkably the Jordan, the Patriarch incarnated the idea of Moscow the Second Jerusalem.
At the heart of Russia, the centre of worldwide Orthodoxy, there would be an inner Jerusalem, incarnated in stone, so that the Russian State would be unable to forget its true, Messianic vocation. It would be able to bring the New Jerusalem, Sion, the Church, to all the peoples of the Earth, to uphold and protect the Faith of the Church against all aggressors, to make the human divine, to bring Heaven to Earth by raising up Earth to Heaven. Such was the theology of this new Church Father, Patriarch Nikon. New Jerusalem would be open to all peoples, made Orthodox, who would pray and work together in a living icon, related to the heavenly prototype of the New Jerusalem. Here the peoples of the Earth would dwell together in catholic unity, in the image and resemblance of the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity.
For Moscow to be a New Jerusalem, however, yet another issue would have to be settled; this was the question of relations between Russia and the West. This issue, as we shall see, was in many ways the most significant, even if most people were not conscious of it at the time. Patriarch Nikon was. He realized that Western Europe had, through its ideology and therefore technology, already become the most significant power in the world. Western influence had penetrated among the court nobles, there was a strong Western influence in the West of Russia, a strong, Western mercantile influence in Moscow and the memory of the Polish occupation of Moscow only two generations before was still fresh in the minds of many. How long would it be before this influence would make itself felt in the Church or on the Tsar himself?
In order to combat these influences, the State and the Church tried to contain foreigners, ‘Germans’, to certain areas and convert them to Orthodox Christianity. Symbolic of this was the denunciation in 1655 of ‘Frankish’ icons. These ‘icons’, or rather religious pictures, were so called because they were painted in a Western, realistic style. They resembled more the sentimental, fleshly art of Poland and Italy than the iconography of the Church. The Patriarch collected these ‘icons’ from the houses of nobles and on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 1655 anathematized those who painted or possessed these Latin images. The pictures were then either buried or else overpainted in the Orthodox manner, becoming icons. This action was deeply symbolic, for it signified the desire of the Patriarch that Orthodoxy be purified and renewed, freed from the ever-growing menace of the West. The Patriarch wished to see the renewal of an Orthodoxy whose image was being deformed, despiritualized and dechristianized through a forgery and travesty of the Christian Faith.
Ominously, the obscurantist and ignorant enemies of Patriarch Nikon, xenophobic isolationists or westernizing nobles, began to call the holy Patriarch an iconoclast. These enemies were those for whom Orthodoxy was simply a set of external, formal rites, or else an appendage to the State, or, worse still, an Eastern rationalism. This third group was very strong in the south-west of Russia and in Kiev. Having been influenced from Poland, they had made Orthodoxy into little more than an Eastern Scholasticism on the Roman Catholic model, in method and form and spirit.
The great Patriarch Nikon had undertaken to protect the Orthodox Faith, with the agreement of the Church, the Tsar and the nobles. In view of Russia’s rise as a world power, he had taken all possible precautions to secure the future of the Church in Russia and world Orthodoxy. The way to a strong Church in Russia, to the unity of the Orthodox Church as a whole, to missionary action in Siberia, China, Alaska, Japan and even the West had been opened by this extraordinary hierarch. He had never sought to be a bishop, let alone Patriarch, but sought only the heavenly Jerusalem for all mankind and this was incarnated in the building of the New Jerusalem outside Moscow. Where then was the weakness, if the holy bishop had taken all possible precautions?
The first indication that all was not well came in 1656 when Tsar Alexis, with whom the Patriarch’s relations had at first been so balanced and harmonious, returned from the Russo-Lithuanian War. The Patriarch wrote that the Tsar ‘...had become proud, started to despise the commandments and even tried to interfere in the affairs of the Church’. (A History of the Russian Church by Metropolitan Macarius, Vol XII, p. 309). It would seem that from this time onwards, exalted by his worldly victories, the Tsar no longer wished to accept the situation of ‘symphony’ between Church and State. Influenced by Western ideas, he wished to see an absolutist monarchy on Western lines. What was happening in these fateful years was that the Orthodox monarchy was developing into monarchism, in other words, an anti-ecclesial ideology. It is no surprise to learn that from this point on the State began to intervene ever more in Church affairs, in particular it was the State which was responsible for the Old Ritualist Schism. Patriarch Nikon, seeing what was happening, again in 1658 tendered his resignation.
The State was the direct cause of the Schism of the Old Ritualists. The Patriarch was quite willing for those who did not wish to accept modifications to Russian Church ritual, to bring it into line with the practices of the rest of the Orthodox Church, to continue to use their ‘old’ rites. He was a man of the people and well understood the desire of the simple to keep their former ways. He required only one thing, that those who kept the ‘old’ rites remain in obedience and unity with the rest of the Church. Metropolitan Macarius writes that if Nikon had continued to be Patriarch, there would never have been a schism. (A History of the Russian Church, Vol. XII, pp.225-226). The schism did not start until the Patriarch had been removed from office and indeed it only gained strength after the Patriarch’s repose. The State did not share Nikon’s tolerance. It required full uniformity. After the repose of the Patriarch, it began to persecute those who continued to use the ‘old’ rites, thus embittering those who resisted change and ensuring that the Old Ritualists would endure. Patriarch Nikon, on the other hand, did not persecute, even though he knew that many of the ‘old’ rites were in fact relatively recent innovations. Against the conservatives he opposed the Tradition, the breathing of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Without persecution the Old Ritualists would have died out by themselves. The State, however, did not view matters in this way. Little wonder that many called the successor of Tsar Alexis, Peter I, ‘Antichrist’.
We know that in the later history of Patriarch Nikon, he was at first slandered and then condemned, later to be restored, but too late, after his repose. As in the earlier case of St. Photius the Great, Patriarch of Constantinople, there were many intrigues against Nikon, many sold their souls to the State, and the most important intrigues went as far as Rome through the apostate and defrocked (for sodomy) Uniat bishop, Paisius Ligarides. Some slandered Nikon by asserting that he was a careerist, he wanted absolute power for himself Of course the Patriarch had no pretensions. He never wanted to be Patriarch, offering his resignation twice, in 1655 and 1658. Nevertheless, we also know that for the Russian people, both at his repose and after, Patriarch Nikon was looked on as a saint, as a righteous passion-bearer for the Orthodox Faith, a confessor. Indeed many miracles were recorded, right up to the Revolution, at his tomb in the Monastery of the Resurrection in New Jerusalem to the south of Moscow. But what can we say about the consequences of this momentous Church-State conflict? What can we conclude? What lesson can be drawn?
In defying the Patriarch and therefore Orthodoxy, Tsar Alexis opened the way for Peter I and then the German Catherine, who so violently persecuted Russian monasticism, and the whole Synodal period of Russian Church history. The idea of Moscow the Third Rome became a nationalist State ideology, because it was not shared with the spiritual idea of Moscow the Second Jerusalem. The whole mechanism of Church and State became unbalanced, disharmonious, deregulated, like a machine running out of control. Although some of the later Tsars were most virtuous - we can think especially of the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas - they were trapped in a system that was headed for destruction. Ritual had to be balanced by inner content, by prayer. The international breadth of vision of Patriarch Nikon was lost in a sometimes chauvinistic and intolerant State ideology. As for the ‘Frankish’ icons that the Patriarch had publicly condemned, they soon became so widespread in Russian society that the Old Ritualists became virtually the only ones who remained faithful to canonical Orthodox iconography.
But we should not paint too black a picture of the consequences of this Church-State conflict, of this self-imposed dechristianization of the Russian State. There were certainly tragedies in the Synodal period, when Russia for over two hundred years remained without a Patriarch - but there were also triumphs of the spirit. We must not forget the sacrifices of those bishop-saints of the 18th and 19th centuries who remained faithful to Orthodox Tradition. We must not forget the efforts of Sts Paisy (Velichkovsky) and Seraphim of Sarov, by whose prayers Russia was probably saved from the demonism of both Napoleon and Hitler. We cannot forget the saintly hermits, the Elders of Optina and the great flowering of monastic-led, Orthodox piety in the last century. They culminated in the worldwide missions of Orthodoxy in Asia and even the West. In Russia they led to the spiritual phenomenon of St. John of Kronstadt and prepared hundreds of thousands for the ultimate sacrifice in the contemporary martyrdom of the Russian Church.
From this greatest of Russian Patriarchs we learn, however, the greatest of lessons: if our lives are not based on prayer, on the New Jerusalem, then our kingdom will fall, for the Lord Jesus Christ is at the centre of all things. And if for a time, the duration of which is known to God alone, the New Jerusalem, that icon of Heaven built by the holy Patriarch, lies silent and deserted in the Moscow countryside, it in no wise signifies that our hearts, also called to be icons of Heaven, need lie silent and deserted. For as long as Christ lives within us, the New Jerusalem also lives within us.