Saint Nil Sorsky

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Nil Sorsky (Russian: Нил Сорский, also Nilus of Sora; birth name Николай Майков or Nikolai Maikov) (c. 1433 - 1508) was a leader of the Russian medieval movement opposing ecclesiastic landownership. Nil Sorsky is venerated as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. His feast day is on the anniversary of his repose on May 7.

Early life

Before becoming a monk, Nil Sorsky worked as a scribe and was engaged in book copying. Later in his life, he took monastic vows at the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, which had been known for its hostile stance towards monastic landownership. The founder of the monastery – Saint Kirill of Beloozero – was himself known for rejecting villages that had been offered to him by devout nobles.
Kirill’s followers adopted his ways and would later become known as the startsy from out the Volga with Nil Sorsky as their leader. Soon, he went on a journey to the Holy Land and visited Palestine, Constantinople, and Mount Athos, acquainting himself with a mystical doctrine of Hesychasm and reading patristic literature. Upon his return to Russia (between 1473 and 1489), Nil Sorsky founded a cloister on the Sora River (hence, Nil Sorsky, or Nil of Sora) not far from the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, where he would settle down with his followers.

Novgorod heresy affair

Nil Sorsky was involved in the Novgorod heresy affair (see Strigolniki and Sect of Skhariya the Jew for details), which had stirred a lot of minds in Russia at that time. It appears that Sorsky and his closest associate Paisiy Yaroslavov were much more tolerant towards the heretics than most of the Russian clergy, led by Archbishop Gennady and Joseph Volotsky.

In 1489, Gennady (Archbishop of Novgorod) embarked on the path of fighting the heretics and asked Archbishop of Rostov to consult with the elders Nil Sorsky and Paisiy Yaroslavov (who had been living in his eparchy) and seek their assistance in this matter. Historical accounts of that period do not shed any light on the outcome of these "negotiations", but from that time on there seems to have been no interaction between Sorsky and Yaroslavov on one side and Gennady and Joseph Volotsky on the other.

The two elders, however, did not treat heresy with indifference. They were both present at the Synod of 1490, which dealt with heresy, and exerted their influence upon its final decision. Initially, the clergy unanimously spoke in support of burning all the heretics at the stake. At the conclusion of the synod, however, only a few priests were condemned and then defrocked without being executed

Teaching and influence

Nil Sorsky’s teachings differed from the authoritarian nature of the Russian Orthodoxy and its obsession with outward rituals. In his teachings, he developed mystical and ascetical ideas along the lines of Gregory Sinaites's hesychasm, asking the believers to concentrate on their inner world and personal emotional experiences of faith as means for achieving unity with God. Nil Sorsky demanded that monks participate in productive labor and spoke in support of monastic reforms on a basis of a secluded and modest lifestyle.

Nil Sorsky dedicated his efforts towards fighting against monastic landownership rights at the Synod of 1503 in Moscow. There, he raised a question about monastic estates, which comprised about one third of the territory of the whole Russian state at that time and which, in his view, had been responsible for demoralization of the Russian monastic communities. Nil Sorsky was supported by the elders of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and his disciple Vassian Patrikeyev. Although he spoke in favor of Ivan III’s policy of secularization of monastic lands, Sorsky did not live long enough to see the end of this struggle. Patrikeyev and Artemius of the Trinity were Nil Sorsky’s successors.

In the revolutionary year of 1917 the Russian Orthodox church was also drawn into the turmoil of renovations.

The key event in the history of the Church in the 20th century that marked the end of "Synodal era" which lasted since Peter I, was the National council of the Russian Orthodox church that opened on August 28, 1917 and lasted off and on till September 7, 1918. It reestablished the Patriarchate and the ancient tradition of regular Councils as the supreme bodies of the church authority. The authority of Patriarch Tikhon (Bellavin) elected by the Council on November 18, 1917, the former Metropolitan of Moscow, had to strengthen the Church unity and help preserve rich Russian moral and cultural heritage for posterity.

Primate Tikhon started his road to Calvary in the Kremlin Dormition Cathedral. At that time the central drum of the cathedral's five domes gaped with a shapeless shell breach - it was a bad sign, but the Patriarch did not change the ancient place of enthronement.

He walked firmly along the Kremlin yard, and the believers looked at the long awaited sympathizer and protector of the Church with great hope. They thought that during the time of troubles the Patriarch's authority would strengthen the Church unity and infuse a fresh spiritual impetus into the religious life of Russia. Few believed in "democratic" foundations of the revolution, which were so loudly proclaimed by its heralds during whine of bullets.

The Soviet authorities reasoning from the principle of ideological monopoly regarded Patriarch Tikhon's election as a threat from the opposing political force, him being the successor and carrier of the ideas of abolished monarchism. Fear of the union of the real contemporary political opponents under the Church banners urged the Bolsheviks on to start an anti-Church war, for which they needed a weighty and obvious pretext.

Atheist propaganda started the count of "anti-state" deeds of the clergy since November 11, 1917, when in the letter of the National council the socialist revolution was called "Antichrist invasion and raging godlessness". However nobody ever wrote about the actual reasons of adoption of such an appeal. It was preceded by closing of all educational institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church according to the decree of SNK (People's Commissars Council).

The next day a "Declaration of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church" appeared on the streets, squares and churches of Moscow:

"On Sunday, November 12, in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, after the Liturgy the memorial service (panikhida) will be held on behalf of the Holy Council for all who have fallen during the civil bloodshed on the streets of Moscow. The Moscow residents - the rich and the poor, the noble and the common, the military and the civil - all are invited to come forgetting dissension among parties and keeping in mind only the commandments of great Christ's love to unite in the common prayer for the blessed repose of the deceased".

The panikhida for the killed irrespective of their political color - "red" or "white" took place. Not only the members of Moscow Council tried to prevent the civil disorders, the parish clergymen also did as much as they could. Ioann Kochurov, the archpriest of the St. Catherine Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo village near St.-Petersburg, was one of those men. On November 12, 1917, he headed a religious procession with prayers for the cessation of fighting. His sermon during the procession summoned the Orthodox to the composure in view of the coming ordeals. On November 13, 1917, the Bolsheviks occupied Tsarskoye Selo. Arrests of the priests followed, including Fr.Ioann. The furious soldiers took him to the airfield where he was shot without any legal proceedings or investigation in presence of his son, a grammar-school boy then. Only in the evening the parishioners could take the body of the murdered pastor to the chapel of the palace hospital and from there - to the St.Catherine Cathedral, where on Saturday, November 17, 1917, the Memorial was served. At the request of the parishioners Fr.Ioann was buried under the Cathedral. Priest-martyr Ioann was canonized by the Assembly of Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church (December 2, 1994).

On December 31, 1917, the Decree of VCIK (All-Russian Central Executive Committee) and SNK on civil marriage, on children and on keeping the civil registry books, which declared the church marriage invalid. In January 1918 the SNK decree abolished all army priests, cancelled all state grants and subventions to the Church and the clergy

On January 20, 1918, the SNK Decree on liberty of conscience, church and religious societies was adopted (published on January 23) that separated the Church from the State, started nationalization of the church property and placed the Russian Orthodox Church within the narrow limits of numerous bans and restrictions. Henceforth it was no more a legal person, it lost its property and the right to acquire it. The draft of this decree, published on January 13, 1918, provoked a storm of indignation among the clergy and believers.

On January 25, 1918, the National Council evaluated the Bolshevik decree as follows: "under the image of the law on liberty of conscience it represents an evil encroachment upon the entire order of the Orthodox Church life and an undisguised act of its persecution".

And in the evening of the same day Russia was shocked by terrible news: in Kiev Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kiev, the oldest archpriest of the Russian Orthodox Church, was killed. His martyrish death was the first among the archpriests (on April 4, 1992, Metropolitan Vladimir was canonized by the Assembly of Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church).

On January 25, 1918, late at night the news about the Kiev tragedy reached Moscow. The participants of the Council took the most important decisions about the further existence of the Church under the Bolshevik persecution: the Patriarch was suggested to choose several locum tenens for the case of illness, death and other sad possibilities. The candidates had to be named in the order of precedence.

Three locum tenens were named: Metropolitan Kirill (Smirnov), Metropolitan Agafangel (Preobrazhensky) and Metropolitan Peter (Poliansky).

It was also decided to introduce during the services a special petition for the persecuted for the Orthodox faith and Church, deceased confessors and martyrs, and to set an annual memorial on January 25 or the evening of Sunday following it. Memorial day of new martyrs and confessors.
The first wave of repressions (1918-20) took away about 9000 lives. The Russian church entered the path to the Calvary.

Repressions against the clergy did not lessen even after the Patriarch's letter "On cessation of clergy's fighting against the Bolsheviks" in September 1919. Its realization was unilateral: the priests did their duty at the places of their ministry and rejected everything that was contrary to the Patriarch's letter, and the Soviets proceeded with their terror policy.

They year of great famine in Russia is memorable with one more tragedy - the state campaign for requisitioning the Church valuables. For a long time the official version dominated, according to which the Church resisted to hand over its valuables intended by the authorities for rendering help to the starving people. In reality everything was quite different. As early as in August 1921 Patriarch Tikhon established the church committee to help the starving. On February 19, 1922 the parishes and church boards got Patriarch's permission to donate precious church decorations and other things, which had no liturgical use, for the needs of the starving. An orthodox movement of rendering help to the starving that gain momentum was not desired by the authorities. Requisitioning of church valuables according to Lenin's plan had to make a fund of "several hundreds of millions of rubles". This was the financial aspect of the campaign. But there was also a political one. In the course of requisitioning it was decided to start "the most resolute and merciless combat against reactionary clergy and suppress its resistance with such violence that they would not forget it for a few following decades". In Moscow, Petrograd, Shuya, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Smolensk, Staraya Russa processes took place followed by mass execution of the clergy and other participants of resistance in requisition of valuables.

In Petrograd there were 80 accused and 4 death sentences, including Metropolitan Veniamin (Kazansky); in Moscow - 154 accused, 11 death sentences. Even the Patriarch was arrested. At that time, very hard for the Church, the State does its utmost to stimulate the activity of renovation movement formed already before October 1917: it backed renovation editions; OGPU (Unified State Political Directorate) deported disagreeable bishops; splitted the laymen. This policy was aimed at breaking up of the Orthodox Church into groups hostile to each other. In this case it would cease to be the force spiritually opposing the Bolshevik dictatorship. The number of martyrs grew. During the period of the campaign of requisition of the church valuables over 10000 people were condemned, including 2000 shot.

In the hardest years of totalitarianism that quickly gained strength Metropolitan Sergius (Starogorodsky) was one of the most significant figures of the Russian Orthodox Church, who made his PERSONAL sacrifice for the salvation of the Church life. Appreciating the viewpoint of the Metropolitan N.Berdiaev wrote from abroad: "Heroic intransigency of a single person, ready to go to the execution, is impressive, weighty and admirable. But there, in Russia, there is also another heroism, another sacrificiveness, that is not easily appreciated by people. Patriarch Tikhon, Metropolitan Sergius are not individual persons, who can think only about themselves. Not only their own fate is in their hands, but also the fate of the Church and church people as a whole. They can and must forget about themselves, about their purity and beauty and speak only what is salutary for the Church. It is an enormous personal sacrifice. Patriarch Tikhon made this sacrifice, so did Metropolitan Sergius. Once this sacrifice was made by St.Aleksandr Nevsky in his trip to the Khan Horde.

An individual person can prefer personal martyrdom. But the position of a hierarch at the head of the Church is different, he has to choose a different martyrdom and make a different sacrifice."
In 1930 over 30 bishops rejected administrative submission to the Primate of the Russian Church Metropolitan Sergius, disputing the compromise with the authorities and not seeing any real external circumstances of the church life. In the history of the Church all the schisms resulted in its weakening. The majority of the Nepominately (those who refused to pray for the authorities) were arrested and sent to labor camps and in exile in 1928-1929: Metropolitan Iosif (Petrovykh), Archbishops Seraphim (Samoilovich), Varlam (Ryashentsev), bishops Viktor (Ostrovidov), Dimitry (Lyubimov) and many other who chose the way of martyrdom.

The offensive against the Russian Orthodox Church was continued with strengthening of the campaign of the militant atheists, and quick industrialization of the country gave a stimulus to the "anti-bell" campaign.
Metropolitan Sergius found himself in isolation, face to face with an atheist orgy, that took larger and larger scale. After taking the bells the churches were demolished. From 1930 till 1934 their number reduced by 30%.

Stalin's thesis about intensification of class struggle on the way to socialism untied hands of not only NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs), but also of the atheists. Thousands of pastors and believers were repressed. Each of them had to fill a questionnaire, that determined the grade of regime's tolerance of the person. The parish life was controlled by supervision inspectors who were stool-pigeons of NKVD.

In summer 1937 by Stalin's command the order was prepared to shoot all the confessors, who were in prison or in camps within four months. Priest-martyr Metropolitan Petr (Poliansky) who had spent in prison and exile 12 years was killed. The sentence was executed on October 10, 1937.

One by one the hierarchs were killed crowing their deeds as Confessor-Martyrs by shedding their blood for Christ. On December 11, 1937, on the training ground Butovo near Moscow Metropolitan Seraphim (Chichagov) was shot. On the last day of the horrible year 1937 one of the most notable confessors of the Orthodoxy Archbishop Faddey (Uspensky) was shot. The year of the "Great Purge" and the following year 1938 were the hardest for the clergy and laymen - 200 000 repressed and 100 000 executed. Each second priest was shot.

But the Orthodox Church put up a strong resistance to the totalitarian regime. Clergy and laymen ended their earthly way with great faith, firmness and self-denial. And if it comes to glorifying all Russian martyrs of the 20th century, the Russian Orthodox Church will become the Church of the Russian New Martyrs.

Olga Vasilieva