St Nil Sorsky
For all the Saints: Nil Sorsky
Pioneers often do not understand what they do. They start small and import ideas from one place to another. Yet we remember them as innovators. Such was St Nil Sorsky.
Nil was born Nikolai Maykov in Russia in 1433. He entered monastic life as a way to honor Christ. In 1465 he traveled to Constantinople and Mount Athos, and he remained on the holy mountain until 1478. Upon his return to Russia, he began a monastery by the river Sora, whence his name. Nil was arguably the most learned monk in Russia in his time.
Monasticism provided the heartbeat of ancient Christianity, and does so even in our day among Orthodox Christians. Monasticism takes three forms, depending on living arrangements: communal, solitary, and one where monks gather in common but live separately, named a skete after the original location in Sketis, Egypt. Nil’s monastery was the first skete in Russia, and the Rule he wrote to guide his monks remains in use today.
Nil also brought the Jesus prayer into Russian spiritual life and began the ministry of spiritual direction through startsy, “elders,” whom people consult for spiritual conversation, challenge, and guidance. He brought writings of spiritual teachers of Greece and the desert back from Mount Athos. His interest began a trajectory that led to St Paissy Velichkovsky ‘s published translation of the Philokalia, the collected writings of Orthodox prayer teachers, in the 19th century. These volumes are fundamental to Orthodox spiritual life.
A controversy arose about monastic property; St Nil sided with those who favored not owning property but rather concentrating on prayer. Those who owned property often set up hospitals and orphanages, but there was a down side to possession, as well, since some monasteries were acting as businesses and many even had serfs, which Nil found unacceptable.
In time, the church saw this controversy as a false division and healed the rift. There were excesses on both sides of the argument. As we see often, this was an argument pushed the two sides to extremes. The church never split because of this argument, however, which is important. In the end both Nil and his opponents were declared saints by the church. Nil wrote, “thinking of God, that is, mental prayer, is above all other actions and is chief of virtues, for it is the Love of God.”
We commemorate him on April 7th; his relics are at the Sora monastery.