November 24, 2023

The Life of Saint Nikodemos the New of Beroia

The vita is no doubt so short because so little is known about Nikodemos. Philotheos became interested in this saint when he was superior of the monastery of Philokales in Thessalonike in the early 1340s, and inquired into the history of the holy man to whom one of the monastic chapels was dedicated. As he learned, Nikodemos had come to Thessalonike at the beginning of the 14th c., toward the end of his life, after years as a wandering hesychast. He  joined the Philokales monastery, but spent much time outside the cloister, playing the holy fool by consorting with prostitutes. His behavior aroused so much indignation that he was killed in 1307 by some local citizens, and subsequently denied burial at his monastery. Some years later a fragrant odor led to the discovery of his uncorrupted relics, and proper burial in a tomb in his original resting place outside the monastery. After several miraculous healings, the monks of Philokales built a chapel in the same location, with the support of a donation from emperor Andronikos II. His cult spread rapidly, and by 1321 an image of Nikodemos was included in the katholikon of the Hilandar monastery on Mt. Athos. (Alice-Mary Talbot, translator)

The Life of Saint Nikodemos the New of Beroia

By Philotheos Kokkinos

1. Who could pass over the story of the truly great ascetic Nikodemos, and not relate his accomplishments to God-loving ears to the best of his ability? For such an omission would certainly cause immense harm to lovers of the good. Therefore, completely casting aside my fear and hesitation, I will  briefly mention a few of his deeds for those who knew him. No one should dismiss my work offhand, judging it not worthy of the effort, since my purpose is a spiritual one, training and encouraging lovers of virtue to emulate him. Therefore I should invoke God and His initiate, on behalf of whom and for whom is the present account, so that the endeavor at hand may turn out in accordance with our prayers; for this <Nikodemos>, a most precious and true offshoot, confirmed Christ’s calling in his deeds and his death. For what he was going to be was called forth in advance.
2. His birthplace was the Thessalian city of Beroia, which is blessed in its natural location and position and many other advantages, but is adorned by none of these as much as by its very own fruit, I mean the wondrous Nikodemos. He came not from an undistinguished family, but from one of the most important in these parts. He reached maturity during the reign of the most pious and celebrated Andronikos, ruler of the Romans, who could boast of his Palaiologan lineage. Being of good character, Nikodemos embarked upon the solitary life, and leaving behind his native city, like a second Abraham or Moses, the friend of God, he chose the life of an expatriate, being oppressed, afflicted, ill-treated, wandering in desert places and mountains, constantly mortifying his flesh with fasting and vigils, and suppressing as best he could the passions generated by his flesh. He seemed to strive as much as possible to do this in secret, so that he might thereby attain greater glory from God, as one who cleverly and skillfully deceived the ruler of darkness. For the celebrated Nikodemos used to train on a daily basis in the law of the Lord, to Whom he was devoted, by Whom he was taught to raise his fingers mystically to war, and his hands precisely and noetically for battle against the enemy. And indeed this wondrous father was well girded with strength by God. Therefore he constantly delighted in God’s beauty, and through its support deemed himself worthy to enter the greater and more divine wrestling pits of virtue. Therefore after devoting himself entirely to noetic and divine activities, he revealed himself to be a tool and spiritual stringed instrument <of the Lord>. Therefore he wisely surrounded and gird-ed himself with the cardinal virtues, like stars in the firmament of his soul, from which and through which <virtues> the sun of righteousness shines  brightly on the path to heaven, smoothing it down in a precise manner.
3. Therefore he came into possession of the divine mysteries; he approached quite marvelously the mountain of impassivity, and mystically saw God through the perception of his soul. For he strove to make himself no less a lover or excellent devotee of Christ’s love, indifferent to his personal situa-tion but excessively concerned regarding divine matters, as the following will now make clear. For who mightily overcame the generative and productive passions, as he did, but subjecting them to reason he subdued or dead-ened them, to speak in a more familiar manner? Who was able to control his appetite and sexual desires, as he did, using Our Lady also as his aide? For he did not address Her as much as he wanted, but rather as much as he saw necessary to control the bonds of nature. But who could properly describe the intensity of his fasting, or his persistence in vigils, and the abundance of tears from his eyes, or his intelligence and humility, in addition to his quick comprehension which was easily able to reach as far as God? You should be  persuaded of this by his secret and continual recourse during his all-night vigils to suspension ropes 11 , which he used constantly, his boundless conver-sation with God, and his continuous meditation on and contemplation of the divine. As others loved and were adorned with pleasures, so he always loved and was adorned by difficult labors. In short, who harmonized his soul and body as he did, and lived in such a healthy condition? He preserved intact and unblemished <the admonition to live> in the image and likeness <of God>, always associating with these <rules> and, as aforementioned, delighting in God’s beauty, and gleaming all over with the divine brilliance therefrom. For he always believed that all earthly things are mere rubbish and simply mockery and dreams or the roaring of the sea, simply considering life and breath to be virtue as much as possible.
4. Towards the end of his life he came to the blessed city of Thessalonike, after previously spending time in many places. Upon his arrival, that fine worker of virtue decided he should join a monastery for the sake of <espousing the rule of> obedience, so that as a result he might enjoy more perfect rewards. Therefore he delivered himself to a monastery called Philokales, where he lived and accomplished every sort of virtue, doing this surreptitiously, as I have already mentioned, lest the devil might trip him up unobserved by means of his contrary and unstable dealings. He offered such submission and obedience to the superior of the monastery and to all the brethren as well, that they were astonished at this alone. Since he seemed to live in a heedless manner in other respects, always engaged in conversations with prostitutes and pretending to participate in boisterous revelry, as a result he was criticized by everyone. And on occasion the superior even threw him out of the monastery on this account. But that man of adamantine will bore all this steadfastly, with the good thought that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to come, and that if we suffer on account of Christ, surely we will also be glorified together with Him. For he had an instructor in all this, the spirit of truth. Therefore to the extent that he was corrupted in his outer nature, to such an extent his inner nature was being totally renewed, and as it was renewed it was beautified; and as it was beautified, Christ, the king of glory, loved this beauty, wherefore he chose to make his abode with Him. When this happened, Nikodemos did not live in himself, but rather the One Who dwelled in him lived in him; so be it. For when a soul is once and for all unified mystically with God, and so to speak is co-mingled with Him in relative fashion, it takes pleasure forever in His beauty. Wherefore neither things present nor things to come, nor anything else at all in creation will be able to distract this soul from the love of its Beloved, but whether in conversations, or in discussions, or in sleep, it always conjures up His image and sees Him attached to it in relative fashion. But let my account once more resume the narrative in sequence.
5. Once this divine Nikodemos was sent by the superior to one of the monastery’s estates, in order to check on the fields there, and during his visit there he zealously carried out his assignment, while abstaining from food. For he spent almost the whole week without eating, being nourished by his life-giving prayer alone, which the noetic bread and Son of God calls heavenly bread. And whatever food he received from the monastery, he used to either give to the poor people he en-countered (O, how remarkable was his love for Christ!) or hand over to prostitutes, giving it to them as payment, to keep them from defiling their beds by <intercourse with> him. As he did this in ardent manner, the triumphant one always seemed to strive to be seen as an imitator of the divine Vitalios, of whose lifestyle and character he was extremely fond; like a thirsty deer, or better like Joseph, he desired the sober and steadfast <way of life>, this man who was in truth also sober and steadfast, even if by wise contrivance he wished to escape the attention of his left hand, and chose to be considered and called anathema by everyone for the sake of his fellow men, in the words of the holy apostle. But he was also a distributor of grain, like Joseph, not for Egypt but for wicked women enslaved in darkness and sin (O, woe), not so that those women might basely engage again in their previous deeds, but so that he might thereby save them. And if one wished to compare to him the murder of Abel, the hospitality of Abraham or his love of the divine, the hardship of Moses on behalf of his countrymen, the campaign of Joshua against his enemies, the ardor of Elijah in his time of troubles, in my view he would not err from the truth. For one (Elijah) was stead-fast in troubles and unyielding in tribulation, another (Abraham) hospitable or a lover of the divine, yet another prudent and wise in his actions; the  blood of one (Abel) was shed, another was humble and loved his brother, another (Joshua) known for his strategy and noble victory. And through  study one imitated or gathered most, the other all the flowers of the virtues, which he deposited in the hives of his heart, which multiplied thirty and sixty and one hundred fold.
6. But this <saintly conduct> was intolerable for Satan who had malicious designs against Nikodemos from the beginning, for the common enemy of our kind bore a severe grudge against him, and ground his teeth against him in insane fashion, in his anger that such a transitory and humble nature de-sired to attain the celestial kingdom, from which he himself (Satan) had fallen headlong on account of his wicked disposition. Therefore he armed his defenders against the holy man with all his might. For when the slaves of the devil saw the holy man conversing with prostitutes and sometimes even consorting with them, and thought that he was acting in fashion similar to themselves (for how could an unholy soul consider and imagine actions of higher nature than its own?), they gnashed their teeth against him and grumbled to God, how this man could have erotic relations with their girlfriends. One day when they found him reclining in the midst of the prostitutes, they butchered him, alas, with their knives (O, what stupidity!). The victorious Nikodemos, still breathing feebly, asked to be brought to his own monastery; upon his arrival, however, he was forbidden entrance by the superior, but was permitted to receive the undefiled sacrament outside its gate. Then that man of adamantine will reproached himself greatly in an excess of humility, proclaiming that he was not only unworthy to enter the monastery, but also unworthy of life here on earth and of the life to come, since he had always  been prone to the basest passions. He then delivered up his spirit to God. He was at that time about forty years old, or a little older.
7. They then dishonorably removed his totally honorable body from the gate, since the celebrated Nikodemos had given these instructions while he was still alive, in order to attain greater rewards, and they buried him some-where very close to the monastery. But his murderers soon paid the penalty for their crime. For somewhere outside of but close to Thessalonike they fell among Latins, who, as was appropriate, cut off their murderous hands, a just action, even if they did not obtain a punishment worthy of their brazen deed. A few years later, several inhabitants of the city visited the place where the holy man’s body was concealed, on some business (surely, this was God’s purpose). When they perceived a fragrant odor emanating from the burial place, they were amazed, as was to be expected, but they could not figure out the mystery. And as a number of other people passed along this street, they all perceived this same fragrant odor. This persuaded some of them to examine the source of the fragrance. After immediately digging a trench, they discovered in it (O, what a miracle!) the divine and all-honorable body of the thrice-blessed one, intact, whole, complete, having suffered no corruption whatsoever. For the Lord truly keeps the bones of His saints, and not one of them will be broken. The whole city of Thessalonike, as well as the most kindly emperor himself (for he happened to be residing in the city at that time), thought that the discovery of the holy body of the divine Nikodemos was a stroke of good fortune and a source of unceasing joy for them. And they took no greater pleasure in the nature and location and good order of the city or in the strength of its walls than in this <holy man>. For each one believed the magnificence and godliness of the relics to be his own glory. Wherefore they honorably removed that divine coffin from that place, and the archbishop and all the citizenry gave his body a proper burial with perfumed oils and linen winding cloths, and they laid it to rest again in the same place, where it soon began to perform miracles for those who approached it with faith; for God knows how to glorify those who glorify Him. And after we recall two or three of these miracles, we will leave the rest to lovers of learning. They are as follows.
8. A certain Serbian named George, whose surname was Karabides, and came from Dalmatia, once came over to the Romans as a deserter, and took up residence in Thessalonike. He was afflicted by a terrible paralysis, which nature and medical skill alike despaired of curing, discouraged, in my opinion, by its severity. After much suffering and after spending almost all his resources on doctors, he derived no benefit therefrom except to form a distinctly unfavorable opinion of them. At long last coming to his senses, he decided to seek refuge at the shrine of this holy man. So he went there immediately and made many supplications to the saint, and shed tears as well, that most efficacious drug of persuasion, over the holy coffin of the saint. After being immediately delivered from his affliction, he returned to his own home, in good health and rejoicing. So much for this story.
9. My narrative now brings me to another <miracle> in the same sequence as the previous one. Another man, whose family came from Adrianople, usually journeyed to the city of Thessalonike along with the emperor. During his stay he happened once to visit the saint’s shrine, and after entering it he venerated the images of the saints there. He carefully investigated the life of the great man, about which he was quickly informed  by those present there, namely that Nikodemos was fervently concerned with almsgiving, and that he always used to pretend to consort with prostitutes in disreputable manner, and that he was constantly exhorting them to pursue salvation. He also made it his concern to provide for their bodily needs, sometimes giving them some of his own daily <monastic> food allotment, sometimes <providing them with food> he received from his assigned work duties. When the man heard this, he did not marvel exceedingly at this as he should have, but considered the story vulgar and base. As soon as he touched his lips to the all-venerable coffin of the thrice-blessed one (O, miracle!), straightaway the coffin rose up majestically from the burial chamber like a living being inspired by a higher power, and hung down from his foolish lips, even though this man had not yet expressed his own thoughts. And it rubbed away and terribly pressed upon or, better, chastised his lips, so as to add a weight to them. As was to be expected, this phenomenon greatly terrified both the afflicted man and the onlookers, but by supplicating the holy Nikodemos with lamentations, they saved that wretched man from his  just chastisement. From that time on, he visited the saint constantly, and offered up prayers to him with trembling; and blaming himself exceedingly for his previous negligence, he became a loud herald and true expounder of the miracle.
10. How can we bury in silence the miraculous case of the woman who secretly stole the saint’s tooth, and not describe it to those unfamiliar with the story? Since this woman was afflicted by illness for many years, she decided to seek refuge with the saint, truly her only consolation. After quickly doing this, she placed his all-honored head on the afflicted part of her body, and fervently entreated him to provide relief from her affliction. The brazen woman did not merely quietly implore the saint and beg for deliverance, but yanked out and removed the saint’s tooth from his holy head, as she later related, concealed it in her bosom and left the church; and she immediately departed on the road to her house. But the one who perpetrated this deed was swiftly punished. For the wretched woman was struck with madness, and held fast in its terrible grip, an affliction from which she found no relief until she returned that holy object which she had stolen to its sacred reliquary, and deposited it there with a tearful confession. There are several witnesses of this miracle, who survive to this day. And how could I enumerate those who visited the holy coffin of the all-blessed one on a daily  basis, and truly received healing therefrom? But since they are almost infinite in number, I have omitted them on account of their multitude, avoiding excessive length, as is proper. For only if one can enumerate the stars in heaven or the sands of the sea, can he enumerate the miracles of this holy man. But so much for this story.
11. We must now return to our starting point. For the monks of Philokales, at the urging of the emperor and thanks to an imperial donation, built a church there in the name of the saint, at the place where his body was discovered, after first greatly blaming themselves for their error. And they  prepared to hymn therein God Who adorns His true servants with such graces, and to glorify His servant, the truly great Nikodemos. So I, out of my love for him, abandoning my own folly, have composed the present narrative, different parts from different sources, and assembled them like mosaic pieces into the form and shape of a single unit, so to speak, since I have found no prior information on the saint.
12. O comrade of the fathers, companion of the blessed who is numbered among the saints, witness and heir of the heavenly Jerusalem, may you look mercifully upon my bold initiative. For even if this narrative fails to match your worth, still, as you know, it does not lack in enthusiasm. Through your entreaties to God may you cherish and protect from invisible and visible enemies this flock, among which you carried out rigorously your labors on behalf of virtue; and may you also direct and guide to a better and more divine course of action myself, who by God’s permission served as superior of this monastery (even if I am asking a large favor), so that thereby, having led a quiet and tranquil life, I may offer both them and myself as unblemished and, so to speak, untouched sacrifices to the all-holy Trinity, the source of life, to Which is due glory, majesty and magnificence, unto the eternal ages of the ages, Amen.

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