St. Nil Sorsky (1433-1508) was the most significant figure in the promotion of hesychasm and eremitism in early modern Russia. Though he only composed two works, modest guidelines for monks and hermits, their influence and the influence of his hermitage were instrumental in a widespread eremitic movement in Russia that persisted for centuries. Although Nil Sorsky is associated with the Non-possessor controversy, this article addresses only his Tradition (Predanie) and Rule (Ustav).
Nil Maikov was born of the upper class, well educated, and with a great capacity for advanced learning. He spent time as a young monk at the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, where the abbot promoted hesychasm, that is, a form of mediation and continuous prayer. Nil was encouraged to study and traveled to Constantinople, Palestine, and Greece. In Greece he spent fruitful time at the monastery of Mt. Athos. The experience of Mt. Athos deepened his understanding of hesychasm and additionally offered him examples of administrative models for monasticism and eremitism heretofore unknown in Russian Orthodoxy.
Nil returned to the Kirillo monastery, but the spiritual environment had changed. He decided to leave and pursue his plan. By the Sora River, in an isolated and swampy area, Nil founded a hermitage. (A great deal of hagiographic material accompanies this period and will not detain us here.) His model was the skete, based on the desert hermits and the practice of Mt. Athos.
The skete is a hermitage of no more than two or three hermits, an elder and younger disciple(s). They pursued a schedule and routine of practice of their own devising, usually engaging in continuous prayer, reading, writing, and the editing and copying of manuscripts and crafting of icons and religious articles to be exchanged for provisions. Their time and energies, therefore, were entirely individual. What they had in common was the store of food from donations, and the availability of the elder for counsel. The hermits were not to engage in money-making labor, and though they gardened or foraged for themselves, the manuscripts or icons they produced elicited alms, which were kept when sufficient or given to the poor when more than enough.
The emphasis of the eremitic life was self-development, a contemplative life centered on intellect and will. The aspirant should reduce externals and then seek a spiritual guide for specific directions concerning disposition and readiness. However, Nil Sorsky understood that his contemporaries faced a paucity of spiritual guides. He had no qualms recommending the efficacy of the writings of the Church Fathers on all matters spiritual and practical. Nil’s own modest writings reflect a thorough familiarity with the Church Fathers, whose writings he simply calls the “holy writings.” But these were prerequisites to the actual eremitic life. As Nil emphasizes: “The strong … struggle in solitude.” As commentator Maloney notes: “The first step is to return to God by leaving all worldly attachments and retiring into solitude.”
At this point in the self-development of the hermit, Nil Sorsky introduces hesychasm, which Maloney describes as “a Christian form of living the spiritual life that had its roots in the first hermits who fled into the barren deserts of Egypt and Syria during the fourth century.” The hesychasm inherited by Nil Sorsky was based on the core school of Sinai that included Nilus of Sinai, John Climacus, Hesychius of Sinai, Philotheus, and Pseudo-Macarius. This school of thought was advanced in the 11th century by Symeon the New Theologian. The revived hesychasm of Gregory of Sinai in the 14th century took root in Mt. Athos, where Nil Sorsky had resided for a while and experienced first-hand. By the time Nil established his Sora hermitage, he had mastered the literary sources noted above and had experienced the essentials of hesychasm enough to put them into practice in his native land.
The ultimate goal of hesychasm was ascetic and mystical, culminating in the union of the individual and God. Hesychasm begins in physical solitude, which Nil believed was best provided by the hermitage in the form of the skete. However, physical separation from the world and from others assured withdrawal from speech, hearing, and seeing, but it did not automatically assure hesychasm. The second necessary factor was silence.
John Climacus describes silence as an intellectual and mental process of withdrawal of concern and desire. This process purifies the mind and inner attention. It empties the mind of thoughts, and provides for a still-pointedness or thoughtlessness, in the sense of possessing nothing, not even desiring to possess anything.
To maintain this purity of heart and mind, the Church Fathers recommend prayer, continuous prayer which fills the mind and heart. This state of emptiness, maintained by continuous prayer, is called hesychia, meaning stillness, quiet, tranquility, and serenity. The function of continuous prayer, then, is to serve as a mechanism for maintaining vigilance and focus. In Greek, the term nepsis refers to vigilance or sobriety. Evagrius calls it praxis, the practice of virtue which purifies the passions or emotions. Other terms might be prudence, discretion, or self-discipline.
How does the hesychast maintain this ideal state of tranquility or silence? As mentioned, the commentators recommend continuous prayer, but the discovery of Mt. Athos was the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer was a formulaic repetition or recitation combined with a physical technique familiar in all meditative traditions: a specific physical posture, minimal breathing, and a moving of the mind into the heart, [….]
The mystical element of hesychasm is the culmination of the entire process, what Sorsky calls “ineffable joy.” he states,
“The Kingdom of Heaven consists in nothing other than this blissful condition,” .
When one experiences such an ineffable joy, this state suddenly cuts off all vocal prayer from the mouth, the tongue, the heart — guardian of all thoughts — and the mind — the seed of feelings. All are silenced, along with the different thoughts that normally soar about like fast-flying birds. Now thought does not govern prayer but is directed by another power; … [the nous] dwells on things ineffable and does not know where it is.
The writings of Nil Sorsky are not simply generous quotations from the Church Fathers but a seamless integration or synthesis of thought that supports and extends Sorsky’s own points. One of the hallmarks of his writing is the assiduous avoidance of hagiographical or legendary material. His closely reasoned arguments and counsel will not appeal to mere emotion or sentimentality. Nil avoids appeals to authority, use of rhetoric, or figures of speech to pursue psychological and practical aspects of spirituality. In all of this, the mental preparation of the hermit is seen as a prerequisite to the lifestyle.
Nil’s translator has identified the many Church Fathers quoted. The favorites are John Climacus, Isaac the Syrian, Gregory of Sinai, and Symeon the New Theologian. Overall Nil uses over a dozen Fathers. He uses so many not to evoke their authority but to extend his concept of hesychasm, as already suggested. In fact, the sources he does not quote are some of his foundational inspirations: Evagrius and Pseudo-Macarius. From Evagrius, Nil derives the concepts of intellectual contemplation, the central role of asceticism, and the notion of withdrawal, disengagement, and non-desire in apatheia. From the Pseudo-Macarius comes the trajectory of solitude and silence culminating in penthos, the sense of smallness of self, compunction, humility, and the gift of tears. Added to all of these ideas is the Jesus Prayer popularized at Mt. Athos and otherwise unknown in Russia at the time.
The Tradition (Predanie)
The Tradition is an early and brief work intended to offer a general guideline to the hermit-disciples, not a rule so much as an orientation.
This is the tradition of the elder, Nil, hermit, to his disciples and to all who may find it to their liking concerning the skete-type of life as found in the writings of the holy Fathers.
Early in The Tradition, Nil establishes the lifestyle and work of those he calls “my closest brothers, one in spirit, not to be considered as my disciples.” Their work is in intellectual work in the cell and their practical work as artisans. The hermits do not sell but receive alms. However, paradoxically, they have no alms to give, for they should own nothing not needed. Their alms are in helping others with spiritual discernment.
In our cell it is fitting that the brothers and strangers who visit us should be instructed [by the elder], skilled in the art of listening and ability to direct souls.
The disciples will, in time, acquire these skills as well.
Nil emphasizes evangelical poverty, extending simplicity to include the absence of gold and silver objects, even in sacred vessels, and to the lack of chapel adornment, even to pillars and structure. Simplicity is extended to food and drink, to an emphasis on hard work (both manual and intellectual), and to personal possessions. In keeping with the style of Mt. Athos, women were prohibited from nearing the skete, as were beardless youths.
The Rule (Ustav)
With his second and late writing, Nil concentrates on the theme of spiritual struggle. Using the Church Fathers, Nil identifies the overall aspects of spirituality, on how to gain mental and psychological strength, and what to expect to encounter in pursuing the ascetic life. Again, the premise is that this spiritual pursuit is accomplished within the context of eremitism. The Rule concludes with characteristics of the life of the successful hermit.
In his introductory remarks, Nil stresses his indebtedness to the Church Fathers, commending his readers to follow their example, even in insignificant things. In their works are the key to heart activity and mental attentiveness, which ultimately satisfy the yearnings of the spirit. Hesychasm is the technique of hermits and monks alike. Using St. Agathon’s metaphor, Nil describes bodily action as the mere leaf and spiritual action as the fruit, thus recommending the interior disposition over the externals of ritual, sound, and sight.
The level of psychology for meditation reflected in Nil’s writing shows the comprehensiveness of hesychasm. Hesychasm identifies the presentation of a thought, the dialogue of self with the thought, acceptance and captivation with the thought, and culminates with the self’s adaptation and sheer passion. That thoughts will present themselves to the mind is inevitable, but to dialogue, entertain, or converse with the thought is a vanity of self believing in its own undisciplined power. By this time thought is an active engagement and loss of silence.
The methodology of hesychasm seeks to restore silence. This is accomplished by heart activity, especially continual prayer or the Jesus Prayer, says Nil. The entire self is readied for response, including posture, breathing, concentration, and the placing of the mind in the heart. This latter image is a visualization based on abstracting the mind from thought into an organ of silence. Thus continual prayer reverberates to the exclusion of thought, like an Eastern mantra. When weary of prayer, Nil advises the hermit to switch to chant, then to reading aloud (hence the value of skete companions), each for about one hour.
Nil summarizes this cycle:
When one allows any distraction to disturb the mind, such draws the mind away from silence. For silence is had only in peace and tranquility, since God is peace and is beyond all agitation and noise.
But Nil carefully distinguishes “hesychast prayer of deep silence” from “the prayer of monks who live and observe the rule of the coenobitic life.” The practice of the hesychast no longer needs chants or reading of the “exploits” of the lives of the Church Fathers, including the desert hermits. Here Nil transcends hagiography and even conventional ritual or practical moral example. “No oars are needed if the sails of a boat are filled with wind to bring it across the sea of passion,” he writes in a felicitous passage. Hence Nil rejects all-night vigils, uninterrupted chanting, “lip-prayer” and like external practices, even when some Church Fathers recommend them. Contemplative prayer is beyond expression or content. Nil is confident that hesychasm is the essential spiritual method.
Concerning those who are progressing and who have reached a state of enlightenment, they are not required to recite psalms, but they are to practice silence, continuous prayer, and contemplation, since they are living in union with God.
Nil quotes Isaac the Syrian about refraining from speech, for then,
the heart is silenced, which stands as a guard over fantasies along with the mind, which directs the feeling senses and controls the thoughts that are like swift and bold flying birds.
How does the novice attain this level of practice? Nil warns, as mentioned earlier, that there are few reliable spiritual directors, so that the immediate step is to “distance ourselves as far as possible from the vanities of this world.” The immediate need of the aspirant and hermit is a routine of reading and manual labor, which develops humility. The aspirant should live in his cell with great zeal and attention. As much as his strength allows, let him live the ascetic life in all details in accord with the holy writings, fulfilling all with piety in humility and always with zeal, without any laziness or weakening.
A section of The Rule entitled “Guidelines to All Activities in Our Skete Life,” recapitulates the themes mentioned above: the use of prayer, chanting, reading, augmented by fasting, vigils, prostrations as a form of physical exercise [also used in Eastern systems] and manual labor. These are the practices of aspirants and disciples, the prerequisites to hesychasm. Nil’s emphasis on physical fitness is notable: “Bodily labor in the required measure is demanded of those endowed with a healthy and strong body.”
Lengthy sections follow, itemizing specific vices and how the aspirant can address them. In the process Nil further elaborates skete practice.
Gluttony is overcome by recalling the fleetingness of consuming and the corruption of food. Eat sufficiently but always short of fullness. Stop so as to still be a little hungry. Eat whatever is placed before you. Do not eat earlier than the ninth hour (3 p.m.), and only that one meal a day or with a late collation. Abstain from meat but do not refuse it (as alms).
Fornication is overcome by avoiding excessive self-recrimination and confession. Avoid all contact or conversation with women and youths.
Covetousness includes not just gold and silver but clothing, tableware, tools for manual labor — any material object. For necessities, obtain only what is “cheap, unadorned, and easily obtained.” Conquering covetousness means not merely doing without but not even desiring.
Anger is the recollection of things done and the desire to avenge them. Cut off memory and thought.
Sadness is a form of self-pity and leads to despair, impatience, and sloth. In sadness one perceives oneself as disposed and abandoned to grievous hardship by God. Nil advises not to “exaggerate with our human ideas these hardships.” One must stop complaining and disengage from imagined persecution. Mourn our weakness in order to foster repentance, not out of sadness.
Acedia follows sadness and is a bane to those “who live the solitary, silent life,” because of the necessity of meeting burdens unsupported and alone — another positive argument for the skete. While it may be good to persist alone in one’s cell, it may be better to converse with “someone skilled and edifying in the spiritual life.”
Vanity is the assumption of worthiness and praise of corrupt actions. Vanity is the precursor of pride.
Pride is a form of spiritual uncleanness, an arrogance extending externally the weakness of vanity. Pride’s sources are many: material success, conduct, intellect, family, class, talent. Human achievements easily engender pride. Pride is thwarted by recalling the sum lowliness of our situations as human beings, our dependence, and our transient natures. Non-assertiveness, acceptance, and the extirpating of desire, combat pride.
Nil concludes the section on vices with a perspective on death and judgment. His excellent reflections on the transitoriness of life and the vanity of possessions are indeed universal, transcending cultures and religions:
What glory attained on earth will remain incorruptible? Every stack of hay is of the weakest stuff and all dreams are most illusory. In one hour death receives all of these. … And so, reflect on the vanity of this world to which during our life we are so attached and for which we work in vain. The road on which we journey is so short. Our life is nothing but smoke, vapor, a cloud, and ash. It appears and quickly vanished. Even to call it a road does not have much meaning.
Nil then describes the gift of tears, a phenomenon born of profound humility and reflection, a pain and sorrow for deeds, lost opportunities, and sins.
The final section of The Rule presents a summary of “prudent means,” which directly centers on the eremitic virtue of silence and solitude. The section capitulates the life of the hermit as, quoting Symeon the New Theologian, “one of silence without any anxiety.” Nil speaks of conversation as frost in a garden. In contrast, “Silence is where the flowers bloom and bring forth open, tender, young flowers that encircle the garden of the soul.” St. Isaac says that “A person who turns to the world becomes deprived of life. Nil elaborates that the hermit should “not even see any person of the world, neither hearing his words not listening to any news about such a person.”
But the hermit must accept the time and effort needed to cultivate the virtue of silence, for conventional religious disdain the entire method of the hermit. Therefore, the hermit must not even presume an attachment to hesychasm or mystical insight, taking refuge in discretion. Only a mature brother can pursue this path, and Nil recommends that the brother not pursue it alone.
For when he is alone and falls into acedia or is overcome by sleep or by sloth or despair, there is no one at that time to lift him up and give him encouragement.
The hermit life is not for those unwilling to pursue to the fullest extent the life of silence. In this, too, Nil follows the advice of John Climacus:
There are three excellent ways to live the monastic life: either to live alone in solitude as a hermit, or to live in silence with one or two other monks, or to live the common life in a coenobitic monastery.
Nil Sorsky presented his Rule as a reminder to his brothers, based on “my poor wisdom.” But he had clearly absorbed the wisdom of centuries of Christian tradition and discerned how to apply it in the context of hesychasm and eremitism.
The influence of Nil’s hermitage and writings spread throughout Russia and challenged his successors in the Non-possessor controversy, when his ideas were challenged and overthrown by ecclesiastical and secular political authorities, who perceived eremitism as radical in the theological, social, and psychological sense. But the eremitism of St. Nil Sorsky was firmed grounded on a strong and vibrant tradition that recalled the clear meaning and intention of the desert hermits, and ultimately the significance of the teachings of Jesus.
Nil Sorsky or Sorskiĭ: The Complete Writings. Edited and translated by George A. Maloney, preface by John L. Mina. New York: Paulist Press, 2003. Maloney, George A., Russian Hesychasm: The Spirituality of Nil Sorskij. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.
© 2007, the hermitary and Meng-hu