"Several bishops and clergymen close to the Patriarch slandered Nectarios with accusations of insubordination, immoral conduct, and ambition for the throne. Nectarios, as later proved, was blameless [...] how much more difficult is it when those who revile, persecute, and speak false evil against you are from within the Church. . ."
A bishop dressed as a simple monk is dying in a hospital in Athens, Greece, after painfully enduring chronic prostatitis for over a year. In his final days, he prayed, while the nun Euphemia and a nurse were present. Then, in his final moments, he suddenly sees something beyond this world and he cries out, “Is that you, oh Lord,” and then takes his final breath. To the attending nurse, Metropolitan Nectarios was unknown. At first, just another person spending their final days in the charity ward. Soon, she sensed, perhaps beyond conscious perception, that there was something different with this man. A grace, a nobility. And upon his death, sadness. But when she placed the departed bishop’s shirt upon the nearby bed of a paralyzed man, the paralytic suddenly stood up, made the sign of the cross, began walking, and saying, “Glory to God, I am healed.” At the same time, a divine fragrance so thoroughly filled the room that it remained for many days even after the bishop’s grace-filled body was removed.
Outside the hospital, people spoke about the upcoming election, about the possible return of the exiled king, about hope for peace after almost a decade of war. How such talk must have seemed trivial, as the vanity of human affairs and the pomp of transient things is set against death, that which is common to us all. And yet, for those present, a glimpse of the power of God and the resurrection to come. For at that moment, a single life offered witness to the transcendent, to the eternal, to the divine; a silent witness of what we too can become through God’s grace. What can we learn from such a man as this bishop, a man who endured suffering, persecution, and yet, as Christ taught, denied himself, took up his cross, and followed. In a world where self-love, sensual pleasure, and the pursuit of money, knowledge, and power dominate, what can we learn from his holy life?
Along the golden shores of Thrace, about forty-four miles west of the heart of Constantinople, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, Anastasios was born in the coastal town of Selybria. At the time, October 1st, 1846, to be exact, he was the fifth of six children born to Demos and Vasiliki Kephalas. They struggled to provide, being Christians living under Muslim rule, at a time when mainland Greece had already gained independence, making the Turks more suspicious of Greeks.They owned little but always provided for their children’s spiritual formation, especially their latest son, Anastasios, who showed an inclination toward the spiritual life. His grandmother often sat him on her lap while she read from the Psalter. Each time, Anastasios would repeat the verse from Psalm 50, “I shall teach transgressors your ways and the ungodly shall turn back to you.” For even at a young age, he knew that he wanted to share the word of God.
But Selybria only offered early grade education and so, at the age of fourteen, Anastasios decided to move to Constantinople for further studies. But not far from home, as Anastasios walked the promenade toward the pier, he realized that he was going to be short of the required fare. When the Captain saw that he could not pay, he replied, “Freeloaders aren’t welcome here.” Anastasios, saddened by this, watched from the pier as the crew struggled to start the engines. They sputtered, the ship stalled, as the frantic captain barked orders, until again he saw the downcast boy and decided to let him on board — just in case. Once Anastasios climbed aboard, the engines suddenly started and the ship lurched out to sea. This, a moment Anastasios always remembered as a practical example of God’s mercy and grace.
In Constantinople, life became more difficult. Anastasios ended up working long hours for a difficult tobacco trader. He endured mistreatment with humility, consoled in his off hours by studying the Church Fathers and ancient Greek philosophers. He kept a journal of his favorite quotes and, as an example of his desire to teach, also began writing them upon tobacco wrapping paper for the spiritual profit of the customers. Years later, these sayings became the foundation for the two-volume work, Treasury of Sacred and Philosophical Sayings, quite popular in Greece. But for Anastasios, they were a deep well of wisdom from which he would draw upon continually.
Anastasios later worked as a teacher in the School of the Holy Sepulcher at the Phanar while also attending upper-level classes. But, as he read the lives of the saints, especially the ascetics, his love for Christ increased and, upon seeking God’s will, he left for the island of Chios in 1866. Upon visiting the island of Chios, one first notices the fragrance, an almost divine melody, caused by the scent of orchids, lilies, and citrus groves mingled with thyme, oregano, and olive trees. Most notable is the mastic tree, a tree which, when you cut its bark, emits a resin with curative properties, a resin known as the tears of Chios. Grown only here and a small stretch of Asia Minor, it tastes bitter at first but soon brings refreshment.
Further on, beyond sense perception, comes another fragrance, an aroma of sanctity coming from the many chapels and churches, from the monasteries, and especially from the lives of the many saints and martyrs of Chios who spiritually cultivated this land and from whom Anastasios would be a beneficiary when he arrived on the island to teach elementary school. Just forty years earlier, the Turks had massacred tens of thousands of Greeks on the island because they refused to convert to Islam. This was the first heritage young Anastasios found upon his arrival. There was also another sacred heritage revealed to Anastasios amidst the years he taught school on Chios. For he often visited the Monastery of the Holy Fathers, established by his spiritual father, Elder Pachomios, an inheritor of the teachings of the Kollyvades Fathers. Although several generations removed, the Kollyvades Fathers — which included Saints like Macarios of Corinth, Athanasios of Paros, and Nicodemos the Hagiorite — spent time on Chios and inspired a spiritual resurgence in Greece at a time when many were tempted to convert to Islam due to heavy taxes and life as second-class citizens.
Another serious spiritual challenge came from the West, including humanism, legalism, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Kollyvades Fathers responded by educating the faithful, through an emphasis on proper liturgical worship, the proper integration of the ascetical and sacramental life, and a return to apostolic and patristic roots. They wanted to move beyond moralism and ritualism,beyond externals and intellectualism devoid of grace, and return to the life in Christ which starts with baptism and repentance and leads to communion with God and the transformation of the human person. In such an environment, Anastasios found nourishment for his heart and mind, which later became evident in his writing.
In 1873, he entered the monastery as a novice and, three years later, on November 7th at Nea Moni, he was tonsured a monk and given the name Lazaros the Stylite. Anastasios was ordained a deacon the next year on January 15th — the date of his baptism — and given the name Nectarios. Nectarios immersed himself in prayer and worship and was obedient to his spiritual father’s counsel on how to crucify the passions, acquire the virtues, and attain purity of heart and stillness. About the Jesus Prayer, Elder Pachomios would say to him, “Always say the Jesus Prayer, but say it humbly as if into Jesus’ ear.” About humility, “Live in simplicity. Bear insults, do not retaliate if reviled.” And with regard to obedience, “Remember to always say, not my will, but that of the Lord.”
One year later, Metropolitan Gregory of Chios allowed Nectarios to complete his high school studies in Athens, with the support of patron John Choremis of Chios. His patron also introduced him to Patriarch Sophronios of Alexandria, who became so impressed with Nectarios that he encouraged him to continue his theological studies in Athens and invited him to Alexandria after graduation. Nectarios earned a scholarship to the theological academy, where he became known for his moral character and sharp intellect. On October 25, 1885, Nectarios graduated and now, embarking on a new journey, made his way to Alexandria for service in the patriarchate.
Alexandria, once a city of prosperity and learning, home to the Great Library, the first Christian catechetical school, and many well-known philosophers, scientists, and theologians, was now in decline. Its prestige waned after successive conquests by the Persians and Arab Muslims. Nectarios arrived during the early period of the veiled British protectorate, when the British controlled Egypt even though it remained an Ottoman territory. The Greek community in Egypt, now free to grow, began building schools, hospitals, and churches. Clergymen were in great demand and to this end, Patriarch Sophronios ordained Nectarios a priest on March 23rd, 1886. Later that year, Nectarios received the title of Archimandrite and the roles of general confessor, superior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Cairo, and Patriarchal Warden. Such quick advancement has tempted many to revel in their own glory, and certainly, when opportunity arises, ambition is quick to follow. But Nectarios remained humble-minded, even fasting for a week to ward off vainglory and focused instead on service and sacrificial love.
He so often gave away his own pay that people were heard to say, “The Metropolitan of Pentapolis and money are two separate things.” Through it all, he kept the eyes of his flock directed towards God and for this they greatly loved him. From Alexandria, Patriarch Sophronios watched with growing interest and rewarded Nectarios for his labors on January 15th, 1889, ordaining him Metropolitan of Pentapolis. For four years, Nectarios labored diligently in Egypt and many saw him as a rising star. But the same virtues that provoked admiration by some, also stirred envy and resentment in others. Several bishops and clergymen close to the Patriarch slandered Nectarios with accusations of insubordination, immoral conduct, and ambition for the throne. Nectarios, as later proved, was blameless. And yet, the Patriarch was open to suggestions. Soon after, Nectarios received a letter from Patriarch Sophronios confining him to his room without explanation. This shocked Nectarios as he was unaware of the slander. He asked to speak with the Patriarch but was denied. So, not wishing to repay evil for evil, Nectarios did what was right despite his innocence. For he knew that any attempt to clear his name would only harm the church and office of the bishop in the eyes of the faithful. Instead, he prayed to Christ and the Theotokos, found consolation from his anxiety and distress, and remained silent.
Two months later, on July 11th, 1890, Nectarios received a letter that declared his stay in Egypt to be useless. Despite the shame and humiliation Nectarios endured, he forgave the Patriarch and repeated the words, “Thy will be done, oh Lord, Thy will be done.” For even though cast aside, he believed all to be in the hands of God and His inscrutable will. “And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” These words of Christ offered some comfort to Nectarios, but how much more difficult is it when those who revile, persecute, and speak false evil against you are from within the Church. He returned to Athens and found it no better, living in poverty and hunger as a forty-four-year-old bishop without a throne. He considered becoming a hermit on Mount Athos. Yet, several friends recommended that he remain in Greece to help with the spiritual rebirth of the country, for while free from the Ottomans, much cultural and spiritual poverty remained and the church suffered under the increasing influence of secular ideas.
Nectarios followed their advice and sought a position in the Church of Greece. Finally, after several months of bureaucratic indifference, he was appointed as an itinerant preacher in the province of Eúboia. But false slander followed Nectarios from Egypt. That Sunday, before a small crowd, while he spoke about our common desire for eternity, people jeered and called him two-faced and a Pharisee. Nectarios remained silent. The next week, upon giving a sermon on forbearance and forgiveness, the people again jeered and called him names. According to the priest and deacon of that parish, it all came from officials in Athens to which Nectarios replied, “Bless them, Lord.”
Unbeknownst to him, at the same time, several prominent Greeks from Egypt visited Athens and testified to his innocence. When news reached the people of Eúboia, they were in awe of his humility. That Sunday, in a crowded church, Nectarios began to preach: “Whosoever will be great among you, let him minister unto you. And whosoever will be chief among you, let him serve you. Only the foolish who have not received spiritual enlightenment do not see, understand, and fear the Lord and His greatness. For, wherever one can turn his eyes, the presence of God can be seen and felt.” After his sermon, the contrite people cheered. Encouraged by this, Bishop Nectarios preached at schools, churches, even the opening of a gym. In 1892, Nectarios became a candidate for the position of Archbishop of Chalkís.
But an archimandrite who desired the same position accused Nectarios of abandoning his throne in Egypt. Nectarios, hurt by the false allegation, again remained silent. Soon after, another person was selected. As Nectarios became well-known, new opportunities arose. In March, 1894, he accepted the position of Dean of the Rizareios Ecclesiastical Seminary in Athens where, for fourteen years, he had direct influence on the formation of some of Greece’s future clergy and educational leaders. Nectarios found the Rizareios Ecclesiastical Seminary in disarray. Corruption plagued both church and state, and a secular wind swept in from the West. The triumph of science and the primacy of reason and matter, created an atmosphere more focused on man rather than God. Even in the school, the board of trustees and students saw Nectarios as out of date, a backward monk not fit for an enlightened generation. But soon, his holy example changed their minds.
One student described him as a beautiful soul, saying: “You see him live in this world and yet feel him to be a man not of this world. Without exaggeration, he prays day and night. He's forbearing, loves everyone, and disarms with his innocent look. He consorts with various people, whom he calms and directs to the Incarnate Savior with unprecedented kindness and gentleness. He is a man but lives like an angel.”
Nectarios also preached at the school chapel, his sermons became so popular that tickets had to be issued to enter the chapel. Yet afterward he could be found cleaning the chapel and toilets or working in the garden. One day, several students preparing for the priesthood got into an argument and fist fight. The boys were brought before Nectarios to be punished for violating the school’s code of conduct. Each boy gave his side of the story, blaming the other for lying or hurling insults until finally Nectarios spoke: “All these things you boys have done,” said Nectarios, “give me no alternative but to punish myself.” “Yourself, Dean?” they asked. “Yes,” said Nectarios, “I shall punish myself with a hunger strike.” He instructed the cook to not prepare meals for him for three days as he would instead fast and pray about this matter. “You truly sadden me, my children. Because you are the priests of tomorrow. No please go, and forgive each other. Otherwise I shall have to punish myself for a longer time. May the Lord forgive you and send you His grace to guide you.” The speechless boys forgave each other and returned to their room in tears. Their heart softening upon receiving this lesson on how to be a shepherd of Christ. Years later, upon graduation, they all went on to become good priests. Of his students, one became the Patriarch of the Copts, nine were elected metropolitans, many became priests, and professors of theology and philosophy.
In 1898, Nectarios journeyed to Mount Athos and didn’t make it know that he was a bishop. But one day, as another monk guided him through Karoulia in the Athonite desert they met a clairvoyant hermit. “Brother, how can you be walking in front of the Metropolitan of Pentapolis,” said the hermit to the monk. “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” said Nectarios. “Please do not say anything more about the Lord’s humble servant. Please accept my greeting.” The hermit bowed before. He then stood up and they exchanged a heartfelt embrace. “Yesterday, the demons raged,” said the hermit. “They were transformed into a swarm of large mosquitoes, and they attacked me viciously. But when I said, Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, they vanished.” “Why did they rage,” asked Nectarios. “Because today, I would have the chance to meet one of their greatest persecutors. I know you long for solitude but serve the people out of your deep love for them and for Christ. Solitude, however, will come to you.”
Several months later, Patriarch Sophronios of Alexandria reposed and the community in Egypt invited Nectarios to submit his candidacy. He returned but quickly found some in the Patriarchate still against him. So, he favored another candidate and left as a peacemaker. But by age 62, Bishop Nectarios was mentally and physically exhausted and longed for a more contemplative way of life. Then one day, a blind girl named Chrysanthe met Nectarios and was moved by his sanctity. She and several of her friends expressed their desire to become monastics and asked if he would be their spiritual father. They told Nectarios about an abandoned monastery on the island of Aegina and so he decided to visit.
Aegina, an island of fishermen and farmers. In the late 19th-century, a local physician introduced the cultivation of sweet pistachios. The aromatic tree blossomed in the unique soil and low elevation and became the island’s most profitable crop. Soon after, Nectarios arrived and visited the abandoned monastery in the heart of Aegina. Much like the physician, Nectarios found conditions conducive for that which he hoped to cultivate: Prayer. For the monastery, offered for free by the Mayor of Aegina, came with two essential conditions: solitude and silence. Thus, in 1904, while the Protestant King of Greece sought to close monasteries, Nectarios made plans to establish the Holy Trinity Monastery.
The impact on the island was immediate, for upon his first visit, he was introduced to a young man, Spiros, who had convulsions and was able to predict events. Right before the arrival of St. Nectarios, Spiros made it known to all around, “The bishop is coming. Come and greet him. It is the saint, the saint who will save the island.” The priest assigned to greet St. Nectarios brought the boy to him. “Your grace, something just happened that startled us. This young boy, he often falls down, closes his eyes, and speaks of things to come. Just before you arrived, he said that you were coming to save the place. Nectarios looked at the boy then placed his hand on his head and raised his staff in prayer with the other hand. “Evil spirit, I command you in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of this boy.” Immediately, the boy appeared now to be in his right mind. And everyone marveled. From that day forth, Spiros suffered no longer from such convulsions and ceased to pronounce predictions of events.
Upon his second visit, Nectarios heard that the island suffered from a drought. So, he prayed for rain along with the people during the Sunday liturgy. Soon after, it rained constantly for days. Four years later, Nectarios moved to the monastery permanently for a life of austere self-discipline. Even at his age, he performed tiring chores for his personal ascesis and as an example for his nuns. He also planted trees at the monastery and donated more than seven thousand trees and mulberries to the island, sometimes not being recognized as he wore a straw hat and simple black robe. But his chief occupation became the prayer of the heart. Often in conversation, people noticed him to be absorbed in silent prayer. Although hidden, some noticed that he had gifts of foresight and clairvoyance. Once, when a nun opened the door to his cell, she saw him praying while in ecstasy with his hands raised toward heaven and a flame of fire surrounding him.
People were increasingly changed or moved in the spirit, when encountering Nectarios. One day, a nun who suffered paralysis of the face saw Nectarios enveloped in light when she approached for communion. After she partook, Nectarios tapped her on the back of the head and she was immediately healed. One day, a visiting theologian asked Nectarios why he lived and wrote in such obscurity when he could instead be the glory of the Church. “I don’t write for fame, my child, but out of the sense of religious obligation. I am not interested in the opinion of this world. I am primarily concerned with what God wants and with how he moves my conscience.” St. Nectarios continued writing while on Aegina, especially poetry. One night, he saw the Theotokos in a vision in which she gave him the hymn, O Virgin Pure. This hymn, put to music in the 1990’s by an Athonite monk, and translated into many languages, is known around the world. The evil one, not wishing to see such good prosper, continued to instigate others against Nectarios.
One day, a woman accused St. Nectarios of defiling her daughter because she wanted to become a nun. As truth later revealed, the young girl wanted to get away from her abusive mother and found refuge in the monastery. But Metropolitan Meletios from Athens believed the slander and visited the now ailing Nectarios to discipline him. “It is not your mission to be mingling with women and nuns. You have brought shame to the title of bishop.” Meletios verbally abused him for an hour. But St. Nectarios prayed in silence and occasionally said, “Bless your spirit, holy bishop.” A few days later, the local prosecutor visited with two policemen. “Who are you looking for,” asked St. Nectarios. “I am seeking you, monk. Are you not embarrassed to have such a harem, you disgusting lowlife?” The prosecutor continued his verbal assault and again Nectarios remained silent and prayed. But when they took Maria for a medical examination, they discovered that she was still a virgin. They also discovered through interviews and an investigation that the nuns were true ascetics and that all the accusations were lies. The saint was cleared once more.
In his final years, Nectarios suffered from excruciating pain due to chronic prostatitis. He endured without complaint and remained grateful until the Lord called him home from the hospital in Athens on November 8th, 1920. After his body was returned to Aegina and buried. After ten years, the nuns opened the tomb to translate his relics, but they found his body incorrupt, emitting an ineffable fragrance. Even the flowers in his casket remained fresh. This attempt to exhume his relics was repeated three times over fifty years with the same result. Miracles began to occur at his tomb and the nuns knew well that their spiritual father was being revealed as a saint of God. It took forty years from his repose, but Nectarios was officially declared a saint in 1960 and he is commemorated every year on November 9th. Since then, his holy relics have been distributed around the world and countless miracles are occurring including the healing of those suffering from cancer along with many other illnesses and misfortunes.
Finally, on January 15th, 1998, St. Nectarios was declared restored to canonical order as the Metropolitan of Pentapolis by Patriarch Petros VII of Alexandria. In his declaration, the Patriarch sought forgiveness from the saint “for the persecution and unjust wrath against him by the spiteful influence of the evil one.” May we also center our lives on Christ, as did Saint Nectarios, and seek transformation of the heart and mind, body and soul, so that we too can be led by God’s grace and love to communion with Him, through humility and forbearance.
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