Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Nicon
Until comparatively recent years little was known of the life of Nicon, the great reformer, except that he was an ecclesiastical power in Russia during the 17th century.
In many respects his effect upon the Greek Catholic Church was like the effect of Luther upon Roman Catholicism.
During the 16th and 17th centuries the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants were so engaged with their own controversies that they ignored the original church of the East – the Greek Catholic Church – which referred to itself as “Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
It was divided geographically into Coptic, Abyssianian, Syrian, Nestotian, Georgian, Armenian, Greek, and Russian – each claiming to be strictly orthodox.
In the l7th century the Russian branch was the strongest, and during this period a reformation arose.
In 1605, Moscow was the religious center of Russia. At that time in the suburbs of Nizhnii, Novgorod, Nicon, the son of a peasant was born.
His mother died when he was very young, and his father married again.
His stepmother was insanely jealous of his place in his father’s affections. An incident is related wherein she attempted to burn him alive when he crawled into the great stove of the home to lie upon the warm ashes to sleep.
She is said to have put logs in the stove so that he was so wedged in that he could not free himself, and then to ignite them and close the door. He was freed when a neighbor heard his cries.
He learned to read and love books which were loaned him by a monk.
He ran away from home to a monastery in Jettovodsky, but was prevented from taking the final vows by his father. He was brought home and forced by his father into an early marriage.
Later, when his children died, he insisted that his wife enter a convent, and he entered a monastery.
Finally he secluded himself in a hut in the Arctic and practiced extreme asceticism and self-immolation. The head of the monastery died, and after persuasion Nicon was ordained bishop of Novgorod.
In 1646 the Tzar of Russia, Alexis, seeking to reform the decadent Russia, heard him speak, admired his eloquence and made him archimandrite.
Nicon, because of his counsel to Alexis, became his first friend. He displayed the greatest courage in controlling mobs which were angered by his rigid reforms. On the other hand, he won the people over by speaking in their native tongue in the churches, and giving them inspirational guidance.
In 1652 he was appointed by Alexis as patriarch of Moscow, the highest ecclesiastical position. This incurred the jealousy and hatred of other church officials and of the princes and nobles because of the power he acquired.
One example of his reform of the liturgy was the changing of the making of the sign of the cross with two fingers of the right hand to three fingers. The Russian Church had always held that the two fingers signified Christ as human and divine, whereas the use of three fingers implied the trinity recognized by the Greek Catholic Church. This incensed many, but the change remained.
It is said that he discovered a very old vestment on which was woven in pearls the Christian creed, which differed from the one the orthodox church used.
This astounded him, and Alexis at his suggestion sent messengers to all parts of the world to bring back any manuscripts which would confirm or deny the accuracy of this newfound creed.
This resulted in Moscow’s having the greatest collection of Biblical literature of any other center in the world, with perhaps the exception of Rome.
The animosity Nicon had created by his rigid reform of the liturgy eventually brought about his downfall.
A dog was secretly trained by the nobles to mimic the patriarchal sign Nicon had decreed, by sitting up on its haunches and crossing its paws in a certain manner.
It was exhibited in the court and caused him much ridicule.
Eventually, Nicon was tried before an ecclesiastical court, but like almost all such trials, it was intended that he be found guilty, no matter how able or convincing his defense.
He was deposed. Later an attempt was made to make him pope of the Greek Church, but he died before the culmination of the plans.
His reformation differs from Luther’s in that he attempted to bring about a return to orthodoxy from a perverted liberalism, whereas Luther sought a renaissance from a perverted orthodox.