A Lamp Lighted by God - St. Nectarios of Aegina
This modern saint, a veritable mountain of virtue, was born Anastasios Kephalas, on October 1, 1816, in Silyvria, Greece. Even in childhood he began to shine with the Christ like meekness that in adulthood made him a beacon of grace and light,
Because his parents were poor, the young saint went to Constantinople at the age of 14 in order to earn a living, Although be was not given proper wages, he had great faith in God and a burning desire to share the truth of Christ with others. Accordingly, he collected holy sayings and quotations, copying them out on customers' packages so that they might be inspired. Years later, in the preface of his book, Treasury of Sayings, he discussed this adolescent zeal:
"The present book is a product of long and intense work .... I had recourse to the treasures of our ancestors . . . Thus the work began, and a meagre collection of sayings, opinions, and apothegms was made. But the means of transmitting them was also difficult, owing to the lack of money. I thought I could utilize as publication sheets the cigarette packages of Constantinople's tobacco-sellers. The idea seemed to me a good one... Each day I wrote on many of these 'sheets' various maxims from my collection, so that the customers might out of curiosity read the statements and be instructed in what is wise and good ."
As one biographer and friend later wrote: ."Who can read this and not admire the Saint's great love for his neighbor? In the words of the Apostle Paul, he employs everything, he uses every device, in order to benefit his neighbor morally."
The young Anastasios was able to visit many holy shrines. During one pilgrimage by sea a great storm arose, threatening to sink the ship. The captain ordered everyone to abandon ship, but the Saint removed his cross, dipped it into the water, and three times commanded the sea to be still. To the great joy of the passengers, the storm immediately ceased. Unfortunately, however, the cross had fallen into the sea.As the voyage continued, strange knocks were heard below the waterline of the ship. When the ship docked the noises continued. Sailors examining the hull found that the miracle-working cross was stuck to the place from whence the knocking sounds had come!
Carrying the Cross
At the age of 30, Anastasios was tonsured a monk, receiving the monastic name of Lazarus. A year later he was ordained deacon and renamed Nectarios. Sent to Athens to study theology, he gave himself over day and night to the reading of Holy Scripture and the sacred writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church.After receiving his degree in theology in 1885, he was ordained a priest in Alexandria and then, in 1889, made vicar bishop of Pentapolis in Cairo. So popular was he among the clergy and laity that those jealous of him, thinking he might be raised to the patriarchal throne, accused him of insubordination and immorality. Believing this slander, the Patriarch removed him from authority in 1890. At the age of tt it seemed that the life of this young bishop had come to an end. At what seemed from a worldly standpoint to be the darkest hour, however, Christ was very close to His slave, Nectarios, preparing to make him a "clear well-spring of healing and a fountain of miracles."Patiently enduring the hostility against him, St. Nectarios left for Athens, where he awaited guidance from the Lord. Soon he realized that he should remain in the world, rather than retire to a monastery, in order to preach the Gospel. But because of his suspension the Church of Greece was reluctant to give him a position. Many believed the rumors about him, delighting in gossip and scandal. This made it very difficult to preach the word of God.
In 1894 he was invited by supporters to serve as dean of the Rizarios Ecclesiastical School for the training of priests. Under his direction the seminary functioned peacefully and fruitfully. On one occasion the Saint said to one of the students, who later became a close friend and his biographer:"When a man comes to understand his destiny, and that he is a child of the heavenly Father, that is, of the Supreme Good, he looks with contempt at the goods of this world. It is true that the virtuous man endures temptations and humiliations in this world; but he rejoices deep within his heart, because he has his conscience at peace, The world hates and despises virtuous men, yet it envies them, for as our ancestors used to say, even the enemy admires virtue."
Lover of Peace
By now his reputation had begun to change, as one by one people discovered the true character of the Saint. Although he continued to live quietly, desiring nothing other than his seminary responsibilities, his supporters urged him to go to Egypt in 1899 when the Patriarch of Alexandria died. They, and many others, supported his candidacy for the patriarchal throne, to such an extent that the Greek newspaper, "Regeneration" (Anaplasis), declared him "fervent...a very productive writer, an indefatigable worker of the Spirit, having as his food and pleasure the service of the Word of God and truth. He is free of avarice to the extreme, a fiery lover of goodness, serene but strong, meek yet firm, pure in life."The Saint went to Alexandria, but returned almost immediately to Athens rather than cause any slightest disturbance or embroil himself in church politics, as others wished to do. As he himself observed: "Listening to the entreaties of our fellow countrymen, I went to Egypt, not to cause uneasiness and factions, but to bring peace and love."
The Summit of Perfection
After being approached by pious women wishing to live the monastic life, St. Nectarios went to the isle of Aegina. There, in 1904, he established a convent dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Its first Abbess, Xenia, although physically blind, was able to preside over her sisters by means of spiritual sight. (She reposed in 1923.) The Saint was himself the inspiration and guide for the community of nuns. God had given him the gift of spiritual direction, making him a particularly wonderful confessor.It was here, at his convent, that the Saint showed many others the way to salvation, "like a lamp on a stand" (Matt. 5:15). His biographer relates that "after settling at the convent he lived an altogether spiritual life, being always in a state of divine contemplation .... He never neglected mental prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. For this reason an exceptional sweetness radiated from his serene countenance, showing a holiness of sanctification in the Holy Spirit."Correspondence with his spiritual children, and especially with the sisterhood under his spiritual guidance, took much of the Saint's time. In his letters are reflected the mercy, humility and high level of spiritual attainment which were born from the Saint's true love of God and experience in the unseen warfare. To the nuns in Aegina he wrote:"Seek God every day, but in your heart; and not outside of it, and on discovering Him stand with fear and trembling, like the Cherubim and Seraphim, as your heart becomes God's dwelling place. To discover the Lord, humble yourself to the earth before Him, for the Lord rejects the proud and high minded, but loves and visits the humble of heart .... When we are delivered from the malice of pride and become humble, enthroning humility in our hearts, we possess all; because humility is elevating and bears with it the whole choir of virtues, and when one becomes humble all the virtues follow..."On another occasion he wrote: "Remember that you are women and do not try to be equal to men .... Without courage of soul great undertakings are impossible, and when one St. Nectarios dares to commence such undertakings before his soul has been strengthened through moral virtues, he will be seduced and fall. This is why I intend and wish you to walk in the way of caution in all things, performing the obligations of the monastic state as well as the obligation to maintain your body and health, seeking your moral perfection."Throughout his life St. Nectarios continued to study holy things, publishing literally dozens and dozens of books on such diverse subjects as the Seven Councils of the Church, Christian Ethics, Repentance and Confession, Holy Communion, Sacred Tradition, etc. He also authored various historical studies, a book about Blessed Augustine, and an examination of the schism of the Western Church from the Orthodox Church.In his writings the Saint made it very clear that the basis for philosophizing, for all thinking, in fact, must be divine revelation. Otherwise, he asked, how can one know if one has found the truth? "Without the truth that has been revealed...man is incapable of knowing himself; for the lack of knowledge of revealed truth leads man to false theories or erroneous doctrines .... Revelation is the lamp that illuminates and guides the mind..."His last illness, from prostatitis, was extremely painful. He suffered this martyrdom for a year and a half. Then, on a September afternoon in 1920, a nun brought him (to a hospital). He was dressed so humbly that at first no one believed him to be a bishop. Given a third class room in a crowded ward, the Saint Suffered another five days of intense pain. Finally, on November 8, 1920, he surrendered his meek and simple soul to the Lord.
God Glorifies His Saint
From almost the moment of Death, God worked miracles in order to bring the attention of the world to His slave. A paralytic was instantly healed after contact with a part of the Saint's clothing. Amazing fragrance accompanied his body and remained in rooms where he had been.Like a precious treasure, the earthly tabernacle of St. Nectarios was brought back to his convent for burial. Some months later it was disinterred in order to be placed in a fitting marble tomb. The body, however, was found to be whole and entire, and emitting an unearthly fragrance! Three years later the body still remained incorrupt, and continued to be so for about twenty years.His biographer visited the convent in order to witness this divine sign for himself: “I confess with absolute sincerity that when I approached the tomb to pray, I smelled the fragrance of the holy body; I was so moved that I cried with all my heart and soul: 'Truly, Nectarios has received from God the gift of sainthood, like the Saints of our Orthodox Faith !"For reasons we do not know, God caused the body of the Saint to be reduced to bones some years later, but the relics still continue to emit a holy fragrance and are an almost constant source of miracles and an object of pilgrimage by the faithful.Along with the Russian St. John of Kronstadt, St. Nectarios is the first Saint of whom we have photographs. Icons show him in the serenity of Paradise, where he now dwells, but his photographs reveal him as he was on this earth, during the years of his struggles and trials. As one writer says: “His integral personality may be seen also in his face. It...calls all of us to see where grace and redemption are to be found, namely in the fulfillment of the commandments, and in the manifestation of love.”
"St. Nectarios attained to the same enviable level of sainthood as the great luminaries and saints of our Church. He did not ascend upon pillars, nor did he withdraw to hermitages, nor did he contend with cruel persecutions and tragic tortures, like those great combatants of our holy religion, the Martyrs; but we can say that his whole life was nothing else than a continuous doxology to God, and a tireless effort...to benefit suffering society morally and religiously. He lived in the world, but was not, as the Saviour says, of the world. He trod on the earth, yet he conducted himself like a citizen of heaven. He had the form of a man, but lived like an angel...His was a peace-making holiness, inspired by evangelical virtue and meditation. on the eternal Kingdom of God."(Based upon "The Life of St. Nectarios Kephalas ," by Archimandrlte Joachim Spetsieris, trans, by Constantine Cavarnos; The Orthodox Word, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1966.)
Reprinted from Orthodox America.