Nil Sorsky – Reviving the Russian Eremitical Tradition

“Nilus of Sora (1443-1508), also Nil Sorsky and Nil Sorski, in Russian: Нил Сорский, was a leader in the establishment in Russia of skete style monasticism in the fifteenth century and of a movement that opposed ecclesiastic ownership of land, a movement known as non-possessors. While not formally glorified, he is venerated as a saint in the Church of Russia. His feast day is on the anniversary of his death on May 7….
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Having found shortcomings with large monastery, Nilus brought to Russia the concept of smaller communities, sketes, as a third form of monastic life other than large cenobitic communities and solitary eremetric monastic life. In this form of monasticism Nilus looked to life of voluntary solitude in which monastics could honor their vows more fully and avoid the corruption of materialism prevalent in the land owning monasteries. It was along the Sora River, near Belozersk, that he started his skete about 1473. Others soon followed and joined him in this isolation, and of these he demanded devotion to God and obedience to the rules of the Skete. He looked upon himself as the equal of those who sought his council and did not claim any titles or superior spiritual status.

Although the lives of the monks were centered around prayer and devotional work, Nilus and the monks of the skete each was responsible for their own upkeep and sustenance. Nilus required that monks participate in productive labor and spoke in support of monastic reforms on a basis of a secluded and modest lifestyle. The monks also took upon themselves copying and correcting the translated church texts in the existing manuscripts. Nilus was thought to have had compiled a compendium of the lives of the saints, which is lost.

Nilus, his followers, and disciples lived a simple, relatively obscure, and peaceful life, far different from the large and wealth monastic institutions that had become a part of the Russian culture. For Nilus, these developments were signs of the Church losing its way, as greed and lust for power and control grew within the church hierarchy. His teachings differed from the norms of church life of the time. He developed mystical and ascetical ideas along the lines of hesychasm that asked believers to concentrate on their inner world and personal experiences of faith as means for achieving unity with God.”
sora river
“Ten Miles from St. Cyril’s White Lake Monastery is the Sora (or Sorka) River, where St. Nilus of Sora (May 7) chose to establish his Skete. It was a wild, dark and desolate place. The River Sora barely flows through this marshy, low-lying region, and it resembles more a swamp than a river. There is forest all around. Here, having erected a cross, St. Nilus built at first a chapel and a solitary cell and dug a well. And when several brothers had gathered together to live with him he built a wooden church in honor of the Meeting of the Lord. Later another wooden church dedicated to St. John the Forerunner was added. Nearby he built a mill.”

“Nil or Nikolai Sorsky or Sorskiĭ (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.
kirillo monastery
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.
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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.” “
sorsky writings
David M. Goldfrank (Trans) “Nil Sorsky. The Authentic Writings” [Cistercian Publications
Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2008] is available on-line at

“Nil Sorsky: The Authentic Writings” (review)
Jennifer Newsome Martin
From: “Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality” Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 256-259
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“Saint Nil Sorsky (1433/4–1508), Russian Orthodox ascetic, hagiographic editor and compiler, and proponent of hesychastic prayer and skete monasticism, emerges as perhaps the most significant figure in the systematic advance of the teaching and practice of contemplative stillness in the medieval Russian spiritual tradition. Born to a middle class family in Moscow and likely well educated, Nil entered a period of cloistered monastic discipleship at the Kirillov-Belozerskii monastery sometime during the 1450s or 60s. In keeping with his developing interest in hesychastic prayer, Nil undertook a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos between the early 1470s and late 1480s, and eventually returned to a location not twelve miles from the monastery at Kirillov to found his own small hermitage along the Sora River. Nil Sorsky ultimately remains shadowy, a mysterious personage who functions substantially as “a hagiographic cipher” (3), apart from these scattered biographical particulars and the (relatively few) authentic extant writings. In such case, then, it is doubly pressing to translate the genuine Sorskiian corpus as vigilantly as possible. In Nil Sorsky: The Authentic Writings, historian David M. Goldfrank meticulously presents his critical translation of Nil’s textually legitimated oeuvre, and in so doing has performed an invaluable service for students and scholars of the Russian spiritual tradition alike.

Goldfrank includes the following (textually interrelated) works as authentically attributable to Nil: the Predanie (“Tradition”), the Ustav (“On Mental Activity”), epistolary material including letters to coevals Vassian Patrikeev, Gurii Tushin, and German Podol’nyi (collectively referred to as the Three Epistles) as well as the pithy Little Epistle, the foreword and postscript to the Sobornik, and, finally, the Testament, a limited canon constituting a more conservative list of genuine texts than certain previous scholarship has allowed as admissible. Taken as a whole, this compilation of Nil’s authentic writings reveals their author to be a gifted but humble spiritual teacher deeply committed to propagating the wisdom of the Church Fathers, contributing to the spiritual edification of others through the collection and dissemination of saints’ Lives, strengthening his number for battle against demonic forces and the passions, and promoting the practice of continuous mystical contemplative prayer among his brothers. The Predanie (literally “tradition” or “instruction”) which was composed “for myself and my genuine lord brothers, who are of my ethos” (113), served as something of a monastic rule, specifically for Nil’s own scete at Sora. Following an introductory credo, the Predanie catalogues a set of regulative principles for monks, including exhortations to self-support (mainly through handicrafts), manual labor, and poverty; and prohibitions against such things as associations with women, female animals, or young adolescents, ill-gotten gains, haggling over prices, excess of provisions, extraneous adornment in cells and churches, unnecessary conversations, and intoxicants.

The much longer Ustav—Nil’s magnum opus and the centerpiece of this volume—is a more broadly applicable treatise on mental prayer. It follows a tri-partite scheme. Part one (Slova 1–4), attends primarily to the twin struggle in monasticism against the passions and for the achievement of hesychastic stillness, interspersed with classic advice for the beleaguered monk to recite all or some portion of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Part two (Slova 5–6) is Nil’s excursus on the classically Orthodox catalogue of the eight logismoi (translated by Goldfrank throughout as ‘urges’) antecedent and analogous to the ‘seven deadly sins’ in the West: gluttony, fornication, avarice, wrath, sadness, despondency, vainglory, and pride. Part three (Slova 7–11) details Nil’s recommended strategies that function to remediate such urges, including a remembrance of death, expectation of the judgment of the second coming, consciousness of personal sin, the acquisition of the gift of tears, and the conscious cultivation of a posture of detachment.
The Three Epistles, independent letters written respectively to rakish boyar Vassian Patrikeev, esteemed publisher Gurii Tushin, and aristocratic bibliographer German Podol’nyi, contain variously personal advice for the cultivation of spiritual virtues, elucidating in quite concrete case-studies the practical application for those spiritual principles proffered more generally in the Predanie and the Ustav.
sorsky writings 2
For detailed sources about and works by and on Sorsky, see
sorsky 2
See further


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