Desert of Ice and Snow: The Northern Thebaid
“Northern Thebaid (Russian: Северная Фиваида), is the poetic name of the northern Russian lands surrounding Vologda and Belozersk, appeared as a comparison with the Egyptian area Thebaid – well-known settling place of early Christian monks and hermits.
Historically Thebaid (Greek: Θηβαΐδα) is the region of Upper Egypt, the term derives from the Greek name of its capital Thebes.
The term was coined by an orthodox writer Andrei Muravyev in his book of reflections about a pilgrimage to holy places of Vologda and Belozersk, which he named “Russian Thebaid in the North” (1855).
‘Here in this quiet retreat, where suddenly I found my summer shelter under a hospitable roof of a hospitable owner. Here I am undertaking a description of our native Thebaid which I have just visited around Vologda and Belozersk. Secular people are unlikely to know it, whereas many people have heard about the Thebaid of Egypt and have read in paterikon about the exploits of the great Greek Fathers, who lighted up in the harsh deserts of the Monastery and the Palestine… In a space of more than 500 miles from the Lavra to Beloozero and further, it was like one continuous area studded with hermitages and desert hermits, which lay people were then to settle and build their homes where there were only cells. St. Sergius is the head of all, stands on the southern edge of this wonderful area and sends pupils and companions into the Thebaid, and St. Cyril, on the other side of the area accepts newcomers…”
Sometimes Northern Thebaid is more narrowly referred to as an extensive neighborhood of the St. Cyril-Belozersk Monastery.’
”The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North” Compiled and Translated by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and Fr. Herman (Podmoshensky) with an Introduction by I. M. Kontzevitch [St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood; Third edition, 2004]
“From the fourth century A.D., the desert Thebaid of Egypt was the home of thousands of monks and nuns who made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving toward heaven in the angelic way of life. A thousand years later, no fewer thousands of monks and nuns, likewise seeking union with God, went to live in the forests of northern Russia, creating what has become known as the Northern Thebaid.
Just as the sultry African nature with its clear blue sky, lush colors, its burning sun, and its incomparable moonlit nights, is distinct from the aquarelle soft tones of Russia s northern nature with the blue surface of its lakes and the soft shades of its leafy forests in the same way the sanctity of the Saints of the Egyptian desert, elemental and mighty, is distinct from the sanctity of Russia, which is quiet, lofty, and as crystal-clear as the radiant and quiet evening of the Russian spring. But both in Russia and in Egypt there is the same noetic prayer, the same interior silence.
Illustrated with rare pictures from old Russian books and magazines, “The Northern Thebaid” chronicles the lives of a number of holy men and women of the Russian forests, presenting the Orthodox monastic tradition which inspired them and which is still alive today for those who would follow in their footsteps.
This latest edition is a facsimile of the original edition, which was hand-printed by Fr. Seraphim Rose and his monastic brothers in the mountain forests of northern California. It includes a new preface and a new appendix on the recently rediscovered, incorrupt relics of St. Alexander of Svir, a sixteenth-century luminary of the Russian North.
“Every Orthodox Christian should know the Lives of the Fathers of the desert, which together with the Lives of the Martyrs give us the model for our own life of Christian struggle. Even so, every Orthodox Christian should know of Valaam, of Solovki, of Svir, of Siya and Obnora and White Lake, of the Skete of Sora, and of the Angel-like men who dwelled there before being translated to heaven, living the Orthodox spiritual life to which every Orthodox Christian is called, according to his strength and the conditions of his life. Every Orthodox Christian should be inspired by their life of struggle far from the world. There is no ‘romanticism’ here. […]The spiritual life of the true monastic tradition is the norm of our Christian life[…]. If we do not live like these Saints, then let us at least increase our far-too-feeble struggles for God, and offer our fervent tears of repentance and our constant self-reproach at falling so short of the standard of perfection which God has shown us in His wondrous Saints.”
Preface to the Third Edition
by Prof. I. M. Kontzevitch
I. The Life of St. Sergius of Radonezh (†1392): Abba of the Northern Thebaid
II. The Life of St. Paul of Obnora (†1429) in the Komel Forests of Vologda
III. The Life of St. Cyril of Belozersk (†1429) or White Lake, in the Heart of the Northern Thebaid
IV. The Life of St. Sabbatius of Solovki (†1435) in the Arctic Waters of the White Sea
V. The Life of St. Nilus of Sora (†1508) and His Skete Tradition
VI. The Life of St. Alexander of Svir (†1533), Blessed Seer of the Holy Trinity
VII. The Life of St. Anthony of Siya (†1566), Desert-Dweller of the Northern Dvina
VIII. The Life of St. Euphrosynus (†1612), Martyr-Confessor of Blue-Jay Lake
IX. The Life of St. Diodorus of George-Hill (†1633) and the Desert-Dwellers of the Utmost North
X. The Life of St. Dorothy of Kashin (†1629) and the Righteous Women of Holy Russia
XI. The Life of St. Nicodemus of Kozha Lake (†1640), Anchorite of the Arctic Tundra
XII. The Life of St. Dalmatus of Siberia (†1697) and the Monastic Exodus into the Siberian Taiga
Epilogue: The Eighteenth Century
Appendix to the Third Edition: The Second Uncovering of the Holy Relics of St. Alexander of Svir
“What Orthodox Christian is not exalted in heart and mind at the thought of the Egyptian Thebaid? It was the place of struggle of the great St. Antony, the first among monastic Fathers and model of the anchoretic life. It was also the place of struggle of St. Pachomius the coenobiarch, who received the monastic rule of the common life from an Angel. Thousands of monks and nuns followed them and made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving towards the heavens in the Angelic way of life.
Few, however, are those who know of Orthodoxy’s Northern Thebaid – the Russian “desert” of the forested marshy North. There, in the Northern Thebaid, no fewer thousands of monks and nuns sought out their salvation in the footsteps of the great monastic Fathers of more recent times: St. Sergius of Radonezh, St.Cyril of White Lake, St. Nilus of Sora and hundreds of others whose names have been entered in the Calendar of Orthodox Saints.
Little has been published in English about these Saints. However, we have the pleasure to acquaint you with the book, the authors of which tried to fill up the gap. This is the book called “The Northern Thebaid” about monastic Saints of the Russian North. The book was compiled by Fathers Seraphim (Rose) and Herman (Podmoshensky) of Platina, California, the founders of St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. One of the chapters of the book is devoted to the life of Saint Nilus of Sora. He was for Russian monasticism an instructor and writer.
Saint Nilus of Sora came from the noble family of Maikov. He was born in 1433 and made the beginning of his monastic life in the monastery of St. Cyril of White Lake. There he lived under the instruction of the strict elder Paisius Yaroslavov, who was later abbot of St. Sergius’ Holy Trinity Monastery and refused the office of Metropolitan. However, the life of the White Lake Monastery had greatly declined since the repose of its holy founder, as St. Nilus indicates in a letter which has come down to us.
“Was not my departure from [the White Lake] monastery for the sake of spiritual profit? Yes, for its sake; for I did not see there the preservation of the way of life according to God’s law and the traditions of the Fathers, but rather a life according to one’s own will and human ideas; and many there were who, acting in such a corrupt way, imagined that they were living a virtuous life.”
And so, in search of the true sources of Orthodox monastic life, St. Nilus went to the holy places of the East. Taking with him his disciple and fellow-laborer, St.Innocent of Kernel, who was of the noble family of Okhlebinin, he spent several years on Mountain Athos, where there was the Russian monastery of Xylurgou, and in the monasteries of Constantinople.
Here Saint Nilus studied all forms of monastic asceticism, and in particular the form of skete-life. [“Skete” is a small hermitage.] Most importantly, he strove everywhere to enter into the meaning and spirit of so-called “mental monastic work”, the inward self-trial and practice of the Jesus Prayer, applying everything to his own spiritual life. He attentively studied and applied in experience the teachings of the Divinely-wise Holy Fathers – St. Antony the Great, Ephraim and Isaac of Syria, Barsanuphius, John of the Ladder, Abba Dorotheus and others.
On Mt. Athos the intention was born in him to start, on returning to his homeland, the new to Russia skete form of life according to the example of the Eastern monks. Before him there had been two forms of monasticism in Russia: the coenobitic and the hermitic. St. Nilus made the beginning of the third form: the middle path of asceticism, where a few monks would settle such a distance apart that they could still hear each other’s voices but laboured each by himself.
Returning to White Lake Monastery, St. Nilus did not remain to live in it, but built himself a cell out of logs not far from it. Later he went some ten miles away, to the river Sorka (or Sora). The place which St. Nilus chose for his Skete was wild, dark and desolate. 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.
From this skete St. Nilus wrote to his friend St. Innocent:
“When we were living together with you in the monastery of St. Cyril, you know how I avoided worldly ties and strove to live according to the Holy Scripture, even though in my slothfulness I did not succeed in this. At the end of my wandering I came again to the monastery, built a cell near it, and lived as best as I could. Now I have resettled far from the monastery and have found by God’s grace a place according with my ideas, a place little accessible to worldly people, as you yourself have seen. Living in solitude, I occupy myself with searching the spiritual writings: above all I search the Lord’s commandments and their commentaries, and the Apostolic tradi¬tions; then the Lives and instructions of the Holy Fathers. I reflect on all this, and whatever I find after reflection to be God-pleasing and useful for my soul, I copy out for myself. In this is my life and breath. As for my infirmity and sloth, I place my hope in God and the Most Pure Mother of God. If there is something for me to undertake, and if I find nothing about it in Scripture, I lay it aside for a time until I do find some¬thing. I do not presume to undertake anything at all on my own will and according to my own judgement. Whether you live as a hermit or in coenobitic life, pay heed to the Holy Scripture and follow in the footsteps of the Fathers, or be in subjection to one who is known to you as a spiritual man in word, life and judgement. The Holy Scripture is harsh only for earthly ways of thinking, but rather desires to live according to his own passionate will. Others do not wish humbly to search the Holy Scripture, do not wish even to hear of how one should live, as if the Scripture were not written for us or need not be put in all times, the words of the Lord will always be words as pure as refined silver; the Lord’s commandments for them are dearer than gold and precious stones, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.”
Both for himself and for his disciples, St. Nilus established the strict rules of skete-life. For the building of the first church of his Skete, a raised place had to be made by filling in the marshy ground, all the more because the monastery’s sepulchre was to be under the church. By the hands of the Divinely-wise Elder and the skete-dwellers who lived with him, a high mound was made for the church and sepulchre. Cells were placed on this mound, each a stone’s throw from the others and from the church. The skete-dwellers gathered in their church, following the example of the Eastern Fathers, only on Saturdays, Sundays, and feast days; other days each prayed and laboured in his own cell. The All-night Vigil of the Skete continued literally the whole night; after each kathisma of the Psalter there were three or four readings from the Holy Fathers. At the Liturgy only some of the hymns were sung; everything else was chanted, slowly. On Saturdays the monks went to the monastery sepulchre, where a pahikhida was served for the repose of the departed.
In his Rule to his disciples, St. Nilus thus depicts the outward side of skete-life:
“The monks should earn their livelihood by the labor of their own hands, but should not occupy themselves with agriculture, since because of its complexity it is not suited to hermits. They should accept alms only in case of illness or extreme need, but not any alms that might serve to give offense to anyone. They should not leave the Skete. In church there should be no adornments made of silver, even for the sacred vessels, but everything should fee simple. The young and healthy should wear out the body with fasting, thirst, and labour, while to the old and weak a relaxation is permitted to a certain extent. No women at all are to enter the skete.”
These rules for outward life are not complex. The labor, a strict observation of the conditions of the soul, the purification of the soul by prayer and thought of God. This form of asceticism St. Nilus depicts in some detail in his Rule for his disciples, an extensive work which is called “The Tradition from the Holy Fathers on How to Live”, or the “Rule of Skete-life”. The characteristic that distinguishes this “Tradition” or Rule of St. Nilus of Sora from all other Rules written by the founders of monasteries is precisely that St. Nilus concentrates all attention on inward spiritual life in Christ, on the purely spiritual training of the Orthodox Christian…
Quite some time before his death, St. Nilus, sending his disciple St. Innocent to establish a coenobitic monastery, pro¬phesied that this monastery would flourish, and referring to his own wilderness Skete he said:
“But here, as it was during my lifetime, so let it remain after my death; let the brethren live alone, each in his own cell.”
These words were preserved as a testament and were observed after the death of St. Nilus. The great Elder departed to the Lord on May 7, 1508, on the third Sunday of Easter (or Pascha), being 75 years old.
When he was dying, St. Nilus left the following testament to his disciples:
“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I give as my testament concerning myself to you, my constant lords and brethren who are of my way of life; I beg you, throw my body into the wilderness, that the beasts and birds may devour it, inasmuch as it has sinned much against God and is unworthy of burial. But if you do not do this, then, having dug a hole in the place where we live, bury me with all dishonor. And fear the words which the Great Arsenius gave as his testament to his disciples, saying: “I will stand in judgement with you if you give my body to anyone. For it was my concern, in so far as it lay in my power, that I should not be deemed worthy of an honor or glory of this world; as it was in this life, so let it be after my death. And I beg all to pray for my sinful soul, and I beg forgiveness of everyone. And may there be forgiveness also from me: may God forgive us all.”
On the part of St. Nilus, this testament serves as an expression of his profound humility before God and men, which is worthy of being expressed in the words of the Prophet David: “I have been humbled, O Lord, exceedingly” (Ps.118:107)…
Many other miracles occurred through the intercession of St. Nilus after his repose.
In accordance with the principles of skete-life, the number of monks in St. Nilus’ skete was always small. During his lifetime this number attained no more than a hieromonk, a deacon, and twelve monks. Doubtless, the intention of St. Nilus in blessing his disciple St. Innocent to found a coenobitic monastery was to keep his own skete small.
In addition to St. Innocent, another Saint known to have been under the influence of St. Nilus was St. Cassian of Uglich, a Greek prince from Constantinople to whom St. Nilus wrote two letters which have been preserved. He founded his own monastery
on the Volga. The influence of St. Nilus seems also to be present in the Rule of St. Cornelius of Komel.
The direct influence of St. Nilus on Russian monasticism is difficult to trace and it is actually of secondary importance beside the one undeniable fact that the contemplative monastic tradition of the North is based entirely on the Eastern Fathers of Greece, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. The Skete Rule of St. Nilus is wholly in the tradition of these Fathers and consists largely of citations from them. St. Nilus himself says:
“Like a dog picking up scraps from the table, I have gathered the words uttered by those blessed Fathers.”
The subject of the Skete Rule is primarily not the outward order of the monastery, but the inward activity of the monk. The Holy Fathers call this activity the “Mental work”, which means the practice of the Orthodox spiritual life, centering on the Prayer of Jesus. After an introduction emphasizing that all outward, bodily labors are precisely for the purpose of purifying the “inner vessel”, St. Nilus gives an outline of the inward spiritual battle, which occurs in the mind, in the realm of thoughts. The victory or defeat which the Orthodox Christian sustains here is then translated into the virtues or vices which can be observed outwardly.”
An extract from: http://voiceofrussia.com/radio_broadcast/2248514/2315975/
For St Nilus, see further:
For the Northern Thebaid, see further: