St. Nilus, abbot of Sora (1508)

Commemorated on April 7

St Nilus established the monastic skete (a community of monks living separately like hermits, but sharing some common life) in Russia. He took one side of a religious controversy that troubled the Russian Church's life for many years. St Nilus and his disciples claimed that prayer and ascetic struggle are the whole purpose of monastic life, and opposed monastic ownership of property, or involvement in works such as almshouses, hospitals, and orphanages. Joseph, abbot of Volokalamsk, took up the argument on the other side, insisting that the Church and its monks should be involved in good works (and have the means to do those works) as well as in prayer. The two groups became known as the "Possessors" (Joseph's side) and the "Non-Possessors" (Nilus' side). Each group had reason to be troubled by the other's extremes: Monasteries owned huge amounts of land, kept serfs, and were subject to corruption by involvement in finance; at the same time, the Church formed most of the 'welfare' system of Russia, and the Non-possessors did not suggest how the poor were to be tended, or orphans cared for, without the monasteries' charity. Many of the Non-possessors tended toward a non-Russian and almost un-Orthodox puritanism, condemning beautiful churches and icons as diversions from true spirituality.
  The Possessors (not surprisingly) were favored by the Tsarist government, and eventually won out. The artificial division of the Church into mystical and practical 'parties,' and the victory of one of the parties, led to a period of stagnation in the Russian church that was only corrected two hundred years later, when a great renewal of religious life, characterized by such holy Fathers as St Paisios Velichkovsky and St Seraphim of Sarov, restored the fullness and balance of Orthodox life to the Russian church.
  An indication of the fullness of Orthodoxy: the Church has glorified not only St Nilus but his opponent St Joseph of Volokalamsk, who is commemorated on Sept. 9.

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