Left to right: Bishop Germogen Golubev (1896-1978), Metropolitan Pimen Izvekov (1910-90) (later, Patriarch in 1971), Patriarch Aleksei Simansky (1877-1970), Metropolitan Nikodim Rotov (1929-78), Archbishop Leonid Polyakov (1913-90), and Bishop Mefody Menzak (1914-74) at the reception hall of the patriarchal residence at the Troitsky Lavra in Zagorsk (now Sergeyev Posad) in 1965.
For me, I speak as someone who didn’t know Vladyki Metropolitan Nikodim personally, but as one who studied his works and received much inspiration from them. There’s no doubt that he left a number of lessons for the new generation of archpastors, pastors, and laity of our Church, lessons that are very important for the building up of church life in the 21st century.
The first lesson was his ability to fearlessly, honestly, and in all circumstances do God’s work, defending the right of Christians to live and act according to their faith. He entered into difficult dialogues with Soviet officials, and, at the same time, he skilfully brought the weight of the Western media and world public opinion to protect the rights and interests of believers. Vladyki Nikodim’s actions clearly show that the Church must never be isolated in its dialogue with the state. It should always respond to the will of the people and state the truth boldly and honesty, which impresses even sceptical foreign journalists and public figures. There have always been powerful critics of the Church in the world. Yesterday, they were the officials of an officially-atheist state; today, we see “new atheists” amongst intellectuals, the economic and media élite, nationalist circles in some countries, and officials that are leftovers from Soviet times. We can never engage in dialogue with such people fruitfully and we can never defend our beliefs if we do not seek the support of the people, unless we make clear what we mean using domestic and foreign media. Our Church doesn’t wish to be an arm of the state and it shouldn’t be such. However, a Church of the people becomes their conscience and spiritual leader; it means that we can fulfil our mission, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6. 12). The words of Metropolitan Nikodim shall inspire our path to victory, “A sincerely religious man… relates to the world of reality as a complex process in the great and continuing struggle between the forces of good and evil, a struggle in which he himself participates, because he hears the sound of God’s call in his heart, a call to reject evil and become a strong advocate of Divine justice and goodness” (Человек Церкви (Chelovek Tserkvi: A Man of the Church) Moscow, 1998. p. 89).
The second lesson of Vladyki Nikodim was his desire for dialogue, coupled with fidelity to the truth of Orthodoxy. Today, many explain the need for dialogue with people of other faiths and beliefs on pragmatic grounds. We need to encourage each other… dialogue needs to respond to the common challenges of our time, build up a harmonious social life, extinguish conflict, and to solve the everyday problems of religious communities and individuals. We truly need to do this, especially in a society where people of different religions and different views coexist with one another (and whose company we can’t and won’t avoid, except for those who call people to hide in metaphorical caves). However, the primary impetus behind Christian dialogue must be completely different, and Vladyki Nikodim knew that. “Extravagant brotherhood” as a means to unify people was the dream of many Russian religious philosophers. This meant that they tried to share with those near and far the incomparable sense of collegiality (соборного) of the assembly that comes amongst Orthodox Christians during the Divine Liturgy. This should inspire us when we leave the church and be the goal of our communication with those who do not share our faith. Vladyki Nikodim wrote, “We seek unity and peace, inner peace in the hearts of mankind and peace in the outside world amongst all people and nations. We strive for unity, but, unity is not an external, human, or mechanical concept; we seek a deeper unity, the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, which comes to us through the Lord Jesus Christ, who is above all and through all and in all” (Человек Церкви (Chelovek Tserkvi: A Man of the Church) Moscow, 1998. p. 80).
Metropolitan Nikodim Rotov (1929-78) ordaining Yevgeni Zhdan (1942-2002) (later Archbishop of Nizhegorod and Arzamas) to the diaconate in 1976
Moreover, this apostolic openness is the best means of Orthodox witness. In his contacts with non-Orthodox and non-Christians, Metropolitan Nikodim always declared nothing but the truth of Christ. Today, with sorrow, we remember how quickly enthusiasm evaporated in the inter-Christian dialogue, a mission that occupied the late Metropolitan to the highest degree. In the 60′s, many believed, not without reason, that the unity of those who call themselves followers of Christ was achievable in the short term. Let’s not forget that many Western Christians were ready to return to the faith of the ancient undivided Church as preserved in Holy Orthodoxy. This caused Vladyki Nikodim to say, “The only way to reunite Christians of various denominations naturally in the unity of faith is to return to the dogmatic teachings of the ancient undivided Church in the era of the Seven Ecumenical Councils… As we know, very soon, another spirit arose in the Western world. It was a spirit of secularisation, of accommodation, of hidebound commitment to the ‘institutional’, and of pseudo-mysticism, which grew up between the 18th and 20th centuries” (Человек Церкви (Chelovek Tserkvi: A Man of the Church) Moscow, 1998. p. 99). However, I wholeheartedly believe that if we go on the path that Vladyki Nikodim trod… not using cold “diplomacy”, nor earthly concerns for “religious organisations” and their leaders, but, through the sincere testimony of the truth, we can gather this disparate lot into a single flock of Christ. Today, we hear the cries of those who are “spiritually thirsty” in the deserts of atheism and in the “post-Christian” milieu.
Finally, the last lesson that he taught us was that he created a school of pastoral ministry, which many venerable archpastors and young students in seminary embraced. Furthermore, their path in church service, which often emulated Vladyki Nikodim, confirms the wisdom and correctness of the educational system that he created. They gathered around a brilliant man, who at the same time, didn’t dismiss Christ, and didn’t put everything dependent on constant communication with him. Today, in our Church, we lack such schools. Some attempts to create them were frustrated and students dispersed after the death of a teacher or his retirement from teaching. Unfortunately, a state of division remains the norm, expressed in un-Churchly individualism or cults of personality. This, in fact, doesn’t unite us; rather, it divides us. Let’s hope that people will appear in our Church who’ll be able to create new schools of pastoral ministry and church service, and that spiteful and malicious people won’t place obstructions and interference in their way, as they did to Vladyki Nikodim.
Church life in the 21st century, as at any other time, requires perseverance and sobriety; it requires wisdom and energy. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (St Matthew 10. 16), the Lord Jesus teaches us. Now, during a period of revival, we need to pay particular attention to the podvigs of the archpastors and pastors of the period of persecution, a period in which the Church, although it underwent outward oppression, showed both God and man the extraordinary breadth and height of its soul. Let the legacy to the spirit of Metropolitan Nikodim be that he was one of the shining beacons of our struggle, cut short in the midst of the raging sea of life. Truly, we can say of him in the words of the Saviour, He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light (St John 5. 35).
3 September 2008