The “Model of Meekness”? A Priest on St. Nicholas’ Zeal and Slapping Arius

Priest Dimitry Shishkin, rector of the Church of the Protection of the Mother of God in the village of Pochtovoe (diocese of Simperopol and Crimea).

“We have to have the purity of life and faith of the saints in order to have their boldness.”

—In the Life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra and Lycia there is one episode that we would now call, “ambiguous”: At the First Ecumenical Council St. Nicholas slapped the mad Arius, who with the poison of his brazen and blasphemous speech poisoned the souls of the faithful. By the way, this slap in the face of “mad” Arius met no sympathy or support from the majority of those present at the Council of Bishops; and, as we know, the saint was even dismissed from the Council and put in prison under guard. But soon at a special divine revelation he was freed and declared innocent.

I think that it is all a matter of the saint’s seeing the extraordinary danger coming from the mad Arius’s speech; and Archbishop Nicholas’s deed came out of his extreme compassion for those he wanted to protect from the heretical poison that might have destroyed the labors of many generations of preachers in the Church, poisoning not just the barrel but a whole sea of blessed honey. We know, incidentally, that that is precisely what later happened, and nearly the entire East was infected with the Arian heresy for many decades. So, in order to evaluate St. Nicholas’s act we have to consider the magnitude of his spirit, the magnitude and significance of his very personality, and then also the magnitude of spiritual danger coming from the lips of the heresiarch Arius.

But what can we glean from this story? Today we also see much iniquity and many attacks against the true faith and Church. How can we stand up against this swelling flood of evil? Can we stop evil only with prayer and faith, or also with deeds, even deeds involving force? Of course, life is so complex and multi-faceted that it is simply impossible to write out all our acts, and even if they were all written out we would still not act precisely according to the notes but according to the circumstances and, mainly, according to our soul’s inclination. This seems to be the key concept: our soul’s inclination should be, without a doubt, Orthodox; and this means not only strictly following all the rules and regulations, but also our communion with the Spirit of Christ, and our unity with Him; because it is the Holy Spirit that helps us make the right and often spontaneous decision that their may simply be no time to take. It is unlikely that St. Nicholas thought for even a minute before slapping Arius that he would in fact slap him! But apparently there was a moment when the speech of the mad heretic surpassed, if we might put it this way, all patience by its degree of error and went beyond the limits, off the scales, and became blasphemous and audacious to the highest degree. And then the saint out of the zeal nagging at him struck Arius. This was most likely a spontaneous act, but not an accidental one, of course. Only a man with burning faith, enlightened with grace and gifted with sharp spiritual vision, would be capable of this.

In general, such an example may be rare but it is by no means unique. We know of cases when the Lord cast the moneychangers out of the temple because they turned the temple of God into a “den of thieves”. And the apostle Peter, as we recall, gave a couple who “lied against the Holy Spirit” over to death. And St. John Chrysostom says somewhere that if someone blasphemes the name of the Lord in your presence you should sanctify your hand with a blow. That is, in any case, standing up for God’s truth does not exclude anything that is not passive, pacifistic behavior. However… One probably has to have the purity of life and faith of the saints in order to have their boldness. So, before you “sanctify your hand with blows” it would be good to at least for a moment to look at yourself in all seriousness and honesty and answer the question: Do I have anything myself that might merit a “pious” punch in the mouth?

It seems to me that the problem lies also in the fact that in our times, there has been an increase in radical tendencies in all different spheres and there is a temptation to lean towards “Orthodox-crusader” radicalism. Incidentally, this already exists, but it seems to me that this is an alien spirit… at times going beyond the boundaries of Christianity. After all, the Lord cast out the moneychangers from the temple only once; He didn’t conduct regular raids, and about St. Nicholas we only know of one such extreme episode, quite out of the ordinary, let’s say. That is, the norm itself should be something else: a holy and good life—sincere, amiable, and filled with compassion for people, with the resolve to stand up against sin. This should be the norm; but if demonstration of force evolves into a regular method, then Orthodoxy itself is discredited.

If we talk about methods of standing up for our faith, then the more acute problems do not consist in there not being any Orthodox Christians without “teeth”, ready to fight for the truth unto the spilling of their own and others’ blood, but in the fact that we, the Orthodox, to some extent do not know how to manifest the amazing beauty and spiritual height of Orthodoxy, which would be so attractive and convincing that people looking at us would change their whole lives. And if we look attentively at the life of St. Nicholas we will see that it is for this that everyone loves him and venerates him—because he is so close and compassionate to every soul, and ready to help at every call. This is what we should learn from him.

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