The venerable Nicon, in the world Nicholas Belyaev, was born on September 26, 1888, to a family of Moscow merchants. His parents were called Metrophanes Nikolayevich and Vera Lavrentyevna. He was the fourth son in the family. His parents were distinguished by their piety, and his mother was especially religious. Many years later, the Optina Elder Barsonuphius said to Nicholas:
"Thank God that you had such a mother... Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile..."
From his youngest days Nicholas' life was marked by the Providence of God. In the year of his birth the family was visited by St. John of Kronstadt, who served a moleben and blessed the young mother.
A still more significant event took place when Nicholas was eight years old. The young Kolya fell ill with some sickness of the throat (perhaps diphtheria). The illness became very serious, and the doctor told the parents that the case was hopeless. One evening the child became so ill that there was no doubt that he would die. He lay unconscious and without breathing. Only his parents remained at his bedside. Poor Vera Lavrentyevna constantly rubbed the little body, which was becoming cold, and ardently, weeping hot tears, besought St. Nicholas for help from on high. The father advised her to leave the dead boy and not torment herself and him. Without listening to her husband, she continued to rub the body and call on the saint of God with tears. And - a miracle took place. The child sighed... Encouraged, both parents began to rub his body still more eagerly. The mother's prayer did not remain unanswered. By the prayers of St. Nicholas the Lord gave the child life. Later Elder Barsonuphius underlined the mystical significance of this event.
Kolya's childhood passed in an atmosphere of Christian piety, mutual love and respect. There were eight people in the family: two girls - Lyubov and Nadyezhda, and six boys: Vladimir, Nicholas, Sergius, John, Metrophanes and Alexis. The family was well-off; the children not only never experienced any material need but one could say that they lived almost in luxury. Nicholas was everyone's favourite. By nature he was cheerful and energetic. These traits distinguished him from his brothers. His love of life infected the rest of them. And thus he remained to the end of his days, with only this difference, that the thoughtless happiness of childhood was replaced by a quiet joy - the fruit of a lofty spiritual culture.
Judging from the reminiscences of his brother John, Kolya's distinguishing feature, even in childhood, was patience and great abstinence. His mother, too, said that he was patient from his very swaddling clothes. Once, when he was twelve years old, he fell and ripped the palm of his hand on a big rusty nail. Although his mother wept, and his brothers looked on with horror as his wound was bound up, he neither uttered a groan nor let fall a tear. Only his bitten lip and paleness showed the pain he felt.
The deaths of his grandparents, and then of his father, began to produce a change in Kolya. He began to think of death and hell, and the thought of the eternal torments awaiting sinners disturbed him. The superior of the church "The Joy of All Who Sorrow", Fr. Simeon Lyapidevsky, had a good influence on him. Nicholas began to go to church, even on weekdays, in the company of his brother John. He read and chanted on the cliros, and helped in the altar. The brothers began to go to church every day. Their only reading was the New Testament and "The Path to Salvation" by Bishop Theophanes the Recluse. The words "Leave the dead to bury the dead" and "Take up your cross and follow Me" were written deep in their hearts. They went to the Chudov monastery in Moscow on the feast of the Meeting of the Lord and had confession and Communion. This day remained in their memory for the rest of their lives, and a desire for the monastic life began to awake in their souls. John found a list of the Russian monasteries, they drew lots, and the lot fell on Optina monastery. They had never heard of it. Fr. Peter Sakharov advised them to go to Bishop Triphon, a former monk of Optina. Then, in February, 1907, the brothers told their mother of their decision to go into the monastery. She was astonished, but with tears in her eyes she blessed her sons with crosses as they knelt before her.
With the blessing of Bishop Triphon, the two brothers arrived in Optina on February 24, 1907, and on December 9, the feast of the icon "Unexpected Joy", they were officially received into the monastery - according to Elder Barsonuphius, through the prayers of their grandfather, Laurence Ivanovich, who worked in the church where this icon was especially revered.
In October, 1908 Fr. Nicon became Elder Barsonuphius' correspondence secreatary, and was freed from all other obediences except reading and chanting in church. St. Barsonuphius said to him:
"Use this time, when you can still read. The time will come when you will not have the opportunity to read books. In five or six years... when you will have to read the book of life."
On November 3, 1909, Fr. Nicon was freed from the obligation of military service because of a great widening of the veins in his left leg. Elder Barsonuphius congratulated him, saying that he must have obtained this through the prayers of Bishop Triphon. And he blessed Fr. Nicon to say the Jesus prayer, first at all times except during church services, and then even during church services.
In April, 1912, Elder Barsonuphius was exiled from the monastery, and a year later he died. Fr. Nicon was greatly saddened at this loss. He was now transferred from the skete to the main monastery, where he worked in the chancellery together with Fr. Peter Krutikov (later Hieromonk Parthenius).
On May 24, 1915 he was tonsured with the name Nicon in honour of the holy Martyr Nicon. On April 30, 1916 he was ordained to the diaconate, and on November 3, 1917 - to the priesthood.
Then began a period of great privation for the monastery, as Elder Barsonuphius had once prophesied to his disciple: "The monastery will be greatly persecuted and straightened. The time will come when it will be hard in Optina. The true Christians will take shelter in small chapels. Perhaps you, too, will live to those times when they will torment the Christians, and the torments will be like those of ancient times. We will be gone by then, but you will be a participator in and contemporary of those horrors. You will live to the horrific times."
On September 17, 1919, Fr. Nicon was arrested and imprisoned in Kozelsk for being a monk. After a short time he was released and returned to the monastery. The remaining monks decided to remain in the monastery come what may.
In 1922 he wrote to his mother: "During these days I have remembered Father Barsonuphius many times: 'The Apostle exhorts: "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith" (II Cor. 13.15), and he continued: 'Look at what the same Apostle says: "I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown" (II Tim. 4.7-8). Yes, it is a great thing to preserve the faith. Therefore I also tell you: Examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith. If you keep the faith, you can have a good hope over your lot.'
"When the reposed elder told me all this.., I felt that he was saying something wondrous, exalted, spiritual. My mind and heart seized on his words with eagerness. I had heard this utterance of the Apostle before, but it had not produced in me such a response, such an impression.
"It seemed to me that 'keeping the faith' was something special. I believe, and I believe in the Orthodox way; I have no doubts at all regarding faith. But here I felt that in this utterance there was something great - that indeed it is great, in spite of all temptations, all the experiences of life, all the offending things, to keep in one's heart the fire of holy faith unquenched, and unquenched even until death, for it is said: 'I have finished my course', that is, the whole of earthly life has already been lived, finished, the path which one had to travel has already been travelled, I am already at the boundary of earthly life, beyond the grave another life already begins, the life which has been prepared for me by my faith which I have kept. 'I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.' And my wondrous elder gave as his testament to me to test myself from time to time in the truths of the Orthodox faith, lest I might, unnoticed by myself deviate from them..."
"Now, when the foundations of the Orthodox Russian Church have been shaken, I see how precious is this instruction of the elder. Now, it seems, the time of testing has come, to see whether we are in the faith. Now one must also know that the faith can be kept by one who believes warmly and sincerely, to whom God is dearer than everything, and this latter can be true only in one who preserves himself from every sin, who preserves his moral life. O Lord, keep me in the faith by Thy grace!"
In 1923 the monastery was dissolved and turned into a monastery. Abbot Isaac blessed Fr. Nicon to serve in the Optina Kazan cathedral and receive worshippers, while he and the other monks settled in Kozelsk. At this time Fr. Nicon began to take on the role of a counsellor and elder. He became the spiritual father of a group of Shamordino nuns who settled in Kozelsk under the leadership of Mother Ambrosia, a nun of a lofty spiritual life.
At the beginning of 1924 the last Optina church was closed, but Fr. Nicon stayed and served all-night vigils in his cell until it was impossible to stay any longer. At the end of July, 1924 he settled in Kozelsk with Fr. Cyril Zlenko. He served in the Dormition cathedral at the invitation of the superior, and unexpectedly for himself he began to display a gift for preaching. At this time Elder Nectarius, Abbot Isaac, Fr. Dositheus and Fr. Meletius began to send people to him, and he accepted them out of obedience. He had a great gift for understanding and consoling souls.
Hierodeacon Cyril (Zlenk) was born in 1888 in a peasant family in the town of Pask, Piryatin uyezd, Poltava province. He finished village school. On January 26, 1907, he was transferred from Optina monastery to the skete. He became the secretary of Elder Barsonuphius. From November, 1908 to the end of 1912 he served in the army. From 1912 until the death of his elder he again became his secretary in the Staro-Golutvin monastery, where he was tonsured. He returned to Optina Hermitage with the coffin of Elder Barsonuphius. On April 24, 1913 he was ordained to the diaconate by Bishop George of Kaluga. From 1916 he lived in the skete, where carried out the duties of librarian and teacher. After the dispersal of the Hermitage in 1924 he lived in Kozelsk in the same flat as Hieromonk Nicon (Belayev). Together they visited the city's Dormition cathedral and sang on the cliros. In 1925, at the invitation of Abbess Sophia (Grinev), they were both in Kiev, where they tonsured many novices of the Protection women's monastery.
In June, 1927 Fr. Nicon and Fr. Cyril were arrested together with Fr. Agapit (Taube). Fr. Cyril was exiled to Turkestan with his cell-attendant, Anastasia Bobkova. There his health was finally undermined. On returning from Kzyl-Orda, he settled in Belev, from where he was ejected after the arrest of the last Optina superior, Schema-Archimandrite Isaac. He died on July 19, 1929.
In January, 1928 Fr. Nicon was sentenced to three years in the camps, and on January 27 his spiritual children gathered at Kaluga station to see him off on his long journey whence he never returned. He and Fr. Agapit were sent to Kemperpunkt camp. There, because of his illness of the legs, he was freed from physical labour and appointed watchman of the warehouses. This suited him well, for he was able to pray and, sometimes, to read.
In August, 1928, Fr. Agapit was sent to another destination in the woods, and in April, 1929 Fr. Nicon was transferred (according to one source, via the Butyrki prison in Moscow) to Popov island in Karelia. Here he worked as an accountant in the camp chancellery. Not long before the end of his term in the camps, Fr. Agapit returned. Both monks were then exiled to the town of Pinega, Archangelsk region.
There Fr. Nicon had to part from his faithful friend. With great difficulty he found accomodation with an elderly woman in the village of Vospol, three kilometres from Pinega. In spite of his very poor health (he had advanced tuberculosis of the lungs), his landlady treated him very badly. But Fr. Nicon bore everything with exemplary patience; and when Fr. Peter from Optina visited him and suggested that he move elsewhere, he refused.
However, when he fell seriously ill, his landlady threw him out of her house. Fr. Nicon remembered the words of Elder Barsonuphius:
"Lord, save Thy servant, this Nicholas. Be to him a Helper. Defend him when he will have neither roof nor shelter."
However, Fr. Peter came to the rescue and the two monks found another flat very quickly. But Fr. Nicon was fading fast. Towards the end his sufferings were eased, and once he had a vision of Elder Macarius of Optina. Finally, on the evening of June 25, 1931, he died, having received Communion and the last rites. Thus he died on a feast of St. John the Baptist, as he had entered the monastery on the day of St. John the Baptist. For, in the words of Elder Barsonuphius:
"Out whole life is a wonderful secret. Always and in everything there is a certain linking of circumstances, but the aim of this linking is unknown to us. Take note of the events of your life. Later everything will be revealed."
The righteousness of Fr. Nicon was revealed after his death. Thus Archbishop Anthony of Los Angeles relates:
"Two days prior to Great Lent 1989, I slipped in my room on a piece of paper and, losing my balance, fell backwards, hitting my ribs on the corner of a metal chair. The orthopaedic doctor found that I had broken several ribs. Torturous pain was the result of any careless movement. Giving the exclamations after the Litanies during the Divine services, and even breathing, caused pain. To do full prostrations was out of the question and even prostrations from the waist were impossible. I walked with difficult and unsure movements and constantly risked falling. However, it was imperative that I serve, read the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, and give a sermon. Two doctors told me that such a painful condition would last two weeks. I was given a bandage."
"On Wednesday of the first week of Great Lent, five days after my accident, I read to those gathered in church the deeply edifying exhortations of Hieromonk Nicon, one of the last Optina elders, which was printed in the journal Nadezhda (Hope). Prior to the reading I spoke of the last five years of the elder's life - spent in great suffering, in prisons, concentration camps, and exile in the far north. There he lived in the polar cold, suffering from tuberculosis, without any medical care. All these sufferings he endured with amazing calmness and patience. Both I myself and those listening in the church were deeply moved by the elder's life and by his wonderful teachings, which reflect the great holiness of one who can, indeed, by called a Great-martyr."
"Having finished the reading, I suddenly felt an unusual lightness. My pains had disappeared and I felt well again. Then and there I was able to move about quickly and, to the amazement of the parishioners, make prostrations without any difficulty."
"With all my would I thank God and the elder Nicon, by whose intercessions I received God's healing so quickly and miraculously, contrary to the doctor's diagnosis. Who has ever heard of bones mending instantly!"
(Sources: Zhitiya Prepodobnykh Startsev Optinoj Pustyni, Jordanville, 1992; I.M. Andreyev, Russia's Catacomb Saints, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1982, chapter 17; "The Life of our Venerable Father Nicon of Optina", Living Orthodoxy, vol. XIII, no. 3, May-June, 1991; Hieromonk Nicon of Optina, Zaveshchanie dukhovnym detyam, Kuibyshev, 1990; Archbishop Anthony of Los Angeles, "Wonderful is God in His Saints...", Orthodox Life, vol. 39, no. 3, May-June, 1989, pp. 18-20; Tsvetochki Optinoj Pustyni, Moscow: Palomnik, 1995, p. 171)
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