As we begin Great Lent this month, I would like to tell the story of a recent saint in our Church, St. Nicholas Planas, whose feastday is on Saturday, March 2. St. Nicholas was a simple and humble parish priest outside of Athens. He lived just this past century. (He is not to be confused with more famous St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra, who is celebrated on December 6.)
What is most notable about Papa-Nicholas (as people called him) are the things which are lacking in his life. He was no theologian and in fact had very few words to say at all – even to his closest followers. His life has no astounding feats of asceticism; he was a parish priest on the outskirts of a city. He did not die for the Faith or preach to the multitudes. He built no monasteries, no philanthropic institutions, nor even a single church.
Yet each year on March 2 the Orthodox Church universally recognizes Papa-Nicholas as a saint worthy of veneration and emulation. This is because he did the most important thing that any Christian can do, a simple task that he unwaveringly followed to his salvation and canonization: he listened to and performed God’s will to the fullest degree possible within his circumstances. For this reason the Church joyously proclaims in a hymn to St. Nicholas:
As a simple shepherd of Christ God’s lambs, you did tend your flock well on the pasture of piety, nourishing their spirits with ceaseless supplications and leading them to Christ, O wise Father Nicholas. (Megalynarion for St. Nicholas Planas)
Simplicity is the theme of Papa-Nicholas’ life. He was a simple parish priest, who modestly performed the sacraments and services of the church, who cared for his flock with meekness, and who treated all with love and in innocence. It is this very simplicity which serves as an example for all of us.
St. Nicholas was born in 1851 on the Island of Naxos. He lived there until he was 14 years old, when his family moved to Athens. He was married at 17 and had one son; his wife died a few years later, leaving him a widower. Soon thereafter, he was ordained to the diaconate and eventually to the priesthood. (At his first parish the famous writer Alexandros Papadiamantis was the chanter.)
Papa-Nicholas was a rare spectacle, even in the rustic agrarian villages that surrounded Athens in the early 20th Century. He was quite short, even by Greek standards; people would often kiss him on the head like a little child. He was hunched over and always looking disheveled. He wore the most tattered raso, even though in later life his church wardens (like parish council members) would insist upon buying him new clothes. He would simply give them away. He had a slow gait and used a cane for much of his later years.
Papa-Nicholas was known for traveling with a handkerchief full of paper scraps – names of those whom he remembered in prayer. He also a carried little box around his neck with the relics of saints. He called the handkerchief and the box, “My invoices and my contracts.”
Papa-Nicholas was visited by saints many times in his life. He would hold vigil with St. John the Baptist, serve liturgy with St. Phocas the Bishop, receive mystical medicine from St. Panteleimon, and walk in rainstorms late at night by the light of an angel, without feeling a drop.
Eventually he became the priest at the Church of St. John the Hunter, which had only eight families. His annual salary was a piece of the Christmas lamb.
For 50 years Papa-Nicholas served Divine Liturgy every day. Through revolutions, snowstorms, and even the invasion of the English and French in 1917 he never ceased to serve Liturgy daily.
Papa-Nicholas would refuse to distinguish between people, regardless of stature, wealth, health, or any other difference. He gave communion to lepers. He walked many miles to visit the wealthy and the poor in times of need. Rather than correcting people verbally, he would pray intensely for them such that saints would appear in their dreams to correct them. He lived a life of patience and compassion toward his fellow humans and obedience toward God.
Papa-Nicholas departed this world in 1932. Yet his simplicity and his boundless love for humanity live on in the story of his life. May he be an example to all of us as we enter Great and Holy Lent.
Footnote: Our son Nicholas was named after St. Nicholas Planas, who has a special place in our family.