SORSKII, NIL (1433–1508), also known as Nilus of Sora. Russian hesychast and saint. Nil became a monk early in life and served his novitiate at the important northern monastery of Saint Cyril at Beloye Ozero. After a journey to the monastic communities of Mount Athos and Constantinople, he returned to Beloye Ozero with a commitment to hesychast spirituality. In the 1470s or 1480s Nil made his way to the deserted banks of the river Sora. His intention was to establish a monastic community that differed from the strict and complex pattern of life at his monastery of origin and was based, instead, on the pattern of the Athonite skete: loosely structured, sparsely populated, with silence at its core, and with no one superior.
In Nil's community the flexibility of the monastics' everyday arrangements corresponded to the flexibility with which their inner life was to be regulated. Hours of weekday prayer were left to the discretion of the individual, although all were cautioned against unrelieved prayer beyond certain limits. The goal was that silence (Gr., hesuchia ) by which communion with God would be fostered.
Nil wrote at some length about the temptations that impede prayer: avarice, anger, sadness, spiritual torpor, vanity, and pride. To counteract these, one must infuse the mind and heart with the awareness of God. To this end Nil commends the Jesus Prayer. With the constant use of such prayer the monk may even anticipate what the Greek fathers had described as theōsis —divinization, or union with God by grace. Regarding his own experience, Nil's retention of the first person singular in his (unattributed) quotation of Symeon the New Theologian suggests that, at the very least, it corresponds to his own aspirations. "As I sit in the midst of my cell," he wrote, "I see a light which is not of this world. Within me I see the maker of the world. I converse with him and love him.… God loves me, he has received me into his very being, and he hides me in his embrace" (Mariia S. Maikova, 1912, pp. 28–29).
Nil's intention was to provide authentic teaching, and for this purpose he borrowed from hesychast masters such as John Cassian, John Climacus, Isaac the Syrian, Gregory of Sinai, and Symeon the New Theologian. Nil, who knew Greek, was the first to communicate the essence of their teachings to the Russian reader.
Nil's integrity as editor and spiritual guide gained him a reputation throughout the land. In 1490 he was invited to Moscow to debate the question of the Judaizers, the followers of the contemporary Novgorod-Moscow heresy. He was certainly opposed to the persecution, still more the execution, of the heretics. Nil's followers were to be accused of sheltering, if not actually favoring, heretics in the years to follow.
But the most noteworthy appearance of Nil in public concerned the question of the secularization of monastic lands. At a council convened in 1503 by Ivan III (who favored secularization), Nil apparently rose to place before it an unexpected proposal: that monasteries should own no villages, and that monastics should live in deserted places and should gain their sustenance by the work of their own hands. The proposal was to be defeated, and Russian monasteries continued virtually unchecked as ever more prosperous landowners until the age of Catherine the Great (1729–1796). A prerequisite for Nil's type of spirituality was that monks should neither own property nor even yearn for it.
Nil's followers, the "Trans-Volgan" elders, peripheralized by the Possessor establishment of the succeeding age (for church and state alike were to follow in the footsteps of Ivan Sanin [Joseph of Volokolamsk] and to favor monastic ritualism as well as land ownership), were to live out their lives in obscurity. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Nil acquired a remarkable heir in Paisii Velichkovskii (1722–1794), who influenced, among others, the Russian elders of the Optino Hermitage and through them the Russian world beyond. The nineteenth century thus revived the reputation of Nil and confirmed, unobtrusively, his cult as saint.
Nil's basic texts are edited by Mariia S. Maikova as Nila Sorskago predanie i ustav (s vstupitelʾnoi statʾei), "Pamiatniki drevnei pisʾmennosti," no. 179 (Saint Petersburg, 1912). Selections are translated in G. P. Fedotov's A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (1950; reprint, Belmont, Mass., 1975), pp. 90–113. Full translations into German are provided by Fairy von Lilienfeld in Nil Sorskij und seiner Schriften: Die Krise der Tradition im Russland Ivans III (Berlin, 1963), pp. 195–284. The latter also contains a judicious discussion of Nil's life and writings. A sound general study of Nil's career is George A. Maloney's Russian Hesychasm: The Spirituality of Nil Sorskij (The Hague, 1973). Both the latter works will need to be checked against more recent publications by such Soviet scholars as S. Ia. Lurʾe and N. A. Kazakova.
Sergei Hackel (1987)
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