by Father Sergius Halvorsen
I first met Archbishop Nikon in Pennsylvania at a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. Since I was not serving, I went in to the altar for clergy communion. After receiving Metropolitan Herman’s blessing, I stepped aside to put on my vestments and I found myself standing next to a big, tall hieromonk with rugged features, and a deeply lined, unsmiling face. In the mental calculus of meeting a stranger, I wondered if this was someone that I should even talk to. He wasn’t serving, but was standing in the altar, attentively observing the service, and I honestly didn’t know if I should even disturb him. But, before receiving communion, I said, “I’m sorry Father, but I don’t think we’ve met,” and I introduced myself. He responded, “Hello. I’m Father Nikon, they say they want to make me a bishop, so I’m here to watch and learn.” He gently shrugged his shoulders, and his rugged lined face, broke into a completely unexpected, playfully bashful smile. It was the kind of smile that said, “This is all a bit overwhelming, but it’s going to be OK.”
The second time I saw him was shortly after his episcopal consecration. I was asked to serve with then Bishop Nikon as he made a pastoral visit to a local parish in Connecticut. I had been a deacon for a few years and I had just enough experience serving the hierarchical Divine Liturgy so that I would occasionally be asked to serve as the first deacon when a more senior deacon was unavailable, but I did not have enough experience to be truly comfortable. So, whenever I served with a bishop, I was always nervous, hoping and praying that I’d remember everything, and more importantly, that I’d be able to do it all. But as the Liturgy began, I quickly realized that since His Grace had only recently been consecrated to the episcopacy, he and I were in a similar situation: neither of us was completely familiar with the hierarchical liturgy. There were a few moments when it seemed that we were both a bit unsure of exactly what we should be doing—subtle looks back and forth that said, “Wait, is it my turn now, or is it yours…no wait, am I supposed to be here, or over there…?” But while there may have been some uncertainty about the rubrics, one thing was absolutely certain: Bishop Nikon was making everyone feel completely at ease. From the pastor of the parish, whose chronic illness posed challenges that I cannot even imagine, to the subdeacons, to the altar boys, and of course to me, the nervous, not-so-confident deacon: Bishop Nikon went out of his way to make everyone feel completely at ease. He was kind, humble, patient, and greeted every unforeseen moment graciously and with a gentle sense of humor, and yes, there were several moments when he looked at us with that playfully bashful smile that said, “This is all a bit overwhelming, but it’s going to be OK.” In the years after that, as I had the pleasure to serve and work with Vladyka Nikon in the Diocese of New England, I learned that the spirit of humble, gentle, compassion with which he served the Liturgy, characterized his entire ministry. He served Christ and His Holy Church by treating people with kindness, humility, patience and grace. Every time I we sang “Eis polla, eti despota” for him, he would always give his blessing, and then say, loud enough so that everyone could hear, “Many years to you as well.”
At the end of that first Liturgy that I served with Bishop Nikon, he gave me his blessing, and thanked me profusely for coming to serve with him. Then he said, “Father Deacon, come here for just a minute.” We walked to his car where he was packing up his things, and he pulled out the bouquet of flowers that the parish had given him as they greeted him in the narthex. He said, “Father, please take these home and give them to your wife. Please tell her that I send my blessing, and that I’m grateful to her for sharing you on a Sunday morning.” This was the first of many times that Bishop Nikon went out of his way to express his love and care for my family and every time we spoke, he would always ask about my wife and my children. Once when a family member had a bit of a health scare, I was sitting in my car, in a parking lot, beside myself with fear and anxiety, and I called him to ask for his prayers. Naturally, he told me that he’d pray for us. But in that moment, I knew he was sincere in his prayer, because he was such a good listener. When you talked with Bishop Nikon, he really listened to you, and he let you know that he heard and understood you. Now, there is a not-so-subtle irony to all of this, because Archbishop Nikon was notoriously hard of hearing. It seemed like he was always in a losing battle with his hearing aids—tweaking and adjusting them, while they whistled and squeaked—and there were plenty of times when you would tell him something and he would ask you to repeat yourself. But people who are not listening to you, people who don’t care what you are saying, people who don’t care what you’re going through, they never ask you to repeat yourself, because they don’t care. But if Archbishop Nikon didn’t understand something you said, he would ask you to repeat yourself, squinting his eyes in concentration, with his hand up to his ear, leaning in closer, hoping to catch what you were saying. He cared about what you were going through, and he wanted to hear. Perhaps being physically hard of hearing forced Archbishop Nikon to be a more attentive listener; maybe it forced him to listen carefully, to make sure that he understood what his people were telling him, and to assure them that he heard and understood their concerns, ideas, hopes and fears. Vladyka may have been hard of hearing, but whatever his ears lacked was more than made up for by his heart.
One of the reasons Vladyka Nikon was such a good listener, was because he was always present. He seemed to be on the road constantly: traveling to parishes to serve and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to be present at every possible gathering of the faithful. He particularly loved visiting the diocesan Youth Rally, and he’d leave his house before dawn to make the drive up to the camp in New Hampshire, spend the entire day with the Rallyers, and then drive all the way home in the evening. In the years that he spent caring for the Diocese of the South, his travel schedule was even more intense, and he logged God-knows-how-many miles by air and by car. Brother clergy would tell me that it was not uncommon to arrive at church for a service to find Archbishop Nikon waiting in his little black car, not impatient or testy, but simply there: present. No matter the “grandeur” of the particular event, it could be a major Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, or a panikhida for the father of a priest in his diocese, Vladyka was always there: he was present for his people. He lived out this desire to be present, almost to a fault and on several occasions he worked himself to the point of extreme exhaustion. Some of us took it upon ourselves to tell him to slow down, “Vladyka, you are my bishop, and I know that I’m not in a position to tell you what to do, but I’m telling you, ‘Take some time off!’ please. Stay home, get some rest. We know you love us, but we want you to be well.” Archbishop Nikon’s commitment to spend time with his people, even at the expense of his health, is a striking icon of Christian love. He was not perfect—those who knew him well, knew his weaknesses and his failings, and he was quick to admit them, and ask forgiveness—yet he seemed to care more for the wellbeing of those he served, than for himself: his ministry embodied a profoundly Christlike selflessness that placed the wellbeing of the neighbor before his own.
The last time I saw Archbishop Nikon was in the summer of 2019, and he was living in a convalescent facility. Walking into his room, I was stunned to see him so frail. But in usual Archbishop Nikon fashion, he was there waiting for me. He knew I was coming, so he had gotten ready and was sitting up on the side of his bed ready to receive me when I got there. So many years after our first meeting in Pennsylvania, that big, tall, imposing man was now a shadow of his former self, yet even in that condition, he was no longer a stranger: he was my archbishop, my father in Christ, and my trusted friend. As we talked, he said over and over, how much he wished that he could regain his strength so that he could once again visit the parishes in his diocese and spend time among his brothers and sisters in Christ. In his usual self-deprecating humor, he said, “But father, right now I’m so weak, if I put on all those vestments, I probably couldn’t even stand.” As always, he asked me about my family, and he took such joy in hearing about what my wife and children were doing. At one point, his tone changed, and he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Father, I’m ready for my wife to come and take me home.” For a split second I thought perhaps in his weakness he had become disoriented, but then I knew exactly what he was saying. His beloved wife Sarah had departed this life almost twenty years earlier. He had had their wedding rings mounted on the top of his favorite episcopal walking staff, and those who knew him, knew that her spirit was never far from his. Maybe that grief of losing someone so dear was one of the things that made him such a good bishop. As the Psalmist says, a broken and contrite heart is an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. So, sitting on the side of his hospital bed, in that care facility in Boston, on that July afternoon, when he said that he was ready for his wife to come take him home, I knew he was telling me that the time of his earthly sojourn was drawing to a close, and that he welcomed the opportunity to be reunited with his loved ones in Christ.
Barely a month after that last visit, I found myself at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Boston at Archbishop Nikon’s funeral. There were so many priests present for the service that most of us stood in the nave, fully vested, lined up on either side of our beloved Archbishop Nikon who lay in repose in the center of the Church. Unlike that first time that he and I served together (when we were both so concerned about the details of the service) I found myself in a very unusual situation for a priest: my only job was to stand still and pray. Looking at Archbishop Nikon, my mind was filled with all of the moments that we spent together: the challenges we had to deal with, the sorrows we faced, the trust that grew between us, and the genuine friendship and the Christian love that we shared. A bishop is like an adoptive father: he comes into your life, and there is a formal, working relationship. At first, you don’t have a personal relationship. But when your bishop is a man of faith, when he is loving and kind, when he comes to ministry with a broken and contrite heart, when he embodies the love of Jesus Christ, then he becomes a father. That is what made saying good bye to Archbishop Nikon so very hard for so many of us, we were not simply burying our diocesan bishop, we were saying goodbye to our father in Christ and commending him into the hands of God. As these thoughts ran through my mind, I remembered one of the most beautiful teachings of our Orthodox Christian faith: in the same way that we can ask for the prayers of the living, we can, and should, ask for the prayers of those who have departed this life. So in my heart, I began to pray, “Holy Father Nikon, pray to God for us.” Then suddenly, I could practically hear his voice, that gravelly deep voice, with that subtle touch of gentle irony that was such an endearing part of his ministry, and I could swear that I almost heard him say, “Father, what kind of bishop do you think I am? Do you think that I’m going to stop praying for you just because I’m dead?” And then, in my mind’s eye, I could see that expression on his face, that playfully bashful smile that said, “This is all a bit overwhelming, but it’s going to be OK.”
At Archbishop Nikon’s funeral, a good friend and I were talking, and suddenly he broke down in tears, and sobbed, “I’m just going to miss him so much…so very much!” Over the past year, with my own personal struggles and the struggles that we’ve all faced through the pandemic, I’ve thought so many times about how much I miss Archbishop Nikon, and I’ve thought how much I wish that he were still with us. But I’ve also thought of how much he gave us. How he left us his amazing witness of Christian faith, and the witness of his simple and profound example of Christlike love. Most importantly, I am reminded that inasmuch as I draw close to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I am once again close to our beloved Archbishop Nikon who continues to pray for us.
Thank you, Lord, for sending Archbishop Nikon to care for us, to share Your love with us to and lead us. Thank You for granting us an archpastor who helped us to take up our cross and follow You. Grant rest and blessed repose O Lord, to your servant, the ever-memorable Archbishop Nikon, and make his memory to be eternal!