St. Nikephoros the Leper (1890-1964)

In the midst of the global corona virus pandemic, a relatively unknown, new saint of our Church has attracted the attention of Orthodox Christians around the world.    Stories have been circulating over the past few months of his appearance in visions to people in Greece and Bulgaria telling them to be unafraid and to be assured of his continued intercessory prayers before the Lord’s Throne.  St. Nikephoros was afflicted with Hansen’s Disease, commonly known as leprosy.  Before the advent of new treatments in the 1940s those infected by the disease were quarantined and removed from society often for the rest of their lives. The Gospels record several instances of our Lord reaching out to heal people of this dreaded disease.   Leprosy can damage the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes.  The nerve damage may lead to an inability to feel pain, which can lead to the loss of parts of a person's extremities from repeated injuries or infection due to unnoticed wounds/  St. Nikephoros suffered throughout his life with the devastating affects of the disease but the abundant grace of God in him grew as his body decayed. 

Our holy Father Nikephoros was born as Nicholas Tzanakakis  in 1890 in a village on the island of Crete.  His pious parents died when he was very young, leaving him, an orphan, in the care of his grandfather. At the age of 13 he moved to the city of Chania for work in a barbershop and there he first began to show signs of the disease.  By the time Nicholas was 16 the disease was becoming visible and fearing that he would be exiled to the leper colony on the island of Spinaloga, he boarded a ship and fled to Egypt.  Here in Alexandria he continued working in a barbershop until he could no longer deny or hide the damage that the disease was causing on his young body.  At the recommendation of a priest he left for the island of Chios in 1914 where there was a home for lepers established by Father Anthimos Vagianos, later canonized as St. Anthimos of Chios.  (+1960)

The home established by St. Anthimos became a spiritual center and was described as much like a monastery as a hospital.  Here young Nicholas immersed himself in his Orthodox Faith, and St. Anthimos, noting his piety and spiritual virtues, tonsured him a monk with the name Nikephoros.  St. Anthimos and Nikephoros developed a close relationship as elder and disciple.  Nikephoros observed his elder’s holiness and recorded the miracles which he witnessed through the elder’s prayers.  Nikephoros, under the direction of his elder, advanced in the faith and he devoted hours each night to prayer with countless prostrations. 

In 1957 the leper colony on Chios was closed and Father Nikephoros and the other patients were moved to the leprosy center of St. Barbara near Athens.  This center was established by the Elder Eumenios who himself was afflicted with leprosy, was healed by medical advances, and remained to help and serve other patients.    By this time, Father Nikephoros was 67 years old and his body had been greatly debilitated by the disease leaving him blind and deformed but yet his soul shone with the brightness of the Lord.   St. Paul said the same about himself in his epistle to the Corinthians:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing,  yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)

One day, when Elder Eumenios entered the room of Father Nikephoros, he saw him in prayer and levitating three feet off his bed, his face shining like the sun.   A priest/monk, Father Nikodemus, who met him in 1961 left this description:

“The marks of the disease were clear on him.  He was blind, mutilated and physically worn out.  It could be immediately discerned however, that underneath the sick body was spiritual power, divine zeal and an endless love and peace that entirely pierced you.”

 Even though he was confined to his bed, blind and in pain, people came to him for a blessing and he taught them:  “My children, do you pray?  And how do you pray? …with the prayer of Jesus you should pray, with the ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’.  Thus you should pray.”

 Father Nikephoros fell asleep in the Lord on January 4, 1964 at the age of 74.  When his relics were uncovered they emitted a heavenly fragrance.  On December 1, 2012 the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized his holy and righteous life and added him to the calendar of Saints.  He is remembered each year on the anniversary of his repose December 22/January 4.

 Tropar

 (Tone 1) O venerable father Nikephoros the Leper,
your struggles and courageous asceticism
dumbfounded heaven's angels.
 Like another Job in pain, you endured and gave glory to God.
 And so, He arranged for you a resplendent crown of miracles.
Rejoice, O guide of monastics!
 Rejoice, O prism of light!
 Rejoice, O delightful fragrance radiating from thy relics!

 

Kondak

(Tone 2) O venerable father Nicephorus, shunning pain and bodily corruption,
 like a horse thou dost gallop towards the heavens,
 the steadfast support of lepers.
A brilliantly lit temple of God, your body shone in its illness.

 

Why?

One of the greatest challenges to Faith is the simple question “Why”?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do some people face continual challenges, difficulties, illnesses and others seem unaffected?  These struggles are known as the question of theodicy:  why does a good God allow evil and suffering in this world?  These are questions people of faith have struggled with for thousands of years, in fact, an entire book of the Bible:  Job, wrestles with these questions.  While we know from the story of Adam and Eve that suffering and evil is never part of God’s plan for us, we know from the Lord’s Cross that God can and will use suffering and evil for our ultimate good.  He is not the cause of suffering, He does not will evil on us, but He will use it for our salvation and growth.  The Holy Bible teaches this:

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials,
 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.
 But let patience have its perfect work,
 that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-3)

“…for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials,  that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ,  whom having not seen you love.”  (1 Peter 1:6-8)

It is unavoidable when difficulties come our way to question “Why”?  But perhaps better questions we should ask ourselves are:

How is God working in my life right now through this difficult time?

How can this experience bring me to repentance and closer to Him?

How will I grow to become a better person because of this?

Even though I don’t see any purpose or reason right now, can I trust and believe that He is with me, will never forsake me and He is at work in my life?

Our difficult times can leave us as a bitter person or a better person.   It was through leprosy and because of it that St. Nikephoros radiated the grace of God and is able to assist us by his prayers to this very day.

- Father Edward Pehanich


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