Stockholm, February 19, 2022
We find ourselves gathered here tonight, coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally) around the same time that Christians around the world prepare to embark upon their annual journey into Holy and Great Lent, for the screening of a truly remarkable film that focuses on faith, longsuffering and perseverance, and the age-old relationship between the Creator – God – and His logical creatures – human beings.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ms. Jelena Mila, Festival Director of the Balkan New Film Festival, and all her associates for the gracious invitation they extended to me to speak at tonight’s event, as well as Mrs. Yelena Popovic, the screenwriter and director of the truly seminal and thought-provoking film “Man of God,” which we will be blessed to watch together.
This film is a cinematographic tribute to the final thirty years of the life and ministry of St. Nectarios of Pentapolis, spanning the period between 1890-1920, beginning with his removal from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, his appointment as Director of the Rizareios Seminary in Athens (which also happens to be my alma mater), and the establishment of his convent in Aegina and falling asleep in the Lord.
Since its release, this film has been widely discussed, in part because it featured exceptional actors from Greece and abroad. It enjoyed great success at the box office and sparked interest among moviegoers and the general population.
From a personal standpoint, I had been eagerly awaiting the release of this film ever since I first heard of it. I have been researching St. Nectarios’ life for well over twenty years and have been blessed to have experienced the intercessions and grace of this longsuffering and wondrous contemporary saint throughout my life and priestly ministry. My relationship with him is empirical. As a seminarian, I attended and graduated from the Rizareios Seminary in Athens – the institution whose direction he assumed some years following his exile from Egypt. Through his intercessions, I received my Ph.D. from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki with a dissertation focusing on his five-year ministry at the Patriarchate of Alexandria. As a writer and researcher, my studies on St. Nectarios were deemed worthy – no doubt through the grace of the saint – to receive an award from the Academy of Athens and be published by major publishers like the Church of Greece’s official publishing house and missionary arm Apostoliki Diakonia.
Throughout my nearly three decades of ministry in the priesthood, I have been blessed to establish chapels and parishes dedicated to him – the most recent, here at the Holy Metropolis of Sweden and All Scandinavia, where, by the grace of God, we formed the parish of St. Nectarios in Stavanger, Norway several years ago.
Like countless others – clergymen and laypersons alike – St. Nectarios’ life has served as an exemplary paradigm, a source of inspiration, and a constant reminder of God’s invitation to place our trust in Divine Providence, endure injustices and adversities with Christian forbearance, live out our love for Christ through the exercise of perfect love toward our neighbor. Over 100 years after his saintly repose, St. Nectarios’ life continues to touch, affect, and teach people from all around the world, including those who have heard of him from stories retold by members of the older generation, who met him in person or knew others who had met him, the innumerous persons who have been healed of their infirmities or otherwise benefitted from his wondrous intercessions, the faithful who have studied his life or read about him and immediately felt drawn by the knowledge that the continuity of the tradition of the Holy Fathers of the Church and the manifestation of saints graced by God with miraculous powers remains fully intact and can be affirmed in our lifetime through the person of the righteous Metropolitan Nectarios of Pentapolis.
And so, needless to say, my eagerness and interest continued to grow as the debut of this film drew closer. Following my initial excitement and the slew of emotions that I experienced the first time that I watched the life of the saintly figure to whose study I dedicated the majority of my adult life play out on the big screen, I began to reflect on what this film met to me. My thoughts ultimately turned to silent movies – the kind that were prominent during the same time period in which tonight’s film is set. I hope that a brief recount of my acquaintance with its director and some thoughts from the wisdom contained in the ark of Orthodox Christian monasticism, which I will share with you, will better explain why.
My initial contact with Mrs. Yelena Popovic was when I received a phone call from her sometime prior to the start of the production of “Man of God,” during which she asked for copies of my studies on St. Nectarios. I advised her to wait until my two-volume publication on the saint would be published in both Greek and English, which would provide her with ample information for her script.
Together with her husband Alexander, she honored me with her presence at the book presentation which was held in Athens in November 2019. Since then, she would call me from time to time – especially during filming – to ask for information on the saint’s ministry; particularly at the Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Rizareios Seminary.
Following our conversations after the successful release of her film, I realized that she wasn’t much interested in my comments regarding how well it was received by Greek audiences. Instead, she displayed an intense interest in learning about the personal experiences that I had in my life involving this miraculous saint of the 20th century.
I realized that what interested her most of all was the audience’s ability to share in St. Nectarios’ suffering while watching the film, and not its commercial success or ensuring that it would become a box office hit and receive nothing but favorable reviews!
From my interaction with her, I ascertained that I was dealing with a person of great faith, a laconic individual who preferred to keep a low profile, and who was primarily concerned with provoking thought and reflection among the viewers, teaching them through silence, and saying much in as few words as possible. In other words, a person who followed the example of the saint’s life of silence.
There is no doubt that the film “Man of God” is a creation that bears Mrs. Popovic’s unique signature, because through this film the qualities of her own character and personality shine through, as if we were watching a silent movie, with limited or non-existent dialogue, replaced instead with the deafening and relentless silence of the saint’s communication with those with whom he enters into dialogue and associates.
The saint’s outcry in the face of the injustices with which he was confronted goes silent and his silence cries out! His silence was not a passive and disengaged stance of cowardice, but rather, a virtue, which was altogether different from what we are used to seeing in our bustling society.
According to St. Isaac the Syrian, silence is the “language of the age to come…the eternal, supremely joyful heavenly kingdom,” and for St. John of Climacus, silence is the “mother of prayer, mystical spiritual progress, hidden spiritual elevation.”
The director gives her film the spiritual dimension of St. Nectarios’ ministry. Through his meticulous neglect or silence, the saint emulates the stance adopted by our Lord during His Holy Passion, which is why St. Sophrony of Essex says that “the silence of God is the most eloquent and polite response to our improprieties.”
Silence speaks louder than words and aims at seeing truth prevail. It is a lesson that remains timeless. The righteous Nectarios followed the path of silence, which has the power to bring God down to earth and speak to the souls of the people, to shape consciences, to work miracles, to lead us to repentance, contrition of the heart, and prayer.
Moses, who was blessed to see God with his own eyes, would communicate with God through silent prayer. He would supplicate Him from the innermost depths of his heart to stand by him in the face of difficulties and lead His people to the Promised Land. God would respond to Moses’ silence by saying: “Why do you cry out to me?” (Exodus 14:15). Moses’ silence would reach God as a loud outcry, and He would intervene, answer his prayers, and protect His chosen people from their enemies.
St. Nicholai Velimirovich notes that “there are three things about which you mustn’t hasten to talk: about God, until you have strengthened your faith in Him; about the sin of another, until you have come to know your own; and about what tomorrow will bring.”
Silence is the bulwark that holds back the raging rapids of empty talk. It is a type of heroic behavior and spiritual work against the “boldness” of impertinence and gall, the “side chatter” through which we don’t enter into dialogue and communicate, as the Nobel laureate George Seferis characteristically noted.
At the start of this speech, I noted the fact that tonight’s screening takes place shortly before the Church prepares to enter into the period of Holy and Great Lent, which is often referred to as “the stadium of virtues” in the writings of the Holy Fathers. During this period of heightened spiritual askesis or asceticism, the Church prescribes a strict fast. However, as is frequently noted, the spiritual exercises we engage in during Lent have more to do with what comes out of our mouths, than what goes in. Forgiveness, longsuffering, self-sacrifice, humility, forbearance, offering blessings in response to curses, sending up thanksgiving and prayers in response to injuries are some of the virtues that will prove necessary to successfully complete this journey, which culminates in the triumph and ineffable joy of the Lord’s glorious Resurrection – which also signifies mankind’s resurrection!
A series of holy figures from the Scriptures are “spotlighted” – so to speak – during this period, such as Job and Joseph, Moses and the Prophets from the Old Testament, and the Theotokos and Lazarus from the New Testament; and of course, ultimately, Christ Himself, who endures treachery, betrayal, mockery, scourging, abandonment, ingratitude, slander, and the Golgotha of Crucifixion, reaching the furthest depths of humility and “kenosis” – the emptying of Himself – to bring about the completion of His salvific ministry. For through the Cross and His descent into Hades, Christ abolishes the power of the devil, frees the human race from the bonds of death, and through His triumphant Resurrection on the third day, He opens the path of Resurrection for all those who would believe in Him and follow Him.
One of St. Nectarios’ most beloved sayings was the phrase “Σταυρός, ἡ μερὶς τοῦ βίου μου” or “The Cross is a part of my life.” In many ways, it is quite fitting that tonight’s film, “Man of God,” is being screened so close to the start of Great Lent, for what else was the saint’s life but an embodiment of this Lenten passage that leads to the Resurrection. Each of us has his or her own cross to bear, and there is no life not without its own Golgotha, but by the Grace of our Lord, we now know fully well that life’s chapter does not end at the Cross, but that its epilogue lies in the Resurrection. Every Cross has a Resurrection, and as a hierarch of Christ’s Church, the righteous Metropolitan Nectarios of Pentapolis not only preached and taught this to his flock, but actively embodied it in his life.
St. Nectarios chose to meticulously resign himself from arguments and pointless debates, to keep silent, to exercise self-awareness, and to know himself in order to defend himself from the ongoing slander and defamation that he suffered for years, preferring instead to seek refuge in the protection of God. The events leading up to his righteous repose – and especially those that followed – the many manifestations of his miraculous intercessions, the spread of his fame throughout the world, the recognition and affirmation of his sainthood, and even our gathering here tonight to reflect upon and draw inspiration from his life through its worthy depiction via the Seventh Art, cinema –, is a testament to this “man of God’s” full participation in the Resurrection and crown of salvation offered by Christ the God-man.
St. Seraphim of Sarov’s insight was personified in St. Nectarios’ holy life: Gain your inner peace and thousands of people around you will be saved, without you even knowing it.”
Truly, over a century after his righteous repose, St. Nectarios continues to teach, work miracles, save, and heal as a “Man of God!”