During crises and specific ailments throughout human history, Orthodox Christians have called on different saints for help and intercession. Saint Minas during WW2, Saint Panteleimon for cancer, Saint Paraskevi for restoration of sight. Because of the myriad “slings and arrows” the flesh is heir to, a cloud of saints stand over our physical health: St Haralambos, St. Luke the Surgeon, St. Cyrus, St Arsenios, Saints Cosmas and Damian, St. Nectarios. The coronavirus pandemic is no different. From out of nowhere it seems, an underground saint has surfaced, whose devotion has been swelling to stench the tide of fear, insecurity, and affliction. He is remarkable in that he is a modern saint, relatively obscure, who also had to endure the agony of a contagious disease, a disease that signaled isolation, social distancing to the extreme. It happens like this. From out of nowhere it seems, supernatural aid comes from heroes that you did not even know exist. Saint Nikiforos has emerged as the obscure saint to champion our combat against coronavirus.
His name is St. Nikiforos the Leper. He was born, Nikolaos Tzanakakis, in Sikari, Kastanochori, Crete in 1890 to pious simple villagers. Because his parents died when he was young, as a young man of 13, he was summoned by an uncle to Chania to learn the trade of barber. When he was but 15 or 16, he noticed dark rings across his body. He realized that it might be the beginning of leprosy. Leprosy had been brought over by the Arabs to Crete and remained active across the island. The famous novel later adapted to a movie called The Island, To Nisi, recounts the history of Spinalonga, the isolated island off the coast of Crete, that was designated as a leper colony. It was there that he would be sent if his disease was found out.
Nikolaos did not want to be banished to an island for lepers. He was young, handsome, and by nature very social and gregarious. He left to Alexandria, Egypt instead. But the dis-ease the illness struck on his conscience he could not escape. He went to confess his fear and it was the good guidance of his confessor that helped him make the right decision. His confessor explained to him that he could not hide the disease, that it would manifest, and that it would cause him unbearable pain. Better to face it than try to elude his destiny. The father gave him a blessing to go to Chios and to seek out Father Anthimos Vagianos and Father Eugenios, two clerics who tended to the spiritual needs of the patients at the biggest and best leper hospital in Greece. He was only 24 when he left for Chios.
In Chios, his disease would progress as would his spiritual advancement. The leper hospital would be the training ground for his spiritual struggle. Under the guidance of Father Anthimos of Chios, (who himself became a saint) in two years’ time, he was tonsured a monk taking the name Nikiforos. He spent many hours in prayer, fasting and chanting in the services. His gifted voice made him a sought-after chanter in the liturgy. Even though crippled by a socially isolating disease, his warm personality attracted many to him. He smiled often and scattered joy. Visitors would find themselves irresistibly attracted to his charm and especially to the joy he imbued. Devoting his time to noetic prayer, he strove to cleanse his soul. Father Anthimos developed an intimate relationship with Nikiforos and would not conduct a liturgy without him.
In time, his disease worsened. His face full of pocks and lesions became hideous to look at. He would keep his face covered by his monk’s cowl while he chanted during the services. Ironically, the more his body deteriorated, the more his soul shone. By 1957, he had lost his sight, and he had started to lose power in his limbs. Leprosy slowly eats away at the ligaments and in essence rots the flesh that falls off in pieces.
The Chios leprosarium was closed in 1957 and the remaining patients, Father Nikeforos among them, were sent to Saint Barbara’s home for lepers. There was only one leper hospital in Athens–Saint Barbara’s Lepers Hospital outside of Aigaleo built around a large stadium that housed several hundred patients. By 1947, antibiotics had been invented to combat the disease.
At Agia Varvara, it was Geronda Eumenios also from Crete that attended the spiritual care of the flock. Geronda had been stricken with leprosy but with the medication had recovered fully, yet he chose to stay to minister to the community of lepers left to battle the illness. In the final decades of his life, the pains Father Nikiforos endured were excruciating. Some described him as a corpse, by then not even walking but bound to a bed morning, day and night. Even so, he kept up his sweet demeanor, with patience he continued in his loving way to those around him, keeping vigils and prayers, and above all, a pure heart.
Father Nikiphoros reposed on January 4, 1964 at the age of 74. After three years, his holy relics were exhumed and found to be fragrant. Father Eumenios and other believers reported many cases where miracles occurred by calling on Saint Nikephoros to intercede with God.
St Nikiforos the Leper is such a comfort for us at this time. He has emerged as the secret saint for devotion and intercession for this coronavirus pandemic. His life and struggle demonstrate how it is through the Cross, the trials of an unrelenting illness that slowly mortifies flesh with pain, that makes us holy. It is not the trial itself but our response to it that transforms even a deadly disease into a vivifying joy. Many times those who visited him attested that Nikiforos would be grateful to God for even this most atrocious fate. Leprosy is much like this virus that isolates loved ones, that creates distance physically and spiritually. Those with it are considered dead to the world, to their loved ones. Yet it is the tribulation of such a disease that is releasing a renewed urgency over the world, calling out heroes in the most humble of us—nurses, doctors, sanitation workers, cleaning staff. It is bringing out what is most human in us. What Father Nikiforos shows, however, that it is by accepting the Lord’s Will, even if it goes contrary to our plans, our needs and conveniences, and being grateful to it, that we become more than human, we become higher than heroes, we become holy. That is our calling.
It has been circulating in Orthodox circles that those who pray to Saint Nikiforos for intercession will not be harmed by the coronavirus. Many prayer chains have formed and are forming across the globe, live prayer sessions, and tamata for deliverance from this contagion. Should anyone’s prayers be answered as a result of seeking him out, let us know.
More resources for getting to know this saint:
Many churches and monasteries have been organizing special services in honor of the saint for protection against coronavirus.