Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Nikephoros and Saprikios

“The ruinous passion of rancor strips the soul of divine grace and leaves even the most virtuous person a wretched corpse. Heed what we read in the ancient martyriology of the Church: “A pious young Christian, Nikephoros, lived in a certain city of the East at the time of the Emperor Valerian. In the same city, there lived a certain Christian zealot, the Priest Saprikios. The two of them were joined closely together by an intimate spiritual friendship. Nikephoros, being young, revered and showed obedience to Saprikios. He, in turn, loved and counseled the youth. But the devil, who despises every good, sowed dissension between them and broke up their beautiful friendship. Saprikios, forgetting that he was a servant of Jesus, who is gentle and forgiving, so hated Nikephoros that he did not even wish to see him before his eyes. Many times the good youth tried to visit his old friend to ask his forgiveness. And he sent others on his behalf to seek reconciliation. But everything was a wasted effort in the face of the stubborn refusal of the priest.

“Just at that time a great persecution against Christians fell upon the entire East. First among those caught in the native land of Nikephoros and Saprikios, was the Priest Saprikios, and they tortured him to make him deny his faith and sacrifice to the idols. In the beginning, he withstood his tortures bravely; he confessed his devotion to Christ boldly and was finally thrown into jail until the prefect of his city was to decide in what way he would be put to death.

“Nikephoros agonizingly followed the sufferings of his friend and, when he was placed in jail, the youth paid the jail-keeper a great deal of money to let him see his friend. When he went near him, he fell at his feet and, with fervent tears, asked him to make friends again so as not to separate forever with enmity between them.

“Forgive me,” he told the priest, “I am to blame for everything.”

“But Saprikios remained as cold as marble and unmoved like a rock by the entreaties of his friend, not condescending even to cast a glance towards him. Nikephoros left, broken by the incomprehensible behavior of the priest.

“Finally, it was decided that Saprikios would be beheaded by the sword. The executioners led him to the place of execution and Nikephoros followed behind, begging reconciliation. He shuddered at the thought that shortly his friend would pass into eternity, while a chasm of hate that could not be bridged separated them. Saprikios continued to remain as hard as granite.

“When the great moment arrived, that the confessor was at last to receive the wreath of victory and his name was to be inscribed among the names of the glorious martyrs, divine grace left him. Just as the executioner raised his sword to cut off his head, Saprikios was taken aback, as though waking from a deep stupor. Frightened, he asked why they had him tied.”

“You are condemned to death, because you refused to sacrifice to the gods of the state,” answered the surprised executioner, who for the first time had chanced to have a Christian who lost courage under his sword.

“I will make sacrifices,” the denier dared to utter.

“Nikephoros, who had followed this whole unbelievable scene, which had unfolded so quickly before him, and who had seen a divine angel waiting to crown the martyr, stepped out and shouted to the executioner: “Jesus wants a martyr with him on this day. I am a Christian. Behead me.”

“Nikephoros took the place of Saprikios in martyrdom, while to Saprikios’ rancor was added the stigma of denial.”

This story makes weep. How many times have we observed such a scenario? People who once loved each other part ways, embittered. Sometimes one wants to make up and restore the relationship but the other, for who knows what reason, clings to the anger.

In today’s Saying, we have an extreme example of the consequences of holding onto the bitterness. Despite the fact that Saprikios repeatedly refused to forgive Nikephoros, the angels waiting to give him the crown of martyrdom and welcome him into that holy company. But because he nurtured his anger against Nikephoros, Saprikios lost the gift of God’s grace and Nikephoros gained the crown of martyrdom.

Having no idea if this story has any historical merit to it, the lesson is clear.  Forgive. Forgive as though your soul depended upon it. Did not our Lord Himself teach us to “forgive our trespassers as we forgive those who trespass against us?”

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