Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume XI: November. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Nilus, Anchoret, Father of the Church, Confessor
NOBILITY, dignities, honours, and riches, have not given such great lustre to the name of St. Nilus, as the contempt of those things for the love of Christ. In his retreat, such was his care to live unknown to the world, that he has concealed from us the very manner of life which he led in the desert, and all we know of him is reduced to certain general circumstances. He seems to have been a native of Ancyra in Galatia, says Orsi: it appears by his writings that he had a regular education, in which piety and religion had always the ascendant. It is uncertain at what time of life he had St. Chrysostom for master; but it must have been at Antioch, whither the reputation of that holy doctor must have drawn him, perhaps when he resigned his government in order to retire from the world. St. Nilus was married, had two sons, lived in great splendour and dignity, and was raised by the emperor to the post of prefect or governor of Constantinople. The ambition, avarice, jealousies, and other vices which reigned in the court of Arcadius, could not fail to alarm the conscience of a pious and timorous magistrate, who, in all his actions, feared nothing so much as to authorize or connive at injustice or sin. And the desire of living only to God and himself worked so strongly in his heart, that he obtained, though with some difficulty, his wifes consent to withdraw himself from the world, about the year 390. His eldest son he left to her care to be trained up to the duties of his station in the world, and with the younger named Theodulus, betook himself to a solitary life in the desert of Sinai. In this retreat they lived together in the most fervent exercises of the monastic state, and sustained many conflicts against both their visible and invisible enemies.
The works which St. Nilus hath left us were in great request amongst the ancients, and as Photius justly remarks,1 demonstrate the excellent perfection of his virtue, and his great talent of eloquence.2 In his treatise, On the Monastic Life, he observes that Christ came from heaven to teach men the true way of virtue and wisdom, to which all the sages of the ancients were strangers. He adds, that the first Christians imitated their master in all things; but that this primitive zeal being cooled, some persons took a resolution to abandon the perplexing business of the world, and renounced riches and pleasures, the better to apply themselves to the exercise of all virtues, and to curb their passions. But that this state, so holy in its original, had then so much degenerated, that many professors of it disgraced it by their irregularities. These disorders he censures with great fervour and acuteness, in this and his other ascetic works, in which he strongly recommends voluntary poverty, obedience, concord, and humility. In his book on prayer, a work particularly admired by Photius, many excellent maxims are laid down. The saint recommends, that we beg of God, in the first place, the gift of prayer, and entreat the Holy Ghost to form in our hearts those pure and ardent desires which he has promised always to hear, and that he vouchsafe to teach us interiorly to pray: this holy doctor will have us only to ask of God, that his will be done in the most perfect manner. To persons in the world, he inculcates temperance, humility, prayer, contempt of the world, continual meditation on death, and the obligation of giving large alms. The saint was always ready to communicate to others his spiritual science. For, in the tranquillity of his solitude, he had learned to know God in a manner in which he is not known in the tumult of the world, and to taste the sweets of his peace. What proficiency he had made in the maxims of an interior life, and in the study of the holy scriptures, and how much he was consulted by persons of all ranks, appear from the great number of his letters, which are still extant. They are short but elegant, and written with spirit and vehemency, especially when any vice is the theme. By an express treatise, he endeavours to show the state of anchorets or hermits to be preferable to that of religious who live in communities in cities, because the latter find it more difficult to preserve their virtue and recollection, and to subdue their passions; but he must speak of hermits, who have been first well exercised under some experienced master, and he takes notice that hermits have their particular difficulties and great trials. This he himself had experienced by violent interior temptations and troubles of mind with which the devil long assaulted him; but he overcame them by assiduous reading, prayer, singing of psalms, frequent genuflexions, patience, the practice of humility, and the sign of the cross, with which he armed himself upon the sudden appearance of an enemy.3 The same arms he recommends to others under the like temptations.4 He lays down excellent rules against all vices in his treatises, On Evil Thoughts, On Vices, and On the Eight Vicious Thoughts or Capital Sins, on which he says excellent things, especially on the dangers of vain glory and sloth. Who would not have thought that St. Nilus, by forsaking the world, was out of the reach of exterior trials and afflictions: yet, in the wilderness, he met with the most grievous. The Saracens making an inroad into the deserts of Sinai, massacred a great number of the monks, and finding Theodulus, our saints son, in a certain monastery, they carried him away captive with several others. The anxious father sought him on every side, and fell himself into the hands of the invaders, but soon procured his liberty. At length he found his son at Eleusa, with the bishop of that city, who had ransomed him out of charity. The good prelate with joy restored him to his father, whom he obliged to receive the holy order of priesthood at his hands.5 Nilus was then fifty years old. He lived to a very great age, and died in the reign of the emperor Martian. His love of obscurity followed him to the grave, so that the year and circumstances of his happy death are concealed from us. His remains were brought to Constantinople in the reign of Justin the Younger, and deposited in the church of the apostles there. On St. Nilus see the accurate Leo Allatius, Diatriba de Nilis et eorum scriptis, in the end of his epistles; Fabricius, Bibl. Gr. ad Leon. Allat. Diatrib. de Nilis, ad calcem, vol. 5; Tillemont, t. 14; Orsi, l. 28, n. 83, 84, 85, 94; Jos. Assemani in Calend. ad 14 Jan. t. 6, p. 68.
Note 2. The works of St. Nilus, without his letters, were published at Rome in 1673, by Joseph-Maria Suarez. F. Peter Poussines, Jesuit, published his letters to the number of 335, in quarto, at Paris, in 1657. Leo Allatius hath printed a much greater number in four books, at Rome, in 1668, folio. The saint frequently admonishes priests not to be too harsh in receiving sinners; and relates that, in the time of the apostles, a bishop called Carpus was rebuked by Christ in a vision, for using too much rigour towards penitents: (l. 2, ep. 190, et ep. 64, l. 4, recited in the second council of Nice:) he blames the Lord Olympiodorus, to whom this letter is addressed, that he had caused the shapes of beasts and other strange forms to be painted upon the walls of the church; and tells him, that we may only paint the cross in the chancel, and round the church place pictures of the Old and New Testament, that those who cannot read may learn the history of the Bible. The Iconoclasts had falsified this passage by putting it, may white over the walls, instead of, may paint, &c. He tells us, (l. 1, ep. 294,) that St. Chrysostom, celebrating the divine mysteries, saw angels attending the priests at the distribution of the adorable body and blood of Jesus Christ. [back]