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Saint Nilus of Calabria



Today, 26 September, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Nilus of Rossano, Calabria (910-1005), also known as St Nilus of Grottaferatta. One of the last Saints of Greek-speaking Calabria (and thus of the Byzantine rite in Italy), Sir Steven Runciman has asserted that St Nilus ‘dominated Calabria’ in his day, ‘and later even exercised power over the Rome of the Ottos’ (Byzantine Civilization [NY: Barnes & Noble, 1994], p. 170). According to Alexis-François Artaud De Montor’s Histoire des souverains pontifes romains (1842), St Nilus was one of ‘two great hermits’ of Italy in the 10th century, along with St Romuald of Ravenna (from the 1911 Catholic Publication Society of America translation, here). Finally, Herbert Bloch describes him as the ‘most celebrated’ of a number of ‘Greek monks of Calabria and Apulia migrating northwards’ in the tenth century (Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, Parts I-II [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1986], p. 10).

St Nicholas (Velimirović) gives a very brief account of him in the Prologue(The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 378):

A great ascetic among the Greeks of Calabria, the founder of several monasteries, a wonderworker and defender of the purity of Orthodoxy, he undertook long journeys simply in order to save another man trouble. He had a burning love for his neighbour, and entered into rest in 1005, leaving many disciples of real worth. The best-known among these is St Bartholomew, the writer of several Canons, who died in 1044.

Fortunately, there exists a much fuller, well-written account of St Nilus’s life by William Palmer—famous for his visit to Russia and his overtures to the Orthodox Church—in his A Compendious Ecclesiastical History, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, A New Edition (London: Edward Lumley, 1868), pp. 152-6.

St Nilus was born in Calabria, of Greek parentage, in the tenth century. His natural abilities were carefully cultivated by study in his youth. He read holy Scripture continually, and delighted in the lives of the fathers: but when he was in the flower of his youth he fell into sins, from which he was after a time delivered by the grace of God operating on his conscience during his recovery from a violent fever. He then resolved to devote himself wholly to the worship and service of God, and to all the exercises of the religious life; and with this mind he entered a monastery in Calabria, where he was joyfully received; but wishing for more quiet than he found there, he retired to a cavern near at hand, where he spent his days between prayer, copying psalters and other religious books, singing the psalms, and studying holy Scripture and the fathers. In the evening he left his cell to walk abroad and refresh himself, and meditate on some passages of the fathers, without ever forgetting God, whom he contemplated in all the works of creation. After sunset he took his frugal meal, and in the night he slept but for a short time, and then recited the psalms till daylight. His fasts were frequent and long.

One of the brethren having obtained permission to live along with him, said to him, ‘My father, I have three pieces of silver; what wilt thou that I should do with them?’ Nilus replied, ‘Give them to the poor, and keep only your psalter.’ He did so; but some time after, being wearied of such a life, he sought to quarrel with Nilus, and demanded the money which he had given to the poor. ‘My brother,’ said the holy man, ‘write on a piece of paper that I shall receive the reward of it in heaven, and place it on the altar.’ Then he departed, borrowed the money, which he gave to the man, and in twelve days copied three psalters, with which he paid his debt. Nilus afterwards refused to be made abbot of the neighbouring convent. One of the principal inhabitants of that part of the country having resolved to live a religious life, and desiring to place himself under his direction, and imitate his mode of living, Nilus dissuaded him from it, saying, ‘My brother, it is not for our virtue that we live in this desert, but it is because we cannot bear the rule of common life, that we have separated ourselves from men, like lepers. You do well to seek your salvation. Go to some community where you will find repose of body and mind.’

As the Saracens were making many inroads into that country, Nilus departed to another place, where several disciples joined him, and a monastery was formed. Some brethren in the neighbourhood spoke evil of him as a hypocrite and imposter, but he returned it only by giving them blessings and praise; and one day, when they had extremely maltreated him, he came to them as they were eating, placed himself on his knees, and asked their pardon. By this conduct he entirely subdued them, and gained their friendship. He would not allow any member of his community to possess any thing but what was barely necessary, saying that any thing more was avarice. When the society increased, he would never assume the title of abbot or hegumenus. One day, the metropolitan of Calabria, accompanied by several great men, magistrates, clergy, and a number of people, came to visit him out of curiosity. He caused one of them to read part of a book in which it was written, ‘that of ten thousand souls, scarcely one at the present time departs into the angel’s hands.’ Many began to say, ‘God forbid: this is heresy. Where then is the use of baptism, adoring the cross of Christ, receiving the communion, and bearing the name of Christians?’ Nilus replied, ‘What if I shew you that the fathers, St Paul, and the Gospel, say the same thing? God is under no obligation to you for what you speak of. You would not dare to profess any heresy: the people would stone you. But know ye, that if ye be not virtuous, yea, exceedingly virtuous, ye shall not escape punishment.’ Being asked of what tree Adam eat in Paradise, he said, ‘How should we speak of what Scripture has not revealed to us? Instead of thinking how ye were created; how ye were placed in Paradise; of the commandments ye have received, and have not kept; of what has driven you from Paradise, and how ye may enter it again; instead of all this, ye inquire the name of a tree!’ Many great officers offered him large sums of money for the benefit of his community; but he said to them, ‘My brethren will be happy, according to the psalm, if they live of the labour of their hands; and the poor will cry against you for retaining their goods.’

When the Archbishop of Rossano died, the magistrates and principal clergy came to seek for St Nilus, to offer him the see; but, having heard of their intentions, he retired into the recesses of the mountains, and could not be found; so that they were obliged to elect another person to that see. The incursions of the Saracens at length became so frequent, that Nilus was obliged to take refuge at the monastery of Mount Cassino, which St Benedict had founded. On his way thither, he passed through Capua, and his fame was so great, that he was offered the bishopric of that city. Nilus lived near Mount Cassino for fifteen years with his community. In 997, when very aged, he went to Rome to beseech the emperor and the pope to have mercy on the anti-pope Philagathus, whom he had known formerly. The emperor and Pope Gregory, having hear of his arrival, went to meet him, and each taking him by a hand, led him to the patriarchal palace, and seated him between them, each kissing his hand. The old man groaned at receiving these honours; yet he endured them, in the hope of obtaining what he desired. He then said to them, ‘Spare me, for the sake of God. I am the greatest sinner of all men; an old man, half dead, and unworthy of these honours: it is rather my part to prostrate myself before you, and to honour your supreme dignities.’

Finding at length that his community at Valdaluce [Vallelucium] had become seriously relaxed in discipline by the wealth, numbers, and renown, which his sanctity had given to it, he departed and went to a place near Gaëta. ‘The monks of these times,’ he said, ‘do not employ their leisure in prayer, meditation, and reading of Scripture, but in vain discourse, evil thoughts, and useless curiosity. These and many other evils are removed by labour, which distracts the attention from them; and there is nothing equal to eating our bread in the sweat of our countenance.’

The princess of Gaëta came to visit him, out of reverence for his piety, and he discoursed to her on purity, almsgiving, and the fear of God. It was always unpleasant to him to meet the great: he avoided it carefully, as a source of vanity and danger, and had no intercourse with them even by letter, except to assist them in their necessities and their misfortunes. Nilus soon died after, in 1002, aged ninety-five.

In his invaluable study, Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages, Herbert Bloch excerpts an episode from the Vita S. Nili, ‘one of the most brilliant examples of Byzantine hagiography’ (p. 10), as an example of important mediæval contacts between St Benedict’s monastery and the Greek East. In Bloch’s words, theVita ‘describes vividly the deferential reception which was accorded him by the monks of Monte Cassino upon his arrival there’, and he then gives the passage in translation (pp. 10-1):

(73) But when the saintly Father had come to see that famous monastery, the entire congregation of monks went to meet him at the foot of the mountain, the priests and deacons among them in their sacred robes as on a festal day, candles and censers in their hands. In this fashion they escorted the blessed man. Naught else did they seem to hear and see than that the great Anthony had come to them from Alexandria or that the great Benedict, their sacred lawgiver and teacher, had risen from the dead. [By healing the sick, by dispensing his wisdom, and by the example of his conduct he lived up to their expectations]. While he thus with his God-sent presence cured them and filled them with spiritual bliss, he, for his part, marvelled at their discipline and their well-ordered pattern of existence and expressed greater admiration for their way of life than for ours. He was then again conducted by the abbot and the leading brethren to the monastery assigned to him and his sons as their place of residence; it was dedicated to St Michael and called Vallelucium.

And the abbot and the brethren asked him to ascend to the big monastery (scil. Monte Cassino) with his entire congregation and celebrate the service in Greek in their church . . .

At this point Bloch adds the interesting aside that St Nilus and his sixty monks (!) sang during the office a ‘hymn which he himself had composed in honor of St Benedict (and which is still preserved)’, a comment he footnotes as follows: ‘It is based on the second book of Gregory the Great’sDialogi and represents St Benedict primarily as an ascetic and thaumaturge. The work was edited by S. Gassisi, ‘Innografi italo-greci Poesie di S. Nilo Iuniore e Paolo Monasco, Abbati di Grottaferrata’, Oriens Christianus, V (1905), pp. 60-71’ (Bloch, p. 11, n. 2).

Kontakion of Saint Nilus of Calabria. Performers: Cappella Romana. Album: Byzantium in Rome-Medieval Byzantine Chant from Grottaferrata.