|St. Nilus of Calabria (Feast Day - September 26)|
By William Palmer
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.
From A Compendious Ecclesiastical History, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, A New Edition (London: Edward Lumley, 1868), pp. 152-6.