Nilus was born at Rossano, in Calabria, in the year 910, of an old Greek family. His pious parents, to whom only one child, a daughter, had been given, besought the Lord that he would give them a son. This prayer was heard, and that son was Nilus. They carried the child to the church, and consecrated him to the service of God. On that account, also, they gave him the name of Nilus, after a venerated monk of the fifth century, distinguished by his spirit of vital Christianity, and to whose example the youth who bore his name subsequently conformed. The seed which his pious parents sowed in his childish heart, hhd at first the effect of preserving him from the corruptions of the age. But as he lost his parents early, he grew up under the care of his married sister, who was also a pious woman. From his childhood he used to read the biographies of the old venerated monks, Antony, Hilarion, etc.; and thus a spirit of deep, earnest piety was awakened in him, which made him from the first fly the corrupt manners prevalent in the houses of the great, and avoid amulets and magic formularies, as well as other kinds of superstition then in vogue.
When, afterwards, a reaction against the depravity of morals around, drove him into so much the more stern an asceticism, he had many conflicts to undergo with himself, and by these many opportunities were given him of searching into the depths of his own heart. Upon his holiest seasons tempting thoughts would intrude themselves -- temptations to spiritual pride, which most naturally mingle with an ascetic striving after sanctification by self-conquest, and temptations to sensuality. Often, whilst he was praying and singing in the church, such thoughts as these would arise within him: |Look towards the altar: perchance thou mayst see an angel there, or a flame of fire, or the Holy Ghost, as many have done before.| And had he given himself up to such thoughts, he might easily have fallen into the most perilous self-deceptions and fanaticism and the Divine life in him, as in many others who could not overcome such temptations, might have been crushed by pride and vanity. The angels of darkness, who know how to clothe themselves as angels of light, would have possessed themselves of his soul, and bound it in their fetters. It was the temptation which his Saviour had passed through before him, to make bread of the stones of the wilderness, to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. The faithful disciple followed his example. Nothing is so fitted to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one, as the discretion of humility, the working out our salvation with fear and trembling. This gives the sober mind, which is able to resist all the clamour of self-conceit. The more such temptations to pride pressed on Nilus, the more he humbled himself. He closed his eyes, in order not to see such visions as were promised him, and he contended so with himself in penitence and tears, that drops of sweat fell from him to the ground. Once, when he was occupied with writing, reading, and singing in St. Peter's church at Rome, and was assailed by such temptations, he cast himself before the altar and said to the Saviour: |Lord, thou knowest that I am weak -- have compassion on me, and lighten these conflicts which make me despair of my life.| Then, as he fell asleep, this vision came to him. He saw before him Christ hanging on the cross, only separated from him by a very thin white veil. He cried to Him: |Lord, have mercy on me, and bless thy servant.| Then the Lord stretched his right hand over him three times from the cross. Nilus awoke, and was delivered from all his temptations.
In that age, when many of those who opposed the prevailing corruptions sought to be justified by their own works, he felt constrained all the more to yield himself up entirely to the Saviour, and to rely on him alone. The scholar of Nilus who relates this from his life, adds: What much fasting and watching could not accomplish, was effected by this humbling of himself before the Lord, and by the confession of his own impotence.
Nilus was frequently visited by men of all ranks, the noblest both amongst the clergy and the laity, and they used to lay many questions before him. He made use of every such opportunity to direct people's attention to the one thing needful; to warn them against a false confidence in a mere external Christianity, dead faith, and outward works; and to turn them from fruitless subtleties to that which was necessary for the salvation of their souls. Once, when he saw the archbishop with an imperial privy-councilor, many priests, and government-officers, and several of the congregation coming towards him, he said: |See, they are coming again, to enter into empty and idle talk with me. But, my Lord Jesus Christ, deliver us out of the snares of Satan, and grant us to think, to speak, and to do what is well-pleasing unto thee.| And when he had so prayed, he opened the book which he had in his hand, -- a biography of saintly men, -- and marked the first passage which pleased him. When his visitors had saluted him and seated themselves, he gave the privy-councillor the book to read where he had marked it, and he read the words in which it was said, |that only one among thousands should be saved.|
When the rest heard that, they were seized with horror, and exclaimed, |God forbid that it should be so; that is not true; whoever said this is a heretic. Thus we should in vain have been baptized; in vain worship the Crucified; in vain partake of the Holy Supper; in vain be called Christians.| As they said these things, and neither the archbishop nor the privy-councillor said anything to them, Nilus observed to them, in a gentle tone: |What, then, if I show you that the ancient fathers -- that Chrysostom, Basil, the Evangelists, and the Apostle Paul -- say the same? what will you then have to bring against it, since, on account of your evil lives, ye call words spoken by the Holy Ghost lies? But I say to you, my brethren, that all these things which you have mentioned will obtain you no acceptance with God.| And, in order to remind them that their abiding by a religion in which they had been educated, or by a confession for which they had made no sacrifice, or self-denial, was of no value, he added: |What idols, or what heresy have you left, in order to turn to the Lord Christ?| Wishing still further to impress on them that orthodoxy without a life corresponding to the faith could avail nothing, he said: |If one of you were to venture to give himself out to be a heretic, and so were to enter any town, would he not be stoned by every one? Be assured that your not being heretics will not save you. If you do not reform your lives, and reform them thoroughly, no man can save you from destruction.| As he said these words, all were confounded -- they sighed deeply, and said: |Woe to us, sinners; to us, miserable men.| A captain of the imperial guard, named Nicholas, then began to speak, endeavouring to show that the Gospel, after all, was not so very strict: |Why, father, does the Gospel say that Whoever shall give a cup of cold water to a poor man shall by no means lose his reward?'| Nilus replied: |This is said to those who have nothing; that no poor man may be able to make the excuse, I have no wood to warm the water.' But what will ye do who rob the poor even of the cup of cold water?| Then a man of rank, who had led an unchaste life, and yet would gladly have felt safe in his sins, said: |I would know, holy father, if the wonderful Solomon was saved at last, or not?| Nilus, who penetrated his object, answered: |I would know of you, whether you will be saved or lost? for what avails it you or me whether Solomon was lost or saved, since it is said to us, If a man look at a woman, to lust after her, he has already committed adultery,' and If any man defile the temple of God, him will God destroy.' Yet who can assert of Solomon -- of whom it is nowhere said in the Holy Scriptures, as of Manasseh, that he repented of his sins -- that he was saved?| Thereupon one of the priests, wishing to turn the conversation, proposed the question, of what kind the tree was, of which Adam ate in Paradise, for which he was condemned? Nilus replied: |A wild apple-tree.| When every one laughed at this, he said to them, |Why do you laugh? such a question merits such an answer. Moses has not further described that tree, and how can we reveal what the Scriptures have hidden? You do not trouble yourselves to inquire how you were created; how you, like Adam, were placed in Paradise; what the command was, or rather, what the commandments were, which you have broken, and on account of which you too have been banished from Paradise -- or, more correctly -- from the kingdom of God; and how you can be restored to your original honour and glory -- and you seek to know the name of a tree, which was a tree like other trees. Although, even if you could know that, you would not know what the root, leaves, and bark of the tree were like; nor whether it were a small or a large tree. And who can describe that which no eye has seen?|
When, on the next day, he was visiting a neighbouring castle, he met a Jew whom he had known from his youth, and who was much esteemed as a physician. The Jew said to him: |I have heard much of thy austerities and abstinences, and, as I know thy constitution, I have often wondered that thou hast not fallen a victim to epilepsy. I will, however, now give thee a remedy, adapted to thy constitution, which shall suffice for every day of thy life, and enable thee to fear no sickness.| Nilus replied to this, without troubling himself further to inquire about such an universal remedy:
|One of you, a Hebrew, has said, It is good to trust in the Lord, and to put no confidence in man.' (Psa. cxviii, 8.) Since we, therefore, rely on our physician, our God and Lord Jesus Christ, we need not thy medicines.|
It happened that a viceroy, sent from Constantinople, who was placed over all the western provinces of the Greek empire, had excited general discontent by an enterprise which he deemed beneficial, but which had proved burdensome to many. The inhabitants of the district of Rossano suffered themselves, in a moment of irritation, to be led into terrible deeds of violence. They repented afterwards, and knew not what to do, as they bad reason to fear a severe revenge from the viceroy. In their desperation, they had already formed the project of still further increasing the evil, by raising a general insurrection against the Greek empire, to which they were subject. Then they turned their eyes to Nilus, and the remembrance of him inspired hope into their souls. They intrusted themselves to his mediation.
As soon as the warm-hearted man, who could not refuse his sympathy even to the guilty, was appealed to by them, he hastened to them. When he arrived, he made use of what had happened, to give them suitable exhortations, and then he advised the citizens no longer to close their gates against the viceroy, whose vengeance they dreaded, but at once to surrender to him. Full of fury, he entered the city; and while the members of the magistracy and the priesthood, as well as all besides, seized with terror, were not able to say a word, Nilus appeared, with the greatest composure, before the governor, and spoke to him with disinterested freedom. His venerable appearance softened the rage of the governor, and he left to him to decide on the punishment to be awarded to the insurgents. Nilus on this said, |Truly, it is a heavy crime that they have committed. If it were the deed of only a few men of influence, the deserved punishment might fall on them alone. But now the whole multitude shares in the guilt. Will you pass sentence of death against the whole of the inhabitants, and make so great a place empty of men?| The viceroy replied: |Nay, we will shed no blood; but we will confiscate their goods to enrich the imperial treasury, that they may thereby be brought to their senses, and may never venture anything of the kind again.| |And what will it profit you,| said Nilus, |if you enrich the imperial treasury, but lose your own soul? How can the Heavenly King forgive you your trespasses, if you, who to-day live and to-morrow are no more, forgive not those who have trespassed against you?| He engaged, as the viceroy thought that he could not grant a pardon without the will of the emperor, himself to write the emperor. And he succeeded in procuring the pardon. After having thus restored order and peace, he returned to the quiet of his cell, which he only left reluctantly, at the call of love, and thanked God that He had given him grace to accomplish such things.
He was often thus compelled to abandon the quiet holy calm of a life devoted to prayer and contemplation, to descend from his height to the need of men, to protect those who were sore oppressed by the might of tyrants who feared not God. In most inclement weather, in heat and in cold, he would, on these accounts, take long journeys alone on foot. Wet to the skin, or with benumbed hands and feet, or burned by the sun, weary, faint with hunger and thirst, would he often arrive at the goal of his journey; but love made all easy to him.
Once a chamberlain, who stood in high honour at Constantinople, came to the neighbouring castle, and expressed his amazement that Nilus did not come, with the other abbots, to pay him his respects. Even the first bishop of the empire, the patriarch, would, he thought, have shown him more respect. But those who knew Nilus better, answered him, that |this old man was no patriarch, yet he feared neither the patriarch nor even the emperor, whom all fear. He lives there on the mountain with a few monks, and needs no assistance from any man.| Still more amazed at this account, the chamberlain wrote Nilus a letter, in which he entreated him either not to hide himself when he should come to visit him, or himself to visit the castle to bless him and his. Partly moved by his entreaties, and partly in the hope of obtaining a more favourable hearing when he had to plead with him in .behalf of the poor, Nilus accepted the invitation. The chamberlain was filled with reverence when he saw him. He immediately caused a book of the Gospels to be brought, in order to swear upon it, to fulfil whatever he should promise him. But as he began to do this, Nilus pointed out to him what Christ says, in the Sermon on the Mount, about swearing, and said: |Why would you give me reason to mistrust your words, and why, at the commencement of our intercourse, do you begin by transgressing the Word of the Lord? For every one who is easily ready to swear, will be also easily ready to say what is false.| The scholar of Nilus says of him: |I am persuaded, that if all who live under the sun, were to come to him to ask suitable counsel of him, he would not fail to give to every one what was most profitable for them; for his counsel was as the counsel of God, full of wisdom, and most salutary. If men followed him, he led them to a glorious issue; if they despised him, peril arose thence to the soul, and hurt to the body; and I could relate many instances of this, were it not that the narrative would never end.|
A countryman of Nilus, Philagathos, or John Bishop of Piacenza, who was apt to meddle to his own hurt with political affairs, had entered into an alliance with the Roman usurper Crescentius, and had been made Pope by him after the expulsion of Gregory V. Nilus felt himself constrained to warn him by a letter against the consequences of his ambition. He exhorted him to renounce those worldly honours which he had already enjoyed to satiety, and to retire from the world. In the year 988 Gregory was forcibly restored by the Emperor Otho III., and a barbarous revenge taken on the bishop. After his eyes had been put out and his nose and tongue cut off, he was thrown into prison. When Nilus, who was then eighty-eight years old, heard this in his convent at Gaeta, he hastened to Rome, at a fast-time, when he was ever most unwilling to be disturbed in his devotions and penances, and although he was ill. He entreated the Emperor to give the Archbishop to him, that they might thenceforth live together, and together do penance for their sins. The Emperor promised to do so. But when after this the archbishop was again exposed to public shame, Nilus declared to the Pope and the Emperor that they offended not against him but against God, for whose sake they had promised to pardon the wretched man. And as they had shown no mercy to the unfortunate man whom the Heavenly Father had placed in their power, so they had no mercy to expect for their sins from him. The young Emperor, accustomed to be flattered by all, was compelled to hear the voice of truth from the mouth of the poor monk. When the Emperor afterwards asked him what favour he would request of him, he replied, |I request nothing from you but that you will not trifle away the salvation of your soul; for although you are emperor, you must die like another man, appear before the judgment-seat of God and render an account of your good and evil deeds.| The Emperor shed tears, laid down his crown, and besought Nilus to bless him.
The prayers of Nilus were frequently besought on behalf of the sick, or of those who suffered from mental diseases, (regarded in those days as possessed by evil spirits,) either by themselves or their relations. But he perceived the snare which threatened him, and rejected the fame of a worker of miracles. Once a man who held a distinguished military appointment, brought his heavily-afflicted son to him for this purpose. Nilus replied to his entreaties: |Believe me, my friend, I have never asked God to give me the gifts of miraculous healing, or the power to cast out evil spirits. May I but attain forgiveness of my own numerous sins, and deliverance from the evil thoughts which disturb me! Do thou rather pray for me, that I may be delivered from many evil spirits. For thy son has only one evil spirit, and that involuntarily , and perchance this may tend to the salvation of his soul, either as a purification from former sins, or as a preservation against others.| When, however, the son was restored to health, and the father wished to thank Nilus for his mediation, he replied: |God has healed thy son; I have done nothing towards it?' The scholar who has described the life of Nilus, and who in those words manifests the spirit of his master, says: |I will not relate great marvels of him, by which the ears of the childish and unbelieving might be astonished , but I will relate his toils and labours, for I know that in such things as these the great Apostle gloried.|
Christian communion between those who belonged to the Greek, and those who belonged to the Latin Church, was at that time disturbed by controversies on particular ecclesiastical customs, usages, and doctrines, in which there was a variation. But Nilus was too deeply grounded in the Divine word, not to prize the oneness in Christ higher than all such variations , and the genuine spirit of Christian love raised him above all those divisions. He was regarded with equal veneration by the members of both Churches. Thus the abbot and monks of the famous abbey of Monte Cassino, begged him to celebrate the mass in their church in his native language, in order, as they said, that God might be all in all, (that they might all together honour God in different tongues and forms -- that all other differences might be subordinate to the unity of the common Divine life.) At first Nilus refused this offer, saying: |How can we, (the Greeks,) who, on account of our sins, have been humbled in all lands, sing the Lord's song in a strange land?| At length, however, he yielded, in the hope of thus promoting Christian fellowship. Divine service being concluded, the differences between the two Churches became the subject of conversation. Amongst these was the fact of the Roman Church ordaining a fast on Saturday, which the Greek did not. Nilus replied to the questions addressed to him on this subject in the words of the Apostle Paul: |Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not, and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth; for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest thy brother? Whether, therefore, we eat, or whether we fast, may we do all to the glory of God.| Then, after explaining the grounds on which the Greeks were wont not to fast on the Saturday, he added: |But let us abstain from idle discourses, for fasting is no sin; let us say, with the Apostle, (1 Cor. viii, 8:) |Meat commendeth us ,not to God.| If the poor Jews would only worship the Crucified as their Lord, even though they should fast on Sundays, it would not distress me.| Thereupon the rest said to him: |Is it no sin to fast on Saturday?| He answered them, |That the outward demeanour availed nothing; but the turning of the heart to God. All which was done for God's sake was good.| And he endeavoured to show them how people might differ in outward observances by reason of their different points of view, and yet agree thoroughly in the essentials of the faith.
Nilus had heard that the lord of Gaeta intended after his death to bring his bones into the city, and lay them there; believing that the relics of the holy man would be a protection to the city. But his humility shrank from the thought, that such veneration as was then paid to the saints should be paid to him; rather let no man know where he was buried. He took leave of his sorrowful scholars and friends, saying to them: |Mourn not, my fathers and brethren, for I go hence to prepare a place and a convent, where I will gather all my brethren and my scattered children together.| He probably meant the rest of heaven, in which he trusted once more to meet those whom he loved. Then he got on his horse and took the road to Rome. When he arrived at Frascati, he went into a small convent dedicated to St. Agatha, saying: |This is my resting-place for ever.| Many of his friends, and many of the great men of Rome, entreated him to come to the metropolis, if it were only to perform his devotions at the tombs of the two chief Apostles. He answered them: |Whosoever has faith, even as a grain of mustard-seed, can celebrate here also the commemoration of those two Apostles. I came to this insignificant place for no other reason except to die here.|
Gregory, the proprietor of the place where Nilus had retired to, a tyrannical man of harsh temper, was much moved when he heard that a man so venerated had repaired thither. He came to him, fell at his feet, and said: |O thou servant of the most high God, I am indeed not worthy, on account of my many sins, that thou shouldst come under my roof. But since, after the example of thy Master and Lord, thou halt preferred the sinner to the righteous, see, thou mayst do what thou wilt with my house and castle, and all my possessions, even all that is before thine eyes. If thou desirest anything, only tell me what.| Nilus replied: |The Lord bless thee and thine, thy whole house and all this place. But give to me and mine only a small piece of land from thy territories, that we may find a resting-place there, and pray God for the pardon of our sins and for thy salvation.| Gregory bestirred himself to grant the request of Nilus. Foreseeing that his death was near, he desired those who were with him not to delay his funeral, not to bury him in a church, to place no arch or other ornamental monument over his grave; but if they wished to make some token of the place of his burial, to let it be a seat for wayfarers to rest upon, since he himself had ever lived as a wayfarer. They saw him lie two days stretched on his couch, speechless, and with closed eyes; but they thought, from certain signs, that he was praying. When Gregory heard of his condition, he hastened from his castle with an experienced physician, whom he had with him. He threw himself on Nilus, weeping bitterly, and said: |O father, father! why dost thou leave us so soon?| And kissing his hands, he added: |See, now, thou hinderest me no more from kissing thy hands, as thou vast wont to do, saying, I am no bishop, no priest, no deacon, but only a poor old man; why wilt thou kiss my hands thus?'| Whilst he said these words, he wept so bitterly that all present were moved to tears. They carried Nilus, in whom no signs of death could yet be seen, into the church, knowing that he would have wished to end his days on earth there. Gently he fell asleep, without any one observing a death-struggle in him, an end becoming such a life. It was in the year 1005. He left disciples behind him, who laboured on in his spirit in those times of depravity.