Father, Give Me a Word: Contextualization in the Letters of St. Nilus of Ancyra (Part 2)

St. Nilus of Ancyna: Who Was He? [1]

Similar to a host of the writers from the patristic era, Nilus’ character is cloaked in hagiographic material making it difficult to remove the fictional overcoat, in order to get at the core of his identity. In other words, the task of reconstructing his life is difficult for lack of an extant and trustworthy Vita.[2] Therefore, there is a limited amount of data regarding his life available to the historian. However difficult, let us begin with a survey of the current scholarly consensus of his life.

Similar to other well-known monastics of his era,[3] Nilus was of noble birth, most likely in Constantinople prior to the year 360 CE. What we do know about Nilus is that he was an abbot of a monastery at or near Ancyna, currently Ankara, the capital of modern day Turkey. Furthermore, there is reason to believe he may have been consecrated bishop of that see.[4] From the cell in his monastery or his desk in the office near the throne in the cathedral church, he corresponded with a host of people, from monks and priests, to public servants and possibly the emperor himself. Given these types of correspondences, Nilus must have been a well-respected spiritual leader in the community. He appears to have studied in Constantinople and does make the claim to be the disciple of John Chrysostom. This claim is supported by authentic epistlatory evidence[5] and reinforced by later writers.[6]

What other information we have on him—biographical data that is now considered erroneous—comes to us via tradition. But for the sake of filling in some of what is known to be the traditional biography, let us touch on some of the high points of his dramatic story.

Nilus’ noble birth set a trajectory for he and his son to serve as high-ranking officials in the court of the emperor: Nilus personally tells us that he was prefect under Theodosius the Great (379–395). After resigning his office in the emperor’s court, he abandoned one son and his wife for the monastic life: he and (what seems to be) his favored son, Theodulus, set off for a monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. While at the monastery, Theodulus was kidnapped by raiders. It was not until years later that the two were reunited and they were both ordained priests by the bishop of Eleusa in Palestine. As previously mentioned, much of this is now considered legendary.

Nilus’ feast day is November 12.


The Texts: Nilus, Evagrius or Who Knows?

While a collection of pseudepigraphical texts[7] has been associated with Nilus, timely redaction- and source-critical scholarship has begun the difficult task of sorting through the data. It has been determined that some of Nilus’ most noteworthy treatises (i.e., On Prayer[8]) are actually the work of Evagrius.[9] Alan Cameron’s somewhat dated (but mostly valuable!) 1976 article draws together a number of helpful studies on Nilus that have been limited to those outside the English-speaking world.[10] In his article, Cameron sifts through the data and highlights the earlier work of Jean Gribomont,[11] a mid-twentieth century Benedictine monk-scholar and Karl Heussi,[12] an early-twentieth century German critical-scholar. While Cameron holds both of the aforementioned studies in high regard and stands on the shoulders of both scholars, he does present us with fresh insights into the “Nilus problem.” In his work, Cameron takes a closer look at the headings and titles given to the cast of characters Nilus corresponded with and has determined the historical improbability of these titles associated with the correspondences. For example Cameron points out,

Ep. 2.243 is addressed to a Cyrianus διληγάτωρ, i.e. delegator. We first meet this official in the West, in Cassiodorus, Variae 1.18, concerned with the assignments of land to barbarians in the 490’s; in the East not till Justinian, Novel 130 of A.D. 545, as an overseer of supplies for the troops Then there is the ‘ρογάτωρ of 2.314, presumably as erogator, ‘paymaster’, not known before Anastasius (491–518).[13]

Therefore, given Cameron’s historical evidence, these titles reveal one of two things: either some of these letters were written by a subsequent hand in toto or the titles were attached to the letters years later by a redactor who was attempting to give Nilus more credibility among his readers. While these are helpful insights into the “Nilus problem,” what is agreeable among scholars as authentically Nilus still presents the reader with intriguing and imaginative correspondences. In other words, we need not throw the Nilus baby out with the bathwater given the textual problems.

Cameron’s work has one major shortcoming related to our investigation, however: due to the terse nature of Nilus’ correspondences and what seems to be the recycling of a handful of correspondences to other recipients, Cameron feels that Nilus is an impersonal pen pal. To this end Cameron suggests, “On the most favorable verdict Nilus proves to be a very lazy correspondent…without any personal matter…” and “impersonal.”[14] As we will soon see, Cameron’s assessment could not be further from the truth. Nilus does, in fact, present us with a very intimate and personal understanding of each of his correspondents.


Make sure you check out part 3 coming October 7th!


[1] Much of what follows comes from Johannes Quasten, Patrology: The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature, Volume III, (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 1986), 496–497.

[2] According to current scholarship, the biographic content thought to be authentic by St. Nikodimos, is now considered legendary. See Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, The Philokalia, 199; Quasten, Patrology, 496; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (ODCC), 2nd edition, eds. F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1983), 976–977.

[3] Here I am thinking of St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa and later, St. Maximus the Confessor. Interestingly, Maximus’ story echoes Nilus’ in many ways: both were highbred; both served in the imperial court; and both took monastic vows.

[4] ODCC, 976.

[5] Ep. 2.265 to which we shall return.

[6] “Georgios Monachos in the ninth century mentions that [Nilus] was a disciple of John Chrysostom and a contemporary of Ploclus, Palladius, Mark the Hermit and Isidore of Pelusium.” Quasten, Patrology, (496).

[7] See for example, “The Prophesy of St. Nilus” (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Prophecy_of_St._Nilus) as but one example of an apocryphal story attached to this character. More on the texts below.

[8] PG, 1166–1200.

[9] Moreover, it is interesting, but not surprising, how Nilus shows up as a mere “footnote” on Evagrius in some, if not many current works of on patrology and Christian spirituality. See for example, Hubertus R. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 366; and Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, (New York: Oxford, 2007), 97–98.

[10] Alan Cameron, “The Authencity of the Letters of St Nilus of Ancyra,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 17 (1976), p. 181–196.

[11] Jean Gribomont, “La Tradition manuscrite de saint Nil: 1. La correspondance,” Studia Monastica 11 (1969), 231–67.

[12] Karl Heussi, Untersuchungen zu Nilus dent Asketen (Texte und Untersuchungen, III Reihe, XII.2, Leipzig 1917), 31–117.

[13] Cameron, Authenticity, 183.

[14] Ibid., 182, 181.

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