Philokalic Friday: St Neilos of Ancyra

I am publishing posts each Friday this Lent as I work my way through the latter half of volume 1 of The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware. If you wish an introduction by me, read here; by Kallistos Ware, here.

At present, I am reading St Neilos (or Nilus or Nilos) of Ancyra’s (modern Ankara, Turkey; he died around 430, we think) ‘Ascetic Discourse’, on pages 199-250 of the English translation of The Philokalia, vol. 1. The text begins with some insights into wisdom and the philosophic life, as I blogged last Saturday. From here, Neilos moves into a discussion of how the monastic profession and ascetic life has fallen from its original ideals. Monks attach themselves to wealthy people and live in cities. They own property and are as undisciplined as anyone else.

It sounds rather high mediaeval, if you ask me! St Neilos is in the era of what I think of as the ‘second generation’ Desert Fathers (he’s not in the desert, of course), after the Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century, when Antony, Pachomius, et al., are now ideals to pursue rather than the living embodiment of the monastic call. He is a contemporary of Shenoute of the White Monastery in Egypt and St Simeon the Stylite in Syria, as well as Sts Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian in Marseille.

Monasticism in St Anthony’s day sort of began partly as a protest movement against a perceived ‘worldiness’ taking over the church after her alleged ‘triumph’ in the conversion of Constantine. Those who entered the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Judaea with high ideals did so because they felt that the pure, high calling of the Christian life, the pursuit of Godmanhood, had been compromised by life in the city. So they went to the Desert and did battle with demons.

But 100 years later, it seems that rot has set in. The renewal and reform movement must be renewed and reformed.

Ecclesia semper reformanda — it’s not just a motto for Protestants.

St Neilos’ initial complaint is the amount of property monks and monasteries own. From St Anthony to Evagrius and Jerome, property was to be renounced by monks, family was to be forsaken, status to be shunned. St Neilos has some wise words about status we should consider wisely today, I think.

St Neilos’ concern with status is not worldly status but ‘spiritual’ status. Too many people are becoming spiritual directors too soon. These are men who have learned with their minds the teachings of the Fathers but have not lived the ascetic life, they have not experienced and enjoyed and endured the contest and the training in the battle for the human soul, the fight for purification. When I read this, I think about this blog and realise my own inexperience. I am certainly not qualified to be a spiritual director!

After warning people from seeking out spiritual headship, Neilos discusses what to do if it falls to someone anyway:

First, let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach them through his actions rather than his words, setting his own life before them as a model of holiness. He must take care that, through copying him they do not obscure the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of sin. He should also realize that he ought to work as hard for his disciples’ salvation as he does for his own; for, having once accepted responsibility for them, he will be accountable to God for them as well as for himself. (p. 223 English)

Later, Neilos writes:

Since warfare against the passions requires such knowledge and experience, anyone who assumes the task of spiritual direction should realize how much he needs to know in order to lead those under his charge to ‘the prize of the high calling’ (Phil. 3:14), and to teach them clearly all that this warfare entails. He should not pretend to gain the victory by shadow-boxing, but must engage in a real battle with the enemy and inflict deadly wounds upon him. This struggle is far harder than any gymnastic contest. When an athlete’s body is thrown to the ground, he can easily get up; but in the spiritual warfare it is men’s souls that fall, and then it is very difficult for them to rise once more. (p. 227 English)

Now, I do not want to sound critical of contemporary spiritual directorship. But it is a different creature from what St Neilos describes. Having people take the enneagram or lead them on guided meditations inspired by St Ignatius Loyola or helping them find what spiritual gifts they have or using modern psychological analysis to help them find the wounds in their hearts that Jesus needs to cure or whatever — this is not the desert tradition of spiritual directorship by any means.

The tradition of the desert, that lives today among the Orthodox with the Russian word staretz for the spiritual elder, is about wrestling for the salvation of the disciple. It is sitting and talking to learn the disciple’s thoughts and heart and mind. It is praying. It is about obedience. It is about life lived together, life shown as example, not a half-hour sessions every fortnight to help us ‘grow’ spiritually. It is about the transformation of the human heart into the likeness of the Godman, Jesus Christ.

It is about theiosis, deification.

It is about grace, for no one is qualified for this job.

The Desert Fathers and the wider church

Alternate Title: The Desert Fathers Never Left the Church, and Here’s Why

Alternate Title 2: The Historical Impossibility of the Desert Fathers Leaving the Church

Some days I am unhealthily obsessed with my stats. Today I observed that a search term that has brought people to this blog is, ‘why the desert fathers left the church.’ This is a tantalising query, and I can see why one may ask it.

For example, the Desert Fathers do leave behind the settled life of the city, moving to remote regions of Egypt or the Judean desert or the wild areas of Syria. In doing so, they are separated from the life of the rest of the Church in the city. This looks a lot like leaving the church.

Or we see the Desert Fathers, as the Holy Men described by Peter Brown in ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’* with some tempering of the thesis in Authority and the Sacred, taking some level of inherent spiritual authority formerly vested in the local bishop.

We see Desert Fathers/Holy Men such as Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) or the more famous Simeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) challenging the local authorities, be they bishops or secular rulers.

When people such as the many ascetics discussed by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in his Historia Religiosa (trans. for Cistercian as The History of the Monks of Syria) retreated into the wilderness, they were in many ways cut off from the regular religious life of the Christian community — the Eucharist, the acts of charity, the preaching, and so forth.

However, we must acknowledge that these noble men and women of the early history of Christian asceticism were not schismatics. The Desert Fathers of Egypt hid St Athanasius when he was on the run. Shenoute of Atripe was present at the First Council of Ephesus in 431. Monks went to Alexandria under Theophilus to help destroy pagan temples. Jacob of Nisibis was recruited from his naked life in the wilds of Syria to become a local bishop. Savvas went on embassies to Constantinople to persuade the emperor to fight against heresy and protect his monks from roaming bandits. Barsanuphius and John of Gaza encouraged local clergy in their pastoral task.

On the other hand, it is perhaps important to see the Desert Fathers as a sort of protest movement within the church. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea spends some time discussing the luxury and corruption of the late third-century church. While it is likely that this is possibly part of theodicy — why did God allow the last persecution — there may be the ring of truth to it. Furthermore, after the Triumph of the Church under Constantine, I have no doubt that in many ways the urban church began to become a bit more worldly.

The Desert Fathers, in their retreat from the ordinary ways of being a Christian, but by maintaining communion and contact with the official hierarchy and the urban Christian communities, were a way of protesting a perceived wordliness, if not compromise, in the church. They were a way of becoming living examples of holiness, cut off from the burdens of urban society and its networks of relationships. As men and women devoted to nothing but prayer, they could remind their local bishops with silver and gilt vessels that what matters most is a heart devoted to God.

And so, I believe, they did. The western luminaries Ambrose of Milan (saint of the week here) and Augustine of Hippo were certainly influenced by the Desert tradition. Ambrose melted down the Milanese silver plate to help ransom poor, enslaved Christians. Augustine turned to the ascetic life himself because of the example of St Antony (saint of the week here).

So, no the Desert Fathers did not leave the Church. But they stood at a distance from its official structures, providing a prophetic critique of the day and shining as examples of what they believed true Christianity was. This is the cause of their retreat, anachoresis, into the desert.

For more on the Desert Fathers, see my page here.

*In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity and The Journal of Roman Studies …..