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ST. NILUS, THE YOUNGER, ABBOT
THIS saint was of Grecian extraction, and born at Rossano in Calabria, in 910. From his infancy he was fervent in religious duties, and in the practice of all virtues, and made considerable progress both in profane and sacred learning. He engaged in wedlock with a view to the sanctification of his soul by the faithful discharge of the duties of that holy state, and was careful in it to nourish and improve the sentiments of virtue in his heart by frequent hours of holy retirement. These he devoted to religious meditation, reading, and prayer, lest the seeds of piety should be choked amidst the cares and business of the world. Though his attention to his obligations as a Christian held the first place with him, this was so far from encroaching on his duties to others, that it made him more diligent in them. But then he was careful to shun idle conversation, and the vain pleasures and diversions of the world, which are apt to blot out those serious thoughts which are impressed upon our minds in the time of holy retirement. After the death of his wife, his love of solitude moved him to take sanctuary in his beloved harbor of a monastery, from the embarrassments of a public life, and the glittering temptations of the world. He therefore retired about the year 940, into a convent belonging to the church of St. John Baptist at Rossano, where his mind was entirely employed in conversing with God. The reputation of his extraordinary sanctity was soon spread over the whole country, and many repaired to him for spiritual advice. In 976 the archbishop Theophylactus, metropolitan of Calabria, with the lord of that territory, named Leo, many priests and others, went to see him, rather desiring to try his erudition and skill, than to hear from his mouth any lessons for their edification. The abbot knew their intention, but having saluted them courteously, and made a short prayer with them, he put into the hands of Leo a book in which were contained certain maxims concerning the small number of the Elect, which seemed to the company too severe. But the saint undertook to prove them to be clearly founded in the principles laid down, not only by St. Basil, St. Chrysostom, St. Ephrem, St. Theodore the Studite, and other fathers, but even by St. Paul, and the gospel itself; adding, in the close of his discourse: “These maxims seem dreadful, but they only condemn the irregularity of your deportment. Unless your lives be altogether holy, you will not escape everlasting torments.” These words struck terror into all that heard the saint speak, which they expressed by deep sighs and groans. One of the company then asked the abbot, whether Solomon was damned or saved. To which he replied: “What does it concern us to know whether he be saved or no? But it behoves you to reflect, that Christ denounces damnation against all persons who commit impurity.” This he said, knowing the person who put that question to be addicted to that vice. The saint added: “I would desire rather to know whether you will be damned or saved. As for Solomon, the holy scripture makes no mention of his repentance, us it docs of that of Manasses.”
Euphraxus, a vain and haughty nobleman, was sent governor of Calabria from the imperial court at Constantinople. St. Nilus made him no presents upon his arrival, as other abbots did; on which account the governor sought every occasion of mortifying the servant of God. But shortly after falling sick, he sent for the saint, and falling on his knees, begged his pardon and prayers, and desired to receive the monastic habit from his hands. St. Nilus refused a long time to give it him, saying: “Your baptismal vows are sufficient for you. Penance requires no new vows, but a sincere change of heart and life.” Euphraxus was not to be satisfied, and continued so urgent that the saint at length gave him the habit. The governor made all his slaved free, distributed his personal estate among the poor, and died three days after in great sentiments of compunction.
St. Nilus refused the bishopric of Capua, and rejected pressing invitations to go to Constantinople; but the Saracens conquering Calabria, Aligern, abbot of Mount Cassino, bestowed on him the abbey of Bright-Valley, where St. Nilus took refuge with his community. He spent there fifteen years; then ten years in the monastery of Serperi.
The emperor Otho III. coming to Rome to expel Philagatus, bishop of Placentia, whom the senator Crescentius had set up antipope against Gregory V., St. Nilus went to intercede with the pope and emperor, that the antipope might be treated with mildness, as he was a bishop, and was received with great honor. Otho making a pilgrimage to mount Gargano, paid a visit to St. Nilus, but was surprised to see his monastery consisting of poor scattered huts, and said: “These men are truly citizens of heaven, who live in tents as strangers on earth.” St. Nilus conducted the emperor first to the oratory, and after praying there some time, entertained him in his cell. Otho pressed the saint to accept some spot of ground, in whatever part of his dominions he should choose it, promising to endow it with competent revenues. St. Nilus thanked his majesty: but returned him this answer: “If my brethren are truly monks, our divine Master will not forsake them when I am gone.” In taking leave, the emperor said to him: “Ask what you please, as if you were my son: I will give it you with joy and pleasure.” The abbot laying his hand upon the emperor’s breast, said: “The only thing I ask of you is, that you would save your soul. Though emperor, you must die, and give an account to God, like other men.” Our saint was remarkable for an eminent spirit of prophecy, of which many instances are recorded in his life. In his old age in 1002, he retired to Tusculum, near Rome, where he died in 1005, being about ninety-six years old. A community was formed in that place after his death, called of Grotto Ferrata, at Frescati, which still follows the rule of St. Basil. See the life of St. Nilus, compiled by a disciple of the saint in Baronius, Annal. t. 10; Fleury,1. 57, n. 5; D’Andilly, Saints Illustres; Barrius De Antiquitate Calabriæ cum notis Thomas Aceti,1. 5, c. 2, p. 362, 366; S. John of Meda; Richard Diet. p. 318.