St. Nilus of Ankyra (365? – 430)
Spiritual Questions from Agriculture
Nilus, in a letter to monks, probes the motives of Christians and seeks a lesson from creation about why people behave as they do.
“Why do we forsake the pursuit of spiritual wisdom, and engage in agriculture and commerce? What can be better than to entrust our anxieties to God, so that He may help us with the farming? The soil is tilled and the seeds are sown by human effort; then God sends the rain, watering the seeds in the soft womb of the earth and enabling them to develop roots. He makes the sun to rise, warming the soil, and with this warmth He stimulates the growth of the plants. He sends winds tempered to their development. When young shoots begin to come up, He fans them with gentle breezes, so that the crop is not scorched by hot streams of air. Then with steady winds He ripens the milky substance of the grains inside the husks. At threshing-time He provides fiery heat; for winnowing, suitable breezes. If one of these factors is missing, all our human toil is wasted; our efforts achieve nothing when they are not sealed by God’s gifts. Often, even when all of these factors are present, a violent and untimely storm of rain spoils the grain as it is being threshed or when it has been heaped up clean. Sometimes again it is destroyed by worms in the granary; the table, as it were, is already laid and then the food is suddenly snatched from our very mouths. What, then, is the use of relying on our own efforts, since God controls the helm and directs all things as He wills?”
~ “Ascetic Discourse,” translated by Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, in Philokalia, Volume 1, Faber and Faber, London, 1979, p. 213.
Why Monks Seek the Wilderness
Nilus, writing to monks, says that the solution to the problems of a life with many uncertainties is to return to a way of being in which priorities are shaped by a spiritual integrity in which we do not seek to avoid sufferings at the expense of spiritual virtue or truth. Wilderness, he says, is the place where this can be found.
Let us avoid staying in towns and villages. It is better for their inhabitants to come and visit us. Let us seek the wilderness and so draw after us the people who now shun us. For Scripture praises those who ‘leave the cities and dwell in the rocks, and are like the dove’ (Jeremiah 48:28). John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and the population of entire towns came out to him. Men dressed in garments of silk hastened to see his leather girdle; those who lived in houses with gilded ceilings chose to endure hardships in the open air; and rather than sleep on beds adorned with jewels they preferred to lie on the sand. All this they endured, although it was contrary to their usual habits; for in their desire to see John the Baptist and in their wonder at his holiness they did not notice the hardships and discomfort. For holiness is held in higher honor than wealth; and the life of stillness wins greater fame than fortune. How many rich men were there at that time, proud of their glory, and yet today they are quite forgotten; whereas the miraculous life of this humble desert-dweller is acclaimed until this day, and his memory is greatly revered by all. For the renown of holiness is eternal, and its intrinsic virtues proclaim its value….
~ “Ascetic Discourse,” translated by Philip Sherrard & Kallistos Ware, in Philokalia, Vol 1, Faber and Faber, London, 1979, p. 214.
The Weight of Possessions
Why do we try to make other people’s property our own, weighing ourselves down with material fetters, and paying no attention to the prophet’s imprecation: ‘Woe to him who gathers what is not his own, and heavily loads his yoke’ (cf. Habbakuk 2:6, LXX transl). Those who pursue us are, as Jeremiah says, ‘swifter than the eagles of heaven (Lam. 4:19); but we weigh ourselves down with worldly things, move slowly along the road, and so are easily overtaken by our pursuer, covetousness, which Paul taught us to flee (cf. Col. 3:5). Even if we are not heavily laden, we must still run as fast as we can, or else the enemy will overtake us.
~ “Ascetic Discourse,” translated by Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, Philokalia, Vol. 1, Faber & Faber, London, 1979, p. 207.
St. Nilus is a desert-dwelling monastic abbot and saint who was born near Constantinople and who writes lucidly on the ascetical life. Early commentaries indicate that he was probably a student of St. John Chrysostom before leaving the city for a life of wilderness prayer. His importance derives from his well-developed and often profound sense of the relationship between a spiritual director and his disciples as he addresses the challenges of developing the interior spiritual life. He is one of the first Christian writers to write at length on issues surrounding the practice of the Jesus prayer. His contribution to modern ecological understanding lies in his ability to articulate the intricacies of the spiritual-mental struggle which brings the soul to know the fullness of creation as an interior spiritual experience as well as an exterior intellectual understanding. This knowledge is important today as it forms the basis for addressing over-consumption and the consumer mentality.
The Whole Creation is Within You
Gather together your whole mind within the intellectual treasure-house of your soul, and make ready for the Lord a shrine free from images.
~ Ascetic Discourses, Philokalia, Vol. I. Quoted in The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware, SVS Press, 1995, p. 66.
Adhering to Limits of Consumption
We should remain within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of life, there is then no criterion by which to check our onward movement, since no bounds can be set to that which exceeds the necessary….
Once a man has passed beyond the limits of his natural needs, as he grows more materialistic, he wants to put jam on his bread; and to water he adds a modicum of wine required for his health, and then the most expensive vintages. He does not rest content with essential clothing….
~ Ascetic Discourses, Philokalia, Vol. I, Faber and Faber, 1979, pg. 246.
Excess Consumption is Contrary to Nature
The man who does not set limits on consumption acquires vessels of finer quality, of gold and silver… What need is there to say more about such ostentation… All this is contrary to nature… The animals remain within the boundaries of nature, not altering what God has ordained; but we, who have been honored with the power of intelligence, have completely abandoned His original ordinance. Do animals demand a luxury diet? Do they not prefer the original simplicity, eating the herbs of the field, content with whatever is at hand. In this way they diminish sexual lust and do not inflame their desires.
~ Ascetic Discourses, Philokalia, Vol. I, p. 246-247 Ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. Faber & Faber, 1979.
Other Spiritual Benefits from Wilderness
In order to escape vice, the saints fled from the towns and avoided meeting large numbers of people, for they knew that the company of corrupt men is more destructive than a plague. This is why, indifferent to gain, they let their estates become sheep-pastures, so as to avoid distractions. This is why Elijah left Judaea and went to live on Mount Carmel (cf. 1 Kings 18:19) which was desolate and full of wild animals; and apart from what grew on trees and shrubs there was nothing to eat, so he kept himself alive on nuts and berries. Elisha followed the same mode of life, inheriting from his teacher, besides many other good things, a love for the wilderness (cf. 2 Kings 2:25).
John too dwelt in the wilderness of Jordan, ‘eating locusts and wild honey’ (Mark 1:6); thus he showed us that our bodily needs can be satisfied without much trouble, and he reproached us for our elaborate pleasures. …
In short, this is why all the saints, ‘of whom the world was not worthy,’ left the inhabited regions and ‘wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth,’ going about ‘in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (Hebrews 11:37-38). They fled from the sophisticated wickedness of men and from all the unnatural things of which the towns are full, not wishing to be swept off their feet and carried along with all the others into the whirlpool of confusion. They were glad to live with the wild beasts, judging them less harmful than their fellow men. They avoided men as being treacherous, while they trusted the animals as their friends; for animals do not teach us to sin, but revere and respect holiness. Thus men tried to kill Daniel, but the lions saved him, preserving him when he had been unjustly condemned out of malice (cf. Daniel 6:16-23); and when human justice had miscarried, the animals proclaimed his innocence. Whereas Daniel’s holiness gave rise to strife and envy among men, among the wild animals it evoked awe and veneration.
~ “Ascetic Discourse,” translated by Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, in Philokalia, Volume 1, Faber and Faber, London, 1979, p. 240-241.