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Nilus, an Ascetic of Sinai

Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

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Nilus (3), a famous ascetic of Sinai, probably born in Galatia, as he speaks of St. Plato martyr of Ancyra as his countryman. He became prefect at Constantinople, married, and had two children, when he determined c. 390 to retire to Sinai with his son Theodulus. His epistles are very curious, detailing assaults by demons, and replying to various queries, doctrinal, disciplinary, and even political. Gainas, the Gothic general, discussed with him the Arian controversy, but without changing his opinions ( Epp. lib. i. 70, 79, 114). Nilus boldly took the side of St. Chrysostom when banished from Constantinople in 404. The story of his ordination is a curious one. The Saracens invaded the desert of Sinai and captured some of the solitaries, including Nilus and Theodulus. They dismissed Nilus and the older men but retained the young men, intending to offer them next day as sacrifices to the Morning Star. They overslept themselves, however, and then, as the propitious time was past, sold Theodulus, who fell into the hands of a neighbouring bishop. There he was found by his father. The piety of both so struck the bishop that he compelled them to accept ordination. They returned to Sinai, and distinguished themselves by a yet severer piety. Nilus died c. 430. His writings throw much light on monasticism and Christian society generally at the end of 4th cent. Epp. 61 and 62, lib. iv., most interestingly illustrate the church life at that period. Olympiodorus, an eparch, desired to erect a church and to decorate it with images of saints in the sanctuary, together with hunting scenes, birds, and animals in mosaic, and numerous crosses in the nave and on the floor—a scheme of decoration which we find carried out some time later in the churches of Central Syria, depicted in De Voguë's Civil and Ecclesiastical Architecture of Syria . Nilus condemns the mosaics as mere trifling and unworthy a manly Christian soul. He rejects numerous crosses in the nave, but orders the erection of one cross at the east end of the sanctuary, "Inasmuch as by the cross man was delivered from spiritual slavery, and hope has been shed on the nations." Good pictures from O. and N. T. meet with his approval. They serve as books for the unlearned; teach them Scripture history, and remind them of God's mercies. The church was to have numerous chapels. Each chapel may have a cross erected therein. Ep. 62 proves that his prohibition of mosaics only extended to hunting scenes and probably did not include the images of saints. It was written to exalt the fame of his favourite martyr, Plato of Ancyra, and conclusively proves that the invocation of saints was then practised in the East [cf. FIDENTIUS (2)]. Nilus did not approve of the extraordinary forms which monasticism was assuming. Epp. 114 and 115, lib. ii. are addressed to one Nicander, a Stylite, who must have set the fashion which St. Simeon followed. Nilus tells him his lofty position is due simply to pride, and shall find a fulfilment of the words " He that exalts himself shall be abased." In the second epistle he charges him with light and amorous conversation with women. Monastic discipline seems to have been then very relaxed, as the charges are repeated in his letters and works. We often find in them the peculiar practices of the monks or of the early church explained with mystical references. Cf. Fessler-Jungmann, Inst. Patrol. (1896), ii. 2, p. 108.

[ G.T.S. ]

Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Nilus, an Ascetic of Sinai'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​n/nilus-an-ascetic-of-sinai.html. 1911.
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