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CALABRIA: ITALY’S HOLY MOUNTAINS

CALABRIA: ITALY’S HOLY MOUNTAINS

Prologue

Throughout Christian history, many places have arisen to spiritual prominence due to either their legacy of martyrdom or monasticism. Naturally within peaceful times where there were few people being martyred for the Faith, monasticism assumed a greater role within Christian witness, and within the era of the undivided Christian ecumene, numerous monastic centres became centres of prayer, asceticism and learning.[1]

Within the collective Orthodox Christian memory places like Nitria, Kellia, Sinai and Scetis in Egypt, the mountains surrounding Antioch, as well Antioch’s stylites, the wilderness of Judea and the Jordan like Petra, or Cappadocia, the Holy Mountains of Olympia in Mysia-Bithynia, Mount Athos, the Meteora, Cyprus, the White Lakes of Russia, the Ukranian Caves, Kosovo of the Serbs, Sinai of Romania, the Rila region of Bulgaria, the Asceticon region of Georgia or Northumbria of England and much more, loom prominent within the spiritual life of our faithful and have contributed to the Church’s spiritual and theological life, often producing many writings formed from a lifetime struggle led in all austerity and humility.

With the passage of time some places arise as great bulwarks of prayer and spiritual energy, whose effects are experienced well beyond their own confines, while regretfully, other locations fall into decline and eventually are forgotten from the collective memory of human history, while other regions witness a renaissance. This is of course is as natural as growth and decay exists within a plant that is subject to the elements and the cyclical nature of the seasons. Hence in like manner the rise and decline of monasticism and asceticism are dependent upon the spiritual receptivity of the faithful to God’s call to salvation and their cultivation within the Faith to be open to divine revelation.

As a consequence, within our rich and diverse ecclesial history, there are many accounts and places which bore witness to the Faith before the world, but are often forgotten or overlooked within our collective memory, and it requires immense diligence on anyone’s behalf to rediscover a lost heritage and retrieve it and to show others the beauty of that legacy. One cannot boast of being a scholar, nor be the one who could claim the rediscovery of this overlooked part of history, but we have learnt much of its beauty and wish to know more. However to learn more one needs to make others aware of a tradition or a heritage, in this way we increase the chances of future cultural/knowledge exchanges with those who may know another piece of the puzzle, and as a consequence attain a greater appreciation of that inheritance.

The heritage we are refering to is the Christian cultural and spiritual inheritance of Calabria’s (and to a lesser extent Basilicata’s) monastic/ascetical tradition. A tradition which one should cite served as a key link between the Greek East and the Latin West, allowing for cultural and faith exchange, especially given its central location within the Mediterranean basin.

This wild and somewhat untamed wilderness of mountainous extremes and temperatures, at the very southern tip of the Italian peninsula, for centuries produced great luminaries of spirituality and learning, (as well as a few heretics[2]), through its numerous monastic communities and hermitages that dotted much of its landscape. Within this landscape of mountains and forests, many men and women found solace and turned away from the selfish and man-made demands of the world, instead dedicating themselves towards the difficult path of the angelic life with the desire to come into contact, experience and even attempt to manifest the love of God and thus cooperate with God to attain salvation.

Naturally many were sought out by pilgrims and men of authority, who sought to attain either the blessing of their prayers or some words of wisdom. In some cases these pious ascetics were compelled either by God’s calling, or by those faithful within the world to depart from Calabria to journey to other lands to dwell, teach and guide.

Regretfully, as had happened with the British Isles in 1066, the sword of the Papacy, the Normans, invaded Southern Italy putting an end to the local traditions of Church life as the gradual imposition of Papal Christianity took root. Of course the Normans at times did somewhat try to maintain this heritage, but the slow decline had begun, whereby the mode of monasticism and ascetical life began to change. Monasteries were abandoned and made way for new buildings with differing artistic and liturgical expressions. The austere early Christian and Byzantine structures made way for the ornate Baroque styles and Latin became the sole language of prayer. The only surviving relics of this unique heritage by which one may attain a brief glimpse into the past are places like the Italo-Byzantine monastery of St. Mary of Grottaferrata, that is located 20 kilometres south of Rome (and is currently under Papal jurisdiction), and was founded by St. Nilus of Rossano in 1004.[3]

Nevertheless there are also ruins and structures that have survived well into our own time which bear testimony to this great ascetical/monastic tradition that seems to date as early as the 4th century (possibly even earlier). Yet in more recent times, there appears to be encouraging signs that this heritage may be rekindled with efforts by local communities and their authorities at restoring Southern Italy’s Greco-Byzantine heritage, its languages, dialects, customs as well as the ruined Byzantine monasteries of Calabria, with the intent of being passed onto the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

However it is not this article’s aim to provide details about these present day developments, rather it is to introduce a few of the luminaries and the accounts of their own spiritual journey that the land of Calabria helped facilitate. I would exhort all to search and learn about this bit of history and the people who played their role within it, and if by the grace of God one may have an article or information that may enlighten us, then we humbly request that you send it on to us, so that we may make it known to others.

We dedicate this work to Fr Antonio Cagnoni and Paolo Damante, and to all Italian Orthodox Christians wherever they may be: “May the Almighty guide and protect your steps in all wisdom, faith, and strength”.

With the sincere and modest love of Christ, V.M.

Compiler’s Note
The following accounts are an anthology taken from various Synaxaria collections that are now available in English, after being meticulously translated from Greek. The presented anthology though is not word for word from the English translations, but accounts that I have double checked against the original Greek and synthesised to provide a clearer narrative and to remain authentic to the Greek. If some of the following accounts sound similar to the English translations, that is by virtue of my own use of the English versions to provide me a guiding framework as part of my editing process and ensure that I do not violate the literary character of the English language and its particular idioms. With that said, we should remind the reader that there are many more Saints and spiritual luminaries who were cultivated within this Garden of the Spirit known to us as Calabria, and it would take lifetimes to discover and document their lives, and so their names are only known to God. Yet these following saints are very well-known and celebrated in both the East and the West, and hold a significant eminence within the Christian spiritual life of Calabrians even today.

St Zacharias of Calabria: 15 March

St Zacharias was born at San Severino in Calabria, but other than that we do not have much more detail about his birth or his upbringing except some hearsay about having some sort of links or inspiration from Calabrian monasticism. As for his early life, surviving information is also scant. Whatever details we have mainly pertain to his activities from 741 onwards, when he was chosen to be consecrated as Pope of Rome.

St Zacharias was not only a persuasive man displaying diplomatic qualities, but also a highly educated monk who had already worked closely as the deacon of the previous Pope, the Syrian, St Gregory III. Among his achievements was his translation of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, the Apostle of the English, into Greek. (It is for this reason that St Gregory the Great is known in Greek as ‘St Gregory the Dialogist’). As Pope, St Zacharias was responsible for peacemaking between the Lombards and the Empire and his support for the mission of St Boniface in the barbarian north of Europe.

In this context we have the reply of Pope Zacharias, written in 742 to a letter from St Boniface, concerning the depravity of many of the clergy in northern Europe. In it St Zacharias affirms the Orthodox teaching on priestly marriage, renounced by the Roman Patriarchate when it fell into Papalism in the eleventh century:

“If you find bishops, priests or deacons who violate the canons or rules of the Fathers, that is they live in adultery, having more than one wife … by Apostolic authority you will on account permit them to perform the duties of priests … How can they believe themselves to be priests, or what do they think of God’s Word: ‘Let my priests marry once’, and the words of the Apostle, ‘husband of one wife’ etc. And this is lawful only before entering the priesthood; for after that they are prohibited to marry”. (Epistle 51, MGH Ep. Select. I, 87-88).

As an Orthodox, St Zacharias also ardently defended the veneration of icons against the iconoclastic Emperors in Constantinople. St Zacharias was admired as an energetic administrator who did much to restore and embellish churches, particularly in Rome. He was also renowned for his peace-loving and gentle compassion. He reposed in 752 and was at once honoured as a saint.

St Elias the Cave-Dweller, & his spiritual father St Arsenios:
11 September
St Elias was born to a wealthy family of nobles in Rhegion (Reggio in Calabria) in the year 861 AD.

One day a monk approached him in church and upbraided him for his rich clothes and frivolous life. Shocked, the young man changed at once and began from that time to conduct himself in the ascetical manner of life, whereby in time, at the age of eighteen ran away with a friend to Taormina [4] (Sicily) to escape the prospect of marriage. After some time at Taormina, Elias’ friend departed, unable to handle the austere ascetical conduct of Elias, but he was killed by Arabs along his journey. This incident moved Elias to travel to Rome in order to venerate the tombs of the Apostles. However he met a holy monk named Ignatius who opened his eyes and soul to witness the dissolute and immoral conduct of the city’s inhabitants and its clergy, he urged Elias to return to home so that he would not be corrupted by such depravity.

When Elias returned to Rhegion, he had heard of the renown of a certain St Arsenios [5] who was leading an austere ascetical life not far from the town. So he departed from the town and sought after Arsenios to request him to become his spiritual father. Arsenios discerning the young man’s sincerity, tonsured him as a monk, and strove in every way to become the archetype of all the virtues so that Elias could mimic his manner of life. Elias subsequently applied himself with much zeal to all forms of heavy manual labour, despite struggling in pain with a disability in one of his hands, the result of a childhood accident. Elias supplemented this work with a rigorous attention to prayers, prostrations, vigils and offering constant hymnody in glorifying God. He said: “He who works with his hands and prays in his heart becomes doubly rich, for he serves Christ in the person of the poor like Martha, and he attends to the sayings of the Word of God with his intellect, like Mary”.

Despite their poor and meagre existence, within Rhegion there was a very influential priest who sought to seize the best fields which the ascetics owned and worked to support themselves. Taking possession of these lands illegally, the priest bribed the local judge to deny the ascetics any legal recourse for justice. Nevertheless, the two holy fathers whose first and foremost objective was to strive for the things of the Lord, had always avoided worldly disputes and becoming entangled in what they saw could cause scandal and damage to the reputation of the Church and smear their own reputation. So the two holy fathers abandoned their monastery and settled in the church of St Eustratius near the village of Armon, where they devoted themselves to prayer for a number of years. However, in time God revealed to them the forthcoming Saracen [6] invasion, and so like many other holy monks in the region who had also been inspired by God, they departed for Greece. They found refuge in the city of Patras, where they settled and resided in a tower, remaining there for some seven years. From here the two men expelled demons and worked innumerable miracles, and thus became renowned amongst the locals for their healing ministry as well as their ascetical feats.

When the Saracen danger was over, they sought to return to Calabria, but the local Bishop applied much pressure to prevent them from leaving, wishing the two holy men would remain in Patras. In desperation to keep the two holy men to serve within his diocese, he stooped to accusing Elias of having stolen sacred liturgical vessels in the hope of changing their minds. St Elias allowed himself to be imprisoned and made no attempt to even justify or defend himself. In the end, the Bishop came to his senses, repented and let the two ascetics go, despite his over zealous desire to keep them there.

Upon their return to the hermitage of St Eustratios in Calabria, they entered into a spiritual friendship with two other holy ascetics, Daniel and Elias of Sicily (celebrated on 17 August) who had founded a monastery not far away. The four joined together to form a hermitage in a nearby cave and chose Arsenios as their abbot.[7] However, Elias the Sicilian had the gift of prophecy and forewarned Arsenios of the time of his repose, as well as his own repose. Elias the Sicilian then gave instruction to Daniel to prepare Arsenios’ disciple, Elias, to become the head of their community after his own repose. When the time came for Arsenios to pass on, he summoned his disciple Elias to his side, gave him some final words of counsel, made his farewell and reposed in peace in 904AD. Long after Arsenios’ death, the Saracens finally came, on one of their numerous piratical raids, and vandalised the church of St Eustratius. They then proceeded to opened the tomb of St Arsenios, finding his body completely incorrupt. They attempted in vain to desecrate and burn his body, but to their surprise found his relics were not only incorrupt but also indestructible, and so they placed him back in his tomb again.

When Elias the Sicilian died, Daniel recalled his elder’s instructions at the time of his prophecies, and so faithful to those directives summoned Elias to the monastery. Yet when Elias arrived he found the monastery’s door shut, not knowing that Daniel had decided to put him to the test. So, Elias waited at the door without any complaint until the evening, when the brethren received him with great joy as a true monk who had acquired the patience to be able to bear every trial. Though Elias had fasted throughout his journey, but when offered food by Daniel, he flatly refused insisting that he was unworthy of nourishment. During the Vigil [8] that night, Daniel was overcome by sleep, but Elias quipped at him and roused him to remain awake and alert.

After some months, [9] Elias in search of a new spiritual father, went to dwell with the hermit Cosmas and his disciple Vitalis in their remote cave, until they moved to avoid visitors. Elias though, remained alone to engage the spirit and became aflame with divine love and zeal. One day he dreamt of a swarm of bees, humming melodiously as they flew about his head. In the dream he gathered the bees together within a vessel and then released them within a wonderful garden full of bright flowers. When he awoke, he realised that God was revealing His desire for him to welcome and guide brethren into the Kingdom of Heaven according to the monastic path.

Within a short space of time, Elias soon found himself at the head of a large brotherhood, with the number of disciples ever increasing and seeking him out. The cave in which he dwelt soon became too small for these troglodytes of the Lord. Thus they sought out and discovered a much larger cave which they transformed into a monastery with a church dedicated to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. Soon the nearby caves also filled with monks, who followed the example of the life of their Abbot, who taught them how to defeat the demons and enjoining themselves to God’s love. Nevertheless some accounts of the miracles and actions that he did during this time recall how on one occasion he had changed water into wine in order to serve the liturgy. Another account relates how Elias scolded a bear who was destroying the monks’ beehives and vegetable plots, the bear walked away with its head hanging in shame.

He gave wise advice to his monks, foretold them of their faults, teaching them obedience by example and protecting them through his prayers. Thus many of the monks were able to achieve works beyond their abilities and on many occasions even perform miracles themselves. He also did much to improve the customs and way of life of the local people of the surrounding region, delivering many from demon possession, healing the sick and assisting the destitute. Subsequently many poor, destitute and ill peoples were drawn to his monastery, and none were turned away.

When the Arabs attacked, as they often did, St Elias would either flee into the mountains, hardly eating or drinking, dwelling there for some forty days in prayer and wearing only coarse animal skins. On other occasions he would withdraw to the town’s citadel exhorting his disciples and the local inhabitants to repent of their sins which had brought such adversities upon them. In old age, the Saint received the gift of tears, but spent the nights before feastdays singing to God in joy. For an entire year he kept on foretelling his death stating that the following year will be the time of his repose, and so he decided to go on pilgrimage to the tomb of St Elias of Sicily. He returned, tonsured many novices and then withdrew to his own cave. Here he suffered great pain and a violent stomach-ache in silence for twenty-five days. By which time the local Bishop, the brethren and much of the region’s laity stayed close with him in his final hours, and in their presence he surrendered his soul to enter into the Heavenly Kingdom on 11 September 960, aged 96. He was thus buried by the multitudes within the very cave he had spent his last days in.

St Elias lived constantly under the threat of the Saracen Muslim attacks, and the ever presence of war, and therefore we should call upon him as an intercessor and protector in our own sad times of great turmoil, whereby politicians and religious fanatics in all places of the world are dedicated in a senseless struggle for power irrespective of which of their own people they step on. Let us recall that like other Calabrian saints, St Elias clearly understood and openly proclaimed that the adversity of the Muslim attacks, like any other disasters or invasions of human history, befall nations or peoples as the result of their own sins and unethical behaviour, thus God allows these things to occur so that He can call people to repentance, dependence upon Him, and thus salvation.

St Elias of Calabria: 17 August

St Elias was the Abbot of the monastery of Melicia in Calabria. The monks here were distinguished for their learning and the strictness of their lives. There were so many of them that the region was likened to the Thebaid of Egypt. St Elias entered into his rest in the year 903.

St Fantinus (Fantinos) the Younger [10]: 30 August
Fantinus was born to a pious Calabrian family in about 902 AD. From his earliest childhood, Fantinus showed great devotion to meditating upon the Holy Scriptures, and always striving towards the eternal good things, while disdaining the pleasures and distractions of children of his age. Seeing these tendencies within him, his parents commended him to God at the age of eight, by placing him in the care of St Elias the Cave-Dweller. The elder immediately discerned the charismatic gifts which Fantinus possessed, and foresaw his future holiness and greatness. As a consequence, St Elias entrusted Fantinus’ education and spiritual formation to his best disciples. Where in time, Fantinus manifested the wisdom of a holy elder far beyond his own years, and so St Elias tonsured him a monk at the age of thirteen.

His first obedience was as cook and as such he acquired the grace of compunction. For as it is said, when he stood in front of the oven each time to perform his monastic duty of cook, he would observe all the fierce flames emanating from the oven, and his thoughts would invariably begin contemplating the eternal fire prepared for sinners.

Yet from the beginning of his entrance into monastic life, Fantinus ate only vegetables and bread once every two or three days at most. Later on, he would set aside a very meagre portion of vegetables and bread for his entire week’s consumption. At the same time he made every concerted effort to drive away all desires for pleasure from his soul, thus progressing greatly in the virtues, purifying his heart and acquiring within it the grace of the Holy Spirit. When St Elias gave his soul into God’s hands (960), Fantinus who had dwelt some twenty years within the monastery, attaining sufficient experience in the ascetic discipline, decided to become a hermit and enter into reclusion in the region of Mt Mercurion in the north of Calabria, where there were a great many monasteries and hermitages. In that time Mount Mercurion, situated within the valley of Lao, was at its spiritual height and was a veritable Thebaid of both coenobitic and hermetic monasticism (St Nilus of Calabria received his spiritual formation from Fantinus at Mt Mercurion).

Nevertheless Fantinus lived with very strict austerity, in virtual nakedness, he survived by eating only roots and was tormented by demons who tried to make him return to the world by taking the form of his weeping parents, or else frighten him in the form of wild animals. Whatever the case may have been, he triumphed over them through invoking continually the Sign of the Cross and long prayerful vigils, particularly at night. After eighteen years, he was discovered here by his aged parents, whom he persuaded to enter the monastic life, whereby he placed his mother and sister in the care of a monastic community of nuns, while he tonsured his father and his two brothers, Luke and Cosmas who dwelt close to him. The deserted mountains surrounding Fantinus soon became the abodes of men and women living the angelic life on earth, following his example and guidance, and to whom Fantinus became a father, interpreter of the Law and living model of evangelical virtues.

However, the ever-increasing responsibility for so many souls left the Saint without any opportunity to devote his undistracted attention to God, and since he hungered for further progress in contemplation, handed the direction of the principal monastery under his care to his brother Luke, and appointed stewards to all the other communities. He then withdrew to a new location unknown to his disciples and the inhabitants of nearby settlements. Yet it was in this new place that he was arrested by the local inhabitants as a spy and placed in a cell infested with insects and vermin without any due care being given to him. Of course by God’s grace, Fantinus loved this solitude afforded to him and even delighted in this awful situation of suffering and remaining unknown and estranged to all. However, in time his captors realised their mistake and freed him, falling to his feet they beseeched him for forgiveness of their error.

Fantinus then sought out a new place appropriate for the hesychast life far from the place of his captivity, since his piety and holiness had become known there. This new place which was blessed with abundant water and lush vegetation, became in time, a noisy place due to the interruption caused by visitors seeking his help. Yet with visitors often come troubles, and so there were those who sought to cause problems and so without abandoning his asceticism, he returned to the common life of his monastery. He continued to eat raw vegetables, sleeping on hard ground and living virtually naked. He dedicated himself to the manual work of calligraphy and spending his time within unceasing prayer, with the view to attain this as a gift that would be as natural as breathing. With these rigours, he acquired a high level of dispassion and impassibility, for his love for God grew with each day to such an extent that he could never be satisfied. As a result, Fantinus was given power to cast out demons, heal all forms of sicknesses and weaknesses (body and soul), and, like a new Adam, control wild animals, supplying the needs of the monastery through these miracles.

It is said that one morning after exiting church after the conclusion of matins, Fantinus entered into a state of ecstatic prayer, remaining immobile with his eyes and hands turned towards heaven till vespers in the evening. When asked by his disciples what he had been contemplating, he could only reply: “What you want to know is inexpressable”. With these words, he let his habit (garments) fall to the ground, rushed out of the monastery and hid naked in the mountain, where he remained without food or drink for twenty days. After this event, Fantinus spent the next four years of his life with his hair and beard shaved, eating only wild herbs for food. Of course the ignorant and many of the monks of his monastery were given the impression that he had gone mad. Yet the holy elder, just like the Prophet Jeremiah had in Jerusalem, foretold the coming invasion of the Muslims, who would ravage the land because of the local Christians’ lack of commitment to God’s calling and their decadent lifestyle.

Fantinus also foretold the monks that his former disciple, St Nilus, will come to seek him out and settle within the monastic community. When St Nilus did come as had been prophesized, Fantinus related an incident whereby he had been carried off by the angels to contemplate the places of eternal punishment and of felicity, St Nilus then went and reprimanded the monks for considering mad one who had a vision of heaven and hell, having been taken like the Apostle Paul into the third heaven.

Sometime after this, an angel appeared to Fantinus and told him to go to Thessalonica in order to preach the word of God there and to bring souls to salvation through the practice of virtue. He thus gathered the monks together in the church, urging them not to waste the time that God has given them for repentance in vain concerns and earthly attachments, but exhort one another to struggle in preparation for meeting the Lord when He comes to judge the world. After bidding farewell to the brotherhood, he left for Greece, taking with him his disciples Vitalis and Nikephorus. They arrived in the Peloponesse after a safe crossing, during which the Saint turned salt water into fresh water so as to quench the thirst of the sailors, and they continued on to Corinth and Athens.

Many were the souls that sought salvation and hastened for just a glimpse of these divine men, who spread around them the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. Fantinus, however, fell gravely ill and everyone awaited for him to breathe his last, but he stated that he was to die in Thessalonica. Once recovered, he went on to Larissa and lived for a time near the Church of St Achilles, profusely spreading his spiritual teaching around. The three ascetics journeyed onto Thessalonica, where they settled in the environs of the Church of St Menas. The most eminent men of the city at that time, including the city’s archbishop, were drawn by St Fantinus’ fame and sought an audience with him in the hope to receive the blessing of his words and prayers. Yet St Fantinus served as a physician of all who were enduring trials, the protector of the afflicted and the leader of all whose desire it was to walk in the way that led to God.

After three months, he moved to new living quarters, but the flow of visitors did not cease nor ceased growing, and so he healed many of them. One day though, when the three ascetics were near the Kassandra Gate, St Fantinus suddenly rushed towards the Church of St Anysia and found two monks who had come from Mt Athos and were journeying towards Athens. One of the monks was a venerable old man and the other was a eunuch. St Fantinus bowed low at their feet and requested their blessing, to which the two went on without stopping. The Saint revealed to his disciples who were perplexed by the behaviour of these passing monks, that one of them was the great Saint Athanasius, the founder of the Lavra (Mt Athos), and the other was Saint Paul of Xeropotamou, who shone as two great lights. Upon their return to Thessalonica, the two Athonites were presented to St Fantinus, the fame of whose miracles they had heard, and they realised in some confusion that he was the monk they had scorned on their journey.

Nevertheless St Fantinus continued to spread and manifest God’s mercy through his countless miracles, and it was through his prophetic gift that the city of Thessalonica was saved from the Bulgarians. After dwelling for some eight years within Thessalonica, he reposed in peace on 14 November 974, aged of 73.

St Nilus of Calabria [11] : 26 September
On the 26th September, the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of our Holy Father Nilus of Rossano, Calabria (910-1005), also known as St Nilus of Grottaferatta. One of the last Saints of Greek-speaking Calabria (and thus of the Byzantine rite in Italy), Sir Steven Runciman has asserted that St Nilus ‘dominated Calabria’ in his day, ‘and later even exercised power over the Rome of the Ottos’ (Byzantine Civilization – NY: Barnes & Noble, 1994, p. 170). According to Alexis-Francois Artaud De Montor’s Histoire des souverains pontifes romains (1842), St Nilus was one of ‘two great hermits’ of Italy in the 10th century, along with St Romuald of Ravenna (from the 1911 Catholic Publication Society of America translation). Finally, Herbert Bloch describes him as the ‘most celebrated’ of a number of ‘Greek monks of Calabria and Apulia migrating northwards’ in the tenth century (Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, Parts I-II [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1986], p. 10).

St Nicholas Velimirovich gives a very brief account of him in the Prologue (The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 378):
A great ascetic among the Greeks of Calabria, the founder of several monasteries, a wonderworker and defender of the purity of Orthodoxy, he undertook long journeys simply in order to save another man trouble. He had a burning love for his neighbour, and entered into rest in 1005, leaving many disciples of real worth. The best-known among these is St Bartholomew, the writer of several Canons, who died in 1044.

However, there exists a much fuller, well-written account of St Nilus’s life by William Palmer—famous for his visit to Russia and his overtures to the Orthodox Church—in his A Compendious Ecclesiastical History, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, A New Edition (London: Edward Lumley, 1868), pp. 152-6.

Hagiography
Saint Nilus was born in 910 into a family of notables in the city of Rossano, which at that time was the chief city of Calabria and had escaped the continual piratical onslaughts of the Saracens, through the intercessory prayers of the Theotokos. Unfortunately, his parents died when he was at a very young age, and so his sister assumed responsibility for his upbringing and ensured he received an excellent education. During this time he showed a particular aptitude and devotion to the reading and meditation of Scripture as well as the Lives of the Saints. It was said that he read Scripture continually at all times, while delighting in the lives of the Saints, keeping himself at a distance from society, often withdrawing into reclusion in order to avoid, as he cited, the “corrupt” way of life that people led in those days.

However this blessed and inspired beginning was not to last long, since Nilus did not have a spiritual father to guide or protect him along his journey of faith. He succumbed to sin through the trap of living a life of pleasure, the most serious of these was to become enamoured with one of the beautiful young women of Rossano, and having a daughter out of wedlock with her. Yet the All-Merciful Lord who did not wish for Nilus to be lost from the spiritual journey that he had begun or the spiritual calling that he had shown a particular disposition towards, nor to deviate further into his own self-destruction, cured him of a violent fever that had taken hold of his body during this time, while God continued to operate upon Nilus’ conscience. The miraculous healing took place as Nilus was trying to cross a river, whereby the suddenness of the event caused to Nilus to perceive clearly that God was calling him to a more perfect way of life.

Thus, Nilus resolved to devote himself wholly to the worship and service of God, and gave away all possessions that tied him down to the world, and he then proceeded to Mount Mercurias so that he may be accepted as a monk there. However the monks there had been threatened with dire consequences should they accept the young notable amongst their midst as one of the brethren,[12] so Nilus instead went to the monastery of St Nazarius where he received the monastic Habit after residing there for only forty days. In due time, Nilus did return to Mount Mercurias, but under the spiritual guidance of the three venerable ascetics John, Zacharias and Fantinus.[13] These spiritual fathers seeing the enthusiasm of Nilus and knowing something of his past, thus wanted to discern his commitment and sincerity via testing his obedience to their spiritual counsel, but Nilus showed that he was keen to concede his own will and demonstrated an immense love for solitude. The three venerable fathers allowed him to withdraw to a nearby cave to stand in vigil before the Invisible God as if He were visible to the created human eye.

During this sojourn within the cave, Nilus endeavoured in every manner to bring his flesh into order within the law and dictates of the spirit. It is said that he neither consumed wine or cooked food, instead choosing to abstain from eating any food for two, three and even four days. He spent his days by first copying out texts each morning till the Third Hour (9 am), as part of his manual work while also taking the opportunity to familiarise himself and attain a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the Holy Scriptures and the works of the Fathers. From the Third Hour till the Sixth Hour (roughly 12 Noon) he would stand before the Cross, recite Psalms and do hundreds of prostrations (metanies). While from the Sixth Hour till the Ninth Hour (3 pm), he would remain seated as he read and meditated upon the words of Scripture and the Fathers, followed by performing the Ninth Hour prayer service and Vespers. After which, he would then exit his cave to walk around the surrounding environs to breathe in the open air and allow his eyes to perceive and contemplate the beauty of God’s work through creation, and glorifying God in the process. This was then followed by a short break to partake of a meagre repast of bread, dry vegetables or fruit followed by a short one hour sleep, before rising to spend the night in reciting the Psalter right through to making more than four hundred prostrations.  He kept vigil until dawn when he recited the Nocturne Service (Midnight Office) and the Matins.

He lived in austere poverty, wearing only a coarse coat of goatskin that was usually infested with vermin by the time he came to change it for a new coat once a year. Through his ascetical struggles, Nilus condescended further into the depths of humility, often condemning himself, by citing that other monastics who lived in communities were surpassing him in their labours, since he was too weak in character to dwell with others and chose to remain in solitude because of this weakness. He wept abundantly, but allowed himself no respite in his struggles against demonic attacks that would plague his mind with deceitful visions and imaginings, in an effort to drive him out and back into the world by abandoning his cave.

It is said in those days of struggle, Nilus would adopt a ruse for when temptation seemed to become unbearable, whereby he would feign acceptance of returning to the world and began to depart from his cave. As he would depart, he would take an old coat and hang it on a tree and then fall down before it as if were his spiritual father asking him as to why he was abandoning the ascetical life. Not being able to logically or spiritually answer the question, he would then return to his cave, encouraged by the assuring support of his “Elder” to offer prayers upon his behalf. After more than ten years of enduring this cycle of struggle and humbly offering his weakness to the Lord, God granted him mastery over fleshly/worldly temptations and bestowed the grace of blessed impassibility (dispassion). As a result of this feat he became renowned and highly respected by Christians and Saracens alike.

The Devil seeing that his attacks upon the inner being of Nilus had been curtailed to a great extent, sought to wage war in another manner, by bringing upon the Saint many external tribulations in the form of illnesses that sought to prevent Nilus from completing daily rounds of work and prayer, but the Saint resisted these obstinately. Yet when the Devil took away the Saint’s voice in the hope of preventing him from reciting his daily prayers in hymn, the Saint responded by turning to silent prayer. Unable to break Nilus, the Devil appeared visibly one night and proceeded to physically beat the Saint, leaving him half dead, but again the Saint obstinately continued in prayer. However in seeing these afflictions, St Fantinus prevailed upon Nilus to return to the monastery for a while to recover his health and avoid the Devil breaking him in his hour of weakness. Yet straight after recovering his health, Nilus returned to his solitude, even though the brethren had sought earnestly to appoint him as their abbot.

Not long afterwards, one of the brethren obtained permission to live
alongside the Saint, and so this brother spoke these words to him, “My father, I have three pieces of silver; what wilt thou that I should do with them?” Nilus replied, “Give them to the poor, and keep only your psalter”. The brother obeyed the Elder’s instructions but sometime afterwards, being wearied of the rigours of Nilus’ asceticism, he sought to quarrel with the Saint, and demanded the money which he had given to the poor. “My brother,” said the holy man, “write on a piece of paper that I shall receive the reward of it in heaven, and place it on the altar.” Then he departed, borrowed the money, which he gave to the man, and in twelve days copied three psalters, with which he paid his debt.

After this event Nilus refused to be made abbot of a neighbouring convent. Nevertheless one of the principal inhabitants of that part of the country having resolved to live a religious life, and desiring to place himself under his direction, and imitate his mode of living. Nevertheless Nilus sought to dissuad him from it, saying, “My brother, it is not for our virtue that we live in this desert, but it is because we cannot bear the rule of common life, that we have separated ourselves from men, like lepers. You do well to seek your salvation. Go to some community where you will find repose of body and mind.”

In spite of these turn of events, eventually Nilus did agree to take on a novice, whom he treated harshly and demandingly, but without malice or wrath. Like a father concerned for the upbringing of a son, he made Stephen to cultivate his inner being and thus grow in strength according to strict ascesis, renunciation and humility. To assist his disciple in this task, Nilus made him a one-legged stool to help him fight against sleep, not permitting Stephen to sit anywhere else, so that as soon as sleep got the better of him he would fall to the ground. Naturally this strict approach of spiritual pedagogy belied Nilus’ immense fatherly love for his disciple, for when he thought that Stephen had been captured and enslaved by the Saracens who pillaged St Fantinus’ monastery, he wanted to share his slavery so as not to leave him.

Around the year 956, another Saracen incursion took place which obliged Nilus and some of the other disciples who had gathered around him, to leave their cave and depart for Rossano, where they settled in the little oratory of St Adrian. Twelve more disciples soon joined them in what eventually developed into a monastic community. Unfortunately, some brethren in the neighbourhood spoke evil of the Saint, claiming he was a hypocrite and an imposter, but the Saint returned slander by giving these accusers blessings and praise. One day, when these defamers had extremely maltreated the Saint, Nilus went to them when they were eating, he placed himself on his knees, and asked their pardon. By this conduct he entirely subdued them, and gained their friendship. He would not allow any member of his community to possess anything but what was barely necessary, saying that anything more was avarice. When the brotherhood increased, he would never assume the title of abbot. Though, despite his immense love for the brethren, Nilus still yearned for the sweetness of solitude, finding communal life difficult to endure.

However his unfailing understanding of the mysteries of Scripture, together with his wisdom and spiritual discernment drew many to seek him out, including people of high Imperial rank.[14] Nilus of course received them all, but paid no heed to their worldly standing, and taught them as the Holy Spirit instructed him, leaving them astounded at the depth of his apprehension. Notwithstanding the Saint’s hesitancy to receive visitors due to his humility, considering himself of low account, many brought the sick and the possessed to be healed by his prayers. Though Nilus was only willing to anoint all those who were sick or possessed, with the oil from a lamp previously blessed by a priest, and thus in his own way could attribute their healing to the prayers of the Church. Apart from his ministry of healing, Nilus also became an advocate of social justice, often coming to the aid of victims of injustice. On one occasion he had taken up the cause of the people of Rossano who had risen up in revolt, but the Holy Elder urged the magistrate[15] Nikephorus to pardon them.

One day, the Metropolitan of Calabria, accompanied by several great men, magistrates, clergy, and a number of people, came to visit him out of curiosity. He caused one of them to read part of a book in which it was written, “…that of ten thousand souls, scarcely one at the present time departs into the angel’s hands.” Many began to say, “God forbid: this is heresy. Where then is the use of baptism, adoring the cross of Christ, receiving the communion, and bearing the name of Christians?” Nilus replied, “What if I show you that the Fathers, St Paul, and the Gospel, say the same thing? God is under no obligation to you for what you speak of. You would not dare to profess any heresy: the people would stone you. But know this, that if you are not virtuous, that is, exceedingly virtuous, you shall not escape punishment.” Being asked of what tree Adam ate in Paradise, he said, “How should we speak of what Scripture has not revealed to us? Instead of thinking how you were created; how you were placed in Paradise; of the commandments you have received, and have not kept; of what has driven you from Paradise, and how you may enter it again; instead of all this, you inquire the name of a tree!” Many great officers offered him large sums of money for the benefit of his community; but he said to them, “My brethren will be happy, according to the psalm, if they live of the labour of their hands; and the poor will cry against you for retaining their goods.”

When the Archbishop[16] of Rossano died, the magistrates and principal clergy came to seek out St Nilus, in order to offer him the see; but, having heard of their intentions, he retired into the recesses of the mountains, and could not be found; so that they were obliged to elect another person to that see. In due time he eventually returned to his monastery, but with all the good works that he and the brotherhood had done, the monastery began to grow rich through the endowments that people within the surrounding region bestowed upon the community in thanksgiving. In spite of his desire for poverty and non-acknowledgement, his renown came to the attention of the Imperial Court in Constantinople. The endowments though, were ploughed back into the service of the wider community, to help produce a more equitable society.

During this period, his fame, and the ever frequent incursions of the Saracens compelled Nilus to depart from Calabria, and to seek refuge within Campania where he was supposedly unknown and had become by that time, Latin territory. His destination was to settle at the monastery of Mount Cassino (Monte Cassino), which St Benedict had founded. On his way there, he passed through Capua, whereby the inhabitants who had heard of his fame, offered the bishopric of that city to him, but he proceeded to his destination unhindered and unswayed to take on such a responsibility.

Upon his arrival at Mount Cassino, Nilus’ reputation had already proceeded him there, and was received with great solemnity by the Latin monks as if St Benedict had risen from the dead and dwelt amongst them. The brotherhood there gave Nilus and the disciples he had brought from Calabria, possession of some small land and a dependant house (metochion) of St Michael at Vallelucio (Vallelucium) not far from the monastery to dwell in and conduct services in their native Greek, “so that God may be all in all”.

The sober-minded Nilus in gratitude for the assistance of the Latin brothers and in due honour to St Benedict, began to compose hymns in honour of St Benedict, and often came with his disciples to the monastery to keep all-night vigils according to the Byzantine rite together with the Latin brothers there. At the conclusion of these vigils, the Latin monks would often break with the custom of their observances, and rushed to bombard Nilus with numerous spiritual questions. Though his firmness in the Faith of the Holy Fathers, did not prevent him from being open-minded with regards to differing customs like those between Greeks and Latins. One example relates how he responded to the question of fasting on Saturdays as was the custom held by Latins, he simply cited that: “Whether we eat or you fast, we are all of us striving to glorify God”.

In time, when the Monastery (Metochion) of St Michael at Vallelucio gained renown and began to grow, attaining riches, its spiritual life became less austere, and in his usual fashion, St Nilus and those disciples of like-mind departed. In reference to this departure, St Nilus had explained his reasons as being that “The monks of these times do not employ their leisure in prayer, meditation, and reading of Scripture, but in vain discourse, evil thoughts, and useless curiosity. These and many other evils are removed by labour, which distracts the attention from them; and there is nothing equal to eating our bread in the sweat of our countenance”.

In any case Nilus and his disciples made their way to the Duchy of Gaeta, where the Saint founded the Monastery of Serperi on an arid mountain. It was there, that he and his companions dedicated themselves to a life of hard labour and ceaseless psalmody. In spite of the ever increasing magnitude of the affliction of ill-health as he grew older, the Saint continued to increase his ascetical struggles, often falling into states of ecstasy and answering every question posed to him with words from the Psalms or from the Divine Liturgy. When he regained his equilibrium of consciousness, he would be asked by his disciples as to what happened to him or where he had been, to which the Saint apologised to his brethren, and began by saying that he was old and rambled. During this time the Saint was often visited by the princess of Gachta who out of reverence for his piety sought his counsel, to which he would respond reminding her of the need of purity, almsgiving and reverence of God. Many other people of “importance” likewise sought to meet him, but he avoided them carefully, as a source of vanity and danger, and had no intercourse with them even by letter, except to assist them in their necessities and their misfortunes.

Yet the Saint’s commitment towards social equity and justice still remained fervent, and so he would at times leave his monastic retreat to put the case for the reign of righteousness and meekness before those who held power or influence within the world. It was in 997, at a very advanced age, that the Saint went to Rome to beseech the Holy Roman (German) Emperor Otto III and Pope Gregory to have mercy upon his fellow Calabrian compatriot and associate Philagathon, who had sought to gain possession of the Papal throne and reign as Pope. Upon hearing of St Nilus’ arrival, both the Emperor and the Pope, went to meet him, and each taking him by a hand, led him to the Patriarchal headquarters, and seated him between them, each kissing his hand. The old man groaned at receiving these honours; yet he endured them, in the hope of obtaining what he desired. He then said to them: “Spare me, for the sake of God. I am the greatest sinner of all men; an old man, half dead, and unworthy of these honours: it is rather my part to prostrate myself before you, and to honour your supreme dignities.”

The course of these events and the personage and teaching of the Saint left a great impression upon Emperor Otto III, who some time later visited the Saint at his monastery, so as to learn from this great conduit of the Spirit and to make an offering to assist and honour the brotherhood Nilus had founded there. The Saint’s sober-minded response could not be more telling in his refusal to accept material assistance by stating that: “It is not your kingdom, but the salvation of your soul that I want”.

Ten years after the foundation of Serperi, once again St Nilus departed from the things that held him to the world, thus leaving Serperi in order to journey and settle in the Monastery of St Agatha near Rome, where he intended to past his last days and enter into eternal rest. Not long afterwards, some of his disciples from Serperi joined him there at St Agatha’s, whereby he then elected from amongst them his successor to the brotherhood. Sensing that his days were numbered, he prepared himself peacefully for death, spending two days in continuous prayer before surrendering his soul to God on the 26th September 1005. His body was not long afterwards translated (transferred) to the present Monastery of Grottaferrata three miles away, to which he is regarded as its founder also, and where his disciples still live according to the Byzantine rite, but in our own times under Roman Catholic jurisdiction and authority.

Epilogue to Nilus’ Legacy – A Historical Sidenote
In his invaluable study, Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages, Herbert Bloch excerpts an episode from the Vita S. Nili, ‘one of the most brilliant examples of Byzantine hagiography’ (p. 10), as an example of important medieval contacts between St Benedict’s monastery and the Greek East. In Bloch’s words, the Vita ‘describes vividly the deferential reception which was accorded him by the monks of Monte Cassino upon his arrival there’, and he then gives the passage in translation (pp. 10-1):

“(73) But when the saintly Father had come to see that famous monastery, the entire congregation of monks went to meet him at the foot of the mountain, the priests and deacons among them in their sacred robes as on a festal day, candles and censers in their hands. In this fashion they escorted the blessed man. Naught else did they seem to hear and see than that the great Anthony had come to them from Alexandria or that the great Benedict, their sacred lawgiver and teacher, had risen from the dead. [By healing the sick, by dispensing his wisdom, and by the example of his conduct he lived up to their expectations]. While he thus with his God-sent presence cured them and filled them with spiritual bliss, he, for his part, marvelled at their discipline and their well-ordered pattern of existence and expressed greater admiration for their way of life than for ours. He was then again conducted by the abbot and the leading brethren to the monastery assigned to him and his sons as their place of residence; it was dedicated to St Michael and called Vallelucium.

And the abbot and the brethren asked him to ascend to the big monastery (Monte Cassino) with his entire congregation and celebrate the service in Greek in their church . . .”

At this point Bloch adds a sidenote that St Nilus and his sixty monks sang during the office a ‘hymn which he himself had composed in honour of St Benedict (and which is still preserved)’, a comment he footnotes as follows: ‘It is based on the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogi and represents St Benedict primarily as an ascetic and thaumaturge (miracle-worker). The work was edited by S. Gassisi, ‘Innografi italo-greci Poesie di S. Nilo Iuniore e Paolo Monasco, Abbati di Grottaferrata’, Oriens Christianus, V (1905), pp. 60-71’ (Bloch, p. 11, n. 2).

Furthermore, Bloch observes that St Nilus stayed in Vallelucium for fifteen years, while on the other hand, ‘eight of the most distinguished monks of Monte Cassino’ (p. 11)—including the future Abbot John III, who saw a vision of St Benedict while on the Holy Mountain—left because of a new abbot imposed by the local duke. Concerning these monks, Bloch writes (pp. 11-2):

Three of them are known to us: John, later Abbot John III of Monte Cassino (997-1010); Theobald, abbot from 1022 to 1035; and Liutius. But whereas Nilus remained in the West, the three monks of Monte Cassino went to Jerusalem. John lived then for six years on Mount Sinai and later ‘per aliquot temporis spatia’ on Mount Athos.

These episodes—Nilus seeking out the fountainhead of Latin monasticism in reverence for its founder St Benedict and held in awe by his Latin brethren; and John, the future abbot of Monte Cassino, taking up his residence on Mount Athos, in their search for the true spiritual life—are of great significance in more than one respect. They show that on the level of simple piety, mutual regard, affection, and hence, cooperation between East and West were possible, even if Nilus himself never concealed his origin, as his words to St Adalbert of Prague, who visited him in Vallelucium, bear out: ‘For as my habit and the hairs of my beard prove, I am not a native but a Greek’. There were more differences, of course, differences destined to play their part in the fateful schism and its aftermath in the middle of the following century. Finally, St Nilus avowal of devotion for St Benedict and his long association with Monte Cassino give evidence of the worldwide prestige which the abbey by then possessed. In the light of these developments, Monte Cassino’s meteoric rise to eminence in the eleventh century becomes all the more understandable.

St Bartholomew of Rossano: 11 November
Born at Rossano in Calabria, he followed his spiritual father St Nilus of Rossano to Grottaferrata near Rome. He excelled as a composer of hymns and canons and he also persuaded Pope Benedict IX to enter the monastic life after his deposition. The latter had been forcibly and illegally deposed as Pope by the German Emperor Henry III in 1048, thus making way for the German Popes who would bring about the Western Schism of 1054. St Bartholomew reposed in 1065.

St Luke the Grammarian: 10 December

St Luke was born at Melicucca and was a monk near St Elias the Cave-Dweller. He became a Bishop in Calabria and Sicily, and fought untiringly for Orthodoxy during the Papally-sponsored Norman oppression and occupation of the eleventh century.

Saint Nicodemus of Mammola[17]: 12 and 25 March
Saint Nicodemus of Calabria is the protector of Mammola and lived ca. 900 till his passing on March 25, 990 AD. His exact place of birth is unknown but has been identified as Ypsicron (present-day Cirò). Nicodemus’ parents were named Theophanos and Pandia, and they entrusted their son’s spiritual education to a priest named Galato (Galatone). Early on, Nicodemus was attracted to the monastic life, and wished to join the ascetics who had established themselves in the zone known as the Mercurion, on the cliffs of the Pollino in Calabria.

He was at first refused entry into the community by the austere abbot Saint Fantinus[18], who did not think Nicodemus could endure the penances and mortifications, but eventually the abbot relented.  The reputation for holiness and austerity of these Calabrian monks, whose number included Saint Nilus of Rossano[19], was such that they received praises from Patriarch Orestes of Jerusalem.

Eventually, Nicodemus withdrew to Mount Cellerano (or Kellerano, today San Nicodemo) in the area known as Locride (Locris), where his fame attracted a new community of monks there.  This community was threatened by Muslim raids, and so Nicodemus relocated to Gerace and thence to Mammola, where a monastery was later established. He died at an advanced age on March 25, 990.

St John the Harvester (Theristis): 23 February
John, was the son of a nobleman who came from Cursano near Stylos (Stillo) in Calabria, and was born in Sicily, where his mother had been carried into captivity by the Arabs and taken to wife by an Arab notable of Palermo.

Nevertheless John was raised within the Faith and at the age of fourteen returned to Calabria in order to be baptized. From that time onwards his intention became clear in that he desired to follow the example set by the life of St John the Baptist, whose holy icons he loved to venerate in church. He then sought and attached himself to the ascetics Ambrose and Nicholas, who lived in a lavra on Mount Consolino, and proved himself as an exemplary disciple, spending his days in humble obedience and manual work, while his nights were dedicated to prayer bathed in tears.

On one summer’s day, he took some bread and a skin of wine to the fields near his place of asceticism for the harvesters to partake of and to allow them due rest. As the harvesters began partaking of the gifts that John had brought them, they entered into dialogue amongst themselves and a discourse in very coarse humour of which John did not pay heed to. Nonetheless, in having eaten and drunk their fill, the harvesters were astonished because they observed that the amount of food and drink that remained was exactly the same as that before their consumption. It was then that a sudden storm arose and forced all the harvesters to scatter and find shelter.

Upon returning to their work, they saw to their amazement that all the grain had been cut and tied into sheaves. This miracle won the Saint the surname Theristis (the Harvester). Edified by his miracles and by his humble loving-kindness, the monastic brethren of the surrounding environs chose him as their Abbot, and the monastery (lavra [20]) later became known by his name. After his blessed repose, which occurred about the middle of the eleventh century, miracles continued to abound through his relics, as a blessing for his monastery and for the town of Stillo, where he is honoured as its protector to this day.

Epilogue: The Monastery of Saint John Theristis in Calabria, Italy
The holy Monastery of St. John Theristis is built in an area where Byzantine monasticism flourished between the eighth and eleventh centuries, during which time Calabria belonged to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The monastery preserves part of the ancient Katholikon (sanctuary and choir) from the eleventh century. The newly erected chapel inside the monastery is dedicated to the Calabrian anchorites: St. Fantinos the Young (+ Thessalonica, 10th cent.) and his disciple, St. Nicephoros the Myrrh-Gusher (+ Mount Athos, The Great Lavra). On the monastery grounds one also finds the cave and spring blessed by St. John Theristis (10th cent.)

In December of 1994 the Regional Council of Calabria unanimously declared the Byzantine area situated between the Stilaro and Assi Rivers as “sacred” in order to favour the re-establishment of Orthodox monasticism in the area. On 24 February 1995 the Town Council of Bivongi officially consigned the monastery to the Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy, in order to restore the ancient links between Italo-Greek and Athonite monasticism.

The monastery celebrates its feast on 23-24 February, the Feast of St. John Theristis. The expenses and charitable works of the monastic community of St. John Theristis are defrayed in large part by donations from pious Orthodox Christians within and outside of Italy.

Concluding Remarks
Even today there are two Orthodox monasteries in Calabria, continuing the Orthodox Tradition in Italy. They are:

Monastery of St John Therisitis,
89040 Bivongi
Reggio di Calabre,
ITALY

Monastery of St Elias the Cave-Dweller,
89020 Melicucca,
Reggio di Calabre,
ITALY

For further information, contact:
Archimandrite Antonio Scordino,
25 via Polistene,
89100 Reggio di Calabre,
ITALY

________________________

[1] It is worth noting that many famous universities in the modern world had their origins as monastic communities, thus the reason for the wearing of the black robes and the funny looking hats which are utilised by graduating students at their graduation ceremony.

[2] Barlaam of Calabria for example had contested the validity of the Hesychast Tradition thus prompting the zealous response of St Gregory Palamas. There is reason to believe, that Barlaam, like many other Calabrian monastics (as a result of Norman conquests) came ever increasingly under the influence of Western scholastic monasticism which had begun to take Western Christian thinking away from the Traditions and beliefs of undivided Christendom and its historical witness to the faith. It is purported that Balaam had drawn upon the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, but had given his own interpretation and used those teachings as a methodology to exposit his own thoughts. St Gregory Palamas nevertheless countered those arguements by drawing upon the teachings of the Apostle Paul, who cites the difference between essence and energies of God, thus explaining how one can attain an experience of God’s presence.

[3] Yet there was a brief revival of Orthodox Christianity within Italy during the 15th century with Albanian Orthodox refugees fleeing the Ottomans and settling all over Italy, but again the concerted effort towards assimilation and conformity was pursued by the Papacy. Interestingly since the time of the Norman invasions, Southern Italy became a backwater, stagnating economically, politically and culturally, only serving as a colonial possession of the Normans, the Papacy, the Spanish and many others until unity with the independent Italian state in the 19th century.

[4] Tavromeneia

[5] St Arsenius has his own feastday on the 15 August, but since his own spiritual life and trials are so closely interlinked with that of his disciple St Elias the Cave-Dweller, his memory traditionally is marked on the same dame with St Elias, the 11 September.

[6] Arab (The word Saracen is the Greek word for Bedouin, which literally means “Desert Dweller”, “nomad” or “the one who moves about”.)

[7] The Greek text and the available English translation are not too clear about the finite details, since the author assumes that we are already familiar with the saints and the monastic customs and arrangements of the area around St Eustratius. It seems from the existing evidence that there were various hermitages and monastic settlements in the environs of St Eustratius and that the church was the common meeting place for all of them. It seems that the four ascetics, while still maintaining links to the various monastic settlements, lived in reclusion from the remainder of the brotherhood. From the text itself it seems that Elias and Daniel the Sicilians would come and dwell with Arsenios and Elias every so often and then return to the responsibility of their monastery.

[8] Agripnia.

[9] It seems that Elias had refused initially to accept the calling of becoming abbot and sought to dwell in the surrounding caves of the region. Nevertheless the account of his life seems to indicate that he may not have served as abbot of the monastery founded by Elias and Daniel the Sicilians, but served from a distance as its spiritual father, thus as abbot in all but name.

[10] Italian: San Fantino il Giovane. He is not to be confused with Fantinus the Elder of Calabria.

[11] Also known as St Nilus of Rossano or Grottaferatta.

[12] It seems that Nilus’ relatives, and those of the girl who had bore Nilus’ daughter, were the ones who made the threats to the monastic community. It may be possible that Nilus’ relations with the young woman could have been part of a plan to entrap him for his inheritance or title given that he belonged to some of the more notable families of the region.

[13] This is the same St Fantinus the Younger who we celebrate on 30th August.

[14] Calabria and all of Southern Italy at that time still belonged to the authority of the Byzantine Empire, but due to the empire’s preoccupation with the rise of the Turks within the Middle East threatening their borders and all Christians there, the empire’s grip on power within Italy loosened and so it created an unstable political situation in which widespread corruption bore fruit. The constant piratical raids of Catalans from Spain and Saracens from North Africa damaged economic development and trade, creating economic stagnation and moral decay. Together with foreign agents of the German Emperors and French nobles interfering and spying upon local developments, placed immense pressure upon the region. Thus the region was teetering on the edge of a power vacuum that the Papacy sought to encourage and exploit, which it did through its blessing of the Norman invasion. As a result of those events and the imposition of the Norman invasion, Southern Italy ceased to be a dynamic centre of politics, economics and innovation, and in time became a backwater which successive imperial powers subdued to serve their own colonial ambitions. Regretfully it has never recovered or reattained its former glory, and the rise of the various Mafia groups was a response to counterbalance the injustices of colonial rule. Even today, in spite of the formation of a united Italy, Southern Italy is still an object of exploit and manipulation, but the presence of the Mafia groups (which have outlived their purpose) has exacerbated the problems of development, and breaking free of manipulation by external powers, including Northern Italy and Rome.

[15] “Magistros” in Byzantine terminology.

[16] In the Byzantine and Early Christian Tradition the chief Bishop of a city was known as the Archbishop, while the hierarch that presided over a region was known as the Metropolitan (literally: “mother-city”), who would be based in the oldest episcopal see of the entire region, because historically it was the first and original Christian community within a region, and it was from this base that the remainder of a region was evangelised. Within the present Greek and Antiochian practice the head of a regional Church is now called Archbishop, while fellow bishops under his presidency are called Metropolitans. The Russian practice though still refers to the head of a regional Church as Metropolitan, and all his fellow hierarchs as Archbishops, thus maintaining the original meanings of the terms.

[17] Also known as St Nicodemus of Ciro (Italian: San Nicodemo da Cirò).

[18] In Italian: San Fantino.

[19] In Italian: San Nilo di Rossano.

[20] Lavra – Literally means fire, but within monastic terminology refers to the common fire around which a brotherhood lives around by which they cook and partake of food at a common table, but in symbolic terms it can also refers to the Divine fire of the Spirit. This term is used as an alternate term for the word monastery, and it could possibly predate it.

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