"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, August 10, 2018

Neilos of Rossano: Betwixt East and West

If the name Neilos of Rossano does not immediately ring a bell, then a new book will remedy that most splendidly: The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, ed. and trans. by Raymond L. Capra, Ines A. Murzaku, and Douglas J. Milewski (Dumbarton Oaks/Harvard University Press, 2018), 388pp.

In the past, I've interviewed one of the editors and translators, Ines Murzaku, here. She graciously agreed to an interview about this new book, and also brought in one of her colleagues, Douglas Milewski, to answer a few of the questions, as you'll see below. I began with Ines.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background, including your recent work in Europe and your most recent Fulbright award.

I am a professor of ecclesiastical history and Director of Catholic Studies Program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. I guess this is a fancier way of saying that I am a Church historian, focusing on Church history and theology—especially Byzantine and Catholic Church history—and how this history has impacted and still impacts modern Church history and the Church’s thinking and theology. I earned a doctorate in Eastern Ecclesiastical History from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and have held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany.

I have investigated Church history as this has unfolded on the borders and frontiers of empires, including the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman empires; in places where the Byzantine East and the Latin West have met but also collided; how the West has reacted; and how the East has influenced Western thinking, including Western theology and ecclesiology. I am fascinated with borders and peripheries, with saints of the peripheries like Italo-Greek Saints of southern Italy and with Church history as it has developed in the peripheries. I have done and am still doing a lot of archival work in Italy, Germany, and other countries. Writing Church history from the archives is difficult as many colleagues in the guild will admit, but also rewarding--in hearing the voice of those who in a sense have lost their voice. As Chesterton famously wrote in Orthodoxy, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.”

I am a practicing Byzantine-Greek Catholic with deep reverence for my tradition and think that Byzantine Catholics of Italy and elsewhere are a bridge between East and West and the medieval and premodern Byzantine-Catholic Church in southern Italy can provide some models of dialogue and co-existence for contemporary ecclesiology, theology, and ecumenism. St. Neilos and the Greek Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata, the Italo-Greeks-Albanians or Arbëresh of Southern Italy and their particular and unique histories of Easterners in the West are very rich and resourceful. A critical and dispassionate exploration of the history, ecclesiology, and theology of these Byzantine realities can be gems in contemporary ecumenical dialogue between East and West, especially in understanding synodality and how this played out in a local Byzantine Church which was transplanted into a Latin context, as was the case of the Arbëresh or Italo-Albanian Church of Southern Italy – Calabria and Sicily.

Yes, I spent a good part of this summer in Italy (Rome) on a Fulbright Specialist grant at Università degli studi Roma Tre in Rome, teaching and researching the religious history of the Italian periphery – Southern Italy and its extensions to Eastern Europe. What is the role religion can play in Eastern Europe? It was a fruitful exchange between political scientists—my colleagues of Università degli studi Roma Tre—and myself. The new areas of thinking and the new approaches other disciplines open up are incredible thinking exercises. I am grateful to Fulbright for grating me the opportunity to be in Rome. Some of my political science colleagues at Università degli studi Roma Tre often joked, saying “What does a Southern-Italian-Greek Saint of the early 11th century have to do with Rome and Western politics?” whenever I talked passionately about St. Neilos. Well, if one reads the life of the St. Neilos, it’s clear that the answer is: a great deal.

AD: Back in November 2014 we spoke about your then-new book, Monastic Tradition in Eastern Christianity and the Outside World: A Call for Dialogue. Are there any connections between that book and this new one, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano? 

Yes, of course. The thread is monasticism, the monastic ideal, the cloister and its relevance in the 21st century. I have taught monastic theology and history during my entire academic career in the US and Europe. It has never let me down; it never becomes stale or old. The lives of the saints are fascinating to students. I find millennials to be thirsty for authenticity. I think, that our century might present an opportunity for monasticism to rebound. The thirst for authenticity, spirituality, cultivating the love of God and the love of neighbor, love of silence and meditation and the human longing for union with the divine: all these continue to be important to modern society, and retain their relevance.

Making predictions about the last generation of monks, the Desert Fathers reflected, “What have we ourselves done?” One of them, Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?” Ischyrion responded, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.” Then the brothers asked again, “And to those that come after them, what will happen?” Ischyrion answered, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will persevere in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.” This is telling, especially in the very difficult situation the Catholic Church is currently facing with clergy abuse cases and cover up. Maybe monasticism is a cure to this cancer of the Church? I believe so.

AD: Tell us a bit about Saint Neilos. He strikes me—if I’m not wrong—as being a figure living very much on the threshold of major change—the Gregorian reforms to the papacy, the Crusades, the deepening break-down in East-West relations? 

Fr. Douglas Milewski:

Within less than 100 years of Neilos’ death the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople began, the Gregorian Reforms of the Western Church were initiated, and the First Crusade was launched.  We still live with the enormous spiritual, theological, cultural, political and social transformations these events wrought.  Neilos stands at the brink of those changes, unaware of what is coming even while it is obvious to us in hindsight where history was trending.  So he is an important witness to the last generations of Mediterranean Christians conscious of being part of a single ekklesia, for all the strains that existed within it.

This is illustrated in numerous ways: by his ready acknowledgement of both Byzantine and Western imperial authority, his intellectual formation in Eastern patristic thought alongside a pious devotion to the Roman shrines of the Apostles, his capacity to interact with Eastern prelates and Roman pontiffs, his profound attachment to a distinct Calabrian/Byzantine expression of monasticism matched with a genuine veneration of Benedictine monasticism, his engagement in current affairs stretching from local Calabrian/Byzantine matters to the then-ongoing evangelization of Poland through his epistolary outreach to Saint Adalbert.  Neilos’ Bios offers us a rare glimpse into a tragically lost Christian unity and into a man who stands at the crosscurrents of his times, and whose life’s lone desire was to follow God.         

AD: One part of his vita made me wince: he married and fathered a daughter, but then around the age of 30, abandoned both to pursue monasticism. Was this commonly accepted practice in his day?

Ines Murzaku: Yes, St. Neilos, according to the Bios, was sacramentally married. He was not cohabitating, but legitimately married to one of the young girls from Rossano. This is how the hagiographer describes it in chapter 3.1: “Consequently, Neilos was not strong enough to escape their manifold snares, but just like a stag wounded in the heart, he was captured by one of them who surpassed the others in her comeliness and natural beauty, though she was born to a modest and ordinary family. He then entered the yoke of marriage with her, and their first-born child was a girl.”

How was that possible, legitimate, canonical? Neilos was not the first. The Byzantine civil and canonical laws of the empire and the Byzantine Church allowed the ending of marriage in order to enter monastic orders or to put on the angelic habit, as it is otherwise referred to. Was this the case for consummated and fruitful marriages, as was the case of St. Neilos? The answer is yes. Getting a consensual divorce from one’s spouse was common practice well before the time of St. Neilos.

Emperor Justinian’s (527-565) legislation prescribed specific causes for divorce and remarriage. Entering a monastery or religious life by reciprocal agreement between the spouses was considered a valid reason for dissolving the marriage, and this applied to men and women who, during marriage, chose a religious life and habitation in a monastery. Novella 117 of the year 542 prescribed “above all, when husbands and wives have, during marriage, chosen to adopt a holy life and reside in monasteries” the marriage could be dissolved. Additionally, husbands could divorce their wives in cases of treason against the emperor, committing adultery, plotting to kill their spouses, etc. Wives were also granted divorces if their husbands pressured them to commit adultery or if husbands accused them of adultery but failed to provide evidence.

Moreover, St. Basil the Great wrote that: “A woman is not allowed to dismiss her husband, even if he is a fornicator, unless perhaps, to enter a monastery.” “Divorce was considered legal as well in cases when the wife was willing to separate from her husband for the sake of his ordination as bishop, and for joint or separate entry of spouses into monastic life”: Canons 12 and 48 of Trullo.

One other fact to keep in mind, St. Neilos/Nilus of Rossano or St. Neilos/Nilus the Younger, took the name from St. Neilos/Nilus the Elder, or of Sinai who died c. 430 and was one of the disciples of St. John Chrysostom. According to tradition St. Neilos the Elder was a layman, married, with two sons. St. Neios the Younger took the monastic name from him and in a way followed his path to monastic life, dissolving the marriage.

In sum, if one of the spouses felt a calling tο monastic vocation,  Byzantine law did not prevent him or her from carrying it out, given that monastic life was considered a superior calling and a superior way of living compared to married life. Entering into monastic life meant separation from the world and was recognized as a fact that dissolved a lawful-sacramental marriage, as a natural death would do. Church law followed  Byzantine law here. St. Neilos’ Calabria was part of the Byzantine-Eastern Empire bordering the Western Empire so dissolution of marriage for a higher calling was legally and sociably acceptable.

AD: His geographical context also makes him a threshold figure: living in southern Italy under not Latin but Byzantine imperial jurisdiction. Tell us a bit about that Byzantine context.

The Byzantine civilization of pre-Norman southern Italy contained communities of Eastern Christians, Western Christians, Jews and Muslims, alongside pockets of Franks, Bulgars, Armenians, and people of other ethnicities. The Calabria of Neilos’ lifetime was a region caught between the competing ambitions, strategies, politics, and military adventures of its home Eastern Empire, the Western Empire to the north, and Saracen emirs in Sicily immediately to the west. It was an insecure territory that did not enjoy long periods of tranquility.

Moreover, the Life of Saint Neilos offers a snapshot of a cultural and ecclesial world that was soon to vanish on account of several decisive events: the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, the start of the Gregorian Reforms in the latter half of the eleventh century which would transform the Western Church apart from the Eastern Church, and the beginning of the age of the Crusades in 1090. While clearly conscious of their distinctiveness, and at times quite contentiously so, the eastern and western halves of the Christian world in the tenth century still understood themselves as part of a single religious community. Statesmen from the respective realms at various times sought to extend that sense of spiritual commonality into political reality by linking the two empires through marriage.  The youthful Otto III, son of the remarkable Princess Theophano, aspired to become more Greek than Saxon and understandably looked up to Neilos as a spiritual father (for more on this see chapters 92-93 of our book). The Western world at the close of the first millennium was widely open to the spiritual and cultural influences of the Byzantine tradition, as the emergence of a great and confidently Western and Christian civilization in the High Middle Ages was two centuries distant in the future.

Additionally, the papacy was not in this period the dynamic force it would shortly become. Indeed, Neilos’ lifespan overlaps with the nadir of papal history, the tenth century witnessing the See of Rome reduced to a political pawn with several truly notorious occupants. Italo-Greek monasticism, which originated in the Christian East, and its wide enculturation in southern Italy testify to monasticism’s adaptability. Additionally, Italo-Greek monasticism highlights southern Italian region and culture, which was a locus of communication and in constant connection and exchange with the surrounding cultures and a suitable habitat accommodative to different monastic lifestyles, including the hermit lifestyle and communal monasticism.

AD: Your introduction notes that southern Italy came to be called the Terra dei Monaci or Land of Monks. What made this part of the world so attractive to the widespread flourishing of monastic life?

Yes, indeed it became The Land of Monks. Why? I will put Greek culture and civilization still visible in Southern Italy in the first place. Greekness was present in Southern Italy when the Eastern monks from Egypt and Syria arrived. The Magna Graecia of the Occident was there to welcome the Easterners. Southern Italy and her Greekness attracted the monks as it attracted Byzantine Italo-Albanians or Arbëreshes who settled in southern Italy in the 15th century. Culture and tradition was also attractive. If there was one place where these monks would have felt at home, Southern Italy was the place. Geography, climate and natural caves provided an excellent environment for solitary hermits. It is this abundance of hospitality—both cultural and environmental—that made Southern Italy and its coasts washed by two seas very attractive and hospitable to the Easterners.

AD: He is also, of course, part of and contributes to a very unique Italo-Greek monastic tradition. Tell us about the origins and nature of that. There are, if I’m not mistaken, still one or two such communities left today—e.g., Grottaferrata?

Italo-Greek monasticism is a unique form of monasticism. I have a new book just published on this type of monasticism. The only remnant of Italo-Greek monasticism is the Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata.

AD: The introduction mentions that, thanks to raids into Calabria from Muslim Sicily, Neilos and others fled north to the great Benedictine foundation at Monte Cassino, living there “for fifteen years, following the Greek rite.” Was such “bi-ritualism,” as it were, common then in monastic houses? Did it provoke any questions—about, say, differing fasting practices or liturgical traditions—or was it generally tolerated?

Fr. Douglas Milewski: The remarkable Monte Cassino episodes do not suggest to me “bi-ritualism”, which would be odd in a single monastery, as Neilos and his monks were given a separate foundation a few short miles from the main abbey.  Nevertheless, the hagiographer clearly depicts the two-fold awareness of differences between Greek and Latin practices along with the reception of Neilos as a spiritual master who straddles both traditions.  Anyone familiar with the topography of Monte Cassino will readily appreciate it was no small honor paid Neilos to be greeted by the entire community at the foot of the mountain in full liturgical trappings “as they would be on a feast day”!  Thus, the Benedictines are treated to the celebration of the office in Greek, which they had requested, and granted permission by their abbot to seek instruction from Neilos about monastic perfection, wisdom he imparts in Latin.  In all, it shows Neilos as a teacher of the universal Church in a pattern reminiscent of Saint Basil the Great’s monastic rules. 

AD: Our context, of course, is vastly different from that of Neilos, but yet this book was published in 2018 in one of the most prestigious translation series by one of the world’s most prominent academic publishers, so nobody can say he’s irrelevant. Tell us, if you can, what especial lessons he offers Catholic and Orthodox Christians—and others—today. 

Fr. Douglas Milewski:

First, there is the enduring legacy of Neilos, a son of the Greek/Byzantine Christian world who saw no disconnection with the Latin/Western Christian world, a legacy which carried on in the life of the community he founded at Grottaferrata.  This is perhaps the most immediate source of reflection for Catholics and Orthodox, a man who seems to have embodied ecumenism in the purest sense.  However, the Bios wants the reader to enter much more deeply into the significance of his life which transcends its historical particulars.  Neilos is presented as a Christian who achieved theosis, becoming alter Christus.  The account of his life is carefully presented with this object in mind – not for the sake of a reader to imitate the specific forms of Neilos’ ascetical practices, which are often quite beyond imitation, but to cultivate a similar awareness of the presence and direction of God in all life’s moments and variables, no matter how seemingly insignificant or catastrophic.

AD: Having finished The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, what are you working on next?

Ines Murzaku: In 2019 it will be the 100th anniversary foundation of the Eparchy of Lungro in Calabria for the Italo-Albanian-Byzantine Catholic Church of Italy. The Italo-Albanian-Byzantine Catholic Church is one of the surviving ecclesiastical realities of Southern Italy. Byzantine Albanians settled in southern Italy (Sicily and Calabria) in the 15th century, after the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. Rome accommodated the Byzantines by making specific jurisdictional arrangements with Constantinople, from the Council of Florence (1439) to the Council of Trent (1545–1563), when the Orthodox Bishop of Ohrid provided ecclesial jurisdiction which has no direct historical parallel in ecclesiastical history.

The history of a 1014-year-old-monastry of Grottaferrata and 556-year-old history of the Italo-Greek-Arbëresh church offer incredible insights into possible models for Church unity and contemporary East-West ecumenism. These small and authentic Byzantine communities offer a model of ecumenism of a monastic community and a church that managed to survive while preserving the inherited ritual, traditions, language and customs although they were in a unique ecclesial situation – under the Latin-local bishop and the jurisdiction of the Roman-Latin Church. The exploration of the Italo-Greek medieval model of enculturation and ecumenism presents a potential bridge to be used the current theological dialogue between East and West, which is exploring models of Church union in the first millennium, especially with regard to synodality and primacy.

What is the role of the bishop of Rome - his specific function as the bishop of the “first see” - in the Italo-Greek context, and how was this role lived in southern Italy? How is this role being played now? What can the Italo-Greek model of southern Italy offer to the revival of the consciousness of a united Christendom? How and why did this monasticism extend its influence in the West? Was it successful in implanting Eastern-Byzantine seeds in a Latin tapestry? What was left, and can monasticism continue to survive?

These are some of the key ecclesiological-theological-historical questions my book project on the Italo-Albanian-Byzantine Catholic Church of Italy will study and answer.

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