November 12 – Nilus the Faster; Emilian of Cogolla

Nilus the Faster (d. ca. 430) was a disciple of John Chrysostom and a Constantinopolitan (which was handy because that’s where John was). He received a top-notch education and got a comfy government job at a comparatively young age (compared to people older than he was). He married a pious Christian woman (best kind), and they had a boy and a girl, a house with a white picket fence, and 1.2 cars. Figuratively speaking. Neither one of them (the parents, not the kids) was particularly fond of the pomp of courtly life, however, so they jointly decided to blow off the whole political scene, and live as ascetics. They freed all the slaves, sold the silver and grandma’s crystal, gave the proceeds to charity, and went their separate ways.

Mom and daughter, who are not named, went to a convent in Egypt, and dropped out of the story. Nilus and Theodulus (for that was the son’s name) removed to the Sinai desert, dug a cave with their bare hands (I would hate to see their cuticles after that), and settled into the ascetic life. Nilus grew in perfection until he was sought by many and sundry for his wise spiritual counsel. Theodulus isn’t mentioned in that regard; make of that what you will. Nilus also found time (and papyrus) to write many letters, as well as an “Ascetic Discourse,” which runs to 50 paperback pages in my copy (Faber & Faber Philokalia, vol. I), and starts, delightfully, “Many Greeks and not a few Jews attempted to philosophize.”

Then disaster struck. Saracens kidnapped Theodulus, and took him away to sacrifice him to their pagan god. Nilus prayed fervently, went in search of his son, and found him in Emesa, living with the bishop, who had ransomed him from said pagans. The Bish insisted they be priestified, which they were, but they insisted on returning to Sinai, which they did. After their deaths, their relics were taken to the Church of the Holy Apostles in Orphanotrophia. I could not figure out where that was; “orphanotrophia” just means “orphanage.”

(Note how I did not make a “Nilus the Slower” joke. That’s virtue right there.)

Emilian Cogolla (“of the cowl”) (ca. 472–ca. 542 or 573) began life as a shepherd—sorry, he began life as a baby, and subsequently became a shepherd in La Rioja, Spain. At age twenty, he left off shepherding to become a hermit, first learning the ropes from (St.) Felix of Bilibio, then living in solitude in the Burgos Mountains. After forty years of this, he was summoned back to civilization by Didymus, the Bishop of Tarazona (“Irish Zone”), priestified, and stationed in Berceo. His extreme generosity—he gave away everything not nailed down to the poor (nice ambiguity, don’t you think?)—got him run out of town by the other priests, so he returned to hermiting. One source suggests this was intentional, which seems overly cynical. I’m going to say he just had a heart for the poor.

But the damage was done, inasmuch as he was now known to the world outside his cell door. People soon flocked (or herded) (or swarmed) to see him. I have spoken before about the archetypical sad (or glad) story of the hermit whose holiness attracts flocks (or herds) (or swarms) of wannabe disciples. So it was with Emilian. He founded two monasteries, which came to be known as San Millán de Suso (“upper”) and San Millán de Yuso (“lower”)—although probably later; it seems unlikely he named them after himself. The complex was declared a World Heritage Site in 1997. A village, San Millán de la Cogolla, grew up around the monasteries; in 2009 it comprised 293 souls. Emilian himself died in peace at a venerable enough age, and was buried in his cell. He is a patron saint of both Aragon and Castile. He is often shown holding a sword, for reasons I could not determine.