St. Neilos on asceticism

St. Neilos (5th century) composed a discourse (included in the Philokalia) on ascetic practice for the monks under his charge, but the work disappoints the modern reader because of its elementary exhortations and its impatient tone of voice.

Perhaps his monks were worldly men who needed basic instruction. Or perhaps they were particularly ill-willed. Neilos rails against all the monks of his day as being ignorant, arrogant (with a “Pharisaic superciliousness”), deceitful, and covetous. He expounds on the dangers of property, on the frequenting of cities, on the evils of commerce, farming, and the professions. He widens his criticisms to include teachers of monks and spiritual directors, whom he describes as equally “disgraceful.” All of this Neilos writes using strained and awkward analogies to events and characters of the Old Testament.

Neilos indicates that “outward practices of asceticism” are but the initial step for successful monastic life on the way to what he calls “stillness.” But he does not elaborate on stillness, expending his written efforts on exhorting his recalcitrant monks. It seems an exasperating task. At least Neilos closes more positively:

If our attachment to things gives them this power over our intelligence and stops the senses from functioning, how much more should the love of wisdom cause our intellect to renounce both sensory things and the senses themselves, lifting it up and concentrating it upon the contemplation of spiritual things?