Tradition can be compared to the process of a relay race: the baton must be handed along, the runners must stay within their lanes, but the motion is forever forward. The next runner in the series always covers new ground.
This simile about tradition was devised by Nilus of Ancyra, an ascetic and prolific writer of the early fifth century CE, who is currently the research interest of the Rev. Dr. Clair W. McPherson, Associate Professor of Ascetical Theology at General Seminary. McPherson was invited to present a paper on Nilus at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies, a gathering of several thousand scholars from around the world. Nilus has been largely neglected by modern scholarship until very recently, so McPherson's paper and his ongoing research constitute a major contribution.
Nilus of Ancyra: Progressive Traditionalist
The works of Nilus—including the treatises On Monastic Ascesis, On Holy Poverty, and On Monastic Excellence, and a vast collection of letters—"are eminently worthy of our attention," said McPherson, "because Nilus embodies his own precept: he honors tradition by developing it, passing it along, and, indeed, covering new ground."
In his paper, McPherson examines this idea in different facets. In the realm of spirituality, for example, Nilus creatively adapts the teachings of his predecessors Athanasius and Evagrius to his new and different circumstances. In theology, Nilus advances Nicene doctrine imaginatively into new and daring territory. And as a stylist in the fiery tradition of Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom, Nilus finds his own witty and eloquent voice.
McPherson is working on a book that will include his translations of writings by Nilus, commentary on the texts, an introduction to the saint, and helpful research tools such as maps, timelines, and a bibliography. Presently, there is no English translation of the writings of Nilus; the only modern language translation of any of Nilus' works is a French translation of his Commentary on the Song of Songs. McPherson enjoys translating original texts of early and medieval Christian writers and often uses his own translations for the courses he teaches at General Seminary. "Choosing Nilus among the many translations I have worked on for in-depth scholarship," he notes, "will enhance engagement with this relatively unknown saint. Perhaps we'll discover how we, like Nilus, might view tradition not as a rigid binding to the past, but rather as a foundation for trying new approaches."