23 January 2010

'A Genuine Continuer of Patristic Tradition'—St Theophan the Recluse


Today, 10 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Hierarch Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894). Fr Georges Florovsky introduces him as a ‘genuine and typical continuer of patristic tradition in asceticism and theology’. [1] Fr Placide (Deseille) writes that he was ‘[g]ifted with great pastoral zeal and deep discernment’. [2] Along with St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), St Theophan was one of ‘two key figures’ whom Fr Seraphim (Rose) ‘especially stressed’ as ‘Holy Fathers of our own and recent times’ from whom contemporary Christians ought particularly ‘to take guidance and inspiration’. [3] As I do not possess a good, brief hagiography of St Theophan in print, I offer here the account of his life from the Holy Trinity calendar page:

This modern-day Church Father was born in Chernavsk in central Russia. The son of a priest, he entered seminary at a young age, then completed the four-year course in theology at the Academy of Kiev. Though he distinguished himself as a student, his heart turned increasingly toward the monastic life, and he was tonsured a monk and ordained a priest upon completion of his studies. During his time at the Academy he often visited the Lavra of the Caves, and there became a spiritual child of Father Parthenius (March 25).

His desire for monastic life was not fulfilled immediately, for the Church felt need of his intellectual gifts. He served as a professor at the Theological Academy in St Petersburg, then worked for seven years in the Russian Mission to the Near East, mostly in Palestine. During this time he gained a perfect mastery of Greek and studied the works of the Church Fathers in the original languages. [4] Returning to Russia, he was soon consecrated a bishop; but after seven years of episcopal service, he at last achieved his heart’s desire, resigning as bishop and retiring to a small monastery at Vyschen [Vysha], where he spent the rest of his days.

After taking full part in the liturgical and communal life of the monastery for several years, he took up the life of a recluse in 1872. He lived in two small rooms, subsisting almost entirely on bread and tea, visited only by his confessor and the abbot of the monastery. He celebrated the Divine Liturgy every day in his cell. All of his time not taken up by inner prayer was devoted to translating the works of the Fathers into Russian and, increasingly, to writings of his own. Most importantly, he prepared a Russian-language edition of the Philokalia which had a deep impact upon Russian spiritual life.

Though he received no visitors, St Theophan entered into correspondence with many earnest Christians who sought his counsel, and so in time became the spiritual father of many believers throughout Russia. He reposed in peace in 1894.

To the details of his death, an article from The Orthodox Word has this to add: ‘The Saint’s body remained in the small church in his cell for three days, and for three days it was in the Cathedral—and there was no corruption. When he was clothed in his Bishop’s vestments, the face of the dead man was brightened by a joyful smile.’ [5]

Concerning St Theophan’s life as a recluse, the same article comments, ‘In reclusion, invisible to people, he became a public figure of enormous magnitude. . . . He seemed to be no longer a man, but an angel with a childlike meekness and gentleness.’ The article also describes his cell:

Everything was extremely simple in Bishop Theophan’s cell. The walls were bare, the furniture old. There was a trunk with instruments for lathe-work, carpentry, bookbinding; photographic equipment, a bench for sawing, a joiner’s bench, and numerous books written in Russian, Slavonic, Greek, French, German, and English. Among them were: a complete collection of the Holy Fathers; a theological encyclopaedia in French in 150 volumes, the works of the philosophers Hegel, Fichte, Jacobi, and others; works on natural history by Humboldt, Darwin, Fichte, and others. One calls to mind his words, ‘It is good to understand the structure of plants, of animals, especially of man, and the laws of life; in them is revealed the wisdom of God, which is great in everything’.

Fr Florovsky, taking St Theophan’s own words about himself at face value, plays down the significance of his withdrawal:

He led a strict life at the hermitage, and after several years there he confined himself to nearly total isolation, refusing to receive anyone. Hence he is usually regarded as a recluse [zatvornik]. However, Feofan himself very much disliked it when people spoke of his ‘seclusion’. ‘They have made my cloister into a place of seclusion. There is nothing of the solitary hermit about it. I have locked myself away so that I would not be bothered—not with a view to the strictest asceticism, but in order to ceaselessly concern myself with books.’ He always insisted that he refused to receive others ‘because of a preoccupation with books.’ ‘Hence it comes out that I am discovered to be a bookworm and nothing more.’ Characteristically, in his petition to be tonsured, written while still at the academy, he made reference to theological studies: ‘Possessing an unflagging zeal for studying theological subjects and for the solitary life, I have taken a vow to dedicate my life to the monastic calling so that in my future service to the Church I can combine the one and the other.’ [6]

Finally, Fr Florovsky quotes one of St Theophan’s letters:

When your prayer is so strong that everything will give you sustenance in the heart before God, then you will have seclusion without the solitary’s life. . . . Seek this seclusion, but do not make a fuss over it. Behind the doors of solitude one can range over the whole world, or admit the whole world into one’s room. [7]

But it hardly seems wise to trust entirely that a Saint’s humility will not attempt to mask his ascesis. The OW article offers some fairly plausible reasons of a more spiritual nature for his withdrawal:

It was difficult for Bishop Theophan in the midst of the world and those demands to which one must yield because of human corruption. This was one reason that induced him to leave his Diocese and retire into solitude. In addition, his unlimited goodness of heart, meekness as a dove’s, his trust of people and indulgence of them—all this indicated that it was not for him to live amidst the irreconcilable quarrels of vain worldly life. It was very difficult for him to be a leader, especially in such an important position as that of Bishop. His trust could be abused; he could never give necessary reprimands. Besides this, he felt the call to devote all his energies to spiritual writing. As for himself personally, he wished to give up all his thoughts to God alone, Whom he loved absolutely. He desired that nothing might disturb the complete communion with God that was so dear to him, and so he left the world to be alone with God.

Concerning St Theophan’s writings, H.A. Hodges has noted, ‘[I]t is in the field of ascetic theology that his chief eminence lies, by virtue both of his personal wisdom and also of his spiritual writings and translations.’ [8] The HT account lists several of his works:

In addition to the Philokalia, St Theophan produced (among other works): a Spiritual Psalter of selections from St Ephraim the Syrian; The Path to Salvation, an exposition of Orthodox Spirituality written in clear, plain language for those living in the world; collections of his letters to spiritual children; and Unseen Warfare, a treatise on prayer and the ascetical life. . . . They are almost unique in presenting the undiluted hesychastic spirituality of the Orthodox Church in plain, straightforward language accessible to most people.

Fr Florovsky summarises the significance of these writings thusly:

He only wished to outline the contours of the Christian life and point the way along the spiritual path, and in this lies his incomparable historical significance. He continued and completed starets Paisii [Velichkovsky]’s spiritual exploit by bringing the Russian Philokalia to realization and by constructing his living worldview in a fully patristic style and spirit. [9]

In the spirit, then, of this last comment, I offer a passage from St Theophan’s great spiritual work, The Path to Salvation, on the subject of education and the Orthodox worldview:

It should be placed as an unfailing law that every kind of learning which is taught to a Christian should be permeated with Christian principles and, more precisely, Orthodox ones. Every branch of learning is capable of this approach, and it will be a true kind of learning only when this condition is fulfilled. Christian principles are true beyond doubt. Therefore, without any doubting, make them the general measuring stick of truth. It is a most dangerous error among us that subjects of learning are taught without any attention to the true faith; one allows oneself freethinking and even lying under the supposition that faith and learning are two spheres which are quite distinct.

On the contrary, we have a single spirit. It receives learning and is imbued with its principles just as it receives faith is penetrated by it. How is it then possible that these two spheres should not come into contact here, whether favorable or unfavorable? At the same time, the sphere of truth is one. Therefore, why pound into the head that which is not from this sphere? [10]

In conclusion, here is the conclusion of the excellent Orthodox Word article on this great Hierarch and Teacher:

The great Hierarch is hidden from us in body, but his spirit lives in the divinely wise printed works that he left. Archbishop Nicander of Vilna described Bishop Theophan as a universal Christian teacher, even though he did not speak; a public figure, though in reclusion; a preacher of the Church who was heard everywhere, even though in his last years he appeared in no Church See. A bright lamp of Christ’s teaching for Orthodox people, even though he concealed himself from the people’s gaze; possessing scarcely a sufficiency of earthly goods, yet enriching all with the spiritual wealth of his teaching. He sought after no temporal, earthly glory, yet glorified now by all those who have been inspired by his writings to follow this holy recluse on the path to salvation, a path that leads to constant prayer and the state of being alone in one’s heart with God.

Be sure to see last year’s post, where I also made brief mention of St Gregory of Nyssa & St Paul of Obnora, whom we also commemorate today. Finally, I wish many years on his nameday to Mr Spruance.


[1] Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, Part 2, trans. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 6 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), p. 169.

[2] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 167.

[3] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life & Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003), p. 467.

[4] Concerning this period of his life, Fr Florovsky offers the interesting observation, ‘The journey to the East proved to be a major event in Feofan’s life, extending his ecclesiastical horizons and endowing his worldview with an ecumenical courage, a great spiritual freedom and suppleness, a freedom from cultural context’ (Fr Florovsky, p. 170).

[5] The Orthodox Word, July-August, 1966 (here). Concerning the last observation, we have seen a very similar phenomenon quite recently (here).

[6] Fr Florovsky, p. 169.

[7] Ibid., p. 169. The insight contained in the last statement here may well be the reason for the inclusion of St Theophan's troparion in the clever 'Prayers at the Use of the Internet' here.

[8] H.A. Hodges, Introduction, Unseen Warfare, ed. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, rev. St Theophan the Recluse, trans. E. Kadloubovsky & G.E.H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2000), p. 59.

[9] Fr Florovsky, p. 174.

[10] St Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation, trans. Fr Seraphim (Rose) & the St Herman Brotherhood (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Monastery, 1998), p. 64.

5 comments:

Isaac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isaac said...

St. Theophan's Path to Salvation and The Spiritual Life are seminal texts, should be required reading for new converts. Like Fr. Seraphim, there is this incredible paradox of the isolation of his physical conditions somehow amplifying his incredible influence over both his contemporaries and later generations down to the present day. He's really a modern Orthodox father-- speaking to Christians like us in very similar conditions. I'm so glad these are available in English!

aaronandbrighid said...

Me too! Did you know that the website of Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, pravoslavie.ru, has St Theophan's commentary on some of the Scripture readings in English everyday?

Isaac said...

I saw that just the other day!

Svetlana said...

Hi! I'm glad to see that St Theophan's writings are so popular abroad. I often visit the Vyshinsky convent, where the relics of St Theophan are placed now. Not long ago at the conference, devoted to the heritage of St Theophan, that took place in the monastery, we discussed its meaning in the modern orthodox world. And your comments prove it. Best regards from Russia!