22 January 2010

'Resplendent as the Sun in Holiness'—St Philip of Moscow


Today, 9 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Hieromartyr Philip (1507-1569), Metropolitan of Moscow & All Russia. For his famous rôle in standing up to Tsar Ivan the Terrible, the popular historian Harold Lamb has called him ‘an ucompromising soul’. [1] But while he is rightly commemorated as one of the great Holy Hierarchs of Moscow, St Philip was also a great exemplar of the monastic spirit. His mother became St Barsanuphia, Schemanun of Moscow [2], and Father Seraphim (Rose) calls him ‘the greatest Abbot of Solovki since St Zosimas’. [3] Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

Born on February 11th, 1507, he was standing one day in church, while still a young man, when he heard the priest read from the Gospel the words: ‘No man can serve two masters’ (Matt. 6:24). He was filled with awe at these words, as though they were said to him alone, and was enlightened in that same moment. He went off to the monastery of Solovetzk, where, after a long and hard novitiate, he received the monastic habit. In time he became abbot, and, resplendent as the sun in holiness, became known throughout the land of Russia. Because of this, Tsar Ivan the Terrible translated him to the vacant See of Moscow as Metropolitan in 1566. But the holy man could not witness with indifference the atrocities of that terrible Tsar, but counselled him strongly and then fearlessly denounced him. The Tsar found false witnesses against Philip, dismissed him, stripped him of all but his simple monastic rank and imprisoned him at Tver. On December 23rd, 1569, Malyuta Skhuratov, an emissary of the Tsar, came into Philip’s cell and suffocated him with a pillow. But a horrible death quickly overtook all who had opposed Philip.

After some years, the body of the saint was found to be whole and uncorrupt, and giving off a fragrant odour. It was transferred to the monastery of Solovetzk. [4]

It should be added that, according to James Billington, in 1652 Tsar Alexis ‘sent [Patriarch] Nikon to Solovetsk to bring back to the Cathedral of the Assumption the remains of Metropolitan Philip, whose murder by Ivan the Terrible had given an aura of holy martyrdom to the ecclesiastical hierarchy’. [5]

The account of St Philip’s life in the HTM Great Horologion fills in some more details about the Hieromartyr’s activities as Abbot of Solovki:

As abbot, Philip was a great builder and beautifier of Solovki Monastery. He laid the foundations for the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, [6] constructed cells, hermitages, and a hospital for the monks and for pilgrims, established a cattle yard on one of the islands, drained swamps and connected waterways by a series of canals and dams, built a mill and various workshops, and even invented ingenious machines and implements to help the monks with their work. [7]

Harold Lamb tells the story of St Philip’s confrontation with the Tsar in his usual novelistic style:

One spring morning they met, perforce, at the opening of a service in the Usspensky Sobor. Old custom prescribed that at such a meeting the Metropolitan should bless the prince at the door and at the same time intercede with him for any persons unjustly punished by the prince. This morning Ivan seems to have had his new bodyguards with him, clad as monks. Philip confronted him in silence.

When the Metropolitan refused to speak, Ivan had to ask for his blessing. Then before boyars and people, Philip accused Ivan bluntly of misconduct. How could he give the blessing to such a prince?

Ivan listened for a while, then broke in fiercely: ‘Be silent! All I ask is—be silent!’

‘Silence brings sin,’ cried Philip. ‘Sin leads to thy death.’

Ivan’s restraint broke down and he lashed out in angry words. Philip reminded him, ‘I did not ask to be appointed. Why did you call me from my hermitage?’ [8]



This last comment should serve to remind us in turn how St Philip models what I take to be the proper Orthodox approach to social injustice. The Holy Hierarch’s first concern was always with his own repentance. Had he had his druthers, he would have remained in the ascesis of Solovki, left to his prayers and podvigs. It was only out of duty to his Tsar that he left, and it was out of duty that he denounced the injustices he saw. St Philip did not set out to be a social reformer or a prophet, he set out to be a good and faithful servant, and it was for this that he was martyred. The result was that, in Billington’s words,

. . . Ivan passed on to Philip something of the halo of Russia’s first national saints, Boris and Gleb, who had voluntarily accepted a guiltless death in order to redeem the Russian people from their sin. Philip’s remains were venerated in the distant monastery of Solovetsk, which began to rival St Sergius at nearby Zagorsk as a center of pilgrimage. . . .

The martyred Philip and Ivan became new heroes of Russian folklore; and the Tsar’s enemies thus became in many eyes the true servants of ‘holy Russia’. In the religious crisis of the seventeenth century both contending factions traced their ancestry to Philip: Patriarch Nikon, who theatrically transplanted his remains to Moscow, and the Old Believers, who revered him as a saint. [9]

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Saint:

Dismissal Hymn of the Hierarch. Plagal of Fourth Tone

O successor of first prelates, pillar of Orthodoxy, champion of truth, new confessor, Saint Philip, thou didst lay down thy life for thy flock. Wherefore, since thou hast boldness with Christ, pray for the suffering Russian land and them that worthily honour thy holy memory.

Kontakion of the Hierarch. Third Tone

Let us praise most wise Philip, guide and teacher of Orthodoxy, herald of truth, emulator of Chrysostom, lamp of Russia, who fed his children spiritually with the food of his words; for by chanting praise with his tongue, he taught us to chant with our lips as an initiate of the grace of God. [10]


[1] Harold Lamb, The March of Muscovy: Ivan the Terrible & the Growth of the Russian Empire, 1400-1648 (NY: Bantam, 1966), p. 142.

For more on Lamb, who apparently knew ‘French, Latin, ancient Persian, some Arabic, a smattering of Turkish, and a bit of Manchu-Tartar and medieval Ukranian’ see this bio. Here is an interesting Wall Street Journal article on the revival of interest in Lamb’s historical novels.

[2] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) & Hieromonk Herman (Podmoshensky), comp. & trans., The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North, 3rd rev. ed. (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), p. 222.

[3] Fr Seraphim, p. 84.

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 40-1.

[5] James Billington, The Icon & the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (NY: Vintage, 1970), p.131.

[6] Of this cathedral, Fr Seraphim writes, ‘The main sanctuary of the northernmost Lavra of Holy Russia was the magnificent cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration, built by the greatest Abbot of Solovki since St Zosimas, St Philip, later the martyr-Metropolitan of Moscow’ (Fr Seraphim, p. 84).

[7] The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 377.

[8] Lamb, p. 142. For those inclined towards dramatic representations of the deeds of the Saints, John Sanidopoulos has pointed out that the star of the acclaimed film, Ostrov (‘The Island’), Pytor Mamonov, a devout Orthodox Christian, will be portraying Ivan the Terrible in a new film by Ostrov’s director—The Tsar. The trailer (here) and some of the photos (here) depict Oleg Yankovsky as St Philip of Moscow.


[9] Billington, p. 101.

[10] Horologion, p. 378.

5 comments:

The Ochlophobist said...

Is there any indication in the historical record that St. Philip smoked a pipe?

I am always on the search for more smoking saints. St. Nikolai must get lonely at times.

aaronandbrighid said...

Unfortunately, I have no idea, but it certainly seems somewhat plausible (if you hadn't guessed, the pipe was a big reason why I posted this photo!). I have heard that St Nektarios of Aegina and Fr Justin (Popovich) smoked.

On the subject of smoking, did you every see this article?

Matthew said...

Are you familiar at all with George Fedotov's book on St. Philip? I've never been able to track down a copy.

On the subject of smoking, on the CONTRA side, I believe St. Ambrose of Optina had some harsh things to say about it.

aaronandbrighid said...

Matthew> No, I hadn't heard Fedotov did a book on St Philip. I'd be interested to see it.

Of course, we all know of Saints who spoke against smoking. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain is famous for his stance against it, and I think Elder Paisios called it 'the devil's incense'. But for those of us who have smoked in the past, or still struggle with it occasionally, it's nice to know that some of the Saints took a puff now and then!

Matthew said...

Oh, I know! And although I never took to tobacco, I admit I am fond of single malt scotch wiskey. Though, I doubt may Saints took a sip now and then... (I also love that photo on the back of most C. S. Lewis books where he has a pipe and is framed in smoke.)