13 January 2010

'A True Son of Byzantium'—Bl Theophylact of Ochrid

Today, 31 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of Blessed Theophylact (1055-1107), Archbishop of Ochrid. He has been called ‘a true son of Byzantium, a product of the highly developed cultural and religious civilization emanating from the “queen of cities”, Constantinople’. [1] Having had ‘a very good education’ [2] under ‘the polymath and philosopher Michael Psellos’, [3] Bl Theophylact became the ‘maistor of the rhetors’ [4] and tutor to the heir apparent to the throne, Constantine Ducas. Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

Born on the island of Euboea, and educated in Constantinople by the most eminent teachers of his day, he became a priest in the Great Church. He was chosen as bishop, and sent, against his will, to Ochrid, where he spent about twenty-five years (from about 1082 to 1108). Chomatianus of Ochrid calls him ‘the wisest archbishop’. He was a man of enormous learning, both secular and theological, of refined Byzantine tastes, and was by nature melancholy and sensitive. Theophylact felt himself among the Slavs of Ochrid like an exile among barbarians. He wrote commentaries on the Four Gospels and on other books of the New Testament. These are the finest works of their sort after St John Chrysostom, and are read to this day with great benefit. Of his other works, we know of his Letters, and a Life of St Clement of Ochrid. In old age, Theophylact withdrew from Ochrid to Salonica, and finishing his earthly course, went to the blessedness of eternity. [5]

St Nicholas here refers to Bl Theophylact’s sense of himself as ‘an exile among barbarians’, and indeed, he is commonly cited as an example of Byzantine snobbery. Sir Dimitri Obolensky refers to him and Anna Comnena as ‘the notorious Byzantine snobs’, who ‘felt obliged to apologize from time to time to their Greek readers for using proper names of “barbarian” origin’. [6] Summarising a few of the learned man’s more condescending comments, A.P. Kazhdan & Ann Wharton Epstein write, ‘The archbishop repeatedly denounced his flock as mindless monsters and toads, slaves and barbarians reeking of sheepskins. How absurd that they dared to mock Zeus’s bird, the imperial eagle!’ [7]

But A.A. Vasiliev takes a more sympathetic view, calling the living conditions of 11th-c. Ochrid ‘severe and barbarous’ [8], a circumstance in which it is not surprising that he ‘lamented his exile among aliens and his loss of the comradeship of his intellectual equals’ [9], and most writers note that he was at least not consistent in his scorn. Obolensky notes that his Live of St Clement was ‘based in part on a previous Slavonic Vita’, and that ‘he heaped the most lavish praise on Cyril and Methodius’, the famous Apostles to the Slavs. [10] Kazhdan & Epstein observe as well that he ‘composed a eulogy in honor of the Bulgarian Christian martyrs of Tiberiopolis’, and sensitively ‘documented the highly developed Slavic culture flourishing in the region’. [11] Michael Angold writes that it was his sense of ‘duty to his church’ that ‘very largely guided his actions’, [12] and he strove to defend his people against tax collectors, whom he called ‘rather robbers than collectors, despising both divine laws and imperial ordinances’. [13] In the end, I think we can safely say that the following is a fair evaluation of his archiepiscopacy:

Although a Byzantine by upbringing and outlook, he was a true father and archpastor of the Bulgarian Church, defending its interests and protecting its independence and prerogatives. He was instrumental in the spread of Byzantine culture that took place among the Balkan Slavs in the following centuries. As a language scholar, he also aided the development of a native Bulgarian Orthodox Church and literature, especially by the use of Old Church Slavonic Biblical and liturgical texts.

Countering the propaganda of the heretical Paulicians and Bogomils who were active in the region, he acted vigorously to protect his flock by ordaining dedicated and educated priests to teach Orthodoxy in the native Bulgarian language. He also showed his care for the Slavic people under his spiritual care by vigorously protesting the intolerably extortionist demands of tax collectors sent from Constantinople.

He endured many slanderous accusations that were made against him both within the diocese and in Constantinople, but he won the respect and love of the faithful who saw his tireless labors on their behalf. [14]

Bl Theophylact has also been noted for his conciliatory attitude toward the Latins of his day, Vasiliev calling his book On the Errors of the Latins ‘remarkable’ in this respect. [15] According to Fr John Meyendorff, he ‘explicitly state[s] that the Filioque is the only issue dividing East and West’. [16] Henry Chadwick discusses Bl Theophylact’s stance on the East/West division in some detail:

He did not feel able to dissent from the Greek consensus that the Latin churches had involved themselves in numerous errors. Of these the Filioque was unquestionably the worst. Less serious were azyma, which in his view, though mistaken, did not invalidate a mass, priestly celibacy provided it were not enforced upon the east, and similarly Saturday fasting. He thought it ridiculous that ‘when we Greeks find fault with the Filioque, they shake St Peter’s keys at us’. . . . ‘Neverthless differences of custom and usage are no sufficient ground for schism. Experience shows that arguing about azyma and Lenten fasts gets nowhere. The Greeks should be accommodating and make concessions to the ignorant western barbarians, hoping that in time they will correct their errors to conform to the apostolic tradition stemming from Jerusalem.’ [17]

Of course we today must keep in mind that Bl Theophylact was writing in the 11th c., and the Schism had occurred only the year before he was born. The ‘Latins’ have changed much since then, taking them farther in many ways from Orthodoxy. Furthermore, we cannot be sure that Bl Theophylact knew of some of their other, more subtle divergences in theological understanding. Fr Meyendorff notes for instance that the learned exegete identifies ‘the inheritance of the Fall as an inheritance essentially of mortality rather than of sinfulness, sinfulness being merely a consequence of mortality’. [18] Could he be unaware of how sharply this differed from the Latin view? It seems to me that while we must applaud his willingness to let ‘custom and usage’ slide, it would be impossible today to reduce all to the Filioque alone.

Although Vasiliev claims that ‘from the modern point of view his most important literary legacies are his letters and his book On the Errors of the Latins’, [19] it is of course the commentaries of Bl Theophylact on the Holy Scriptures that are most important to the Church. The great Russian bishop of the 19th-c., St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), has famously written:

While reading the Evangelists, the novice should also read The Herald; that is, the explanation of the Gospel by Blessed Theophylact, the Archbishop of Bulgaria. The reading of The Herald is indispensable. It is an aid to the right understanding of the Gospel and consequently to the most exact practice of it. Moreover, the rules of the Church require that Scripture should be understood as the holy Fathers explain it, and not at all arbitrarily. By being guided in our understanding of the Gospel by the explanation of the holy Father, by the explanation received and used by the Church, we keep the tradition of holy Church. [20]

Finally, St Ignatius observes in a footnote, ‘In all well-ordered cenobitic monasteries the explanation of the Gospel for the day given in The Herald is read daily at Matins.’ [21] In conclusion, here is a passage from this book St Ignatius praises so highly, taken from Bl Theophylact’s comments on the ‘Great Commission’ at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel (Mat 28:16-20):

Because it is not sufficient only to be baptized, but one must also labor to do good after his baptism, Christ then says, ‘Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; not just two or three, but all My commandments.’ Let us tremble then, brethren, when we realize that if even one thing is lacking in us, we are not perfect servants of Christ, for we are required to keep all the commandments. See the Lord’s words contain those two essentials of Christianity: theology and active virtue. For by saying that it is necessary to baptize in the name of the Trinity, He handed down to us theology. And by saying that it is also necessary to teach the keeping of the commandments, He guides us in the way of active virtue. Since He is sending them out among the Gentiles to face death and danger, He gives them courage by saying, ‘Fear not, for I will be with you until the end of the age.’ See also how He mentioned the end so as to arouse in them disdain for these calamities. Do not be downcast, He says, for all things will have an end, both worldly sorrows and worldly joys. Do not be oppressed by sorrows for they will pass, and do not be deceived by good things, for they, too, will come to an end. [22]

Last Autumn, I wrote a short post noting Bl Theophylact’s unexpected appearance in a couple of places. Those interested might have a look at that.

[1] From the account of his life at the website of Chrysostom Press, the publishers in English of Bl Theophylact’s commentaries.

[2] A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire (324-1453), Vol. 2 (Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 1976), p. 496.

[3] Henry Chadwick, East & West: The Making of a Rift in the Church—From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence (Oxford: Oxford U, 2005), p. 221.

[4] Michael Angold, Church & Society in Byzantium under the Comneni, 1081-1261 (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2000), p. 160.

[5] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p.

[6] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Byzantium & the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1994), p. 248.

[7] A.P. Kazhdan & Ann Wharton Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the 11th & 12th Centuries (Berkeley, CA: U of California, 1990), p. 169.

[8] Vasiliev, p. 496.

[9] Kazhdan & Epstein, p. 169.

[10] Obolensky, p. 251.

[11] Kazhdan & Epstein, p. 183.

[12] Angold, p. 160.

[13] Qtd. in Vasiliev, p. 480.

[14] From the Chrysostom Press site.

[15] Vasiliev, p. 497.

[16] Fr John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes, 2nd ed. (NY: Fordham U, 1979), p. 95.

[17] Chadwick, p. 221.

[18] Fr Meyendorff, p. 145.

[19] Vasiliev, p. 496.

[20] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, trans. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), p. 21.

[21] Ibid., p. 21, n. 1.

[22] Fr Christopher Stade, trans., The Explanation by Bl Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid & Bulgaria of the Holy Gospel According to St Matthew, Vol. 1 of Bl Theophylact’s Explanation of the New Testament (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1994), pp. pp. 258-9.


Isaac said...

Very informative. I had always wondered what the 11th c. saint had thought about the Schism, esp as it related to the territory grab between Franko-Germans and Byzantines in his see.

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, I did my best with what I had. Unfortunately, Bl Theophylact's own writings are still for the most part rather inaccessible. Obolensky has a book with a full treatment of him that I keep meaning to order but haven't yet. Maybe tomorrow!

protov said...


My comment here is rather by tangent. I followed the links and I stumbled upon the "toll houses of the air" (in Romanian "vămile văzduhului"). In Romania this is absolute Orthodox teaching. It is illustrated by the celebrated external frescoes of Churches like Suceviţa, Voroneţ and others (the "tollhouses" appear in conjunction with the Ladder of St. John Climax). The "Viaţa şi petrecerea svinţilor" (The life and the journey of the saints) of Metropolitan of Moldavia Dosoftei (1682), numerous other "Cazanii" (Homelies), the services for the dead, all speak of the "tollhouses".

aaronandbrighid said...

Protov> I am very glad to hear it! I and many others in the US (including basically everyone in the Russian Church Abroad) consider it absolute Orthodox teaching as well, but the 'tollhouses' are not commonly taught in the larger jurisdictions here and many American Orthodox, to the extent that they do know of it, consider it either a negotiable 'folk belief' or else something actually heretical.

protov said...

There are not taught because they convey the message that the sins for which the devils at every house accuse the soul, are not "real". To call sodomy a sin is so politically incorrect, to call heresy by its name and warn people against the fate that awaits heretics in hell is to show lack of brotherly love, that better not to talk about it altogether.

aaronandbrighid said...

I have no doubt such concerns often play into it, though I have known those who vehemently deny the toll houses, but who I know for a fact are not shy of the reality of sin even to the point of political incorrectness.

o said...