08 July 2009

'Inspired By God'—St Theoleptus of Philadelphia

Today, 25 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Theoleptus (1250-1322), Metropolitan and, according to St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, ‘luminary’ of Philadelphia (Φιλοκαλία, Τόμος Δ´ [Athens: Aster, 1991], p. 3). In his treatise, ‘In Defense of Those Who Devoutly Practise a Life of Stillness’ (The Philokalia, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998]), St Gregory Palamas writes:

But why do I refer to saints of past times? For shortly before our own day men of attested sanctity, recognized as endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit, have transmitted these things to us by their own mouths. You have heard of Theoliptos, whose name signifies ‘inspired by God’ and who is recognized in our days as an authentic theologian and a trustworthy visionary of the truth of God’s mysteries—the bishop of Philadelphia or, rather, he who from Philadelphia as from a lampstand illumined the world. (p. 341)

St Gregory was in a position to be acquainted directly with St Theoleptus’s authenticity, since, according to St Philotheos Kokkinos, St Theoleptus ‘served Gregory as the very best of spiritual fathers and guides, and from him Gregory received an excellent initiation in sacred vigilance and intellectual [noetic] prayer’ (qtd. in ‘The Early Chapters of the Capita 150’, The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, by St Gregory Palamas, ed. and trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz [Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Mediæval Studies, 1988], p. 34). But St Gregory’s high opinion seems to have been widely shared. Indeed, Robert Sinkewicz observes, ‘Given the prominence he held in the eyes of his contemporaries, it is perhaps surprising that so little information has come down to us about the life and ecclesiastical career of Theoleptos of Philadelphia’ (‘Life and Works of Theoleptos’, The Monastic Discourses, by St Theoleptus of Philadelphia, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz [Toronto: PIMS, 1992], p. 1).

Thus, almost nothing is known of the early life of St Theoleptus except for his birth at Nicæa in 1250. Sinkewicz observes that he was known for his erudition, and must therefore have been well educated, but nothing is certain before 1275, by which time he was a married deacon in Nicæa (‘Life’, p. 2). It was told of him that he used to spend much time in ascetic struggle in the countryside, perhaps at monasteries, and eventually placed himself under the obedience of an elder who taught him ‘asceticism, contemplation and vigilance of the mind’ (p. 3).

When the Greek-Latin union established at the Council of Lyons (1274) was proclaimed at Constantinople, St Theoleptus and the monks of Nicæa loudly denounced it as a betrayal of Orthodoxy. St Theoleptus was arrested, beaten, and finally imprisoned for opposing the false union and accusing the Emperor of ‘perverting the sacred scriptures’ (p. 3). Fortunately, he did not stay long in prison, and returning to Nicæa, withdrew to a hermitage to practice hesychasm. Unfortunately, it seems that the young man’s wife opposed his decision to embrace the monastic life, only accepting the situation after a year. Sinkewicz, however, comments insightfully:

This episode recounted by [St Theoleptus’s friend] Nikephoros Choumnos should be understood not so much as a devaluation of the married state in itself but as an indication of the higher value given to the monastic vocation. In harmony with the hagiographical tradition, Choumnos understood that the special call of God granted to Theoleptos took precedence over all other human commitments including that of the marriage bond. In this context opposition to God’s plan could only be understood as the work of the enemy. (p. 4)

At any rate, St Theoleptus was at last able to live in hesychia for eight years. But when the Unionist Emperor Michael VIII died in 1282, his son Andronikos II removed all of the Unionist bishops. As an Orthodox confessor, St Theoleptus was elevated to the see of Philadelphia in 1284, when he was just 33, a position he was to hold for almost forty years. Overall, it seems that St Theoleptus largely spent his episcopate within his own diocese, unlike many other bishops who enjoyed ‘the life and intrigue of the capital’ (p. 10). Sinkewicz notes his involvement in a couple of relatively minor theological controversies that seem part of the aftermath of the false union (pp. 7-8), as well as a few political goings-on (pp. 9-10). St Theoleptus also played an important rôle in opposing a schism that sounds awfully similar to a Paulician/Bogomil-type group, leaving behind—among his scanty writings—two discourses against them (Sinkewicz, p. 12). Sinkewicz notes the tremendous esteem in which St Theoleptus seems to have been held. When he broke communion with the patriarch more than once, it was observed:

You have heard of the most holy Theoleptos, who was greatly renowned for that virtue of God-befitting bishops and for his experience, so to speak, in divine and human affairs. For a period of almost ten years this metropolitan of Philadelphia broke communion with two of the patriarchs who lived in his time, refusing all concelebration and any mention in the Sacred Liturgy, even though the occasion did not involve any doctrinal error . . . (p. 15)

Sinkewicz then writes, ‘It is an indication of the prestige held by [St] Theoleptos that his rupture with Constantinople provoked neither his excommunication nor even a censure’ (p. 15). When Philadelphia was besieged by Muslim Turks at the beginning of the 14th century, a member of the Catalan mercenary force that broke the siege referred to ‘Theoleptus, their bishop, a man of rare sanctity, whose prayers had done more to defend the city than had the arms of the people who guarded it’ (qtd. in Sinkewicz, p. 10).

In 1307, St Theoleptus became the spiritual father of Choumnos's 16-yr-old widowed daughter, Eirene (that is, if he was not already—Sinkewicz suggests, after all, that he may have been the πνευματικός of her father [p. 9]), and tonsured her Evlogia (p. 18). While the father was at first opposed to the decision, he and his wife later entered the men’s and women’s communities respectively of their daughter’s double monastery shortly before their deaths (p. 19). The Nun Evlogia, for her part, apparently played an active rôle in contemporary intellectual life. As Alice-Mary Talbot notes, she ‘possessed a substantial library of secular and religious works, exchanged books with her spiritual director, commissioned the copying of manuscripts, and seems to have held a sort of salon for literati at her convent’ (‘Women’, The Byzantines, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1997], p. 137).

It is an interesting episode to me, because while Eirene’s tonsure seems like one of those many instances of an aristocrat accepting the schema for convenience’s sake, the holy Hierarch’s beautiful address to her, ‘On Inner Work in Christ and the Monastic Profession’, preserved in the Philokalia (pp. 177-87), takes her new life very seriously indeed. One can almost imagine the grieving young widow, accepting tonsure because it’s ‘the thing to do’, but finding herself initiated into a life capable of immeasurably surpassing the one to which she had previously looked forward. Thus, St Theoleptus writes:

The monastic profession is a lofty and fruitful tree whose root is detachment from all corporeal things, whose brances are freedom from passionate craving and total alienation from what you have renounced, and whose fruit is the acquisition of virtue, a deifying love, and the uninterrupted joy that results from these two things; for, as St Paul says, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace and the other things he mentions (cf. Gal. 5:22). (Philokalia, p. 177)

The saintly Metropolitan also played his famous rôle in the life of St Gregory Palamas around the same time. But while Sinkewicz concludes that since the contact could only have been during the years 1307-1308, and since St Gregory would have been merely 11 or 12, ‘the direct influence of Theoleptos on the spiritual and theological formation of [St Gregory] Palamas must have been negligible’ (p. 11), this seems to me a bit unimaginative. Is it really unthinkable that a pre-pubescent boy could be so deeply influenced by an encounter with such a strikingly holy man over the course of a year or two? And while it seems a bit young for him to have absorped much of the theological teaching of St Theoleptus, I can testify with some confidence that if St Gregory had chanced to read something of his Elder’s writings, whether during that period or in the years immediately subsequent, they may well have made a deep impression on him indeed (this was my experience with reading The Jesus Style at the age of 13).

Sinkewicz notes that the ‘last recorded intervention of [St] Theoleptos in public affairs took place in 1321’, when he participated with his friend, Choumnos, in the diplomatic mission of the Emperor Andronicus II to his rebellious grandson, the future Andronicus III (p. 17). At last, the holy Hierarch wrote one last letter from his deathbed, and fell asleep in the Lord in 1322. He is credited with five letters and twenty-three ‘monastic discourses’ (p. 20), including ‘On Inner Work’, and Sinkewicz points out that several manuscripts also attribute a few liturgical compositions to him, including the ‘Canon to the Sweetest Jesus’ (p. 24).

I shall conclude with an instructive passage from the 20th Monastic Discourse, ‘The Fifth Sunday [After Easter], the Samaritan Woman’, addressed to the sisters of Evlogia’s convent:

8. Let each of you leave behind the attitudes of her empty way of life, like Samaria, and proceed to the well, I mean the church, and she will be deemed worthy of converse with the Lord. As someone who goes to the palace to see and meet the emperor, so too the sister who runs to the house of God converses with God and partakes of the water of salvation. Standing in the church and listening to the words of God, she abandons her earthly and worldly conduct like a water-jar and returns to the original way of life, namely, that before the transgression. She is not ashamed to reveal her sins and she glorifies the Lord who redeemed her from slavery to evil. The jar for drawing water receives flowing streams from the well and the discursive intellect accepts the sayings of God the Word.

9. Therefore, if we are regular in our church attendance and listen intelligently to the divine chants, we shall be able even after we leave there to carry within ourselves the remembrance of what we heard like a water-jar, storing it up in our soul by means of the knowledge of the mysteries celebrated in church and announcing the words of God wherever we pass our lives. Sisters, let us labour in the present age that we may find rest in the age to come, because if we labour a little while we shall find eternal rest. . . . (Sinkewicz, p. 337)

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