St Theophan the Recluse

Commemorated January 6

St Theophan the Recluse was born on January 10, 1815, in the heart of Russia. His father was a Priest and thus, from the first impressions of his youth, he lived with the Church. The difficult and even severe conditions of the Orel Seminary, where he studied, developed in him a strong mental temper. He continued his education in the Kiev Theological Academy. One may surmise that during this time the young student often went to the justly renowned Kiev Caves Monastery, where there could have been formed in him the resolution to leave the world. Even be fore finishing the seminary course, he was tonsured a monk. On this occasion, he went to the monastery to the well-known Elder, Hieromonk Partheny, who told him, "Remember that one thing is most necessary of all, to pray and to pray unceasingly in your mind and heart to God". This counsel made a lasting impression on the newly tonsured monk and he spent the rest of his life striving to attain this "one thing needful".

Having finished the course with a Master's Degree, Hieromonk Theophan was assigned as temporary rector of the Kiev-Sofia Theo logical School. In the years that followed, he held various administrative and teaching positions in different seminaries and academies, but such scholarly work did not satisfy him and he petitioned to be discharged from academic service.

In 1859, he was consecrated Bishop for Tambov, where he established a Diocesan school for girls. During his stay in the Tambov, St Theophan came to love the isolated Vysha Hermitage. In the summer of 1863, he was transferred to Vladimir, where he served for three years. Here too, he opened a Diocesan school for girls. He often served in church, travelled much throughout the Diocese, preached constantly, restored churches, and wholeheartedly lived with his flock, sharing with them both joy and sorrow.

In 1866, Bishop Theophan petitioned to be relieved as Bishop of Vladimir and was appointed head of the Vysha Hermitage, and soon, at a new petition of his, he was freed even from this duty. 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.

In reclusion, invisible to people, he became a public figure of enormous magnitude. He sought only the Kingdom of God, and his great significance for the world was added to him. The first six years the Bishop went to all services and to the early Liturgy. In church, he stood without moving, without leaning, with eyes closed to stop being distracted, and on feast days, he usually officiated.

Beginning in 1872 AD, however, he discontinued all intercourse with people except for the chief priest and his confessor. He went no longer to the monastery church, but built with his own hands in his chambers a small church dedicated to the Baptism of the Lord. For the first ten years, he served the Liturgy in this church every Sunday and feast day, and for the next eleven years everyday. He served completely alone, sometimes in silence, but sometimes singing.

He seemed to be no longer a man, but an angel with a childlike meekness and gentle ness. When people came to him on business, he said what was necessary and returned to prayer. He ate only enough so as not to ruin his health. Everything that he received he sent by mail to the poor, leaving himself only enough to buy necessary books. From his publications, which were quickly distributed, he received nothing, hoping only that they might be sold as cheaply as possible

In the rare moments when he was free from prayer, reading, or writing, he occupied himself with manual labour. He painted excellent icons and was skilled in woodcarving and the locksmith's trade. Every day Bishop Theophan received between 20 and 40 letters, and he answered them all. With extraordinary sensitivity he penetrated to the spiritual situation of the writer and warmly, clearly, and in detail replied to this confession of a distressed soul. In addition to this enormous flow of correspondence, the years of reclusion also produced a wealth of books. These include works on moral theology, such as "The Path to Salvation", "What the Spiritual Life is and How to Attune Oneself to it", commentaries on Holy Scripture, and translations, among which is to be found the spiritual classic "Unseen Warfare".

The life of Bishop Theophan passed unseen by the world, and death too came to him in solitude. Beginning January 1, 1891, there were several irregularities in his schedule. On the afternoon of January 6, his cell-attendant noticed that the Bishop was weak and looking into his room, he found the Bishop lying on the bed lifeless. His left arm rested on his breast and his right arm was folded as if for a Bishop's blessing. He had died on the very day of his most beloved Feast, to which his chapel was dedicated. 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.

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".

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.

from Orthodox Word, July-August, 1966