Orthodox America


 Bishop Theophan, the Recluse of Vysha 


Do not gravitate to the earth - All is corruptible; only the happiness beyond the grave is eternal, unchanging, true, and this happiness depends upon how we spend this life of ours!

"Make the habit to remember God, not only during your prayers, but at every hour and minute of the day, for He is everywhere present. Thus, peace will descend into your soul and purpose into your work; and this work will be well regulated....He who remains in the sun and he who remembers God, never freezes.

From What is the Spiritual Life

This thought is repeatedly expressed in the books and letters of the great ascetic and recluse of Vysha, Bishop Theophan. They are not mere words, for his own life served as an example of this correct view of the world and the destiny of the soul; a life of self-denial, reclusion, and the desire to take no thing from life but a striving toward God.

Bishop Theophan was born on Jan. 1(), 1815, in a village 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 Lavra 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 Lavra to the well-known Elder, Hieromonk Partheny, who told him: "Remember that on e 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. Here he established a diocesan school for girls. During his stay in the Tambov See, Bishop 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, traveled 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.

What reasons induced Bishop Theophan, full of strength, to leave his diocese and retire into solitude? Various are the characters and gifts of men. It was difficult for him in the midst of the world and those demands to which one must yield as a consequence of human corruption. His unlimited goodness of heart, a meekness like that of a dove, 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 so absolutely. He de sired that nothing might disturb the complete communion with God that was so dear to him. And 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 so as not to be distracted On feast days he usually officiated.

Beginning in 1872, 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 plunged back into 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 labor. He painted excellent icons and was skilled in woodcarving and the locksmith's trade.

Every day Bp. Theophan received from twenty to forty 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-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.

For three days the body remained in the small church in his cell, and for three days it was in the cathedral-and there was no corruption. When he was vested in his bishop's vestmenets, the face of the dead man was brightened by a joyful smile.

In Bishop Theophan's cell everything was extremely simple, even meager. The walls were bare, the furniture old. There was a trunk with instruments for lathe-work, carpentry, book-binding; photographic equipment, a bench for sawing, a joiner's bench. And then the books-books without number, without end, in Russian, Slavonic, Greek, French, German, and English. Among them were: a complete collection of the Holy Fathers; a theological encyclopedia 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 which he left. In the person of Bishop Theophan, as Archbishop Nicander of Vilna has said, we have 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 hi 5 teach in g; seeking 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 which leads to constant prayer and the state of being alone in one's heart with God.

(From "Orthodox Word," July-August, 1966)

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