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The Way of a Pilgrim and other Classics of Russian Spirituality
By G. P. Fedotov
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST REPRESENTATIVE OF KENOTICISM
THEODOSIUS WAS THE FIRST MONASTIC SAINT CANONIZED by the Russian Church. Soon after his death (1074) the task of recording his life story was undertaken by the famous chronicler Nestor, a monk of his Kievan Caves cloister. Although Nestor had at his disposal, as a pattern for his literary work, numerous Greek lives of saints, from which he quoted abundantly, he drew still more upon the testimony of the great abbot's acquaintances and companions. Thus his work has always been held in high esteem by Russian historians for its trustworthiness and its richness in factual detail.
The reader will find the events of Theodosius' life clearly related by Nestor, and his chronicle has been our one source of information. Here we have only to emphasize the predominant features of his spirituality. These characteristics become evident in the earliest part of the story of his childhood, for which Nestor had no literary model. The ideal of the literal imitation of Christ in His poverty and humiliation on earth is an apprehension of religious genius which was to mold permanently the mentality of the Russian people. The social aspect of this "kenotic" ideal is of first importance: the love of an "uncouth garb" and the manual labor in the fields with the serfs both represent an abandonment of class privilege which encountered the long and bitter opposition of the saint's mother. The intimate spiritual association of Theodosius with the person of Christ in His life on earth and in the Sacrament is revealed in Theodosius' attempted journey to the Holy Land, "where our Lord had walked in the flesh," and in his predilection for the task of baking the altar-bread: the boy rejoiced in the thought of being a collaborator in "creating the flesh" of Christ, Who "became poor and humbled Himself" for our salvation.
The monastic life of Theodosius is patterned upon that of the Palestinian ascetics–Sts. Sabbas and Euthymius and St. Theodosius, after whom he is named. However severe or even unnatural Theodosius' asceticism may appear to our age, it was a mitigated, or humanized, form of mortification if gauged by the classical standards of monastic Egypt or Syria. His was a combination of community life and seclusion, of manual labor, prayer, and the exterior work of educational activities among the laity. His bodily asceticism consisted mainly in fasting and abstention from sleep. Only in the narrative of his early youth is mention made of the chains which he wore under his shirt, after the Syrian example followed in Russia. Rather exceptional, also, is the most painful of his acts of mortification: the exposure of his body to the bites of mosquitoes as a measure against temptation. In general, acute pain in mortification is avoided; no self-flagellations occur in the practice of the Christian East; the aim of mortification is rather the "drying up" of the body, the weakening of the passions.
Although Theodosius was the disciple of a senior monk, St. Anthony, his own spirituality is a departure from that of his teacher. Anthony, who had been initiated into the monastic life on Mount Athos, seems to have engaged in the more severe forms of ascetic practice and to have committed himself to absolute solitude, spending all his days in a dark cave. Theodosius found this manner of life "oppressive and narrow." His ideal was rather that of community life and service to the world. He earnestly tried to introduce and put into practice in his monastery, the Greek rule of the Studion (in Constantinople), which became the classical type in the monastic institutions of medieval Russia. The spirit of this rule, and even the form, resemble in many details the rule of St. Benedict.
The greatest danger to the social order that Theodosius sought to create in organizing his cloister was the form which his own holiness assumed. For in becoming the leader of his community he did not betray his ideal of kenotic humility, but clung to his coarse clothing and rejected all outward signs of authority. He never punished erring brethren, but would weep over an incorrigible runaway and, again and again, receive with joy a returning prodigal who could not be relied upon to remain. His harshness was directed, not towards sinners, but only towards the material goods which would tempt the brethren to vitiate their holy poverty by care for the morrow. Thus, on occasion, he destroyed precious food in order to strike at the root of worldly prudence. Discipline was never up to the mark in the Cave cloister, and the homilies of St. Theodosius give evidence of his grievous disappointment.
But the kenotic humility of the abbot was no obstacle to his influence outside the cloister walls. On the contrary, his mildness and charity gained for him the devotion of princes and boyars, and he used his authority in spiritual matters for promoting the cause of justice and charity. A true kenotic, in imitation of Christ, humbles himself before the lowly, not before the powerful. Theodosius could be terrible in his denunciation of the crimes of the rich, and to this valuable social implication of the kenotic virtues ancient Russia was faithful for centuries. This, above all, distinguishes the old Russia from both Byzantine civilization and that of modern Russia.
The great historical importance of St. Theodosius is in the fact that he provided a pattern and an ideal for all monastic life in ancient Russia. His life was a source for all subsequent Russian hagiography, and many features of his personal behavior, including his "uncouth garb," were imitated for centuries. In a certain sense, all Russian monasticism, in spite of the various and divergent tendencies in her spirituality, belongs to the wide family of St. Theodosius' disciples and their heirs.
But far exceeding the limits of the monastic life, the kenotic ideal of St. Theodosius imprinted itself upon the mentality of the whole Russian nation. In the nineteenth century it is easily discoverable in all the literature which portrays Russian folklife, and in Russian folk-lore itself. But, what is still more surprising, the great literary classics of that time also belong to this religious type. This is obvious in the cases of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but the influence is none the less present in the works of most of the non-religious writers, even in those of the atheistic radicals, the "narodniks" (populists). Indeed the bulk of the revolutionary intelligentsia, especially during the 1870's, in their "simple life" their coarse clothing, and their positive search for identification with the underprivileged, were unconscious imitators of St. Theodosius. But it was a kenoticism detached from God, in direct contradiction to the charitable humility which is the essence of St. Theodosius' teaching—and thus purely negative. This kenoticism, completely divorced from the spirit of supernatural love, is at the root both of Russian atheism and of Tolstoy's radical negation of culture.
All this would seem to imply that kenoticism may justly be considered the dominant motif in Russian spirituality—one might almost venture to say, the specific Russian approach to Christianity. Yet this statement is correct only in a limited sense. For, actually, kenoticism was never the exclusive, nor even the quantitatively predominant, feature of Russian religion. It has always been moderated, diluted and supplemented by other currents: ritualistic, liturgical, mystical or culturally creative, some of them deriving from foreign sources—from Byzantium or, in modern times, from the Christian West.
A LIFE OF ST. THEODOSIUS
I THANK YOU, MY LORD AND MASTER JESUS CHRIST, FOR HOLDING ME WORTHY TO CHRONICLE THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF YOUR saints. For I first recorded the life, the slaying, and the miracles of the saints and blessed passion-bearers Boris and Gleb, and I am now about to undertake another writing. It is a task too great for my powers, I am not fit for it, since I am neither wise nor learned, but I have in my mind the words "If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, remove from hence thither and it shall remove." Reflecting on these words I, sinful Nestor, have girded myself with faith and hope in order to relate the life of blessed Theodosius, the former abbot of the Caves Monastery dedicated to the Holy Mother of God.
Brothers, when I realized that no one had yet recorded the life of this saint, I was greatly distressed, and I asked in prayer for God's help in setting down in their proper order all the facts concerning our father and God-bearer, Theodosius, so that the monks who come after us, reading this chronicle and seeing the virtues of this man, might glorify God in His saint. May they be confirmed in their religious vocation by the knowledge that so holy a man has lived in this land. For these words of God may well be applied to him: "Many shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven"; and, again: "Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." Indeed, this saint of the latter day has shown himself greater than the ancient Fathers. As it was said in the Patericon that there would be laxness in the last generation, it is surprising that in this last generation Theodosius should be made known by Christ as a great laborer for His sake and a true pastor to his monks. For from boyhood he was distinguished for the purity and goodness of his life, and especially for the faith and understanding with which he was endowed.
Brothers, listen attentively, for this story is of great benefit to all who hear it. I implore you, my beloved, do not condemn me for my ignorance if, because I am so filled with love for the saint, I have attempted to tell everything concerning him. For, in addition to this, I feared that Our Lord's words with regard to the "wicked and slothful servant" might be applied to me. But apart from these considerations, it is not right to conceal God's miracles, especially in view of what He said to His disciples: "That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light; and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops."
It is therefore my intention to write for the benefit and edification of my readers. May they glorify God and be rewarded by Him. But first of all I turn to God with a prayer: "My Lord Omnipotent, giver of grace, Father of our Master Jesus Christ, come to my aid. Illumine my heart for the understanding of Thy commandments and open my mouth for the proclaiming of Thy miracles and the praise of Thy saint. May Thy name be sanctified, for Thou art the only helper of those who hope in Thee. Amen."
The Childhood of Theodosius
There is a town called Vasilev, lying at a distance of fifty versts from Kiev. In this town lived our saint's parents, who were enlightened Christians of exemplary piety, and here it was that blessed Theodosius was born to them. On the eighth day after his birth, according to the custom, they brought the child to God's priest in order that a name should be given him. The priest, perceiving with spiritual insight that the newborn child would devote himself to God's service from infancy, gave him the name Theodosius. Then, after forty days, he baptized the child. Theodosius grew up under the tutelage of his parents. God's grace was with him, and he had the light of the Holy Ghost from his first years.
By the decree of the Prince, the saint's parents soon transferred their residence to another town called Kursk-but it would be more exact to say that this was done according to the will of God, so that this town also might be enlightened by the presence of the good youth. Thus Theodosius rose for us in the East like a morning star, attracting many other stars in expectation of the Sun of Justice, Our Lord Jesus Christ, so that he might say: "Here I am, my Lord, and here are the children whom I have nourished with Thy spiritual food. Here, my Lord, are my disciples. I have brought them to Thee, having taught them to despise all earthly things and to love Thee alone, my Lord God. Here, Master, is the flock which Thou hast enlightened, whose shepherd Thou hast chosen me to be. I have led them to graze in Thy pastures. I have brought them to Thee, having kept them pure and innocent." And God will answer, "Good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things." And He will say to the disciples: "Come, good flock; come, divinely enlightened sheep of the good shepherd; you who have hungered and labored for my sake shall now receive the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world."
Therefore, brothers, let us also be zealous imitators of the life of St. Theodosius and the disciples he sent to God before him, for then we too shall be worthy to hear the voice of the Master saying, "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."
And now let us turn once more to the story of the holy youth. As he matured in body and spirit, he was drawn by the love of God to go to church daily, devoting all his attention to the sacred books. Unlike most boys, he kept aloof from children at play and was unwilling to join in their games. He wore coarse and patched garments, and when his parents tried to make him put on fresh clothing and play with other children, he would not obey, for he wanted to be identified with the poor. Moreover he begged his parents to entrust him to a teacher, so that he might be instructed in the reading of the sacred books, and they consented to this. The boy acquired knowledge rapidly, so that everyone was astonished at his wisdom and the quickness with which he learned. And how can we measure the virtues of obedience and humility which he practised, not only towards his teachers, but also towards all with whom he shared his studies?
The Struggles of His Youth
When blessed Theodosius was about thirteen years old, his father died. From that time on, he applied himself even more zealously to his undertakings. That is, he now went into the fields with his serfs, where he did the humblest work. To prevent this, his mother used to keep him indoors. She also tried to prevail upon him to put on good clothes and go out to play with boys of his own age, for she said that if he were so poorly dressed, he would expose himself and his family to disgrace. But he would not obey her, and often she beat him in her vexation. She was robust of body, and if you could not see her, but could only hear her voice, you might well have mistaken her for a man.
The devout youth, meanwhile, was meditating and searching for the means of salvation. When he heard of the Holy Land, where Our Lord had walked in the flesh, he longed to make a pilgrimage to this place. He prayed to God, saying, "My Lord Jesus, listen to my prayer, and grant that I may go to the Holy Land." After he had prayed in this manner for a long time, some pilgrims came to the city. The holy youth rejoiced when he saw them. He went out to meet them and welcomed them affectionately, asking them whence they had come and whither they were going. And when they told him that they had come from the Holy Land and that, God permitting, they intended to return there, he begged to be taken with them. They promised to take him, and Theodosius returned home rejoicing. When the pilgrims had decided to set out on their journey, they informed the boy of their intention, and rising in the night, he left his home secretly, taking nothing with him except the poor clothes he had on. It was in this manner that he set out to join the pilgrims.
But God, in his mercy, would not permit the one whom He had predestined in his mother's womb to be the shepherd of the divinely enlightened sheep to leave this land; for, when the shepherd had departed, the pastures that God had blessed would lie desolate, overgrown with thorns and haunted by wolves which would scatter the flock. After three days the mother learned that he had gone with the pilgrims, and taking her other son (who was younger than Theodosius) with her, she set out to overtake him. After a long pursuit, they caught up with him. Carried away by fury, she seized him by the hair, flung him to the ground, and trampled on him. Then, having rebuked the pilgrims, she returned home, leading the saint bound like a criminal. So greatly incensed was she, that when they had entered the house she beat her son until she was exhausted. Then she flung him into a room, shackled him, and locked the door. The holy youth suffered all this joyfully, giving thanks to God in prayer.
After two days his mother returned, unfastened him, and placed food before him. But her anger was still unsatisfied, so she put chains on his feet and ordered him to go about the house in them, and she watched him, so that he might not run away from her again. He wore these chains for some time, but at last his mother relented. She began to beg him not to run away again, saying that she loved him more than all her other children and could not live without him. And when he had promised that he would not leave her, she removed the chains from his feet, telling him that he might now do as he pleased.
Excerpted from The Way of a Pilgrim and other Classics of Russian Spirituality by G. P. Fedotov. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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