On Theodore the Studite

“An Important Virtue … Is Love for Work”

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 27, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, part of a catechetical series he is giving about great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

The saint that we find today, St. Theodore the Studite, brings us to a period that from the religious and political point of view was rather turbulent. St. Theodore was born in the year 759 to a noble and pious family. His mother, Teoctista, and an uncle, Plato, abbot of the monastery of Sakkudion in Bithynia, are venerated as saints. It was precisely his uncle who guided him toward the monastic life, which he embraced at the age of 22. He was ordained a priest by the patriarch Tarasios, but afterward he broke communion with him because of the weakness he showed in the case of the adulterous marriage of Emperor Constantine VI. The consequence was Theodore’s exile to Thessalonica in the year 796. Reconciliation with the imperial authority came about the next year under Empress Irene, whose benevolence brought Theodore and Plato to be transferred to the urban monastery of Studios, together with the majority of the community of the monks of Sakkudion, to avoid the invasions of the Saracens. In this way began the important “studite reform.”

The personal life of Theodore, nevertheless, continued to be very hectic. With his characteristic energy, he became the leader of the resistance to the iconoclasm of Leo V the Armenian, who opposed once again the existence of images and icons in the Church. The procession of icons, organized by the monks of Studios, brought about the reaction of the police. Between 815 and 821, Theodore was flogged, jailed and exiled in various parts of Asia Minor. In the end, he was able to return to Constantinople, but not to his monastery. Thus he established himself with his monks on the other side of the Bosphorus.

He died, it seems, on Pringipos on Nov. 11, 826, the day on which he is remembered in the Byzantine calendar. Theodore is distinguished in Church history for being one of the great reformers of monastic life and also as a defender of sacred images during the second iconoclast phase, together with the patriarch of Constantinople, St. Nicephorus.

Theodore had understood that the issue of the veneration of icons implicated the very truth of the Incarnation. In his three books, Antirretikoi (Refutations), Theodore compares the eternal internal relations of the Trinity, in which the existence of each divine Person does not destroy unity, with the relation between the two natures of Christ, which do not compromise in him the unique Person of the Logos. And he argues: To abolish the veneration of the icons of Christ would mean cancelling his very redemptive work, since in assuming human nature, the invisible Word has appeared in visible human flesh, and in this way has sanctified the entire visible cosmos. Icons, sanctified by liturgical blessing and the prayer of the faithful, unite us with the Person of Christ, with his saints, and through them, with the heavenly Father, and they give witness to an entrance into the divine reality of our visible and material cosmos.

Theodore and his monks, witnesses of courage in the times of the iconoclast persecutions, are inseparably united to the reform of the cenobitic life in the Byzantine world. Their importance asserts itself even because of an exterior circumstance: their number. While the monasteries of the epoch did not exceed 30 or 40 monks, through the “Life of Theodore,” we know that there were more than 1,000 Studite monks. Theodore himself informs us that in his monastery there were some 300 monks; we see, therefore, the enthusiasm for the faith that sprung up in the context of this man truly informed and formed by the same faith. However, more than the number, the new spirit that the founder imprinted on the cenobitic life showed itself to be influential. In his writing, he insists on the urgency of a conscious return to the teaching of the fathers, above all to St. Basil, first legislator of the monastic life, and to St. Dorotheos of Gaza, a famous spiritual father of the Palestinian desert. The characteristic contribution of Theodore consists in his insistence on the necessity of order and submission on the part of the monks. During the persecutions, the monks had dispersed, accustoming themselves to living according to each one’s personal judgment. When it was possible to reconstruct common life, it was necessary to deeply commit himself to again make of the monastery an authentic living community, an authentic family, or as he said, an authentic “Body of Christ.” In a community like this, the reality of the Church as a whole is concretely fulfilled.

Another of Theodore’s deep conviction is this: With respect to laypeople, monks take on the commitment of observing Christian duties with greater rigor and intensity. That’s why they make a special profession, which belongs to the hagiasmata (consecrations), and which is almost a “new baptism,” and is symbolized by the taking of the habit. With respect to laypeople, the commitment of poverty, chastity and obedience is characteristic of monks. Addressing the monks, Theodore speaks in a concrete way, occasionally almost picturesque, of poverty, but in the following of Christ this is from the beginning an essential element of monasticism and indicates as well a path for us. Renunciation of private poverty, freedom from material things, as well as sobriety and simplicity, are only valid in their radical form for monks, but the spirit of this renunciation is the same for everyone. In fact, we should not depend on material property; we should learn detachment, simplicity, austerity and sobriety. In this way, a solidary society can grow and the great problem of poverty in this world can be overcome. Therefore, in this sense, the radical sign of the poor monks indicates essentially a path also for us.

When he illustrates the temptations against chastity, Theodore does not hide his personal experiences and shows the path of interior fight to find self-control and in this way, respect for one’s own body and the body of others as a temple of God.

But the principal renunciations are for him those demanded by obedience, since each one of the monks has his way of living, and integration in the great community of 300 monks truly implies a new form of life, which he classifies as the “martyrdom of submission.” Also in this, the monks give an example, since after original sin, the tendency for man is to do one’s own will, the first principle is the life of the world, and everything else remains submitted to the personal will. But in this way, if each one only follows himself, the social fabric cannot work. Only in learning to integrate oneself in common freedom, sharing and submitting to it, learning legality, that is, submission and obedience to the rules of the common good and the common life, can a society be healed, as well as the “I” of the pride of putting oneself in the center of the world. In this way, St. Theodore helps his monks with keen introspection, and certainly us as well, to understand the true life, to resist the temptation of putting one’s own will as the supreme rule of life and to conserve a true personal identity, which is always an identity together with others, as well as peace of heart.

For Theodore the Studite, an important virtue, together with obedience and humility, is philergia, that is, love for work, which he sees as a criterion to prove the quality of personal devotion. One who is fervent in material commitments, who works assiduously, he maintains, is the same in the spiritual realm. In this regard, he does not allow that with the pretext of prayer and contemplation, the monk dispenses with work, including manual work, which in reality is, according to him and to the monastic tradition, the means to encounter God.

Theodore is not afraid to speak of work as the “sacrifice of the monk,” of
his “liturgy,” even of a type of Mass through which the monastic life converts into angelical life. And precisely in this way the world of work is humanized and man, through work, becomes more himself, closer to God. A consequence of this singular vision deserves to be considered: Precisely because it is the fruit of a form of “liturgy,” the riches that come from common work should not serve the comfort of the monks, but should be destined for the help of the poor. In this, all of us can see the need for the fruit of work to be a good for everyone. Obviously the work of the “studites” was not only manual: They had great importance in the religious-cultural development of the Byzantine culture as calligraphers, painters, poets, educators of youth, teachers in schools, librarians.

If indeed he carried out an enormous exterior activity, Theodore did not allow himself to be distracted from what he considered intimately linked to his function as superior: to be the spiritual father of his monks. He knew the decisive influence had in his life by both his good mother and his holy uncle, Plato, whom he classified with the significant title of “father.” Because of this, he gave spiritual direction to the monks. Each day, his biographer says, after night prayers, he placed himself before the iconostasis to listen to the confidences of everyone. He gave spiritual advice as well to many people who were not from the monastery. The “Spiritual Testament” and the “Letters” highlight his open and affectionate manner, and show how from his paternity arose true spiritual friendships within the monastery and outside of it.

The Rule, known with the name of Hypotyposis, codified after Theodore’s death, was adopted with some modification in Mount Athos, when in the year 962, St. Athanasius the Athonite founded there the Great Lavra, and in the Rus of Kiev, when at the beginning of the second millennium, St. Theodosius introduced it in the Lavra of the Caves. Understood in its genuine significance, the Rule becomes something exceedingly relevant. Today numerous currents arise that threaten the unity of the common faith and lead toward a type of dangerous spiritual individualism and spiritual pride. It is necessary to commit oneself in its defense and to make grow the perfect unity of the Body of Christ, in which can be integrated in harmony the peace of order and sincere personal relationships in the Spirit.

Perhaps it is useful to take up at the end some of the principal elements of the spiritual doctrine of Theodore. Love for the incarnated Lord and for his visibility in the liturgy and in icons. Fidelity to baptism and commitment to live in the communion of the Body of Christ, understood also as communion of Christians among themselves. Spirit of poverty, of sobriety, of renunciation; chastity, self-control, humility and obedience against the primacy of one’s own will, which destroys the social fabric and the peace of souls. Love for material and spiritual work. Spiritual friendship born in the purification of one’s conscience, of one’s soul, of one’s life. Let us try to follow these teachings that truly show us the path of the true life.

[Translation by ZENIT] [At the end of the audience, the Pope greeted the pilgrims in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s catechesis on the life and teaching of Saint Theodore the Studite places us at the heart of the medieval Byzantine period. Born in 759 to a noble and pious family, Theodore entered the monastery at the age of twenty-two. He vigorously opposed the iconoclastic movement since, he argued, abolishing images of Christ entails a rejection of his work of redemption. Theodore also initiated a thorough reform of the disciplinary, administrative and spiritual aspects of monastic life. A particularly important virtue according to Theodore is philergia – the love of work – since diligence in material tasks indicates fervour in one’s spiritual duties. He even described work as a type of “liturgy”, asserting that the riches mined from it must be used to help the poor. The Studite’s Rule holds particular relevance for us today because it highlights the unity of faith and the need to resist the danger of spiritual individualism. May we heed Theodore’s summons to nurture the unity of the Body of Christ through well-ordered lives and by cultivating harmonious relationships with one another in the Holy Spirit.

I warmly greet all the English-speaking pilgrims. In a special way, I welcome members of the Schola Cantorum of Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas; seminarians and priests from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan; and members of the Order of Knights of Saint John from Nigeria. God bless all of you!

© Copyright 2009 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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