Saint Theophan the Recluse Essay

This essay has a total of 3636 words and 15 pages.

Saint Theophan the Recluse

A BOOK REVIEW OF
The Path of Prayer: Four Sermons on Prayer
by St. Theophan the Recluse
Trans. Esther Williams, Ed. Robin Amis
Praxis Institute Press, Seabury, MA, 1992

It is often said that there are no more heroes in today\\'s world or even that this is an
age of the anti-hero. Yet anyone who is blessed with the opportunity to observe children
for any length of time will see that regard for those who exemplify certain ideals
(heroes) is a spontaneous element in basic human psychology. The reported lack of heroes
and the cult of the anti-hero are the fruit of a disillusioned Aadult@ mentality which has
been lied to on this as well as other subjects and hence robbed of the natural inclination
of a normal human being (a child) who is as yet untainted by the cynicism and
Asophistication@ of a deeply troubled society. The more often the lie is repeated the more
firmly it is held to be true. But, heroes do still exist -- it is rather that a society
which values valuelessness no longer has eyes to see them and has lost the ability to
produce them. For those who have eyes to see, one such hero is the author of the book
under review here.

St. Theophan of Vysha ( 1894), better known as Theophan the Recluse, is one of the great
19th century Russian luminaries of the Orthodox Church whose light reaches even unto us in
the present, heterodox West. Being virtually our contemporary, he was nevertheless steeped
in the ancient Tradition of the Fathers. Having faced in his life existential and
intellectual conditions very similar to our own, he is a bridge to authentic spiritual
life in Christ, making the wisdom of the Christian Tradition easily accessible to us. This
should not be particularly surprising, for as Christ himself tells us, a light is kindled
not to be hidden under a basket but to be held aloft to shed light for all. One must
stubbornly persist in blindness not to behold this Light Who has been providentially
kindled in St. Theophan for our sake in these latter days.

Like so many of the more recent saints of the Orthodox Church, very few of his writings
are available in English. What is available is quickly gobbled up by seekers thirsting
after a word of life from the Living Spring of Christ\\'s Gospel. Unseen Warfare, his
reworking of Lawrence Scupoli\\'s Spiritual Combat (from the version already adapted by
St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain) has been a perennial best seller in English
translation for four decades, first for Faber & Faber and now for SVS Press. The present
volume in hand, The Path of Prayer, now adds to this availability.

Knowing our regard for St. Theophan as a spiritual hero, imagine our joy at being offered
the chance to review this new translation in galley form (pre-publication)! Imagine the
expectancy with which we awaited the arrival of the text -- the spiritual excitement with
which we opened the simple brown envelope concealing what for us is a spiritual treasure!
And we were not disappointed in the having but found expectation fulfilled and surpassed
in reality. Hyperbola you say? No, rather this is the stuff of heroes. But, you say, in a
more prosaic manner of speaking, just what is it that has caused this flight of hero
worship?


What we have here are actually four short pieces (sermons) on prayer which the publishers,
Praxis Institute Press, have selected from St. Theophan\\'s voluminous works. Brief
homilies would perhaps better describe them, and they are as exquisitely simple as they
are profound. The publishers have added the Apoetic@ title, The Path of Prayer, to the
text originally published in Russian under the simple title, Four Sermons on Prayer (3rd
edition, 1891).


First a few words about the context provided for the sermons by the publishers: an
introduction, a preface and an appendix containing a collection of prayers from the
Fathers and a life of St. Theophan. Frankly, this material is a disappointment;
fortunately, it is also brief. Justifiably the material is aimed at introducing St.
Theophan and his Orthodox understanding of prayer to a non-Orthodox readership. And we
must concede a modicum of success in achieving this intent: St. Theophan=s teaching is
made accessable to some who may not otherwise have heard of him. There are however, three
major flaws in this regard as well as a few superficial ones.

The introduction is brief, simple and mostly to the point. The slight hint of British
eccentricity sounds a quaint note and would seem to indicate a Ahigh Anglican@ audience is
in mind here. The preface is likewise to the point but suffers in places from awkward
sentence construction. St. Theophan\\'s writing is by contrast the epitome of lucidity and
simplicity of expression.

On a more serious note, two points in the preface demand our attention, bearing as they do
more heavily on the apprehension or misapprehension by the reader of the spirituality of
St. Theophan and the Orthodox Tradition which he represents.

On page ix, the author of the preface (unnamed) makes the following statement, AThis
personal rule of prayer, as Theophan describes it, forms one of the great ways of
spiritual development which were once listed as: the way of service, the way of prayer,
the way of study and the way of self-control.@ It is not at all clear who Aonce listed@
these Aways;@ by association one might be lead to think it was our Theophan himself, but
this cannot be the case. Nor do I believe it is the author\\'s intent to imply that for,
in fact, this very mode of thinking (categorizing and compartmentalizing) is foreign not
only to St. Theophan but to the whole of Orthodox Tradition. It reflects a way of thinking
which traces its origins to the European High Middle Ages when the influences of
Scholasticism began to differentiate between Atypes of spirituality,@ a process which has
reached an absurd degree in the present age. In contrast, within the Orthodox world view,
the one who serves is not excused from prayer, nor is the one who studies exempt from the
need to strive for self-control. Rather, all these things are a part of the discipline of
an integral spiritual life.

There is truly only one Way in Orthodoxy and one spirituality; it is integral and
integrative, partaking of the One Holy Spirit. It is only the Away@ into the Way that may
vary from person to person and from age to age. The proliferation of Aspiritualities@
about which there is currently much ado in religious circles is simply a fashion springing
from the over rationalization of life and thought which has plagued the Western world for
nearly a millennium.


The second point of concern revolves around the manner in which the appendix is
conceptualized. There is the barest hint in the preface (p. x) where it is said that a
selection of Patristic prayers has been included Abecause the prayers of the fathers are
difficult to find in English translation. . . .@ The idea behind this statement is more
fully brought out on page 36 where it is said, AThis section of the book contains a brief
selection of patristic prayers from many different sources, intended to help the reader
who wishes to begin learning how to put these ideas into practice.@ The reference here is
to St. Theophan\\'s teaching that the prayers composed by holy men and women are charged
with the energy and spirit of prayer and are therefore potent to create a state of true
prayer in us, when we repeat them with attention, understanding and pious feeling.

Admittedly these prayers are Aof help for those who are not familiar with these texts,@ as
the preface says. However, numerous English translations of these prayers (and many like
them) are available, in the liturgical service books of the Orthodox Church. And herein
lies our main criticism of the introductory material. For St. Theophan, the ground of
prayer is always liturgical, not individualistic or pietistic; it is not an exercise in
isolation. That was not what his reclusion meant in its Orthodox context.

Therefore he is not recommending that we repeat a prayer from Matins here, a prayer from
the Divine Liturgy there, then try the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim followed by a prayer
of St. Symeon\\'s from the prayers before Holy Communion. Such an approach might be
suitable for members of a poetry salon where the prayers of St. Gregory the Theologian
might be read for aesthetic appreciation along with Shakespeare and Keats, but not for one
who is serious about pursuing a life a prayer.

It is not only each individual prayer that has been formed out of the experience of the
God-bearing Fathers, but the structure and content of the liturgical cycle of services as
we find them today taken as a whole. This by no means implies that the only Alegitimate@
prayer is that done in company with others within the confines of a Church building. The
suffusing with prayer of every aspect and activity of life in its totality is the goal of
St. Theophan\\'s method and of Orthodox spirituality in general. It is, however, precisely
the life of prayer in the context of the cycle of services which is normative and
formative in St. Theophan\\'s mind (and indeed in all the Fathers) -- the ground out of
which personal, interior prayer grows and in which it is strengthened, deepened and
refined.


This means that, even for the recluse, prayer is cradled, embraced as it were, in the arms
of the liturgical life of the Church. The concept (and the reality) is wholistic and
integral, not an abstraction that fragments human life and consciousness. Any other
approach represents a strip-mining technique which attempts to make the Divine gift of
Tradition a thing for human manipulation. We see in this approach a mind alien to that of
St. Theophan and the Fathers, bearing within itself the same tendency which has lead to
the spiritual sickness of this present, worldly society with all its attendant ills--from
senseless abortion and environmental desecration, to euthanasia and teenage suicide.

In addition to this selection of prayers, the appendix also contains a brief life of the
saint. It is a simple recounting of the basic points of St. Theophan\\'s career. There is
however, once again, a note sounded which cannot go unaddressed and leads to our third
point of criticism of the publisher\\'s efforts. Describing the saint as an elder
(staretz), the remark is then made, AHe was thus one of the last - if not the last - of
the bishops to publicly teach the church\\'s ancient knowledge of man in public.@ Leaving
aside the redundancy, without question Theophan was an elder and a great saint of a
caliber not appearing in every generation, but this statement is simply insupportable.
Orthodoxy is often portrayed as a museum piece, and not only by the non-Orthodox. It is
Continues for 8 more pages >>




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