Theophan, recluse, hermit, bishop and saint.

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Theophan il Recluso
St. Theophan the Recluse

Throughout Christian history many monks have had to abandon the tranquility of their monasteries and serve the Church as missionaries, bishops and popes. There were also itinerants in withdrawal, when so many ecclesiastics of action took refuge in a cloisters to seek God in prayer, penance and solitude. In many cases, these retreatant’s exercised important apostolate’s as directors of souls or writers of texts on spirituality. Still fresh is the memory of Canadian Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger pss, whom Pope Paul VI allowed to leave his episcopal See and enter into seclusion in a distant African mission as chaplain for a leper colony in Yaoundé, Cameroon.  The author of this paper recalls Monsignor Tomás Aspe o.f.m., (Oct. 9, 1885 – † Jan. 22, 1962) bishop of Cochabamba, Bolivia, who as a thanksgiving for being cured of leprosy, dedicated the rest of his life to his ex-companion’s  with this terrible infirmity. The topic of interest now is of Theophan the Recluse (†1894), Russian Orthodox dimissory bishop of Tambov and  a hermit for 24 years.

Theophan is better known in the West through the various translations of his works on spirituality. His writings on prayer are particularly appreciated, probably because they are the fruit of what he himself experienced. His life has never been dramatic, nor full of great pastoral enterprises: from his childhood to his death it was calm and pious, we see that this life developed in a quiet channel of withdrawal – first as a student, then as a priest, teacher, bishop and monk. In his search for Christian perfection in solitude, he has developed a broad and fruitful apostolate as a father and spiritual master.

Georgy Vasilievich Govorov (Георгий Васильевич Говоров), was born in Chernavsk, province and diocese of Oryol, in the former Russian Empire. He was one of the 7 sons of a Russian Orthodox priest and, therefore was reasonably predestined towards an ecclesiastical career, as was common in Russia at the time of Tsar Peter the Great. At the age of 8, he began his studies at the parochial institute. He attended secondary school at the diocesan seminary in Oryol. As a child he showed great intelligence, and a strong tendency towards piousness and seclusion.  Due to his excellent gradings in his studies, he was granted a scholarship to the Ecclesiastical Academy (Faculty of Theology) of Kiev, where, among other things, he studied oriental languages ​​ascribable to his particular interest in Sacred Scriptures. At the age of 26 he made his monastic profession taking the name of Theophan. On 29 June, 1841, he was ordained a Hieromonk. For all these competences he was assigned as a teacher in seminaries for the clergy, and, as a “learned monk,” he was considered a safe candidate for the episcopate. He always retained his reserved character and his love for solitude. He had the opportunity to travel through biblical locations, where he also met various communities of Orthodox Christians, either subjects of the Ottoman or Greek Empire. He was quite unimpressed to say in the least “by the disorder and carelessness of those Christians”. He also traveled through Italy, which also did not leave an indelible impression. One should note that his views on the Roman Catholic Church were no more than ordinary or even vulgar; in fact, he never formed an original distinctive opinion on the topic.

As a teacher, he served in the diocesan seminary of Novgorod and at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy (Санкт-Петербургская духовная академия). He taught various biblical disciplines, patristics and moral theology. He fulfilled his obligations with true dedication and with the highest professionalism. In all likelihood, his notable morality served as the basis for the formation of his religious and theological persona; but this discipline did not conform to the classic code of scholastic moralists, but understood it as loyal adherence to the Gospel. Medieval scholasticism passed from the West to Russian theological schools by the Metropolitan of Kiev and Halych and All Rus’ Exarch of Ukraine, Pyotr Simeonovich Mogila, in the XV century for the Russian theologians.  In the XIX century they began to develop their own theology based on the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers. The divisions of dialectics and Western rationalistic exaggerations were antithetical and totally unbearable to the Russian religious spirit.

As expected, Theophan was consecrated bishop on the 11 June 1859 and appointed to the See of Tambov in the Tambov Oblast of Russia. Here he encountered a wide sphere of labours, but also an immense load to cope with. Russian dioceses were not only geographically extensive – requiring long and exhaustive journeys – but also extremely complex due to the many parishes and varied kinds of institutions. He also had to face arbitrary bureaucracy and frequent clashes with the civil authorities; In addition to the endless pontifical liturgical functions to which a bishop is obligated. For a genuine man of religion, with a reflective spirit who is eager for knowledge, this life must have been extremely mortifying and frustrating.

One fact greatly impacted Theophan and was a catalyst for his final resolve. In 1861 participating in the exhumation of the mortal remains of the holy bishop Tikhon of Zadonsk, former Bishop of Voronezh from 1763 to 1767 and Wonderworker of All Russia. He was a person of great religious, moral and intellectual qualities, an erudite and zealous pastor. But despite his youth – he was in his forties, – he resigned from the Episcopal See due to his nerves which unbalanced his whole body, and secluded himself in the monastery of Zadonsk, his former diocese, where he had spent sixteen years in prayer, study and the apostolate for the direction of souls; he died in fame of sanctity on Sunday, August 13, 1783 aged 59. His uncorrupted remains were exhumed in 1861, with enormous competition from the faithful and devout people. This holy bishop is the protagonist of the chapter “At Tikhon’s” in Dostoevsky’s Demons.  Theophan knew the life and works of the dimissory bishop very well, who had reached sanctity in his retirement in a distant, humble and   disregarded monastery of Zadonsk. Having contemplated a great deal on the matter, Theophan finally decided to imitate Saint Tikhon, although not as an intervention for health reasons in this case. He obtained the desired retreat, and on 28 June, 1866 relinquished his Episcopal See to settle in the hermitage Vyshenskaia Poustinia, in neighbouring Tambov province. Until 1872 the Holy Synod had forced him to serve as Prior of the monastery, but finally obtained permission to remain in his valued seclusion. The hermitage consisted of two rooms and a small garden. He left there only on Easter night, to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. Rotating only with his assistant, a monk, he lived like this until 6 January, 1894, when his assistant found him lifeless in his bed.

What was the life of the reclusive bishop? It was not like that of the ancient hermits, though it resembled it to some extent. He was, in fact, an intellectual ecclesiastic in solitude. In his private chapel, the canonical Hours were celebrated, which in the Byzantine rite had the form of liturgical celebration, and frequently added the Divine Liturgy, that is the Mass. He had free time and ambience for his personal prayers and study. He read and studied a lot (the library of “Tikhon”, by Dostoyevsky corresponding with the library of Theophan); he wrote and translated several works: he left us the complete version in contemporary Russian of the famous Philocalia. His library consisted of 3400 volumes, with several works on theology, texts of the Fathers, many works of Eastern and Western spirituality (he was well versed in St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis de Sales), works of ancient and modern philosophy, various magazines and newspapers. He was interested in various sciences, for example astronomy; painted icons and performed various manual jobs. As director of consciences he received a lot of correspondence that he always answered promptly. His time was encumber with many pursuits.

The works written by Theophan compose a single set of publications: eight volumes of Biblical exegesis (except the letter to the Hebrews); collections of Sermons and Conferences; the complete Philocalia in contemporary Russian; twenty volumes of correspondence; Put’ko Spaseniyu (The Path to Salvation): Nachertanie kristianskogo nravoucheniya (Programming of Christian moral doctrine). This last work exposes the systematic theological, moral and spiritual thought of Theophan. Several authors have characterised it as moralist, which can be admitted if by morality we meant an order of life. However, the work is more than this, since we can take it as a treatise on Christian anthropology and systematic spirituality.

In this work, as in general, Theophan does not formulate any natural theodicy as a starting point: segments like the Three Cappadocians on the dogma of one and triune God, who has created man in his image and likeness. Man has been created with sanctifying grace, which is part of his nature; and the corruption of sin consisting in the loss of grace: so sin is an action against nature. The created man, being an image of God, was divine, and would have naturally sought to unite with God at his end. This would have been realised with the faculties that characterise it, which are consciousness and freedom. But as our nature is now corrupted and redeemed by Christ, morality must contemplate the subject on the real state of his existence, that is, within the economy of Salvation.

With original sin man lost his communion with God, so that the human spirit became a prisoner of his own soul and body. It should be noted that the author understands the human entity as a Platonic trichotomy: the body with life, the soul with feelings and freedom, and the spirit with reasoning. However, this trichotomy is not very clear in Theophan’s works, perhaps because of his past studies in scholastic theology of Aristotelian-Thomism, used in the Russian ecclesiastical schools until the last century. He regards the human spirit as the noblest part of ones being: there the faculties of reasoning, the conscience, the desire and the fear of God, and, and finally, sanctifying grace.

To recompose the character destroyed by sin, a Redeemer God and man was necessary: with God only Redemption would have been something purely imposed, with man alone it would not have been possible to restore grace. Consequently, we achieve salvation by grace, but with our own collaboration. Complete life is only possessed by the integral nature, which includes grace. Therefore, a morally good pagan does not live life completely. On the other hand, the salvation of Christ signifies for man the fulfilment of sins and the possibility of performing true human works according to the will of God.

The Theo-anthropos Christ has freely given himself as the fulfilment for sin. We need his grace to rebuild our destroyed nature. Christ announced to us the will of God: He is the head of humanity. To communicate his grace, he established his Church during Pentecost. We receive grace for Baptism. The laws of the Church are given by God and the bishops administer them. Christ is the only head of the Church: the bishops are his ministers. Theophan interprets the famous and controversial text of Matthew 16 as follows: the “rock” is the unquestioned faith of Peter in Christ incarnate, but the final interpretation of the text refers to the opinions of the Church. The supreme authority of the visible Church is the Council of Bishops, who care for the faith and administer grace; denying both the ecclesial democracy of the Protestants, and the principles of sobornost, -catholicity or communion-  as formulated by the Russians. In the Church there must be unity of thought, of will, of sentiments and of action. Everything prescribed by the Church must be observed, without distinguishing the necessary from the accessory.

Following this dogmatic exposition of redemption and of the Church, we see that Theophan here represents the traditional viewpoint of Russian orthodoxy which maintains its conservatism without distinguishing the value of the various ecclesiastical traditions. It is also remarkable that in his political vision he has not overcome the conservative concepts, so dear to the Russian monarchy, of православие, самодержавие, национальность, (orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality), concepts analogous to the many catholic fundamentalist environments.

According to Theophan, Christian life possesses certain conditions, which enable the necessary good works. These are conscience and conscious action: it is necessary to have the consciousness of being a servant of Christ. The object, purpose and circumstances of good works must be legitimate. God has manifested his precepts in nature: they are the natural laws, or revealed them: they are the positive laws. These positive laws may be divine – revealed directly or indirectly – or human – whether ecclesiastical or civil. The Gospel is the supreme law and therefore must be preferred above all other laws. Virtue consists in a state of mind that works in a Christian way. Sin, in turn, consists of a voluntary transgression and free from a precept.

In the categorisation and classification of sins, Theophan has followed the Catechism of Peter Mogila, who in turn composed it according to the Roman model that he became acquainted with during his studies with the Jesuits. The Christian must live by observing the Gospel, moved by the grace he obtains for the sacraments.

Finally, Theophan propounds the natural desire of man to unite with God and this he does through prayer. Starting from the oriental concept of the heart as the most intimate background of the human being, and of the mind as the cognitive element, formulates its definition of prayer: it is elevation of the heart and mind to God.

Distinguishing four degrees or types of prayer: oral, with formulas composed ex-professed, accompanied by fasting and prostrations; the prayer of the mind, in which feelings accompany every word; the prayer of heart, in which the formulas disappear and the human faculties remain silent, fatigue is not felt and feelings of piety and gratitude toward God emerge; finally, pure prayer of the spirit or contemplative, in which all human sentiments are silent.

Theophan warns with great acuity against various pseudo-charisms, especially against visions and miracles. We could say that he is extremely severe in the caution against spirits.

The illustrious and great Russian spiritual master, appreciated and read by generations of Christians and scholars interested in a systematic and logical spirituality, canonised by his Church years ago along with another great master, the staretz (стáрец)  Ven. Ambrose of Optina (1812-†1891).


  • The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned To It
  • Theofan, The Recluse (Saint), 2017. A Manual of Spiritual Transformation. Excerpts from the “The Path to Salvation”. Available at: [Accessed October 29, 2018].
  • Turning the Heart to God (Partial translation of The Path to Salvation)
  • Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal
  • Theophan the Recluse. Four Homilies on Prayer. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Theophan the Recluse. Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse. ISBN 978-1-928920-87-8.}
  • Theophan the Recluse (1992). Amis, Robin; Williams, Esther, eds. The Heart of Salvation: The Life and Teachings of Russia’s Saint Theophan the Recluse. Praxis Institute. ISBN 978-1872292021.
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