Episodes from the life of a prominent bishop, hermit and theologian

Three stories from the life of Archbishop Theophan

life of archbishop theophan

Archbishop Theophan (Bystrov) of Poltava and Pereyaslavl (01/12/1873–02/19/1940) was a confessor of the Russian Royal Family, a prominent theologian and insightful missionary. He was also a man of prayer and ascetic life and a direct acquaintance of Saint John of Kronstadt. During the Russian Civil War, the archbishop left his homeland. He laboured in the spiritual vineyard of the Church in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and France. He lived the last months of his wife in a hermitage. We present several narratives from his life that shed light on his faith and character.

Earthquake

On Great and Holy Thursday of 1928, Vladyka Theophan was celebrating a solemn hierarchical liturgy in a church in the city of Varna. At the very beginning [of the service], something incomprehensible suddenly began to happen. Some chaotic sounds filled the ancient building. Several dozen chandeliers, suspended on long chains all across the church, began to sway in different directions, ringing with crystal pendants...

It was the famous 1928 Chirpan earthquake in southwestern Bulgaria.

The people in the church trembled. There was a clatter of feet as the congregation were running away from the church.

The rector turned to the serving bishop, His Eminence Theophan, and asked with emotion for his blessing to calm the people. Archbishop Theophan, briefly raising his eyes from reading the prayers, said to the rector, "Stand and pray." Then he again lapsed into prayer.

The rector apparently thought that the bishop did not understand him, and repeated, “Your Eminence, bless me to say a word to the people.” The archbishop interrupted his prayer once more and replied, “There is no need to say anything. Stand and pray.”

The panic that had begun among the worshippers subsided, because people saw that there was no panic in the altar; the bishop and the priesthood continued to pray fervently.

A monk with a mirror

While still a young hieromonk, Father Theophan, a professor at the academy, left St Petersburg for the Valaam Monastery due to some spiritual necessity. He was concerned about the ascetic rules of the holy fathers, instructing monks to pay as little attention as possible to their appearance. At the same time, the Church blessed him to be a monastic scholar, living and labouring towards his salvation in the world. A person living in the world seems to be unable to ignore his flesh and refuse to take care of his appearance...

With these thoughts, the future Bishop Theophan entered the cell of Elder Alexy. He was going to tell the elder about this and to wait for his answer, which Father Theophan was willing to accept as God's will. His faith was not put to shame, as the words of the Lord are true, “According to your faith, let it be done to you.” (Matt. 9:29). Not only did Father Theophan receive an answer, but was also made confident that this answer was nothing other than the will of God.

The elder received Hieromonk Theophan very cordially, as always. He offered his visitor a seat, while he himself took a mirror and, placing it on the table before Father Theophan, took a comb and diligently brushed his hair. Only after that he said, "Well, now let us talk."

These actions contained the elder’s silent answer to the unspoken question that the Hieromonk-professor brought with him to the Valaam monastery and the elder’s cell. This question was, "How should I behave in the future? Should a monk, whose obedience is to live in the world and have fellowship with people, care about his neatness, and to what extent?"

Short Conversation

Colonel Pelekhin of the general staff in Varna gained certain prominence by the fact that in emigration he converted from Orthodoxy to Baptist Church and was even considered a presbyter among them. He was an experienced man who knew how to speak. Arguing with him about faith was difficult for someone who was not an expert. Pelekhin once decided to benefit himself by having a dispute with Archbishop Theophan. He conveyed a request for the archbishop to receive him, in order (as he put it) to "talk about the right faith". Vladyka agreed to receive Pelekhin. On the appointed day and hour, the visitor appeared. While the guest was waiting in another room, the archbishop warned his cell-attendants to stay near the door to his room. “The conversation will be short," he said, “Wait in the hallway and be a witness if you need to."

Pelekhin was invited to enter. Entering the room, he closed the door behind him, but the archbishop opened it wide. Judging by Pelekhin's appearance, this made him somewhat confused. Besides, vladyka did not invite him to sit down, while he himself also remained standing. Since the archbishop knew who was in front of him, as well as the purpose of this visit, he immediately began to speak, “In case of any dissent, in order to avoid an endless dispute, people usually elect an arbitration court. In this case, these judges would decide which of the parties professes the right faith. It is quite understandable that until recently we professed the same Orthodox faith. Now our task is to elect judges of recognized authority. Such judges, undoubtedly, are the three ecumenical saints and teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. Their authority is indisputable for us.”

Pelekhin objected, “But they are human, just like ourselves, aren’t they? Why am I obliged to consider them "indisputable authorities"?

The archbishop replied, “If you consider yourself the same as the Christian luminaries Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom, then there is nothing more for us to discuss. To this end, I ask you to leave the room."

Pelekhin did not expect this at all. He was taken aback and left silently. Vladyka Theophan then made a brief explanation, “If I refused him a conversation, he would tell everyone, "The archbishop was afraid". This way, he has nothing to say. In his soul, he well understands that equating himself with the universal teachers Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom, recognized by the whole universe, is the greatest audacity and an obvious spiritual delusion.

June 01, 2022
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