Weekly General Audience May 27, 2009
During his general audience on May 27, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of teachings on the great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages. He offered his reflections on St. Theodore the Studite, who vigorously opposed the iconoclastic movement, arguing that abolishing images of Christ entailed a rejection of Christ’s work of redemption.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we will meet St. Theodore the Studite as we go back in time to the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages, a very turbulent period both as regards religion and politics.
St. Theodore was born in 759 in a noble and pious family. His mother, Theoktisite, and his uncle, Plato, who was abbot of the monastery of Sakkudion in Bithynia, are venerated as saints. His uncle encouraged him to pursue a monastic life, which he embraced when he was 22 years old.
He was ordained a priest by Patriarch Tarasios, but St. Theodore disassociated himself from Tarasios after Tarasios took a weak approach to Emperor Constantine VI’s adulterous marriage. As a result, Theodore was exiled to Thessalonica in 796.
He was reconciled with the imperial authorities a year later when the benevolence of the Empress Irene served as an impetus for Theodore and Plato to move to a monastery in the city, the monastery of Studios, along with most of the monks from the community of Sakkudion in order to avoid the Saracen invasions. This was the beginning of the important “Studite reform.”
However, Theodore’s personal life continued to be hectic. With his characteristic energy, he led the resistance against the iconoclastic movement of Leo V of Armenia, which once again opposed the use of images and icons within the Church. A procession of icons that the monks of the Studios organized stirred up the ire of the police. Between 815 and 821, Theodore was flogged, imprisoned and exiled to various places in Asia Minor. Eventually, he was allowed to return to Constantinople, but not to his monastery. Therefore, he and some of his monks moved to the other side of the Bosphorus.
Apparently, he died in Pringipos on Nov. 11, 826, the date on which he is commemorated in the Byzantine calendar.
Defender of Images
Theodore is distinguished in Church history as one of the great reformers of monastic life and, alongside St. Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople, as a defender of sacred images during the second stage of the iconoclastic movement.
Theodore realized that the issues surrounding the veneration of icons cast doubt on the truth of the Incarnation itself. In three books entitled Antirretikoi (Refutations), he compares the eternal relationships among the three persons of the Trinity, where the existence of each of the divine persons does not destroy their unity, with the relationship between the two natures of Christ, which do not compromise the one person of the Logos within him.
He argues that the abolishment of the veneration of icons of Christ would be tantamount to denying Christ’s redemptive work, because, from the moment when Christ assumed the nature of man, the invisible and eternal Word appeared in visible, human flesh, thereby sanctifying the entire visible universe.
Icons, which are made holy through a liturgical blessing and through the prayers of the faithful, unite us with the person of Christ, with his saints, and through them, with the Father in heaven, and are a testimony to the entrance of this divine reality into our visible and material universe.
Theodore and his monks, courageous witnesses during the iconoclastic persecutions, are closely associated with the reform of monastic life in the Byzantine world. The impact they had was due to external circumstances: their sheer number.
While monasteries during that period never surpassed 30 or 40 monks, we know from The Life of Theodore that there were more than 1,000 Studite monks. Theodore himself tells us that there were about 300 monks in his monastery.
Within this context, therefore, we can perceive the enthusiasm for the faith that was generated by this man, who was truly formed both inside and outside by this very faith.
Nonetheless, more than numbers, the new spirit that the founder left imprinted on monastic life proved to be influential. In his writings, he insisted on the urgent need to consciously return to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Basil, who was the first to codify monastic life, and St. Dorotheos of Gaza, a renowned spiritual father who lived in the desert in Palestine.
Theodore’s most characteristic contribution was his emphasis on the need for order and submission on the part of his monks.
During the persecutions, the monks had dispersed and had grown accustomed to living their lives based on their personal judgments. When it was once again possible to reconstitute their life in common, they needed in-depth teachings on how to make the monastery a truly organic community, a real family, or, as Theodore himself said, a true “body of Christ.”
In such a community, the reality of the Church as a whole is concretely fulfilled.
One of Theodore’s basic convictions was that monks, more than laypeople, have a commitment to fulfill their responsibilities as Christians with greater rigor and intensity.
For this reason, they make a special profession that belongs to the hagiasmata (consecrations) and is almost like a “new baptism” of which their religious habit is a symbol.
However, one characteristic of monks that distinguishes them from laypeople is their commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience.
Addressing monks, Theodore speaks in a concrete and, at times, colorful way about poverty. From the moment a monk begins to follow Christ, poverty is an essential element of the monastic life, and it also shows the rest of us a path to follow.
Like moderation and simplicity, the renunciation of private property — the freedom from material possessions — applies only to monks in its most radical form, but the spirit of such a detachment applies to all.
Indeed, we must not be dependent upon material possessions; we have to learn detachment, simplicity, austerity and moderation. This is the only way that society can develop in solidarity and that the great problem of poverty in this world can be overcome.
In this sense, therefore, monks who live a life of radical poverty are also a powerful sign of the path that we all need to follow.
Chastity and Obedience
When Theodore later expounds on temptations against chastity, he does not hide his own experiences, but reveals his own inner struggles as the way to master self-control, thereby attaining respect for our own bodies and for the bodies of others as God’s temples.
For Theodore, the main forms of renunciation are those imposed by obedience, because every monk has his own way for living his life. Being part of a large community of 300 monks truly implies a new way of living that he describes as “the martyrdom of submission.”
Even in this area, monks give an example of what we all need since, as a result of original sin, man’s tendency is to do what he wants to do, his primary principle is life in this world, and everything else is subjected to his own will. But if each person follows his or her own path, the fabric of our society cannot function.
Learning to be part of this common freedom, sharing it and submitting ourselves to it, learning legality — in other words, submission and obedience to the rules of the common life and the common good — is the only thing that can heal a society and ego itself from the pride of being at the center of the world.
Thus, St. Theodore, with deep introspection, helps his monks — and ultimately us, too — to perceive what life truly is and to resist the temptation of putting our own will as the supreme rule of life and to preserve our true personal identity — which is an identity that is always together with others — and our own peace of heart.
Love for Labor
For Theodore the Studite, another important virtue — equal in status to the virtues of obedience and humility — was philergia (love for work), in which he sees a criterion for assessing the quality of personal devotion. Those who are fervent in their material commitments, those who work assiduously, he argues, are also fervent in their spiritual commitments.
Therefore, he does not allow monks, under the pretext of prayer and contemplation, to dispense themselves from manual labor because, according to him and according to the entire monastic tradition, manual labor is the means to discover God.
Theodore is not afraid of speaking about work as “a monk’s sacrifice” and as his “liturgy” — a sort of Mass in which monastic life becomes the angelic life. In this way, the working world becomes a more humane world and through work man becomes more true to himself and closer to God.
One consequence of this unique vision merits to be remembered. Since it is the fruit of a form of “liturgy,” the riches that are derived from their work in the community must not serve as a source of comfort for the monks themselves, but must serve the poor.
Here we can all perceive the need for work to be for the good of all.
Obviously, the work that the Studites did was not only manual labor. They also played an important role in the religious and cultural development of Byzantine civilization as calligraphers, painters and poets, educators of youth, school teachers and librarians.
A Spiritual Father
Even though he carried out a vast number of activities outside the monastery, Theodore did not neglect what he considered to be intimately associated with his office as superior: to be the spiritual father of his monks. He realized that both his mother and his saintly uncle, Plato, to whom he significantly attributed the title of “father,” had had a decisive influence on his life.
For this reason, he provided spiritual direction for his monks. Every day after evening prayers, his biographer tells us, Theodore stood in front of the iconostasis in order to listen to everyone as they confided in him. He also gave spiritual advice to many people outside the monastery.
His Spiritual Testimony and his Letters bear witness to his open and loving nature and show us how his paternal concern gave birth to true spiritual friendships both within and outside the monastery.
Theodore’s rule, which is called the Hypotyposis and which was codified shortly after his death, was adopted with some modifications on Mount Athos when St. Athanasius the Athonite founded the Great Lavra there in 962 and in Kiev in Rus when St. Theodosius established the Lavra of the Caves there at the beginning of the second millennium.
When understood according to its true meaning, Theodore’s rule remains highly relevant.
Today there are numerous perils that threaten the unity of the faith we share and drive us toward a dangerous kind of spiritual individualism and spiritual pride.
We need to work to defend and develop the perfect unity of the body of Christ, a unity in which the peace of order and sincere personal relationships in the Spirit can come together in a harmonious way.
In conclusion, it might be useful to reiterate some of the principal elements of Theodore’s spiritual teachings: love for the incarnate Lord and for his visibility in the liturgy and in icons; faithfulness to baptism and the commitment to live in the communion of the body of Christ, understood as the communion of Christians among themselves; a spirit of poverty, moderation and of sacrifice, as well as chastity, the dominion over our own selves, and humility and obedience as opposed to the primacy of our own will that destroys the fabric of society and peace within our souls; a love for material and spiritual labor; and spiritual friendship that is generated by the purification of our consciences, our souls and our lives.
Let us strive to follow these teachings that really show us the way to true life!