Thursday, August 11, 2005

Is This Admirable?

In my previous post Luther, Theologian of Filiality I raised the issue of whether monks are truly good sons and spoke of the "thinly veiled attack on 'bourgeois' family life and the glorification of adolescent rebellion" found in monastic saints’ lives. (At first I said "typically" found there, but that might be too strong, so I later struck that out and replaced it with "sometimes".) To take this out of the realm of the "he said, she said" assertion, I would like to share in summary a saints biography I found in Serge A. Zenkovsky’s Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales (1974), pp. 116-134. It is the "Life of Our Blessed Father Theodosius," the abbot of Kiev’s Crypt Monastery, written by his pupil Nestor around 1075.

Theodosius early showed signs of holiness. He went every day to church and refused to play children’s games. He only wore "poor and patched" clothing. "His parents many times tried to force him to dress in clean clothing and go out to play with the children; but he did not obey them in this, but willed even more to be like one of the poor." He studied the Scriptures.

When he was thirteen, his father died, leaving his mother a widow with two sons, Theodosius and his younger brother. Theodosius responded by being "more persevering in his works" and going to live with the serfs. "But his mother would hinder him, not wishing him to do such things; and she would plead with him to dress again in clean clothing and to go out to play with his peers. For she would say to him thus: 'Going about in this fashion thou bringest shame upon thyself and thy kin.'" When he didn’t obey, she would beat him; Nestor ungallantly adds that she was as strong as a man and hardly like a woman at all.

Meanwhile, "considering how and in what manner he might be saved," Theodosius tried to run away to Jerusalem with some pilgrims, leaving his house in the dead of night. (Remember he was around thirteen.) After three days his mother found him and with many blows brought him back, scolding the pilgrims as well. She put a chain on his legs until Theodosius promised not to run away, for she said she "loved him very much . . . and could not bear living without him."

Theodosius, in addition to going every day to church, also began a business baking sacramental wafers (seemingly there was some shortage), grinding grain with his own hands and baking them until his face was blackened. Twelve years passed. People began to make fun of him and his mother could not bear to hear it and asked him to leave off, but he insisted. After a year she again begged him, caressing and beating him. He then ran away in the dead of night again (breaking his promise by the way). His mother grieved and found him again in the house of a priest in another city, bringing him back with beatings. She locked him up, but after a while was again allowed to go to church daily. She gave him clean garments as did the mayor of the city, but he gave them all away. He wore a chain around his loins under his clothes, which his mother tore off when she saw it from the blood stains on his outer clothes.

In church he heard the words "If one does not leave his father or his mother and follow after Me, he is not worthy of Me." He "became excited with godly zeal . . And he was considering how or where he might be tonsured and might conceal himself from his mother." So when his mother left for the country, he fled to the caves around Kiev far away to be tonsured. His mother "wept for him as one dead, beating her breast."

Four years later, she heard he was in Kiev. His mother then found his cave and begged her son's superior to see him. At first Theodosius "grieved greatly that he had not succeeded in concealing himself from her." But his mother threatened his superior that she would commit suicide on the spot if she was not allowed to see her son, and so he was brought out. She grieved to see his face ravaged by austerities and said "Come home child and do freely what thou requirest for the salvation of thy soul, only do not separate thyself from me. And when I die, bury my body and then return to this cave if thou wishest. For I cannot bear to live not seeing thee." But Theodosius insisted that if she wished to see him she must take the veil and become a nun: "Coming here in that fashion, thou wilt see me. And moreover thou wilt receive salvation for thy soul. If thou dost not do this, then I tell thee the truth: from this time forth thou wilt not see my face." After a day of stubborn insistence, his mother finally yielded and agreed to take the veil. (Many years later she told to Nestor, Theodosius’s pupil, this story).

Well there it is. Quite a story. What do you make of it? Did Theodosius please God in his dealings with his mother? Should his story have been written up, as it in fact was, as an exemplary life and a living out of the Gospel, fit to be admired by all youth? Is a church that glorifies this Theodosius in his dealings with his mother teaching the fourth commandment rightly?

Originally posted at Here We Stand