Theodosius the Cenobiarch
Born in 423 A.D. to devout Christian parents in the Cappadocian village of Mogariassus (today part of modern Turkey), the Venerable St. Theodosius grew up in a pious household and learned Holy Scripture from an early age. A skillful thinker and an eloquent speaker, he was soon made a reader at his local church – where he was deeply touched by the sacred books he perused and dreamed of leaving the world behind in order to worship God freely as a monk.
At a young age, this reverent follower of Christ Jesus set out for the Holy Land. This was during the last days of the Roman Emperor Marcian, who was nearing the end of his rule. While traveling through Antioch en route to Palestine and the holy sites, St. Theodosius paid a long-awaited visit to the God-fearing Symeon the Stylite – who surprised him greatly by calling out from the top of the temple pillar where he was permanently stationed: “Theodosius, servant of God, you are welcome!” Moments later, Symeon went on to predict that St. Theodosius would eventually become a great leader of ascetic monks in Palestine.
After reaching Jerusalem and praying at the holy sites, St. Theodosius asked himself a very difficult question: Should he begin his service to God as a hermit, alone in the desert, or as a monk who lived in a community of fellow-worshippers? Mulling that question, he composed an inspiring reflection:
“If the soldiers of the earthly king dare not march into battle unless they have been previously trained by able generals in the art of war, how can I, who am inexperienced, attempt to contend against the bodiless and cunning demons? Therefore, I should search out spiritual fathers and remain under them for a long time to achieve mastery, and then I will dwell in the desert.”
This was sound advice – and the youthful St. Theodosius soon followed it himself by entering a monastery in Palestine near Bethlehem, where he would spend several years patiently acquiring the self-discipline required for a life dedicated to God. But it wasn’t long before his spiritual mentor, the Holy Hermit Longinus, began urging him to establish and then govern a monastery of his own in Bethlehem.
Theodosius was a very humble servant of God, however, and even though a dozen monks were by now clamoring for his leadership, he preferred to live in a damp cavern, while engaged in a daily regimen of penance and prayer. Still, the Cappadocian monk had a very generous heart – and he simply could not refuse the fervent monastics who were continually begging him to become their spiritual director. During the next few decades, St. Theodosius would direct the construction of a large monastery and three churches for his fellow monks, while leading an exemplary life as their abbot.
Within a few years, in fact, this holy worshipper of God would be selected by the Bishop of Jerusalem to become the Superior of all the religious communities in Palestine, so great was his reputation as a holy man throughout the Holy Land. In that role, he often consulted on subjects of piety and education with the Venerable Saint Saba, who had been appointed by the same Bishop Sallustus of Jerusalem as the spiritual director of all those who lived as hermits in Palestine.
A lifelong friend of the poor and the sick, St. Theodosius fed those who were hungry each day, while often directing that his monks set more than a hundred tables for the evening meal. On more than one occasion, when supplies were running low, he turned a few loaves of bread into many (recalling the multiplying of the loaves and fishes by Jesus Christ, five centuries earlier).
But the lavish gifts that St. Theodosius brought to the world were not restricted to building churches and hospitals or leading pious monks in their daily prayers. He also performed an invaluable service by opposing (along with St. Saba) the dangerous Eutychian heresy in Jerusalem and Palestine – and was promptly banished for his efforts by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius, who had enthusiastically embraced that false creed. (The Emperor himself was soon punished for his apostasy, however – after being struck and killed by a bolt of lightning.)
At the end of his life, the holy abbot endured a lengthy illness but refused to pray for healing . . . while insisting that his discomfort was necessary penance for his spiritual failings. He died at the advanced age of 106 (in 529) at the monastery he had founded – and he died with a prayer of praise for God on his lips.
To this day, St. Theodosius remains a paragon of humility and faithfulness for the entire Holy Church. Again and again, his actions showed how deeply he believed in the saving power of faith, and in the necessity for remembering that everything in the human world depends on the will of God. On one memorable occasion, for example, he startled his monks by commanding them to dig a grave in the garden behind their church. Then, as they stood nearby with their shovels, he smiled at each and asked:
“Children, the grave is ready. Who among us will be first to make use of it?”
On another occasion, when food was running low and the monks had begun to grumble about the lack of supplies, he insisted that they proceed with their prayers, while noting: “He Who nourished Israel in the wilderness, and in the New Testament fed thousands with a few little loaves, will look after us. He is the same mighty God as in days of old, and never abandons us.”
Scarcely had he finished this impromptu homily than a traveling Christian arrived with two mules loaded down with food that had been donated to the monastery!
A powerful writer and thinker, St. Theodosius left behind some of the most moving homilies for monastics that have ever been composed. In one of them, he warned his brothers to beware of spiritual complacency: “I beseech you, brethren, for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who laid down His life for our sake, once and for all to dedicate yourselves without reservation to the salvation of your souls.
“Let us repent for having wasted our life until now and resolve to labor henceforth for the glory of God and His Son. May we not remain idle forever, squandering time in despondency and postponing a good beginning till tomorrow, lest we be sum¬moned before the Judge empty of virtue and be shut out of the bridal chamber. May we not weep for all eternity because we have misused the present life: for after death tears are of no avail.
“Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!”
Day after day and year after year, the humble monk Theodosius continued to trust utterly in the Lord. When a plague of locusts and caterpillars tormented Palestine during the summertime, the abbot was asked to help. By then an old man, he hobbled out to the fields on his cane and took a long, hard look at the swarming insects that blanketed the horizon. But he did not hesitate. Throwing his head back, he roared at the offending pests: “Our Master forbids you to destroy the food of the poor!” Within a few minutes, the locust-cloud had vanished and the caterpillars were all perishing.
A man of supreme faith and a monk of complete obedience, St. Theodosius ranks as one of the most inspiring thinkers in the 2,000-year history of the Holy Church. His life serves as a wonderfully accurate guidebook for each of us, as we strive to live according to the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because he obeyed so readily, and so joyfully, we can now hear more clearly than ever that ringing and triumphant line from The Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done!
Like many of the monks of his day, Theodosius devoted his entire life to prayer and learning, along with the teaching of virtue. His only concern was to live the Gospel values and by his example to bring others to that same dedication. We are not meant to imitate the eccentric ascetic practices of his day – but we are meant to imitate the act of saying “no” to ourselves, while also making our lives an unending hymn of praise for Almighty God.
Apolytikion in the Eighth Tone
With the streams of thy tears, thou didst cultivate the barrenness of the desert; and by thy sighings from the depths, thou didst bear fruit a hundredfold in labours; and thou becamest a luminary, shining with miracles upon the world, O Theodosius our righteous Father. Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.
Kontakion in the Eighth Tone
As being planted in the courts of Christ thy Lord and God, with holy virtues thou delightfully didst blossom forth and didst multiply thy children amid the desert, who were watered with the showers of thy fervent tears, O chief shepherd of the godly sheepfold of our God. Hence we cry to thee: Rejoice, O Father Theodosios.