Simplicity and sobriety form
a supportive society
On Wednesday, 27 May
, at the General Audience in St Peter's Square the Holy Father
spoke about St Theodore the Studite, a monk of the medieval Byzantine
period who vigorously opposed the iconoclastic movement. The following
is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Saint we meet today, St Theodore the Studite, brings
us to the middle of the medieval Byzantine period, in a somewhat
turbulent period from the religious and political perspectives. St
Theodore was born in 759 into a devout noble family: his mother
Theoctista and an uncle, Plato, Abbot of the Monastery of Saccudium in
Bithynia, are venerated as saints. Indeed it was his uncle who guided
him towards monastic life, which he embraced at the age of 22.
He was ordained a priest by Patriarch Tarasius, but soon
ended his relationship with him because of the toleration the Patriarch
showed in the case of the adulterous marriage of the Emperor Constantine
This led to Theodore's exile in 796 to Thessalonica.
He was reconciled with the imperial authority the
following year under the Empress Irene, whose benevolence induced
Theodore and Plato to transfer to the urban monastery of Studios,
together with a large portion of the community of the monks of Saccudium,
in order to avoid the Saracen incursions. So it was that the important "Studite
Theodore's personal life, however, continued to be
eventful. With his usual energy, he became the leader of the resistance
against the iconoclasm of Leo V, the Armenian who once again opposed the
existence of images and icons in the Church. The procession of icons
organized by the monks of Studios evoked a reaction from the police.
Between 815 and 821, Theodore was scourged, imprisoned and exiled to
various places in Asia Minor.
In the end he was able to return to Constantinople but
not to his own monastery. He therefore settled with his monks on the
other side of the Bosporus. He is believed to have died in Prinkipo on
11 November 826, the day on which he is commemorated in the Byzantine
Theodore distinguished himself within Church history as
one of the great reformers of monastic life and as a defender of the
veneration of sacred images, beside St Nicephorus, Patriarch of
Constantinople, in the second phase of the iconoclasm.
Theodore had realized that the issue of the veneration
of icons was calling into question the truth of the Incarnation itself.
In his three books, the Antirretikoi (Confutation), Theodore
makes a comparison between eternal intra-Trinitarian relations, in which
the existence of each of the divine Persons does not destroy their
unity, and the relations between Christ's two natures, which do not
jeopardize in him the one Person of the Logos.
He also argues: abolishing veneration of the icon of
Christ would mean repudiating his redeeming work, given that, in
assuming human nature, the invisible eternal Word appeared in
visible human flesh and in so doing sanctified the entire visible
cosmos. Theodore and his monks, courageous witnesses in the period of
the iconoclastic persecutions, were inseparably bound to the reform of
coenobitic life in the Byzantine world. Their importance was notable if
only for an external circumstance: their number. Whereas the number of
monks in monasteries of that time did not exceed 30 or 40, we know from
the Life of Theodore of the existence of more than 1,000 Studite
monks overall. Theodore himself tells us of the presence in his
monastery of about 300 monks; thus we see the enthusiasm of faith that
was born within the context of this man's being truly informed and
formed by faith itself.
However, more influential than these numbers was the new
spirit the Founder impressed on coenobitic life. In his writings, he
insists on the urgent need for a conscious return to the teaching of the
Fathers, especially to St Basil, the first legislator of monastic life,
and to St Dorotheus of Gaza, a famous spiritual Father of the
Theodore's characteristic contribution consists in
insistence on the need for order and submission on the monks' part.
During the persecutions they had scattered and each one had grown
accustomed to living according to his own judgement. Then, as it was
possible to re-establish community life, it was necessary to do the
utmost to make the monastery once again an organic community, a true
family, or, as St Theodore said, a true "Body of Christ". In such a
community the reality of the Church as a whole is realized concretely.
Another of St Theodore's basic convictions was this:
monks, differently from lay people, take on the commitment to observe
the Christian duties with greater strictness and intensity. For this
reason they make a special profession which belongs to the hagiasmata
(consecrations), and it is, as it were, a "new
Baptism", symbolized by their taking the habit.
Characteristic of monks in comparison with lay people,
then, is the commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience. In
addressing his monks, Theodore spoke in a practical, at times
picturesque manner about poverty, but poverty in the following of Christ
is from the start an essential element of monasticism and also points
out a way for all of us.
The renunciation of private property, this freedom from
material things, as well as moderation and simplicity apply in a radical
form only to monks, but the spirit of this renouncement is equal for
all. Indeed, we must not depend on material possessions but instead must
learn renunciation, simplicity, austerity and moderation. Only in this
way can a supportive society develop and the great problem of poverty in
this world be overcome.
Therefore, in this regard the monks' radical poverty is
essentially also a path for us all. Then when he explains the
temptations against chastity, Theodore does not conceal his own
experience and indicates the way of inner combat to find self control
and hence respect for one's own body and for the body of the other as a
temple of God.
However, the most important renunciations in his opinion
are those required by obedience, because each one of the monks has his
own way of living, and fitting into the large community of 300 monks
truly involves a new way of life which he describes as the "martyrdom of
Here too the monks' example serves to show us how
necessary this is for us, because, after the original sin, man has
tended to do what he likes. The first principle is for the life of the
world, all the rest must be subjected to it. However, in this way, if
each person is self-centred, the social structure cannot function.
Only by learning to fit into the common freedom, to
share and to submit to it, learning legality, that is, submission and
obedience to the rules of the common good and life in common, can
society be healed, as well as the self, of the pride of being the
centre of the world.
Thus St Theodore, with fine introspection, helped his
monks and ultimately also helps us to understand true life, to resist
the temptation to set up our own will as the supreme rule of life and to
preserve our true personal identity
which is always an identity shared with others
and peace of heart.
For Theodore the Studite an important virtue on a par
with obedience and humility is philergia, that is, the love of
work, in which he sees a criterion by which to judge the quality of
personal devotion: the person who is fervent and works hard in material
concerns, he argues, will be the same in those of the spirit. Therefore
he does not permit the monk to dispense with work, including manual
work, under the pretext of prayer and contemplation; for work
to his mind and in the whole monastic tradition
is actually a means of finding God.
Theodore is not afraid to speak of work as the
"sacrifice of the monk", as his "liturgy", even as a sort of Mass
through which monastic life becomes angelic life. And it is precisely in
this way that the world of work must be humanized and man, through work,
becomes more himself and closer to God.
One consequence of this unusual vision is worth
remembering: precisely because it is the fruit of a form of "liturgy",
the riches obtained from common work must
not serve for the monks' comfort but must be ear-marked for assistance
to the poor. Here we can all understand the need for the proceeds of
work to be a good for all.
Obviously the "Studites'"
work was not only manual: they had great importance in the religious and
cultural development of the Byzantine civilization as calligraphers,
painters, poets, educators of youth, school teachers and librarians.
Although he exercised
external activities on a truly vast scale, Theodore did not let himself
be distracted from what he considered closely relevant to his role as
superior: being the spiritual father of his monks. He knew what a
crucial influence both his good mother and his holy uncle Plato
whom he described with the significant title "father"
had had on his life.
Thus he himself provided spiritual direction for the
monks. Every day, his biographer says, after evening prayer he would
place himself in front of the iconostasis to listen to the confidences
of all. He also gave spiritual advice to many people outside the
The Spiritual Testament and the Letters
highlight his open and affectionate character, and show that true
spiritual friendships were born from his fatherhood both in the monastic
context and outside it.
The Rule, known by
the name of Hypotyposis, codified shortly after Theodore's death,
was adopted, with a few modifications, on Mount Athos when in 962 St
Athanasius Anthonite founded the Great Laura there, and in the Kievan
Rus', when at the beginning of the second millennium St Theodosius
introduced it into the Laura of the Grottos.
Understood in its genuine
meaning, the Rule has proven to be unusually up to date. Numerous
trends today threaten the unity of the common faith and impel people
towards a sort of dangerous spiritual individualism and spiritual pride.
It is necessary to strive to defend and to increase the perfect unity of
the Body of Christ, in which the peace of order and sincere personal
relations in the Spirit can be harmoniously composed.
It may be useful to return
at the end to some of the main elements of Theodore's spiritual
doctrine: love for the Lord incarnate and for his visibility in the
Liturgy and in icons; fidelity to Baptism and the commitment to live in
communion with the Body of Christ, also understood as the communion of
Christians with each other; a spirit of poverty, moderation and
renunciation; chastity, self-control, humility and obedience against the
primacy of one's own will that destroys the social fabric and the peace
of souls; love for physical and spiritual work; spiritual love born from
the purification of one's own conscience, one's own soul, one's own
Let us seek to comply with these teachings that really
do show us the path of true life.