St Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church
Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
161 N. Murphy Ave. Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Afterfeast of Theophany / St Theophan the Recluse

Afterfeast of Theophany / St Theophan the Recluse

We hear in today’s Holy Gospel a quotation from Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death, Light has dawned.’ This quote from the prophecy of Isaiah is presented to us by the Evangelist Matthew in the context of his description of Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan.

The great event of Christ’s baptism is the manifestation of the Holy Trinity and Christ shines forth His Light to the world. Indeed, in the Kontakion of the feast of Theophany we sing: ‘Thou hast appeared today to the whole world, and Thy light, O Lord, hath been signed upon us who hymn Thee with understanding. Thou hast come, Thou hast appeared, the Light unapproachable.’

Christ’s appearance to mankind brings Light to the world. And the great feast of Theophany, which we are currently celebrating, is a visible and tangible manifestation of that Light and that Grace shining forth and showering the world. The blessed waters of Theophany are given to us for our spiritual health and strength and refreshment. I encourage all of you to make an appointment with me or with Fr Andrew to have us come bless your homes with the grace-filled waters of Theophany. It is an important and appropriate way to begin the new year. Having your home blessed with the waters of Theophany renews and refreshes your home, bringing that Light and that Grace and the blessing of God into your life – for your spiritual and physical well-being.

Today, we not only celebrate the Afterfeast of Theophany, but we honor and remember one of the greatest saints of the Orthodox Church… a man whose name reflects this great feast: St Theophan the Recluse of Vysha Monastery.

St Theophan lived in the 19th century, born in 1815 and reposing in 1894. His father was a priest and, when St Theophan came of age, he encouraged his son to enter the seminary at the Kiev Theological Academy. St Theophan took monastic vows and, after graduating and becoming a priest, spent some time abroad in Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Mt Athos. In these holy places, he became like another Paisius Velichkovsky – copying down and translating many of the patristic sources regarding prayer and the spiritual life. He later compiled many of these writings into a new edition of the Philokalia, thus expanding it considerably and adding to its rich offering of wisdom.

After returning to Russia, he later became Bishop, first of Tambov, then of Vladimir. But after only seven years as a Bishop, he resigned his position and retired to a monastery at Vysha where he lived simply, secluded in only two rooms, spending his life in prayer and silence for over 28 years. Quoting from his life, we read:

‘What reasons induced Bishop Theophan, full of strength, to leave his diocese and retire into solitude? Various are the characters and gifts of men. It was difficult for him in the midst of the world and those demands to which one must yield as a consequence of human corruption. His unlimited goodness of heart, a meekness like that of a dove, his trust of people and indulgence of them-all this indicated that it was not for him to live amidst the irreconcilable quarrels of vain worldly life. It was very difficult for him to be a leader, especially in such an important position as that of bishop. His trust could be abused; he could never give necessary reprimands. Besides this, he felt the call to devote all his energies to spiritual writing. As for himself personally, he wished to give up all his thoughts to God alone, Whom he loved so absolutely. He desired that nothing might disturb the complete communion with God that was so dear to him. And he left the world to be alone with God. In reclusion, invisible to people, he became a public figure of enormous magnitude. He sought only the Kingdom of God, and his great significance for the world was added to him.’

Though St Theophan retired from public life, his light shone ever more brightly through the volumes of correspondence and continued translations and writing which he undertook. He read and replied to many letters every day, offering teachings that came to be so widely treasured that they were collected and published not only throughout Russia but beyond. His perspective and his significance are especially valuable for us in our modern day because he was deeply steeped in ancient Patristic wisdom, yet he was conversant with the modern, post-Enlightenment, rationalistic ways of thinking which characterize our time.

I cannot begin to recommend to you highly enough the writings of St Theophan the Recluse. They are extremely approachable and yet they contain such depth and such wisdom – all born out of St Theophan’s own ascetic labors and prayer and through his discernment in bringing forth the best of ancient patristic wisdom. If you would like a place to start in reading St Theophan I would recommend his Four Homilies on Prayer (which you can easily find online) and also his book ‘The Spiritual Life And How To Be Attuned To It’. This book contains his letters to a young woman seeking guidance in the spiritual life. Each chapter is no more than a few pages, so it is extremely approachable, and yet you will find that he seamlessly leads you to tremendous depths of wisdom and practical spiritual guidance.

An example of his wisdom is demonstrated in the following quote: “If the disease of sin is natural, then it cannot be cured. Thus, it would remain always, no matter how hard you worked to rid yourself of it. If you accept this thought, you will lose heart, and say to yourself: this is how it is. For this is that woeful despair, which, once it has been introduced into people, they have given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness (Ephesians 4: 19). Yet, I shall repeat again: Maintain the conviction that our disorderliness is not natural to us, and do not listen to those who say, ‘It is no use talking about it, because that is just how we are made, and you cannot do anything about it.’ That is not how we are made, and if we undertake to cure ourselves, then we will be able to do something about it.”

In this quote we see how he both corrects us – not giving in to our self-pity and defeat - while also encouraging us and giving us great hope. St Theophan knows the dignity to which we are called by God and he encourages us to maintain that vision and to strive toward it.

I will conclude with another quote from our holy father Theophan which extends this theme: “True, one may know man’s final goal: communion with God. And one may describe the path to it: faith, and walking in the commandments, with the aid of divine grace. One need only say in addition: here is the path-start walking!”

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