Abba Theodore of Pherme
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Theodore of Pherme?
Abba Theodore of Pherme entered into the monastic life at Sketis in the 4th century. Little is known of his family of origin, though he was a well educated man. He was mentored by some of the greatest fathers of the day, namely Abba Macarius and Abba Pambo.
He was remembered in the same sentence with other notable figures of the desert such as Abba Arsenius. Arsenius and Theodore scorned the praises of men.
“It was said of Abba Arsenius and Abba Theodore of Pherme, that they abhorred the glory of men more than anything else. For this reason, whereas Abba Arsenius would not readily meet anyone, Abba Theodore did not avoid meeting others-but when he did so, his speech was as sharp as a sword.”
When Theodore was a young man dwelling in the desert he would serve the fathers around him with joy. Once, when he went to make some bread where the other monks made theirs, he happened upon a brother that needed help making his bread. Putting aside his own task, Theodore gladly helped the monk, and then the next one, and the next. After having assisted the others, he finally made his own bread.
He had no problem asking for spiritual advice from those around him. One time, having asked Abba Pambo for some advice, Pambo replied reluctantly,
“Theodore, go and show mercy to all; for mercy affords us boldness before God.”
Pambo essentially challenged Theodore to soften his heart towards others and encounter the presence of God.
A hard-hearted individual will have a difficult time ascertaining the presence of God. Hard-heartedness walls itself off from the embrace of love and entrenches itself within its own obstinate opinion. A sure-fire way to break this form of pride is to practice mercy.
Abba Theodore puts this advice into practice. When Theodore and his disciple were approached by someone willing to trade some vegetables for their wheat, Theodore’s disciple filled a basin with wheat from the unprepared contained of wheat rather than the cleaned wheat. When Theodore realized that his disciple had attempted to give the lesser wheat in exchange for the vegetables, he chastised his disciple. Theodore then filled a contained with the clean wheat and gave the vendor both the wheat and his vegetables back to him.
When Abba Theodore was deaconized into service he refused the position, and hid to avoid the responsibility. Theodore never wanted recognition or influence. His desire was to set himself apart for God, and to disciple those close to him. He knew that he could never live up to the expectation the position would afford him, and instead decided to leave the deaconate to seek God in solitude. That he was not called to be a deacon was confirmed to him through a vision. He was shown a pillar of fire and was told by a voice that if he could become that pillar then he should become a deacon. He reasoned that, as he could not become a pillar of fire, so he could not become a deacon.
His absconding of the positional authority was not because of false humility, but rather a lack of pretense. Abba Isaac relates that when he was studying under Abba Theodore, Theodore would never given him direction, and would barely speak a word. Some elders approached Theodore and asked him why he did not give Isaac any direct orders. Theodore responded,
“Am I perhaps the Superior of some coenobitic monastery, so that I can give him orders? It is not mine in the least to tell him anything. If he likes, let him do what he sees me doing.”
Abba Isaac took the advice to heart and learned the way of silence by imitating men like Theodore.
The Spiritual Teachings of Abba Theodore
To Abba Theodore, it was vitally important to begin with a good foundation in order to find progress in the spiritual life. The three fundamental disciplines to the practice were simplicity, self-restraint, and the regular practice of solitude to seek God.
Those that have set themselves apart for God desire constant communion with the Lord. As such, the individual eventually learns to love sitting before God in silence and solitude. However, Theodore clarified that solitude was never to be motivated by a disdain for people. If the desire for solitude is driven by contempt for people it would drive anger and hatred deeper in the heart. An authentic love of silence is due to a passion for communion, not because of frustration with people. If you withdraw because you are frustrated with people your frustration will only amplify in the next place you go.
Those who spent their time in silence before the Lord eventually discover the gift of weeping. The work of the monastic was to prepare their heart to encounter the love of God. To the Desert Fathers, spiritual disciplines worked towards that end. To illustrate this, Abba Theodore said,
“Tears are like rain, and man is like a farmer; when they come, he who cultivates the earth of his heart must strive not to lose any of the rain but, rather, to collect all of it in his small garden and irrigate it.”
The soil of heart must be cultivated and softened. This prepares the heart for the presence of God and causes the tears that arise to drive the work of the Spirit deep within. When tears come the most important thing that can be done is to preserve the moment and enter into the experience.
Abba Theodore said that we should press into those tears when they come.
“Should something similar ever happen to us, that is, should we experience compunction of heart and fervent tears, let us immediately disregard everything else and have recourse to prayer, persevering in it, until we feel the flame of the heart being kindled within us; for we might otherwise not find a similar opportunity.”
His advice was to preserve what you were doing when the presence of God came to you. If he comes when you are praying, continue in your prayer. If he comes when you are reading, continue in your reading. If he comes when you are working, continue in your work. Dial down your heart and embrace the sweetness of his presence.
Recounting a particular experience, Abba Theodore says that we lose the presence of God for two reasons. The first is a distracted mind. When the mind runs every which way it is difficult to preserve the sanctity of the moment of God’s presence. It comes in fleeting waves and we eschew it in favor of another thought. It takes resolve to embrace him. Often his presence rolls the our calloused mind as our distracted thougths fleetingly recognize that God may have wanted to do something. The roiling of the mind gets in the way.
The second reason we lose the sense of his presence is to convince you that you cannot engender the presence of God on your own. When you recognize that it is God’s sovereign choice to visit you, humility is born in the heart. When humility is born, contrition matures, when contrition matures, tears continue to flow.
As such, watchfulness of heart is vital to preserving the presence of God. The individual concerned about spiritual growth will not just stop at cutting off sinful actions, but will find it necessary to guard the heart against sinful thoughts. Thoughts tend to distract us and move us towards that which we think about. Every action begins in a thought, regardless how miniscule the thought.
“The vigilant man shakes off all of these thoughts from himself and rises with determination to pray.”
Lastly, when a brother visited Abba Theodore and began speaking with him about the spiritual life, Theodore quickly discerned that what while this young man was attempting to present himself as knowledgeable, he had little experience of the matters he was touching upon. Theodore counseled the young man,
“You, my child, have not yet found the boat, nor have you prepared your luggage. How, then, even before setting off, do you speak as if you have already arrived in the city to which you are headed? First do your work as a monk, and only then enter into such things as you are now discussing.”
Before teaching, we must practice.
Abba Theodore viewed his life as owed to God. What he received, he received from God. He was a humble man that greatly enriched those around him. Even though he never looked for authority or position, he gained authority and position.
“Many in these days choose to rest before God grants this to them.”
His life proved that by fleeing the very thing many desire, he was given the very thing many desired.