13 August 2017

Saint Tikhon the Wonderworker of Zadonsk, Bishop of Voronezh and Elets

Saint Tikhon, Bishop and Wonderworker

One of the easier reads I’ve done this year – easy, but by no means ‘light’ or shallow; it was full of profundity and wisdom – was Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian (original title: «Наставления о личных обязанностях каждого христианина»), a collection of writings and homilies by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, Bishop of Voronezh. Saint Tikhon, an academically-trained philosopher and rhetorician, offered up in his writings the truths of Christian doctrine, written (and presumably spoken) in a way that ordinary folk can easily grasp. This sterling simplicity – by no means indicative of a lack of learning or, worse, condescension – was one of the marks that earned him the moniker of ‘the Russian Chrysostom’. The other such mark was, of course, his steadfast sympathy and solidarity with the poor.

That solidarity came very easily and naturally to Bishop Saint Tikhon, of course. He had been poor himself, and had come from a poor family. Born Timofei in 1724 in the small village of Korotsko in the Valdai Hills southeast of Veliky Novgorod, his father, a sexton named Savelii Kirillov, died when he was still a very young child, leaving his family in dire financial straits. He was one of six children growing up in the house of their widowed mother, who, when the family had nothing at all to eat, considered giving Timofei up for adoption to a rich but childless coachman who lived nearby. However, his eldest brother Piotr intervened and implored their mother not to give him up, believing little Timofei to be better-suited to reading and writing than to being a coachman, however rich.

That belief was well-placed. The Kirillovs had to work hard, long days for even meagre food in the fields of richer peasants, young Timofei included. Timofei’s mother enrolled him in the parish school to keep him from being conscripted for the military by the government of Empress Anna; there he had to work in the vegetable gardens in order to earn his tuition – and the rest of his time he spent in study. His schoolmates made fun of him and mocked him, both for his serious and scholarly bent and for his ragged clothes. However, he passed his examinations in the top fifth of his class and earned a state grant to study at seminary in Novgorod. There he gained a deep knowledge of Greek, classical philosophy and rhetoric as well as church learning. He finished his course of study in 1754 and became a lecturer.

His hagiography shows that two incidents from his life as a student left a deep impression on him. At one time he went up to an old, decrepit bell-tower and leaned over the railing, only to be shoved backwards by an unseen force and thrown clear just as the railing gave way, saving him from a deadly fall. At another time, when he was studying at night, he saw the heavens open up and felt a light shining on him. After leaving school he became a monk, and took the tonsure under the name of Tikhon, and was appointed the rector of his monastery on account of his learning. He was the first to give lectures on theology in the vernacular Russian rather than in Latin, and his plain manner of speaking and the topics he would speak on drew such interest that he drew crowds from outside the monastery.

At this time, at Peterburg, the Synod was deciding on a new bishop for Novgorod, and they threw lots. Saint Tikhon’s name was providentially drawn three times in succession. When he came to Novgorod, he received the local clergy with joy and love – among them several of the students who had teased him at school, whom he readily forgave. He found his eldest sister, sick and impoverished, living there in Novgorod – he tended her during her last days with a younger brother’s love, and when she died he tended to her funeral. It is said that she smiled to him from her coffin.

His tenure at Novgorod was not long – he was soon transferred to Voronezh in Russia’s southeast, a see where, in his words, ‘the harvest was great, but the workers few’. Voronezh was a vast but poorly-organised see with few clergy, lax discipline and a populace in which the dvoe verie was still quite strong. The young bishop set to work with zeal, often on horseback. Caring deeply about the education of the common folk, setting up schools was one of his priorities. He also castigated the local nobility and wealthy peasantry and exhorted them to share what they had with the poor. However, he is renowned for delivered a fiery homily impromptu, to break up a heathen festival to Yarila in the square at Voronezh. In addition to this, knowing the state of his bishopric, he wrote prodigiously for the benefit and edification of the clergy and the laity, often staying up very late nights at his desk.

He himself was remarkably kind to the poor. Remembering his own childhood in poverty, he distributed his possessions, the gifts he received, and even his own pension to those who needed money and even shared his supper with those who had nothing to eat. He went out into the town clothed as an ordinary monk, to ask which townsfolk were in need of assistance, and even gathered orphans and poor children to him to share bread and give small change to them. He loved to be of service, particularly to the people of the town of Elets and to the peasantry who lived around the monastery of Zadonsk. When someone was injured or fell ill, the saint often let them recuperate in his own bed.

As an abbot, he maintained good friendships with the monks as well as with notables outside, but he led a fairly austere life. The workers at the monastery, who didn’t understand his discipline, would sometimes laugh at him, but Saint Tikhon would take it in stride. He sometimes stayed with the laymen Iakov Rostovtsev and Kuzma Sudeikin. At one time, he saw the schemamonk Mitrophan – one of his good friends at the abbey – dining together with Kuzma: even though it was Lent, they were eating fish, since Kuzma would not be with them on Palm Sunday. The two men were frightened and ashamed, but Saint Tikhon did not rebuke them. Instead he told them, ‘love is higher than fasting’, and shared the fish with them to put their minds at rest. Toward novices and toward other laymen he was similarly lenient, forgiving and understanding, even though he kept a strict ascetic discipline himself. He often advised parents not to let their children become monks, particularly not at early ages – though he was equally ready to put great trust in new monastics whose devotion was genuine.

Saint Tikhon acquired the gifts of healing and foresight through his humility, though he was careful not to publicise them. He healed one of his cell attendants who had a serious illness, with the words: ‘Go, and God have mercy upon you’. He had several visions of the Holy Theotokos, and prophesied several important events, including the victory of Russia over Napoleon’s armies in 1812.

As he neared his end, Saint Tikhon withdrew almost completely into solitude, permitting no one to see him except his close friends and cell attendants. One night he heard a quiet voice speak in his ear: ‘Your end will be on the Lord’s Day’; and at another time: ‘Labour yet another three years.’ Fifteen months before his death he was stricken with paralysis; at this time he had a vision of having to climb toward Heaven upon a ladder, with many people behind him encouraging him and lifting him upwards. These people, he knew, were the people who had heard him and who would remember his life.

He reposed on 13 August, 1783 – a Sunday. The new bishop of Voronezh presided at his funeral, and mentioned in his eulogy that no matter how hard his passing would be for him, it would be yet harder for the unfortunate, poor and oppressed – at which point he and all those listening to him broke into sobs. However, the schemamonk Mitrophan had a vision of Saint Tikhon’s glorification, and his relics were uncovered in 1845 and discovered to be incorrupt. He was formally glorified in 1861.

Reading Saint Tikhon’s writings, it is easy to understand how deeply appreciated he must have been. But even more so when one considers that he lived in an age where sæcular learning and humility didn’t often coincide in one person, and in which most learned men didn’t bother to write or preach in Russian. Fedotov did not write about holy men from the early modern period, though I suspect – given his work on earlier periods – that the historian would see in him a sterling example of the kenotic spirituality that was strongest among the Novgorodian clergy. From Journey to Heaven, here are several of the better quotes I found. This one is on the providence and great love of God:
God is our provider. He takes thought for us and cares for us. He gives us our food, clothing and home. His sun, moon and stars give us light. His fire warms us and we cook our food with it. His water washes us and refreshes us. His beasts serve us. His air enlivens us and keeps us alive. In a word, we are surrounded with His blessings and love, and without them we are not able to live for a moment. Then how can we not love God who loves us so? We love a man who does good; all the more should we love God Who does good, Whose we are and everything we may possess. All creation, and man himself is God’s possession. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.’
On love of neighbour, as a sign of love for God:
A sign of love for God is love for neighbour.

He who truly loves God also loves his neighbour. He who loves the lover loves what is loved by him. The source of love for neighbour is love for God, but the love of God is known from love of neighbour. Hence it is apparent, that he who does not love his neighbour, does not love God either.

As the Apostle teaches: ‘If a man say, I love God, but hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen? And this commandment we have from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.’

These are the signs of love for God hidden in the heart of a man.
On God’s mercy and forgiveness of sins:
Do not despair of whatever sins you may have committed since Baptism and find yourself in true repentance, but await God’s mercy. However many and however great and however burdensome your sins may be, with God there is greater mercy. Just as His majesty is, so likewise is His mercy.
On the differential duties of rich and poor:
Works of mercy are exalted before the whole world by Christ, the just Judge and in other places in Holy Scripture. Christian! If you wish to partake of this blessedness, be merciful and generous to the poor.

Do you have much? Then give much. Do you have little? Then give a little, but give from the heart. Alms are not judged by the number of what is given, but by the zeal of the giver,
for God loveth a cheerful giver. Now you give into the hands of the poor man and the pauper, but you will receive a hundredfold from the hands of Christ. Then give, and do not be afraid. What is given shall not be lost, for He that promised is faithful.

Many Christians do not think that alms receive such a great reward and either guard their property like watchmen or they squander it on their whims and luxuries. Hoarded property will be left to strangers, and often even falls into the hands of enemies. What is squandered into whims and luxury perishes, as you see for yourself, O man! But both of these, hoarders and squanderers, are not only deprived of blessedness, but they shall be cast out by God as wicked servants. Beware of this, O Christian!
On stewardship of wealth and almsgiving generally:
If you have riches, avoid applying your heart to them, lest you thus depart in your heart from God. Ye cannot serve both God and mammon. Likewise avoid squandering God’s blessings on whims and luxury; they are given to you from God not for your sake alone, but also for the sake of other poor people. Remember that you are the steward, and not the master of these goods. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof. Be a faithful steward of your Lord, then, and not a squanderer of the Lord’s property; and contenting yourself with moderation, thank the Creator of all good things and provide for poor people. Both those that guard their property like watchmen and those that squander it on whims and luxuries will be without excuse and shall be put to shame at the Judgement of Christ. Avoid this lest you be condemned with the wicked servants.

If you have gathered property through injustice, bestow it on the poor, lest it reprove you at the second coming of Christ. In this matter imitate Zacchæus the publican, whom Christ set as an example for all. It is better to live in poverty than in unrighteous wealth. Choose, then, what is better and distribute what was ill-gotten. If you do this, believe the Lord, that He will not forsake you, and that He Who does not even forsake even birds and feeds them and provides for all creatures will give you what is needful for your life.
Holy Tikhon, Bishop and Wonderworker, pray to God for us sinners!
From your youth you loved Christ, O blessed one.
You have been an example for all by word, life, love, faith, purity, and humility.
Therefore, you now abide in the heavenly mansions,
Where you stand before the throne of the All-Holy Trinity.
Holy Hierarch Tikhon, pray for the salvation of our souls!

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