The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - Instructing Youth in the Faith

We have looked at some of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse in previous blog entries. Over the next few weeks, we will look at what is perhaps his most important work for modern readers, "The Path to Salvation." St. Theophan was a Russian Orthodox bishop in Russia whose life spanned almost the entire 19th century (1802 - 1894). He was a very prolific writer whose works were widely read by all segments of the population. Deeply immersed in the teachings of the ancient Fathers and the wisdom of the desert, St. Theophan wrote for the modern reader, addressing the issues of modern life, and writing especially for those people who were not so immersed in the life of the Church and its teachings and practices. He thus stands as one of the most important writers on the relevancy of the Desert Fathers to modern life and his teachings are as valid for us today as they were for his Russian audience over a century ago.

Today's text is a bit out of the ordinary for the topics we usually examine. Since the new school year is beginning soon -- and many of us are involved in the education of children, whether our own or someone else's -- we should consider the role of spirituality in the education of children. St. Theophan addressed this issue and what he says is just as relevant today as when he wrote it over a hundred years ago.



One cannot define just when a person comes to the awareness of himself as being a Christian and to the independent resolve to live in a Christian way. In actual fact this happens at different times: at the age of seven, ten, fifteen, or later. It may be that the time of study comes before this, as usually happens.

At the same time there is an unchanging rule: one must keep the whole previous order without change during the whole time of study also, for it proceeds essentially from the nature of our capabilities and from the demands of Christian life. The order of study must not be placed in opposition to the indicated outlook, otherwise everything will be destroyed which was created there. That is, one must preserve young students, just like infants, by means of the piety of everything surrounding them, by means of church life and the Mysteries; and likewise one must act upon their body, soul, and spirit.


At the same time, practically speaking, to the teaching itself one must add only this: Let instruction be so arranged that it will be evident what is the main point and what is secondary. This idea is easiest to imprint through a division of the objects of study and the time for them. Let the study of faith be considered the chief thing. Let the best time be assigned to works of piety, and in case of conflict let them take the first place over learning. Let approval be given not only for success in learning, but likewise for faith and good behavior. In general, one must so dispose the mind of pupils that they do not lose the conviction that our chief work is the pleasing of God, and that learning is a secondary quality, something incidental, which is good only during the present life. This is why it should not at all be placed so high and in such an attractive form that it will occupy all one's attention and absorb all one's concern. There is nothing more poisonous or ruinous for the spirit of Christian life than such learning and an exclusive concern for it. It casts one straight into coldness and then one can keep one forever in it, and sometimes it also adds to this an immoral life, if there are conditions which are favorable for this.


The second thing to which attention should be given is the spirit of the instruction or of the attitude towards the objects of study. It should be placed as an unfailing law that every kind of learning which is taught to a Christian should be penetrated with Christian principles and, more precisely, Orthodox ones. Every branch of learning is capable of this approach, and it will be a true kind of learning only when this condition is fulfilled. Christian principles are true beyond doubt. Therefore, without any doubting, make them the general measuring stick of truth. It is a most dangerous error among us that subjects of learning are taught without any attention to the true faith; one allows oneself freethinking and even lying under the supposition that faith and learning are two spheres which are quite distinct.

On the contrary, we have a single spirit. It receives learning and is imbued with its principles just as it receives faith and is penetrated by it. How is it then possible that these two spheres should not come into contact here, whether favorable or unfavorable? At the same time, the sphere of truth is one. Therefore, why pound into the head that which is not from this sphere?

If instruction will be conducted in this manner, so that faith together with life in the spirit of faith might dominate in the attention of pupils, both in the manner of studying and in the spirit of instruction, then there is no doubt that the principles placed in childhood not only will be preserved, but will increase, be strengthened, and come to a corresponding maturity. And what a good effect this will have!


If one will put in such order the upbringing of a child from his first years, then little by little the character which his whole life should have will be revealed before him, and he will grow more accustomed to the thought that upon him there lies the obligation given by our God and Saviour to live and act according to His decree, that all other deeds and occupations are lower than this and have a place only for the course of the present life, and that there is another dwelling place, another homeland towards which one must direct all one's thoughts and all one's desires.

In the natural course of the development of one's capabilities, everyone naturally comes to the awareness that he is a man. But if to his nature there is engrafted the new principle of the grace of Christianity at the very moment when a person's powers and their movements are awakened (in Baptism), and if then in all the points of the development of these powers this new principle not only does not yield first place -- but on the contrary always prevails and gives as it were the form to everything -- then when a man comes to full awareness he will find himself at the same time acting according to Christian principles and will find himself to be a Christian.


This is the chief aim of a Christian upbringing: that a man as a result of this might say within himself that he is a Christian. And if, when he comes to full awareness of himself he will say, "I am a Christian, obliged by my Saviour and God to live in such a way so as to be vouchsafed the blessed communion with Him and with His chosen ones in the future life," then in the very midst of his independent existence or the unique, rational ordering of his life, he will place for himself as his first and essential duty to preserve in an independent way and to warm the spirit of piety in which he previously walked under the guidance of others. END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 63 - 65