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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume XII: December. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

December 28

St. Theodorus, Abbot of Tabenna, Confessor

ON account of the extraordinary purity of his manners, from his very infancy, surnamed by the Greeks The Sanctified. Such was the edification which the whole church received in the fourth and fifth centuries from many great lights of the monastic Order, which then shone in the deserts of Egypt, that Theodoret 1 and Procopius 2 think the flourishing state of these holy recluses was particularly foretold in those passages of the prophets, in which it is said of the age of the New Law of Grace, that, The wilderness shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise, 3 &c. Which interpretation is ingeniously applied to the same purpose by F. Possinus. 4 “There,” said an ancient writer who had conversed with several of these holy men, 5 “have I seen many fathers leading an angelic life, and walking after the example of Jesus.” And St. Sulpitius Severus says of them: “For my part, so long as I shall keep alive, and in my senses, I shall ever celebrate the monks of Egypt, praise the anchorets, and admire the hermits.” One of the most eminent among the patriarchs of these saints was abbot Theodorus, the disciple of St. Pachomius. This saint was born in Upper Thebais, about the year 314, of illustrious and wealthy parents, and from his expectations in the world, or from the dangers and distractions of its riches and enjoyments, he drew the strongest motives for despising it. When he was between eleven and twelve years of age, being penetrated more than ordinary with the great truths of the gospel, on the feast of the Epiphany he gave himself to God with uncommon fervour, protesting that he had never preferred any thing in his heart to the divine love and service, and begging the grace always to be faithful in this resolution. Not to deceive himself in so delicate a point, he from that moment made it his whole study to belong in his heart and in all his actions wholly to God, fasted sometimes whole days, and spent much of his time in devout prayer. Thus he lived two years at home with his pious mother, going every day to a neighbouring grammar school. At fourteen he obtained her leave to retire from the world, and finish his education in the company of certain holy monks in the diocess of Latopolis. The reputation of St. Pachomius drew him afterwards to Tabenna, where, by his ardour to advance in all virtue, he appeared among the foremost in that numerous company of saints. His mother repaired to Tabenna to see him; but Theodorus, fearing any temptations of looking back again on the world, which he had renounced, with all things in it, in order to follow Christ with his whole heart, entreated St. Pachomius not to allow the interview. The mother was edified at this disposition of her son, and took the veil in a nunnery which St. Pachomius had established, not far from Tabenna, where she strenuously laboured in the great work of the sanctification of her soul, and had sometimes the pleasure of seeing her son in the company of some of his fellow-monks. St. Pachomius made our saint, in the twenty-fifth year of his age, his companion, when he made the visitation of his monasteries; in his thirtieth year caused him to be promoted to the priesthood, and committed to him the entire government of his great monastery of Tabenna, shutting himself up in the little monastery of Paban. St. Theodorus went thither every evening to assist at the daily exhortation which St. Pachomius gave to his monks, and afterwards repeated the same to the community at Tabenna, which he also instructed by his own frequent sermons and conferences. When he was going on a certain occasion with St. Pachomius to his monastery near Panopolis, in Lower Egypt, a philosopher of that city desired a conference with the abbot. St. Pachomius declined it, and sent St. Theodorus, who with wonderful quickness answered all his questions, and solved his problems: but exhorted him to bid adieu to idle subtilties and barren speculations, and make the science of salvation his great study. St. Theodorus was troubled with frequent violent headaches, and St. Pachomius told him, that greater spiritual advantages accrue to our souls from diseases and involuntary afflictions when received and suffered with patience, than from voluntary abstinence and long prayers.  1
  St. Pachomius falling sick at Paban two years before his death, the monks of Tabenna, by importunities and tears, extorted Theodorus’s consent to take upon him the care of the whole congregation, when it should please God to deprive them of their holy founder. Though Theodorus had acquiesced with great reluctance, and after long resistance, St. Pachomius afterwards reproved him for it, and removed him from his superiority of Tabenna. St. Theodorus accepted this discharge with joy, and voluntarily accused himself of having fallen into vanity and presumption. Theodorus spent two years in the last rank in the community, below all the novices, and with joy embraced in silence every humiliation, and practised the utmost austerities: in which situation his sincere and perfect virtue shone with brighter lustre, than in all the great actions he did during his superiority, and was beyond all comparison more advantageous to his soul, as St. Pachomius used to declare to others. The holy abbot died in 348, and Petronius, whom he had declared his successor, died thirteen days after him. St. Orsisius was then chosen abbot; but finding the burden too heavy for his shoulders, and his congregation threatened with rising factions, he placed Theodorus in that charge, but was obliged to use compulsion; and also alleged, that it was the express order of St. Pachomius before his death. St. Theodorus assembled the monks, pathetically exhorted them to unanimity, inquired into the causes of their divisions, and applied effectual remedies. By his prayers and endeavours a spirit of union and charity was perfectly restored. St. Orsisius was his assistant in the discharge of his duties; the most perfect harmony reigned between them, because where there was no pride, there no jealousy could arise. They studied who should surpass the other in humility and condescension. St. Theodorus did nothing without the advice of St. Orsisius, and they visited the monasteries one after the other. St. Theodorus instructed, comforted, and encouraged every one in particular: corrected faults with a sweetness which gained the heart, and every one with an entire confidence disclosed to him the secrets of his soul, as to his tender father and skilful physician. If any one transgressed, the saint with mildness endeavoured, in the first place, to bring them to a sense of their duty, and for this he had recourse to God by prayer and fasting, means which he found never to fail him. He wrought several miracles, and foretold things to come. Being one day in a boat on the Nile with St. Athanasius, he assured that holy confessor that his persecutor, Julian the Apostate, was that moment dead, and that his successor would restore peace to him and the church: both which were soon confirmed. Our saint also foretold the monks of Nitria, in 353, that the pride of the Arians would soon meet with a downfal. This prediction is contained in an epistle which the saint wrote to the monks of Nitria, extant in the continuation of Bollandus. 6 We have also another letter of this saint, which is an epistolary exhortation to the devout celebration of Easter, published by Holstenius in his Code of Ancient Monastic Rules. The three letters of pious instructions which he wrote to his monks, mentioned by Gennadius, are lost.  2
  St. Nilus 7 and others relate, that once whilst St. Theodorus was preaching to his monks, who were working at the same time in making mats, two vipers crawled about his feet. So careful was the saint not to interrupt or disturb the attention of his auditory during that sacred function, that he set his foot upon them till he had finished his discourse. Then taking away his foot, he suffered them to be killed, having received no harm. One of his monks happened to die on Holy Saturday, in 367, St. Theodorus left the divine office to assist him in his last moments, and said to those who were present: “This death will shortly be followed by another, which is little expected.” The brethren watched that night by the corpse, and interred it on Easter-day in the morning with singing of psalms. At the close of the octave of that solemnity, St. Theodorus made a moving discourse to all his monks; for it was their custom to meet all together in the monastery of Paban for the celebration of Easter. Our saint had no sooner dismissed them to their own monasteries, in the year abovementioned, but he was taken ill, and after a fervent preparation for his last passage, having recommended the care of the community to St. Orsisius, 8 he happily expired on the 27th of April, in the year 367, the fifty-third of his age. His body was carried to the top of the mountain, and buried in the cemetery of the monks, with singing of psalms: but it was soon after removed, and laid with that of St. Pachomius. St. Athanasius wrote to the monks of Tabenna to comfort them for the loss of their holy abbot, and bids them have before their eyes the glory of which he was then possessed. The Greeks commemorate this saint on the 16th of May; the Roman Martyrology on the 28th of December. See the life of St. Pachomius in the Bollandists on the 14th of May, p. 295, especially the Appendix, pp. 334 and 337. Also Tillemont, t. 7. Ceillier, t. 5. p. 373.  3
Note 1. Theodoret, in Isa. lxi. 3. [back]
Note 2. Procop. in eund. loc. p. 705. [back]
Note 3. Isa. xxxv. 1, 2, 6, 7. Isa. lxi. 3, 4, &c. [back]
Note 4. Possinus, Proleg. ad Thesaur. Asceticum. [back]
Note 5. Heraclides, a disciple of St. Chrysostom, bishop of Ephesus, ap. Cotel. mon. Græc. t. 3, p. 172. [back]
Note 6. Bolland. Maii 14, p. 356. [back]
Note 7. S. Nilus, Orat. c. 108. [back]
Note 8. St. ORSISIUS is honoured by the Greeks on the 15th of June. After the death of St. Theodorus, St. Orsisius resumed the government of the monastic congregation of Tabenna, and acquitted himself of every duty belonging to that charge with great prudence and charity. St. Athanasius and St. Antony on every occasion testified the highest esteem of his person. This holy abbot always closed the exhortation which he made to his monks every evening, after their day’s work and their repast, with prayer, because God alone can give the spirit and practice of virtue. The time of St. Orsisius’s death is not known: but we have extant a spiritual work, entitled, The Doctrine of Orsisius, which St. Jerom translated into Latin. This holy abbot composed it by way of spiritual testament to his monks. It is an abridgment of the principal rules and maxims of a monastic life. The exhortations are vehement, and the instructions solid and beautiful. The author declares he had made it his constant endeavour to neglect nothing in his power to engage them to render themselves agreeable to the Lord; and in order to render his exhortations efficacious, had accompanied them with his tears. See this work in Bibl. Patrum, ed. Colon. t. 4, p. 92. [back]