St. Theophan, a prolific writer about how to live ascetically in the world and how to raise God-pleasing families is widely quoted by many Christians. But as a child, he was full of mischief...
It’s never very simple to write about a saint’s childhood years. As a rule, very little reliable material was ever saved. Another danger is to draw a sugar-sweet image that you’ll never find in real life. That’s not at all how it was with St. Theophan, in the world Georgiy Vasilievich Govorov. Exuberant and impetuous, he was the ringleader of his childhood companions and often made his mother upset. At the same time he was unusually open to new impressions and knowledge. Here are several stories about the holy hierarch’s childhood, which we present to our readers.
In stories about holy people we often read that even in their very early years the future ascetics were different from their peers and avoided children’s games and entertainments, were meek and quiet, and liked to spent their days in fasting and prayer. Some mothers when reading these stories to their children cannot refrain from pointing out to them, “Look at how obedient and exemplary a boy he was, and what about you?”
However just as there are many paths on earth, there are also many paths leading to the Kingdom of Heaven. Some are gentle and obedient by nature, and in maturity the Lord helps them develop these qualities. But others to the contrary are vigorous and impetuous, and in cooperation with their own work on themselves the Lord makes of them resolute warriors of Christ, who can bring many people to the truth, and become defenders of the Orthodox faith.
It is with just this kind of personality that the great Russian ascetic, spiritual intercessor, religious author and theologian, St. Theophan the Recluse of Vysha, was born into the world. Many books have been written about his spiritual podvigs. However very little is known about his childhood years…
St. Theophan spent the final years of his life in reclusion in the Vysha Hermitage. Solitude for him was “sweeter than honey”. The saint astounded his contemporaries with his dedication and capability for abundant work. Like a bee flying from blossom to blossom, scrupulously gathering precious nectar to make fragrant honey, so did the ascetic through his many labors gather the Christian virtues.
St. Theophan left this world and his episcopal cathedra not because he didn’t love people and felt burdened by his duties as a bishop, but because he wanted to serve God with redoubled, especial labors.
Just as a monastic prayer rope is woven from little knots and used to pray the Jesus prayer—a mighty weapon against the enemy of our salvation—so also did St. Theophan the Recluse gather bit-by-bit his book knowledge, and in the quietude of his Vysha reclusion wrote many works, showing all those who search for the path to Christ, the path to salvation.
The future saint was born soon after the end of the War of 1812, when in all the towns and villages the Russian people were celebrating their victory over Napoleon’s armies, restoring their destroyed homes and settlements, and composing patriotic songs about the grandeur of the Russian forces’ military exploits.
At that time in the Elets area of the Orlov region, in the village of Chernavsk (now called Chernava), lived the family of a young priest, Fr. Vasily Timofeyevich Govorov. Fr. Vasily was a straightforward, open, kind-hearted man given to hospitality.
He stood out for his particular attentiveness and love of neighbor, as well as the ability to make peace in any quarrels. He very much loved the Church services and was so often in his church that his family and friends would say of him, “Our batiushka does come out of his epitrachelion.”
Tatiana Ivanova, the mother of the future saint, had a quiet and meek nature and loving heart. She showed particular compassion for the sick and poor, and no one ever left her without having received some help.
According to his relatives’ recollections, the Govorovs fully lived up to their name—they really were “talkers” (govorit’ means “to talk). They loved to gather their entire large family, invite their relatives and friends, and carry on long, heart-to-heart conversations…
Georgiy was born on January 10, 1815 and was the fifth child in the family. His mother was tenderly caressing and making the sign of the cross over the little one when his father walked into the room.
“Ah! Look at the kiddies!” he said gaily when he saw Liuba with little Senya.
“Well, Tanya, get well, and thanks for the son! Only may God give him wisdom and a kind heart—you’ll never fail with that. Well now, Egorushka (affectionate diminutive for Georgiy), come to father!”
Fr. Vasily carefully bent over his son and took him in his arms. A minute hadn’t gone by when Egorushka screamed so loudly that his father flinched.
“Oh, Tatiana Ivanovna, our son nearly deafened me!” he said, giving the infant back to his mother. “What a voice! Well, God be with you!” and Fr. Vasily left the room.
The second day after his birth the infant was baptized by his grandfather, Fr. John, and named Georgiy. His family always called him Egorushka.
Like all children, Egorushka loved fairy tales. His aunt, Martha Nikiforovna, was an inimitable storyteller. Usually in the evening she would gather all the children in the house and tell them her tales, of which there seemed to be no end.
Outside the window was the nightfall, the room would be half-dark, and it was so easy to travel along with aunty to all kinds of fairy tale kingdoms, to meet with wondrous princes and princesses. Aunty would tell these stories so colorfully and convincingly, with such jests and quips that it would seem she’d really been to all of those wondrous foreign lands.
“Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom…” Martha Nikiforovna would begin, and even the most exuberant children would set aside their pranks and sidle up as close as they could to the artful storyteller to hear yet another amazing story.
Martha Nikiforovna was especially masterful at telling the tale of the Firebird. Ivan Tsarevich, Elena the Beauty, Grey Wolf and the Golden-mane Stallion would appear before them as if alive. The Firebird had golden feathers and eyes like Asian crystal. It would fly into the orchard and pluck the golden apples from the trees.
Egorushka would vividly imagine that he, like Ivan Tsarevich was stealing up to the wondrous Firebird from distant lands in order to catch it, or galloping through the green meadows and bright fields on the Golden-Mane Stallion after Elena the Beauty…
Drawing by L. A. Voronova.
One day while listening to a fairy tale, Egorushka was looking often at the bird in a cage hanging by the window.
“Oh! That prankster is dreaming something up,” Tatiana Ivanovna thought anxiously as she caught her son’s eye.
“Martha Nikiforevna, my dear! Look well after the bird, so that Egorushka doesn’t do some naughtiness!” she said to aunty.
But they didn’t watch the schemer well enough. One morning Tatiana Ivanovna silently froze by the cage.
“My Lord!” she finally exclaimed. “Where on earth did the bird’s tail disappear? That’s got to be Egoruskha’s prank. Senya! Call Egor over here.”
The boy came in lively at the call.
“Did you do this?” his mother said to him sternly. “Why did you pull off the bird’s tail? Have you ever seen a bird without a tale?! Just come and see at how the bird looks without a tail!”
Egorushka peered into the cage. Truly, the bird did look awfully out of the ordinary and pitiful without a tail. Fluffy wings, a tall crest and without its former lovely tail it quickly jumped backward and forward along its perch, not understanding what had happened to it.
“Why did you pull off her tail?” His mother again asked him.
“I thought she was the Firebird, and that her feathers would also glow,” Egorushka honestly explained.
When Martha Nikiforevna learned what had happened she just threw up her hands.
“Just wait, I won’t tell you any more fairy tales, or you’ll think of some other naughty thing to do.”
Nevertheless aunty only complained at her nephew. She had so many listeners, but only one of them had such a strange imagination.
Despite his playfulness, everyone in his family loved Egorushka. In fact it was impossible not to love this lively, happy child with such a good heart and open gaze.
Everyone understood that this was how the boy’s curious nature was developing; his pranks came not from conscious disobedience but from the desire to learn and try everything himself.
Egorushka also loved God’s church from his childhood. Fr. Vasily would go to church and Egorushka would go with him. He would stand on the cliros with the readers and listen to their singing, sing along, then climb up with the church guard to the bell tower and ring for services.
One needed particular talent in the bell tower. They would ring festally on the great bell, its voice unhurriedly sailing across the surrounding areas. The middle bell was the polyeleos1 bell.
And thetrezvon2 of an experienced bell ringer would seem to call and be carried upward to the heavens so easily and freely, like the Cherubic Hymn during the Liturgy. The elderly guard advised the boy to open his mouth during the ringing, so that he wouldn’t go deaf.
Egorushka tried to be everywhere at once. He quickly caught on to the structure of Orthodox services. And when he had grown up some, he began serving his father in the altar.
One evening when the Vespers service had ended, the parishioners dispersed, and Fr. Vasily also left the church. But the boy was lingering in the belfry—he liked to climb up there on the steep stairwell and decorously ring the bell.
He also liked to meander around the great bell and look out over the expanses so dear to him! How beautiful and wide the villages stretched, what an extraordinary bend in the river! And over there is the roof of his own home!
Drawing by L. A. Voronova.
The guard was already walking around the church, making sure that all the candles were out, and after locking up the church he went home. Then Egorushka descended the stairway and understood that he was locked in.
Of course he could have just climbed back up to the belfry and called out for help. But that would have been out of character. His thoughts always ran ahead. He had noticed that from the belfry a rope stretched down from the bell to the ground. There it is—the path to salvation!
He ran up and looked at the ground. It was after all pretty high up! Perhaps it’s not a good idea… But before his resolve could disappear he boldly grabbed the rope and slipped down along it to the ground.
Once again the Lord had saved His chosen one. The boy remained alive, only the rope did a lot of harm to his hands and legs.
When Fr. Vasily heard what had happened he pronounced prophetically, “Well, Egorushka, you’re either going to be a bell ringer or a bishop!”
From Egorushka by V. V. Kashirina (Publishing house of the Dormition Vysha Monastery.
Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees)
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