Recently I had the pleasure of reading the Greek translation of the life and thought of a twentieth-century Orthodox elder from Romania. The title of the book is The Elder Theophilos Paraian: Without Light, Yet Enlightened. Although blind from early childhood, the Elder Theophilos grew up as a strong character and a fervent lover of God. Because of his saintly life and teachings, he came to be known as a man â€świthout light, yet enlightened.â€ť
The Elder had become blind following a severe illness. Living in a simple village in Romania, he never quite found out what the illness was, perhaps meningitis, he thought. His mother was desperate and often in tears, desiring to see him recover from blindness. He tells of poignant tests by his mother to see if there was any such hope. She would hold her hand out and ask, â€śhow many fingers?â€ť or â€śwhat do I have now in my hands?â€ť Alert and intelligent, the boy tried to please his mother and sometimes guessed correctly, but reality set in that he would never regain sight.
Fortunately, the boy went to a school for the blind and learned Braille not only to read books but also to type papers! A quick and devoted learner, he advanced in his studies, finishing primary and secondary education, and eventually graduating from theological studies with honors. In the course of his lifeâ€™s journey, he became a monastic, continuing to read and write in Braille, and learning by heart many of the prayers and hymns of the Orthodox Church. His talents in preaching and teaching gained the attention of the local bishop who ordained him a deacon and later a priest. Throughout the last third of the twentieth century the Elder became an inspired guide, speaker, and teacher to many faithful in Romania.
What I especially appreciated in the story of Elder Theophilos was his healthy, strong character. Growing up in a secure and loving family, and preserving the innocence of childhood partly perhaps because of blindness, he was endowed with a joy and cheerfulness. His principle was: â€śA Christian ought always to be cheerful and grateful. If he is not cheerful and grateful, he is not a Christian.â€ť He of course heard about and came know the foibles and foolish complaints and dissatisfactions of people, but he retained a remarkably healthy and balanced outlook on life. He was both open to learn new things from others but also ready to exercise his own judgment about what he was advised.
Once, while still young, he had a talk with a respected priest and elder, to whom he shared his plan to increase his studies. This particular elder gave him spiritual advice about prayer but also expressed his doubts about going further to school. He said: â€śSchool does not lead to salvation.â€ť The young Theophilos answered forthrightly that it would not be possible for him not to go to school because that was the desire of his parents and thatâ€™s what he wanted to do as well. Later, as he recounts the incident, the Elder Theophilos adds the comment: â€śAnd I did go school. And I am glad because I did well to go.â€ť
He was by no means a rebel. While at the monastery, a group of fanatics disobeyed the local bishop. They claimed: â€śWe take orders from God and from the Virgin Mary.â€ť Theophilos did not join them. He thought to himself: â€śAs I see the icon of the Virgin Mary, I see her looking humble and calm. She would never incite them to such insurrection for the alleged benefit to the faithful and the Church.â€ť There was talk of disbanding the monastery and sending the residents away. The Elder recalls the touching words of his mother: â€śIf you cannot remain here, come home; you have a place to go.â€ť As it turned out he did not leave the monastery but often remembered these sweet words. He thought: Who else can say such a thing but a mother: â€śYou have a place to go.â€ť
While unable to gaze on the beauty of the physical world, the Elder developed an interior world filled with joy and beauty. From that inner world, the world of the heart where he nurtured a ceaseless communion with God, he bought forth valuable counsel to many. What follows are some of his meditations and teachings.
– We do not have the ability to change someone to follow the way of faith and moral life. God is the one who can change people. We can help and give guidance, but should never take upon ourselves roles which we do not have and can never have.
– I attribute great significance to worship because the Orthodox Church is a Church of sacred services, a Church of the Divine Liturgy. The Orthodox Christian images the angels when singing the thrice-holy hymn, â€śHoly, Holy, Holy Lord of hosts, heaven and earth is full of Your glory.â€ť The Liturgy and the sacraments are the Kingdom of God on earth: â€śBlessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.â€ť The sound of the Liturgy is the sound of the Holy Spirit.
– A person who is truly Orthodox, who knows and lives the Orthodox faith, is not possible to abandon Orthodoxy. Those who seem to abandon Orthodoxy for another religion in reality they abandon nothing, for they have come to know nothing, and become attached to something quite deficient.
– The monastics should not be specifically involved in the ordinary lives of Orthodox Christians but ought to follow their own spiritual program. Ordinary Christians can follow a monastic program only in part, for example, by participating in the worship services at monasteries. For Orthodox Christians living in the world, with families and social obligations, the general rule is to do their duty in the place and context in which they have been called.
– I have come to believe that there is no wisdom in speaking to people about God when they are not willing to listen and to follow the word of God. Of benefit is to pray for them and have the hope that our example may influence them.
– Orthodox Christians ought to receive Holy Communion not as a routine but deeply conscious of its meaning as a gift â€śfor the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.â€ť Holy Communion is help on the journey, always a gift of God, and not a reward for presumed exceptional behavior.
– When an Orthodox Christian is content with whatever he can achieve by the grace of God, and relates and connects everything with the grace of God, he follows the path of humility.
– Think beautiful thoughts. Examine and discern your thoughts. Keep and multiply only the beautiful thoughts and translate them into words and actions. The foundation of a spiritual life is the good ordering of thoughts according to the will of God. If we engage in beautiful thoughts, we will also live a beautiful life.
– Trials are a reality and a problem. The Church desires that all people should have health and peace, but teaches us to accept trials when they come as part of carrying the Cross of Christ. If suffering is unavoidable, let us at least not suffer in vain by complaining, but by seeking to grow stronger in faith and character. Suffering unites us with the suffering of the Lord. When God permits a trial, let us believe that it has some purpose and benefit, even if we are not able to know. There are trials, however, like extremely painful incurable diseases or diseases the disable both the body and mind, about which we can say nothing really useful and beneficial. They remain a mystery on which only life after life can shed light. Nevertheless, let us keep ourselves always in the hands of God.
– The measure of faith is the measure of life. The depth of faith is shown in the quality of life. Faith brings Christ near to us, into our heart and minds, so that Christ himself works in our existence and our life.
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