January 11 – Theodosius the Great; Theodosius the Cenobiarch

Litho or engraving of Theodosius the Great by Cornelius Hazart, 1667Theodosius the Great (347–395) was the last emperor of the united Roman Empire before its unfortunate subdivision by ancestors of today’s most unscrupulous real estate moguls. Born in either Cauca or Italia in Spain, Theodosius followed in his father’s military footsteps until his sudden, mysterious, and inexplicable retirement immediately following his father’s sudden, mysterious, and inexplicable disgrace and execution[1]. Within a year, however, he was recalled to active duty, and after the dust of a decade of war and intrigue had settled, he found himself sole ruler of the Empire. Rumors he had a rear-view mirror installed on his throne could not be substantiated.

Beset with barbarians, civil war, and a quick temper (not necessarily in that order), Theodosius was excommunicated for ordering a massacre, but was reinstated after the bishop of Milan (Ambrose (Dec 7), for those playing Saints Bingo) helpfully suggested he repent and he did so, at least to Ambrose’s satisfaction. Theodosius’ sainthood derives from his quelling of pagan practices and politely but ruthlessly imposing upon the Empire the decisions of the Council of Nicea (named after a Greek city named after the Nicene Creed). This quellification included disbanding the Vestals, rivals to women’s monasteries in recruitment of the empire’s virgins. He also established a lucrative trade in obelisks on, shall we say, long-term loan from Egypt (some are still out—the fines have been accruing for 1700 years and must be substantial by now). Although he died in Milan, no one suspected Ambrose, which is just as well since he didn’t do it. Indeed the bishop delivered a sermon at the funeral that was so good history has recorded its name: “The Obituary of Theodosius.” History sometimes has a disappointing imagination.

Mosaic of Theodosius the Cenobiarch, in Nea Moni, 11th centuryTheodosius the Cenobiarch (423–529) was born in Garissus, also known as Mogariassus, also known as Marissa. Ancient geography is not an occupation for the faint of heart.

This Theodosius never managed to become Emperor or order massacres or even import obelisks. He did however climb the pillar of Symeon the Stylite (Sep 1), who blessed him, and not just to get him off his pillar. But that’s putting the pillar before the horse[2].

Theodosius started his studies early, and became a lector “while still a youth.” (As far as we know, nobody ever called him Theo the Teenage Lector, although nothing is impossible.) After meeting Symeon he purportedly visited Longinus (Oct 16) in the holy land[3]. Sometime thereafter he was installed as resident ascetic at a church built by a pious widow named Glykeria (or Ikelia). He soon attracted a steady stream of edification seekers, which so annoyed him that he removed to a nearby cave. There he lived a life of austerity, eating only dates and various herbs. When he ran out of dates, our sources say he subsisted on a paste made of date pits, of which he must have built up quite a pile over the years. (“Date Pit Pile” was once rejected as a band name by a punk band from Dayton.)

Once again he attracted a number of followers, some of whom came to stay. When the pits ran out the monks were supplied with food by various miracles and passers-by. When sleeping space in the cave started to get thin, Theodosius had a dream or vision in which God helpfully suggested he built a monastery. With the aid of a miraculous incense burner a site was found and the monastery was built. Plus a hospital, hospice, mental hospital, and such.

At one point he was exiled by a heretical emperor for speaking out against heresy, and might have been totally forgotten had the next emperor not recalled him and recalled him, if you get my drift. He is perhaps most famous for allowing the monks under his care to celebrate the divine services in their own languages, besting the Second Vatican Council by some 1400 years. He is also celebrated in the Orthodox Church (whose use of the vernacular we probably shouldn’t go into).


[1] My sources all agree it was sudden, mysterious, and so on.
[2] Actually there is no horse in this story. My apologies to my equestrian readers.
[3] Longinus would be over 500 years old at this point, but maybe he comes from a long-lived family.