Theodosius of Kiev (c 1002-74) was the founder of a distinctively Russian monasticism. To some extent he was a successor to St Antony of the Caves (983-1073), but whereas Antony had followed the traditions of the Desert Fathers, dedicated to solitary ascetism and severe penance, Theodosius demanded a warmer, more charitable devotion directed outwards into the world at large.
Theodosius Pechersky was born near Kiev into a rich and influential family whom he soon proceeded to alarm. As a child he set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Foiled in this endeavour, he donned the clothes of a serf and set himself to work in the fields.
Theodosius’s father died when he was only 13. His mother, “of muscular build and with a voice like a man”, readily assumed the duty of beating him up for nursing such far-fetched ideals.
Eventually, about 1032, Theodosius fled to the caves above the Dnieper at Kiev, where Antony had recently established himself as a hermit. As the number of Antony’s disciples grew, however, the master himself moved on to found another monastery.
Theodosius soon emerged as the most influential figure among those in the original site. Declaring that he found Antony’s cave monastery “narrow and depressing”, he completely changed its tenor. He built a church and proper monastic quarters, then followed up by establishing a hostel and a hospital.
While maintaining Antony’s emphasis on prayer, Theodosius inspired an active and beneficent Christianity which ministered to the sick, disabled and outcast. Every Saturday, for example, the monastery sent a cartload of food to the jails of Kiev.
Nor was Theodosius content merely to give orders. He personally undertook charities uncongenial to the younger monks, such as looking after a paralysed and incontinent old man.
The monks soon ventured beyond the monastery, spreading their message on the streets of Kiev. Theodosius never hesitated to admonish the rich and the powerful. Invited to dinner by Svyatoslav, the usurping tyrant of the Kiev, he replied: “I will not go to Jezebel’s table and eat food contaminated with blood and murder.”
For Theodosius, virtue lay in one source alone. “Christ sought us out, found us, carried us on His shoulders and set us at the Father’s right hand… It was not we who sought Him, but He who sought us.”
Worldly standards and accomplishments were meaningless. “Will it sound the same in the life to come?” Theodosius demanded of some minstrels who had sung for him.
In the 20th century his monastery suffered at the hands of both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, who destroyed the church. For a time after the Second World War the monastic buildings housed a museum and a centre for scientific research; they are now, however, restored to their original purpose.