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The Life of St Theodosius of the Caves


An example of the first group of subjects is The Life of St Theodosius of the Caves.85 It was written by Nestor, a monk in the Kiev Crypt Monastery, whom we mentioned earlier as the compiler of The Tale of Bygone Years. There is some difference of opinion as to when it was written. Alexei Shakhmatov and Igor Eremin believe that it was written before 1088, Sergei Bugoslavsky places it at the beginning of the twelfth century. Nestor was well acquainted with Byzantine hagiography. Parallels with some episodes in the Life can be found in the Lives of Byzantine saints, such as St Sabas, St Anthony, St Euthymius the Great and St Benedict.86 In his work he also paid tribute to the traditional composition of the Life: the future saint is born of pious parents, from early childhood “he strives with all his heart to love God”, shuns games with other boys of his age, and goes to church every day. After taking monastic vows, Theodosius amazes all around by his asceticism and humility: thus, even when he is abbot, he dresses so simply that people who do not know him take him for a beggar or for one of the monastery cooks. Many ignorant people on meeting Theodosius scoff openly at his poor attire. To mortify the “flesh”, Theodosius sleeps sitting up and does not wash (he has only been seen washing his hands). As behoves a saint, the abbot successfully overcomes “many legions of invisible demons”, works miracles, and knows in advance the day of his demise. He accepts death with calm dignity, and even has time to make a farewell speech to the fraternity and 3 noint a new abbot. At the moment of Theodosius’ death a pillar of fire rises up over the monastery. It is seen by Prince Svyatoslav who happens to be nearby. Theodosius’ relics do not perish, and those who pray to him receive the saint’s help: one is healed, another learns the name of the thief who robbed him from Theodosius who appears to him in a dream, a third, a disgraced boyar, is restored to his prince’s favour.

Nevertheless this is by no means a traditional Life constructed in strict accordance with the Byzantine hagiographical canon.87 The Life of St Theodosius contains many features not in keeping with this canon. This does not mean that the author was inexperienced and could not weave the facts and legends about the saint into the traditional scheme of a vita. On the contrary, it testifies to Nestor’s boldness and independence as a writer.

The character of Theodosius’ mother is particularly unusual for the traditional Life. Strong and masculine, with a rough voice, absorbed in wordly cares about villages and slaves, strong-willed, even cruel, she loves her son passionately, and cannot reconcile herself to the idea that the boy shuns all earthly things and has renounced the world. Although the author speaks of the piety of Theodosius’ mother at the beginning of the vita, she does her utmost to thwart her son’s pious intentions. She is irritated by Theodosius’ religious fervour and finds it degrading that he stubbornly refuses to wear “fine raiment”, preferring rags instead; the chains discovered on the young man’s body send her into a frenzy. Probably these were features of Theodosius’ real mother, and Nestor did not think it possible to change them to suit hagiographical tradition, particularly because the woman’s grim determination highlights even more vividly the resolution of the boy Theodosius to “give himself to God”.

But the charm of Nestor’s literary manner lies not only in his striving to depict characters with lifelike features, but also in his ability to create the illusion of authenticity even in his descriptions of the fantastic episodes in which the Life abounds.

For example, this is how he describes one of the miracles performed by Theodosius. The steward tells Abbot Theodosius that there is no honey left in the monastery’s larder, and says that he even “tipped the barrel on its side”. These words are intended to convince Theodosius (and the reader also) that there was not a r°p 0f honey left. This makes the miracle wrought by eodosius all the more amazing: at the abbot’s request the steward goes back and sees to his surprise that the empty barrel overturned by him is now standing upright and is full of honey. On another occasion an empty flour bin is filled with flour after a prayer from Theodosius so full that some of the flour spills over the edge onto the ground. This detail makes the picture more vivid, and the reader, encouraged by his powers of imagination, believes in the miracle described.

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