Theophilus the hapless

Not all who are mentioned in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are hermits. Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, plays the foil of torpid authority against eremitic sagacity and understatement. This is one of the subtler senses of humor the compiler(s) offer for those who have eyes.

Here are a few encounters with Theophilus.

Theophilus meets Arsenius, the archetype desert hermit, saying he would like a word of wisdom from him. After a short silence, Arsenius asks Theophilus if he will do what he advises. Theophilus says yes. Well then, replies Arsenius, “if you ever hear that Arsenius is anywhere, don’t go there.”

On another occasion, Theophilus had sent a messenger ahead to ask if Arsenius would receive him. Arsenius tells the messenger that if Theophilus insists on coming, then he must receive him, but if he receives Theophilus he will have to receive everyone and thus not be able to live anymore where he lives. The messenger goes back and relates this to Theophilus, who concludes that if that is the case he will not go and see Arsenius.

The above example is not a duplicate of the first anecdote. Here the point additional to hermit solitude is the subtle equation of the archbishop and just “anyone.” This is perhaps lost on Theophilus. It is characteristic of the hermit’s attitude toward authority, or at any rate the assumption that hermits need to be patronized.

By this time, then, Theophilus has come to an understanding about Arsenius, for when a wealthy widow comes from Rome expressly to visit Arsenius and receive his blessing, she is rebuffed and comes tearfully to Theophilus to commiserate. Arsenius had sent her away and told her not to prattle about her visit in Rome and thus turn the sea into a thoroughfare of visitors to him. Worse, the widow asked Arsenius to remember her and he said, on the contrary, that he would try to forget her. Theophilus comforts the widow by saying that Arsenius meant forgetting her physical presence and temptation but that he would pray for her soul. While this assuaged the widow, Theophilus must have realized what a dilemma Arsenius represented for a church intent on cultivating the pious, especially pious and wealthy widows.

Theophilus might have been exasperated by hermits but he did not get along with monks either, suspecting them of Origenism, a heresy identified with the spiritually-minded of the day. Perhaps it is the archbishop’s rectitude or pompous air or indiscretion, but when he visited a desert abbot and asked him what was the best life to follow (the abbot’s or the bishop’s, perhaps?) the answer was quick: to accuse oneself always, to constantly reproach oneself.

On another occasion, Theophilus comes to Scetis, the famous monastery. The abbot tells one elder to say something edifying to his excellency (perhaps winking, or perhaps not needing to). The old man replies: “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

Finally, there is the time Theophilus invites several abbots and monks to his quarters in Alexandria. They are having a fancy meal, apparently, and the archbishop remarks about how fine is a cut of meat, offering it to one old man. The old man stops. “To this moment,” he says, “we believed that we were eating vegetables. If this is meat, we will not eat it.” One can imagine the abrupt end of the meal and probably the visit, hapless Theophilus blurting out some words as he trails behind his departing visitors or, perhaps, just left speechless for once.