The Life and Writings of the Blessed Theodoretus,
Bishop of Cyrus.
I. -- Parentage, Birth, and Education.
At Antioch at the close of the fourth century there were living a husband and wife, opulent and happy in the enjoyment of all the good things of this life, one thing only excepted. They were childless. Married at seventeen, the young bride lived for several years in the enjoyment of such pleasures as wealth and society could give. At the age of twenty-three she was attacked by a painful disease in one of her eyes, for which neither the books of older authorities nor later physiological discoveries could suggest a remedy. One of her domestic servants, compassionating her distress, informed her that the wife of Pergamius, at that time in authority in the East, had been healed of a similar ailment by Petrus, a famous Galatian solitary who was then living in the upper story of a tomb in the neighbourhood, to which access could only be obtained by climbing a ladder. The afflicted lady, says the story which her son himself repeats, hastened to climb to the recluse's latticed cell, arrayed in all her customary elaborate costume, with earrings, necklaces, and the rest of her ornaments of gold, her silk robe blazing with embroidery, her face smeared with red and white cosmetics, and her eyebrows and eyelids artificially darkened. |Tell me,| said the hermit, on beholding his brilliant visitor, |tell me, my child, if some skilful painter were to paint a portrait according to his art's strict rules and offer it for exhibition, and then up were to come some dauber dashing off his pictures on the spur of the moment, who should find fault with the artistic picture, lengthen the lines of brows and lids, make the face whiter and heighten the red of the cheeks, what would you say? Do you not think the original painter would be hurt at this insult to his art and these needless additions of an unskilled hand.| These arguments, we learn, led eventually to the improvement of the young Antiochene gentlewoman both in piety and good taste and her eye is said to have been restored to health by the imposition of the sign of the cross. Not impossibly the discontinuance of the use of cosmetics may have helped, if not caused, the cure.
Six years longer the husband and wife lived together a more religious life, but still unblessed with children. Among the ascetic solitaries whom the disappointed husband begged to aid him in his prayers was one Macedonius, distinguished, from the simplicity of his diet, as |the barley eater.| In answer to his prayers, it was believed, a son was at last granted to the pious pair. The condition of the boon being that the boy should be devoted to the divine service, he was appropriately named at his birth |Theodoretus,| or |Given by God.| Of the exact date of this birth, productive of such important consequences to the history and literature of the Church, no precise knowledge is attainable. The less probable year is 386 as given by Garnerius, the more probable and now generally accepted year 393 follows the computation of Tillemont.
While yet in his swaddling bands the little Theodoret began to receive training appropriate to his high career, and, as he himself tells us, with the pardonable exaggeration of enthusiasm, was no sooner weaned than he began to learn the apostolic teaching. Among his earliest impressions were the lessons and exhortations of Peter of Galatia, to whom his mother owed so much, and of Macedonius |the barley eater,| who had helped to save the Antiochenes in the troubles that arose about the statues. Of the latter Theodoret quotes the earnest charges to a holy life, and in his modesty expresses his sorrow that he had not profited better by the solitary's solemn entreaties. If however Macedonius was indeed quite ignorant of the Scriptures, it may have been well for the boy's education to have been not wholly in his hands. It is not impossible that he may have had a childish recollection of Chrysostom, who left Antioch in 398. To Peter he used to pay a weekly visit, and records how the holy man would take him on his knees and feed him with bread and raisins. A treasure long preserved in the household of Theodoret's parents was half Peter's girdle, woven of coarse linen, which the old man had one day wound round the loins of the boy. Frequently proved an unfailing remedy in various cases of family ailment, its very reputation led to its loss, for all the neighbours used to borrow it to cure their own complaints, and at last an unkind or careless friend omitted to return it.
When a stripling Theodoret was blessed by the right hand of Aphraates the monk, of whom he relates an anecdote in his Ecclesiastical History, and when his beard was just beginning to grow was also blessed by the ascetic Zeno. At this period he was already a lector and was therefore probably past the age of eighteen. By this time his general education would be regarded as more or less complete, and to these earlier years may be traced the acquaintance which he shows with the writings of Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Euripides, and other Greek classics. Lighter literature, too, will not have been excluded from his reading, if we accept the genuineness of the famous letter on the death of Cyril, and may infer that the dialogues of Lucian are more likely to have amused the leisure hours of a lad at school and college than have intruded on the genuine piety and marvellous industry of the Bishop of Cyrus.
Theodoret was familiar with Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew, but is said to have been unacquainted with Latin. Such I presume to be an inference from a passage in one of his works in which he tells us |The Romans indeed had poets, orators, and historians, and we are informed by those who are skilled in both languages that their reasonings are closer than the Greeks and their sentences more concise. In saying this I have not the least intention of disparaging the Greek language which is in a sense mine, or of making an ungrateful return to it for my education, but I speak that I may to some extent close the lips and lower the brows of those who make too big a boasting about it, and may teach them not to ridicule a language which is illuminated by the truth.' But it is not clear from these words that Theodoret had no acquaintance with Latin. His admiration for orthodox Western theology as well as his natural literary and social curiosity would lead him to learn it. In the Ecclesiastical History (III.16) there is a possible reference to Horace.
Theodoret's chief instructor in Theology was the great light of the school of Antioch, Theodorus, known from the name of the see to which he was appointed in 392, |Mopsuestia,| or |the hearth of Mopsus,| in Cilicia Secunda. He also refers to his obligations to Diodorus of Tarsus. Accepting 393 as the date of his birth and 392 as that of Theodore's appointment to his see, it would seem that the younger theologian must have been rather a reader than a hearer as well of Theodore as of Diodore. But Theodore expounded Scripture in many churches of the East. The friendship of Theodoret for Nestorius may have begun when the latter was a monk in the convent of St. Euprepius at the gates of Antioch. It is recorded that on one occasion Theodore gave offence while preaching at Antioch by refusing to give to the blessed Virgin the title theotokos. He afterwards retracted this refusal for the sake of peace. The original objection and subsequent consent have a curious significance in view of the subsequent careers of his two famous pupils. Of the school of Antioch as distinguished from that of Alexandria it may be said broadly that while the latter shewed a tendency to syntheticism and to unity of conception, the former, under the influence of the Aristotelian philosophy, favoured analytic processes. And while the general bent of the school of thinkers among whom Theodoret was brought up inclined to a recognition of a distinction between the two natures in the Person of Christ, there was much in the special teaching of its great living authority which was not unlikely to lead to such division of the Person as was afterwards attributed to Nestorius. Such were the influences under which Theodoret grew up.
On the death of his parents he at once distributed all the property that he inherited from them, and embraced a life of poverty, retiring, at about the age of three and twenty, to Nicerte, a village three miles from Apamea, and seventy-five from Antioch, in the monastery of which he passed seven calm and happy years, occasionally visiting neighbouring monasteries and perhaps during this period paying the visit to Jerusalem which left an indelible impression on his memory. |With my own eyes,| he writes, |I have seen that desolation. The prediction rang in my ears when I saw the fulfillment before my eyes and I lauded and worshipped the truth.| Of the peace of Theodoret's earlier manhood Dr. Newman says in a sentence less open to criticism than another which shall be quoted further on, |There he laid deep within him that foundation of faith and devotion, and obtained that vivid apprehension of the world unseen and future which lasted him as a secret spring of spiritual strength all through the conflict and sufferings of the years that followed.|