Saint of the Day: St. Theophylactos

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, St. Theophylactos, is found in Volume 1 of the series.)

Saint Theophylaktos

The power of an emperor in the Byzantine Empire was a guarantee against any serious political differences because his authority was never challenged in this area. But in matters of religion, in which he was also supreme, voices were raised against him by Church leaders who stood their ground in defense of the faith regardless of consequences. One whose voice was never muffled by the awesome utterance of royalty was Theophylaktos, the bishop of Nikomedia, whose quiet mien belied the fierce determination with which he would have taken a stand against all odds like an eighth-century David whose sling contained the rock of truth against any Goliath, royalty or commoner.

At the center of the burning issues which were ravaging the Church in the days of the peace-loving but determined Theophylaktos, was the Iconoclastic movement which he deplored but which the unknowledgeable Emperor Leo the Armenian supported, on the side of the short-sighted who looked upon the icons of the Church as paganistic menaces. It was the contention of Theophylaktos and other brighter churchmen that the icons were symbols of veneration, representing a holy group without whom there might very well not have been a church in which to worship Jesus Christ.

The iconoclasts were a stubborn lot, particularly since they were able to win over the supreme civil authority, as a result of which the controversy raged more than one hundred fifty years, during which time there was a serious erosion of the Christian spirit. Men like Theophylaktos tried to reason with the dissenters to no avail in what grew to be a bloodless religious war not much different from a civil war that puts brother against brother in a bitter dispute that demeans all concerned. The real sufferer in this shameful strife was the Savior, who must have looked down with anguish at this sorry scene, where men of goodwill had become combatants.

The dedicated administrative skill of Theophylaktos as bishop of Nikomedia was diverted from the worthy causes in which he was constantly improving the spiritual and general welfare of his see, to take up the defense of the holy wallpaper. It was little wonder then that this exalted prelate was called upon by Patriarch Nikephoros, who had succeeded the compromising Patriarch Tarasios, to lead a contingent of other selected prelates with a view to convincing the emperor he had been misled by Theophylaktos, together with Bishop Michael of Synada, Bishop Emilianos of Kyzikos, Bishop Euthymios of Sardes, Bishop Joseph of Thessaloniki and Bishop Eudoxios of Amorion formed as holy a squad as ever marched together for the Savior. They were received in the palace at Constantinople in a cool greeting by Emperor Leo who barely acknowledged their presence, let alone recognized his indebtedness to men who had made the wearisome journey, right or wrong, in the interests of the Church of Jesus Christ. After a strained exchange of pleasantries, the bishops took up the matter of their purpose and as respectfully and delicately as possible presented their case, taking care not to offend the volatile Leo. 

There was no appeasing or convincing the obstinate Leo, who construed their presentation to be an affront to the royal sensitivities, and whenever one of the bishops would try to reason more, the cleric would be shouted down by the emperor, who declared that icons would be removed from every church and monastery and even every private home in the realm. It was then that Theophylaktos raised his voice, stunning Leo with a verbal blast that blistered his royal ears, saying that the uninformed Leo, the greatest heretic of them all, would one day feel the wrath of God and that his chosen path would lead to his destruction.

Bishop Theophylaktos was ordered to be exiled by the enraged Leo, who then turned and offered him clemency if he would reverse his stand. The bishop said he preferred banishment and found himself an outcast in a bleak area of Strovylon, a pariah in an isolated strand from which he was never to return. After thirty years in disfavor he died, but on the assassination of Leo, the body of the bishop was returned for burial by order of the Empress Theodora. He is commemorated on the day of his death, March 8.

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