Blessed Theophylact was born in the mid eleventh century, in the city of Chalcis, located on the Euripus Strait (which separates the island of Euboea from the Greek mainland). In a letter to the brother of Empress Maria, he mentions his relatives in Euripus, and one ancient list of Bulgarian archbishops directly identifies Theophylact as originating from Euripus. It seems that he spent most of his early life in Constantinople: in one of his letters, he calls himself a true Constantinopolitan. In this and other letters, he expresses a devotion to Constantinople, which could only have been acquired by living there a long time.
Blessed Theophylact began his clerical service in Constantinople as one of the deacons of Hagia Sophia, “the Great Church,” as it has been called since the time since it was first completed in 360. These deacons were held in high esteem. As close assistants of the Patriarch, they shared with him almost all the work of his ministry; one helped him manage the patriarchate, while others took turns giving sermons for him. Blessed Theophylact was among the latter and held the title of “Rhetorician of the Great Church.” It was his responsibility to explain the Scriptures and to write instructive sermons on behalf of the Patriarch. In one document dating from this period, Blessed Theophylact is named “Master of Rhetoric”; but that does not necessarily mean that he taught rhetoric to those who were preparing for positions as orators (public speakers). This title of distinction was given to rhetoricians who were particularly noted for their gift for preaching, and therefore could serve as an example for less capable and experienced preachers.
That Blessed Theophylact was rightly named “Master of Rhetoric” is best evidenced by his written works. From his extensive writings (letters and scriptural commentaries), we can see that he had a thorough knowledge of theology and was highly versed in the Scriptures. It was the duty of a rhetorician to explain to the people the meaning of the Scriptures. His writings also reveal that he possessed a considerable knowledge of secular learning; he was especially well versed in ancient classical literature. He was not the only churchman to have undertaken the study of secular sciences: other teachers of the church, understanding the importance of secular learning in pastoral ministry, had also advocated that these sciences not be neglected. Blessed Theophylact’s gifts of preaching brought him renown in the imperial court. The highest court dignitaries showed him respect; the pious Empress Maria herself was his patron.
For many years Blessed Theophylact held the honored positions of deacon of the Great Church of Constantinople and instructor of rhetoric. In a letter written shortly after leaving these positions, he already refers to himself as an “old man.” His talent for preaching was probably the reason why the Patriarch had kept him in these relatively low, but very important, positions for as long as possible. However, in order to put his many talents to greater use, the Patriarch and the Emperor assigned him to a more challenging and extensive field of activity: he was elevated to the rank of archbishop of the Great Church.
The date of his ascent to the episcopal throne cannot be determined precisely. We can say only that it took place some time before 1081. The basis of this date is as follows: having attained the rank of archbishop, Blessed Theophylact wrote a letter to the philosopher, John Italus, with the request that John act as an intercessor for him before the Emperor. John, however, enjoyed the confidence of only two emperors, Michael VII Doukas (1067-1078), who was removed from the throne in 1078, and Nikephoros III Botaneiates, who reigned until 1081. However, since Theophylact writes to John that he had not seen him for a long time, we can assume that the transfer of the hierarch from Constantinople to Bulgaria took place during the reign of Emperor Michael VII Doukas, that is, some time before 1078.
During the reign of Justinian the Great (527-565), the diocese of Bulgaria had been granted autonomy by the patriarchate of Constantinople. Out of respect for his homeland Justinian raised the local bishop to the rank of archbishop and granted autonomy to the Church of Bulgaria. Justinian also conquered all the areas that later became Bulgaria and Serbia. Later, when the Bulgarians converted to Christianity in 927, these areas were subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople, according to the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451), which granted the same privileges to Constantinople as those bestowed on Rome. However, disputes between the popes and the patriarchs concerning the management of the Bulgarian Church, as well as frequent wars between the Bulgarians and the Greeks, caused the Bulgarian kings to claim the ancient rights bestowed by Justinian upon their church. The temporary release of the Bulgarian Church from subordination to the patriarchate of Constantinople most likely occurred during the reign of Simeon the Great (ruler of Bulgaria from 893 to 927). The recognition of the autocephalus Bulgarian Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 927 makes the Bulgarian Orthodox Church the oldest of the autocephalous Slavic Orthodox churches. The location of the episcopal throne of the Bulgarian archbishop was moved several times, and finally located in the Bulgarian capital, Ochrid, which had been so named by Justinian.
The rights of the Bulgarian Church were preserved even after the Greek Emperor Basil II defeated the Bulgars in 1018 and forced them to submit to the Byzantine Empire. But for half of the eleventh century, archbishops for Bulgaria were not native Bulgarians, but Greeks sent from Constantinople. Blessed Theophylact was the fifth Greek archbishop of Bulgaria. He ascended the archepiscopal throne in 1084, following the repose of Archbishop John III (Ainosa).
Difficult challenges awaited Blessed Theophylact in Bulgaria. In addition to the coarse simplicity of the Bulgarians, which at first made a poor impression on him, he encountered many problems that would have overwhelmed the most zealous bishop. The Bulgarian Church was plagued by the activity of numerous heretical groups. First the Paulicians, and then the Bogomils, sowed pernicious false beliefs among the people: their large numbers enabled them to make brazen attacks on the defenders of Orthodoxy. The Church suffered considerably from Bulgaria's rulers in external matters and was subjected to frequent devastation by foreign enemies. Moreover, the Bulgarians themselves grumbled incessantly at their political humiliation.
During the reign of Emperor Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078), the Bulgarians had attempted a revolt against the Greeks. Although silenced by force of arms, they continued to plan an armed uprising the next time the opportunity arose, in order to regain their freedom. Therefore, the letters in the first years of Blessed Theophylact's tenure as archbishop contained many complaints about his appointment in Bulgaria.
At first, life among the Bulgarians seemed to him an imprisonment, and he even requested that he be relieved from his difficult lot. He wrote to the Empress Maria and to the Grand Domestic; but not expecting to be dismissed, he prayed to God to deliver him from his troubles or to lighten them with His consolation. And the Lord eased his burden. Little by little he got used to his position in Bulgaria; he began to love the Bulgarians for their simple but sincere devotion, and in the face of any and all opposition he administered his churches with fatherly diligence. Obstacles placed before him by his enemies only increased his zeal in doing good.
Blessed Theophylact displayed wisdom in his archpastoral decrees and applied them astutely. In order to give spiritual enlightenment to the people, he knew that he would require, above all, capable assistants. Therefore he paid close attention to the selection of worthy pastors, especially in regards to bishops. By personally selecting the Bulgarian bishops, he obtained good results, as he himself admits. Some of them won the approval of the people for their prudence and piety; others were reknowned for eloquence and learning; while others, noted for their strict monastic life, attained the episcopal dignity. Not finding enough educated pastors among the Bulgarians, he also chose bishops from the Greeks in Constantinople, provided that he found them spiritually worthy of such recognition. Knowing that the inability to adapt to the external needs of the people can harm a chief pastor in his ministry, Blessed Theophylact sought bishops who were astute, not only in spiritual matters, but in the secular sphere as well. His desire to find a true archpastor to place in the episcopacy dominated any other motive in him. Neither kinship to the candidate, nor friendship, nor petitioning from others could force him to choose someone he deemed unworthy, or who was unknown to him. He confronted the obvious danger of being persecuted for denying a request with the courage and firmness of a confessor.
Once, when Doukas, the governor of Skopje, asked Blessed Theophylact to make a certain man a bishop, Blessed Theophylact replied with firmness and dignity: "No, my lord. No one should interfere in this great work, which must be carried out with the fear of God. I will not so carelessly convey God's grace." The governor even promised to reward the saint for granting his request, but Blessed Theophylact replied: "Sir, if the one about whom you are petitioning is the same as the others that have been chosen, you should not thank me, but I, you. However, if he is not known by our churches, or has not received a special recommendation for his piety and education in Constantinople, then do not offend God by giving us orders. We are commanded to obey God rather than men" (Acts. 5:29).
However, even the wise selection of pastors was not enough to secure the welfare of the Church. Their activities also required unceasing oversight and vigilance. Blessed Theophylact understood this, and watched their every move. He tried, whenever possible, to prevent any deviation from a designated goal, and if such deviation had already taken place, he would try to correct it. In his own words, “(I) had no better consolation than to correct any evil that had been done.” He tirelessly and patiently disciplined anyone who was guilty, employing both strictness and economia. His actions in regards to the bishop of Triad may serve as an example. For some unknown reason, this bishop began to persecute the elderly abbot of a certain Monastery of St. John. He forbade the abbot to perform the Divine Services, drove him out of his monastery and subjected him to severe penances. The first time the persecuted abbot appealed to the archbishop, Blessed Theophylact persuaded the bishop to give his word that he would stop abusing the elder. But a short time later the bishop began again to antagonize the elder so fiercely that the archbishop found it necessary to appeal to the emperor himself. The emperor seems to have referred this case back to the spiritual court of the archbishop, because the abbot again appealed to Blessed Theophylact for protection. The holy archbishop was greatly distressed by his bishop's unjustifiable behavior. Although the elder was now dying, his persecutor stubbornly refused to give him any peace. Blessed Theophylact again wrote to him, strongly urging him to stop the persecution, and demanded that he give an account of his conduct at the nearest cathedral. The bishop, however, neither gave the elder any rest, nor attended the council to which he had been summoned to give an account of his actions. Blessed Theophylact saw that any further toleration would be contrary to the laws of justice. Together with his council of bishops, he banned the recalcitrant bishop from performing the divine services. The man persevered in his stubbornness, went in person to Constantinople, and spread much slander against the archbishop among his patrons. Blessed Theophylact soon learned about all this scheming. Nevertheless, when the defrocked bishop begged his forgiveness, the saint graciously forgave him and gave him absolution. "Just pray for me," he wrote to the bishop, "and bless, rather than curse, the one who loves you."
To understand better the needs of each church, Blessed Theophylact summoned his bishops to the cathedrals and there examined all the problems that had arisen. There he brought up problematic cases for general discussion. According to the canons of the church, local churches should assemble at regularly appointed times. Blessed Theophylact was so faithful to these sacred rules that nothing could impede keep him from fulfilling them. “I have still not recovered from a serious illness,” he wrote one day, while going to church. “But the sacred voice of canon law has summoned me to go to the holy cathedral. The voice of Christ stirs one from the bed with the command to carry the bed itself, giving strength for free movement of travel."
As head of the Bulgarian Church, Blessed Theophylact considered it his duty to protect its rights and property from any encroachment by outsiders, and in doing this, he also denied himself any personal gain. He would not tolerate any appropriation of what had belonged to the church of the faithful from previous centuries. At that time, in order to ease the dire poverty of their own churches, the local patriarchs and archbishops would sometimes decline to exercise some of their own rights, and appeal for patronage directly to the powerful patriarch of Constantinople. Although Blessed Theophylact saw that his Bulgarian Church could escape much of its physical suffering if he placed it under the protection of the patriarch of the capital city, in no way did he desire to sacrifice the canonical rights of the Bulgarian Church for temporary benefits. Once, a little known monk living in a remote area conceived the idea to found a church in the town of Kichevo. He did this without the blessing or knowledge of the holy hierarch, justifying himself by claiming that he had rececieved permission from the patriarch of Constantinople. The validity of this claim is uncertain. In any case, Blessed Theophylact considered it his obligation to prohibit this activity, since it was, as he wrote, “in accordance with neither the sacred cannons nor the laws of the kingdom." The monk in question had asserted that work had begun on the basis of the patriarchal law of stavropegial monasteries. "I forbid him," writes the holy hierarch, "for what relations are there between the Church of Bulgaria and the Patriarch of Constantinople? None at all. Constantinople posseses neither the right of ordination, nor any other rights, in Bulgaria. Bulgaria recognizes only its own archbishop as its head.”
Blessed Theophylact acted vigorously to protect the property of the Church, which the secular rulers of Bulgaria had been looting in order to have means to pay tribute to the king. As the Byzantine Empire declined internally and externally, the Greek Church often shared the burden of state taxes with the people. The Bulgarian Church, however, was forced to bear the burden of a double tier of taxes—one for the state's use and the other to satisfy the greed of the collectors themselves. Situated far away from the capital, these officials audaciously plundered church property under the pretense of collecting lawful fees. Blessed Theophylact received frequent reports about this from his bishops, who were unable to protect their own churches. The Archbishop observed the same unlawful activities in his own diocese, and took action to curb them. This caused the tax collectors to agitate against him as well. Hitherto enemies of the church at large, they now began to direct their enmity against him personally. Some of them, it would seem, had even more compelling reasons to hate him and to attack the Church of God.
In a letter to Bishop Kerkirskom, Blessed Theophylact generally refers to these agitators as "enemies of the Gospel confession of faith." In another letter to the same person, he describes one of them as a man who "refuses to venerate the Mother of God, who approves of anyone who acts maliciously towards the Church, and who mocks those who honor the Church feast days and attend church in order to hear the talks and sermons of the Archbishop.” Clearly these miscreants were heretics, either Paulicians or Bogomils, of which there very many in Bulgaria at the time. The stronger their hated for Orthodoxy, the more dangerous they became for the Church and for Bessed Theophylact. In Constantinople they spread slander against the holy hierarch, claiming that he was making himself rich at the expense of the impoverished Bulgarians. They even denounced him before the Emperor himself, who believed that the archbishop of Bulgaria had gained excessive power. In Bulgaria, a church official named Lazarus rose up in arms against him. This Lazarus traveled through Bulgaria speaking against the archbishop and stirring up those who had been excommunicated by him for heresy and other offenses forbidden by the canons of the Church.
Despite all the grief which accompanied Blessed Theophylact as he protected the church's rights and property, he did not lose his zeal for her welfare. He desired to be a father to his flock and did for her not only what was required by his office, but also that which Christian love prompted him to do. His fatherly diligence in behalf of the Bulgarian Church was especially evident during times of invasion by neighboring tribes and nations. Barbarians devastated the country, looted and burned the churches, plundered church property, and forced the clergy to hide in forests and deserts. With paternal love for the Bulgarian Church, Blessed Theophylact employed every means at his disposal to alleviate her distress. When these fell short, he asked others for help. He wrote to the son of the Sebastokrator, begging assisstance for a certain church which had been devasted by the enemy and left without a single bishop, priest or deacon. Even the laymen entrusted with guarding it had fled, leaving it abandoned. "I beg you," wrote Theophylact, "have mercy on this renowned church, built by the godly Bulgarian King Boris, along with seven other churches. He built it, and you must restore it, so that the Lord may renew the spirit of righteousness in you.” The cathedral church of one bishop was destroyed by fire during the devastation of the city. Blessed Theophylact, deeply anguished, comforted his brother bishop with a letter expressing his sorrow for the tribulations his brother was undergoing. In his humility, he thought that the churches’ afflictions were the result of his own sins. "Woe is me!" he cried out, in the words of the Prophet David. "For my sins, with fire have they burned down Thy sanctuary (Ps. 73:8). Who will give water to my head, and a fountain of tears to my eyes? Then would I weep for this my people day and night, even for the slain of the daughter of my people. (Jer. 9:1) O wretched city, would that the gourd of the Prophet Jonah, which has dried up, were to appear again! What could give greater consolation than the mother of my people―the Church of God?” In 1097, during an attack on Bulgaria by Apulians under the leadership of Bohemond, a leader of the First Crusade, Blessed Theophylact had to flee from Ochrid to Thessalonika.
In his care for the good estate of the Bulgarian Church, Blessed Theophylact made frequent trips to Constantinople to plead for the needs of his church; he mentions these journeys in many of his letters. He also had many other friends and protectors in the imperial city, who were a great consolation to him by giving considerable assistance and interceding for him before the emperor that funds be sent to help the poverty stricken Bulgarian churches and monasteries. The mutual esteem between Blessed Theophylact and the pious Empress Maria did not end when he was sent to Bulgaria, nor later, when she lived in seclusion in a convent. Indeed, during his visits, she asked him to undertake the education of her son, Constantine Doukas, heir to the throne. This request can not have been made during the time Theophylact was a teacher of rhetoric and a deacon of the Great Church (Hagia Sophia), since Constantine was born in 1074, only three years before the hierarch first left Constantinople for Bulgaria. Blessed Theophylact mentions the upbringing of Constantine in his essay, "On The Upbringing of a King". He writes that the boy had many other mentors, some of whom “formed in him the gift of words, others inspired good behavior, and others taught history.” It is conceivable that Theophylact’s education of Constantine was limited to the few lessons that he could give him during his short stay in the capital. The pious Empress revered the Bulgarian hierarch and hoped that even with these few lessons he might instill in the boy a deep piety, as well as a good education.
The exact date of Blessed Theophylact’s repose is not known. If Blessed Theophylact's accession to the throne of the archdiocese occurred during the last years of the reign of Emperor Michael VII Doukas (1067-1078), it appears that by 1107 he had governed the Bulgarian Church no less than thirty years. Thus we can safely assume that by 1107 he had already reached old age. In his letters which correspond to this year he also complains about a serious illness. Since there are no letters that can be attributed to him with certainty later than this year, it can be assumed that he came to the end his life—filled with so much spiritual labor—in 1107, or shortly thereafter.
Blessed Theophylact has been accorded the titles of “holy father” and “teacher of the Church.” These names are attributed to him in some ancient lists, as well as in early printed editions of his Slavonic Blagovestnik (the English version is titled, The Explanation of the New Testament, published in a series of volumes). Some Greek writers have also called him a saint. They quote his works—in particular, his commentary on the books of the New Testament—as the works of a saint, whose thoughts should be highly esteemed. Blessed Theophylact will always be revered, both for his written works and as a father and teacher of the Church.
From the Russian edition, Blagovestnik, Vol. 1, pp. 3-13, Sretensky Monastery, Moscow, 2004; translated into English by Darren Johnson and Catherine Shawki.