As a young man, John Ushakov enlisted in the Preobrazhensky Guard Regiment in Petersburg, and attained the rank of sergeant. Life in the capital was fraught with great spiritual danger for a young person, but God delivered John from the wrong path.
When John was twenty, at a drinking party with his friends, one of them suddenly collapsed and died. They all experienced fear and sadness, but this seemed to affect John more than the others.This incident is remarkably similar to the circumstances surrounding the death of Major Andrew Petrov, the husband of Blessed Xenia of Saint Petersburg (January 24), but it may be only coincidental.
In any case, John decided to leave Saint Petersburg and live in the wilderness, dedicating himself to God. While walking near the city of Yaroslavl disguised as a laborer, he saw his uncle out with his servants. His uncle did not recognize him because of his poor clothing, but John was reminded of his former life of luxury and ease. He soon banished this thought and resolved to dwell in the wilderness.
While walking in the forests near the White Sea, John came upon an abandoned cell, so he decided to remain there in solitude and pray to God. He lived there for three years in great hardship and affliction. Government regulations of the time enjoined citizens not to permit monks to live in the forests. When John came to the village for supplies, he was beaten within an inch of his life, and was forced to flee.
John eventually came to the region south of Kiev, reaching the Ploschansk Monastery. He begged the igumen to accept him, saying that he was the son of a priest. He could not admit to being a sergeant of the Guard, since legal obstacles would have made it very difficult for him to enter monastic life.
The igumen would not accept him for a long time, since he did not have the proper identification papers. Finally, he did accept John and assigned him to read in church. After hearing him read, the igumen realized that John was not from a priestly family, but probably belonged to the nobility. Fearing trouble with the authorities, he ordered John to live in the forest near the monastery where other ascetics were living. He found an empty cell and received the blessing of these Fathers to remain there.
When a team of investigators came to the forest looking for monks living there illegally, John was caught. Since he had no documents and admitted to being a sergeant in the Guard, he was brought to Saint Petersburg and taken to the empress Elizabeth. When he was taken to the empress, she asked, “Why did you desert my regiment?”
John explained that he had done so in order to save his soul. Elizabeth forgave him and was willing to restore him to his former rank, but John said that he did not want his former life or rank.
The empress then asked why he had snuck away in secret instead of asking to be discharged. John replied, “If I had troubled Your Majesty with such a request, you would not have believed that a young man such as I could have borne such a burden. I have now been tested in the spiritual life, and I ask Your Majesty to bless me to continue in it until my death.”
Elizabeth agreed to this, but stipulated that he should remain in the Saint Alexander Nevsky Lavra in Saint Petersburg. Soon, at her express command, John was tonsured in August of 1748 at the age of twenty-nine. Archbishop Theodosius, who then governed the monastery, ordered that he be named Theodore, in honor of Saint Theodore of Yaroslavl (September 19).
While Father Theodore was in the Lavra, people would visit and ask him about how to please God while living in the world. He tried to tell them that there were older, wiser monks there who would be able to instruct them better than he could. Still, they insisted, so he tried to help them. He found, however, that he could not always answer their questions or find solutions to their problems, so he began to read patristic books, especially the works of Saint John Chrysostom, asking God to enlighten him so he could understand the Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers. He learned many things from his reading, and he was able to instruct people for their spiritual profit. This caused jealousy among some of the older monks, who complained to the archbishop that this young monk was attracting people to himself and disturbing the tranquility of the monastery. The hierarch ordered that no visitor requesting to see Father Theodore should be admitted.
Father Theodore went to the steward of the monastery, asking him why people could not see him. He was told that because he presumed to instruct people, attracting many visitors, that the routine of the monastery was disrupted.
“If there is something in my teaching which seems unlawful to His Eminence,” Father Theodore responded, “then he should question me. It is sinful, however, to cause unnecessary sorrow to those seek spiritual profit.”
The archbishop was furious, but he ordered that people should be allowed to see Father Theodore again. The jealousy and difficulties continued for ten years, and Father Theodore endured his trials with patience. In 1757, he wanted to transfer to Sarov Monastery, and when the brethren of the Lavra found out about this, they insisted that he submit a written request for transfer.
Obtaining his release, Father Theodore left Saint Petersburg with many of his disciples, male and female. Along the way they stopped at Saint Nicholas Convent in Arzamas, where he settled his women disciples. Soon they moved to the vacant Alexeyevsky Convent. The male disciples went with him to Sarov.
In 1759, after two years at Sarov, Father Theodore asked Igumen Ephraim to let him have the Sanaxar Monastery, because the number of his disciples had increased. Sanaxar had been founded in 1659, but was closed by Tsar Peter I in the first half of the eighteenth century, and the property was administered by the Sarov Monastery. After moving to Sanaxar Hermitage, Father Theodore began the work of building cells and storerooms. Bishop Pachomius of Tambov appointed Father Theodore as the Superior. He also ordained the reluctant Father Theodore to the holy priesthood on December 13, 1762. Father Theodore began setting things in order, establishing a Rule for the reverent, unhurried celebration of the services. He also set down a cell Rule for the monks to follow. Everyone shared in the work (except those who were too old or too sick), including the Superior.
The number of monks at Sanaxar continued to increase, but not all of them had been tonsured. It was necessary to obtain permission to have them tonsured, for the number of monks allowed to live in a monastery was regulated by law. On April 23, 1763 Empress Catherine II decreed that all of Father Theodore’s monks should be tonsured. The following year, she issued a decree limiting the number of monasteries, those not specifically approved would be closed.
Sanaxar Hermitage was among the monastic institutions scheduled to be closed, but it remained open through Father Theodore’s efforts. Father Theodore was raised to the rank of igumen in October of 1764, and Sanaxar was reclassified as a Monastery on March 7, 1765.
Because of the number of brethren, it became necessary to build a larger stone church to replace the small wooden one. A foundation was dug and a Molieben served at the site. Suddenly, a swarm of bees came and settled on the spot where the altar would be. This was taken as a sign of an increase in the number of brethren, and an abundance of grace in the monastery.
According to N. Subbotin’s 1862 book on Archimandrite Theophanes of the Saint Cyril of New Lake Monastery (who was a novice at Sanaxar at the same time that Saint Herman was), Igumen Theodore ordered a monk named Herman to brush the bees into a hive. It is probable that this was the future Saint Herman of Alaska (December 13). In another edition of the book, the brother’s name is given as Gerasimus. After this account, Subbotin mentions “Father Herman, who is now in America.” The discrepency in names may be explained if Saint Herman’s name before his tonsure was Gerasimus. Saint Herman, in one of his letters to Father Nazarius, says that he had friends at Sarov and Sanaxar, so Saint Theodore may have been one of Saint Herman’s early instructors.
Saint Theodore once visited Saint Tikhon (August 13) at the Zadonsk Monastery. It is not known how long the two had known one another, but the retired bishop received him with love. This visit was providential, because Saint Tikhon also knew what it was to suffer offenses from superiors, from worldly-minded monks, and from laymen. Perhaps he even advised Father Theodore on how to endure the trials which lay ahead of him.
When Father Theodore returned to Sanaxar a royal edict was delivered to him by a courier. It ordered him to be sent as an exile to Solovki Monastery as a troublemaker. He was deprived of the rank of Igumen and Hieromonk, and the Superior of Solovki was ordered to keep a close eye on him. Father Theodore remained there for nine years (1774-1783).
His release came about thanks to his disciple Archimandrite Theophanes (Sokolov), who found himself assigned as cell attendant to Metropolitan Gabriel of Saint Petersburg. Desiring to help his Elder, Father Theophanes made the Metropolitan aware of Father Theodore’s situation. His Eminence asked Father Theophanes to prepare a memorandum setting forth the facts of the case in detail. As a result, Metropolitan Gabriel asked Empress Catherine II to release Father Theodore and permit him to return to Sanaxar.
On April 18, 1783 she issued a decree authorizing his release. Because of his weakened condition from the cold and fumes from smoky stoves, it took him a long time to make his way back to Sanaxar. He arrived at Arzamas Monastery on October 9, 1783 where he was greeted by the sisters, and by two hieromonks from Sanxar. Others were also on hand to meet the Elder: superiors from other monasteries, respected nobles, merchants, and ordinary men and women. He stayed about a week, instructing the nuns each day. Finally, he prepared to return to Sanaxar. The entire brotherhood came to meet him at the ferry on the Moksha River. After receiving his blessing, they accompanied him on the walk to Sanaxar. Father Theodore thanked the brethren for their continued love, and for completing the church without him.
Within a few days after his return, Father Theodore faced renewed persecution. Hierodeacon Hilarion accused him of being “a heretic and an atheist,” and placed these accusations before the Holy Synod. They determined that Hierodeacon Hilarion was at fault and should be punished. He later asked Father Theodore’s forgiveness in front of the whole community.
The Superior of the Monastery, Father Benedict, was jealous of Father Theodore because of the crowds of visitors who came to see him. He complained to the local bishop, saying that the quiet of the monastery was being disturbed by so many people. Investigators were sent, but they did not interview anyone who might have said anything favorable to Father Theodore. As a result, Father Theodore was forbidden to receive visitors.
Once again, Father Theophanes brought the Elder’s plight to the attention of Metropolitan Gabriel. His Eminence sent a note saying that he was well-disposed toward Father Theodore. As a result, he was given a bit more freedom, but his disciples could only seek his advice by writing letters.
Father Benedict became ill, and Father Theodore went to his cell to ask his forgiveness. Father Benedict turned his face to the wall and refused to speak to the Elder. After suffering for a while, Father Benedict died on December 27, 1778.
After the Superior’s death, Father Theodore was once again permitted to visit the nuns of the Alexeyevsky Convent at Arzamas. After delivering a moving homily on Psalm 136 (“By the rivers of Babylon”) he left Arzamas and stopped at the monastery in Sarov. There he asked forgiveness of everyone, then rushed back to Sanaxar. He arrived on Wednesday of Cheesefare Week and spoke to his disciples in his cell around noon. Then he dismissed them to return to their cells.
Two noble disciples of Saint Theodore remained behind to ask his advice. Suddenly his expression changed and he began to weep for about fifteen minutes, lamenting how he had sinned in his youth. Then he ordered them to their cells, saying that he was feeling weak.
It was not rare for the Elder to be ill, but this weakness seemed unusual. His two disciples left and returned to their cells. Soon after this, his cell attendant knocked on the door with the customary prayer, but received no reply. He entered the cell and found Father Theodore lying on his bed and praying, so he left and told the brethren about this. They all came to see him, but he would not speak.
About five hours later, around nine o’clock on the evening of February 19, 1791, Saint Theodore surrendered his soul to God.
Saint Theodore’s relics were uncovered on April 21, 1999, and he was glorified for local veneration on June 28, 1999. He was glorified for national veneration by the Orthodox Church of Russia in 2004.
Saint Theodore of Sanaxar, who is also commemorated on April 21 (the uncovering of his relics in 1999), should not be confused with his famous relative Saint Theodore (Ushakov), Admiral of the Russian Fleet (October 2).