On Sunday, June 5, 1537, in church for Divine Liturgy, Theodore felt intensely in his soul the words of the Savior: “No man can serve two masters” (Mt.6:24), which determined his ultimate destiny. Praying fervently to the Moscow wonderworkers, and without bidding farewell to his relatives, he secretly left Moscow in the attire of a peasant, and for a while he hid himself away from the world in the village of Khizna, near Lake Onega, earning his livelihood as a shepherd.
His thirst for ascetic deeds led him to the renowned Solovki monastery on the White Sea. There he fulfilled very difficult obediences: he chopped firewood, dug the ground, and worked in the mill. After a year and a half of testing, the igumen Alexis tonsured him, giving him the monastic name Philip and entrusting him in obedience to the Elder Jonah Shamina, a converser with Saint Alexander of Svir (August 30).
Under the guidance of experienced elders Philip grew spiritually, and progressed in fasting and prayer. Igumen Alexis sent him to work at the monastery forge, where Saint Philip combined the activity of unceasing prayer with his work with a heavy hammer.
In 1546 at Novgorod the Great, Archbishop Theodosius made Philip igumen of the Solovki monastery. The new igumen strove with all his might to exalt the spiritual significance of the monastery and its founders, Saints Sabbatius and Zosimus of Solovki (September 27, April 17). He searched for the Hodigitria icon of the Mother of God brought to the island by the first head of Solovki, Saint Sabbatius. He located the stone cross which once stood before the saint’s cell. The Psalter belonging to Saint Zosimus (+1478), the first igumen of Solovki, was also found. His robe, in which igumens would vest during the service on the days when Saint Zosimus was commemorated, was also discovered.
The monastery experienced a spiritual revival. A new monastic Rule was adopted to regulate life at the monastery. Saint Philip built majestic temples: a church of the Dormition of the Mother of God, consecrated in the year 1557, and a church of the Transfiguration of the Lord. The igumen himself worked as a simple laborer, helping to build the walls of the Transfiguration church. Beneath the north portico he dug himself a grave beside that of his guide, the Elder Jonah. Spiritual life in these years flourished at the monastery: struggling with the brethren with the disciples of Igumen Philip were Saints John and Longinus of Yarenga (July 3) and Bassian and Jonah of Pertominsk (July 12).
Saint Philip often withdrew to a desolate wilderness spot for quiet prayer, two versts from the monastery, which was later known as the Philippov wilderness.
But the Lord was preparing the saint for other work. In Moscow, Tsar Ivan the Terrible fondly remembered the Solovki hermit from his childhood. The Tsar hoped to find in Saint Philip a true companion, confessor and counsellor, who in his exalted monastic life had nothing in common with the sedition of the nobles. The Metropolitan of Moscow, in Ivan’s opinion, ought to have a certain spiritual meekness to quell the treachery and malice within the Boyar soul. The choice of Saint Philip as archpastor of the Russian Church seemed to him the best possible.
Ivan the Terrible, one of the greatest and most contradictory figures in Russian history, lived an intensely busy life. He was a talented writer and bibliophile , he was involved in compiling the Chronicles (and himself suddenly cut the thread of the Moscow chronicle writing), he examined the intricacies of the monastic Rule, and more than once he thought about abdicating the throne for the monastic life.
Every aspect of governmental service, all the measures undertaken to restructure civil and social life, Ivan the Terrible tried to rationalize as a manifestation of Divine Providence, as God acting in history. His beloved spiritual heroes were Saint Michael of Chernigov (September 20) and Saint Theodore the Black (September 19), military men active with complex contradictory destinies, moving toward their ends through whatever the obstacles before them, and fulfilling their duties to the nation and to the Church.
The more the darkness thickened around Ivan, the more resolutely he demanded cleansing and redemption of his soul. Journeying on pilgrimage to the Saint Cyril of White Lake monastery, he declared his wish to become a monk to the igumen and the brethren. The haughty autocrat fell on his knees before the igumen, who blessed his intent. Ivan wrote, “it seems to me, an accursed sinner, that I am already robed in black.”
Ivan imagined the Oprichnina in the form of a monastic brotherhood, serving God with weapons and military deeds. The Oprichniki were required to dress in monastic garb and attend long and tiring church services, lasting from 4 to 10 o’clock in the morning. “Brethren” not in church at 4 o’clock in the morning, were given a penance by the Tsar. Ivan and his sons fervently wished to pray and sing in the church choir. From church they went to the trapeza, and while the Oprichniki ate, the Tsar stood beside them. The Oprichniki gathered leftover food from the table and distributed it to the poor at the doorway of the trapeza.
Ivan, with tears of repentance and wanting to be an esteemer of the holy ascetics, the teachers of repentance, wanted to wash and burn away his own sins and those of his companions, cherishing the assurance that even his terribly cruel actions would prove to be for the welfare of Russia and the triumph of Orthodoxy. The most clearly spiritual action and monastic sobriety of Ivan the Terrible is revealed in his “Synodikon.” Shortly before his death, he ordered full lists compiled of the people murdered by him and his Oprichniki. These were then distributed to all the Russian monasteries. Ivan acknowledged all his sins against the nation, and besought the holy monks to pray to God for the forgiveness of his tormented soul.
The pseudo-monasticism of Ivan the Terrible, a dark most grievous oppression over Russia, tormented Saint Philip, who considered it impossible to mix the earthly and the heavenly, serving the Cross and serving the sword. Saint Philip saw how much unrepentant malice and envy was concealed beneath the black cowls of the Oprichniki. There were outright murderers among them, hardened in lawless bloodletting, and profiteers seeking gain, rooted in sin and transgressions. By the sufferance of God, history is often made by the hands of the impious, and Ivan the Terrible wanted to whiten his black brotherhood before God. The blood spilled by its thugs and fanatics cried out to Heaven.
Saint Philip decided to oppose Ivan. This was prompted by a new wave of executions in the years 1567-1568. In the autumn of 1567, just as the Tsar was setting out on a campaign against Livonia, he learned about a boyar conspiracy. The plotters intended to seize the Tsar and deliver him to the Polish king, who already was on the move with an army towards Russian territory.
Ivan dealt severely with the conspirators, and again he shed much blood. It was bitter for Saint Philip, and the conscience of the saint compelled him boldly to enter into defense of the executed. The final rift occurred in the spring of 1568. On the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, March 2, 1568, when the Tsar with his Oprichniki entered the Dormition cathedral in monastic garb, as was their custom, Saint Philip refused to bless him, and began openly to denounce the lawless acts committed by the Oprichniki. The accusations of the hierarch shattered the harmony of the church service. In a rage Ivan retorted, “Would you oppose us? We shall see your firmness! I have been too soft on you.”
The Tsar began to show ever greater cruelty in persecuting all those who opposed him. Executions followed one after the other. The fate of the saintly confessor was sealed. But Ivan wanted to preserve a semblance of canonical propriety. The Boyar Duma obediently carried out his decision to place the Primate of the Russian Church on trial. A cathedral court was set up to try Metropolitan Philip in the presence of a diminished Boyar Duma, and false witnesses were found. To the deep sorrow of the saint, these were monks of the Solovki monastery, his former disciples and novices whom he loved. They accused Saint Philip of a multitude of transgressions, including sorcery.
“Like all my ancestors,” the saint declared, “I came into this world prepared to suffer for truth.” Having refuted all the accusations, the holy sufferer attempted to halt the trial by volunteering to resign his office. His resignation was not accepted, however, and new abuse awaited the martyr.
Even after a sentence of life imprisonment had been handed down, they compelled Saint Philip to serve Liturgy in the Dormition cathedral. This was on November 8, 1568. In the middle of the service, the Oprichniki burst into the temple, they publicly read the council’s sentence of condemnation, and then abused the saint. Tearing his vestments off, they dressed him in rags, dragged him out of the church and drove him off to the Theophany monastery on a simple peasant’s sledge.
For a long while they held the martyr in the cellars of the Moscow monasteries. They placed his feet into stocks, they held him in chains, and put a heavy chain around his neck. Finally, they drove him off to the Tver Otroch monastery. And there a year later, on December 23,1569, the saint was put to death at the hands of Maliuta Skuratov. Only three days before this the saint foresaw the end of his earthly life and received the Holy Mysteries. At first, his relics were committed to earth there at the monastery, beyond the church altar. Later, they were transferred to the Solovki monastery (August 11, 1591) and from there to Moscow (July 3, 1652).
Initially, the memory of Saint Philip was celebrated by the Russian Church on December 23, the day of his martyric death. In 1660, the celebration was transferred to January 9.