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Optina Hermitage

On the shores of the fast-running Zhizdra River, surrounded by a virgin forest, stood the Optina Hermitage, just several miles from the city of Kozelsk in the Kaluga province. It consisted of a majestic white Kremlin with 4 churches, fortress walls, and turrets. Optinas lofty spiritual life was in complete harmony with its external beauty. After visiting Optina, the Russian writer Gogol described it as possessing exclusive spirituality and having a beneficial influence on all its surroundings.

The exact time of Optinas appearance is unknown. According to tradition, it was founded in ancient times by the penitent brigand Optin. The city of Kozelsk is mentioned in the chronicles for the year 1146. In 1238, after a heroic defense, the city was captured by the Tatars, and all the inhabitants were killed. In the early 15th century Kozelsk came under the rule of Lithuania, then changed hands for half-a-century before ending up firmly with Moscow.

It is known that in 1625 the abbot of Optina was a certain Sergius. In 1630 the hermitage comprised a wooden church, six monastic cells and 12 monks, and was administered by hieromonk Theodore. Thus Optina is one of Russias most ancient monasteries.

Growth, decline, and revival

Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich and the local boyars donated lands to Optina and it began to flourish, but during the reforms of Peter the Great its lands were taken away, the monastery became impoverished, and finally was completely closed down in 1724; however, already by 1726 it was reopened upon the petition of the courtier Andrey Shepelev. After having been completely destroyed, the monastery slowly began to revive.

Optinas full revival was accomplished only in 1795, when it came to the attention of Metropolitan Plato of Moscow. A certain Father Avraamius was appointed abbot of the hermitage, and 12 monks were transferred there. Father Avraamius, though of a sickly constitution, did a great deal for the monastery: he put its economy in order, walled in the hermitage, settled court affairs in favor of the monastery, built a bell tower, a hospital church, and monastic cells for the brothers, and planted spacious gardens.

But it is to its next abbot, the Archimandrite Moses, that the Optina Hermitage owes its flourishing and its glory. Major construction jobs were undertaken in his time, extensive fruit orchards and vegetable gardens were planted, land estates increased twofold The flow of funds came from pilgrims who were attracted to the Optina Hermitage with its unique spirit reminiscent of ancient asceticism. Father Moses two brothers were also abbots of monasteries, and all of them were great ascetics and spiritually supported each other. Father Moses himself came to a realization of the essence and depth of spiritual life in his early youth. Afterwards he visited the clairvoyant eldress Dosithea in Moscow, who directed him towards the Sarov monastery, where he was instructed by St. Seraphim himself. Subsequently Father Moses spiritually labored among the hermits of the Roslavl forests in a manner similar to the ancient Egyptian desert-dwellers, spending 6 days in solitude, reading the entire daily cycle of services and engaging in the Jesus prayer, and on Sundays joining the other elders in communal prayer. The French invasion of 1812 interrupted Father Moses hermetic life, and he moved to the Beloberezhskaya Hermitage, where he met three prominent ascetics: Fathers Theodore and Cleopas (disciples of St. Paisius Velichkovskiy) and their brother in fasting, Father Leonid, the future famous Optina elder.

In 1821 Bishop Philaret of Kaluga talked Father Moses into moving to Optina and taking on the construction of a skete near the monastery. Together with Father Moses his younger brother, Father Anatoly, and two other monks, Hilarion and Sabbatius, also came to Optina.

Thus was founded the Optina skete, in which flourished the Optina eldership and which spread the glory of the Optina Hermitage not only throughout its environs, but throughout all of Russia.

Eldership in general

Grace-filled eldership is one of the highest achievements of the spiritual life of the Church, it is its cream, its crown of spiritual labors, the fruit of solitude and divine contemplation. It is organically related to inner monastic asceticism, which has as its purpose the achievement of a dispassionate state, and so it appeared together with monasticism at the dawn of Christianity. It also emerged in Russia with the arrival of Christianity there and became widespread, but in time it faded away and by the end of the 17th century disappeared and was forgotten, so that when it was revived in the early 18th century by Paisius Velichkovsky, it seemed to be something new and extraordinary. For this reason the church hierarchy often felt at a loss before this manifestation, which led to the frequent persecutions to which elders such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, several of the Optina elders, and others were subjected. However, not all hierarchs persecuted eldership of course; on the contrary, many sponsored it and even venerated it.

The Optina eldership

But the eldership of which we will speak, to wit, the Optina eldership, has its unique characteristics that distinguish it from the general concept of eldership. Although throughout the entire history of Christianity elders were considered to be all experienced monks who were not only entrusted with the spiritual care of young novices, but were also assigned to take care of the spiritual life of laymen, the Optina elders were distinguished by an exclusive profundity of spiritual life, personal holiness, and the gift of clairvoyance, and although they were primarily concerned with the spiritual purification and salvation of all those who came to them, nevertheless they also consistently aided people in their worldly affairs and troubles, and by virtue of clairvoyance were able to help people find a way out of their most hopeless situations; more-over, the elders also possessed the gifts of healing and miracle-working.

Optina eldership
Optina eldership

A strict keeper of the fast and ascetic himself, Father Moses was full of the most tender love for people and commiserated with their frailties and sins. His art of talking with each person in the latters own manner was incomparable: with educated people he spoke on an intellectual level, while with simple folk he spoke in accordance with their understanding of things and their manner of speech. He understood full well the needs of each person, and he had infinite compassion for the poor.

He was also distinguished by extraordinary humility. I am worse than all others, Father Moses would often say. Other perhaps only think that they are the worst, but I know for sure that I am worse than others. Thus the elder spoke humbly of himself, but it was obvious to those who were close to him and knew his life that he possessed many spiritual gifts, including the gift of contemplative prayer. In 1825 Father Moses was appointed abbot of the Optina monastery, while his brother, Father Anatoly, became the abbot of the skete. Having gone through the same school of asceticism in the Roslavl forests as his brother, he, too, was distinguished by extreme humility and obedience. He did not make any decisions without the blessing of his elder and brother, Father Moses. Due to the heavy physical work he personally had to do in helping his brother build the skete, already at the age of 40 he had open wounds on his legs, which did not heal to the end of his life and caused him great suffering. At the same time he had to do many things himself, because many of the monks, especially those who served, were quite elderly. But under his administration there was amazing order and beauty in the skete, which greatly impressed all visitors.

However, neither Father Anatoly, nor Father Moses took upon themselves the direct responsibility of spiritual leadership of the monastery brotherhood. Yet, being great elders themselves, they understood the importance of eldership and provided the great elders whom they attracted to the Optina skete with a wide scope of activity. Thus the planting and flourishing of eldership in the Optina Hermitage was due to the efforts of these two elders. Unfortunately, Bishop Nikolay of Kaluga did not understand eldership, and he brought great woe to the elders and would have harmed their efforts even more, had it not been for the intercession of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, who profoundly understood and appreciated the significance of eldership.

From the time of Peter the Great a process of denationalization was taking place among Russian intelligentsia: they admired all things coming from the West and disdained their own native ones; the finding of something positive in ones homeland was considered to be a divergence from the norm and was mocked. Similarly the field of religion was being infiltrated by the spirit of Western Protestantism, and genuine ancient Orthodoxy was being extinguished. National, patriotic, as well as religious feelings continued to be preserved only among the common people.

The war of 1812 somewhat revived the spirit of patriotism, but even such great writers as Pushkin, Lermontov, and others had to pay for any deep expression of patriotic feelings. It was at this point in time that the Optina Hermitage became a certain counterfoil to all that was happening around it; it became a guiding light for many writers and philosophers, not to mention common people who were seeking the meaning of life in true Orthodoxy. For them Optina represented a union of the supreme spiritual endeavor of constant prayer that was crowned by an abundance of grace coming from acquiring the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and service to the world in all its fullness, covering both its spiritual and earthly needs. Moreover, up until that time, due to the religious regulation of Peter the Great and the decrees of 1787 and 1808, the publication of books of spiritual content was left to the sole discretion of the Holy Synod, and such books could be printed only by its printing press. As a result, only one ascetic book the Philokalia was published in 1793, and readers were deprived of spiritual literature, while at the same time civil publications spewed out a multitude of translations of Western pseudo-mystical works, many of which, published with the permission of civil censors, were openly hostile to Orthodoxy. In these circumstances the publication of the works of the Holy Fathers was of great and historical significance. Due to the presence of highly-educated elders, the great and multi-faceted help of various writers, men of letters, and philosophers, as well as full understanding, support, and blessing on the part of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, the works and lives of prominent Church Fathers, both ancient and contemporaries such as Paisius Velichkovsky, were translated from Greek and Slavonic into Russian and were published. This publication began in mid-19th century, and by the end of that century the library founded by Father Moses contained 5,000 books.

The published books were sent out to academies, seminaries, libraries, ruling bishops, and inspectors, and the this formerly inaccessible ascetic literature became accessible to monastics and all religiously-oriented Russian people. True Orthodoxy shone forth and became fortified against Western falsely-oriented books. Thus the appearance of these Orthodox books was an event impossible to evaluate in simple words.

Special merit in the undertaking of this great deed, on a par with elder Macarius, of whom we will speak separately, belonged to the prominent Russian philosopher Ivan Vasilyevich Kireyevsky and his wife (the first editions, besides the couples work on them, were published at their personal expense).

Elder Ambrose

The period of eldership of Elder Ambrose was different from the time in which his predecessors labored. First of all, initially there was no regular postal, telegraph, or railway communication as in Father Ambroses time; moreover, in his time the situation of the Church in general and of monasteries in particular had improved dramatically. Secondly, the tradition of eldership had already become established in this monastery, and the fame of the Optina Hermitage had spread throughout Russia.

After his arrival at Optina, Elder Ambrose found such pillars of monasticism there as Abbot Moses and the elders Leo and Macarius. Furthermore, there were quite a number of prominent ascetics among the brothers there.

In general, monasticism under the leadership of the elders carried a special imprint of spiritual virtue. Simplicity, meekness, and humility were the distinguishing characteristics of Optina monasticism. The younger monks did their best to humble themselves, not only before their elders, but also before their equals, fearing to offend others even with a single glance, and at the least provocation they immediately asked forgiveness of each other.

Elder Ambrose was born Alexander Mikhaylovich Grenkov in the Bolshaya Lipovitsa village in the Tambov province on November 23, 1812. His father was a sacristan, while his grandfather was a priest. There were 8 children in the family. In his childhood Alexander was a very lively, merry, and bright boy, but for his pranks and extreme mischievousness he was not too well-liked in the family. He simply was unable to fit into the mold of a strict, patriarchal family. At first he read in church together with his father. Afterwards he was sent to a religious academy and then on to a seminary. He had extraordinary ability. In July of 1836 he graduated with top marks and a commendation for excellent behavior.

Initially he worked as a house tutor, then became a teacher at the Lipetsk religious academy. He was loved in society for his quick wit and cheerful character. Soon, however, he fell seriously ill. There was almost no hope of recovery, and so he made a vow to enter a monastery if he recovered. He got well, but could not part with the world for another 4 years. He began praying at night, but this made his comrades laugh at him. In the summer of 1839, while on his way to the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, he stopped to visit the hermit Father Hilarion. The holy ascetic issued a definite command to Alexander: go to Optina, you are needed there. Alexander still wavered, but finally, after recognizing his own indecision and shakiness of intent, he suddenly decided to escape to Optina, without permission and without farewells. Afterwards all his traits liveliness, sharpness of wit, sociability, cheerfulness were most useful to him in dealing with people and instructing them.

Elder Ambrose of Optina
Elder Ambrose of Optina

From the very beginning the life of Elder Ambrose, spent under the tutelage of the wise elders, progressed smoothly, without any special impediments, guided towards further and further spiritual improvement. However, Father Macarius, who had taken upon himself the guidance of the young monk, subjected Father Ambrose to sharp blows at his ego, nurturing in him a strict ascetic who embodied the monastic virtues of poverty, humility, endurance, and others. During the elders lifetime and with his blessing some of the brothers already started coming to Father Ambrose to confess their thoughts. Father Macarius also acquainted him more closely with his spiritual children in the world, thus preparing a worthy successor for himself, which Father Ambrose subsequently became. After the death of Father Moses the brothers elected Father Isaac as their abbot, and the latter treated Father Ambrose as his own elder. Thus there was no contention in Optina among its leading individuals. During his illness Elder Ambrose was secretly tonsured into the schema. He had two cell attendants: Father Michael and Father Joseph (the future elder).

Father Ambrose arose at 4:00 A.M. to hear the morning prayers, and after that his day was similar to that of Father Macarius. After the evening prayers the elder asked everyone for forgiveness and let his cell attendants go, which was often at midnight. Two years later he succumbed to a new illness and his health became quite frail. He could no longer go to church and had to take communion in his cell. In 1868 he became quite ill. Such turns for the worse took place many times. It is difficult to imagine how, confined to his bed and utterly depleted of strength, he could receive crowds of people and respond to hundreds of letters. The life-giving grace of God was quite obviously in assistance here.

People often saw an extraordinary light above the elders head. At the end of his life Father Ambrose established a convent in Shamordino, with an orphanage for homeless children. The convent grew rapidly and soon contained up to 500 nuns. After the demise of the Abbess Sophia, the Elder was forced to take upon himself all the convents concerns and to visit it in person. He went there for the last time in the summer of 1890, was forced to spend winter there because of illness, his health worsened, and he could not return to Optina. He reposed on October 10, 1891. The funeral procession was accompanied by a crowd of more than one thousand people. It was raining, but the candles were not extinguished. On the way from Shamordino to Optina the procession stopped at every village and panikhidas were served. The elders death was a universal loss for Russia.


Counsels of the venerable Elder Anthony

If we desist from our wishes and ideas and try to fulfill Gods wishes and ideas, we will attain salvation in every place and in every situation. On the contrary, is we persist in our own wishes and ideas, then no place and no situation will help us. Eve transgressed Gods commandment even while living in paradise, while for the miserable Judas even life at the Saviours side did not bring any benefit. As we read in the Gospel, we require patience and encouragement towards pious life wherever we may be.

In vain we blame those who live with us and surround us for hindering and impeding our salvation or spiritual improvement. The unsatisfactory state of our soul and spirit comes from within ourselves, from our lack of spiritual finesse and our erroneous frame of mind, with which we absolutely refuse to part. And it is precisely that which leads us into embarrassment and doubt and bewilderment; and all of this agonizes and burdens us, and leads us into a joyless state. It would be well for us to comprehend the simple words of the Holy Fathers: if we humble ourselves, we will find tranquility everywhere, without letting our minds roam over other places where we may meet with worse things.

The main means to salvation is the endurance of a multitude of sorrows, whatever is fitting for each person, as it is said in the Acts of the Apostles: We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God.

Those who wish to attain salvation should also remember the apostolic commandment: Bear ye one anothers burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. There are many other commandments, but none of them have such an addendum, i.e. and so fulfill the law of Christ. This commandment has great significance, and we must take care of it before all others.

Many wish for a good spiritual life in the simplest form, but only few people and in rare cases execute their good wish; it is precisely those who firmly keep to the words of the Holy Scriptures that we must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God, and, appealing to God for help, they try to endure sorrows and illnesses and various discomforts without complaint, always remembering the words of the Saviour Himself: If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments, and one of the Lords commandments is: Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

Our salvation requires unfailing fulfillment of Gods commandments and submission to the will of God wherever a person may live. Only in this manner and none other can we acquire inner peace, as it is said in the psalms: Great peace have they which love Thy law, and nothing shall offend them. But you continue to seek inner peace and tranquility of the soul in external circumstances. It seems to you that you are not living in the right place, nor communicating with the right people, that you did not do the right thing, nor did others act properly. The Holy Scriptures say: His (i.e. Gods) dominion is everywhere, and that the salvation of a single Christian soul is more precious to God than all the things in the world.

The Lord is ready to help a person acquire humility, as in all other good things, but the person must show some concern for himself as well. The Holy Fathers say: Give blood and receive the spirit. This means that you should labor to the point of figuratively bleeding, and you will receive spiritual boons. But you are looking for and asking for spiritual boons, yet you hesitate to offer your blood, because all you wish for is not to be bothered. But can one really acquire humility in a calm life? Humility is when a person sees himself as being worse than all other people. Thus when people bother you, you see that you are unable to bear it, and you become angry at other people, and then you automatically believe yourself to be deplorable. If at the same time you regret your shortcomings and berate yourself for them, and sincerely repent of them before God and your spiritual father, then you are already on the way to humility. But if no one bothered you, and you continued to live in tranquility, how would you be able to recognize your shortcomings? How would you recognize your vices? If others try to humiliate you this means you are being humbled; yet you yourself ask God for humility. Why then should you be offended at other people?

Whoever has malice in his heart should not despair, because with Gods help a person can rectify his heart. One must only monitor oneself closely and not let slip even a single chance to help others, and also frequently confess ones thoughts to ones spiritual father and engage in charitable deeds. This cannot be done right away, of course, but the Lord is patient. He ends a persons life only when He sees him ready to pass into eternity, or when He no longer sees any hope for the persons correction.

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