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Assembly of the Holy Optina Elders

On October 23rd (the 10th, old style) the Church commemorates the assembly of the holy Optina elders, and among them the holy elder Ambrose, who died on precisely that day in 1891.

Venerable Ambrose of Optina
Venerable Ambrose of Optina.

The venerable Ambrose of Optina was born Alexander Grenkov in 1812, in the family of church sacristan Mikhail Grenkov. In his youth, while studying at the Tambov Theological Seminary, Alexander became terribly ill and gave a vow, if he regained his health, to enter a monastery. But becoming well, the lively and sociable youth did not hurry to fulfill his vow. However, new health problems reminded him of his promise, and in 1839 he entered the Optina Hermitage in the Kaluga province, becoming a disciple of the famous elder Leo. From him the young novice gained the experience of the great saints of antiquity in acquiring grace. In 1845 he fell prey to a new and severe illness, which because monk Ambrose’s cross to the end of his life. Soon he began to help the elder Macarius as a confessor, began to see people, to participate in the hermitage’s publishing efforts. After the repose of the elder, hieroschemamonk Macarius, in 1860, St. Ambrose became the brothers’ spiritual advisor.

Thousands of believers from all corners of Russia came to the clairvoyant elder for advice. He was visited and engaged in spiritual discussions by the writers Dostoyevsky, Solovyev, Leontyev, Aleksey Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy… The venerable elder never allowed himself to say a vain or wrathful word, but spoke only for the purpose of correction or spiritual guidance. From the Lord he received the gifts of healing and clairvoyance. Never refusing to help those in need, the holy elder could appear to people who entreated him at a distance, in dreams and face-to-face. He became a great intercessor for the Russian people, having transformed thousands of human destinies by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Ambrose reposed on October 10, 1891 in the Shamordino convent which he had founded. His relics remain at the Optina Hermitage.

The elders of the Optina Hermitage gave grace-filled advice to people of all stations in life, including great Russian writers and statesmen. In the 19th – early 20th century the monastery renewed the ancient ladder of eldership, which allowed entire generations of people to ascend into the Heavenly Kingdom. The Optina elders were healers, clairvoyants, comforters, accusers.

“The widespread stabs of the young generation at great activity for the benefit of mankind are similar to a person’s not graduating from high school and yet dreaming of becoming a professor in a university… One must first avoid evil himself, and only then concern himself with the benefit of others,” – wrote elder Ambrose at the end of the 19th century. There words, as well as everything that has been said and written by him and other Optina elders, sound extraordinarily applicable to our own times.

The elders taught people to live not according to their passions, but according to the commandments. “The zeal which wishes to destroy great evil without appropriate preparation is a great evil in itself,” – said the elder Joseph, a disciple of Saint Ambrose.

The Optina elders
The Optina elders.

The Optina elders were the defenders and invariable champions of the Orthodox faith. “Apostle Paul writes: ‘I have stayed the course and kept the faith.’ This means that it is a very difficult task… Children, guard the holy faith, which is a priceless treasure, for with it you will enter the Kingdom,” – instructed the elder Barsonuphius.

From Optina proud mankind was called to embrace humility. “People are truly losing their minds if they rely on their minds and expect everything from them. Our teacher is humility. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble,” – declared the elder Anatoly on the eve of the revolution.

The rules of life that were offered to people could be followed in any rank or profession on earth. “Holiness is simplicity, presented to people in a reasonable manner. Good sense is higher than all virtues,” – such was the spiritual testament left us by the last elder, Saint Nectarius, on the eve of his repose in 1928.

Excerpts from the instructions of Saint Ambrose

The counsels and instructions with which the elder Ambrose healed all those who came to him with faith, were offered by him either in private conversations, or in general to all those who surrounded him, in the most simple, terse and often joking manner. It should be noted that a joking tone in the elder’s instructional speech was his trademark.

“How should we live?” – the elder was bombarded from all sides with this universal and highly important question. As was his wont, he responded jokingly: “To live means not to grieve, not to judge anyone, not to offend anyone, and show respect to all.” Such a tone often caused frivolous listeners to smile. But if one ponders this instruction more deeply, one can find in it a profound meaning. “Not to grieve,” i.e. for our hearts not to be burdened with the sorrows and misfortunes that are man’s inevitable lot on earth, but to direct our hearts to the sole source of eternal sweetness – to God; in this manner, even when faced with innumerable and varied misfortunes, man can comfort himself by humbling himself and finding inner peace. “Not to judge,” “not to offend,” – there is nothing more common among men than being judgmental and offensive – those twin offspring of destructive pride. Of themselves they are sufficient to push a man’s soul down to the depths of hell; but, by the way, they are often not even considered to be sins. “Show respect to all” – echoes the apostle’s commandment: to honor each other with dignity and respect (Romans 12:10). Gathering all these ideas into one, we see that in the abovementioned saying the elder primarily preached humility – the basis of spiritual life, the source of all virtues, without which, according to St. John Chrysostome, it is impossible to be saved.

When asked the general question: “How should we live?” – the elder sometimes answered in a slightly different way: “We should live without hypocrisy, conduct ourselves in an exemplary manner, and thus we will be on the right track, otherwise we will lose the game.”

“We must, - the elder also said, - live on this earth like a spinning wheel: it slightly touches the earth at only one point, while all the rest tend to go upward; while we lay down on the ground and are unable to get up.” And these instructions, too, urged people to strive to attain humility.

Elder Leo

The first elder co-opted by Fathers Moses and Anatoly for eldership at Optina was Father Leo. He was born in 1768 in Korachevo, served in the world as a bailiff and circulated among the merchant class. During his long journeys on business affairs he encountered members of all classes of society and became well-versed in the manners and way of life of each class. This experience stood him in good stead during the years of his eldership, when the most diverse people, both well-known and unknown, came to see him and to open their souls to him.

Father Leo began his monastic life in Optina Hermitage, but later transferred to the Beloberezhsky Hermitage where he underwent training in monastic virtues – obedience, patience, and various external endeavors – under the tutelage of the prominent Athonite ascetic Father Vassily. Here Father Leo went through his spiritual labors under the name of Leonid. Later he spent some time in the Choln monastery, where he met Father Theodore, a disciple of Paisius Velichkovsky, and became his loyal follower. Elder Theodore began to train Father Leonid in the supreme monastic endeavor, that “science of sciences and art of arts,” as the labor of constant prayer is called, and by means of which the heart is cleansed of all passions. Here Father Leonid also met Abbot Philaret, the future Metropolitan of Kiev. This meeting subsequently had great importance for him.

Afterwards Father Leonid was appointed abbot of the Beloberezhsky Hermitage, and Father Theodore, under whose guidance Father Leonid spent almost 20 years, moved together with him. Here they were joined by yet another prominent ascetic and disciple of St. Paisius, Father Cleopas. In 1808 Father Leonid resigned from abbotship of the monastery and went off to live in the deep forest, settling down in a communal cell with Fathers Theodore and Cleopas. Here, in ascetic solitude and silence, he became a schema-monk with the name of Leo.

However, a while later the three monks were expelled from their dwelling by the new abbot of the monastery, because a great multitude of people flocked to see them. There followed many years of wandering from monastery to monastery, and after Father Theodore’s death Father Leo spent some time in the Ploshchansk Hermitage, where he met Father Macarius – his future assistant in eldership at the Optina Hermitage and subsequent successor.

Elder Leo of Optina
Elder Leo of Optina

Finally, in 1829, this founder of the spiritual school from which issued the entire constellation of successive elders came to Optina Hermitage. However, Father Leo’s merit does not only lie in the foundation of eldership: he was the stimulus which inspired succeeding generations of elders for an entire century until the very end of the existence and flourishing of the famous Optina Hermitage.

Father Leo arrived at Optina towards the end of his life. He was large in stature, majestic, possessing fabulous strength in his youth, and despite his corpulence retaining even in his old age a certain grace and fluidity of movement. At the same time his extraordinary intelligence, coupled with clairvoyance, allowed him to see through people. The elder’s soul was filled with great love and pity for man-kind. His actions, however, were sometimes severe and impulsive. Father Leo cannot be judged as an ordinary person, because he attained that spiritual height at which the ascetic acts in compliance with the voice of God. Instead of lengthy persuasions, he sometimes disconcerted people right away and allowed them to realize and feel the error of their ways, and in this manner he used his spiritual scalpel to open up the festering abscesses that had formed in people’s coarsened hearts. As a result there flowed streams of penitent tears. As a spiritual psychologist the elder knew how to achieve his purpose. Here is an example: not far from Optina there lived a certain landowner, who boasted that as soon as he looked at Father Leo, he would see right through him. One time this man came to the elder when there were a lot of people present, and as soon as the man entered, Father Leo said: “What a dolt has arrived! He has come to see through the sinful Leo, while he himself, the scoundrel, has not been to confession or communion for 17 years.” The landowner started shaking like a leaf and afterwards repented and cried that he was truly a sinner and had not been to confession or partaken of the Holy Mysteries for 17 years.

Then there is the case of an Athonite monk who visited Father Leo. The monk was dressed as a layman, but Father Leo recognized him as an Athonite monk. Afterwards there came three women in tears and brought with them another one who had lost her mind, and they asked the elder to pray for their sick friend. The elder put on his epitrahelion, placed the end of the epitrahelion and his hands on the sick woman’s head, and after reading a prayer, thrice made the sign of the cross over her and ordered her to be taken to the pilgrims’ inn. When the monk came to visit the elder on the following day, yesterday’s sick woman also came there, absolutely restored to health. The monk became terrified that the elder performed such healing without any thought of possible harm to himself, but the elder replied: “I have not done this through any power of my own, but it came to pass because of their faith and by the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit that was given to me in ordination; as for myself, I am a sinful man.”

Countless were the miracles performed by the elder. A crowd of destitute people thronged to him, surrounded him. A certain hieromonk describes how, when traveling from Kozelsk to the Smolensk province, in all the isolated villages along the way the villagers, learning that he was coming from Kozelsk, eagerly tried to learn something of Father Leo. In response to his question – how do you know him? – they said: “Mercy, kind sir, how can we not know Father Leo? He is like a dear father to us poor people, and without him we are veritable orphans.”

Unfortunately, certain ecclesiastical officials had an entirely different attitude towards Father Leo, including the Kaluga diocesan bishop Nicholas, who created a great deal of unpleasantness for the Optina Hermitage. This bishop had the firm intent to banish Elder Leo to the Solovetsk monastery. Luckily, many hierarchs looked upon the elder differently. Both Metropolitans Philaret – of Kiev and of Moscow – forcefully interceded on his behalf, otherwise the elder would have been in a difficult situation.

Father Leo died in 1841, having been an Optina elder for 12 years, but all that time he was subjected to persecution, either due to the bishop’s misunderstanding of him, or to the envy and denunciations of others; he even stood a court trial (but was cleared of all charges), was transferred from skete to monastery, and the bishop even forbad him to have visitors, but despite all these impediments, out of great charity for suffering people he never turned away those who came to him for help.

On the other hand, Abbot Moses and the abbot of the skete Father Anatoly treated him with the greatest respect and never did anything without his blessing.

In the early days of September 1841 Father Leo began to weaken. At the end of his life he prophesized that Russia would suffer great trials and tribulations. After suffering great pain he reposed in the Lord on October 11. 1841. The universal grief over his passing was indescribable, and multitudinous masses of people flocked to the bier of the great elder.


Counsels of the venerable Elder Leo

Try to be more attentive to yourself instead of judging the actions, behavior and attitude of others towards you; if you do not see love in them, it is because you yourself have no love within you.

Wherever there is humility, there you will find simplicity, and this God-given manifestation does not test His providence.

God does not disdain prayers, but sometimes does not grant the desires expressed therein, specifically in order to have things come out better, in accordance with His Divine intent. What would happen if the All-knowing God completely fulfilled our wishes? I believe all human beings would eventually perish.

Those who live without being attentive to themselves will never be the recipients of grace.

If you do not have tranquility within yourself – know that you are lacking humility. This the Lord showed to us in the following words, which at the same time demonstrate where one should look for tranquility. He said: Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and ye shall find rest for your souls (Matt. 11:29).

Counsels of the venerable Elder Moses

If you show mercy towards others – mercy will be shown to you.

If you co-suffer with the suffering (this does not seem to be difficult) – you will be listed among the martyrs.

If you forgive your offenders, not only will all your sins be forgiven, but you shall be the children of the Heavenly Father.

If you pray for salvation from the bottom of your heart, even a little bit, – you shall be saved.

If you berate yourself, accuse and judge yourself before God for your sins, of which you become aware through your conscience, – you shall be justified.

If you confess your sins before God, for that you shall earn forgiveness and recompense.

If you sorrow over your sins and feel remorse, or give way to tears, or even just sigh, your sighing will not be concealed from Him: “Not a single teardrop, nor any part of a teardrop,” – says St. Simeon, – “is hidden from Him.” And St. John Chrysostome says: “Even if you just lament over your sins, He will accept it as part of your salvation.”

Examine yourself daily: what did you sow for the next life – wheat or chaff? Having tested yourself, set yourself towards improvement on the following day, and spend your entire life in this manner. If the day was spent poorly, so that you did not offer even a decent prayer to God, nor felt any remorse of heart, nor humbled yourself in thought, nor showed mercy to anyone, nor gave any charity, nor forgave your offenders, nor bore any insult, but on the contrary, you did not restrain yourself from anger, did not restrain yourself in word, food, and drink, or immersed your mind in unclean thoughts, – having examined all this in good con-science, condemn yourself and prepare on the following day to be more attentive towards good and more cautious towards evil.

Elder Macarius

Optina elder hieromonk Macarius was born Mikhail Nikolayevich Ivanov on November 20, 1788 in a noble family distinguished by its piety. The family lived in the environs of Kaluga, in a very beautiful place near the Lavrentyev monastery, from which the ringing of bells was heard daily, summoning the monks to prayer. At the age of five Elder Macarius lost his mother, who had loved him ardently, sensing that he would be an unusual person. Due to his mother’s illness the family had to move frequently. He graduated from school in the city of Karachevo and in 1814 took on the job of accountant, which he did well, gaining favorable notice. However, he continued to live in his own inner world. He read a lot, searching for answers to the most important questions in his mind and heart. He loved music and was an excellent violinist. At the age of 24, after the death of his father, he retired and settled down to live on his village estate. He was a poor estate manager. One time the peasants stole a large amount of buckwheat. Mikhail counseled them at great length, citing the Holy Scriptures. As a result the peasants fell to their knees in repentance, to the shame of Mikhail’s relatives, who had laughed at his spiritual efforts. An attempt was made to marry him off, but since he was un-attractive in face and stuttered, besides having no inclination in that direction,– the matter was abandoned. He buried himself in religious books and from time to time went to a woodworker’s shop, where he worked to the point of exhaustion, thus subordinating his young flesh to the spirit.

In 1810 he went on a pilgrimage to the Ploshchansk Hermitage, where he remained, sending his brothers a document renouncing his rights to the estate. Here, under the guidance of Arseny – a disciple of Paisius Velichkovsky, he received proper initial instruction and also studied church canons and singing. He helped with letter writing and other secretarial work. In 1815 he was tonsured with the name of Macarius. 1824 was the year of his first visit to Optina. The following year his elder died, and Macarius was appointed father confessor to the Sevskiy convent. Thus began his work as confessor. He had a hard time without an elder, but in response to his prayers the Lord sent him Father Leo, who visited the convent with his disciples. In this manner Father Macarius once again acquired an instructor. Soon Father Leo was sent to Optina. The two of them corresponded, and after a while Father Macarius also moved to Optina.

Father Macarius remained with Father Leo until the latter’s death. From Father Leo he learned to treat with great love all the poor people who came to him in physical and spiritual distress, to heal their illnesses, and not to disdain anything except sin. The elder often saw clairvoyantly where evil lay, denounced it, but afterwards treated the person with such loving warmth that the latter remembered for the rest of his life the joy of reacquiring a clear conscience.

Father Macarius was of a gentler disposition than Father Leo and was exclusively modest. He and Father Leo together “nurtured” the great elder Ambrose. After Father Leo’s death the entire burden of spiritual guidance fell upon Father Macarius, who was always full of tranquility and joy in the Lord.

The elder was a huge man, with an unattractive pockmarked face, but with shining eyes full of quiet modesty. He had an extremely lively and energetic nature and an excellent memory: after a first confession he remembered the person for the rest of his life. However, his stuttering and shortness of breath in speaking was an embarrassment to him throughout his entire life. He was also always dressed poorly. But he had the gift of clairvoyance: seeing a person for the first time, he often called him by name before the latter introduced himself. Sometimes he replied to letters even before receiving them, so that the sender received a reply to a letter sent only an hour before. The elder’s life was full of pastoral concerns. In church he established the singing of the Kievan chant and instituted good reading and the singing of special melodies. Father Macarius himself, though a hieromonk, did not officiate at services, primarily due to his modesty, but he often sang with fervor and tears of tenderness.

Optina elder Macarius.
Optina elder Macarius.

The elder spent 20 years in his humble monastic cell, which consisted of a waiting room and a very small bedroom, the furniture of which comprised a narrow cot, a writing desk covered in an orderly manner with piles of letters waiting to be answered, spiritual magazines and the writings of the Holy Fathers, and an armchair with a pillow. The icon corner contained a specially-venerated icon of the Vladimir Mother of God, with an ever-burning lampada before it and a wooden triangular shelf with the Gospel and other books for reading the monastic prayer rule. The walls were covered with views of monasteries and portraits of ascetics. Everything attested to his secret aspirations and to a spirit which had renounced the worldly lot. Here the elder often spent sleepless nights and got up, as a rule, at the ringing of the skete bell at 2:00 A.M.; often he himself woke up his cell attendants. The morning prayers were read. At 6 A.M. the hours were read for him, and he drank one or two cups of tea. Afterwards he received visitors. Here he listened to human sorrows. He clearly possessed the gift of spiritual discernment, as well as the strength of humility and love, which made his words especially powerful and effective. After speaking with him, people felt themselves renewed. By anointing people with oil from his ever-burning lampada, he brought great benefit to the sick. There were numerous healings, particularly of those possessed by demons.

At 11 A.M. the bell rang for lunch and the elder went over to the refractory, after which he rested and then once again received visitors. At 2:00, with a crutch in one hand and a prayer rope in the other, the elder went to the pilgrim’s inn, where hundreds of people awaited him, each with his own need, both spiritual and worldly. The elder lovingly heard each person out, instructing some and pulling others out of the rut of despair. Exhausted, barely able to breathe, he went back after his daily labor. The time came to hear the evening rule. The bell rang for the evening meal, which was sometimes brought to him. But he made use even of this time to receive the monks of both the monastery and the skete. Often he visited their monastic cells personally, and always in time, leaving behind him tranquility and joy. He also gave out an obedience: to read the writings of the Holy Fathers according to each monk’s level of spirituality. He did not tolerate idleness and for this reason established craftwork in the skete: bookbinding, lathery, etc. Each of the brothers knew and felt that his burden of labors and sorrows was shared by his loving and wise spiritual father, and this made monastic life easier.

At the end of the day they listened to the evening prayers and the remainder of the evening rule, after which the elder blessed everyone and dismissed them. It was already very late. The elder went into his monastic cell. His body ached from exhaustion and his heart from the impressions of all the human suffering that had been revealed. His eyes filled with tears… and yet on the table lay a pile of letters awaiting a reply. He sat down and began to write. When the candle burned down, the elder got up and stood to pray. Prayer never ceased within him, whether he was among a throng of people, at a meal, engaged in conversation, or in the quiet of the night.

Besides all that, to Father Macarius belongs the inestimable merit and labor of publishing the writings of the Holy Fathers. For this work he sacrificed his brief time of rest. This work united all spiritually aspiring intellectual forces, but all those individuals, besides their literary relations with the elder, also made use of his spiritual guidance.

The elder foretold the time of his death. A week prior to his repose he made his farewells, gave away his modest belongings, and gave out final instructions. People thronged to his cell to have a last look at him at least through the window. At around midnight he called for his confessor and asked him to read the prayers for the departing soul. At 6:00 in the morning he took Holy Communion and an hour later, fully conscious and with tenderness of spirit, the great elder Macarius peacefully and painlessly departed for the Heavenly Kingdom. This was on September 7, 1860.


Counsels of the venerable Elder Macarius

…To your question as to what constitutes happiness in life – whether it is grandeur, glory and wealth, or a quiet, peaceful family life, – I will tell you that I agree with the latter, and I will also add that a life spent with a pure conscience and with humility brings peace, tranquility, and true happiness, while wealth, honors, glory, and high position are often the cause of many sins and do not bring happiness.

People for the most part desire and seek well-being in this life, and tend to avoid sorrows. This seems to be good and pleasant, but constant well-being and happiness are harmful to a person. He falls into various passions and sins and offends the Lord, while those who lead a life of sorrow attain salvation, and for this reason the Lord has called a merry life the broad path: “the wide gate and the broad path lead to destruction, and many there are which follow it” (Matt. 7:13), while the life of sorrow He called “the strait gate and the narrow way which lead unto eternal life, and few there are that find it” (Matt. 7:14). Thus, out of His love for us and seeing its possible benefit for those who are worthy of it, the Lord leads many people away from the broad path and places them on the narrow and sorrowful path, in order to arrange their salvation through their endurance of illnesses and sorrows, and to grant them eternal life.

…You not only wish to be good and not do anything bad, but you also wish to see yourself as such. The desire is laudable, but the wish to see one’s own good qualities provides food for vanity. Even if we acted sincerely and correctly in all things, we still would have to regard ourselves as unworthy servants. However, being faulty in all things, we must not consider ourselves to be good even in our thoughts. For this reason we are embarrassed instead of being humble. For this reason God does not give us strength for the execution of things, in order for us not to have pride in ourselves, but to attain humility. And when we do attain it, then our virtues will be strong and will not allow us to be vain.

… We, weak-minded people, thinking to arrange our possessions, bustle around, despair, deprive ourselves of rest, only in order to leave our children a good estate. But do we know whether it will be of benefit to them? A foolish son is not helped by wealth – it only serves to lead him into immorality. We must concern ourselves with leaving our children the good example of our lives and rearing them in the fear of God and His commandments – that is their primary treasure. When we seek the Kingdom of God and His truth, all that is needful here will also be added (Matt. 6:33). You will say: but we cannot do this, the modern world requires different things now! All right, but have you borne your children for this world only, and not for the hereafter? Comfort yourself with the word of God: if the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you (John 15:18), while the carnal mind is enmity against God: it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Rom. 8:7). Do not desire earthly glory for your children, but that they may be good people and obedient children, and when God grants it – kind spouses and tender parents, concerned for those serving them, loving to all, and tolerant of their enemies.

… You wish to get nearer to God and attain salvation. That is the responsibility of all Christians, but it is done only through the keeping of God’s commandments, which consist entirely of love for God and neighbors, and even stretch to love for one’s enemies. Read the Gospel and there you will find the way, the truth, and the life; preserve the Orthodox faith and the canons of the Holy Church; study the instructions contained in the writings of church pastors and teachers, and arrange you life according to these teachings. However, rules of prayer alone will not help us do good… I advise you to pay as much attention as possible to works of love for your neighbors, to your relations with parents, spouses, and children, and try to bring up your children in the Orthodox faith and good morality. The holy Apostle Paul, enumerating the different type of virtues and labors of self-sacrifice, says: “Even if I do such-and-such, but have no love, there is no benefit to me.”

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