The Venerable Fathers of Optina Hermitage
The Hermitage of Optina (Optina Pustyn) is situated at the edge of deep forests in the district of Kaluga on the right bank of the River Zhizdra, some way from the town of Kozelsk (about eighty miles from Moscow). Throughout the nineteenth century and until the Bolshevik persecution, it was the focal point of a widespread movement of spiritual renewal, inspired by the hesychast tradition brought to Russia by disciples of Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (Nov. 15).
The monastery, well-known since the sixteenth century, had fallen into ruin as a result of the anti-monastic laws of Catherine II. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow, impressed by the beauty of its location, gave Abbot Abraham of Pechnocha the task of restoring the monastic buildings and of reviving cenobitic life at Optina in the spiritual tradition promoted by Saint Paisius.
About thirty years later (1821) Bishop Philaret of Kaluga, the future Metropolitan of Kiev, a fervent supporter of the Paisian ideal, undertook the building of the Skete of the Forerunner as a dependency of the monastery for those monks who wanted to devote themselves more completely to prayer. The Bishop called upon the brothers Moses and Anthony Putilof to direct the life of the skete. They had been living in the Roslavl forests in the region of Smolensk for ten years, under the direction of spiritual fathers from the circle of Paisius. Urged by the Bishop, Moses was ordained priest, and gave up his wish to devote himself to contemplation in order to take charge of the building works required. He was in Moscow, seeking funds, when he learned of his nomination as Abbot of the Monastery, the office that he fulfilled for thirty-seven years.
Father Moses was ever in the midst of great undertakings without resources to complete them, “rich in poverty,” as he liked to put it, relying solely on God’s help. He directed the affairs of the monastery on the basis of the Gospel precept to take no thought for the morrow (Matt. 6:344) and, rather than let money mount up, he made a principle of distributing it to the poor. He would go ahead with extensive building works when food was scarce, precisely to support the local population, even if it meant the monastery going short of bread. He took no interest in the riches that some candidates for the monastic life were able to offer and had rather receive into the community poor or sick men where no material advantage could be looked for. Despite his outstanding virtues and ability as a spiritual director, Father Moses confined himself to taking care for the good order of the brotherhood in external matters and left everything to do with the spiritual life to the Startsi [Elders]. It was due to him that the venerable fathers Leonid and Macarius came to settle at the skete and were able to put their charismata of discernment and insight at the service of the monks and of the people of God, thereby inaugurating the startchestvo [eldership] that would be the glory of the Monastery of Optina. This prophetic ministry of spiritual direction was soon to draw large crowds and aroused fierce opposition from suspicious bishops and jealous monks, who denounced the Abbot to the ecclesiastical authorities as a dangerous innovator. Father Moses bore all these persecutions with ever-greater humility, taking full responsibility for leaving the Startsi in peace. He was able to say towards the end of his life, “I know now that I am the least of men.” At the age of eighty, suffering from dropsy and confined to his bed, he continued nevertheless to direct the life of the community in every detail. He fell asleep in peace on 16 June 1862, having received on his deathbed the Great Habit, longed for from his youth but forgone for the sake of serving his brethren.
When Father Moses was nominated Abbot, his Brother Anthony was put at the head of the Skete. He had desired to lead the monastic life since childhood and joined Moses in the Roslavl forest after suffering many tribulations at the time of Napoleon’s occupation of
Moscow (1812). Firmly rooted in hesychia to the complete cutting off of his own will, and to that humility which allows God to act in the heart of the monk, all his life long Anthony considered himself to be the disciple of Moses. The often harsh manner of Moses towards him was in order to put him to the test. He always kept a respectful silence in his presence and confessed to him his every thought. He was very zealous for common prayer and would devote his free time in his cell to reading or to prayer. He cleared the ground and built the first cells of the Skete with his own hands, and for fourteen years watched over its spiritual and material organization. The community was constituted as a real antechamber of Heaven where the strict observance, humility and simplicity of the monks and their deep compunction during the long services were so plainly evident that, under the direction of Anthony, the Skete became a lodestone or magnet to spiritual men.
Often ill, and suffering for thirty years from suppurating sores on his legs that made him feel as though cut by a saw, Father Anthony appeared always joyful nonetheless, and looked on his trials as a God-sent remedy for his salvation. He possessed his soul in patience and, when unable to leave his cell, would devote himself the more to prayer and to reading until he had the strength to get back to work. In 1859 he faced an even greater trial. Bishop Nicholas of Kaluga, who was opposed to the influence of the startsi, appointed him Abbot of Maloyaroslavets that was accustomed to receive its superiors from Optina. The duty of directing a community of twelve monks who lacked unity and fervour in a monastery situated near a town became a real martyrdom for Anthony. Several times he begged the Bishop to relieve him of his post, but met with a firm refusal.
The affairs of the Monastery of Maloyaroslavets occasionally took Anthony to Moscow where he came to the notice of the holy Metropolitan Philaret (19 Nov) who, sympathizing with his spiritual trial, interceded for him with the Bishop of Kaluga. Anthony’s resignation was only accepted after the appointment of a new Bishop. Then, having installed his successor, he was able at last to return with joy to Optina and to resume his place as his brother’s disciple (1958). He spent the last three years of his life in a small cell in the Skete with a view only of the sky, surrounded by a mountain of books, and no longer concerned with administrative matters. He retained the same zeal for prayer as in his youth and would often say, “Pray fervently to the Lord God and your cold heart will be warmed by His sweetest Name, for our God is Fire. Calling upon His name destroys impure thoughts and also warms our hearts to fullfil His commandments.” When he served the divine Liturgy he was full of grace, especially at the moment of the Great Entrance. Anthony lent his support to the institution of the startsi and to the development of their ministry, but he held back from spiritual direction himself, although warm and affable towards those who sought his help. When visitors put to him philosophical or theological questions, he would refer them to Father Moses or to Starets Macarius, or simply reply, “Purify your heart and you will learn everything.”
He was greatly afflicted by the death of his brother and spiritual Father Moses in 1862, and remained in seclusion for almost a year in order to re-establish in secret his spiritual communion with the departed. As increasing infirmities left him incapable of going to church, he received the Great Habit in his cell and thereafter devoted himself entirely to prayer. On his cell-wall he hung up an inscription in large letters that read, “Don’t waste time!” Reckoning that he was no more than a beginner, he added labor to labor in preparation for his meeting with God. He made all the arrangements for his burial and, having taken the blessing of Abbot Isaac for his last journey, he gave up his soul to God on 7 August 1865. He was buried next to his brother.
The work of the venerable Moses and Anthony had created conditions favorable to the establishment of startchestvo, which came into its own with the arrival at Optina in 1829 of Starets Leonid, who was already sixty and was to spend the remaining twelve years of his life at the Skete.
Father Leonid (Nagolkin) came of a family of modest standing from Karachev in the government of Orel. Having spent his youth as a commercial traveler, he had acquired a wide experience of mankind. He had entered Optina as a novice at the age of twenty-nine but stayed for only two years and received the Habit at White Bluff Hermitage (Belye Berega). Not long after, on his ordination to the priesthood, he met Starets Theodore who, after some years at Neamts (the monastic training-ground of Saint Paisius in Moldavia), had returned to spread the hesychast tradition in Russia. When Leo became Abbot of White Bluff (1804) Theodore joined him there. At the end of four years Leonid resigned, received the Great Habit under the name of Leo (Lev), and went with Starets Theodore and Cleopas (another hermit from the Monastery of Neamts), to devote himself to prayer in the forest. As many faithful eager for instruction were drawn by the spiritual renown of Theodore, the three hermits decided to flee the district. Leonid and Cleopas settled in a skete of the distant Monastery of Valaam where Theodore joined them, after a three-year confinement in another monastery following calumnious accusations. At Valaam monks were always coming to seek their counsel, for the light of their lives could no more be hidden there than before. Suspicious of their reputation, the Abbot of Valaam complained of them to the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg as “innovators.” Although cleared of that charge, the three hermits thought it best to leave Valaam, and they settled at the Monastery of St. Alexander of Svir (Aug. 30) where, five years later, Starets Theodore entered into rest (1822). The loss of his spiritual father was a severe trial for Leonid. He took refuge in God who, from that time, gave him the gift of continual prayer and of discernment of thoughts. He wanted to retire to the Skete of Optina but the brethren would not let him go.
In 1829 Starets Leonid was able at last to leave the Monastery of Svir and to settle at Optina with six disciples. The perfection of his ascetic life, his wisdom, his gift of insight into the hidden depths of souls, as well as his kindness and compassion for sinners and for the distressed, won him the love and respect of everyone. He was tall, of tremendous physical strength and, in spite of advanced years and a malady that made him corpulent, always completely alert. He had long, yellow-grey hair like the mane of a lion, a bright, penetrating eye and a lively, familiar way of speaking that was never without a touch of humor. Those who encountered him received an impression of undaunted strength and majestic calm that gave them a sense of peace and confidence, so that in his presence hearts opened to God, disappointments and evil thoughts vanished. People crowded into his cell, which became the spiritual center of the monastery, and each person was able to ask him the questions he wanted while the white-clad Elder sat on his bed and continued his usual manual work of plaiting belts. To some he revealed their secret thoughts to help them change their lives, others he healed by reading them a prayer or by anointing them with holy oil. He taught, exhorted, making himself all things to all men without ever losing his interior recollection and prayer. Some monks however were scandalized at a hesychast conversing so freely, and often for so many hours, with people of all sorts and conditions. Others accused him of innovation in his administration of the sacrament of Confession. Fr. Leonid answered that the practice of revelation of thoughts and of spiritual conversation with an Elder, which goes back to the origins of monastic life, does not aim at replacing the sacrament of Confession but a completing of it. It is not enough to listen to an often mechanical confession of sins and to read a prayer of absolution: the conscience must also be set right and freed, and the ability to advance towards God must be restored to the person in all his uniqueness.
Nevertheless the Elder’s activity continued to excite jealously and suspicion. In 1836 a denunciation accusing Abbot Moses and Starets Leonid of wanting to ruin the Monastery for the benefit of the Skete was delivered to the Bishop of Kaluga by the secret police. The Bishop, who had already made plain his opposition, summoned Moses and reprimanded him severely. Leonid was ordered to live at the monastery, and was forbidden to wear the Great Habit or to receive visitors. The Elder obeyed the first two injunctions but could not drive away the crowd of faithful who pressed at the door of his new cell. When the Abbot in fear warned him that the Bishop would deport him for his rebelliousness, he replied: “Well, what of it? Even if you send me to Siberia, even if you make a bonfire and put me on it, I’ll still be the same Leonid! I don’t ask anyone to come to see me, and I can’t drive away those who do come. Many, especially of the simple folk, are perishing for foolish reasons and crying for spiritual help. How can I disregard their needs?” Unable to say a word to the contrary, Abbot Moses silently withdrew.
Persecution of Father Leonid extended to his disciples. He was accustomed to send those of his spiritual daughters who desired to consecrate themselves to God, to take counsel of a virtuous nun called Anthia at the Monastery of Belev. The confessor of this Convent took umbrage at the reputation Anthia gained from this, for she was not under his spiritual direction and he accused the Starets of disseminating a new heresy by allowing a nun to hear confessions and to give absolution in his name. He was even labeled a “free-mason” for recommending nuns to read Saint Dorotheus of Gaza! When the matter was brought to the attention of Bishop Damascene of Tula, on whom the Convent depended, he ordered the expulsion of Anthia. As for the Starets, he was transferred to an isolated cell and the injunction against receiving visitors was renewed. But that turned out to be a complete dead letter, for it could not prevent crowds coming to bow down at his feet to kiss the hem of his garment. He would undoubtedly have been exiled to Solovki in the Far North but for the providential intervention of the Metropolitans Philaret of Kiev and Philaret of Moscow, who had been alerted to the situation in a letter from Starets Macarius, supported by Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (30 Apr.). Anthia was recalled to Belev and indeed subsequently became Abbess there, while the Bishops of Tula and Kaluga went to Optina together in order to reinstate Father Leonid in his charismatic ministry. The Saint gave up his soul to God not long after, on 11 October 1841 at the age of seventy-two, leaving as his successor Starets Macarius, his fellow-laborer and close friend who had become, as it were, his “other half” during the last seven years of his life.
The two men were, however, different. Where Leonid was a man of the people with little education, jovial and down-to-earth, Macarius (Ivanov) was the scion of a pious, noble family in the district of Kaluga. He was gentle and retiring, small and weak of build and had poor eyesight and a speech defect. His face always bore an expression of concentration that gave him a somber look and yet it shown with goodness, as if illumined within by a gentle light. He loved music and nature and had a wide knowledge of theological literature. He gave up his property and the prospect of an advantageous marriage to become a novice in the remote forest-hermitage of Ploschansk where the emphasis in the monastic life was on rigorous external discipline. At the end of five years he received the Habit and was soon ordained priest (1815).
It was about that time that Starets Athanasius came to end his days at Ploschansk. Like Starets Theodore, he had lived at Neamts under the direction of Saint Paisius; he had assisted in his work of translating Patristic texts and had brought back to Russia several manuscripts on prayer and the contemplative life. Starets Athanasius assisted Macarius in the understanding of these works, and initiated him above all into the practice of inner prayer. Shortly after the repose of his Elder, Macarius was appointed confessor to the Convent of Svensk. He prayed to God to send him a man capable of resolving the many questions that arose in the discharge of this duty, and Starets Leonid arrived soon after to spend six months at Ploschansk before settling at Optina. Leonid perceived the remarkable qualities of Macarius and regarded the younger man as his equal but, giving way to his entreaties, he accepted him a a disciple. After Leonid’s departure, the two men for four years kept up a regular correspondence, until Macarius was free to join Leonid in 1834.
Starets Macarius was appointed confessor of the Monastery in 1836 and became rector of the Skete three years later. Always considering himself to be the disciple of Starets Leonid, he never undertook anything without his blessing. He was always at his side and for seven years, together they directed the spiritual life of the monks and of the thousands of visitors who hastened to Optina. As rector of the Skete, Starets Macarius enhanced the solemnity of the services and created a rich library. He would get up at 2 a.m., prayed for about four hours, and then sit down at his work table to translate or revise Patristic texts, and take up once again his immense correspondence, of which five volumes of letters, showing the full extent of his wisdom, were published after his death. After the meal taken with the brethren, he would allow himself a free hour in the garden that he had planted, where he would look at the different flowers, full of silent admiration at the wonderful works of the Creator. At 2 p.m., he would receive the men and women waiting for him in the guesthouse at the entrance of the Skete. Whatever the questions on their minds, he would listen with love and humility and, discerning what was appropriate to the situation of each he would immediately and authoritatively say what should be done or give some words of consolation, so that after conversing with him, each person would go on his way renewed. His speech, always gentle, brought the proud to their knees, gave hope to the discouraged, brought unbelievers to the faith and had the power to expel demons. A possessed man was brought to him one day. When the Starets came into the room, the man leapt at him with a shout, gave him a hard slap and Macarius immediately offered the other cheek (Luke 6:29). The demon, unable to withstand the Elder, thereupon left the poor man who fell at the Saint’s feet in a faint, and after a while stood up healed. On returning to the Skete in the evening, worn out and unable to utter another word, the Starets would listen to the prayers by way of repose before seeing the brethren of the Skete for their daily confession. After supper and evening prayers, he would be engaged with his correspondence until late at night. “His countenance, like that of an angel of God, was burning and full of light,” wrote his disciple and biographer. “His gaze was peaceable, his speech humble and unpretentious. But his spirit was ever united to God by ceaseless inner prayer, in virtue of which his face shone with spiritual joy and radiated love of neighbor.” Even when he was asleep, his lips continued to repeat the Jesus Prayer and he would spend the long hours when he could not sleep meditating upon Providence or chanting the hymns of the Church with tears. Although he himself had received the grace of inner prayer, the Starets was well aware of the dangers of spiritual delusion. In his letters, he warns his disciples against seeking the gifts of Grace prematurely and insists above all on humility, that we acquire by trying to put the commandments of God into practice as perfectly as we can.
Starets Macarius embarked upon the publication of a series of Patristic texts on the spiritual life, urged by his friend and spiritual son the Slavophile philosopher Ivan Kirievsky, who found at Optina and in the Orthodox tradition, the essence of the Slav soul. Beginning with the publication of a life of Starets Paisius in 1846, translations followed of texts of the holy Fathers, including Dorotheus of Gaza, Barsanuphius and John, Mark the Ascetic, Isaias, Maximus the Confessor, Thalassius, John Climacus, Theodore the Stoudite, Symeon the New Theologian, Isaac the Syrian, and Nilus of Sora. In most cases Macarius and his team of learned disciples (that included Starets Ambrose), revised the Slavonic translations made at Neamts at the time of Saint Paisius and put them into Russian. These editions were widely read and made Optina known all over Russia to the intellectual elite, whose greatest names found their way to the monastery: among them Nicolas Gogol, Vladimir Soloviev, Constantine Leontiev, Dostoevsky and even Tolstoy. The renown of Optina was profitable to the whole Church, but it gave rise to renewed persecution. Attempts to discredit the Starets were made on the flimsiest grounds. For instance, he was blamed for spreading knowledge about the Jesus Prayer among the people because it might give rise to spiritual delusions. Talk of transferring him to another monastery came to nothing, thanks to the influence of his friendship with Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow. From 1850 the health of the Starets gradually grew worse although, in his compassion for the sufferings of mankind, he ignored his own afflictions. He took an interest in the great cultural, social and political changes taking place in Russia. On hearing of the fall of Sebastopol during the Crimean War, he went down on his knees in tears before the icon of the Mother of God. During his last illness, he continued to receive visitors to whom he would give s small cross, an icon or a book, as a blessing. He fell asleep in peace on 7 September 1860, and his body subsequently remained incorrupt.
After the repose of Starets Macarius, the ministry of spiritual direction passed to Starets Hilarion, the rector of the Skete, and to Starets Ambrose. Saint Ambrose incorporated all the charismata of his predecessors and brought startchestvo to its height at Optina, where for thirty years he was a true prophet for the whole Russian people.
Starets Ambrose, the most outstanding figure among the Optina Startsi, was the son of a village priest, who took charge of his early education, bringing him up in the study of Church books. When he went to the seminary for his secondary education (as was then customary) he did brilliantly as a student, but without the intention of becoming a priest or monk. Towards the end of his studies, he fell seriously ill and made a vow to enter a monastery if he recovered. Once he was better, he put off fulfilling his promise. His conscience gave him no rest and he spent many hours in prayer and tears. God called him and reminded him of his promise by all sorts of signs; so, as he was leaning over the bank of a stream one day, he heard a voice in the flowing water that murmured, ‘Praise God! Retain God!’ After four years of indecision, he could bear it no longer and went to ask the advice of a holy hermit called Hilarion who lived in the district. The starets received him with a smile and said: ‘Go to Optina; you are needed there!’ The young man was obedient to the will of God and went without delay to the hermitage of Optina.
He was first put to serve Starets Leonid, who, because of his old age, entrusted him to the direction of Starets Macarius, who had taken over his spiritual responsibilities and was working on an extensive edition of Patristic texts. The young monk received the tonsure in 1842 with the name of Ambrose; three years later he was ordained a priest.
As he was proficient in the ancient languages, Ambrose became one of Macarius’ closest fellow-workers in the preparation of his editions of the holy Fathers, especially the Russian translation of the Ladder of St. John Climacus. His familiarity with Patristic texts and their application to everyday life through frequent discussions with his spiritual Father were the best possible preparation for succeeding him as Startets. But, here again, Providence stepped in and altered drastically the course of his life: a serious illness brought him within an inch of death, and for the remainder of his days he was more or less bedridden, unable to serve the divine Liturgy and relieved of all monastic obediences. This was God’s way of reining in his genial temperament, thus giving him the opportunity of greater self-knowledge through retiring within himself and discovering, within the depths of his heart, the mysteries of human nature and the means of reconciling men with God. Illness gave him experiential knowledge of the truth, that it is in our weakness that the power of God is revealed (2 Cor. 12:9). As he would later affirm, ‘It is good for a monk to have passed through illness. When he is sick he ought not to strive to be cured completely, but only by half.’
Startets Macarius began sending brethren of the monastery to him for spiritual counsel, and the Bishop gave him the blessing to assist the Starets in the task of confessing the ever-growing crowd of faithful from all walks of life, who flocked to Optina in order to quench their thirst at the pure springs of evangelic wisdom. Saint Ambrose welcomed all patiently, judged the faults of none and gave his advice simply as a disciple of the holy Fathers without expressing a personal opinion. The action of grace and unceasing inner prayer gave him an extraordinary insight into the hidden depths of consciences, so that a slight allusion or a few words was all he needed to show his visitors the solution to their problems. He never used this gift of insight to judge or blame, but waited on careworn souls with a sympathy and tenderness that were truly maternal, so that they should understand that the goodness of God leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
On the death of Starets Macarius in 1860, Ambrose was called to exercise a ministry that soon extended to the whole of Russia. Rich and poor, learned and unlettered, nobles and simple folk, noted members of the intelligentsia, they all made their way to this bedridden man as to a Prophet newly risen up among them, seeking a word of counsel or of consolation in their distress; a word of salvation that was to order their entire life, a call to repentance or a simple blessing. Despite his physical weakness and his ailments, Ambrose received them all cheerfully and would adapt his manner and his words to each person so that, after conversing with the Starets of Optina, the life of many of his visitors changed completely. People who spoke with him noticed how he could pass, immediately, from the discussion of high theology to the solution of practical problems of everyday life. Someone criticized him one day for wasting his time advising a peasant woman how to feed her turkeys. ‘Don’t you understand,’ he answered, ‘that her whole life is bound up with these turkeys, and that the peace of her soul is of no less account than that of those who come to me with questions about sublime matters?’ The writer Tolstoy visited the Starets and was greatly edified. ‘I did no more than converse with him,’ he wrote, ‘and somehow, my soul lost all heaviness. When you talk with such a man, you feel the nearness of God!’ Another writer speaks of ‘an unfathomable abyss of charity’ within the Saint, whose love was extended to all.
The Starets lived in the Skete at a short distance from the monastery. His day began about 4 a.m. After reading Matins with his cell servants, he spent three hours in prayer; then from 9 a.m., he began to receive the visitors, first the monks and then the lay people, who were waiting in a long queue outside. These meetings went on until 11 p.m. with a short pause for a frugal meal. During his few spare moments, he would deal with his vast correspondence, dictating more than forty replies a day to letters that he often had no need to open. For about thirty years, the blessed Starets persevered in this ascetic labor that was harder than many an ascesis performed in the peace of the desert. A number of monks helped him in his task, particularly his cell servant Joseph, who succeeded him as Starets of Optina.
Rather than great ascetic efforts, which can be infected with self-love when they are not checked by an exact obedience, the Starets commended repentance to his visitors and the humble contrition of heart that is acquired by turning one’s life toward God and by hating sin with all one’s strength; for the origin of all sin is pride.
Besides his ability in the cure of souls, Saint Ambrose organized associations of devout persons in many places to undertake charitable work and to assist orphans and the poor. Ever since the descructive reform of Catherine II, it had been impossible for the daughters of poor families to lead the monastic life, for each monastery had to demand a large dowry of every young woman who applied to enter. During the last ten years of his life, Starets Ambrose sought to remedy this unjust state of affairs by founding and organizing a convent for nuns at Shamordino, about nine miles from Optina. Through his paternal care this monastery was, in a short time, inhabited by more than one thousand nuns from every rank in society, who strove to live in perfect charity a life based on the traditions of the holy Fathers, around the person of Starets Ambrose, their spiritual Father and living image of Christ. In addition to the conventional buildings, the Starets built an asylum, a school, a hospital and a hospice for aged women, so that the place became truly a city of Christian love that attracted crowds of destitute, sick and unfortunate folk, for whom the monastery was a haven of hope and consolation.
The needs of the Convent obliged the Starets to be at Shamordino often and, when they began building a stone church, he found he would have to stay there to oversee the work of construction. His absence led to rumors among the monks at Optina, and disturbed the Bishop of Kaluga. The Saint spent the whole summer of 1891 at Shamordino, attending to all the business matters that concerned the Convent, which the new Abbess, who lacked administrative ability, could not deal with. It appeared that Ambrose was in a hurry to finish his task and was preparing for his departure hence. At the beginning of autumn, overwhelmed with fatigue, he finally fell ill. When he was told that the Bishop had decided to come in person to the Convent to send him back to Optina, he received the news with complete composure and, on 10 October 1891, the day before the episcopal visit, he gave up his soul to God. Until his last hour, he continued to receive the faithful who crowded around his cell. So it was that he fulfilled the prophetic words that he said again and again to his disciples, ‘I have spent my whole life in the midst of the people and that is how I shall die.’
All Russia wept at his passing. He was laid to rest at Optina beside Starets Leonid and Starets Macarius. On his tombstone are carved the words: To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some (I Cor. 9:22).
Fr. Hilarion (Ponomarov) had been a tailor in his youth. Soon after he entered Optina he was placed in the service of Starets Macarius, who had recently been appointed rector of the Skete (1839). He remained in his service until the death of the Starets, and was able to make great progress in the science of the spirit, both by following his manner of life and by frequent conversations with him or with Father Leonid. Observing Hilarion’s progress, Father Macarius gradually prepared him to be his successor by sending some of his spiritual children to him as well as to Father Ambrose. Hilarion afterwards became rector of the Skete and confessor of the Monastery. After taking confessions all day, he would receive the monks in the evening, and give them his counsels. He never spoke in his own name, but would always quote the holy Fathers or what Father Macarius had said in similar circumstances. His words of instruction were clear, concise and based on his own experience of the battle with passionate thoughts. He was always approachable and received all his visitors with the same attention and courtesy whatever their rank in society. When he observed that people who sought his help
had need of confession, he would give them a space of three days to examine their consciences and make known the causes of their maladies. Thus he put numerous sinners on the path of godliness, and cured many who were mentally sick by his prayer. Despite the serious illness that afflicted him in the last two years of his life, he did not cease from his labours but only begged God to grant him patience. He persisted in following his prayer-rule in his cell, like the other monks at the Skete, to the very end of his life. He fell asleep in peace on 18 September 1873.
On the death of Starets Ambrose in 1891, his faithful and humble disciple Joseph (Litovkin) took over as spiritual father. When he entered Optina in 1861 (One year before the repose of Abbot Moses), he had been appointed to serve Father Ambrose who, on their first encounter, predicted that the young man would be “a help to everyone.” He served the Starets with exemplary obedience and humility for fifty years. For more than twenty years, he did not even have a cell of his own, but had to stand about until the Elder’s waiting-room cleared of visitors in the late evening, before he could take any rest. He was ordained priest when the Monastery of Shamordino was consecrated in 1884, and would sometimes serve there, although he continued for the most part to attend on Father Ambrose, whom frequent illness prevented from going to church. He was always calm, silent and discrete; and his deep humility was evident before he had spoken a word. The crowds who pressed in to visit the Starets completely trusted Joseph, seeing in him the very image of the Elder. When Ambrose began sending some visitors to take counsel of Joseph, they observed with amazement that both Fathers gave exactly the same advice. Father Joseph fell gravely ill in 1888 and received the Great Habit, but he recovered through the prayer of Starets Ambrose and a vision of the Mother of God. After Father Joseph’s formal designation as confessor, he received those who came to visit Starets Ambrose. Every year he used to spend a month with the Elder at Shamordino. In 1890, when Father Ambrose told him to return alone to Optina, Joseph said not a word against it, although greatly distressed at the separation.
From then on, the monks of the Monastery and Skete, and even the venerable Abbot Isaac, began coming to confess to Father Joseph, and Father Ambrose sent his spiritual children to him, both monastic and lay, from Shamordino. Regarding himself as “a complete nullity” without his Elder, Joseph made the spirit of Ambrose so much his own that he acted in every respect like the Starets, while losing nothing of his own personality. While Father Ambrose was highly educated and willing to discuss matters of public interest with visitors, Starets Joseph preferred to remain silent. When a visitor expounded his problems, he would look at him full of kindness. Then with an angelic smile, he would answer him in short, profound sentences inspired by the teaching of the holy Fathers in order to straighten out his confusion and warm his heart. Above all, he laid stress on obedience and self-contempt as the roots of humility, by which we can attain impassibility and attract God to come to dwell within us. Although harsh towards himself, he was full of consideration for others, while avoiding familiarity. He would reply to questions of all kinds but would never open a discussion himself.
Starets Anatole (Zertsalov) entered Optina following a miraculous recovery from tuberculosis. Starets Macarius, who received him, initiated him into the practice of the Jesus Prayer and sent him at times to Father Ambrose or Father Joseph. Guided by the holy Elders, Father Anatole made such progress in the spiritual life that Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, who visited the Skete one day, acknowledged that he had been greatly edified by a conversation with him. For his devotion to the Startsi, Anatole endured tribulations from monks opposed to startchestvo, and he used these trials as a means of continuing steadfast in patience and humility. After the death of Starets Macarius (1860), he drew close to Father Ambrose who often sent him as a fellow-laborer to the guest-house to give a word of consolation to afflicted souls. Soon after his ordination as priest (1870), Anatole refused the abbacy of the Monastery of St. Saviour at Orlov for the sake of remaining with Saint Ambrose. As rector of the Skete (from 1875) and confessor of the monks of the Monastery, Father Anatole’s care for each one of the brethren was plain to see.
His cell was next to that of Ambrose at the entrance of the Skete and most pilgrims went on to see him after visiting Starets Ambrose. Father Anatole took counsel of Starets Ambrose on every matter, and each time he came to see him he would humbly go down on his knees like the other visitors. His humility was so great that he fell ill one day when told that Saint John of Kronstadt had seen him in a vision serving the Liturgy with the angels. Father Anatole became the closest helper of the Starets at the time of the foundation of Shamordino and served the Convent for twenty-one years, instructing the sisters in the Jesus Prayer and in monastic discipline. Towards the end of his life, he acquired the same power of discernment of thoughts as Macarius and Ambrose and he would often utter prophecies about the future of his spiritual children. After the death of Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Kaluga forbad Father Anatole to visit Shamordino. This new trial in his old age undermined his health but, having to travel to Moscow, he found the strength to go on pilgrimage to Kronstadt where he served the divine Liturgy with Saint John. On his return to Optina, Starets Anatole received the Great Habit in secret and, enduring his sufferings with patience to the end, he fell asleep on 25 January 1894, a few months before Archimandrite Isaac, the Abbot of the Monastery.
Upon the passing of Starets Anatole, Father Joseph was unanimously chosen to succeed him as confessor and as rector of the Skete. He ordered the affairs of the community less by virtue of his authority than by paternal love and humility, before which all self-will gave way. But for all that, he insisted on strict observance of the principles of monastic life, and the monks would not undertake work of any kind without first taking his blessing. For twelve years, he also took care of the spiritual direction of the nuns of Shamordino and of the crowds of lay people who visited the monastery. However, frequent bouts of illness obliged him to resign as rector of the Skete in 1906 and he no longer heard confessions, but could not shut his door on the many who still came to ask his blessing and the support of his prayer. The death of the Abbess of Shamordino in 1911 and his own rapidly failing health presented the prospect of difficult days ahead for the convent founded by Saint Ambrose, which meant so much to Father Joseph. Suffering from malarial fever and confined to his bed, Starets Joseph asked that all the monks of Optina, then all the nuns of Shamordino and from the Monastery of Belev, should come to his cell to take his blessing. So for some days endless queues of weeping monks and nuns could be seen making their way to the Staret’s cell. Having blessed all his spiritual children, he entered deeply into prayer and gave up his soul to God on 8 May 1911. He was seventy-four years old.
Father Isaac (Antimonov), who came of a line of rich Kursk merchants, entered the Skete of Optina in 1841, at about the same time as Father Ambrose. He was ordained to the priesthood, notwithstanding his reluctance, and recommended to the holy Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow by Starets Macarius to succeed Father Moses as Abbot of the main monastery in 1862. With great faith, and obedient to divine Providence, Father Isaac forsook his beloved hesychia, to spend over thirty years occupied with extensive and much-needed building works and with restoring the monastery’s economic stability, which Father Moses had neglected. He relied on the discernment of Starets Ambrose and asked his advice on every matter of importance. For all his great responsibilities, he remained humble and simple with his brethren. On Saturdays, when he went for confession to Father Ambrose, he would wait his turn with the other visitors. He hesitated for a while before backing the foundation of Shamordino. When Starets Ambrose went to live there permanently, he did not disguise his disappointment. Even so, he resolutely took up the cause of the Convent when the Bishop wanted to sever its connection with the Monastery of Optina. The withdrawal of Father Ambrose marked the beginning of a time of trials for the monastery. Father Isaac himself was stricken by paralysis, and only recovered some strength during the last year of his abbacy. In the end, he fell ill with dysentery and gave up his soul to God while deep in prayer on 28 August 1894, at the age of eighty-five.
Starets Barsanuphius (Plekhankov) came of a wealthy Cossack family and had been a colonel in the staff corps of the Kazan district. He fell ill and, at death’s door, was told in a vision to go to Optina. As soon as he recovered, he went to see Starets Ambrose who advised him to put his affairs in order and to come back in three months. Having overcome with difficulty all the obstacles in his way, he arrived at the monastery on the very day of the Saint’s burial (Oct. 1891). Father Anatole placed him under the direction of Starets Nectarius who conveyed to him the spiritual inheritance of the preceding Fathers. He was ordained a priest-monk and served as a military chaplain during the Russo-Japanese War (1905). On returning to Optina after the war, he found the Skete in decline. Starets Joseph was too old and infirm to direct affairs and the community was in a perilous condition, both materially and spiritually. Father Barsanuphius was then appointed rector and put matters to rights with energy and wisdom. Strict in his ascesis and not a man to make allowances for the spirit of the times, he combined high expectations of his monks with compassionate understanding. As he instructed them in the traditional path of evangelic perfection, he would enliven his discourse with numerous illustrations or comparisons drawn from music, which he had greatly appreciated. Like his predecessors, he stressed the importance of humility, revelation of thoughts and of the unceasing Jesus Prayer. He said that this prayer is like a boundless ocean, which those who persevere in monastic discipline cross without the cares and concerns of this world, in order to reach the Kingdom. While it is fitting (he said) to ask God to grant us prayer without distractions, we ought to leave the higher degrees of contemplative prayer to the free outpouring of His grace. He possessed the charism of foresight that often appeared during confession, as well as the gifts of healing and prophecy. Unsparing of himself, he fell ill in 1910 and received the Great Habit. He recovered only to meet with a great trial. Among the 300 brethren of the monastery, there was a group influenced by secular attitudes and without understanding of startchestvo, who aimed at the closure of the Skete through unremitting criticism of Father Barsanuphius. Their opposition turned into a real conspiracy that led to an episcopal visitation and the removal of Father Barsanuphius, who was appointed Abbot of the distant Monastery of Golutvinksy. In spite of age and ill-health, he restored the monastic buildings there within a year, and revived the community with the spirit of the Startsi of Optina. In all his trials, he followed after Christ in His Passion. Exhausted by his labors and ill with cancer, he would refuse the proffered remedies and exclaim, “Let me be, I am on the cross!” When illness incapacitated him he wrote to the Holy Synod, offering his resignation and asking permission to return to Optina “to leave my bones there.” He gave up his soul to God on 1 April 1913 before he could receive an answer, and was buried at Optina among the other Startsi.
Father Nectarius (Tikhonov), the last Starets of Optina, was born into a poor family in 1857. He worked for a merchant who wanted him as a son-in-law but, on the advice of an aged nun, he made his way to Optina to take counsel of the Startsi. As soon as Starets Ambrose set eyes on him, he turned aside from his other visitors and spoke to him for two hours. He remained under the spiritual direction of Father Anatole, the rector of the Skete, for more than twenty years but also frequently consulted Father Ambrose and thus learned the principles of spiritual direction. Well-grounded in the doctrine of the holy Fathers, he took a lively interest in literary, artistic and scientific questions and was always able to point to their spiritual implications. Soon after his ordination to the priesthood (1898), he wanted to set out on a distant mission but Father Joseph would not give his blessing so he stayed at the Skete, which enabled him to devote himself to the contemplative life. At another stage in his life, he attempted to follow the road of foolishness for Christ until the senior fathers of the Skete put a stop to his eccentricities.In the end, he found that semi-reclusion suited him best. He liked to say that there are only two reasons for a monk to leave his cell: to go to the church and to be taken to the grave. But he remained interested in cultural life, and his visitors included eminent figures in the literary and artistic world. His advice to intellectuals was, “Stop thinking, because thoughts fly everywhere; begin to draw within yourself and to contemplate.” He said that artists claim in vain to be creators, since they do no more than rearrange words, images and things made by God by means of the spirit that He has given them, while there is another art, incomparably higher, that consists in transforming one’s self.
In 1913, the monks of Optina met to choose a new Starets. Archimandrite Agapitus who had withdrawn to Optina with some disciples and led a godly life refused the nomination and pointed to Nectarius who had to accept out of obedience. He settled in Father Ambrose’s cell at the entrance of the Skete, and began to exercise his ministry of spiritual direction with Father Anatole the Younger (Potapov) as his fellow-worker. He regarded himself as the poorest and weakest of everyone, but relied upon the grace of God and the faith of those who came to him for a word of instruction. He joined great simplicity of character with a penetrating spirit and he inherited the ability of his predecessors to read the secrets of hearts and to adapt his words to the needs of each person. Stricter and more austere in his teaching than Starets Anatole, he was exacting towards clergy and members of the intelligentsia but approachable and full of kindness for simple people. He was especially solicitous for hardened sinners, whom he would tenderly address as “my precious child” or “my little lamb.” He possessed a fine sense of humor and would often illustrate his teaching with anecdotes from the history of the Skete of which he was one of the oldest inhabitants. Above all, he laid stress upon obedience, whereby we imitate Christ who, through obedience, became man for our salvation, and upon prayer, whereby the grace-deprived soul returns to life. After the outbreak of the Revolution, he took his stand with the holy Patriarch Tikhon (25 Mar.) against the so-called “Living Church” and forbad his spiritual children to have anything to do with those who were prepared to betray the Church to the Communists. The Monastery of Optina was closed in 1923 and vandalized by “activists” in 1926. Starets Nectarius was exiled to the village of Kholmisk in the district of Briansk, where he fell asleep in the Lord at an advanced age, on 29 May 1928. About seven years later, his body was found to be incorrupt.
The teachings of Starets Barsanuphius were set down in writing by his disciple Starets Nikon (Belaev). He had received an exceptional Christian education under the guidance of his mother, a spiritual daughter of Saint John of Kronstadt, and arrived at Optina with his brother in 1907 when he was nineteen. On the advice of Metropolitan Tryphon, who greatly admired Father Barsanuphius, Nikon unhesitatingly put himself under the spiritual direction of the Starets, in spite of the objections of some of the monks. He put all his energy into absorbing the teaching of Saint Barsanuphius whose secretary he became. The Elder perceived a deep sense of the spiritual in the cheerful young monk and, after a teaching session adapted to the needs of all, would often take him aside to deliver the fruits of his experience and to exhort him prophetically to lay up a store of patience against the trials that he would have to endure when he was in his place. Nikon received the Habit in 1909 and, upon the exile of Starets Barsanuphius, was transferred from the Skete to the Monastery where he was given the obedience of secretary. He was ordained priest in April 1917 and, amid the torment of revolution, skillfully reorganized the monastery (deprived of its income by the Bolsheviks) as an “agricultural legion.” He was arrested for no apparent reason in September 1919, imprisoned at Kozelsk and released after a short time. Ready to die rather than abandon the monastery, he stayed at his post, expecting expulsion, exile and torture at any moment. In 1923 the Bolsheviks ordered monastic services to cease at Optina and most of the community was scattered, although Father Nikon was able to remain for some time serving at the main church. He acted as spiritual father for the pilgrims who continued to come, and also directed a group of nuns from Shamordino who had taken refuge at Kozelsk. Early in 1924, the last church at the Monastery was closed, Nikon however continued to serve the divine Liturgy and to receive visitors in his cell until 15 June. Obliged at last to leave Optina, he settled temporarily near the cathedral of Kozelsk. Full of faith and confidence in Providence, he gave courage to the people, and a growing number of spiritual children gathered around him, often sent by Starets Nectarius, by Archimandrite Isaac the Younger, or by Fathers Meletius and Dositheus. He gave the utmost of his strength and time to all the souls entrusted to him providing material assistance to the most needy, and he spent many hours over his correspondence. He would receive the monks exiled from Optina in the mornings, and those who had come to see him from far afield. He devoted the rest of the time to confessing his other spiritual children, with the same gift of discernment as the Elders in times past; once a week he would visit the community of nuns. However, this situation only lasted for three years; in June 1927 Father Nikon was arrested with two other members of the clergy. His spiritual children did all they could to support him in prison by sending parcels. They also wrote to him, and he replied, sustaining their faith and assuaging their grief. In January 1928, he was sentenced to three years’ exile in the concentration camp of Solovki, but the course of events took him to other places. Being exempt from manual work because of a bad leg, he found time for prayer and, thanks to the help sent by his spiritual children, he was able to survive the dreadful conditions of detention, prior to his transfer to the Popov islands of Karelia. Soon after, he was exiled to Archangel with his companion Father Agapitus, in spite of being in an advanced stage of tuberculosis. He was then transferred to Penega and assigned as a general hand to a cruel and implacable woman who drove him out when he was no longer able to work. He was taken care of by a monk of Optina, an exile like himself, and gave up his soul on 25 June 1931 aged forty-three, as he traced the sign of the Cross in the air to bless his spiritual children from afar.
From the Synaxarion by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra
Our Venerable Father Ambrose was recognized by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1988
on the occasion of the Millenium of the Baptism of Russia
and is commemorated on the day of his repose, October 10th (+1891).
On the Synaxis, i.e., October 11th, the Church commemorates all fourteen Elders of Optina
(which is also the commemoration day of Elder Leonid, who reposed on October 10th, 1841,
almost an exact fifty years before the repose of Elder Ambrose).
Through the grace of our Venerable Father Anthony of Optina, the St. Nicholas Maloyaroslavets Monastery is flourishing again under the spiritual leadership of Abbess Nickolaya who literally raised it up from the rubble of communist times. She shepherds 100 nuns, an orphanage of 75 children, and ten abbesses which she has provided from her sisterhood to renew other monasteries all over Russia.
Our sisterhood was directed to Abbess Nickolaya by the monastic fathers at Optina on our first pilgrimage to Russia in 1998, in search of spiritual help for our young monastic community. Abbess Nickolaya, from that day until now, has shared with us many of the spiritual treasures of the Russian Church, accepting us as a sister monastery. The fruits of her many contacts with disciples of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (of Mount Athos) are a continuing source of spiritual refreshment and edification.
This icon of the Venerable Elder Anthony, painted by one of the sisters of Maloyaroslavets Monastery and embedded with a portion of the saint’s relics, was gifted to our monastery. Treasured in our St. Paisius Chapel are also portions of the relics of twelve of the fourteen canonized Optina Elders.
May we have their prayers!