Although the beginning of monastic life in Optina monastery dates to at least as early as the sixteenth century, it is most known for its tradition of spiritual eldership in the tradition of St. Paisius (Velichkovsky) of Moldavia, which flourished there in the nineteenth century—particularly in the monastery’s Skete of St. John the Forerunner. This pleiad of spiritual luminaries bears a significance to Russian Orthodox spirituality that cannot be overestimated.
Hieroschemamonk Leo (Nagolkin), 1768–October 11, 1841
Eldership at Optina properly begins with Elder Leonid (Leo in schema) who arrived when he was already matured in this ministry. Outwardly his monastic path was unsettled. It began in Optina at the dawn of its revival, initiated in 1795 by Metropolitan Platon, then led him to White Banks Monastery where he was tonsured, to Cholnsk, the Roslavi forest, Valaam, St. Alexander of Svir monastery, Ploshchansk and the Briansk forest, before he “returned” to Optina in 1829 at the invitation Elder Moses. This transience was the result not of instability but of circumstance. The tradition eldership and hesychasm had become so removed from the Russian monastic experience of the 18th century that it was suspected of being an innovation and not infrequently aroused misunderstandings leading to slander, jealousy and outright persecution—something which Elder Leonid experienced at varying degrees throughout his monastic career, and particularly in his last years at Optina. Leonid’s involuntary mobility did not, however, prevent him from developing a solid spiritual foundation. In his sojourning he was in constant association with Paisian disciples, and spent some twenty years in the company of Elder Cleopas and Elder Theodore (of Svir) who had lived with Elder Paisius. From them Leonid learned the art of unceasing prayer.
At Optina the brethren came daily to Elder Leonid to reveal their thoughts practice which nurtured spiritual vigilance and control. With his gift of clairvoyance, the Elder expertly wielded the spiritual scalpel, going directly to the heart of the person’s problem and inspiring healing tears of repentance. He worked countless miracles also among laymen. In the world he had been engaged in commerce and this experience helped him to establish a rapport with pilgrims from diverse backgrounds. At first acquaintance, many were misled by the rather jovial exterior which often hid his ascetic temperament.
Trials were bound to follow this soul-saving activity. The same authority which sent Elder Anthony from Optina forbade Elder Leonid from receiving visitors. But people continued to flock to him with their troubles, and, possessing great love and compassion, he could not refuse them. Fortunately, he received moral support from Elder Moses and also Metropolitans Philaret of Moscow and of Kiev. But the tension was wearying. Elder Leonid died after a serious illness of five weeks.
Counsels of Elder Leo of Optina
“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 (Mt. 11:29).
Hieroschemamonk Macarius (Ivanov), 1788 – September 7, 1860
Elder Macarius’s face was scarred by smallpox, he stuttered and was always poorly dressed, but he was distinguished by a very refined personality. He was born to a landed gentry family, loved music and was a talented violinist. After some years’ experience in the world as a bookkeeper, in 1818 he entered upon the monastic path at the Ploshchansk Hermitage. There he formed ties with Elder Leonid and followed him to Optina.
With Elder Leonid’s repose, the burden of the spiritual guidance of the skete fell to Elder Macarius. He was soft-spoken and emanated a quiet joy in the Lord. Like Elder Leonid, he used his gift of spiritual discernment to work numerous healings, especially of the demon-possessed. He also carried on a tremendous correspondence: his letters of counsel fill two volumes, each numbering a thousand pages.
Elder Macarius did not tolerate idleness among the brethren. He introduced various handcrafts: bookbinding and woodworking. He also adorned the skete with mass planting of flowers. His greatest contribution to Optina, however, was to initiate its work of publishing patristic texts. This was historically significant, since Peter’s reforms had greatly curtailed such activity, which subsequent laws restricted to ecclesiastical print shops. The result was that many works of Holy Fathers existed only in manuscript form or in very limited editions. Meanwhile, the secular press was churning out translations of mystical-philosophical works from the West, some of them plainly hostile to Orthodoxy. With the blessing and earnest support of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, and the active collaboration of the Orthodox writer and philosopher Ivan Kireyevsky, Elder Macariusbegan meticulously editing manuscripts translated from the Greek by Paisius Velichkovsky, which he had acquired in Ploshchansk, and other patristic manuscripts donated by various individuals, thus launching an undertaking which, in 50 years, produced more than 125 books in 225,090 copies. These were sent to libraries and seminaries all over Russia, putting into circulation the works of St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Nilus of Sora, Elder Paisius (Velichkovsky), and others, and inspiring a growing circle of religiously inclined intelligentsia.
Counsels of 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: For wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat (Mt. 7:13), while the life of sorrow He called strait: Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Mt. 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 (cf. Mt. 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 hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. (Jn. 15:18), while the carnal mind is enmity against God. It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (cf. Rm. 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 types 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.”
Schema-Archimandrite Moses (Putilov), 1772–June 16, 1862
As a youth, Elder Moses received the blessing of St. Seraphim of Sarov to enter the monastic life. He was sixteen when he joined the Roslavl forest ascetics, among whom were disciples of Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, and for fourteen years he exercised himself in spiritual warfare and inner concentration under their tutelage. Forced to move by the War of 1812, he lived for a time with ascetics in the Briansk forest where he forged ties with Elder Leonid. In 1821 he visited Optina, which had been revived by Paisian disciples not long before, and he was persuaded to stay and establish nearby a skete. With his younger brother Anthony and two other monks he began building, and a year later the skete church dedicated to St. John the Forerunner was consecrated.
In 1825 Moses was appointed superior of the Optina Monastery, while his brother succeeded him as head of the skete. Elder Moses greatly expanded the physical plan of the Hermitage: he built the St. Mary of Egypt refectory church, additional cells for the brethren; he added stables, a kiln, a large library and an apiary. More importantly, he strengthened its spiritual foundation by inviting Elder Leonid to Optina and himself setting an example of utmost obedience and meekness. After Elder Leonid arrived, he did nothing without his blessing. His love and gentleness attracted many pilgrims, with their financial support, but his true spiritual stature remained largely hidden, just as his life was hidden in God.
Counsels of Elder Moses
“If you show mercy towards others–mercy will be shown to you.”
“If you co-suffer with the suffering (although this does not seem difficult), you will be numbered 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, you shall earn for that 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 Chrysostom says, “Even if you only 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, resolve to make an improvement on the following day, and spent 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 conscience, condemn yourself and prepare on the following day to be more attentive towards good and more cautious towards evil.”
“When you have the security of humility in your hearts, remembering your own wickedness, then you will find the help of God in your works. According to the measure of our acquisition of humility shall we obtain eternity here on earth, and acquire the kingdom of God within ourselves, of which we are informed by the Savior Himself, Who says, The kingdom of God is within you.
Schema-Abbot Anthony (Putilov), 1795–August 7, 1865
Elder Anthony was a disciple of his own brother, Elder Moses (Putilov) in the Roslavl forest before following him to Optina. He was only thirty when he was appointed superior of the skete, and even in this position of authority he did nothing without his brother’s blessing. Visitors to the Skete were impressed by the order and cleanliness, which were mirrored in the inner tranquility of the brethren under the care of this spirit-bearing elder. The diocesan bishop, however, saw the revival of eldership as an innovation and made things difficult for the elders. In 1839 he transferred Elder Anthony to the derelict Maloyaroslavl monastery. Leaving Optina was a great trial for the Elder, but nevertheless, he applied himself to revitalizing the monastery and endured that obedience for fourteen years before returning to his beloved Optina for retirement.
For thirty years the Elder suffered from sores on his legs which, in time, penetrated to the bone. Even in this condition he did not spare himself for the sake of his brothers. One monk often gave in to a weakness to oversleep and missed Matins, which was served at one or two in the morning; finally he gave up going altogether, in spite of repeated entreaties by his superiors. One morning after service in church, Elder Anthony came to the brother’s cell. “I must give an account for you. Have pity on me and on your ‘ own soul,” the Elder implored. He prostrated himself before the brother, whereupon blood poured out from the elder’s boots, forming a pool beneath his mantia. The brother was stricken by the abbot’s extreme humility, and was cured of his weakness.
Counsels of Elder Anthony
“Of course it would be easier to get to paradise with a full stomach, all snuggled up in a soft feather-bed, but what is required is to carry one’s cross along the way, for the Kingdom of God is not attained by enduring one or two troubles, but many!”
“Your spirit should not grow weary, but should become warm from spiritual reading, from thoughts about eternity, and from prayer, even though it may be brief. Say to the Lord; ‘Gather my scattered mind, O Lord and humble my hardened heart with fear of Thee, and have mercy on me!’ For without Divine help we are powerless; we cannot even deal with flies, much less invisible enemies.”
Hieroschemamonk Hilarion (Ponamarov), 1805–September 18, 1873
Elder Hilarion was born on Pascha night and baptized Rodion. In the world he was a tailor and ran a clothing store, devoting his spare time to missionary work among the schismatic Skoptsy sect. He spent a year visiting various monasteries before settling in Optina in 1839, drawn by the presence of Elders Leonid and Macarius. When the latter was appointed skete superior, he chose Rodion as his cell attendant, an obedience he fulfilled for twenty years, until Elder Macarius’s repose. In addition he worked in the gardens, made kvass, baked bread and looked after the apiary He was characterized by simplicity, goodwill and a readiness to help. With his missionary background he showed special concern for those outside the Church. Although he remained for posterity in the shadow of his more famous fellow elders, his spiritual greatness may be judged by the fact that Elder Macarius entrusted to him, as well as to Elder Ambrose, his spiritual children.
Appointed skete superior and father confessor in 1863, Elder Hilarion tried to plant love and oneness of mind in the hearts of the brethren, and continued the order established by Elder Macarius, following the pattern of his elder’s wise instructions as if he were still his obedient cell-attendant. During a painful illness in the last two years of his life, he asked not for healing but for patience and fulfilled his cell rule to the end.
Counsels of Elder Hilarion
“Do not be ashamed to reveal your scabs to your spiritual director. Be prepared as well to accept from him disgrace for your sins, so that by being disgraced, you might avoid eternal shame.”
“Let us love the Church and be devoted to it. It is our joy and comfort both in sorrows and in joys.”
“If you feel that hatred has overwhelmed you, remain silent.Say nothing until, by ceaseless prayer and self-recrimination, you have calmed your heart.”
“It is better for your soul that you confess yourself as guilty in everything and as being the least of all, than to have recourse to self-justification, something that comes from pride. God opposes the proud, and renders grace unto the humble.
“Reprimand without feeding your own self-love, considering whether you will be able to bear what you demand of another… It is of greater benefit for the soul to acknowledge itself to be guilty of everything and the last of all, than to resort to self-justification, which hat its origin in pride: God opposes the prideful, but gives grace unto the humble.”
“For us the church is heaven on earth, where God Himself is invisibly present and watches over those whose stand before Him there. For this reason, one must stand in church in an orderly manner, with great reverence. Let us love the church, and let us be zealous therein, for it is a delight and consolation for us amid both sorrows and joys.”
Hieroschemamonk Ambrose (Grenkov), 1812–October 10, 1891
The sixth of eight children, the future Elder had a lively sense of humor and sociable personality which conflicted with his spiritual yearnings. A serious illness helped him to resolve his inner struggle.
He arrived at Optina in 1839 when the monastery was spiritually in full bloom. Guided at first by Elder Leonid and then by Elder Macarius, who chose him as his cell-attendant, he made rapid spiritual progress. After only three years he was tonsured and in another three years he was ordained a hieromonk. Illness forced him into semi-reclusion for several years, enabling him with great profit to concentrate on the Jesus Prayer and to experience the meaning of hesychia, the silence of the soul before God. Plagued by a weak constitution for the rest of his life, he continued nevertheless to expend every effort—at first in assisting Elder Macarius with the translation of the Holy Fathers, with his correspondence and in conveying his counsel to pilgrims, and later as an elder in his own right—for the sake of that love which beareth all.
For thirty years after Elder Macarius’s death, Elder Ambrose was in the position of being Optina’s principal elder (starets). Countless pilgrims streamed to his cell, and even when he was thoroughly exhausted and had to receive them lying in bed, he never turned away anyone in need of soul-profiting counsel. Men’s souls held no secrets from him; abundant testimony exists of his clairvoyance. He always adapted his advice to the individual and no one’s problem was considered too insignificant.
Dostoevsky found in Elder Ambrose a living example of the Christian ideal, while Elder Nectarius called him “an earthly angel and a heavenly man.” Indeed, he was seen more than once surrounded by uncreated light, a sign of transfiguration and citizenship in paradise.
Excerpts from the instructions of St. 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 (in Russian, this famous saying of Elder Ambrose’s had a sing-song quality) 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 enough to push a man’s soul down to the depths of hell; however, 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 (cf. Rom. 12:10). Gathering all these ideas into one, we see that in this saying the elder primarily preached humility—the basis of spiritual life, the source of all virtues, without which, according to St. John Chrysostom, 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.” These instructions also urged people to strive to attain humility.
“If we abandon our own desires and opinions, and endeavor to fulfill God’s wishes and understanding, we will save ourselves, no matter what our position, no matter what our circumstance. But if we cling to our own desires and opinions, neither position nor circumstance will be of help. Even in Paradise, Eve transgressed God’s commandment, and life with the Savior Himself brought the unfortunate Judas no good. As we read in the Holy Gospels, we need patience and an inclination to pious living.”
“It is useless to accuse those around us and those who live with us of somehow interfering with or being an impediment to our salvation and spiritual perfection… Spiritual or emotional dissatisfaction comes from within ourselves, from inexperience and from poorly conceived opinions that we do not want to abandon, but which bring on doubt, embarrassment, and misunderstanding. All of this tires and burdens us, and brings us to a sorry state. We would do well to comprehend the Holy Fathers’ simple advice: ‘If we will humble ourselves, we will find tranquility anywhere, without having to mentally wander about many other places, where we might have the same, or even worse, experiences.’”
“One who wants to be saved must remember, must never forget, the Apostolic commandment: ‘Carry one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the Law of Christ.’ This commandment is of great significance; it one we must first and foremost strive to obey.”
“Many desire good spiritual life in its simplest form, but only a very few actually fulfill their good intentions. These are people who steadfastly obey the words of divine Scripture that we must enter the Kingdom of Heaven by many sorrows, and who, calling upon God’s help, strive to endure without complaint the sorrows, ills, and discomforts they encounter, always keeping in mind the words of the Lord Himself that whosoever wishes to enter into life, must obey the commandments.”
“The Lord’s most important commandments are Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven (Lk. 6:37) Moreover, those desirous of salvation should always keep in mind the words of St. Peter Damascene, that creation takes place between fear and hope.
“The work of our salvation demands that wherever a person may live, he must fulfill God’s commandments and submit to His will. Only thereby does one acquire spiritual peace, and by no other way. As it is says in the psalm; Great peace have they that love thy law: and there is no stumbling-block to them (Ps. 118:165). And yet you continue to seek after internal peace and spiritual calm by way of external circumstance. You still seem to think that you are not living in the right place, that you have not settled down among the right kind of people, that you have not ordered your affairs correctly and that others apparently have not behaved properly. In Divine Scripture it states ‘His [i.e. God’s] dominion is in every place’, and that for God the most precious thing in the whole world is the salvation of a single Christian soul.”
“As in all things to the good, God is prepared to help man acquire humility. Yet man himself must take care of himself. The Holy Fathers say “give blood and receive spirit.” This means, struggle even to the point of giving up your blood, and you will receive a spiritual gift. While you seek after and ask for spiritual gifts, you are unwilling to shed your blood. That is, you want everything, but do not want to be bothered or disturbed by anyone. But can one ever acquire humility by living a life of tranquility? Humility consists of seeing oneself as the worst of all, not only of people, but even of dumb beasts, even the evil spirits themselves. Then, when people disturb you, you are aware that you cannot endure it and that you become angry with people; involuntarily, you then will consider yourself to be a bad person… If in the process you regret being bad, and reproach yourself as incorrigible, if you truly repent of this before God and your spiritual father, then you will already be on the path to humility. But if no one were to bother you, if you were to live in tranquility, how could you become conscious of your badness? If they are trying to demean you, they want to humble you. You yourself are asking God for humility. Why then should you complain about people?”
“One who has an evil heart should not despair, for with God’s help, one can correct his heart. He must only remain vigilant and miss no opportunity to help his neighbors. He must open himself up before his elder, and must be as charitable as possible. This, of course cannot be accomplished all at once, but the Lord is very patient. He brings a person’s life to an end only when He sees him ready to depart into eternity, or when he sees no hope for his correction.”
Teaching that in the spiritual life one must not disregard even the seemingly most insignificant matter, the Elder would say, “Moscow was consumed by the flames of a tiny candle.”
Fr. Ambrose said regarding condemnation and criticism of other’s faults and sins: “You need to pay such close attention to your own internal life, that you not focus on what is happening around you. Then you will not condemn.”
Pointing out that man has nothing of which to be proud, the Elder added, “Actually, what does man have to squawk about? A ragged, wretched beggar cries out for alms: ‘Have Mercy! Have Mercy!’ But who knows whether he will be shown mercy?”
“Why do men sin? Either because they do not know what they should do, or, if they do know, they forget; and if they forget, they are slothful and despondent… This is why we pray to the Queen of Heaven: O all-holy Theotokos, my Mistress … drive from me, thy servant despondency, forgetfulness, negligence, and all vile and wicked and evil thoughts… Why is man bad? Because he forgets that God is above him.”
Hieroschemamonk Anatole I (Zertsalov), 1824–January 25, 1894
Elder Anatole’s parents encouraged their children towards monasticism. After attending seminary, a miraculous healing from consumption led him to Optina. He became a disciple of Elder Macarius, who, foreseeing his future greatness, jokingly called him “the tall one”. He had a difficult novitiate, working in the kitchen and sleeping there on a woodpile. In 1870 he became a hieromonk and then, at Elder Ambrose’s request, skete superior. With his exceptional gift of prayer, he was in great demand as a spiritual father and received up to 200 letters a day. He often forewarned people of impending trials, counseling submission to God’s will. He worked closely with Elder Ambrose, who, recognizing his rare spiritual gifts, depended on his help in guiding the Shamardino nuns. When Elder Ambrose reposed, Fr. Anatole felt orphaned, although he was consoled by ties with St. John of Kronstadt. Like so many of the elders, Elder Anatole suffered from slanders, a trial which further weakened his heart and hastened his departure from this world. In 1893 he was secretly tonsured into the great schema, and three and a haft months later, he reposed.
Counsels of Elder Anatole I
“Recite the Jesus Prayer unceasingly, and no one will interfere with you. Even when there are many people around you, you will not notice them.”
“One should pray to God so that between God and the soul of the one who prays there is nothing and nobody, only God and the soul: and that the one who prays senses neither heaven nor earth, nor anything else beside God.”
“Stand in church like an angel: do not indulge in talking, do not look around you Church is an earthly heaven. When you leave the Church, recite, Virgin Theotokos rejoice… and speak to no one: then you shall be like unto a vessel so full that it overfloweth upon the way.”
Isaac I (Antimonov), 1810–August 22, 1894
Elder Isaac was born on May 31, 1810, in Kursk. His name in the world was Ivan Ivanovich Antimonov. For a time he worked in his father’s business. However, he did not wish to marry and lead a worldly life. Consequently he entered the hermitage attached to the monastery of Optina in 1846. In 1858 he was ordained a priest. The bishop appointed him superior of Optina Skete in 1862, despite the fact that he was not the monks’ choice. However, he managed by his gentelenss and humility to overcome this opposition, and governed the community in peace for 30 years. Elder Isaac reposed in Optina August 22, 1894.
Hieroschemamonk Joseph (Litovkin), 1837–May 9, 1911
St. Joseph of Optina was born on November 2, 1837 in the village of Gorodishcha in the province of Kharkov. His name in the world was John Litovkin, and his parents Euthymius and Maria were simple but pious people. They were generous to the poor, and often lent money to those in need even when there seemed little chance that it would be repaid. Euthymius also loved to receive monks who came to his door collecting alms for their monasteries. Invariably, he would give each one five rubles for the needs of the monastery. Although a sickly child, Joseph was happy and affectionate and led a God centered life. While a young child he suddenly became transfixed while playing, lifted his head and hands to the sky and then collapsed. Later, he said he had seen the Queen of Heaven in the air.
Both his parents had died by the time he was eleven years old. Orphaned, John was moved from one home to another, often suffering from hunger, enduring cold, and sometime beatings until a merchant took a liking to him and his quiet ways. Although the merchant offered to take him into his family, the merchant realized that John had committed himself to the Lord and released him to go on a pilgrimage. John received advice from an eldress at his sister’s convent to go to Optina Monastery.
Heeding her advice, John went to Optina and remained there for the rest of his life. He served as cell attendant to Elder Ambrose for fifty years, enduring all the difficulties involved with serving an elder whose cell was continually filled and surrounded with people seeking spiritual guidance. However, his deep love for his elder far outweighed any grief he had to endure. Having been long prepared by Elder Ambrose, Fr. Joseph eventually succeeded him as confessor of the brothers in the skete. When the elder departed on his final trip to Shamordino Convent, he ordered Fr. Joseph to move into his cell. Fr. Ambrose never returned from Shamordino, and the people who had always relied upon Elder Ambrose naturally came to rely upon Elder Joseph.
St Joseph became a great Elder because first he had been a great disciple. He was obedient to his Elder Fr Ambrose in all things, and never contradicted him. Because he renounced his own will, refrained from judging others, and reproached himself for his own sins, Fr Joseph acquired humility and the grace of God. He also obtained from the Lord the discernment to recognize every sort of spiritual illness, and how to treat it. After a long illness, he reposed in the Lord on May 9, 1911.
Counsels of Elder Joseph
“[Seclusion] is a dangerous path. The passions grow in seclusion. It is better to be among the people. Out away from where people walk, the grass grows high; but where they walk, the path is bare. Sometimes people go in for solitude out of intolerance. But it is good for us when we are jostled. The tree that the wind blows most against has the deepest and strongest roots: but that tree which grows undisturbed is more likely blown over.”
“How may one acquire complete dispassion? By complete humility.”
“The example of God’s longsuffering must curb our impatience, which gives us no rest. Nothing so calms us and reconciles us to the actions of others as silence, prayer and love. To each, this or that behavior of one’s neighbor seems to be a great thing, which accuses him of something.”
Schema-Archimandrite Barsanuphius (Plikhanov), 1845–April 1, 1913
Paul Ivanovitch Plikhanov was born in the city of Samara on July 5, 1845, the son of John and Natalia Plikhanov. His mother died in childbirth, and his father soon remarried so that his son would have a mother. Although his stepmother was very strict, she was a real mother to him, and he loved her very much.
Descended from the Orenburg Cossacks, Paul enrolled in the Polotsk Cadet Corps to pursue his education and a military career. After completing his studies at the Orenburg Military School, he received a commission as an officer. Later, he graduated from the Petersburg Cossack Staff Officers’ School and then served at the headquarters of the Kazan military district. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel.
In 1881, Paul contracted pulmonary pneumonia. At his request his orderly read the Gospel to him. As the orderly read, Paul passed out and saw a vision. It was a miraculous vision in which the heavens seemed to open and, as he became afraid because of the great light, his whole sinful life passed before him, and he was overcome with repentance. While the doctors did not think he would recover, his health did improve. As he recovered, Paul learned about the Optina Hermitage that he now wanted to visit. In August 1889, Paul visited the Elder of the Monastery, Fr. Ambrose, who told him to set his worldly affairs in order. Two years later, Fr. Ambrose blessed him to cut all ties to the world and told him to enter Optina within three months.
Resigning his commission within the specified three month period proved not to be easy. Obstacles were placed in his way including a request to delay his retirement and an offer for promotion to the rank of general. Only his stepmother was happy that he wished to become a monk. He was finally able to close his affairs and move to Optina, to find that Fr. Ambrose had died.
Fr. Barsanuphius was first assigned as cell attendant to Elder Nectarius, He was accepted as a novice on February 10, 1892 as a member of the brotherhood of the St. John the Baptist Skete. After passing through the stages of monastic tonsure and ordination, Fr. Barsanuphius was appointed to assist Elder Joseph in the spiritual direction of the brethren in September of 1903. It was said of Fr. Barsanuphius that he “became an elder overnight.”
When the Russo-Japanese war began in 1904, Fr. Barsanuphius was sent to the Far East as a military chaplain to minister to wounded soldiers at the St. Seraphim of Sarov Military Hospital. When the war ended in August 1905, Fr. Barsanuphius returned to Optina on November 1, 1905.
In 1912, after troubles in Optina that threatened closure of the skete, Fr. Barsanuphius was appointed abbot of the Golutvin monastery in the town of Kolomna, where he revived it from physical and spiritual decay. He reposed on April 1, 1913 after an illness in Golutvin Monastery, but his body was transferred to his beloved Optina for burial.
Counsels of Elder Barsanuphius
“Sometimes on a day on which you intend to receive Communion, you may experience a feeling of heaviness, but you should not pay any attention to this, nor should you become despondent, since on such a day the devil will particularly attack a man.”
“The six psalms (at the beginning of Matins) are a spiritual symphony, life for the world, which embraces the whole soul and imparts to it the most sublime light.”
“Do you know the poem by Pushkin, ‘The Prophet’? He says there, ‘Through a dismal waste I dragged myself, fainthearted.’ The desert is life. He understood this, that life is a desert. And he dragged himself along—he crawled with his whole body. Further, ‘And a six-winged Seraphim appeared where the pathways parted.’ Here, perhaps, he has himself in mind; I don’t know whether one appeared to him or not. Then Pushkin portrays the sanctification of an Old Testament prophet. It seems, or so they say, that he comprehended both ‘the angels in their soaring sweep,’ and, ‘the monsters moving in the deep.’ Angels are pure—they just ‘philosophize celestially.’ But in us there are also ‘the monsters moving in the deep.’ These two currents run parallel in us. But we must endeavor only to ‘philosophize celestially.’ This is not attained right away; but the movement of the monsters will become more and more quiet, and then one might reach the point when there only a heavenly yearning remains, and those monsters will dive into the abyss and vanish. Yes, it’s possible to attain to this. So here’s what I’m telling you—humble down and humble down! May the Lord help you!”
Schema-Archimandrite Anatole II (Potapov), the “Younger”, July 30, 1922
Alexander Potapov, as a youth, wanted to be a monk, but his mother would not give her consent. Thus, he entered Optina Monastery only after her death. At the monastery, he became the cell-attendant of Elder Ambrose, and after Ambrose’s death he functioned as an elder, even though he was still a deacon. With his tonsure as a monk, he was given the name Anatole.
Anatole gave himself over completely to the Jesus Prayer. He would hardly sleep at all, only dozing off a little during the reading of the Psalms during Matins. Through this inward activity he preserved an unshakeable calm even though thousands of people from all over Russia came to visit him.
On February 27, 1917, as Emperor Nicholas prepared to abdicate, Fr. Anatolius prophesied that the organizational unity of the Russian Church would break up into a number of branches or splinters. But, he continued that these splinters and wreckage can save the people as through a great miracle of God they are gathered together and united and canonical unity would be restored.
Under the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s, Fr. Anatole was mocked and tormented by soldiers of the Red Army. He endured much suffering, but continued to receive visitors. During the evening of July 29, 1922, soldiers came to arrest him. But putting them off, he asked for time to prepare himself. The next morning, soldiers returned and asked the Elder’s cell attendant if he was ready. Fr. Barnabas invited them to come in. There they found Fr. Anatole in the middle of his cell, all “prepared”, lying dead in his coffin. The Lord had taken him during the night to spare him further suffering.
The body of Elder Anatole was buried next to that of Elder Macarius, whose relics were then found to be incorrupt.
Counsel of Elder Anatole the “Younger”
“Pride comes in various forms. There is worldly pride: this is knowledge; and there is spiritual pride: this is self-love. This is exactly so—people will truly go insane if they expect their intellect to cope with everything they hope to receive from it. But how can our mind get down to its own business, since it is insignificant and infected? Take from it that which it is able to give, and make no further demand upon it. Our teacher is humility. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble, and the grace of God is everything. That is your greatest wisdom. Humble yourself and say to yourself: ‘Although I’m a speck of earthly dust, still God cares for me, and may the will of God be done in me.’ If you say this, not only with your mind, but also with your heart, boldly—as becomes a true Christian—relying on the Lord with a firm intention to submit to the will of God—whatever it may be—without murmuring, then the clouds will disperse before you and the sun will look out, and will enlighten and warm you. And you will know true joy from the Lord and everything will seem clear and transparent to you, and you will cease tormenting yourself, and it will become light in your soul.”
Hieroschemamonk Nectarius (Tikhonov), 1857–April 29, 1928
Elder Nectarius came from a poor working class family. A schema-nun counseled him to go to Optina where he arrived in 1876. For 20 years he became a disciple of Elder Anatole, and also received counsel from Elder Ambrose. Both were strict with him; and later, as a spiritual father, the medicine he gave was often bitter, although he was kindly affectionate towards those undergoing difficulties. He became something of a fool-for-Christ and spent several years as a semi-recluse, reading not only spiritual texts but also the world’s literary greats: Milton, Dante, Shakespeare; he studied science, mathematics and painting, and in conversation with intellectuals was able to relate all human knowledge to the spiritual world and the wonder of God’s gift of creativity.
In 1913 he reluctantly agreed to be spiritual father of the brotherhood. Comparing himself to his predecessors, he said, “They had whole loaves of wisdom, while I have but a slice.” In fact, it was said of Elder Nectarius that he was “a sword of light piercing the soul.”
When in 1923 Optina was closed by the communists, Elder Nectarius was imprisoned briefly, then released, and spent the rest of his life in trying circumstances in the village of Kholmishcha. Nevertheless, he managed to preserve a radiant peace and maintained ties with some of his spiritual children. Two months before he died he foretold to them his repose. He also said that his body would not remain in the Kholmishcha cemetery. His prophecy was fulfilled on July 16, 1989, when the monks from the newly reopened Optina Monastery transferred the Elder’s relics—wondrously fragrant—to the monastery where they now repose in the main church, in a side chapel dedicated to Elder Nectarius’ beloved abba, Elder Ambrose.
Counsels of Elder Nektary
“One must not demand of a fly that it do the work of a bee. Every man should give according to his own measure. Not everyone can do the same thing.”
“In times to come the world will be girded about with iron and paper. The days of Noah were a prefiguration of our days. The ark is the Church; only those who are on it will be saved. We must pray. By prayer, by the word of God, all defilement is washed away.”
“God not only permits, but demands of a man that he grow in knowledge. However, it is necessary to live and learn so that not only does knowledge not ruin morality, but that morality ruin not knowledge.”
“Man is given life in order that it might serve him and not vice versa. In serving life, a man loses his sense of proportion; he works without any rationale and becomes sadly confused, not knowing why he lives. This is a very harmful state of doubt and it often happens that a man, like a horse, plods under his load and suddenly finds himself faced with such a … cataclysmic obstacle.”
New Hiero-confessor Nikon, 1888–June 25, 1931
St. Nikon was born on September 26, 1888, the son of Metrophanes and Vera Belyaev, and was named Nicholas at his Baptism. His parents, who were both very devout, belonged to one of Moscow’s merchant families.
The Belyaev family received a visit from St John of Kronstadt when Nicholas was in his first year. He blessed Vera and gave her a signed photograph of himself.
Both Nicholas and his brother John loved going to church and reading the Holy Scriptures and other spiritual books. When John and Nicholas decided to embrace monasticism, they cut up a list of Russia’s monasteries from an old book, and Nicholas was asked to pick one of the strips after praying to God. The strip he selected read, “The Optina Hermitage of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, Kozelsk.” Until that moment, neither of them had ever heard of this monastery.
The brothers traveled to Optina on February 24, 1907 with their mother’s blessing, and were accepted into the monastery on December 9, the commemoration of the “Unexpected Joy” Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos.
Nicholas was assigned as secretary to Fr Barsanuphius, the Superior of the Skete, in October 1908. Elder Barsanuphius foresaw the novice’s future spiritual stature.
Fr Nikon could not help but remember the prophecy of Fr Barsanuphius made several years before the Russian Revolution. St Barsanuphius foresaw times of difficulty for monasteries when Christians would be persecuted and suffer martyrdom. He predicted that he himself would be dead before this happened, and that Fr Nikon would live through those terrible times.
Fr Nikon was arrested and jailed on September 18, 1919 without the benefit of a trial, just because he was a monk. He was later released and permitted to return to Optina, where the monks had formed a farming cooperative.
The Soviets closed the cooperative in 1923, and the monastery was turned into a museum. Two monks were allowed to stay and work in the museum, while the others were expelled and told to go wherever they wished. Fr Nikon was blessed by Fr Isaac to serve in the church dedicated to the Kazan Icon and to receive visitors. When people came to him for advice, he always quoted the words of the Optina Elders.
The last church at Optina was closed early in 1924, and Fr Nikon was obliged to leave in June. He went to live at Kozelsk with Father Cyril Zlenko. There he continued to receive visitors and offer spiritual counsel, sharing money and food with those who were too old, or too sick to work. Fr Nikon, Fr Cyril, and Fr Agapitus Taub were arrested and thrown into prison in June of 1927. Fr Nikon and Fr Agapitus were sent to the a Soviet concentration camp, and later exiled to Archangelsk, were he was found to be sick with tuberculosis.
Soon, Fr Nikon was visited by Fr Peter, who had once lived at Optina. He begged Fr Peter to take him in, which he did. Fr Peter cared for the Elder to the best of his ability. On June 25, 1931 Fr Nikon was so weak that he could not speak. Archimandrite Nikita was called to bring him Communion, and to read the Canon for the Departure of the Soul. That night the Elder fell asleep in the Lord at the age of forty-three.
Counsels of Elder Nikon
“It is dangerous to live on charity. It is too easy to fall into the habit of begging. It is one thing to ask for others, another for oneself.”
“The Lord is the Creator of both physicians and medicines. One must not reject medical treatment.”
“If you wish to be delivered from grief, do not become attached in heart to anything or anyone.”
“The Lord Jesus Christ, while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, is to a certain degree a model for every spiritual father in regard to his spiritual children, for he also takes their sins upon himself. What a great thing this is, and what a thing it is to experience!”
“The Lord helps us amid sorrows and temptations. He does not free us from them, but imparts to us the strength to bear them easily, even to ignore them.”
“Complete freedom from cares lies in complete obedience, in faith in one’s spiritual father.”
“One must look upon blasphemers as upon sick people whom we ask not to cough or spit.”
“If you say something evil about your brother or sister, even if it is true, your soul suffers an incurable wound. You can reveal the sins of another only when the sole intention in your heart is the benefit of the soul of the sinner.”
“You must firmly remember this spiritual law of life: if you condemn someone for something or are disturbed by something in another person, you will experience the very same thing. You will do that which you condemned someone else for doing, or you will suffer from the same infirmity.”
New Hieromartyr Archimandrite Isaac II (Bobrakov), 1865–January 8, 1938
Schema-Archimandrite Isaac, in the world Ivan Nikolayevich Bobrikov, was born in 1865 in the village of Ostrov, Orel province, to a peasant family. In 1884 he entered Optina monastery as a novice. He was the last abbot of Optina monastery, and was distinguished by his great calm, simplicity and by the abundance of tears he shed during Divine services. When Optina monastery was closed in 1923, several of the monks led by Fr. Isaac remained in Kozelsk, where he served in the St. George church. Together with them were the blind, the halt and the hunchbacked.
In August, 1929, on the second or third day after the Transfiguration, all the Optina hieromonks, headed by Fr. Isaac, were arrested and imprisoned in Kozelsk prison. The arrested were sent to Sukhinichi prison, and from there to Smolensk.
In January, 1930, after the end of the “investigation”, Fr. Isaac, was exiled to Siberia along with others of the Optina monks, where, according to one source, they ended their lives.
According to another source, Fr. Isaac was exiled to Belev in Moscow province. In 1932 he was arrested in Belev, but was released. On December 16, 1937, Archimandrite Isaac was arrested in Belev. On December 30 he was condemned to be shot by a “Troika” of the NKVD in Tula, and on January 8, 1938, he was shot together with other Optina monks in Tesnitsky wood near Tula.