American Orthodox Catholic Christianity

Faith Of Our Fathers Series

Optina’s Elders: “Instructors of Monks and Conversers with Angels”

In Honor of their Forthcoming Glorification 

      Russian monasticism, planted with the first shoots of Christianity and rooted in the spiritually fertile soil of the Eastern desert tradition, was particularly fruitful in the 14th and 15th centuries, then gradually faded as the emphasis shifted from inner content-spiritual warfare and unceasing prayer--to external form and conduct. Its strength was further sapped by the reforms of Peter I who confiscated monastery lands and made the Church governing body a department of the State. Uninspired by such religious formalism, Russia's educated classes followed Peter's intellectual lead to the West, while Russia's theological schools, stifled by the scholastic methods they adopted in trying to combat the influence of Protestantism and the Catholic unia, were unable to provide a satisfying alternative.

      Among the lower classes, however, piety remained strong and God raised up a true son of Orthodoxy, Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794), whose committed search for the Patristic Orthodox tradition revived in Russia the spirit of genuine monasticism and with it the ancient ministry of eldership. While the Paisian influence was carried by his disciples from Mt. Athos and Moldavia to various monastic centers---Sarov, Solovki, Valaam, Glinsk--its effect was most concentrated in the Optina Hermitage and its adjacent skete of the Forerunner, whose golden chain of spirit-filled elders attracted countless thousands of pilgrims from all walks of life, thereby strengthening Orthodoxy's witness and enabling it to withstand the trial by fire which soon engulfed the Russian land.

      These holy elders, to be glorified by the Church Abroad on May 13, serve even now as guides to true Christianity, both through their example in life and by their prayers as they stand with boldness before the Throne of the Most High.

 Schema-Archimandrite Moses

1772 - June 16,1862

  As a youth, Elder Moses received St. Seraphim's blessing to enter the monastic life. He was 16 when he joined the Roslavl forest ascetics, among whom were disciples of Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, and for 14 years he exercized 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 was consecrated.

      In 1825 Moses was appointed superior of the Hermitage, while his brother succeeded him as head of the skete. Elder Moses greatly expanded the physical plant 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.

Schema-Hegumen Anthony

1795 - August 7, 1865 

Elder Anthony was discipled by his brother in the Roslavl forest before following him to Optina. He was only 30 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 14 years before returning to his beloved Optina for retirement.

       For 30 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 brother. One monk often gave in to a weakness to oversleep and missed Matins, which was served at 1 or 2 in the morning; finally he gave up 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," th.e Elder implored. He pr0str_ated himself before the brother, whereupon blood poured out from the elder's boots, forming a pool beneath his mantia. The brother was cured of his weakness.

Hieroschemamonk Leonid

1768 - October 11, 1841 

Eldership at Optina properly begins with Elder Leonid (Leo in schema) who arrived when 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 Metropolitan Platen, then led 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 "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 fro developing a solid spiritual foundation. In his sojournings he was in constant cent 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 supp 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.

Hieroschemamonk Macarius

1788 - September 7, 1860

Elder Makary'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 Makary. 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. also carried on a tremendous correspondence: his letters of counsel fill two volumes, each numbering a thousand pages.

      Elder Makary 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, 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 Makary began 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. Nil of Sera, Elder Paisius and others, and inspiring a growing circle of religiously inclined intelligentsia.

Hieroschemamonk Hilarion

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. He spent a year visiting various monasteries before settling in Optina in 1839, drawn by the presence of Elders Leonid and Makary. When the latter was appointed skete superior, he chose Rodion as his cell attendant, an obedience he fulfilled for 20 years, until Elder Makary'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 Makary 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 Makary, following the pattern of his abba'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.

Hieroschemamonk Ambrose

1812 - October 10, 1891

The sixth of eight children, the future Elder had a lively 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 Makary 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 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 Makary 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 30 years alter Elder Makary's death, Elder Ambrose was in the position of being Optina's principal 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 Nektary callcd 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. 

Hieroschemamonk Anatole (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 was discipled by Elder Makary 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, counselling 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.

Hieroschemamonk Nektary

1857 - April 29, 1928

Elder Nektary came from a poor working class family. A schema-nun counselled him to go to Optina where he arrived in 1876. For 20 years he was discipled by 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 Nektary that he was "a sword of light piercing the soul."

      When in 1923 Optina was closed by the communists, Elder Nektary 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 recently fulfilled when, in July, monks from the newly reopened Optina Hermitage 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 Nektary's beloved abba, Elder Ambrose.

Other elders to be glorified at the same time are Isaachius (+1894), Barsanuphius who became the spiritual son of Elder Nektary (see "A Spiritual Giant" OA #79), Anatole "the Younger" who died on the very day the communists came to oust him from the monastery (see The Orthodox Word, JulyAug. 1971), Nikon (+1931) who became a confessor after three years of concentration camp on SolovIci (see Orthodox Life, Sept-Oct. 1989), Isaachlus II (+193?), and Paisius Velichkovsky who was locally glorified at St. Elias Skete on Mount Athos in 1982.

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