Optina Monastery and the Righteous Transmission of Tradition – Preface and Introduction

by Matthew on January 28, 2014

Preface

This is to be the last issue of The Royal Path [the printed version, not the electronic version].  The intention is to conclude this publication with articles that reflect the goals and interests that inspired the previous issues.

The Church calendar has been the guiding force of the publication since it is one of the most basic foundations for the whole of the Christian life.   The Life of the Church is like a river and the calendar is its shores and banks.  The Church runs through it and between those banks is contained all that is needed for salvation.  Within its flow is found the yearly feasts and the daily commemorations of the saints, who have gone before us, lived the Christian life and attained the Kingdom of God, guiding us with the example of their lives.

 The lives of the pious laypeople presented in the past issues were selected because the people in question resemble us in that they lived in a time similar to our own.  They searched out the saints of their own days and attached themselves to them desiring to learn how to live the Christian life.  They struggled and attained this life each in their own measure.  In this way they are lights in our dark times.

 This last issue contains short accounts of the lives of each of the fourteen Elders of Optina, who through the past century up to our own day, have guided the lives of countless people.  Their influence has been so far reaching as to change the lives of modern Americans.  One such American being Fr. Seraphim Rose who throughout his life devoted himself to leading people to the Kingdom of God by his writings, his teachings and his conversations.  Through these he pointed people toward cotemporary and past saints and encouraged them to make a connection with those who were sources of the living tradition.

 “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…”

Introduction

Who are the Saints?

 The saints are those who have been baptized into Christ and through the measure of their faith in Christ, have crucified their old man (Rom. 6:6) and put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). “This same likeness to Christ… is found in all the saints, despite the infinite variety of their personal characteristics and of the circumstances in which they have shown forth the work of Christ in particular places and at different times.”[1] In their life they have overcome their passions (i.e. sinful habits) through the practice of the spiritual disciplines and the keeping of the commandments and have become perfect through grace even as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48, cf. Ps. 82:6). They are “the blessed” in that they are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the ones who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Therefore they have attained the kingdom of heaven and they are comforted, inherit the earth, are filled, have obtained mercy, see God and are the sons of God (Matt. 5:3-10). “[The] Lives of the Saints are nothing else but the life of the Lord Christ, repeated in every saint to a greater or lesser degree in this or that form. More precisely it is the life of the Lord Christ continued through the Saints…”[2] They have become gods (John 10:34) by the grace of the Holy Spirit as they cry out with St. Paul saying, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20).

The Qualities of the Saints

 Because Christ dwells in them, the saints do His work (John 14:12, 20, 23; cf. 18-26). “It is Christ Himself, dwelling in [the saints] by the Holy Spirit, who works miracles, converts idolaters, reveals the hidden wisdom of spiritual knowledge, reconciles enemies and fortifies the bodies of His saints to meet the most dreadful torments with joy; so that the Gospel continues to be written, even to this day, through the evangelic labors of the saints.”[3] Therefore, we are not surprised when we see the miraculous wonders wrought by saints throughout the whole history of the Church, because Christ told us that even greater miracles than His would be accomplished (John 14:12), and the lives of the

saints witness to this. In reading and learning of the history of the Church from its beginning, we learn of the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) which has been lived out through the saints from the very beginning and in whom the truth of the Gospel is seen and demonstrated.

The Psalmist declares, “God is glorious in His saints” (Ps. 68:35). Whereas He gives all His people strength and power as He shows no partiality to anyone (cf. Acts 10:34) but causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45) yet “the sun pours down its rays abundantly upon all alike, but they are visible only to those with open eyes. Those with clear-sighted, pure eyes benefit from the pure light of the sun, not those whose vision is dimmed because illness, mist or something similar has afflicted their eyes. In the same way, God richly bestows His help on all, for He is the ever-flowing, enlightening and saving fount of mercy and goodness. But not everyone takes advantage of His grace and power to practice and perfect virtue or show forth miracles, only those with a good intent, who demonstrate their love and faith towards God by good works (cf. Jas. 2:20-26), who turn away completely from everything base, hold fast to God’s commandments and lift up the eyes of their understanding to Christ the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2).”[4]

The Value of the Writings of Lives of the Saints

 As St. Paul instructs the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), so also are we to imitate those who live Christ better than us, and who are better in imitating than those who have already attained the Kingdom of God. In these Lives we can see the beginning, the middle and end of the spiritual road that concludes in Christ.

“The purpose of the Lives of the Saints is not to give abstract knowledge but… to edify spiritually and to inspire imitation.”[5] This is why St. Justin [Popovich] says:

If you wish, the Lives of the Saints are a sort of Orthodox Encyclopedia. In them can be found everything which is necessary for the soul which hungers and thirsts for eternal righteousness and eternal truth in this life, and which hungers and thirsts for Divine immortality and eternal life. If faith is what you need, there you will find it in abundance: and you will feed your soul with food which will never make it hungry. If you need love, truth, righteousness, hope, meekness, humility, repentance, prayer, or whatever virtue or podvig [spiritual struggle], in them, the Lives of the Saints, you will find a countless number of holy teachers for every podvig and will obtain grace-filled help for every virtue.[6]

Furthermore, the Saints are not only those we read about in ancient books. Fr. Seraphim (Rose) takes it a step further to draw our attention to the fact that not only should we read the Lives of the Saints, but we should be able to recognize those who are Saints living in our own times. He expresses the need to be “linked” to these Saints and quotes St. Symeon the New Theologian, who wrote:

A man who does not express desire to link himself to the latest of the saints (in time) in all love and humility owing to a certain distrust of him, will never be linked with the preceding saints and will not be admitted to their succession, even though he thinks he possesses all possible faith and love for God and for all His saints. He will be cast out of their midst, as one who refused to take humbly the place allotted to him by God before all time, and to link himself to the latest saint (in time) as God had disposed.[7]

Optina Monastery

The Influence of Optina Monastery

 In 1990, an announcement was made regarding the upcoming glorification of the “Venerable Elders of Optina” by Metropolitan Vitaly and all of the Members of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. An epistle was written, which included the following:

The elders of Optina were glorified by the rare gift of prophecy, when, penetrating to the state of the soul of each person who approached them and perceiving their spiritual weaknesses and needs, they healed them. The startling power of their words was centered in the great love which they had for all without exception, and which, with the disclosure of the mysteries of the soul, shook the soul, drew it toward repentance and correction, accomplished spiritual regeneration, and inspired it to a new life of grace. The Optina elders’ gifts of grace drew to them a multitude of people from all ends of Russia, and no one departed from them without receiving spiritual benefit at their hands.

They obtained from God exceptional gifts of miracles and the power of the influence of grace on the soul through many struggles, but especially by the path used by the Apostle, who said: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (1 Cor. 12:10), i.e. when I am conscious of my weakness and inadequacy and cry out to God, then, receiving this help, I become strong. The great humility, the profound consciousness of their own unworthiness and the constant prayer arising from them made the elders of Optina bearers of the grace and power of God.[8]

These words were a public and official acknowledgement of what was known and felt by the rest of the Russian Orthodox world, and beyond, regarding these Elders for some time already. Many people wrote about their experiences at Optina Monastery, about the Elders’ influence on their lives and about the Monastery’s effect on the whole Russian land and to many beyond.

Concerning his visit to Optina Monastery, Nikolai Gogol wrote to Count A.P. Tolstoy in June, 1850, saying:

While travelling I stopped off in Optina [Monastery] and carried away a remembrance that I shall never forget. I think that on Mt. Athos itself there is nothing better. Grace is visibly present there. One can even sense it clearly in the external serving (in church)… I have never seen such monks anywhere… every one of them, it appeared to me, conversed with everything heavenly. I did not ask them how they live, because their faces speak for themselves. The simplest brothers struck me with their bright angelic kindness, their simplicity of manners, their radiance. Even the workers in the monastery, the peasants and the inhabitants of the neighborhood, struck me in the same way. Several miles prior to reaching the monastery, one senses this spiritual fragrance: everything becomes friendlier, the boughs of the trees are lower, and the attention to a human being much deeper.[9]

Ivan Kontzevitch, in attempting to describe his time at Optina, notes that “to transmit this impression to one who has not experienced it is impossible!” Yet, offering a “glimpse” he writes:

It is an early summer morning. You are walking to church. There is a fresh breeze. Around you is a murmur of the deep forest, whose fragrance hovers all over and in front of you, against the forest, is the grandeur of the white citadel. There is Optina. At the same time, you are experiencing a genuine sense of God’s presence, and from this comes fear for each thought, each action, each feeling, together with an intangible peace in your soul, and joy, which so wondrously harmonizes with the external surroundings.[10]

Just as all paths leading to a mountain top converge on it, so too in Optina – the spiritual summit – there converged both the higher spiritual podvig of inward activity, which is crowned with an abundance of the gifts of grace through the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the service to the world, satisfying both its spiritual and everyday needs. Many came to see the Elders of Optina in search of consolation, healing, advice, guidance or instructions. The Optina Elders were visited by those who became entangled in the circumstances of their lives or philosophical quests. Like “deer searching for springs of water,” men in their thirst for truth yearned to go to Optina. They all quenched their thirst at this source of “living water.” The outstanding thinkers of the time, philosophers and writers visited Optina: Gogol, the Kireyevsky brothers, Leo and Aleksei Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solviev, Leontiev… and countless others.[11]

Archimandrite Cyprian noted, “Optina was one of the most wonderful flowers of the monastic garden, one of the brightest lights of the Orthodox world and of its angel-like choirs of monastics. Confession, guidance and counsel of even the seemingly most prosaic nature drew the monks ever closer to their objective – to be the guardian angels of the world.”[12]

Others have said: “He who has learned this life in Optina, all in comparison with it, seems ugly” (a laywoman, 1918); “The world was ill, and in your wilderness are treated” (St. Ignatius Brianchaninov); “When one stays in Optina, the grace of God is so great that you want to earn a life corresponding to the great grace of the ancients” (Elder Barsanuphius, April 1/14, 1913).[13]

In conclusion, perhaps St. Nektary of Optina said it best when he asked S.A. Nilus the question: “Do you know how many true coenobia there have been from the creation of the world to the present day?… Don’t bother yourself thinking; I’ll give you the answer myself – three!… The first one was in Eden, the second one was in the community of Christians during apostolic times, and the third…” He paused… “And the third is in Optina under our great Elders.”[14]

A Description of the Monastery

Optina Monastery is located two miles from the town of Kozelsk in the Kaluga Region about one hundred and forty miles south of Moscow. It is situated on the banks of the Zhizdra River, a deep tributary of the Oka River, and surrounded on three sides by deep forests. The monastery grounds are enclosed by a large stone wall. On the four corners of these walls are mounted metal angels holding trumpets. Within the confines of the monastery wall are three large churches, the main church being dedicated to the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. 320 meters away from the monastery is the Skete of St. John the Baptist. The Skete is surrounded by a thick forest. Upon approaching the gates to the enclosure one sees icons on the gates. Going through the gates and entering the grounds, there is a small house to the right of the gates and another on the left. Throughout the skete was the fragrant odor of masses of flowers spread along the many paths.

Optina’s History

The date of the founding of the Optina Monastery is unknown. The first historical information found about the monastery dates from 1598 when Tsar Michael Theodovitch donated a mill on the river below Kozelsk for “incense and candle.”[15] From the 17th century onward there were kept records which describe all of the Optina Abbots and also denotes an active monastic life.[16] In 1724, during the times of the persecution of monasteries under Peter I, the monastery was considered to be an “under populated monastery” and therefore closed per the orders of the Holy Synod in conjunction with the new rulings. By 1770 there were only three monks living at the monastery, one of them was blind, and there was no abbot. It wasn’t until 1795 that the restoration work was begun by Metropolitan Platon (Levshin) of Moscow. He instructed Archimandrite Macarius (Bryushkovu), Abbot of the Pesnosha Monastery who then appointed Father Abraham of Pesnosha to restore all of the buildings in the monastery and to restore the coenobitic life according to the tradition of St. Paisius Velichkovsky.  It is said that at this time there wasn’t even a towel to wipe your hands on.[17] Later, twelve monks were brought to the monastery and soon after the monastery began to thrive. In 1821, Bishop Philaret of Kaluga, also a firm supporter of the “Paisian ideal,” undertook the building of the Skete of Saint John the Baptist for those monks who wanted to devote themselves completely to prayer.[18] “[The Skete] was not so much a branch of the monastery as its spiritual heart.”[19] The history of the Elders of Optina begins here.

Elders and Eldership

 “To understand Optina is to understand the elders.”[20]

Many describe Optina Monastery as a “golden chain” where specific spiritual gifts (charisms) and a very high level of Christian life (podvig, ascesis) was lived out but it was also combined with a succession of the same spiritual life being passed from generation to generation for almost one hundred years.

The term used to describe this spiritual gift in the life of the Church is “eldership” which is one of the highest manifestations of spiritual life in the church.[21] Ivan Kontzevitch defines eldership as the direct continuation of the prophets noting:

The Apostle Paul enumerates three ministries in the Church, independent of the church hierarchy: apostles, prophets, teachers.

Immediately after the apostles stand prophets (Eph. 4:11, 1 Cor. 12:28). Their ministry consists primarily of “edification, exhortation and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3). With this aim, and also for pointing out or warning, prophets also predict future events.

Through the prophet, the will of God is immediately revealed… The prophet possesses a special spiritual vision – clairvoyance. For him the boundaries of space and time are, as it were, set aside; with his spiritual gaze he sees not only events that are occurring now, but also future events. He sees their spiritual meaning; he sees the soul of man, his past and future.

Such a calling [is] bound up with a high moral level, with purity of heart, with personal sanctity. Sanctity of life, indeed, was required of the prophet from the first period of Christianity: “He must have the manner of the Lord. From his manner may be distinguished the false prophet and the (true) prophet,” says one of the oldest works of Christian literature, the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles).[22]

Professor S.I. Smirnov further elaborates on the spiritual gift of eldership saying that the spiritual gifts possessed by the first Christian were repeated in the ancient monasteries and from there we see it throughout the whole history of the Christian Church. These Christians received this spiritual gift from God according to their own personal worthiness.[23]  The Elder is “ideally a God-bearing and Spirit-bearing being… As such he receives spiritual gifts, an outpouring of which distinguished the first era of Christianity. The gifts of prophecy, casting out demons, healing sicknesses and resurrecting the dead are not exceptional. They only disclose a normal step in the spiritual growth of a monk.”[24]

Abiding in unceasing prayer, embracing both the good and the wicked with love, O holy elders of Optina, ye did serve both God and neighbour. Through vigils, tears, and fasting ye did receive the gift of all manner of miracles. glory to him Who hath given us such mediators. Glory to Him Who hath glorified you. Glory to god Who is wondrous in His saints.

Troparion, First Tone, at Great Vespers

– Subdeacon Matthew Long

 

 


[1] Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, trans. Christopher Hookway (Chalkidike: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia, 1998), 1: xi.

[2] Father Justin Popovich, “Introduction to the Lives of the Saints” in Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, trans. Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1997), 36.

[3] The Synaxarion, xii. See also St. Gregory Palamas, “On All Saints” in On the Saints: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas” ed. Christopher Veniamin (Waymart: Mount Tabor Publishing, 2008), 59-60.

[4] “On All Saints,” 60.

[5] St. Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, trans. Fr. Seraphim (Rose) (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), 31.

[6] “Introduction to the Lives of the Saints,” 47-48.

[7] Father Seraphim Rose, “Raising the Mind, Warming the Heart” in The Orthodox Word (Vol. 22, No. 1, 1986): 34, footnote 5.

[8] “Epistle of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia Concerning the Glorification of the venerable elders of Optina” in Orthodox Life (Vol. 40, No. 3, 1990): 2-3.

[9] I.M. Kontzevitch, “Optina Monastery and Its Elders” in The Orthodox Word (Vol. 20, No. 4, 1984): 156-157.

[10] “Optina Monastery and Its Elders,” 158.

[11] I.M. Kontzevitch, The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), 272.

[12] Archimandrite Cyprian, Angels, Monastics and Man (Paris, 1942), 7 quoted in The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia, 87-88.

[13] “Blessed Optina” at http://www.optina.ru/history/optina/ accessed on December 2, 2013.

[14] I.M. Kontzevitch, Elder Nektary of Optina (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), 48.

[15] Author Unknown, “A Brief History of the Optina Hermitage” in Orthodox Life (No. 5, 1989): 2.

[16] “A Brief History of the Optina Hermitage,” 3.

[17] “A Brief History of the Optina Hermitage,” 3.

[18] “Optina Monastery and Its Elders”, 162.

[19] Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, “October 11: Synaxis of the Venerable Startsi of the Monastery of Optina: Moses et al.” in The Synaxarion, 1:346.

[20] “Optina Monastery” on The Premier Site for Russian Culture at http://www.rusartnet.com/russia/religion/monasticism/monastery/optina-hermitage

[21] “Blessed Optina” at http://www.optina.ru/history/optina/ accessed on December 2, 2013.

[22] “A Brief History of the Optina Hermitage,” 4.

[23] K. Popov, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Kiev, 1884). pp. 21, 36. Professor K. Popov, who wrote a special study on this document, attributes it to the end of the 1st century. Consequently, Apostle John the Theologian was still alive then, and perhaps other Apostles as well. Thanks to this document, we have found out much about the life of the Church of the First Christians. Personally, I have been searching for five years to form the concept of eldership, since in our contemporary theological literature there is no such thing. And finally I found the answer to my quest – although under a different name, not under the name of eldership – in the most ancient Christian document, The teaching of the Twelve Apostles. (the preceding is Kontzevitchs’ footnote) The English reference is “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” in Ante-Nicene Fathers , Alexander Robertson and James Donaldson eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 7:380 (Ch. 11, line 8) [author’s footnote].

[24] “Personal worthiness” in this context is not referring to some type of inherent righteousness within a person that makes them worthy. Instead it was because they worked the “works of faith” (cf. Jas. 2:14-26). And not only this, for they gave back with interest the talents that the Master had entrusted to him, therefore they were given more grace (Matt. 25:14-30). The “personal worthiness” is the worthiness accredited to him who acts responsibly with the gift they received.

[25] S.I. Smirnov, The Spiritual Father in the Ancient Eastern Church, part 1 (Sergiev Posad, 1906) in Elder Nektary of Optina, 28-29. True eldership is contrasted with false eldership on pgs. 29-31.

[26] “A Brief History of the Optina Hermitage,” 5.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: