The Elders of Optina Monastery
(November 20, 1788 – September 7, 1860)
Commemorated on September 7
Elder Macarius, born Michael Nikolaevich Ivanov in Orlov province near Kaluga, was raised in a noble family. He spent his youth reading many books and developed a wide breadth of theological understanding. He enjoyed nature, loved music and played the violin well. He was not favored with good looks and never tried to marry. He was of medium height and his face showed traces of small pox.
In 1810, at the age of twenty-two, he went on a pilgrimage to the Ploshchansk Hermitage and at this time decided to dedicate his life to God. Here Michael came under the obedience of Fr. Athanassy, a disciple of St. Paisius Velichkovsky. In 1815, he was tonsured a monk and given the name Macarius after St. Macarius the Great. In 1824, his elder died and he was sent to be the confessor of the Svensk women’s monastery. It was here at Svensk that Fr. Macarius met Elder Leonid. He asked Elder Leonid if he could become his disciple and although Elder Leonid considered Fr. Macarius his peer in monasticism, in humility, he yielded to his request. Shortly thereafter, Elder Leonid was sent to the Optina Skete and Fr. Macarius corresponded with him until he also moved there to share the work of eldership in 1834.
When Elder Macarius arrived at Optina, Elder Leonid was living in the skete along with Elder Moses and Elder Anthony. In 1836, he was made confessor of the whole monastery and then Skete Superior. Elder Macarius kept himself in constant obedience to Elder Leonid never doing anything without a blessing, and endured all things with humility and patience. Elder Leonid offered him many opportunities to do so.
Elder Macarius was always to be found with Elder Leonid. They directed the spiritual life of the monks and thousands of visitors. Together they “brought up” Elder Ambrose. They were of such oneness of mind that when Fr. Macarius was asked for counsel regarding anything he would not reply without first consulting Elder Leonid and vice versa.
In 1841, Elder Leonid reposed; Elder Macarius wrote his obituary. That year he took over the responsibilities of the skete. As rector he enhanced the solemnity of the services and also created a rich library. He himself would rise at 2a.m. for four hours of prayers then afterwards would sit at his work table to translate or revise Patristic texts. At this time he would also engage in correspondence. In the afternoon at 2p.m. he would accept visitors, meeting them in the guest house at the entrance of the skete, and after supper and evening prayers, he would continue with his written correspondence. People were anointed from the lampada that burned in his cell in front of the Vladimir icon, in his cell and through this many were healed of sickness and demon possession.
The publications at Optina Monastery of a series of Patristic texts on the spiritual life began with Elder Macarius urged by his friend and spiritual son, Ivan Kireyevsky. These publications began in 1846 with the life of Elder Paisius Velichkovsky and would grow from there. In most cases the works were revisions of the Slavonic texts from the Neamts Monastery from the time of St. Paisius and translated into Russian. Through these publications, Optina became known to the intellectual elite of Russia and draw them to itself.
Much profit came to the whole church through Optina at this time but much persecution also came to Elder Macarius. He was accused of spreading the teaching of the Jesus Prayer when others opposed it based on the mistaken belief that it would give rise to spiritual delusion. Talk began of transferring him to another monastery. During this time he became very sick. During his final illness he often hand out little crosses, icons or books as a blessing. On September 7, 1960, after receiving Holy Communion at 6a.m. and saying “Glory to Thee, our God!” thrice he fell asleep in the Lord having been forewarned of this beforehand. His body remained incorrupt.
Sayings of Elder Macarius of Optina
The Knowledge of God
If we strive to cleanse our hearts from the passions, then according to the amount that we have purified ourselves, Divine Grace will open the eyes of our hearts to the vision of the True Light; for as it is written, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8), but only when we perfect ourselves through humility, for through humility the mysteries are revealed.
Man finds peace of mind and benefit for his soul in forests. We see that in former times people used to withdraw into thick forests, and there, away from worldly vanity, through prayer and ascetic labor, sought salvation. Just one look at the evergreen conifers of our homeland gladdens the eyes, portraying a symbol of our hope for eternal life, which people go to the deserts to seek… The forests which surround our monasteries should be preserved from destruction by all means, in order to prevent the word “wilderness” from finally losing its meaning.
- Subdeacon Matthew Long
Kavelin, Fr. Leonid, Elder Macarius of Optina (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995).
Kontzevitch, I.M., “Elder Macarius of Optina” in The Orthodox Word (January-February, 1986): 11-22.
Makarios, Hieromonk of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, trans. Christopher Hookway, vol. 1 (Chalkidike: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia, 1998).
Optina’s Elders: “Instructor of Monks and Conversers with Angels” at http://www.roca.org/OA/97/97k.htm accessed on Dec. 17, 2013.
Sederholm, Fr. Clement, Elder Leonid of Optina (Platina: St. Herman of Alasaka Brotherhood, 2002).
Schaefer, Archimandrite George (trans.) Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina (Jordanville: Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, 2009).