The Elders of Optina Monastery
(November 2, 1837 – May 9, 1911)
Commemorated on May 9
Having been born into a pious family, the future Elder Joseph grew up in the fear of God. John Efimovich Litovkin enjoyed reading and being by himself. In his youth he had a vision of the Queen of Heaven and he began to withdraw even more for prayer and privacy. He grew to have a gentle and sensitive soul and felt the grief of others. Both of his parents died early and the young John was left to work odd jobs to make ends meet. His sister had become a nun and wrote to him of Optina at which time he decided to go.
arrived in Optina in 1861, he met Elder Ambrose, talked with him and decided that he never wanted to go anywhere else, and so it happened. Shortly thereafter he became Elder Ambrose’s cell attendant and did not leave his side until the elder’s death thirty years later. For years, Fr. Joseph did not even have a cell of his own. Instead, he waited until all the pilgrims left who were visiting Elder Ambrose and then slept in the waiting room only to have to rise for Matins at 1:00a.m.
After three years he was tonsured a novice, with the name John, and after ten years he was tonsured a monk with the name Joseph after St. Joseph the Hymnographer. When the Shamordino Convent was consecrated in 1884, Fr. Joseph was ordained a priest.
He was noted to be very quiet and serious. When speaking with pilgrims, he spoke few but profound words with instruction and comfort. He was of exemplary obedience and humility. It is said of him that his humility was tangibly apparent and readily transmitted; his very presence brought to the Elder’s always-crowded reception room a perceptible tranquility. Elder Ambrose said of him, “Father Joseph will surpass me,” just as he also used to tell his spiritual children, “I give you to drink wine diluted with water, but Fr. Joseph will give you unmingled wine.” As for Fr. Joseph, he never ascribed to himself any gifts or spiritual achievements: “What do I know,” he would say, “without Batiushka? Zero, and nothing more.” When pilgrims had messages they wanted him to relay to the Elder he would bring back a response without adding anything of his own. Soon, Elder Ambrose would send people to him for counsel. Many were amazed of how he would give the same advice as Elder Ambrose.
Therefore, after Elder Ambrose’s repose, his disciples felt comfortable to go to Elder Joseph.
In 1888, Fr. Joseph became vey sick, near the point of dying but recovered through the prayers of Elder Ambrose and a vision of the Mother of God in which she said to him: “Endure, my beloved one, little time is left.” At this time he was tonsured with the great schema.
In 1890, Elder Ambrose was preparing to go to Shamordino, Elder Joseph, who normally accompanied him for several weeks every summer, began to likewise prepare but this time the Elder told him, “You need to stay here, you’re needed here.” While at Shamordino, elder Ambrose became very sick. The nuns called for Elder Joseph who then communed Elder Ambrose for the last time before he died. Elder Joseph was left to become the confessor of the skete, of the monastery, and of the nuns at the Shamordino Convent.
In April, 1911, Elder Joseph became ill with malaria. He was lucid and conscious to the very end inviting the Shamordino nuns and the Optina monks for one last visit to say farewell and offer to one last piece of counsel to any questions and to ask their forgiveness. He became weaker and weaker until his repose on May 9.
Sayings of Elder Joseph of Optina
Without patience even a temporary home is not built, let alone the eternal one … But we keep looking for the easy way. What is easy for the body is not useful for the soul, and what is useful for the soul is difficult for the body – so we should proceed through labor to the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is impossible for us, sinful people, to be entirely free of distractions during prayer. Nevertheless, one should strive as much as possible to gather one’s thoughts and lock one’s mind into the words of prayer, into each word. One should not be troubled by coldness and hard-heartedness but persist in forcing oneself towards prayer, recognizing oneself as unworthy of consolation and compunction. If prayer is cold, one mustn’t conclude that it is displeasing to God; sometimes even such prayer is counted as an ascetic feat if only the person humbles himself in everything before God.
As a ray of the sun cannot penetrate fog, so the speech of a person who, although educated, has not mastered his passions cannot affect the soul. But he who has vanquished the passions and acquired spiritual understanding finds access to every heart, even without formal education.
- Subdeacon Matthew Long
“Elder Joseph of Optina: The Shorter Biography” at http://www.optina.ru/starets/iosif_life_short/ , accessed on December 29, 2013 (in Russian).
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).
“On the Heights of Humility – Elder Joseph of Optina” at http://www.roca.org/OA/97/97f.htm accessed on December 29, 2013
“Venerable Joseph of Optina” at http://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/05/09/148995-venerable-joseph-of-optina , accessed on December 29, 2013.