A Homily on the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost - On the Last Words of Elder Sebastian of Optina

A Homily on the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost - On the Last Words of Elder Sebastian of Optina

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

INTRODUCTION

Continuing the theme of the Saints who have been persecuted and martyred through the rise of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, beginning with the martyred Royal Family, then with Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Nun Barbara, today’s homily will focus on the Confessor Elder Sebastian of Optina.

The decree for canonization, written by Patriarch Alexei I of Moscow and All Russia, acknowledging the sanctity inherent in Elder Sebastian and confirming what many of the faithful already knew, addresses Father Schema-archimandrite Sebastian as a Confessor, as the Elder of Karaganda, and also as a successor of the grace of Optina eldership.[1] What those around him already knew was now made evident to the whole world.

THE LIFE OF ELDER SEBASTIAN

Born on October 28, 1884, at four years of age he was brought by his parents to Optina, to Elder Ambrose, a memorable time about which he later said he never forgot, always remembering the kind eyes of the Elder.

Both his parents died of cholera when he was five years old after which he went to live with his brother. At the age of twenty-four he moved to Optina, lived in the Skete and was the cell attendant to Elder Joseph. After Elder Joseph’s repose, he was made the cell attendant of Elder Nektary until his repose in 1928. Elder Nektary had two cell attendants, he nicknamed the one “winter,” but Elder Sebastian he called “summer” due to his kindness and compassion.

Almost five years later, he was arrested and sentenced to seven years in labor camps in Karlag of Karaganda, in the country of Kazakhstan, for organizing counter-revolutionary and church-monarchist organizations. Nearing the end of his time of forced labor, he was given more freedom of movement. At this time several nuns and some former Optina monks learned of his whereabouts and visited him often. He encouraged them to buy property and live nearby. After six years, he was released; Optina, for all intents and purposes, was no more, and he settled in the town of Mikhailovka as the spiritual father of these monastics, and a community of monastics and lay people slowly formed around him. In time, after living in dilapidated houses and serving in makeshift barns, better properties were bought and even more people moved into the area.

HIS SPIRITUAL FAMILY

Many of his spiritual children were orphans, like himself, and many came with the same story: Our family, forced from our home by the new regime, was brought in box cars by trains to Karaganda to Settlement 5 or Settlement 7 or Settlement 13, to work the mines, all of which were in the middle of nowhere on the barren steppes of Karaganda. The living arrangements were all the same. When each family arrived they had to dig a hole in the ground to live in, large enough to “house” their family. Some recount, saying there were seven of us and my four siblings died or a priest and his wife and child were sent there and the child dies in that first month. In these settlements most of the population died. There were generally no coffins and no graveyard, the dead were thrown onto a pile like logs.

It was said that, “everywhere in Russia there was a lot of grief, but people were sent to Kazakhstan not to scoop up grief with a spoon, but to grieve in the sea, gain experience through suffering and earn a ruble for eternal life.”[2]

THE SPIRITUAL FATHER

Many of these orphaned people, with their spiritual, mental, and physical brokenness, thought to be the political refuse of Russia, found a father and a warm family around Elder Sebastian, however, his cell attendant would say, “It was a large family, and their loving mother was with them. You couldn’t call the Elder ‘father.’ He was a loving mother.”[3] Or, as Valentina Sergeyevna would say, “There’s not a single mother who could comfort like he could.”[4]

THE ELDER

It is true, when you read about Elder Sebastian, you feel that you are reading the life of an Optina Elder but he is not in Optina. And this is what an Optina Elder in the world looks like, but what a world that was. From afar, people would call out to him in their need and he responded only to ask them about it when they would come to him in person and tell them that next time they should be more specific.[5] He worked miracles and healed people, though discreetly, but he also encouraged many to seek medical attention.[6] He possessed that clairvoyance which all the Elders possessed and this is attested to in almost every account of him whether it be concerning one’s past sins, about what one will do or become in the future, or even about the day-to-day events whether it be regarding travel, the selling of farm goods, or visitors. Of course this gift he covered as best as possible. It is hard not to be awed by such significant spiritual gifts, yet what would this have been without the love that he had for each person that came – nuns and monks, priests and matushki, men, women, children, students.

THE GREATEST OF GIFTS

Elder Sebastian was known in many other parts of Russia. The young Archdeacon James from Vladimir, wrote a poem about the elder and introduced it by saying, “Fr. Sebastian is important precisely because of his love, and because he has strengthened our lives by his own life,” His poem reads:

In days of doubt, of sacrilege and lies,

When the fallen world is bathed in blood, demented,

For brotherhood among all men he cries,

And his speech with evangelic love is scented.

 

Not given to debate, both vain and unvailing,

This true disciple of Christ crucified goes straight

To all those broken, filled with sorrow, and the ailing,

To all grown weak under their crosses’ heavy weight.

 

With spiritual sight, he pierces to our inmost soul

With those who grieve he mourns, and hastes to help the ill,

He is for us a prophet, with ascetic self-control,

And beacon-like, this dismal night with light does fill.[7]

 

A SUFFERING SERVANT

Another aspect of Elder Sebastian’s life which reveals him to be equally a child of Optina is how he suffered – imprisoned for six years where he would be beaten, left in the cold, and half starved. Physically, he would feel the affects of this for the rest of his life. In his older age, he would not be able to stand through the Divine Services and in a room attached to the altar he would lie down on a bed with his feet elevated, from which he chanted the appointed parts of the service. His legs became so infirm that his altar servers constructed a chair with rails by which they could carry the Elder from his cell, through the courtyard, to the main building.

CONCLUSION – LIVE IN PEACE

In his last days, Elder Sebastian met with several people and offered them his final counsel. On March 27, 1966, Holy Saturday, getting up from his bed to address his spiritual children in the church, he put on his mantia and klobuk and went out to say farewell to the people and we will close the homily today with the counsel he gave. He spoke about his grevious illness and congratulated all with the approaching Feast of Pascha and said,

I’m leaving you, leaving earthly life. My time has come to part with you. I promised to say farewell, and now I’m fulfilling my promise. I beg one thing of all of you – that you live in peace. Peace and love – this is the most important thing. If you will have this amongst yourselves, then nothing more is needed and you will always have peace in your souls. Now we await the Bright Matins – the coming of the Feast of Pascha. But this Pascha is of temporal life; we must attain to the eternal Pascha of the salvation of the soul for eternal joy. And how is it possible to attain it? Only through peace, compassionate love, and sincere, heartfelt prayer. Nothing outside of you will save you, only that which you achieve within yourself, in your soul and your heart – the peaceful stillness of love, so that you will never cast a suspicious glance at anyone. Look straight ahead, and be ready for every good response, for every good undertaking, with heartfelt sincerity. As my last request I beg you for this. And I further implore you – forgive me.[8]

Three days later, on Radonitsa, the third day of Pascha, he reposed, and his coffin was carried to the graveyard with the chanting of, “Christ is Risen!”

THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.

 

[1] Tortensten, Tatiana V. Elder Sebastian of Optina. (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), 174.

[2] https://www.optina.ru/confessors/lives/sevastian/ accessed on 7/17/2021.

[3] Ibid., 202.

[4] Ibid., 224.

[5] Ibid., 100-102

[6] Cf. https://www.optina.ru/confessors/lives/sevastian/2 (the girl with the growth over her eyes)

[7] Ibid., 294-295.

[8] Ibid., 132-133.


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