On the Elders of Optina - A Homily on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (2021)

On the Elders of Optina - A Homily on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (2021)

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

Although we already celebrated the feast of the Synaxis of the Elders of Optina, it seems only appropriate to continue our celebration of them through a homily because throughout these days we celebrate the feast of Elder Ambrose of Optina one day, and of Elder Leo another, and then another for Elder Sebastian of Karaganda who learned eldership in Optina under Elder Joseph.

INTRODUCTION

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

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.[1]

Not to be overlooked is the significance of the words “rare” and “exceptional” concerning the spiritual gifts which all the Elders had, for although these gifts were concentrated into one geographic location, few others possessed these gifts in a country which boasted of 125 million people. Alongside of these uncommon gifts is the phenomenon of their concentration. At no other time or place was there such a lineage of Elders who possessed these gifts which extended from 1821, when Elder Moses came with his brother Anthony until Palm Sunday in 1923 when the monastery was officially closed - Elder Nektary was arrested and removed from the monastery, Elder Isaac moved to live in an apartment in Kozelsk, and Elder Nikon being expelled the following year. These spiritual gifts extended like a chain from beginning to end, some links exhibiting more gifts in one area than another. Elders have always existed in the Orthodox world, one over here, and one over there, but rarely in such a concentration as there was in Optina.

EXPERIENCING OPTINA

Many people wrote about their experiences at Optina Monastery, about the Elders’ influence on their lives or the monastery’s effect on the whole Russian land and beyond.

In attempting to describe his time at Optina, Ivan Kontzevitch notes that “to transmit this impression to one who has not experienced it is impossible!” However, he attempts to do so, and 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.[2]

Archimandrite Cyprian notes, “Optina was one of the most wonderful flowers of the monastic garden, one of the brightest lights of the Orthodox world with 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.”[3]

People from all walks of life came to see the Elders of Optina in search of consolation, healing, advice, guidance, or instructions. The Elders were visited by those who became entangled in the circumstances of life and by those on a philosophical quest. Like “deer searching for springs of water,” men and women in their thirst for truth yearned to go to Optina. They all quenched their thirst at this source of “living water.” Philosophers, writers, and outstanding thinkers of the time visited Optina: Gogol, the Kireyevsky brothers (Ivan and Pytor), Leo and Aleksei Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Soloviev, Leontiev… and countless others.[4]

 “He who has learned this life in Optina, all in comparison with it, seems ugly” said one laywoman; “The world was ill, and in your wilderness are treated,” wrote 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,” said Elder Barsanuphius.[5]

Perhaps Elder Nektary of Optina said it best when he posed 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.”[6]

THE SUFFERING ELDERS

Within this holy cenobium, the devil repeatedly sowed discord against the Elders. Elder Leonid was frequently moved from cell to cell and ordered not to offer counsel to those who came to him. Elder Barsanuphius was expelled from Optina at the end his life and reposed as the abbot of the Golutvin Monastery two hundred miles away. Many did not want to even hear of Elder Ambrose, yet he loved those who didn’t love him.[7]

Elder Leonid, responding to a spiritual son about his predicament, did not even consider himself to be persecuted, but magnanimously writes: “ Out of your unbounded devotion, you are discouraged about my situation and by mistake consider me to be under persecution… But I am certain that nothing can happen to me without God’s permission and when it is pleasing to Him to send me something because of my sins, I have to accept it with submissiveness, for we can never flee from His hand.”[8]

Along with great grace came great spiritual and physical hardships. Elder Anthony, losing his father when he was only fourteen, became a monk in the Optina Skete and, at the age of forty-one, developed sores on both legs that spread from his feet to his knees, to which he found no cure for the rest of his life. This disease caused his legs to swell and bleed and produced continuous pain which he lived with until his repose twenty-nine years later.

Elder Ambrose became a novice at the age of eighteen, became a ryassaphore monk two years later. At the age of thirty-four, on his way to Kaluga, where he was going to be ordained a hieromonk, he became sick and never recovered throughout his whole life. For the rest of his life, he could barely move, he sweated constantly and had to change his clothes several times a day, he could not stand the cold or drafts, and he could only eat liquids as solids were painful for his stomach, the portion being only what a child would eat. He lived for forty-five more years.

The life and hardships of these Elders are a great mystery. Their lives are not something which are imitative for the modern world, nor should one think that they could live like any of the Elders and attain the gifts which they did as though the spiritual life is mechanistic and by doing A, you receive B. Spiritual gifts are never earned and are not a reward for the ascetic life.

THE LOVE OF THE ELDERS

Even if the majority of their spiritual gifts are not to be replicated in the present era, there is one which, although it may be different in degree, is nearer, and that is love.

It was their love for God and neighbor that motivated the lives of these contemporary prophets. It was love that kept the doors of Elder Anatoly open from 4:00 am until 11:00 pm, and only began his cell rule after midnight.[9]  His room was so crowded that the monastery superior could not get through all the people when he wanted to see him. The same is said about the cell of Elder Leonid, being so crowded from early morning until late night.[10] The love of Elder Ambrose allowed him to see a person, tangled up in all manner of perversions, as also one who possessed the spark of divine good. “No matter how sullied was the man with whom the Elder spoke, his skillful counsels made this sinner aware that the holy Elder looked at him as an equal, and therefore he had not utterly perished and could be reborn. He gave even the most fallen people hope, encouragement and faith that they could walk on the right path.”[11]

It is hard to bypass the significance that the prophetic gift of clairvoyance played in the life of the Elders and its use to draw people to repentance. However, what undergirded this gift, if not animated it, was love, in conformity to the words of the Apostle Paul that, though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13.2). Therefore, it is said of Elder Anatoly,

When Batiushka was alive, when it was possible to experience his love in oneself, nothing more was needed. We didn’t even want to know about taking walks in the forest or strolling around Optina – we went from one service to the next, went to and from the skete two or three times a day, and that was it. We weren’t drawn to go anywhere. And I didn’t want to see any kind of clairvoyance in Fr. Anatole – his love was more important than anything.[12]

About this love of the Elders, Elder Nektary said, “We love with a love that never changes. Your love is the love of one day – ours is the same today and for a thousand years.”[13]

CONCLUSION

Could we say that we are at a time in the history of the world, in the history of the Church, that love of neighbor is more difficult? Is it hard to love those who are for vaccinating or those who are the anti-vaxxers? Is it hard not to be perturbed by those who speak of the antichrist in our present times or miffed by those who pay no attention? Is it hard to listen to those who prophesy of a totalitarian state or those who do not believe it can happen here? It may be a difficult time, but one not unique in world history.

Those who differ with us, or whom we differ with, are not our enemy. “There is no higher virtue than love,” writes Elder Ambrose, “and there is no vice or passion worse than hatred, which, for someone who is not attentive to himself, seems of little importance, but in spiritual significance is likened to murder. Kindness and condescension to your neighbors, and forgiveness of their shortcomings, is the shortest path to salvation.”[14] If we want to begin to love, then here it is: kindness, condescension, forgiveness.

And if we want to love God more, or even to love God at all, Elder Nikon says, begin by keeping the commandments. “The feeling of love of the Lord corresponds to how much we fulfill His commandments.”[15] “If you find that you have no love, but desire to have it,” writes Elder Ambrose, “then perform works of love, although at first without love. The Lord will see your desire and your striving and will put love in your heart. But mainly, when you notice that you have sinned against love, confess it.”[16]

However, perhaps because of our own lack of love, we find it hard to see any love around us; we find it hard to perceive that there are those who genuinely care for our souls, and instead, we are filled with doubt and criticism. Even if this is difficult, may God open the eyes of our heart to see at least that which will be present before us on the Holy Altar - the body and blood of Christ, the reality and the expression of His incomparable love for each individual, borne out of His love for the whole world. Here is the fountain of love. It is this love which empowers one to sacrifice oneself for God and neighbor. It is this love which is reproduced in all of the sons and daughters of God. It is this love which guided each of the sickly and time-constrained Elders of Optina. May this love be that which we seek, which we desire, and which we imitate, God helping us.

THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF THE HOLY ELDERS OF OPTINA, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.

 

[1] “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.

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Afanasiev, Victor. Elder Barsanuphius of Optina. (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000), 688.

[8] Sederholm, Fr. Clement. Elder Leonid of Optina. (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2002), 70.

[9] Elder Anatoly of Optina. (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2020), 54, 105.

[10] Ibid., 52.

[11] Ibid., 216.

[12] Ibid., 49-50.

[13] Elder Nektary of Optina, 195.

[14] Schaefer, Archimandrite Geoge (trans.),. Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of t Holy Elders of Optina. (Jordanville: Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, 2009), 75.

[15] Ibid., 73.

[16] Ibid., 74.


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