Reading the lives of the famous Optina Elders is a requirement for all of the novices in this monastery. And there is a reason for this. If any of you who are now Riassaphore Monks or Mantia monks and haven’t finished reading their lives, please do so as soon as possible, you are missing out on an essential part of your monastic formation.
One of the most important aspects of their lives is that obedience was the very foundation of their monastic lives. Not one of these great elders entered the monastery with the thought of becoming a clairvoyant elder, not one of these elders thought that one day he would be spending all his days dealing with the problems of endless lines of men and women.
We see in their lives the immense importance of humility and obedience. Most likely they entered the monastery with the thought that they would spend the rest of their life, quietly and prayerfully working out their salvation. But that was not what God had in store for them … that was not His will for them.
When Elder Joseph entered Optina Monastery, he was assigned to be Elder Ambrose cell attendant. One day he was complaining within himself and thinking that this was no real monastery, he couldn’t really have any spiritual life here, there’s too much talking, he should go to Mount Athos. Suddenly, Elder Ambrose opened the door, the Elder looked at him and said, stay here, this is where you will find salvation.
These men knew that real monastic life meant bowing before the will of God and peacefully accepting whatever God had chosen for them. These grace-filled men had an openness to God’s will. The important word here is “openness”. They were not closed and rigid. They trusted God completely, they did not trust their own thoughts or preferences. Listen carefully to what St. Macarius of Optina said, “… do not trust yourself, do not depend on your own understanding, reject your own will, and the Lord will give you true understanding”.
And the great St. Ambrose of Optina said, “the beginning of salvation consists in rejecting your own will and understanding and doing the will of God.”
It was precisely through their genuine humility and obedience that God chose these men for the important role of God-bearing Elders.
The Monastery of Optina was a very unique monastery in the history or Orthodox Monasticism. A few monasteries might have one truly God-bearing Elders but Optina had one right after another for many years, leading right up to the time of the godless Russian Revolution. For those with faith, it is obvious that God was preparing the Russian people for the great spiritual trial that was to come.
But what if these men had refused to do God’s will? What if they said to God, “I know what monastic life is suppose to be about and it doesn’t involved talking to people all day, it’s suppose to be quiet and peaceful … I refuse to do it”! What would have happened to Russia and what would have happened to their own souls?
The elders tell us that as monks, we must see ourselves as the worst sinners in the monastery and yet today, so many monks prefer to see all the faults of their brothers rather than cast that critical eye upon themselves. In reality, deep inside, they think of themselves as being the only ones who truly understand what monasticism is. The only ones who are truly enlightened. They look down on their brothers and weep hypocritical tears for them, feeling justified and pleased with themselves.
My dear fathers and brothers, this is classic deception! The only way to avoid deception is through humility and obedience. By humility I don’t mean just inventing great ascetical feats for ourselves, Buddhist and Hindu monks can do this, and it doesn’t lead to God, but peacefully accepting whatever God allows in our lives … this is the mark of a true Orthodox monk.
Real humility consists in accepting the crosses that God allows in our lives, whether these crosses be physical illness, mental illness, being misunderstood, falsely accused or whatever cross is laid upon us. How easy it is to “invent” ascetical practices for ourselves and then feel so justified. But how difficult it is to accept what God has allowed to humble us.
In closing let us remember the grace-filled words of St. Anatoly of Optina, “Endure everything and you will be at peace and you will bring peace to others! But if you complain about details, you will lose peace and along with it … salvation.”
+Through the prayers of the Holy Fathers of Optina, O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us. Amen.