Elder of Optina
Bishop Alexander (Mileant).
Translated by Seraphim Larin
Contents: Life and selected teachings of blessed Elder Ambrose of Optina. How to live. On how much we care about our bodies and how much we care about our souls. On salvation. On humility. On unbelief. On repentance. On suffering. On love. On charity. On laziness and despondency. On patience. On irritability. On envy and malice. On pride. On the meaning of temptation. On the meaning of fast and its necessity. On prayer. On external and moral progression.
Troparin, Kondak and prayer to the blessed Starets.
In the addendum: Selections from the Optina Elders series of books published by the St. Herman Brotherhood.
Life of the blessed
Starets Ambrose of Optina
Hieromonk Ambrose was born on the 23rd of November 1812 to the family of a sexton Michael Feodorovitch and his wife Martha Nikolaevna, in a village called Big Lipovitsa, situated in the district of Tambovsk. On the eve of his birth, many guests gathered at the house of his grandfather, who was the village priest. On that day, the house was overflowing with bustling people – inside as well as in the courtyard. Martha Nikolaevna was moved to the bathhouse, and shortly thereafter, gave birth to Alexander – future Elder of Optina hermitage – holy Ambrose of Optina. Later in life, the Starets would jokingly reiterate: "Just as I was born in the middle of a crowd, I continue to live surrounded by them."
Michael Feodorovitch had 8 children: 4 sons and 4 daughters; Alexander was the 6th child. As a child, Alexander was a lively, happy and bright boy. According to the custom of that time, Alexander was taught to read in Slavonic alphabet, both the Prayerbook and Psalms. Every church festive day, he would read and sing with his father in the choir section. As he was brought up in a strictly church and religious environment, he never saw or heard anything corrupt.
When he turned 12, he was enrolled in first form at the ecclesiastical college of Tambovsk. He studied well, and upon finishing the course in 1830, was admitted to the Tambovsk Seminary. Once again, study came easy to him. As one of his former classmates used to reminisce: "Sometimes, you would spend your last cent to buy a candle so that you can continue studying your lessons; he (Alexander Grenkov) however studied little, but would appear in the classroom and answer all the mentor’s questions – just as it is written, better than anyone." In July 1836, having successfully completed his studies, Alexander did not enter the ecclesiastical Academy nor did he enrol to study for priesthood. It was as though he felt a special calling in his soul and was therefore in no hurry to commit himself to a fixed position; as though he was expecting God’s call. He spent some time as private tutor to a country squire’s family and then as a teacher in a religious school at Lipets. Possessing a lively and cheerful disposition, benevolence and a sharp wit, Alexander Mihailovich was loved by his friends and workmates. Falling dangerously ill during his final year of studies at the Seminary, he gave a promise that should he recover, he would be tonsured into a monastic order. Upon recovering from his illness, he did not forget his promise. Nevertheless, he delayed its fulfilment for a few years, because as in his own expression, he was "reluctant." However, his conscience was not giving him any peace. The more time elapsed, the greater were his pangs of remorse. Periods of youthful and carefree gaiety and insouciance were replaced with intervals of sharp anguish, melancholy, fervent prayers & tears.
Once, during a walk through a forest in Lipetsk, he paused on the bank of a river and through the bubbling sounds of the water, distinctly heard the words spoken "Praise God, love God."
Returning home and isolating himself from inquisitive eyes, he started to pray ardently to the Mother of God so that She may enlighten his mind and direct his will. On the whole, he did not possess a strong will, and in his old age would say to his spiritual children: "You must listen to me from my first word. I am a very obliging person. If you start to argue with me, I may accede and that would not be to your benefit." In the same diocese of Tambovsk, in the village of Troyekoorovo, there lived a well renowned ascetic Hilarion. Alexander Mihailovich came to him for advice and was told by the starets: "Go to Optina hermitage – there you will become experienced. You could also go to Sarov, but now there are no experienced elders as there were before" (Seraphim of Sarov reposed a short time earlier). When the summer holidays arrived in 1839, Alexander Mihailovitch together with his seminarian friend and colleague from Pokrov educational institution at Lipetsk, outfitted a tilt-cart and set out on a pilgrimage to the Troitsa- Sergius Monastery to worship before the Abbot of Russia – Saint Sergius.
Returning home to Lipetsk, Alexander Mihailovitch continued to hesitate and could not make the decision to forsake the world. Nonetheless, this did happen one evening as he was amusing fellow guests. Everybody was happy and contented, and dispersed to their respective homes in high spirits. With regard to Alexander Mihailovitch, if in the past, under similar circumstances, he felt remorse, now his promise given to God vividly conjured up in his mind. He remembered the fervidness of the spirit in the Troitsa monastery, the former long prayers, the lamentations and tears, God’s directives conveyed to him through Fr. Hilarion.
In the morning, on this occasion, his resolve grew firm. Fearing that he may start to waver because his relatives and friends might try to persuade him to stay, and without even receiving permission from the diocese authorities, Alexander Mihailovitch quietly departed for Optina.
Here he found monastic life at its height: such stalwarts as Abbot Moses, elders Leo (Leonard) and Macarius. Brother of ascetic and sagacious Moses – Hieromonk Anthony – was the superior of the monastery and was equal in spiritual eminence to Alexander Mihailovich.
Under the guidance of the elders, monastic life carried the imprint of spiritual virtue. Simplicity (honesty), meekness and humility – all were outstanding features of Optina monasticism. Junior brothers attempted to humble themselves not only before the seniors, but also in front of other junior members. They were even afraid to offend by looks and any misunderstanding saw the brother hurry to seek forgiveness.
It was in this atmosphere that Alexander Grenkov arrived at the hermitage on 8th Oct. 1839. Leaving his coachman at the guesthouse, he went directly to the chapel. After Liturgy, he proceeded to Elder Leo for his blessing to remain in the monastery. The starets blessed him and directed him to initially live in the guesthouse, transcribing the book "Salvation for sinners" (translated from Modern Greek), dealing with the struggles against carnal desires.
In Jan. 1840 he moved into the monastery although he did not wear an under-vestment. At this time there was an ongoing correspondence with the diocesan authorities - regarding his disappearance - and the superior of Optina had not received a directive from the Archbishop of Kaloozh, inducting teacher Grenkov into the monastery.
Finally, in April 1840, A.M.Grenkov received a blessing to wear monastic raiment. For a short period, he acted as cell assistant and reader (rites and church services) to the elder Leo. Initially, he worked in the monastery bakery producing yeast and baking bread. Then in November 1840, he was transferred to the hermitage. From there, the young novitiate continually visited the starets Leo to receive preceptorials from him. At the hermitage he was an assistant cook for a whole year. Because of his work he often had to visit elder Macarius, to receive his blessing regarding food preparation, or whether he had to toll the bell before a meal, or for some other associated matter. These opportunities allowed him to express his spiritual state to the elder and receive his answers. The aim was for a person to conquer temptation, and not temptation man.
Starets was especially fond of the young novitiate and affectionately called him Sasha. However, motivated by spiritually educational aims, the elder used to test his humility in front of others. With this in mind, he gave him a nickname – "chimera" – and at times would take on an appearance of being angry with him. This name was intended to mean a sterile flower just like cucumber plants produce. But to others he would say "He will be a great man." Expecting his imminent death, starets Leo called Father Macarius and told him about the novitiate Alexander. "Here is a man that has sought refuge in us elders. I am now very weak. So now I am handing him over to you completely, guide him as you will."
After the death of elder Leo Alexander became a lay brother to starets Macarius (1841-1846). In 1842, he was tonsured and took the habit with the name Ambrose (in honour of Saint Ambrose of Milan (whose memory is celebrated on the 7th. Of December). This was followed with him becoming a hierodeacon (1843) and 2 years later – ordained as hieromonk.
During these years, Fr. Ambros's health was greatly weakened. On the 7th of December 1846, during his journey to Kalooga for his ordination, he caught a cold which impacted on his internal organs, leaving him ill for a long time. From that point on, he never really recovered. However he did not feel despondent but rather acknowledged that his physical infirmity was beneficial to his soul: "God does not expect physical deeds from a sick person, but only patience with humility and gratefulness."
From September 1846 to the summer of 1848, his health deteriorated so dangerously that he was tonsured into schema (the severest monastic order) in his cell with the retention of his name. However, to the surprise of many, he started to improve rapidly and even went for outside walks. This sudden break in his illness was a clear sign of God’s will, and as the elder himself would comment later: "Merciful God! In the monastery, the ill do not die quickly but linger on and on, until their illness brings them some real benefit. It is good to be slightly ill in a monastery, particularly for the young, so that the flesh does not rebel and to minimise empty thoughts entering one’s head."
During those years, Father Ambros's training was not only guided by physical ailments sent by God, but through his beneficial communion with the senior brothers, among whom there were real ascetics. As an example, we will cite an event about which subsequently the elder himself related.
Shortly after being ordained as a deacon, he had to serve at a liturgy in a church at Vedensk and consequently, came into the altar to receive abbot Anthony’s blessing, who in turn asked him:"Well, are you getting used to it?" Father Ambrose replied in a nonchalant manner: " With your prayers father!" To which Father Anthony continued: "Toward fear of God?"….Father Ambrose understood that his tone of voice was out of place in the altar and became confused. "In this way," concluded Father Ambrose " the former elders were able to teach us reverence."
During those years, his communion with elder Macarius was especially important for his spiritual augmentation. Notwithstanding his illness, as before, Fr. Ambrose remained in full obedience to the starets, giving him an account of even his minor actions. Receiving Fr. Macarius’s blessing, he busied himself translating books written by holy fathers, and in particular, prepared for publication, the work "The Ladder" written by the holy Abbot John of the Sinai.
Thanks to elder Macarius’s guidance, Fr. Ambrose was able to learn without any special hindrances, the skill of skills – wise prayer. A novitiate’s activity is accompanied by many dangers, and through his inexperience, in trying to apply his own will in the face of significant lamentations, the devil attempts to lead that person toward self-exaltation. In following this path and without a spiritual guide, a novitiate can inflict great harm to his soul. This is what happened to starets Macarius himself when he independently attempted to master this skill. Because he had a highly experienced guide in elder Macarius, Fr. Ambrose was able to avoid the pitfalls of distress and sorrow during his progression through the clever prayer. Although the starets loved his student, but in order to destroy the novitiate’s self-love, it did not stop him, on occasions, to place him in humiliating circumstances. Starets Macarius was guiding him to become a strict ascetic, adorned with poverty, humility, patience and other novitiate virtues. Whenever anybody defended Fr. Ambrose with "Father, he is an ill person!," starets Macarius would respond "Do I know less than you? However, to a monk, reprimands and criticisms are but brushes that sweep away sinful dust from his soul; without this, a monk rusts."
Even while starets Macarius was alive, some of the brothers would visit Fr. Ambrose to discuss their innermost thoughts.
This is how Abbot Mark (he retired to Optina) described it, "As much as I could notice, in those days, Fr. Ambrose lived in isolation without speaking to anyone. Whenever I visited him – which was nearly every day – to discuss my thoughts, I always found him reading spiritual books. Absence from his cell meant that he was with starets Macarius, helping him with correspondence with his spiritual children, or, that he was translating spiritual books. Sometimes I found him sitting on his bed, holding back barely perceptible tears in his eyes. It seemed to me that the elder always moved as if he was in God’s presence, or as though he was constantly aware of His presence, just as it states in a psalm "I have set the Lord always before me…" (Psalm 16:8). Consequently, all his actions were made for God’s sake and to please Him." That is why he constantly agonised, afraid that he may offend God, and this feeling was reflected in his face. Whenever I was in his presence and seeing this concentrated look of the starets, I was always trembled with reverence. And it was impossible for me to be otherwise. Whenever I knelt before him as I usually did to receive his blessing, he would very quietly inquire "Brother, what can you say to me that is good?" Perplexed by his concentration and feelings, I answered "For God’s sake, forgive me batushka. Maybe I have come at a wrong time?" – "No" was the elder’s reply – "say what you have to say, only be brief." Having listened to me attentively, he would reverently give me beneficial instructions and affectionately, release me.
Although rich in spiritual intellect, his instructions did not come from his personal wisdom or reasoning. When he did instruct his spiritual young, it was as if he was one of the learners, offering them not his personal advice but invariably, the potent teachings of holy Fathers." If Fr. Mark complained to Fr. Ambrose about an individual that had inflicted a hurt upon him, the starets would respond in a sad tone of voice "Brother, brother! I am a person that is dying," or, "Today-tomorrow I shall die. What will I do with this brother? After all I am not the Father Superior. You need to reproach yourself, humble yourself before the brother and you will find peace." Such replies used to evoke self-reproachment in Fr. Mark’s soul. After bowing humbly before the starets and asking his forgiveness, he would leave composed and comforted – "fly out as though on wings."
Apart from monks, Fr.Macarius encouraged the bringing together of his lay spiritual children with Fr.Ambrose. Upon seeing Fr.Ambrose conversing with them, he would murmur jokingly "Look, look at that, Ambrose is taking my bread away from me!" In this way, Fr.Macarius was gradually preparing himself a worthy successor. When starets Macarius reposed (7th Sept 1860), the slowly changing events developed in such a way that saw Fr.Ambrose appointed in his place. Forty days after the death of starets Macarius, Fr.Ambrose relocated to another building close to the abbey courtyard, to the right of the belfry. On the western side of this building was an addition called "Shanty," which served as a reception area for visiting women (as they were not allowed inside the abbey). Fr.Ambrose spent thirty years at this abbey, independently serving his brothers before departing for "Shamardino."
He had two cell-assistants: Fr.Michael and Fr.Joseph (future elder). His main secretary was Fr.Clement (Zederholm), son of a Protestant pastor. A highly educated individual, who was a Master of Greek literature, he converted to Orthodoxy.
Initially, in order to observe the rites, he would wake up at 4 am, ring the bells which summoned his assistants, who would then read the morning prayers, 12 selected psalms and First Hour. Afterwards, he would retire to spend time in wise prayer. After a short rest, the starets would attend the hours: third, sixth and typika, and depending upon the time of the day, the canon and acathithus to Jesus Christ or His Holy Mother. He would listen to these akathists standing. After prayer and a light breakfast, the working day would begin, interrupted by a short lunch break. The amount of food the starets would consume equalled to that given to a three-year-old child. During lunch, the cell attendants would relay questions to him posed by the visitors. After a brief rest, the intense toil recommenced – continuing deep into the night. Notwithstanding his weakened and ailing state, the starets always finished the day with evening prayer rule, made up of small compline, canon to the Guardian Angel and evening prayers. The continuous flow of people visiting the starets had his cell attendants run off their feet. Occasionally the elder would lie still, as though without any feeling. After the Rule, the starets would ask forgiveness "for having sinned gravely by deed, word, thought." Having received his blessing, the cell attendants would head for the door, as the bells would peal the Hour. The starets would inquire feebly "Which hour is it?," "The twelfth" came the response. "You are late" would be his comment.
After two years, a new sickness overtook the starets. If before his health was fragile, now it was completely feeble. From that point on, he was unable to go to church and partook of the Holy Sacraments in his cell. In 1869, his health reached such a low point that hope for his recovery started to wane. The miracle-working icon of Mother of God of Kaloozh was brought to him. After Te Deum, cell vigil and Extreme Unction, his health improved although extreme weakness remained with him for the rest of his life.
These severe relapses returned more than once. It is difficult to imagine how the starets, confined to his bed totally fatigued in a state of debilitating infirmity, continued daily to receive multitudes of people and respond to tens of letters. It was through him that the words "God’s strength is realised through infirmities" became a reality. Without God’s selection of him as His crucible through which He spoke and acted, such a feat and gigantic labour would never have been possible through purely human effort. Clearly, God’s life-giving benevolence and assistance was present.
God’s abundant benevolence that resided in him, was the source of those spiritual blessings that allowed him to serve those that visited him, comforting the grieving, strengthening the faith in those that were wavering and directing everybody toward the path of salvation.
Among the spiritual blessings that were gifted to starets Ambrose, which drew thousands of people to him, his perspicacity has to be mentioned in the first instance. He would penetrate deeply into the soul of his visitor and without any need for any explanations, would read it like a book. Without anyone noticing, he would subtly point out the person’s weaknesses, compelling him to think about them seriously. One woman, who visited him often, was addicted to playing cards but too embarrassed to acknowledge this. Once on her visit, she started to ask the starets for his card. Attentively, the elder fixed her with his distinctive look and said: "What mother? Do you think we play cards here at the monastery?" She understood the allusion and confessed her weakness to the starets. His sagacity amazed many, and this immediately influenced them to place themselves fully in his hands in the firm belief that the starets knew better than them what they lacked, what was beneficial for them and what was harmful.
One highly qualified young woman, having finished her higher education in Moscow, and who was an offspring of a woman that was one of Fr.Ambrose’s spiritual daughters, although having never met Fr.Ambrose, did not like him and called him "hypocrite." Her mother talked her into spending some time with Fr.Ambrose. Arriving at a public visit to the starets, she stood at the back of everyone, next to the doorway. In opening the door to enter, the starets isolated her behind it. Having said a prayer and glancing over the multitude, he suddenly looked behind the door and said: "And who is this giant standing here? Is this – Faith having come to view a hypocrite?" Afterwards, he spoke to her privately, and this changed the young woman’s attitude toward him completely. She came to love him deeply and her fate was settled – she entered a convent at Shamordino. Whoever placed himself - with total faith - under his guidance, never regretted their decision even though initially they may have received directives from him that seemed strange and totally impossible to fulfil.
Usually, very many people gathered at Fr.Ambrose’s. Once, a young woman that was persuaded to visit the Batushka, became irritated because she was kept waiting. Suddenly the door opens wide. The starets, with a bright face, appears in the doorway and loudly states: "Those who are impatient come to me." Coming up to the young woman he leads her away. After their conversation, she becomes a frequent guest at Optina and visitor to Fr.Ambrose.
On one occasion, a group of women gathered in the courtyard. One of them, an elderly woman with a pained face sitting on a tree stump, related how she walked from Voronezh in the hope that the starets would cure her afflicted legs. Seven miles from the monastery, she became lost on the snow-covered path and fell on a log, exhausted. Suddenly, an old man approached her. Dressed in an under-vestment and skoufia, he approached the woman and enquired as to the cause of her tears. Pointing which path to take with his walking stick, the woman followed his direction and rounding some bushes, immediately sighted the monastery. Everybody agreed that the old man was either the monastery’s forester or one of its brothers. Suddenly, a young novice appeared on the perron and loudly asked: "where is Eudoxia of Voronezh?" Everybody glanced at one another but kept quiet. The novice repeated his question, only louder, and added that Batushka is calling her. Having just arrived at the monastery, the woman with the afflicted legs exclaimed, "Dear me, but Eudoxia of Voronez is I!" Forging through the throng that had given way, she arrived at the top of the steps and disappeared through the doorway. After some 15 minutes, she came out of the house in tears, sobbing that the old man in the forest that directed her was non-other than Father Ambrose himself, or someone that looked very much like him. However, there was nobody in the monastery that looked like him, and during winter, due to ill health, he was unable to venture out of his cell. Yet here he is, appearing in the forest, giving directions to a traveller, and then having detailed knowledge of her, half an hour before her arrival!
Here is another instance of Fr.Ambrose’s perspicacity as related by an artisan that visited him: "Shortly before the death of the Starets, some 2 years, I had to travel to Optina to get some money. We had finished making an iconostasis and I was there to receive a rather large sum of money from the father-superior. Having received my payment, I dropped in to Fr. Ambrose to receive his blessing for my return journey. I was in a hurry to get home as was waiting to receive a large order – for about 10,000 roubles, and the clients would definitely call at my home the following day. As usual, the number of people waiting to see the Starets was overwhelming. Having found out about my waiting to see him, he sent his cell attendant to ask me to come in the evening to drink tea with him. Although I was hurrying to get home, the honour and joy to have tea with the Starets were so great, that I reasoned that if I delayed my journey till the evening, I will still be able to get home on time if I travelled all night.
When evening arrived, I went to the Starets. Greeting me, the Starets was so happy and joyful that I did not feel the ground beneath my feet. Batushka, our angel, kept me fairly long as it was getting dark. "Well, go with God" he said, "Sleep here tonight and tomorrow I will bless you to attend liturgy, and afterwards come over for tea. "What’s this?" I thought. However, I didn’t dare object. I slept over, attended liturgy and went to drink tea with the Starets while lamenting about my clients, thinking: perhaps I will be able to get home in the evening. Here’s hoping! Finishing my tea and before I can say to the Starets: ‘Bless me on my journey’, he announces ‘Come over tonight and sleep here.’ Even my legs started to sag; yet I could not object. The day passed, the night passed! In the morning, I became a bit bold and thought: To be or not to be, I shall leave today: perhaps my clients will wait for me for one day. Would you believe! I couldn’t open my mouth when the Starets said: "Go to vespers tonight and liturgy tomorrow morning. Then sleep here again." What sort of parable is this! Here, I began to really grieve, and to be truthful, sinned against the Starets: what a sage! He knows precisely that because of his generosity, a lucrative job has slipped through my fingers. I was so incommodious with the Starets that I was unable to relay my feelings to him. This time, during vespers, I was not up to praying as thoughts flooded my head: "Well here’s a great Starets! Here is a sage…! Your earnings are blown." Ah, was I really annoyed at that time! And my Starets, well, as though purposely and to my sin, God forgive me, and seemingly to taunt, greets me in a joyful mood after the all night vigil! I became bitter and insulted: I thought why is he so happy…But I still did not have the audacity to voice my thoughts. I spent the third night in the usual manner. Overnight, my lament slowly diminished: it was like water under the bridge. In the morning, I came over to the Starets, to be told by him: "Well, its time for you to depart! Go with God! God will bless you! And with time, do not forget to thank God!"
From this point, all my sorrows fell away from me. I left Optina with such a light heart and joy that it is impossible to convey…Only why did batushka tell me: "Later, do not forget to thank God!"…..I thought it was maybe because He gave me the great honour of spending three days in church. Travelling home unhurriedly and not even thinking about my clients, I was very happy that batushka treated me the way he had. I arrived home and what do you think? I am driving through the gates and my clients are right behind me. They were three days late! Well, I thought, my blessed Starets! Your works are indeed wondrous Lord!….However, this did not end here. You listen to what happened further!
A short time later, Fr.Ambrose passed away. Two years after his righteous death, my senior artisan is taken ill. A trusted person, he was worth his weight in gold. He lived with me continuously for twenty years. His illness is life threatening. We sent for a priest to administer the last rites while he was still conscious. Approaching me from the deathbed, the priest says: "The sick person is calling for you, he wants to see you. Hurry, before he dies." As soon as he saw me coming, he somehow managed to prop himself up on his elbows, looked at me and burst into tears: "Please forgive my sin boss! I did want to kill you…." "You what, God forbid! You are delirious…." No boss, I truly wanted to kill you. Remember when you were three days late in returning from Optina. Well, through my arrangement with two others, we waited for you three nights under the bridge: we were after the money you received at Optina for the iconastasis. Due to someone’s prayers, had God not led you away from an unrepentant death, you would not have been alive that night. In God’s name, forgive me, an accursed one, and release my soul with peace!" "God forgive you as I forgive you." He then began to emit death rattles. May his soul rest in Heaven. Great was his sin, but great was his repentance!"
Father Ambrose’s perspicacity was combined with another most valuable gift, especially for a clergyman – discernment. To people who thought deeply about religion, his directives and advice appeared as sound and practical scripture. Often the Starets would give his preceptorials in a semi-humorous format, thereby lifting the person from despondency, yet not diminishing the deep meaning of his words. Because of Fr.Ambrose’s picturesque expressions, people would invariably ponder over them and remember their meaning for a long time. Sometimes, during general gatherings, the constant question would be raised: "How to live?" To this, the Starets would benignly reply: "We must live on earth just as a wheel turns, where only one point is in contact with the ground, while the rest reaches out upward: but we, once we lie down, are unable to get up."
As examples, we will cite some other sayings of the Starets.
The Staret’s reasoning also extended toward practical questions, far removed from those problems of spiritual life. Here is an example.
An affluent landowner comes to the Starets and as a matter of course, announces that he intends to establish a watering system throughout his wide-spread apple orchards. Totally occupied with the watercourse, batushka begins with his usual words: "People say that the best way" – and then pictures the waterway in detail. Returning home, the landlord begins to read literature on the topic and realises that batushka’s description was the latest invention in this field of technology. The landlord returns to Optina. ‘Well, what about the watercourse?" asks batushka. Everywhere, apples are spoiling, but with the landlord – a bumper harvest.
Thanks to the powers of reasoning and perspicacity within Starets Ambrose that combined with a remarkable, pure maternal softness of the heart, he was able to alleviate the heaviest sorrow and console the most grieving soul.
Some 3 years after the death of Starets in 1894, one inhabitant from Kozelska related the following: "I had a son who worked for the telegraph company by delivering telegrams. Batushka knew us both. My son used to deliver telegrams to him quite often while I went to him for his blessing. Then my son became ill with tuberculosis and died. I came to him – we all came to him with our sorrows. He stroked my head and said: "Your telegram has been cut short!" "Yes, cut short batushka!" and I began to cry. His compassion made my soul feel light, as though a heavy stone was removed. We lived beside him as though with our own father. Now, there are no more staretses like him. Maybe God will send another one to us."
Love and wisdom – these were the precise qualities that attracted people to the Starets. From morning till evening, people came to him with their pressing questions into which he immersed deeply, living them during the conversation. He always encompassed the crux of the matter with reason and explicated it with incomprehensible wisdom. However, during this 10 to 15 minute dialogue, not only was one issue decided, but during this time Fr.Ambrose intercalated into his heart, the whole human being – with all his attachments, desires – his whole being, internal and external. By the elder’s words and directives, it was clear that he loved not only that person that he was conversing with, but all his loved ones, his life and everything that was dear to him. Considering all aspects of life that may be affected by the subject matter, Fr.Ambrose always bore in mind the possible resultant, significant ramifications – independent of the matter at hand – that may arise from his determinations and affect not only on that person, but others as well. What type of mental concentration was required to solve these problems? Yet these types of enigmas were brought to him by tens of lay people - not counting fellow monks and 50 letters that arrived and were attended to – on a daily basis! Being close to God and in possession of His gift of clairvoyance, the Starets’s words carried great authority. It was prophet’s work.
Insignificant matters did not exist for the Starets. He knew that everything in life had value and its own consequences. Consequently, there was no question that he did not respond to with commitment and a desire to do good. Once, a woman employed by the wife of a landowner to look after her turkeys came to the Starets. For some reason, the turkeys in her charge were dying off and the employer was on the verge of dismissing her. "Batushka!" she turned to him tearfully "I am running out of strength giving all my time to them. I look after them as I would after a treasured one – yet still they fall ill. The mistress wants to replace me. Have pity on me father." The people present laughed at her. Sharing her concerns and after hearing how she fed them, the Starets gave new feeding instructions, blessed her and sent her home. The Starets then pointed out to those that laughed that her whole life revolved around those turkeys. Later it became known that those turkeys became sickness-free.
Instances of his healings were countless and would be impossible to enumerate in this short treatise. The Starets always tried to hide these occurrences.
Once, stooped and leaning on his stick, Starets Ambrose was walking along the road from somewhere toward the abbey. Suddenly, he is confronted with the following scene: a cart fully loaded, next to it lies a dead horse over which a peasant is crying. The loss of a horse, provider to the peasant’s existence, was a substantial misfortune! Nearing the horse, the Starets commenced to walk around it, slowly. Then taking a switch he whipped the horse, shouting: "Get up, loafer" – and the horse stood up obediently.
To many, Starets Ambrose appeared as a distant figure, comparable to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, either for the purpose of healing or for liberation from misfortunes. To some, extremely few, the Starets’s power of prayerful intercession before God was revealed graphically. We will bring the recollections of a nun who was one of Fr.Ambrose’s spiritual daughters.
"In his cell an image lamp was alight and a small wax candle was burning on his table. It was too dark and I had no time to read from my notes. I hurriedly said what I remembered and then added: ‘Batushka, what else can I say?' In what else do I repent? – I’ve forgotten.’ Starets rebuked me for this. Suddenly, he got up from his bed. Taking two steps he stood in the middle of his cell. Standing on my knees, I involuntarily followed him with my eyes. Starets straightened out to his full height, lifted his head and raised his arms upward, as though in a prayerful position. It appeared to me at the time that his steps were separated from the ground. I was looking at his radiant head and face. I remember that the ceiling of the cell was as if it was not there, it separated, while the head of the Starets seemingly went upwards. All this appeared to me quite clearly. After a minute, Batushka came up to me in my astonished state and leaning in front of me, blessed me saying; ‘Remember, this is what repentance can lead you to. Go." I left him swaying, and all through the night I wept over my senselessness and negligence. In the morning, we were given horses and we left. During his lifetime, I was unable to relate this to anyone. He forbade me once and for all of talking about such events, saying threateningly: "Otherwise you will lose my help and benevolence." People from all the ends of Russia converged on hut of the Starets – poor and rich, the intellectuals and the plain folk. He was visited by well-known public figures and authors: F.M. Dostoevski, V.C. Soloviev, K.N. Leontiev, L.N. Tolstoy, M.N. Pogodin, N.M. Strahov and others. He greeted all of them with equal affection and benevolence. He had a constant need to perform charitable acts, distributing his largess through his cell-attendants while he personally looked after the widows, orphans, the sick and the suffering. During the last years of his life, he blessed the establishment of a women’s monastery some 12 miles away at Shamordino. At that time, it was distinct from other women’s monasteries because it accepted mostly ill and destitute women. In the 90’s of the nineteenth century, the number of novitiates reached 500.
As fate would have it, the hour of death would find Fr. Ambrose precisely at this monastery. On the 2nd of June 1890, he left to spend summer at the monastery, as was his usual practice. At the end of summer, the Starets attempted to return to Optina, but due to illness, was unable to do so. After a year, the illness intensified and he lost his hearing and voice. His final sufferings began. As he himself acknowledged, they were of such severity, the likes of which he had never experienced. On the 8th of September, Hieromonk Joseph together with Frs.Theodore and Anatolius, administered Extreme unction to the Starets, and the next day, Holy Communion. On the same day, the Father Superior of Optina, Archimandrite Isaac arrived to visit the Starets. The following day, 10th Oct 1891, at 11.30, after three deep breaths and crossing himself three times with difficulty, the Starets expired.
The liturgy of the Departed with the order of Burial was performed at the Vedensk church in the Optina hermitage. Nearly 8000 people congregated for the funeral. On the 15th of Oct, the body of Starets Ambrose was interred on the southeasterly side of the church, next to his teacher Hieromonk Macarius. It is worthy to note that one year earlier, on that very same date of Oct 15th, Starets Ambrose instituted the feast day in honour of the miracle-working Mother of God icon " Ripening of the harvest," before which he used to utter his fervent prayers on many occasions.
Immediately after his death, miracles began to occur through which, as in life, the Starets healed, instructed and called for repentance.
The years passed, but the path to the Staret’s grave did not grow over with weeds. A period of massive upheavals arrived. The Optina Hermitage was looted and closed. The small chapel on the Staret’s grave was demolished. However, the memory of the great God-pleasing Starets was impossible to eradicate. The people marked the position of the chapel and continued to flow to their teacher.
In Nov 1987 the Optina Hermitage was returned to the Church and in June 1988, the local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church acclaimed Starets Ambrose into the ranks of the Saints. On the day of his death – 23rd Oct. when his memory is commemorated – in the presence of many pilgrims, a triumphant hierarchical liturgy was performed in the Optina Hermitage. By this time, the remains of Blessed Ambrose were discovered. On that day, everybody involved in this celebration, experienced a pure and indefinable joy that the holy father loved to endow during his life to all those that came to him. One month later, on the anniversary of the monastery’s renaissance and by the grace of God, a miracle occurred: the icons of Mother of God of Kazan and Saint Ambrose, as well as his remains became odoriferous by exuding fragrant oils. His holy remains performed many other miracles, assuring us sinners that he has not stopped interceding for us before our Lord, Jesus Christ. Eternal praise be to Him! Amen.
How to live
"How to live?" – was this extremely important question posed to the Starets from everyone. He would answer in his usual humorous tone: "Live – do not grieve, don’t judge anyone, do not vex anyone and my respect to everyone." Often the Staret’s tone would produce smiles on the frivolous listeners. However, if one was to contemplate this instruction, the deep meaning would become apparent to anyone. "Do not grieve," that is, so that the heart does not occupy itself with sorrows and misfortunes that are unavoidable to a human being, but rather it be directed to the Sole Source of eternal joy – God. Through Him, a person is reconciled with his sorrows, becomes "submissive" and thereby obtains tranquillity. – Don’t judge anyone," "do not vex." Judging and vexing, which are the offsprings of destructive pride, are the two most common activities among people. They are sufficient to decline a person’s soul into the depths of hell; even while in the main, on the surface they might think that they are not sins. - "My respect to everyone" – refers to the Apostle’s directive: "in honour giving preference to one another" (Romans 12:10) Gathering all these thoughts into one, we can see that in the above pronouncements, the Starets was mainly preaching humility – the basis of spiritual life, the source of all goodness without which one cannot be saved.
On how much we care about our bodies
and how much we care about our souls.
The Bible tells us: "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Mark 8:36) That is how precious the human soul is. It is more precious than the whole earth with all its treasures and blessings. However, it’s frightening to think how little we understand our soul’s worth. From morning to night, we direct all our thoughts to the body, the housing for worms, this fallen coffin, and on God’s most precious and beloved creation, on His image of glory and majesty, we hardly spare one thought in a week. We spend the most flourishing years of our life in serving our body, and only the last minutes of our decrepit old age, toward eternal salvation. Daily, the body indulges itself with full cups and sumptuous dishes, as though at a rich man’s feast, while the soul barely gathers crumbs of God’s words on His doorstep. The insignificant body is washed, dressed, cleaned, adorned with all types of treasures from nature and the sciences, while the priceless soul, the bride of Jesus Christ, inheritor of Heaven, wanders with exhausted steps, donned in clothing of a poor wanderer that is without charity.
The body doesn’t tolerate one blemish on its face, any dirt on its hands, not one patch on its clothing, while the soul, from head to toe, covered with filth, that goes from one sinful quagmire to another, and its yearly confessional which is often hypocritical, only increases its patches rather than rejuvenating it. The body demands various forms of diversions and gratifications; it frequently ravages whole families, for its sake people sometimes are willing to exert all types of efforts while the soul - has barely one hour on Sundays to partake in the Divine Liturgy, scarcely minutes for morning and evening prayers, reluctantly collects a handful of copper coins for charity and when thinking about death, expresses its satisfaction with a cold sigh. For the sake of health and welfare of the body, the atmosphere and habitat is substituted, foremost and distant physicians are summoned, there is abstinence from food and drink, the most bitter medicines are consumed, the body is allowed to be burned and dissected, yet for the health of the soul, for the avoidance of temptations, for distancing away from sinful infection, they take not one step but remain in the same atmosphere, in the same iniquitous society, in the same corrupt house, not seeking any spiritual physician, or else selecting one that is unfamiliar and inexperienced, hiding from him that which is already known to Heaven and hell, and about which they themselves boast among their circles. When the body is dying, you hear lamentations and despair, but often no thought is given when the soul is dying from mortal sin.
Like Adam and Eve, we don’t know the value of our soul and give it away for a seemingly rich yield.
At least why don’t we cry like Adam and Eve? Unfortunately, in the main, our concerns are for acquiring earthly benefits and not Heavenly ones. We forget that earthly gains soon pass and cannot be retained, while Heavenly gains are eternal, endless and cannot be taken away. Most gracious Lord! Help us to despise everything transient and concern ourselves only with the needs to save our souls.
Through the words of Peter of Damascus, while a Christian lives on Earth, his salvation remains between fear and hope. But humans still keep searching for total fulfilment on Earth and that from locations or from people, when Christ Himself says in the Scripture: "You will be sorrowful in this world." These words clearly show that irrespective where a Christian is located, he cannot be without some type of sorrow. There is only one solace – in fulfilling the laws of the Scriptures, just as the Psalm says: "Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble." (Psalm 119:165) If something or someone does tempt or confuse us, it clearly shows that we are not relating correctly to God’s laws, among which the greatest one is that of not judging or condemning anyone. On Judgement Day, everyone will either be glorified or shamed by their deeds. The Old Testament decrees that we attend ourselves toward salvation and betterment of our soul. It is towards this that we should concern ourselves mostly.
There isn’t anywhere that God induces us against our will, but rather offers us a choice for our determination, and it is through the personal will that individuals turn out to be either good or evil. Therefore, it is useless to blame those that live with us or surround us as interfering and impeding our salvation or spiritual improvement. Samuel lived and was brought up by the priest Elias, among his debauched sons, yet preserved himself and was a great prophet. Even in Heaven, Eve violated God’s law. While Judas, living three years in the presence of Christ Himself, did not improve even though he saw so many miracles and continually heard the Scriptural sermons, but became worse and sold his Teacher and the world’s Redeemer, for thirty pieces of silver.
Our failure to find spiritual fulfilment emanates from us ourselves, from our ignorance and our incorrect thinking which we are loathe to part with. And it is this that leads us to confusion and doubt and various perplexities; all this torments and weighs us down into a disconsolate circumstance. It would be good if we were able to understand the simple words of a holy father: "If we humble ourselves, and not mentally roam all over places where it will not improve us and maybe make us worse, we will find peace in every situation."
You must humble yourself before everyone and regard yourself as worse than anyone. If we did not commit an offence that had been perpetrated by others, then it may be that we did not have the opportunity, or the situation and circumstances were different. While in every person there is something good and kind, all we normally see are their iniquities and do not notice anything good in them.
To the question that can one wish for spiritual perfection, the Starets answers: "Not only can you wish but you must endeavour to perfect yourself in humility, that is, to regard yourself in your heart that as lower than every human being and every creature. It is natural and essential that a sinful human humbles himself. If he doesn’t, then he will be humbled by circumstances, arranged thoughtfully for the benefit of his soul. During times of good fortune, he usually ascribes it to himself, to his puny strength and so called authority, but as soon as some type of misfortune befalls him, he asks for mercy and from an imaginary enemy.
The Starets also related how fortuitous circumstances humble a person: "Once, a person organised a luncheon and dispatched his servants to invite his guests. Confronted by a rather careless-looking servant, one of the invited guests asked of him: ‘Don’t tell me that your master could not find a better-looking servant than you?’ To which the servant replied: ‘The handsome servants he sent to the handsome guests and me, he sent to your lordship.’"
Starets Ambrose further instructed his students on humility: "Once, a visitor called on Father Superior Moses, and not finding him home, went to see his brother Abbot Anthony. During their conversation, the visitor posed the question: "Tell me batushka, what type of precepts do you maintain?" Fr.Anthony answered: "I had many precepts: I lived in the desert and monasteries and they all had different rules. Now there remains only one endeavour left: ‘God have mercy on me.’"
Batushka also recounted how "One woman kept wandered here and there, to Kiev then to Zadonsk, and one starets told her: ‘All this is of no benefit to you. Sit in one place and utter the Wise Thief’s prayer.’"
"I once mentioned to Batushka," wrote one of his spiritual daughters, "about one family, which I felt very pity for them because they did not believe in anything, neither in God nor afterlife. I pitied because it may not be their fault, due to them being either brought up in such unbelief, or perhaps for another reason. Batushka shook his head and said very angrily: "There is no justification for unbelievers. The Scripture is written for everyone, decidedly everyone, even heathens; after all, the knowledge of God is implanted into us at birth, so they themselves are to blame. You ask can we pray for them. Of course, you can pray for anyone."
Starets also stated that some renounce their faith in God by imitating others and through false shame. Here is an example: there was a person who did not believe in God for this reason. However, during the war in the Caucus, when he had to fight and during the heat of battle, when bullets were flying past him, he bent over and hugged his horse all the while uttering: "Blessed Mother of God, save me." Later, when he recalled the incident and his comrades laughed at him, he repudiated his words. At which point he added: "Yes, hypocrisy is worse than not believing."
In order to give the necessary understanding about the power and importance of repentance, Starets Ambrose would say: "What times have befallen us! Before, when somebody sincerely repented his sins, he changed his sinful lifestyle and lived chastely. But now it often happens, that during confession a person would detail all his sins and then continue his lifestyle unchanged."
Starets imparted another instructional narrative: "A demon in the appearance of a human was sitting and dangling his feet. Seeing him with his spiritual eyes, he asked him: "Why aren’t you doing something?" The demon replied: "Well there is nothing for me to do but to dangle my legs, because people are doing everything better than me."
"There are three stages for salvation. St. John the Golden Tongue states: a) Do not sin. b) If you have sinned, repent. c) Those who repent inadequately, have to bear their sorrows as they find them."
"It happens," Batushka used to say, "that although our sins are forgiven through repentance, our conscience does not cease to reproach us. As a comparison, the reposed Starets Macarius used to show his finger that was cut a long time ago: the pain had long gone but the scar remains. That is exactly the same that after repentance, the scars remain, that is, admonitions of the conscience."
"Although God forgives the sins of those repenting, every sin demands a cleansing punishment. For example, after Christ said to the wise thief: "Today you will be with Me in Paradise," his knees were broken. And what was it like to hang on his hands only, with broken kneecaps, for some three hours? It meant that he had to cleanse himself through suffering. The cleansing of those sinners who die immediately after repentance, is done through the prayers of the Church and those present, while those living, have to cleanse themselves through a change in their lifestyles and charity that would cover their sins.
"God does not create crosses for people, that is, cleansing spiritual and physical sufferings. And however heavy that cross may be for that individual, the tree that produces its timber grows from the soil of his heart."
The Starets also said: "If a person walks a straight path, for him there is no cross. However, when he starts to lurch from one side to the other, then different circumstances appear which push him back onto the right track. These elements constitute a cross for a person. Of course they occur differently, according to the individual’s need."
"Sometimes The cross is a mental one, confusing the individual with sinful thoughts. But the person is not at fault if he doesn’t accede to them. The Starets cited an example: ‘Once a female ascetic was agitated for a long period over having unchaste thoughts. When Christ appeared and drove them away from her, she cried out to Him: ‘Sweet Jesus, where were You up to this time?’ Christ replied: ‘I was in your heart.’ She said: ‘How can that be? But my heart was filled with unchaste thoughts.’ And Christ said to her: ‘Therefore understand that I was in your heart, and that you had no disposition toward those unclean thoughts but more so, endeavoured to liberate yourself from them. Not being able to do so, you suffered over them, thereby preparing a place for me in your heart.’
"Sometimes, suffering is sent to an innocent person, so that he, as with the example of Christ, suffers for others. Christ Himself suffered for people. Likewise, His Apostles were tortured for the Church and people. To have absolute love means to suffer for your close ones."
Love encompasses everything. And he, who is benevolent to his close ones - through the inclination of the heart and not moved just by duty or desire – the devil is unable to interfere with him.
Of course, love is higher than everything. If you find that you have no love within you but wish to obtain it, then perform acts of love, even though at the beginning without love. God will see your desire and suffering and will implant love into your heart. "Those who have an unsightly heart should not despair, because with God’s help they can reform it. All you need to do is watch yourself attentively, do not allow an opportunity to be beneficial to your close one slip by, disclose your thoughts to your starets and be benevolent to the utmost. Of course this cannot be done suddenly, but God is very patient. He only terminates the life of a person when He sees that he is ready to cross over into eternity, or, when He sees that there is no hope for improvement in him.
Starets Ambrose had this to say on acts of charity: "St.Dimitri of Rostov wrote: if a person rides up to you on a horse and begs you, give it to him. You will not be responsible as to how he applies your alms."
And more: "St. John the Golden Tongue says: begin by giving the needy that what you don’t need, that is just lying around, then you will be in a situation to give more even at your own expense, and finally you will be ready to give away all that you have."
On laziness and despondency
Tedium is the grandson of despondency and the daughter of laziness. To drive her away, exert yourself in work and don’t be lazy with prayers: then your tedium will pass and zeal will arrive. And if you add to this patience and humility, then you will rid yourself of many banes." Sometimes posing his own question: "Why do people sin?" the Starets would answer: "Either from not knowing what you have to do and what you have to avoid; or if they do know, they forget, and if they did not forget, then they are lazy and become despondent. Conversely: as people are very lazy when it comes to performing good deeds, they very often forget their main responsibility that of serving God. Laziness and forgetfulness leads to extreme senselessness or ignorance. These are the three ogres: despondency or laziness, forgetfulness and ignorance, from which the whole human race is bound through the shackles of indecision. Whereupon, carelessness follows with all its multitude of evil desires. That is why we pray to the Queen of Heaven: "Most-holy …"
When you are being plagued, never ask what for and why. You will never find that in the Scripture. Instead, it says: "If somebody strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him. It is really difficult to strike one on the right cheek and should be understood as: if somebody starts to denigrate you or provoke you unjustifiably, that will mean hitting you on your right cheek. Do not grumble but bear this blow patiently, and turn your left cheek, that is, remembering your past faulty deeds. If in this time you are innocent, then you have sinned greatly in the past; with this you will be convinced that you deserve punishment. Self justification is a large sin."
"Batushka, teach me patience" – said one sister. "Learn," the Starets answered, "and begin by being patient with the disappointments that you find and meet." "I can’t understand how you can not get upset with insults and unfairness." The Starets’s answer: "Be fair yourself and don’t upset anyone."
No one should justify his irritability with some type of illness because it comes about from pride. According to the words of St Apostle James: "for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God." So as not to succumb to irritability and anger, you should not hurry."
On envy and malice
Starets said: "You must force yourself, though against your will, to do some good for your enemies and mainly, not to seek vengeance but to be careful so as not to offend them with an appearance of contempt and humiliation."
One woman asked: "I don’t understand Batushka, how you not only do not get angry at those who speak ill of you, but continue to love them." To this, the Starets laughed at length and said: "You had a young son. Did you get angry with him when he did not say or do something properly? Instead, didn’t you try to cover up his deficiencies?"
For many, there is nothing to be proud of. This was the reason that the Starets related the following story: "One woman, during confession, told her spiritual father that she was a proud person. "What are you proud of?" he asked her, "Are you famous?" – "No" she answered – "Well, talented?" – "No." – Well then, rich?" – "No." "Hmmmm… in that case, you can be proud," he said finally."
To the question: how is it that the righteous, knowing that they are leading a chaste life according to God’s laws, are not exalted through their piety, the Starets answered: "They do not know what awaits them at the end. That is why," he added "Our salvation should be performed between fear and hope. Under no circumstances is one to despair, but at the same time, one should not hope excessively.
On the meaning of temptations
The free will of all intelligent beings has been tested and till now is being tested until it is confirmed in goodness. Because without trials, goodness is never firm. Every Christian is subjected to some kind of test: one with poverty, another with sickness, a third with various bad thoughts, the fourth with some type of misfortune or humiliation, while another, with perplexities. This tests the strength of one’s faith, and hope, and love for God, that is, shows the person’s inclinations, his attachments, whether he aims for sorrows or is still affixed to earthly things. So that through these trials a person-Christian himself could see in what position he is in, what his disposition is, and involuntarily humble himself. Because without humility, as all the holy fathers of Godly wisdom confirm in one voice, all our works are unsettled. Even the free will of Angels was tested. If the Heavenly dwellers could not escape the test, then more so must the free will be tested of those living on earth.
On the meaning of fast and its necessity
In the Scripture, we see the necessity to observe fasts, firstly from the example set by Christ Himself, who fasted 40 days in the wilderness, even though He was God and had no need of this. Secondly, to the Disciples’ question as to why they could not drive out the evil spirit in a person, He replied: "Through your unbelief;" and then added: "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting." (Mark 9:29) Apart from this, there are directions in the Scripture that we must observe Wednesdays and Fridays as days of fasting. On Wednesday, Christ was given up for crucifixion and on Friday, He was crucified.
Plain food is not nasty food. It does not corrupt the body but fattens it. And St.Apostle Paul says: "Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day" (2 Cor 4:16) He calls the outward person as body and the inward, as the soul.
The Bible states that every deprivation and every constraint is precious before God: "...the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matt. 11:12) Those who audaciously and wilfully violate the established fasting rules, are called enemies of the Cross. To them, their God is their stomach and their glory lies in their shame. It is stated in the Psalms: "lost through the stomach." Understandably, its another matter if a person violates the fast due to an illness and weakness of the body. But the healthy become healthier and on top of that, they sometimes live longer even though they may look gaunt. With fasting and self-restraint, the body does not rebel as much, we don’t succumb to sleep as much, less empty thoughts invade our mind, and spiritual books are read more eagerly and with greater understanding.
And so, if by the grace of God you developed a desire to cleanse yourself of your internal iniquities – let it be known to you that their origins cannot be extracted except through sincere prayer and fasting, and then sagaciously. Otherwise, you may have a foolhardy example that occurred here. One landowner, living an indulgent life suddenly wanted to observe a severe fast: he resolved that all he would eat during Great Lent is ground hemp-seed washed down with kvass (a Russian soft drink). From this severe change of indulgence to fasting, his stomach was so damaged that it could not be remedied after one whole year. Incidentally, there are words of Holy Fathers that tell us we should not be body killers but vice killers.
So that people did not remain unconcerned and placed all their hopes on outside prayers of help, the Starets used to repeat an ordinary Russian saying: "God help me, but you yourself peasant don’t lie idly."
One nun said: "Batushka! Through whom do we ask for prayerful help if not through you?" Starets replied: "And you yourself ask for it! You recall, when the 12 Apostles beseeched our Saviour on behalf of a Canaanite woman, He did not hear them. But when she started to entreat herself, she did receive."
Because prayer is the most powerful weapon against the invisible foe, he tries in various ways to distract people from it. Starets related the following story: "A monk at Mt. Athos had a much-loved, talking starling that used to entertain him with his chatter. But here was a strange thing – no sooner than the monk commenced to fulfil his rule of prayer, the starling would commence talking non-stop, not allowing the monk to pray. Once, on the bright Holy Day of the Resurrection of Christ, the monk came up to the cage and said: "Starling, Christ has risen!" And the starling replied: "That is the woe to us that He did," and immediately perished, filling the cell with unbearable stench. Thereupon the monk realised his error and repented."
Starets said that the most important thing that God looks at is the internal disposition of a person’s soul: "Once, Abbot Anthony was visited by a man with ailing legs who said: "Batushka, my legs are aching and I am disturbed that I cannot bow to the ground." Fr. Anthony replied: "Well it is said in the Scripture: "Son, give me your heart," and it doesn’t say – "legs."
One nun told Starets that she saw the icon of Mother of God and heard Her say: "What did you bring as an offering?" She responded: "What will I bring, I have nothing." Then Batushka said: "It is written in the Psalms: "Whoever offers praise glorifies me."
On external and moral progression
One of Batushka’s spiritual daughters relayed the following questions from her son. 1. "According to the Scriptures, before the end of the world, human society is presented in the most horrible way. This denies the possibility of continuous improvement of mankind. Is it possible to labour for the good of mankind, knowing beforehand that there are no means that will be capable of achieving a concluding result of moral perfection for the human race, before the world’s demise. 2. The responsibility of a Christian is to create good and endeavour that this good will triumph over evil. In which way can we attempt to conquer evil with goodness, knowing that these efforts will not be crowned with success and that in the end, evil will triumph?"
Answer from Starets Ambrose: "Tell your son: evil has already been vanquished, vanquished not by the efforts and strength of human beings but by the Lord and Saviour Himself, Son of God Jesus Christ. Who for that reason came down to Earth from Heaven, incarnated, suffered humanly and through His suffering on the Cross and Resurrection - smashed the power of evil and its source the devil who had reigned over the human race – liberated us from the devil’s and sinful slavery as He himself said: "Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you" (Luke 10:19) Now, through the Mystery of Baptism and by obeying the laws of the Scripture, every practising Christian is given the strength to trample evil and create good, and except those that are negligent in keeping God’s laws or mainly the ones that voluntarily submit themselves to sin, nobody can be forcibly possessed by evil. Wanting to conquer evil with your own strength, evil that has already been conquered through Christ’s coming, shows a lack of understanding of the Christian Mysteries of the Orthodox Church. It exposes signs of human pride in self-reliance which wants to do everything with its own strength, not turning to God for His assistance when Christ Himself says: "for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
You write: the Bible states that before the end of the world, evil will triumph over good. The Bible does not state this anywhere, but it only speaks that faith will diminish during the last days: "when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on Earth?" (Luke 18:8) and "And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold" (Mat 24:12). While Apostle Paul says that before the Second Coming of Christ: "and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, and who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped" (2 Thes 2:3-4), that is, antichrist. However, it too states here that Christ will destroy him "with the breath of His mouth " and through His coming, exterminate him…Where is there evil triumphing over good here? And generally all triumphs of evil over good are imaginary and temporary.
On the other hand, it is also unfair to state as though humanity on Earth is continually improving. Progress or improvement is only in the outward human works, in life’s comforts. For example, we utilise railways and telegraph, which did not exist before; coal is being dug up which used to conceal itself in Earth’s bosom etc. In Christian-moral respects, there had been no progress. Throughout all times, there had always been people – guided by the true faith of Christ and following the true Christian teachings in accordance with Divine Revelations which God revealed to His Church through the God-inspirited, Prophets and Apostles– that achieved high Christian-moral eminence. These people will also exist during the times of antichrist, and as written, for whose sake time will be shortened: "And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened" (Mat 24:22).
Spiritual perfection on Earth is attained partly, not by mankind collectively, but by every faithful individually, according to the measure of fulfilling God’s commandments and to the measure of humility. Final and complete perfection is reached in Heaven, in the next never-ending life, toward which yet our short life on Earth serves as a preparation and is similar to that of the years spent by a youth in a learning institution, which serve him as a preparation for future practical activity. If the destiny of mankind was limited to its earthly existence, if for a human being everything concluded on Earth, then why: "both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10) Without the future blessed, everlasting life, our earthly sojourn would be harmful and incomprehensible.
The desire to toil for the good of mankind appears very admirable, but is misplaced. In words, everybody wants to labour for the good of close ones, ignoring or paying very little attention to the necessity of first shunning sin themselves and then worrying about others.
The broad schemes of the modern generation about grand activities for the good of all mankind has the appearance that of someone, not having finished an educational course, wishing that he could be a professor and instructor in a university. However on the other hand, to think that if we cannot move humanity forward then we shouldn’t labour at all, is the other extreme. Every Christian is obliged to toil according to his capacity and position for the good of others, so that everything timely and orderly, and that the fruit of our labours are presented to God and His holy will.
In conclusion, I would say this: advise your son not to confuse outer human endeavours with the spiritual- moral. In outer devices and partly in the sciences, let him find progress. But in a Christian-moral respect, I repeat, universal progress in mankind is non-existent and cannot be. Everybody will be judged according to their deeds.
We run to thee O Ambrose, our Father as to a healing spring. For thou dost truly instruct us on the path of salvation, preserving us from misfortune and calamity by the prayers, consoling us in sorrows of body and soul, teaching above all by humility, patience and love. Pray to Christ, the Lover of mankind, and to our Fervent Intercessor that our souls may be saved.
Having fullfilled the precepts of the Sheperd of sheperds, thou didst inherit the grace of eldership, having pity on all who run to thee with faith. Therefore we, thy children, cry out to thee in love: Holy Father Ambrose, pray to Christ God that He would save our souls.
The Orthodox Word ’97 #192
Selections from the fourth volume of the
Optina Elders series of books,
published by the St. Herman Brotherhood.
The life of Elder Ambrose by Archpriest Sergius Chetverikov.
Elder Ambrose is considered the pinnacle of Eldership in Optina. He embodied the virtues of all the elders in the highest degree: divine humility, purity of mind and heart, overflowing love, and total self-sacrifice for the salvation of his fellow man. Because he had attained the depths of humility, the Lord blessed him with spiritual gifts by which to heal suffering souls. He read human hearts, was granted to know the past, present and future of people, and spoke to them the direct, revealed word of God. So great were his gifts that hundreds of people flocked daily to his humble cabin in central Russia. Among these were the writers Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Leontiev and Solovyev. Dostoyevsky was so moved by his pilgrimage to Optina and by Elder Ambrose that he wrote his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, with the specific intention of depicting the spiritual image of Optina Monastery and the Elder. The well-known character of Elder Zosima in his book was modeled after Elder Ambrose, whose words of counsel Dostoyevsky put directly into the mouth of his unforgettable character.
This edition of Elder Ambrose's life is a faithful English translation of the original Optina edition, printed in Russia in 1912. Through its pages we enter the world of a heavenly man, an angel in the flesh who beheld the mysteries of the future age: the perfect love and silent oneness of immortal spirits.
Manifestations of the
Grace of God in Elder Ambrose
ALL WHO KNEW ELDER AMBROSE spoke unanimously of his characteristic gift of clairvoyance. For him there were no secrets. A stranger could come to him and be silent, but the Elder knew his life and his circumstances, his spiritual state, and why he had come. Fr. Ambrose questioned his visitors, but to an attentive man, it was clear by the kind of questions he posed that the matter was known to the Elder. Thus, a young man from the gentry once came up to him with his hand bandaged and began to complain that he could in no way be healed. Another monk and a few laymen were with the Elder then. The man had not managed to finish saying, "It hurts, it hurts a lot!" when the Elder interrupted him. "And it will hurt — why did you offend your mother?"
Marriage or Monasticism
Once two sisters came from St. Petersburg to the Elder. The younger one was a prospective bride in a joyful mood; the older one was quiet, thoughtful and reverent. The first asked a blessing to be married, the other to go to a monastery. The Elder gave a prayer rope to the fiancée and said to the elder sister: "What kind of monastery? You'll get married — but not at home that's what you'll get!" And he named a province, to which she had never traveled. They both returned to the capital. The bride learned that her bridegroom had betrayed her. This brought about a terrible change, for her emotional attachment was deep. She comprehended the vanity of all that had occupied her before; her thoughts turned to God, and she soon entered a monastery. Meanwhile, the elder sister received a letter from that distant province from an aunt she had forgotten about, a devout woman who lived close to a women's monastery. She was summoning her to have a look at the life of the nuns there. But it turned out otherwise: while living with her aunt, the niece became acquainted with a man no longer young but quite suited to her by his character, and she married him.
A rich merchant once proposed marriage to a poor woman of the gentry because of her beauty. But the Elder said to her mother: "You need to refuse your bridegroom." The mother threw herself at him: "What do you mean, Batiushka?! Such a thing was beyond our wildest dreams; God sent him to an orphan, and you tell us to refuse!" But Fr. Ambrose answered, "Refuse this one; I have another bridegroom for your daughter, better than this one." "But what do we need a better one for she's not going to marry a prince, is she?" said her mother. "I have such a great bridegroom that it is difficult to express. Refuse the merchant." They turned the merchant down, and the girl became ill and died. Then they understood what kind of Bridegroom the Elder was talking about.
A resident of Kozelsk by the name of Kapiton had an only son, a grown-up youth, clever and handsome. He decided to send him off to work and brought him to the Elder to obtain a blessing from him for this notion. They were both sitting in the corridor, and near them were several monks. The Elder came out to them. After he and his son had received a blessing, Kapiton stated that he wished to send his son off to work. The Elder approved his intention and advised him to send his son off to Kursk.
Kapiton began to argue with the Elder. "In Kursk," he said, "we don't know anyone; but bless, Batiushka, to send him to Moscow." The Elder, in a joking tone, answered, "Moscow will knock his socks off and smack him with boards. Let him go to Kursk."
But Kapiton nevertheless did not obey the Elder and sent his son to Moscow, where he quickly found a good job. The employer into whose service he had entered was at this time constructing a building. Suddenly, several boards fell down from the top of the building and crushed both legs of the young man. His father was immediately informed by telegram. With bitter tears he came to the Elder to inform him of his sorrow, but it was already impossible to help his grief. The injured son was brought back from Moscow. He ailed for a long time, and though the wounds healed, he remained a cripple for good, unable to do any kind of work.
Fr. George Kosov, the now-famous priest of the village of Spas-Chekriak, of the Orel Province, related the following: "When I arrived at my parish, I was seized with panic: What am I supposed to do here?! No way to live, no way to serve! The house was old — dilapidated. The church — you go to serve and you might fall through the floor boards. There was almost no income; the parishioners were far from the church and from the clergy. The people were poor; in the best of times they could barely feed themselves. What could I do here? I was then a young priest, inexperienced. On top of that my health was weak, and I coughed up blood. My matushka was an orphan, poor, without any dowry. Consequently, neither from here nor from there was there any support, and I also had younger brothers on my hands. It remained only to run away. That's what I contemplated. At that time the glory of Elder Ambrose was great. Optina Monastery was thirty-six miles from us. Once in summer, on a sleepless night I raised myself up from my pillow. It was neither light nor daybreak. I put my knapsack on my shoulders and off I went to him for a blessing — to leave the parish. At 4:00 in the afternoon I was already at Optina. Batiushka didn't know me, either by sight or by having heard about me. I went into his 'hut' and there were already people there — a crowd, waiting for Batiushka to come out. I stood on the side to wait. I look, and out he comes, and straight at me through everyone he beckons me to come to him: 'You, priest! What on earth are you contemplating? To abandon all? Eh? Don't you know Who assigns priests? And you want to leave?!... His church, see, is old; it has started to fall down… But you — build a new one, a big, stone one, and warm. And the floor — make it wooden. They'll bring sick people there, so it will be warm for them. Go home, priest, go; and kick that nonsense out of your head. Remember — a church. Build a church, like I'm telling you. Go, priest; God bless you!'
"But I had no sign of priestly garb on. I couldn't utter a word. I went home right away. I'm walking and thinking: what on earth is this? I have to build a stone church? At home you're almost dying from hunger, and now build a church. How skillfully he consoles; there was nothing to say.
"I came home and somehow dodged my wife's question. Well, what was I supposed to say to her?! I said only that the Elder didn't bless me to ask for a transfer. What was going on in my soul then, you can't even put into words…
"A nagging depression came over me. I want to pray but no prayers go on in my mind. I didn't talk with people, not even with my wife. I became lost in thought. And I began to hear, both night and day, mostly at night, some kind of strange voices: 'Get out,' they say, 'quick! You're alone and there are lots of us! How are you going to fight with us?! We'll be the death of you altogether!...' Hallucinations, it must be… Well, whatever it was, it finally got to the point that not only was I unable to pray, now blasphemous thoughts began to pop into my head… Night comes. I can't sleep — and some kind of power throws me right off the bed onto the floor, and not in a dream, but right when I'm wide awake. It just picks me up and tosses me from the bed to the floor. And the voices, even more dreadful, more terrible, more persistent: 'Get away, get away from us!'
"Terrified, barely remaining sane from the fear I was going through, I again rushed to Fr. Ambrose. Fr. Ambrose, as soon as he saw me, straightway, without questioning me at all, says to me:
"'Well, what are you scared of, priest? He's one, and there are two of you.'
"How is that, Batiushka?" I say.
"Christ God and you — see, that comes out to two. And the enemy — he's one. Go home,' he says, 'and do not be afraid of anything that's before you. And the church, the big stone church, and warm — don't forget to build it. God bless you!'
"And with that, I left. I come home, and it's as if a mountain had fallen from my heart. And all fear fell away from me. Right then I began to pray to God. I put an analogion in the church behind the left cliros before the icon of the Heavenly Queen, lit a lampada, lit a candle; and I began, all alone in the church, to read a Canon to Her. I began to add some of the other prayers.
"I look and, after a week, someone else came alone, stood by himself in a corner, and together with me prayed to God. Then another, a third, and already they began to gather and fill the church…"
We will add to this that now, by the care of Fr. George, a large stone church, a hospice, orphanages and schools have been built, and from all the ends of Russia worshippers come for advice, a blessing, prayer and consolation.
A Life-Saving Delay
Here is yet another striking occurrence. A master Iconostasis builder from K. conveyed the following. "Not long before the repose of the Elder, about two years, I had to go to Optina for money. We were building an Iconostasis there, and I was due to receive a fairly large sum of money from the Superior for this work. I received my money and before my departure visited Elder Ambrose to be blessed for the return trip. I was in a hurry to go home; I was waiting to receive a large order on the next day — ten thousand rubles — and the customers were to be, without fail, at my place in K. on the next day. That day, as usual, there was a swarm of people at the Elder's. He knew about me, that I was waiting, and he told me through his cell attendant to visit him in the evening for tea.
"Even though I needed to hurry home, the honor and joy to be with the Elder and have tea with him was so great that I decided to put off my trip until evening, in full confidence that, even if I had to travel all night, I would manage to get there on time. Evening came, and I went to the Elder. He received me so gladly and so joyfully that I didn't even feel the ground under my feet. Batiushka, our angel, kept me for a pretty long time — it was beginning to get dark, and he said to me, 'Well, go with God. Spend the night here, and I bless you to go to Liturgy tomorrow; and from Liturgy, stop by to have tea with me.'
"'How can this be?!' I thought. But I didn't dare contradict the Elder. I spent the night, attended the Liturgy, went to the Elder for tea, but I was grieving over my customers and thought to myself, 'Maybe I'll make it to K. at least by evening.' But it didn't work out that way! We finished tea. I wanted to say to the Elder, 'Bless me to go home,' but he didn't let me utter a word: 'Come to me today to spend the night,' he says. My legs were giving way, but I didn't object.
"The day passed, the night passed! In the morning I had already become bolder, and I thought, 'No matter what, I am leaving today. Maybe my customers waited for me with the money.' No, you'll never make it! Again the Elder didn't give me a chance to open my mouth. 'Go to the All-Night Vigil,' he says, 'and tomorrow to Liturgy. Spend the night here again today!' What a strange thing! At this point I really began to get upset and, to confess, I sinned against the Elder: 'Well, here's a clairvoyant! He just does not know what's going on with me; by his mercy a profitable business has now gone right out of my hands.' And I was so agitated at the Elder that I can't even express it to you. I wasn't able to pray at the Vigil that time — there just knocks around in my head: 'Here's your Elder for you! Here's your clairvoyant!... Now your wages are whistling by…' Ach, how annoyed I was at that time!
"But my Elder, as luck would have it, well, just as if — Lord forgive me — in mockery of me, meets me so joyfully after the Vigil!. .. I became bitter and hurt. 'And what,' I think, 'is he so happy about?' But all the same I did not dare to express my grief aloud. I spent the third night sort of well. During the night my sorrow eased somewhat: 'You can't bring back what has floated away, and it floated off right through your fingers…' In the morning I come from Liturgy to the Elder, and he says to me, 'Well, now it is time for you to go home! Go with God! God bless you! But after a while, do not forget to thank God!!'
"And right then all my grief fell away. I left Optina for home, and my heart was so light and joyful that I can't describe it… Only, why did Batiushka say, 'After a while, do not forget to thank God?...' It must be, I thought, for the fact that the Lord made me worthy to be in church for three days in a row. I went home in no hurry, and I didn't even think about my customers; I was so gratified that Batiushka had treated me so well.
"I arrived home, and what do you think? I'm at the gate, and my customers are right behind me. They were three days later than our arrangement. Well, I think: Ah, my grace-filled little Elder! This is the real thing — Wondrous are Thy works, O Lord! However, this all didn't end here. You listen to what happened next! A little time went by after that. Our Fr. Ambrose died. Two years after his righteous repose, my senior foreman became sick. He was a trustworthy man; not just a worker, but real gold. He lived with me continually for more than twenty years. He was sick unto death. They sent me for a priest, to confess and commune him while he was still conscious. Only, I look and the priest comes to me from the dying man and says, 'The sick one is calling for you; he wants to see you. Hurry, before he dies!' I come to the sick man and he, as soon as he sees me, raises himself up somehow on his elbows, looks at me, and now he begins to cry, 'Forgive my sin, boss! I actually wanted to kill you!...'
"'What are you talking about? God be with you! You're delirious…'
"'No, boss, I really wanted to kill you. Remember, once you were three days late coming home from Optina? Well we — there were three of us — by my arrangement, we lay in wait for you on the road three days in a row under a bridge. We were envious of the money you were bringing from Optina for the Iconostasis. You would not have been alive at this time but the Lord, by someone's prayers, saved you from a death without repentance. Forgive me, the wretch; for God's sake, let my soul go in peace.'
"'May God forgive you as I forgive you!'
"Right then my sick one started wheezing and began to die. May his soul be granted the Kingdom of Heaven! Great was his sin, but great was his repentance!"
Hit in the Teeth
In imitation of one of his predecessors in Eldership, Hieroschemamonk Leonid, Fr. Ambrose sometimes liked to conceal his miraculous help with humorous words or gestures, to divert the attention of witnesses. For instance, a monk once came to the Elder with a terrible toothache. Walking past him, the Elder hit him in the teeth with his fist with all his might and merrily added: "Well done, eh? "Well done, Batiushka," the monk answered, to general laughter, "but it really hurts." However, upon leaving the Elder he felt that the pain had gone, and it did not return afterwards.
Peasants noticed well this characteristic of Fr. Ambrose, and those who suffered from headaches would say to him: "Batiushka Ambrose, hit me; my head hurts."
Deliverance From Tobacco Addiction
The St. Petersburg resident Alexis Stepanovich Maiorov, excessively addicted to smoking tobacco, sensed the danger to his health from this. He wrote a letter to Elder Ambrose, asking for his advice on how he could be delivered from this passion.
In answer to this request, the Elder sent Maiorov a letter on October 12, 1888, in which the following was written: "You write that you cannot stop smoking tobacco. That which is impossible for man is possible with the help of God. Only stand firm in your decision to quit, realizing the danger from it for soul and body, since tobacco debilitates the soul, increases and strengthens the passions, darkens the mind, and destroys bodily health by a slow death. Irritability and melancholy are the result of the infirmity of soul that comes from tobacco smoking.
"I advise you to make use of spiritual treatment against this passion: confess in detail all the sins of your whole life from the age of seven, receive the Holy Mysteries, and read the Gospel daily while standing, one chapter or more. And when depression attacks, then read it again, until the depression passes. If it attacks again — read the Gospel again. Or, in place of this, when alone make thirty-three full prostrations in memory of the earthly life of the Savior and in honor of the Holy Trinity."
When he received this letter, Alexis Stepanovich read it through and then began to smoke a cigarette, but he suddenly felt a strong pain in his head together with an aversion to tobacco smoke, and that night he did not smoke. The next day, by habit, he attempted four times to smoke a cigarette, but he could not inhale the smoke due to the severe pain in his head. Thus he quit smoking easily, while in the previous two years when he had tried to force himself to cease smoking, he could not. And though it had made him ill, he had smoked seventy-five cigarettes a day all the same.
Deliverance From Alcoholism
The beloved older brother of one lady had suffered from alcoholism for many years. There was nothing the man had not tried and no one he had not turned to, but nothing had come of it. Meanwhile, the unfortunate man's health and resources had been ruined. The matter finally reached the point that the doctors who had been treating him stated that if he did not cease drinking he would die of a heart attack. The poor woman lost her head and, not knowing what to do, recalled that in Optina Monastery there was a great and righteous Elder who could do anything through his prayers. She squinted her eyes and, though she had never seen Fr. Ambrose, tried to imagine him, mentally begging him to help her brother. Since it was evening, she soon fell asleep. In a dream she saw an old man coming towards her and instantly understood that this was Elder Ambrose. He said to her, "Go to the pharmacy and buy twenty-five kopecks' worth of the herb 'chernogorki-staronos,' finely chopped, and boil two tablespoons of it in five teacups of water. Let the teapot stand in the stove for a half hour, then take it out and let the sick man drink all five teacups at one sitting, either hot or cold — it makes no difference. Since this herb is quite bitter, he can drink it with sugar or honey. After taking it there may be vomiting, but do not be frightened by this — it means that the remedy has worked. If after this dose he again has the desire for vodka, then you must repeat the dose. After this treatment he will lose his appetite, but this is not dangerous. Then he has only to take twenty-five drops of Witte's stomach elixir and ten drops of Hoffman's in a shot glass of water each time before taking food."
The woman instantly woke up and copied down this recipe during the night. When she arose in the morning she sent to the city for the herb. By the time they went to the city, looked for the herb and brought it home it was already evening. Not wishing to lose precious time, the compassionate sister prepared the remedy, and night had already fallen by the time she gave it to her brother to drink. To her great horror, before he was to go to sleep her brother began to vomit to such an extent that the poor woman was confounded. And, as usually happens, all kinds of thoughts began to lead her mind astray, such as, "How careless I am; how could I trust all kinds of dreams? This is some kind of terrible poison!" In a word, the poor woman could not sleep all night, and dozed off only when it was almost morning. Again she saw the same old man, who approached her and said, "Do not be frightened, Matushka; do not be frightened, I tell you. This is harmless, and the vomiting is the root of the wine being destroyed."
In those days there were no Theories of auto-suggestion, the subconscious, and the like. The woman calmed down and, indeed, from that moment her brother's urge for alcoholic beverages was taken away as if by a touch.
Many years later this woman went to Optina, and how delighted and gratified she was when she saw Elder Ambrose, exactly as she had seen him in her dream.
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