Nektary of Optina
Bishop Alexander Mileant
Translated by Seraphim Larin
Contents: Life and Instructions of the Last Optina Elder Nektary (Tihonov).
Addendum: From the recollections of Sergei A. Nilus.
Among the great elders of Optina monastery, its last Starets Nektary enjoyed an especial love. Born in 1858 of poor parents Basil and Helen Tihonov, he was christened Nicholas. His father, who worked at a local mill, died at an early age. Nicholas and his mother had a very deep spiritual bond. While being strict with him, she usually applied kindness and knew how to reach his heart. However, she too died early leaving Nicholas a complete orphan.
In 1876, Nicholas arrived at the Optina forest with a bundle swung over his shoulder, containing nothing but a copy of the New Testament. Many years later, the holy father recalled his first impressions of Optina: "Lord! How beautiful it is with the sun flooding the area from sunrise, and the flowers! Just as though in paradise!" Nicholas was received by none other than elder Ambrose, and his initial dialogue with this great sagacious elder produced such a deep impression that he remained there for the rest of his life. Elders Ambrose and Anthony (Zertsalov) became his spiritual mentors.
Nektary’s first act of obedience was to look after the flowers, followed by serving as a sexton. The door of his cell (where he spent 25 years) faced the side of the church.
Because of his many responsibilities of obedience, he quite often arrived late for church services, appearing with bloodshot and swollen eyes, as though he overslept. To the complaints from some of the brothers, elder Ambrose would usually reply in rhyme, "Wait. Nicholas being oversleepful – to all will be useful."
Obedience had great meaning: "The first and greatest virtue is obedience. Christ came to us because of His obedience to His Father, and a person’s life on earth is obedience to God." Later, in his more mature years, Father Nektary would say, "Without obedience a person is first gripped by an aimless urge, then acrimony which later leads to weakening and coldness. Initially, obedience is difficult to perform, but subsequently, all the impediments are smoothed out."
During these years, Father Nektary read extensively and pursued a program of self-education. He read not only spiritual material but educational books. He studied mathematics, history, geography, Russian and foreign classic literature, learned the French and Latin languages. In 1894, Father Nektary was consecrated as hierodeacon, and, 4 years later, Kaloozhski Archbishop Makarius ordained him hieromonk. This is what he had to say about his consecration: "When Archbishop Macarius was consecrating me as hieromonk, he foresaw my spiritual turmoil and, upon its conclusion, offered me some brief yet powerful words. These words were so potent that even though many years had elapsed, I still remember them to this day and will not forget them for the rest of my life. And did he say much to me? He called me into the altar and said, ‘Nektary, when you are sorrowful or depressed and heavy temptation overtakes you, just keep repeating one thing: "Lord, be merciful, pardon and save this servant of Yours."’ That is all that vladiko (the Bishop) told me! But this advice saved me many times, and is still saving me to this day because it was spoken with authority."
It is not known from what specific grief he was saved by these words, although the Starets did reveal some of the temptations he encountered. One occurred during the early days of his spiritual probationership. In his younger days, he had a magnificent voice and his ear for music remained with him into his old age. During his first few years at the Optina, he sang in the choir on the right side of the hermitage church, and was also required to sing " ." However, there was a custom at the hermitage: Once a year, the choirmaster from the monastery would come over to listen and select the best voices for his choir. Those chosen were then transferred to the monastery. Even though he did not want to leave, Brother Nektary’s fine voice threatened him with this fate. At the same time, to sing solo was both flattering and comforting. Nonetheless, during singing sessions in front of the choirmaster, he falsified his voice by singing off-key and earned a relegation to the lower ranks in the choir. Needless to say, there was no further question of his transfer to the monastery.
Another temptation overtook him while being a hieromonk. Becoming a semi-recluse, he even covered the windows of his cell with sheets of paper, in order to intensify his prayers and enhance his self-education. Although having completed secondary schooling only, his constant reading gave him a many-faceted knowledge, so that he could converse freely on general social and specific subjects, as well as spiritual ones. He could discuss Pushkin and Shakespeare, Milton and Kriloff, Spengler and Hogarth, Bloch, Dante, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. After lunch, during his one hour of rest, he would ask someone to read to him folkloric stories – Russian or from brothers Grimm.
Having read about earth’s wide variety of wonders, he developed a passion to travel so that he could see them for himself. At that time, Optina received instructions from the Holy Synod, directing them to appoint an hieromonk as the chaplain aboard a ship that was to circumnavigate the globe. The Archimandrite offered this post to Hieromonk Nektary. Returning to his cell, he was so excited and anxious that he started to pack, forgetting that at Optina, nothing is undertaken without first receiving a blessing from the Starets. It was some time later that having remembered this, he immediately went to Starets Joseph for his blessing. However, the Starets did not bless him and Father Nektary accepted this submissively.
So as not to develop any pride, Father Nektary started to act the fool for Christ. For example, over his under-cassock, he would wear a floral, woman’s jacket: when he sat down to eat, he would put all his food into one container, be it sweet, sour or salty: he would wear a felt boot on one foot and a leather shoe on the other. During his period of "starchestvovania," he used to perplex his fellow monks by surrounding himself with toy automobiles, ships, cars, and planes.
His transition from living a solitary life in a cell to serving the public did not come easily to him. In 1913, upon the insistence of Father Benedict (Father superior at Borovsko and an ecclesiastical Superintendent), the Optina brotherhood met to choose a new Starets. It was first offered to Archimandrite Agape who was retired and lived at Optina. This was a man of wide knowledge and high spirituality. Author of the brilliant autobiography of Starets Ambrose’s life, he had steadfastly refused the post of Bishop offered to him on a number of occasions. Here, he too flatly refused to be Starets. At that time, he had a few close pupils among whom was Hieromonk Nektary.
When the brothers asked Father Agape to nominate a worthy candidate, he named Father Nektary, who due to his humility was not even present. The brotherhood unanimously chose Father Nektary as their Starets and sent Father Averky to fetch him. Arriving at the cell, he advised, "Reverend father, you are needed at the meeting," to which Father Nektary refused, saying, "They will be able to make their selection without me." However, Father Averky insisted with "Father Archimandrite sent me to ask you to come." Obediently, Father Nektary put on his cassock and wearing his usual felt boot on one foot and a shoe on the other, went to the assembly.
Upon arriving, he was greeted with "Father, you were chosen as the spiritual head of our abbey and our Starets." Father Nektary objected "No, fathers and brothers, I am simple minded and would not be able to carry such a heavy load." Finally, on hearing archimandrite’s determinate words – "Father Nektary, accept this obedience," he submitted to the call.
During this period Starets Nektary became close to Constantine Leonti Bolotov, a scholar who became a monk living in Optina, and who used to read his original literary works to him. He studied painting under this academic and throughout his life maintained an interest by sketching icons and closely following new developments in trends and techniques. For example, his sketch of the Annunciation was made in the final year of his life at Optina.
Having a talent for painting, this art was especially close to Starets Nektary. He used to declare, "Currently, the art of painting is on the decline. Previously, before commencing a painting a painter used to prepare himself – both internally and externally. Before sitting down to the task, he would prepare all the necessary items: canvas, paints, brushes etc.... and would then paint not only a few days, but years, and sometimes a whole lifetime, like painter Ivanov’s ‘Appearance of Christ to the people’. Great masterpieces were created in those days. Today, painters work hurriedly, without thought or feeling… For example, when painting a spiritual work, it is necessary for the light to emanate from an angel rather than it fall upon him."
The Starets badly wanted a painting to be done of Christ’s Birth. "It is necessary for the world to remember this enormous event. After all, it happened only once in the entire history!… The shepherds are dressed in short frayed clothing, facing the light with their backs to the viewer. And the light should not be white but slightly golden, be totally whole – not as rays or clusters – and only the far corner of the painting should be darkened, so as to remind us that it was night. In order to make it quite clear that this beauty was not human but heavenly and not of this world" added the elder with particular emphasis, "the light from the angels’ configurations must be soft, barely discernible." Another time the Starets mentioned to a girl: "Why were the shepherds worthy to see the angels that night? – Because they were vigilant."
Once the elder was shown an icon, depicting Christ’s Transfiguration, where the light from Mount Tabor contrasted with the dark ganglionic trees in the foreground. The Starets ordered their erasure, explaining that "where there is light from Tabor, there is no room for darkness… When there is this light, every nook and cranny is illuminated."
Father Basil Shoostin and his wife, who used to visit Starets Nektary, had some valuable recollections of him. As Father Basil recalled: "Batushka says to me, ‘empty out the samovar and fill it up with fresh water. The water is standing in the corner, in a copper jug. Take it and pour it in.’ The jug was massive. I tried to move it, to no avail – I didn’t have the strength. Batushka continued, ‘Just take the jug and fill up the samovar.’ ‘But Batushka, it is too heavy. I cannot move it.’ Then Batushka came up to the jug, blessed it and said ‘Pick it up.’ I did so and found it to be quite light."
After evening prayers, the brothers from the monastery used to visit Elder Nektary to receive his blessing before going to bed. This occurred in the morning and evening of every day. The monks would come up for their blessing bowing, and some would openly confess their thoughts and doubts. Batushka would comfort some, enhearten others and granted remission to all those that confessed their sins, dispelling their uncertainties and lovingly allowing them to leave in peace. It was a very emotional scene. During the blessing, Batushka had an extremely serious and concentrated appearance, and each of his words was filled with love and concern for the agitated soul. Afterwards, Batushka would withdraw to his retreat and pray for 1 hour, returning after a lengthy absence to clear the table.
"During one of my visits to Optina," recalled Fr. Basil, "I witnessed how Fr. Nektary read sealed letters. He approached me with approximately 50 letters that he had received and started to sort them unopened. Some he would put to one side with the words ‘These require replies, while these are letters of gratitude and require no response.’ Without reading them, he knew their contents. Some he would bless, while some he even kissed, and he gave my wife 2 letters saying ‘Here, read these aloud as this will be beneficial to you.’
"In 1914, my elder brother [Fr. Basil’s] entered Optina as a novice and at times acted as a lay brother to Starets Nektary. As he was establishing his own personal library, he often wrote and asked our father to send him money so that he could purchase religious books. I was always perturbed by this and often said: "Once you have left the material world through your calling, you must sever your ties with your passions." And he had a passion for books. I wrote to Fr. Nektary, voicing my concerns on this matter. Batushka did not reply and my brother continued his purchases. I then wrote a somewhat sharp letter to Batushka, accusing him of not curbing my brother’s passion. Once again, Batushka did not respond. In 1917, my wife and I were able to leave the front and visit Optina. Batushka greeted us with a low bow and said: "Thank you for your candor. I knew that after the letters you would come personally and I am always glad to see you. Always write these types of letters and then come personally for answers. Now I can tell you that soon there will be a famine of spiritual books and you will not be able to obtain them. It is very good that he is collecting this spiritual treasure, as it will be extremely useful. Heavy times are upon us. The number six has been and gone on earth while the numeral seven is approaching – the age of silence is approaching. ‘Keep quiet, keep quiet,’ said Batushka, tears streaming from his eyes. The Emperor is enduring humiliation for his mistakes. It will be worse in 1918 – the Emperor and his whole family will be murdered, martyred. One pious girl had a vision: Jesus Christ is sitting on His throne with 12 Apostles near Him while terrible moans are heard coming from earth. Apostle Peter asks Christ: ‘Lord, when will these torments cease?’ and Jesus Christ answers him: ‘I am granting a period up to 1922. If people will not repent, will not come to their senses, then they shall perish.’ And here, in front of God’s Altar, stood the Emperor with a martyr’s crown. Yes, this Emperor will be a great martyr. In the closing stages, he will redeem his soul, and if people do not turn to God then not only Russia, but the whole of Europe will collapse.’"
Right from the beginning, Father Nektary did not want to be Starets and was overwhelmed with this obedience. Most of the time he spent in isolation in the cell of former Starets Ambrose. Showing great humility, he would say of himself: "What kind of Starets am I and how can I be a successor to the former Elders? They had benevolence within them the size of a big loaf, while mine is that of one small slice." He always had a book lying on the table of his ante-chamber, opened on a specific page. This was done so that the visitor, in having to wait for an audience, would invariably start reading the book, not realizing that it was one of Father Nektary’s methods of hiding his perspicacity by using the open pages to give a warning, or indicating the question or advising the answer in the forthcoming conversation. He blessed all his visitors with a very large sign of the cross. He was slow in movement and very focused, giving the impression that he was carrying a cup filled with a precious fluid that he was afraid to spill.
The Revolution ushered in a period of heavy trials for Starets Nektary. With the collapse of Optina, he wanted to relinquish his position of spiritual administrator and conclude his life as a wanderer. However, during the night he had a vision in which the former deceased Elders appeared to him and said: "If you want to be with us, do not leave your children." Elder Nektary resigned himself to the cross that was placed upon him.
The Optina hermitage survived until 1923 when all of the churches were shut. Very little is known of the post-revolutionary period. One eyewitness related that because of the measures taken in liquidating the neighboring women’s monasteries, all the nuns, like birds that had their nests destroyed, hastened to Optina. They found refuge there as they had nowhere else to go. Crowds of laity also brought their grief, asking how to pray for their missing loved ones: the horrors of the revolution and civil war brought losses to nearly every family.
After banishing Starets Nektary from Optina, the Bolsheviks brought an occultist into his cell, hoping to find treasure. It was night and a kerosene lamp was burning in the cell. The sorcerer-occultist began his witchcraft, and while the lamp continued burning, the cell was filled with a dim fog. A nun in the adjoining cell took Father Nektary’s rosary beads and made the sign of a cross with them, in the direction of his cell. Immediately, his cell became bright while the occultist was gripped in an epileptic fit, convulsing and thrashing around on the floor.
The fundamental features of Starets Nektary were humility and wisdom. He approached everybody on a personal and individual level with a specific objective. He used to say: "You cannot demand that a fly do the work of a bee." The reverend father was not tall with a semi-circular face; long tufts of grayish hair protruded from under his skullcap, hands clutching rosary beads made out of granite. When he took confessional, he would wear a red velvet epitrahelion with blue crosses. His face seemed ageless: first it may be old and fierce, then young and full of expression, then childlike, pure and serene. During his days of being Starets, he was stooped, wore a wedge-shaped beard, was thin and his eyes wept continually. Consequently, he always had a handkerchief in his hand with which he frequently wiped his eyes. He loved to keep a low profile and be unnoticed. As a result, he was against being photographed and consequently, there are very few photographs of him. This was very characteristic of him.
Starets Nektary died on April 29, 1928, in the village of Holmisha in the district of Briansk. He was buried in the local cemetery. When he was alive, he used to say that he would not have a grave and indeed, there was fierce fighting and obliteration in that area. However, the memory of Elder Nektary was alive among the faithful.
Nonetheless, despite the devastation of the revolution and changes during the long years under communism, the grave of Starets Nektary was located. In 1992, brothers from the restored Optina monastery arrived at his gravesite and began digging. At 1.5 meters, they unearthed the coffin of schemanun(?) Nektarii(?) Kontsevich – mother of Bishop Nektary of Seattle – one of Elder Nektary’s novitiates. Digging further and slightly to the side, they came upon the coffin of the Starets. When they opened his grave, all those present became aware of a very fragrant aroma emanating from the coffin. It also revealed his mantle remained whole and uncorrupted. On Sunday, July 16, the remains of Starets Nektary were ceremoniously relocated from the cemetery at Holmisha to the Annunciation cathedral at Optina.
This was the beginning of Elder Nektary’s reassuring prophecies: "Russia will awaken and while she will not be materially wealthy, she will be spiritually rich, and Optina will have another seven lightgivers, seven pillars."
Starets Nektary use to recount that in his youth he used to love observing nature and insects: "God not only permits but demands that a person grow in knowledge. In God’s creations there are no pauses, everything progresses and angels do not remain in the same order but advance from level to level, receiving new revelations. Even if a person had studied for a hundred years, he must continue to accumulate new knowledge... and you continue to work. Through work, the years will pass unnoticed." During his discussions, his face became extraordinarily bright, making it very difficult to look at him.
His interest in life was quite characteristic of him. Right up to the end of his life, he continued to study literature, asking for new books, inquired into the state of education in schools, explored what interested the Intelligentsia. This melange of knowledge he directed toward serving God and for the benefit of people. One day before the Revolution, a group of seminarians, accompanied by their educators, came to Starets Nektary with a request that he give them some beneficial advice. The Starets turned to them and said: "Youngsters, if you live and study in such a way so that your knowledge did not corrupt your morals, nor morals your studies, then you will receive total success in life."
Once, one of his spiritual daughters was having a discussion with her friend in his anteroom: "I don’t know, maybe you don’t need any education because it only brings harm. Is it possible to replace it with Orthodoxy?" Emerging from his cell, Starets said to her: "Once a person came to me who could not believe that there was a Great Flood. I told him that on Mount Ararat, people have unearthed seashells and that even on the highest mountains, geologists are uncovering traces of seabeds. Then the youth acknowledged that he still had a lot to learn in order to understand the Bible better." About himself, the Starets said: "I am inclined toward education." On history, he used to comment: "It shows us how God governs people and gives moral lessons to the universe."
About external works, the Starets would instruct: "Our exterior belongs to us, but our interior – to God’s grace. Therefore, perform outwardly, and when this develops correctly, so will your interior evolve. There is no need to wish or seek miracles. We have one miracle – God’s Liturgy. It is an enormous miracle towards which we should lean with all our souls."
With regard to thinking, he used to teach: "Cease imagining and start thinking. Imagining is to swim asunder with thought without any specific aim. Reject imaginings, occupy yourself with thought. For example, Napoleon had imaginings but lacked governmental thinking, while Kootoozov had thought, ‘Thinking is higher than imagining.’"
On life itself, he would remark: "Life is defined into three meanings: scope, time and weight. The most noble and magnificent effort, if it exceeds its scope or is untimely, will not make sense. The study of mathematics gives a person a feeling for scope. Remember these three meanings. They define life."
"One day, Batushka invited my wife and I to his confessional," recalled Fr. Basil Shoostin, "and sat us down and began handing my wife some artificial flowers as mementos, saying: ‘When you are walking through the field of life, collect the flowers and you shall receive the fruits later….Flowers are sadness and bitterness. And they must be gathered so that they form a beautiful bouquet, with which you will appear on Judgment Day and then receive your fruits – joy. In marriage,’ he continued, ‘there are always two periods – one joyful and the other sad and bitter. It is better that the bitter period comes first, so that the joyful period will come after it.’
"Regarding fine arts, the Starets had the following to say: ‘One can apply himself to the arts just as one would to any other activity, for example: carpentry or rearing cows. But everything has to be done as though in God’s view. There are major and minor arts. The minor one can be like this: there is sound and light. An artist is a person that is capable of comprehending these barely discernible colours, shades and inaudible sounds. He interprets his impressions onto canvas or paper. The results are painting, notes or poetry. Here, it is as though the sound and light are extinguished. Only colour remains from the light. The book, notes or painting are in their own way, crypts of light and sound. Along comes a reader or viewer, and if he is capable of creatively reading or viewing, then the resurrection of purpose occurs. Then the circle of the art is completed. In front of the viewer and reader’s soul, the light erupts and the sound becomes worthy of his hearing. Consequently, an artist or poet has nothing much to be proud of. He is only doing his part of the work. It is futile of him to think that he is the creator of his works – there is only one Creator, while people only destroy the word and images of the Creator and then, receiving His power, enliven them. However, there is a greater art – the word that is enlivening and inspirational (e.g. Psalms of David). The path to this art lies through the artist’s personal deeds – it is a path of sacrifice and only one from many achieve their aim… All the verses in the world are not worth a single line of a Psalm… Pushkin was a very intelligent man but was unable to live his life correctly.’"
These and other observations of Father Nektary were the fruits of his internal, spiritual experience. Having become Starets, he began to share with his visitors that which he acquired through reading and contemplation.
Starets loved to quote from "Hamlet": "There are many things on earth, friend Horatio, that our wise men have not even dreamt of." He was talking about how it is essential for a writer to ponder over every word: "Before beginning to write, dip your pen into the inkwell, seven times."
Recognizing the importance of the theatre as a source of influence on the community, Starets Nektary advised the artists to keep a sense of proportion in the game. He once refused to bless a young woman, aspiring to join the theatre. When asked about his refusal, he responded: "She will not be able to overcome the temptations and will become immoral… Modesty is of great worth; it is none other than a virtue of chastity. If a person safeguards his chastity (which is easily lost by the intellectuals) he safeguards everything."
Once people came to him that were robbed of many items, including their winter clothing. Father Nektary told them not to lament but to imagine that they have performed an act of charity, and the Lord will reward them tenfold. Therefore there was no need to grieve over it.
To the question of one of his acquaintances as to how to revere Christ, he answered: "Take the example from Christ who said: ‘..love one another as I have loved you.’ Before anything, you must try to love your close one, then the love will transfer itself to Christ. However, the love for your close one must be a genuine and not a calculated one – only then will there be success."
Father Nektary rarely gave advice on how to live so as not to place a burden on that person, who eventually may suffer through the inability to perform that what was directed by the Starets. Nevertheless, he always responded to direct questions. To one woman who complained of having silly thoughts, he suggested: "Just repeat ‘God have mercy’, and you will see how everything earthly departs." Another time he advised: "Do not pay any attention to silly thoughts." Through God’s mercy, these thoughts ceased to bother people.
The Starets also used to say, it is good that the Lord "does not hear" prayers for lengthy periods of time. All that needs to be done is to continue praying and not be depressed: "Prayer is a capital that with time yields more interest. Our Lord sends us His mercy at His discretion at a time when it will be most beneficial to us. If we require something extremely essential, then we must pray two/three times, and upon having our request granted, we must thank God. Sometimes it takes a year before God fulfills a solicitation. Take the example of Joachim and Anna. They prayed all their lives without being dejected but continued to hope. And what a consolation they received from the Lord!"
With every misfortune, Starets directed to say: "Lord, I believe that I am enduring what is due me and what I deserve. However, You Lord, by Your mercy, forgive and spare me," – and continue repeating it until your soul feels tranquil.
Pray, so that God reigns in your soul – then it will be filled with such great joy that no sorrow will be able to disturb you. In order to achieve this aim, the Starets suggested the following prayer: "Lord, open the doors to Your mercy."
From Starets Nektary’s
Discussion With A Spiritualist
Spiritism is a terrible and deadly pastime. In spiritual seances, the deceased soul that appears to people is in reality Satan himself. With the flattery of the ancient snake, he leads a person into such ravines and deep forests, that it is not only impossible to get out, but that person is not aware of the huge danger. Through this God-cursed practice, the devil seizes possession of the mind and heart to such an extent, that actions, which all sensible individuals regard as criminal, are accepted by those minds – poisoned by spiritism – as normal and natural.
If you scrutinized individuals that practice spiritism, you undoubtedly will notice that they have a special mark, which makes it apparent that they talk to tables. Spiritualists suffer the frightening satanic pride and are prone to hatred against anyone that contradicts them.
Without realizing it, people that indulge in spiritism slowly withdraw from God and Church. And in order to hide the threatening danger to the individual, the spirit of darkness – through his demons – sends him to God’s church to serve memorials, Te deums, akathists, partake of Holy Communion, etc. However, parallel to this and with increasing tenacity, Satan keeps instilling the person that all these good deeds can be performed in home surroundings – with greater zeal and productivity.
As that naive person becomes more and more entangled in the complex labyrinths of the spirit of darkness, God’s blessing starts to draw away. Misfortunes start to befall him and his well-being becomes shaken. Had the spiritualist not been so entangled by Satan, he would have realized his own predicament and would have run to God for assistance, or to the Holy saints, to the holy Apostolic Church, to the clergy, and they would have helped him with their counsel and prayers. But instead, the spiritualist turns with his sorrows to the same demons, which in turn further confuse and draw him into the quagmire of damnation.
At the end, God’s blessing completely departs from the spiritualist. The gangrene of sin spreads throughout his whole family, and an inexplicable and uncharacteristic collapse of the family commences. Even his dearest and closest friends abandon him!
Eventually, when that person – through Satan’s efforts – reaches the final stage of seduction, he loses his mind and becomes either totally irresponsible or commits suicide. Contrary to the spiritualists’ claim that they have no suicides, this is not true. The first spiritualist – King Saul, ended his life through suicide. This is because "he did not obey God’s word and turned to sorcery."
In a word, people that summon spirits – that make predictions in God’s name, while not being from Him – will incur that which Prophet Jeremiah predicted: "By sword and famine shall those prophets be consumed. And the people to whom they prophesy shall be cast out in the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and the sword…..for I will pour their wickedness upon them" (Jeremiah 14:15-17).
The Sin of Smoking
I am continuing my mental battle with the vice of smoking, but it's still completely unsuccessful. I have to quit this filthy and stupid occupation; it is noticeably ruining my health — the gift of God — and that is a sin.
The ever-memorable Elder Ambrose once heard an admission from one of his spiritual daughters:
"Batiushka! I smoke and this is tormenting me!"
"Well," the Elder answered her, "this isn't a great misfortune, if you can quit."
"That's just the problem," she said, "I can't quit!"
"Then it's a sin," said the Elder, "and you've got to repent of it and leave off doing it."
I also have to leave off, but how do I do it? I'm consoled by the words of our Elders, who promised me freedom from this sin "when the time is right."
The late patron of Optina Monastery and spiritual friend of its great Elders, Archbishop Gregory of Kaluga, could not stand this vice among the clergy, but he was condescending towards laymen who smoked, and even towards his seminarians, before they joined the clerical staff. He categorically demanded from candidates who were preparing for ordination that they cease from this filthy habit, and he did not ordain those who smoked.
Our friend Fr. Nektary, to whom I often complained about my weakness, informed me of this. "After all," he consoled me, "you, your honor, are a layman — what's to be expected from you? But here..."
And he related the following to me:
"In the days of Archbishop Gregory, a spirit-bearing and monk-loving man, the following incident happened. A seminarian from Kaluga, who had graduated at the head of his class, and who, because of his exceptional giftedness was personally known to the Archbishop, had to prepare himself for ordination to one of the better positions in the diocese. He appeared before the Archbishop for a blessing and to set a date for the ordination. The hierarch received him with extreme affection, conversed amiably with him and, having shown fatherly kindness towards him, dismissed him, assigning a date for the ordination. However, when dismissing the candidate, he did not fail to ask him, 'Well, then, brother, do you smoke, or not?'
"'No, your Eminence,' replied the candidate, 'I don't go in for that.'
"'Well, good,' the Archbishop exclaimed joyfully, 'see what a fine fellow I've got! Well then, prepare yourself, and may the Lord bless you!'
"According to custom, the candidate bowed to the feet of the Archbishop. His frock coat flew open, and from his breast pocket cigarettes began to fall out onto the floor, one after the other.
"The Archbishop flared up in indignation. 'Who made you lie to me?' he exclaimed with great anger. 'To whom have you lied? When have you lied? When preparing to serve God in holiness and in truth?... Get out of here! There is no position for you, nor will there be one!...'
"And with that he drove the liar out of his sight.... So, your honor," added Fr. Nektary, looking at me with his always laughing, kind and affectionate gaze, "why be dejected that it's not the smell of athonite incense that comes out of your mouth? To whom are you obliged?... And, you know what?" — he exclaimed, and his face lit up with a kind smile. "You won't believe it — I myself barely avoided joining the ranks of smokers. This was back in my childhood, when I still lived at home, together with my mama.... In the whole wide world there were only the two of us, Mama and me, and there was also a cat that lived with us.... We were of a low station, and because of this we were poor: who needed people like us? Well, then, once my mama wasn't keeping an eye on me and I went ahead and borrowed some tobacco from some of my rich peers. They had no shortage of tobacco and they willingly treated everyone who wanted it. They rolled themselves a cigarette, smoked and smoked, and then stuck it in my mouth — 'Here, have a smoke!' Well, following them, I myself began to smoke. The first time I tried it I became dizzy, but I liked it all the same. Cigarette butt after cigarette butt, and I already began to get used to this mischief. I began to beg and then to borrow on credit, hoping somehow to pay it back. But what was I going to pay it back with, when my own mother lived, as they say, from bread to kvass, and there wasn't always plenty of bread.... Then my mama began to notice the smell of tobacco coming from me....
"'What's this, Kolya (my name in the world was Nicholas) — you haven't begun to smoke, have you?'
"'What do you mean, Mommy,' I would say, 'I hardly think so!'
"And I would quickly move aside, as if I were doing something. It went that way once, then another time, and then I got caught. Once I had barely managed to inhale some borrowed tobacco on the sly, when suddenly, there was Mama.
"'Were you just smoking?' she asked.
"Again I said, 'No, Mama.'
"But where did I get 'no' from? I reeked of tobacco from way off. Mama didn't say a word to me then, but she gazed at me with such a sorrowful look that you could say that my whole soul was overturned within me. She went away from me somewhere to do the housework, and I hid in a secluded corner and began to weep inconsolably, that I had grieved Mama. And not only had I grieved her, I had deceived her and lied on top of that. I can't express how painful this was for me! The day passed, night came, and my mind sought for sleep. I lay in my bed and whimpered, lay and whimpered.... Mama heard it.
"'What is it, Kolya — you're not crying, are you?'
"'Why aren't you sleeping?'
"And with these words, Mama got up, lit the lamp and came over to me. My face was all wet with tears and my pillow was soaked....
"And what happened between us then!... We both had a good cry and were reconciled. Having a good cry with one so dear, how nicely we were reconciled!
"And thus ended my mischief with smoking."
*** *** ***
From the Recollections of Sergei A. Nilus.
Today, just like a present for the Church New Year, Batiushka Nektary gave us a new semiprecious stone from his inexhaustible little treasure-box, where the precious treasures of his memory are kept.
"In my childhood," he told us, "there were only a few of us in our little dwelling. There was Mommy, me — still on all fours — and our gray kitty. Oh, I tell you, how marvelous was that kitty of ours!... Just listen to what I'm going to tell you about him and me!
"I was still quite a small child, so small that I didn't so much walk as crawl across the floor, but mostly I sat on my chair, though somehow or other I was already able to speak and express my thoughts. I was a meek child, obedient to a sufficient degree that my mother rarely had to punish me. I remember that at that time there were still just the two of us, Mommy and me, living together; we didn't have a cat. And then, one fine day my mother acquired a kitten for our modest household. That round and happy kitty was remarkably pretty, and we quickly made friends, so that you might say we were inseparable. I would crawl across the floor and there he would be, rubbing against me and arching his little back. I would sit at my bowl of food and he would sit right beside me, waiting for his portion from my generosity. I would sit down and he would climb up on my lap and reach his face up to mine, trying to get me to pet him. And I would pet his silky fur with my hand and he would lie down on my lap, squint his eyes, and purr his little song....
"That friendship between us lasted for a long time, until it was dampened by an incident that is terrible to recall even now.
"The spot where I usually sat was at the table, where my mama would occupy herself with sewing, and near my seat a cushion was nailed to the wall, into which Mama stuck her needles and pins. Of course, I was forbidden to touch them under any circumstances — even more so to take them out of the cushion — and I submitted to this ban without question.
"But one time I climbed up to my usual place, and right after me the kitten jumped up into my lap. At that time my mother had gone off somewhere to do the housekeeping. My friend jumped up and snuggled up to me and poked his little pink nose into my face. I petted him on the back and looked at him; and suddenly, for the first time, my eyes met his so very closely. Ah, what sweet eyes they were — clear, bright, and trusting!... They astonished me — before this incident I had never suspected that my cat had such brilliant adornments in his face.... And Here we were, looking one another in the eye, and we were both glad that it was so good for us to be together. And suddenly the thought popped into my head to try, with my finger, to find out what those brilliant little pearls under the cat's eyebrows, which were looking at me so merrily, were made of. I brought my finger up to him — the kitten squinted and hid his eyes. I took away my finger — and again they looked out. This really amused me. Again I poked my finger at them, and his eyes dove under his eyebrows. Oh, what fun this was! But the idea that I had such eyes, and that they would squint the same way if someone put a finger up to them, never even occurred to me. Whether it was a long or a short time that I amused myself that way with the kitten, I don't remember — only suddenly He idea came into my head to vary the fun. The thought had barely managed to flash across my mind when my hand set about to bring it to fulfillment. 'What would happen,' I thought, 'if I took a needle out of my mother's pillow and stuck it into one of the cat's little pearls?' I reached over to the pillow and pulled out a needle.... Just then, Mama entered the room and, not looking at me, began to busy herself with tidying up. I involuntarily refrained from the amusement I had thought up. With one hand I held the needle and with the other I petted the kitten....
"'Mommy!' I said, 'don't we have a good little kitten?'
"'How else can he be?' Mommy answered, 'I wouldn't have gotten a bad one for anything.'
"'And what has he got under his eyebrows — are they eyes?'
"'They're eyes — just like you have.'
"'And what would happen,' I said, 'if I stuck a needle in the kitten's eye?'
"My mother dropped her cleaning and as she turned to me she cried out, 'God preserve you!' And she tore the needle out of my hand.
"My mommy's face was so frightened that I remember her expression to this day. But even more ingrained in my memory is her cry, 'God preserve you!'
"My mother didn't punish me then, she didn't spank me, but only tore the needle out of my hand and threatened me — 'If you ever pull a needle out of the cushion again, I'll chop off your hand!'* From that time on I was afraid even to glance at the forbidden cushion.
"Many years went by. I was already a hieromonk. It was winter. It had turned out to be a nice, clear day. Resting after the noon meal, I was thinking about setting the samovar to boil and taking it easy with some aromatic tea. I had water in my cell but it wasn't fresh.... I poured this water out of the pitcher, took the pitcher, and trudged with it to the barrel that usually stood in the skete by the black porch of the refectory. I was going along peacefully, and not without pleasure, foretasting the joys of the boiling samovar and the fragrant Chinese herbs. There wasn't a soul in the skete garden. It was quiet, deserted....
"I went up to the barrel and saw that one of our old monks had climbed up and was getting a scoop of water for his samovar. Because of a recent snowstorm, the barrel could only be reached from one side, along one path. I quietly walked along this and came up behind the monk who was scooping water out of the barrel. Being busy with what he was doing, and also a bit deaf, he didn't notice my approach. I waited until he finished and thought, 'Why does the ladle need such a dreadfully long handle, and with such a sharp split end? What good is it? It might even hit someone in the eye!'... I had only just had this thought when my monk, with a sharp movement of his hand, suddenly swung the ladle so that the end of the handle moved right towards me! I barely managed to jump back. I still would have been a hairsbreadth away from having my eye poked out, but the unintentional culprit, who had threatened me with such peril, climbed down from the barrel, turned around, saw me and, not suspecting anything, came up to me with his pitcher for a blessing. 'Bless, Batiushka!'
"I gave him a blessing, but in my heart I was annoyed. 'What a lout!' I thought. However, I overcame that feeling within me — he wasn't at fault, really, for the fact that he didn't have eyes in back of his head; and with that I was pacified. Suddenly my heart became so light, so joyful, that I can't even convey it to you. I went to my cell with the pitcher full of water and just about jumped for joy, that I had escaped such terrible danger.
"I came home, heated up the samovar, made some 'fragrant tea,' and sat at the table ... and suddenly it was as if a bright ray lit up in my memory the long forgotten incident from my early childhood — the kitten, the needle, and my mother's exclamation, 'God preserve you!'
"Then, it had saved the kitten's eye, and many years later, that of her own son. If I had poked out the cat's eye at that time, I would now be without an eye.
"And just think," Fr. Nektary added to his story, "after this incident they cut the handle of the ladle in half, though I hadn't complained to anyone. It's obvious that all this had to happen, so as to remind my unworthiness how for everything in our life, from the cradle to the grave, we must give the strictest account to God."
A Monastic Conference
In a few days our abbas — the Archimandrite and the Abbot — are leaving for Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra for a monastic conference.
Today I saw Fr. Nektary.
"What are your thoughts," I asked, "about the upcoming monastic conference?"
"My thoughts?" he repeated with a smile. "What kind of thoughts can a man have, who is in sorrow in the morning and despondent in the evening? You, your honor, have read a hundred books — consequently, you even have books in your hand."
I was familiar with this saying of Fr. Nektary, and thus I did not despair of obtaining an answer from him, even in a parable, the favorite form of his wise conversation. I was not mistaken.
"Do you remember your childhood?" he asked me, when I began to insist on an answer.
"I remember. How could I not remember?"
"And I also remember," he said. "We kids would run to our hearts' content, we played as much as we wanted; then we would sit or lie down in some secluded little spot, in the open air, and look up at God's heaven. And we would see light clouds floating and running across the sky — running and chasing one another. Where, you would wonder, were they heading, across the boundless blue expanse?... Ah, how good it would have been to ride on those clouds!...
"'They're awfully high up — it's impossible!' — the group decides with a sigh. 'You'd never climb up there.'... Ah, how good it would be!
"And then one from among us steps forward — the smartest one: 'Oh, you've become feeble,' he says. 'What makes it so impossible? Here you can't do it — they're high above us; but there' — he points to the horizon — 'there you can reach them with your hand. Let's run there quickly, climb up and take a ride!'
"We all saw that our 'smart one' was talking sense — that's why he was our ringleader. 'Well, how about it — let's run!'... And our little flock of unfeathered needing-clowns was ready to go from word to deed, but then we remembered the ravine we would have to cross; and in the ravine, most likely, there were robbers. And we remembered our homes — one had a father at home, another had a mother and a grandmother — they'd give you what's good for you!... We remembered and gave up our venture as hopeless. 'What do we need to fly across the sky for? Let's better keep running around on the ground!’"
Batiushka stated his parable and smiled his enigmatic smile: Figure it out the best you can!
I was not satisfied with such an answer.
"Batiushka," I said, "tell me outright — is it possible that nothing will come of the conference?"
"St. Sergius will get mad at them," replied Fr. Nektary.
"At whom — at Them?"
"Yes, at our people that are going. What are they 'assembling in a mob' for? After all, it's forbidden by the monastic rule. The monastic rule was given by an angel. It's not for people to go changing it and adding their own inventions.... They need to weep and repent in their cells alone with God and not gather together to their disgrace."
"How is it a disgrace? What are you saying, Batiushka?"
"To their disgrace — that means in public, in the sight of all who are not too lazy to laugh at a monk, and who have forgotten what a monk is.... What kinds of questions could there be there? Everything's been given; everything's been defined by the original founders of monastic life. Who can be higher than the God-bearing desert Fathers? We need to pray and sit in our cells and not stick our noses where they don't belong — that's what we need!"
"What would happen if you said all this to the abbas?" I asked.
Instead of an answer, Batiushka said to me, "It wouldn't bore you to listen to another little story, would it?" And Batiushka continued: "Once upon a time there lived a nobleman. He was rich and prominent, and he had all kinds of friends who hung on his every word and tried to please him in every way. And this nobleman had a rather stern character and liked to have everyone obey him.... Once, on a hunt with his friends, the nobleman went off to one side and, in the sight of all, got right down on the ground, pressed his ear to the earth, listened, turned on his other side, listened with his other ear, and cried out to his henchmen, 'Come here, everyone!' They all ran up to him. 'Lie down — listen!' They lay down and listened. 'Do you hear it? The earth is quaking — mushrooms are coming up!'
"And everyone cried out with one voice, 'We hear it, we hear it!'
"Only one of his friends got up in silence.
"'Why are you silent,' asked the nobleman. 'Don't you hear it?'
"'No,' he answered, 'I don't hear it.'
"Then the nobleman said, 'Eh, brother, it's obvious that you're a bit hard of hearing!' And everyone began to laugh at him, and with loud laughter joined in with the nobleman's words, 'He's not just hard of hearing, he's stone deaf!"'
Batiushka finished telling his little story and was silent.
"And that's it?" I asked.
"That's all. What more do you want?"
And it was true; what more did I want?
Go to the top
Missionary Leaflet # EA09
Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Edited by Donald Shufran