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St Ambrose of Optina

“LOVE BEARS ALL THINGS”

St Ambrose of Optina

In the 1840s, Optina Monastery faced a shortage of coachmen for the 70-kilometre route to Kaluga and struggled to accommodate all the visitors in its monastery hotels. Contemporaries referred to Optina as a “spiritual sanatorium.” Thousands of wounded souls flocked from all over Russia, spending days or even weeks at the monastery to hear words of advice — sometimes rebuking or stern, often rhymed in simple verse, but always brimming with Christ’s love for those suffering and lost souls seeking salvation. Venerable Macarius would joke, “Look, Ambrose is taking away my bread!” as he pointed to his disciple surrounded by visitors. He gave Ambrose this blessing: “You will live in a hut on the other side of the Skete gates, and look — here is my covenant to you — do not leave any of those who come here without consolation.”

St Ambrose’s hut at the gates of St John the Baptist Skete of the Optina Hermitage

St Ambrose’s hut at the gates of St John the Baptist Skete of the Optina Hermitage

“The Consoler of the Russian Land,” Venerable Ambrose was born on 23 November 1812 in the village of Bolshaya Lipovitsa, Tambov province, to the family of the village acolyte Mikhail Fedorovich and Maria Nikolayevna Grenkov. On the eve of the baby’s birth, his grandfather, a priest in the same village, received many visitors — both the house and the yard were crowded with people. Later the elder jokingly said: “I came into this world with an audience, so I guess I was meant to live with one too.”

Little Alexander (the child’s name at baptism) was the happiest and most playful of the children, and very clever. Sasha’s strict grandfather often reprimanded him for his mischief, but the boy was always taken to church on holidays, where he read and sang in the choir. He studied with ease, both at home and later at the Tambov Theological School and Seminary. Alexander loved the Bible, theology, history, and humanities. To his classmates, it seemed that Grenkov was not studying at all, but he always had the best results, “as if he were reading from a book.”

Tambov Theological Seminary

Tambov Theological Seminary

In his last year at the seminary, Alexander fell seriously ill and vowed to enter a monastery if he recovered. The young man was cured, but he was in no hurry to fulfil his vow. For four years he was, in his own words, still “squirming.” In July 1836, Alexander Grenkov successfully graduated from the seminary, but he did not enter the theological academy, nor become a priest or a monk. For a time, he was a tutor to a landowner’s family, then he taught at the Lipetsk Theological School. Colleagues and friends loved him for his lively and cheerful character, his wit, and kindness. All was well, except for one thing: Alexander had a heavy burden on his soul. The pangs of conscience kept bothering him, but he could not make a decision.

When he visited the famous recluse Hilarion in the Tambov village of Troekurov with a friend, the elder immediately said to him: “Go to Optina: there are experienced elders and you are needed there.” In 1839, he also visited the Trinity-Sergius Lavra and prayed before the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh. Soon after one evening at the guesthouse, when Alexander was in particularly good spirits and entertaining the guests, he returned home remembering his vow and feeling sincere remorse. His resolve grew throughout the night, and in the morning, secretly from everyone, without even informing the diocesan authorities, Alexander went to the Optina Hermitage.

A sign on the wall of the Lipetsk Theological School building

A sign on the wall of the Lipetsk Theological School building

At the age of 28, Alexander Grenkov was accepted by the brethren and lived in the monastery kitchen for a year. During this time, he remained silent, working as an assistant cook in the bakery and speaking only when addressed. After moving between cells five times, he became the cell attendant of Venerable Leo.

Elder Leo loved the young novice, affectionately calling him Sasha. He raised him sternly, often rebuking him for spiritual benefit and nicknaming him ‘barren flower’. In public, the elder would test Sasha’s humility by pretending to be angry with him, but privately he would tell others that Sasha would become “a great man.” Elder Ambrose later said, “For a monk, rebuke and moral instruction are like brushes for rusty iron. It was out of love that Elder Leo so assiduously brushed the rust out of me.” After Starets Leo’s death, he became the cell attendant of Venerable Macarius.

In 1842, Alexander Grenkov was tonsured into the small schema with the name Ambrose, in honour of Saint Ambrose of Milan. In 1843, he was ordained a hierodeacon, and two years later, a hieromonk. This period of the young monk’s life was marked by discipleship and close communion with Elder Macarius, who taught him strict asceticism, poverty, humility, patience, and other monastic virtues. When Elder Macarius began his book-publishing activities, Fr. Ambrose became his indispensable assistant in translating spiritual books. Notably, he translated and prepared for printing the famous “Ladder of Divine Ascent” by Venerable John Climacus, hegumen of Sinai. As Elder Macarius anticipated his death, he gradually introduced Father Ambrose to the monastery visitors seeking advice and consolation, telling those close to him, “Father Ambrose will not leave you.” Observant, inquisitive, and clever by nature, Father Ambrose was able to converse with people with surprising ease, welcoming visitors to the Optina Hermitage with great love.

Venerable Ambrose and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, collage

Venerable Ambrose and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, collage

People flocked to Optina for solace, healing, and advice. Those confused in their worldly circumstances or philosophical quests, as well as those thirsting for the highest truth, all found relief in this “source of life-giving water.” Outstanding thinkers of the epoch, philosophers, and writers visited more than once: Gogol, A.K. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Leontiev... It is impossible to count them all. What was the reason for such an influx of people, including not only those ready to listen to anything the elder said but also free-thinking intellectuals like Vasily Rozanov and Vladimir Soloviev, the composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and the cream of Russian literature?

“Everyone who saw St Ambrose noticed the extraordinary love that surrounded the person who came to him. This love was the main miracle of the saint. No healing of the sick, no reading of letters in sealed envelopes, no insight into the past and the future, not even prayers that changed reality — nothing compared to this love,” wrote one of the saint’s spiritual children.

Venerable Ambrose’s cell in the Optina Hermitage, collage

Venerable Ambrose’s cell in the Optina Hermitage, collage

At the age of 40, Fr. Ambrose retired for health reasons. Soon, his health became dire. According to the old Russian custom, Father Ambrose was tonsured into the great schema while keeping his name. But God works in mysterious ways: within two years, unexpectedly to many, Father Ambrose began to recover. As he would later say, “In the monastery, the sick do not die quickly, so that their illness can be of real benefit to them.” Despite his physical weakness, the power of God was manifested in the ascetic, who was incapable of fasting or other rigorous practices.

Famous doctors, after examining him, said, “He suffers so much that if he were an ordinary man, he would not have lived a week.” Always between life and death, suffering from chronic illnesses for more than 40 years, Fr. Ambrose was compassionate, understanding, merciful, and consoling to people seeking God. Ambrose was appointed confessor to the brethren and blessed to receive visitors, which occupied him 12 hours a day, while he spent the rest of the time in private prayer and in church. For thirty years, the elder began each day at 4 a.m. with prayer in his tiny hut. At 9 a.m., he received pilgrims. From 2 to 3 p.m., he rested and ate. Vespers was then served, and he received visitors again until midnight.

The elder was the first in the Optina desert to receive female visitors, and for this purpose, he moved to the hermitage gates to serve his spiritual children on the outside veranda attached to his house from the outer side of the hermitage.

The foundation of the Shamordino Convent at the end of his earthly life became another benefaction of Elder Ambrose for believers. Because of his great love and compassion for the many infirm maidens, widows, and orphans visiting him, who wished to devote their lives to God but did not have sufficient material means or physical health to enter women's monasteries, the Venerable Ambrose conceived the idea of creating an uncommon monastery. Trusting in the help and protection of the Queen of Heaven, he decided to take upon himself the complete care of its organisation and maintenance, wishing to protect the nuns from worldly temptations and trials.

Shamordino Convent founded by St. Ambrose

Shamordino Convent founded by St. Ambrose

Venerable Ambrose truly became a beloved father for the Shamordino nunnery. The unique feature of his convent was that the large community of sisters (about eight hundred in number) was made up of people from different social backgrounds, ranks, and levels of education, all of whom tried to live in peace and unity, helping each other and bearing each other’s burdens. It was here that Elder Ambrose spent the last days of his earthly life. His confessor, the priest Father Theodore, saw that the elder was weakening and asked him:

“Father, you are dying. To whom will you leave your monastery?”

“I have gilded my cross and now I am leaving this dwelling to the Queen of Heaven,” the venerable replied.

Elder Ambrose went to meet the Lord on 23 October 1891 in Shamordino, from where he had been unable to leave because of his rapidly deteriorating health. On 28 October, the body of the Elder was laid to rest in the Optina desert, on the southeast side of the Vvedensky Cathedral, next to his venerable teacher, Hieroschemamonk Macarius.

Relics of St. Ambrose of Optina in the Presentation Cathedral of the Optina Hermitage

Relics of St. Ambrose of Optina in the Presentation Cathedral of the Optina Hermitage

On 6 June 1988, Venerable Ambrose became the first of the elders of Optina to be canonised. Today, many people come to the Optina Hermitage to venerate the relics of the Saint. Every day at 5.30 a.m. in the side chapel of the Vvedensky Cathedral, consecrated in his honour, prayer services are held, and through the faith of the petitioners and the prayers of Elder Ambrose, the Lord works miracles. His words came true when, asked, “Father, what will we do without you?”, the Elder jokingly replied, “Well, I’ve been wrangling with you all here, don't think you'll slip past me on the other side.”

On 6 December 2012, the 200th anniversary of his birth, a church dedicated to him was consecrated in the village where the saint was born. It was built on the site of the 1812 church, demolished by the godless authorities in the 1930s, where the Venerable Ambrose’s grandfather and father served and which he himself attended as a child.

The Church of St. Ambrose of Optina in Bolshaya Lipovitsa

The Church of St. Ambrose of Optina in Bolshaya Lipovitsa

St Ambrose’s letters to his spiritual children appeared in print shortly after his death and have been reprinted many times. They contain advice, instructions and answers to a wide range of questions: moral, theological and secular. When communicating with people seeking spiritual guidance, the saint often used simple words, healing people’s worries and troubles with proverbs and parables:

  • Older people decided long ago that one cannot live without confusion, noting that even clay pots sometimes collide; how much more so will people living together clash. This is especially true when it comes to differing viewpoints: one person thinks one way, another thinks differently; each is convinced that their ideas are firm and solid, while the other believes in their own reasoning.
  • Do not boast, peas, that you are better than beans: if you get wet, you will burst at the seams.
  • Rely on God’s help, but don’t be idle; with faith and effort, you will find your title.
  • Our fathers were simple, yet wise and thorough: ‘Do not live as you wish, but as God leads you to follow.’

To help his spiritual children understand human frailty and see more clearly their spiritual illness, the elder used to give vivid analogies from the surrounding reality:

  • Teaching a man to live a spiritual life is very difficult. It’s like trying to teach an illiterate person to say the word ‘secretary.’ He will always say something like ‘sectary.’ You can offer him a ruble to say ‘secretary,’ but he still says it his own way: ‘sectary.’ Even when you ask him to repeat after you, saying very clearly ‘se-cre-ta-ry,’ he slowly repeats, ‘sec-ta-ry.’
  • The character and behaviour of ducks and geese vividly illustrate the passions of vainglory and pride. A proud person, if he has a pleasing appearance, becomes exalted and proud of his beauty, like a goose, even if he is clumsy and awkward, also like a goose. On the other hand, a person driven by vanity who lacks a pleasing appearance and other favourable qualities will try to win praise by pleasing everyone, quacking like a duck as if to say, ‘Right, right!’ even though he often feels differently inside. His cowardice makes him conform. A goose, when displeased, raises its wings and honks. Similarly, a proud person, if important in his circle, often raises his voice, shouts, argues, and insists on his opinion. But if this prideful person has no significance in his environment, he will hiss at others with inner anger, like a goose sitting on eggs, and bite whoever he can.

Venerable Ambrose of Optina

From the spiritual instructions of Venerable Ambrose of Optina:

“...Let us be peaceful and, above all, humble. — Then everything will be to our advantage, according to the word of Scripture: to the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15). — May everything be clean and pure for us.”

 

“Read books in the morning, a quarter of an hour before work, and then “chew” what you have read throughout the day, like a sheep chewing its cud.”

 

“Boredom is the grandson of despondency, the daughter of laziness. To dispel it, work hard, do not be lazy in prayer, then boredom will pass and diligence will come. And if you add to this patience and humility, you will save yourself from many evils.”

 

“When you encounter difficulties, which are inevitable in life, try to face them with cheerfulness and seek wisdom not only for salvation but also for consolation.”

 

“The house of the soul is patience; the food of the soul is humility. If there is no food in the house, the tenant leaves (loses patience).”

 

“Don’t dodge the truth, nor let others stray;

Guide straight and true, in all you say and do.”

 

“To one who follows his own will, hear clear:

Sister, shun the flamboyant, avoid the fierce.

Stay steadfast and humble, in all your ways;

Embrace simplicity, and find peace in your days.”

 

“Some people are sceptical about the goodness of others, from the least to the elders. Even if someone were as kind to them as an angel, they would still not believe it, always finding some trivial fault. This constant scepticism leads them to doubt everything, even the existence of the afterlife, ultimately rendering their own lives miserable and empty.”

 

“Those with a wicked heart should not lose hope, for with God’s assistance, they can reform. It is essential to be vigilant, seize every chance to aid your neighbours, frequently confide in your spiritual elder, and give alms generously.”

 

"To correct oneself, one shouldn’t rush to take on too much at once. Rather, it’s like hauling a barge: consistently pull and give, not suddenly but bit by bit.”

 

“Eat according to your hunger, not to impress others.”

 

“Why do people sin?

People sin either because they do not know what they should do and what they should avoid, or if they do know, they forget, or if not, they are lazy and discouraged. Conversely, because people are often very lazy in their pious duties, they frequently forget their main duty to serve God. From laziness and forgetfulness, they fall into extreme unreason and ignorance. These are the three giants — despondency or sloth, forgetfulness, and ignorance — that bind the entire human race with unbreakable ties. Following these come negligence and a host of evil passions. This is why we pray to the Queen of Heaven: O Most Holy Mother of God, banish from me despondency, forgetfulness, folly, carelessness, and all filthy, evil, and blasphemous thoughts.”

 

“Irritability arises, firstly, from self-love when things do not go according to our desires and perspectives, and secondly, from unbelief, doubting that fulfilling God’s commandments in the present situation will benefit us.”

 

“Irritability is not tamed by fasting, but by humility, self-correction, and the awareness that we deserve such an unpleasant position.”

 

“The beginning of joy is to be thankful for everything. The beginning of joy is to be content with one’s situation.”

 

“Repentance does not end until the grave and consists of three parts: purification of thoughts, endurance of tribulations, and prayer — calling on God’s help against the evil ploys of the enemy. These three parts are interconnected and cannot be accomplished independently. If one part is neglected, the other two will not be firm either.”

 

“He who yields receives three and a half ounces, while he who insists on his own way gets only one ounce. Sometimes, he doesn’t even get that when he upsets himself and others.”

 

“Look at everyone with a simple eye.”

 

“Love endures all things. If someone helps their neighbours out of genuine desire rather than mere duty, the devil cannot hinder such a person. However, when actions are driven solely by duty, the devil still tries to interfere.”


St Ambrose”s love was not merely an attitude towards others, but a state in which he lived. May his holy prayers aid us in cultivating a heart that is peaceful and loving.

This article was prepared by the editorial staff of obitel-minsk.org.

Photos sourced from the Internet.

July 08, 2024
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