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The Venerable Optina Elders - an Image of Humility, Patience and Love

Optina Elders, Valiant Protectors of the People of God

Optina Elders

O, constellation of the monastic host!
O wondrous flock of eagles,
Bright incense of the Church of the Mother of God
A veritable cluster of God's grapes
We address you, our venerable fathers, in this manner
We call out to you and glorify you by these names, the synaxis of Optina saints!
(From a sticheron of a litany in tone 7 by Hieromonk Basil (Roslyakov)

Optina Hermitage is a focal point of spiritual eldership in Russia that shone forth in the 19th and 20th centuries and has illumined the spiritual journey of Orthodox Christians to this day. It is a life-bearing spring that continued to nurture the Russian church for over a century, by representing a strong connectedness in the spirit and close unity in Christ of the Christian ascetics assembled in a place of God's lasting presence. This spirit of connectedness acted on the elder's disciples and all the brethren, by uniting them with the bonds of Christ's love. The spirit of God's peace found by the Optina elders was experienced by every pious visitor to the monastery.

The Venerable Leo (Nagolkin) and Macary (Ivanov) of Optina

The Venerable Leo (Nagolkin) and Macary (Ivanov) of Optina

"I realised that people here are being taught how to live a good life, that is, to live happily; they get help in enduring sorrows in their lives, whatever they may be."

E.N. Pogozhev (Poselyanin)

Archimandrite Agapetus (Belovidov) writes:

"The relations of the elders with the elders Leo and Father Macary were exemplary and instructive. To observe their unanimity and love for one another was highly inspiring."

The Venerable Moses and Anthony Putilov

The Venerable Moses and Anthony Putilov, the North gate of the John the Forerunner Skete of Optina Hermitage

The elders combined their practical worldly labours with the direction and guidance of the internal and external lives of the monastery. The abbot, schema-Archimandrite Moses, and his brother, Schema-Hegumen Anthony differed from the elders Leo and Macary in their character. Yet, despite these distinctions, there was such a genuine unity of peace and true Christian love among them that each was willing to give their life for the other.

The Optina elders concerned themselves with bringing spiritual guidance and enlightenment to the people and were committed to helping them with their daily concerns. During the worst years of famine, elder Moses would launch major construction projects and pay money to workers more as charity than as remuneration for the work performed. "Let us do this work for the people themselves, while the Lord continues to extend to us His giving hand," said the elder.

"Who does not know Father Leonid [His name after tonsure to the mantle]? He is like a father to us. We would be like full orphans without him," said the local residents about elder Leo.

The Venerable Illarion (Ponomarev) and Ambrose (Grenkov)

The Venerable Illarion (Ponomarev) and Ambrose (Grenkov). The belltower of Optina Pustyn, connected with the monastery's old gate

God's grace does not negate the individual traits of any person, or the distinctions in their characters. Metropolitan Trifon (Turkestanov) remembers: "Father Leo is to us mainly an example of a man of unshakable faith... which gives rise to his other character features - outstanding courage, steadfastness and energy in the advocacy of eldership, which is so dear to his heart. He knew no fear, he only had the fear of the last judgement. His core character trait was his fervent striving towards God."

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"Father Macary had a different personality, continues Metropolitan Trifon. He was soft, meek, tender and deeply poetic. He demanded of all his spiritual children to be humble, considering this virtue to be the foundation of a good Christian life."

A true disciple of Elder Macary, the venerable Ambrose had much in common with him. He was equally good-natured, loving and endlessly forgiving when it came to human weaknesses. Metropolitan Trifon wrote: "He had outstanding Christian love. He projected its example on his spiritual children and made a great effort to cultivate it in their souls. Amongst the other elders, the preaching of God's love was an area of his special strength."

The Venerable Anatoly (Zertsalov) and Isaac (Antimonov)

The Venerable Anatoly (Zertsalov) and Isaac (Antimonov). The belltower above the graves of Hieromonk Basil and Monk Ferapont assassinated at Easter in 1993

The descriptions of the elder's spiritual disciples can supplement the characteristics of the elders. The Venerable Anatoly (Zertsalov) and Joseph (Litovkin), were dedicated disciples of Elder Ambrose and were also different in their character. Elder Ambrose called Father Anatoly a great elder. He wrote: "He had an exceptional gift of grace and prayer that only one in a thousand could enjoy. He was also a man of deep inner doing who always preserved the silence of the heart and remained in ceaseless prayer. He mirrored Elder Ambrose in his life and teachings, but he differed from his teacher in the form of these teachings. He was an example of concentration, his speech was reserved and irradiated the spirit of the church fathers' teachings."

Saints Joseph (Litovkin) and Barsanuphius (Plikhankov)

Saints Joseph (Litovkin) and Barsanuphius (Plikhankov). The hospital tower and residential compound for the clergy

Among the spiritual disciples of the Venerable Anatoly (Zertsalov) were the venerable Barsanuphius, an outstanding spiritual warrior, and Elder Nectary, a wondrous visionary of Divine Revelations.

Like a mighty tree, the eldership tradition of Optina brought ample fruit. The spiritual child of Elder Barsanuphius, Father Nikon (Belyaev), was glorified by the Church as a confessor of the faith during the dark times of the persecution of the Church. Likewise, the Venerable Joseph was the spiritual father of Elder Anatoly (Potapov), who shed his fatherly love on all those who ran to him in times of sorrow and trials.

The Venerable Anatoly (Potapov) and Nectarius (Tikhonov)

The Venerable Anatoly (Potapov) and Nectarius (Tikhonov). The reconstructed Church of All Saints

E. N. Pogozhev (Poselyanin) thus described the pleas of a suffering soul: "Monasticism is the opening through which heaven-seeking humanity looks into the sky."

S. A. Nylus wrote of Optina: "O, the beauty of Optina! O, the peace, quiet, calm and eternal glory of the Spirit of God that rests above the sacred haven of your monastic spirit reinforced by the pleas to heaven emanating from your eminent co-founders! O the blessed Optina!"

The Holy Confessor Nikon (Belyaev) and the Holy Martyrs Isaac II (Bobrakov)

The Holy Confessor Nikon (Belyaev) and the Holy Martyrs Isaac II (Bobrakov). The reconstructed Church of St. Vladimir

The history of the eldership of Optina culminates in the 20th century with the martyrdom of its last abbot, the Holy Martyr Isaac. To the demand to leave his mentorship of the brethren and flee, he replied adamantly: "I will not run from my cross." Since the years of the early Church, Christians have viewed martyrdom for Christ as a special honour.

While the monastery was being rebuilt in the 1990s, three Optina monks died at the hands of an infidel: hieromonk Vasily (Roslyakov), Monk Trofim (Tatarnikov) and Monk Ferapont (Pushkarev). As Patriarch Alexis II has remarked on the occasion of their martyrdom, "we trust that the Lord, who summoned these three monks martyrs on the first day of the Bright and Holy Easter will make them partakers of His eternal Pascha in the unfading glory of His eternal kingdom."

Monk Trofim (Tatarnikov), hieromonk Vasily (Roslyakov) and Monk Ferapont (Pushkarev)

Monk Trofim (Tatarnikov), hieromonk Vasily (Roslyakov) and Monk Ferapont (Pushkarev)

A monastery is more than the walls or buildings. It is a prayerful unity in Christ that opposes all the pressures of evil and destruction. Optina has offered up to the Church and the world a synaxis of elders with the exceptional gift of prayer who embrace the whole of the universe with their love. They labour ceaselessly for the salvation of God's people and intercede for us sinners before God to bring on us His mercy.

Truly wondrous is God in His Saints, Who revealed the Hermitage of Optina as a garden of eldership, / where the God-enlightened Fathers, knowing the secrets of the human heart, became valiant protectors of the people of God; / for they set those burdened by sin on the path of repentance, / enlightening those whose faith was wavering with the light of Christ's teachings, / and teaching them the wisdom of God, / they felt compassion for the sick and healed them. / Now, in God's glory, they pray unceasingly for our souls.

(Kontakion, tone 6)

Written by the team

Photos from Internet sources

Material for this article was drawn from the following sources:

1. Agapetus (Belovidov), Archimandrite: Life of the Optina Elder Hieromonk Leonid (Leo in the schema) Tula: Optina Hermitage of the Entry to the Temple (Reprint)

2. Agapetus (Belovidov), Archimandrite: Life of the Optina Elder Hieromonk Macary

3. Optina Hermitage of the Entry to the Temple Lavra of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergius, 1997 Otchy Dom Publishers, 1997.

4. Trifon (Turkestanov), Metropolitan Early Christian and Optina Elders. Moscow, Martis Publishers, 1997

October 24, 2023
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