Orthodox America

Love Beareth All  

by Elder Ambrose of Optina

The sixth of eight children, Alexander Grenkov came into this world on Nov. 23, 1812. It was the feast day of the great Prince St. Alexander Nevsky and the year of Napoleon's retreat from Russia. To celebrate many guests gathered at the home of the village priest where the boy was born. Later he would say, "I was born surrounded by people and thus also have I lived." Alexander was a lively, happy child, given to fun and mischief. Little did anyone suspect that he would become not only a monk, but one of the greatest among those elders who were the crowning glory of Holy Russia.

Alexander was raised in a strictly religious family where his quick wit was not al together appreciated. His fellow classmates at the seminary remembered him as an exceptionally gifted student who seemed to have no need to study. Upon graduating he became a private tutor and then instructor at the Lipetsk academy. Suddenly he became so ill that, fearing for his life, he gave a vow to God that if he recovered he would enter a monastery. He regained his health but was slow in fulfilling his vow. There began a long inner struggle between his very sociable and talkative nature and the spiritual yearnings of his heart: "I would come home; my soul was not at peace and I would think, 'This kind of life is finished; I'm going to stop being such a taIker' But again I'd be invited to friends and again I'd talk by head off. And so I suffered for four years."

In the summer of 1839, on a pilgrimage to St. Sergius' Lavra, Alexander stopped in Tsroekurovo to see the renowned recluse Fr. Hilarion. The righteous ascetic told him, "Go to Optina; you are needed there." Even then it was difficult for Alexander to break his ties with the world But finally, he was seized by the determination to put an end to this inner struggle and fulfill his vow. Afraid that the persuasive arguments of his parents and friends would make him waver in his decision, he left for Optina secretly, without telling anyone.

The young Grenkov arrived in Optina in 1839 when the monastery was spiritually in full bloom. Living there at that time were the great elders Moses, Lev, Macanus, and Anthony. And there were many others offering their holy struggles to God in the justly renowned Optina Monastery whose monks were distinguished by guilelessness, meek ness and humility.

He was at the monastery only a few months when he was moved to the skete where monks led a stricter and more solitary life. This indicates that already his superiors recognized in him special qualities. But he continued to be under the spiritual guidance of Elder Lev whose ascetic temperament was often hidden beneath a rather jovial exterior. For a year the novice Alexander worked as a cook's helper. During this time he often had to go and ask blessing of Elder Macarius. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he would reveal his spiritual state to the Elder and receive in return soul-saving counsel. When Elder Lev reposed, Elder Makary chose no vice Alexander to be his cell-attendant. In the years that followed, Elder Macanus en- trusted him with greater and greater responsibilities, sharing with him his skill in guiding souls and his profound understanding of patristic texts. It was not long before it be came evident that Elder Macanus had chosen for himself not only an obedient cell-attendant, but someone who would become worthy to succeed him as elder.

Only three years after his arrival in Optina, Grenkov received a "second baptism he was clothed in the angelic habit and given the name Ambrose, after St. Ambrose of Milan. Three years later he was ordained to the priesthood. He was thirty-three years old. Almost immediately he became once a- gain very ill-and never fully recovered.

Nevertheless, at the suggestion of Bishop Nicholas of Kaluga Elder Macarius’ assistant in the work of spiritual direction. He often had to deal with the many different: people who came to Elder Makary for counsel passing on their questions to the elder and conveying his answers in return. But a year later the young hieromonk suffered a serious relapse after which he was no longer able to serve Liturgy and even the fulfillment of his personal cell-rule became very difficult. His illness caused him to perspire and he had to change his underclothing and footwear several times day and night so as to avoid catching a chill. He became so sensitive to draughts that later those who came to see him had to warm themselves before entering his room.

The next few years were spent in near- silence This was for Fr. Ambrose a very fruitful time, for he was able to concentrate on that "art of arts", the Jesus Prayer. Under the skillful guidance of Elder Macarius, he was able to avoid harming his soul or falling into the abyss of prelest, dangers which face any zealot who tries to ascend to the heights of prayer and attain union with God. It was also during this time that the meaning of "hesychia" was mystically revealed to him, the silence of the soul before God. Some even saw him in uncreated light. This mystical side of the Elder, however, was so well hidden by his humility that most people were

It was also during this time that Fr. Ambrose was entrusted with the work of translating the writings of Holy Fathers in preparation for publication. This included the basic monastic text of St. John Climacus,  Not only did he benefit from the instructions of the ancient monastic Father but also from the profound commentary of Elder Macarius whose spiritual insight illumined many obscure passages he also labored on many Paisina texts and helped Elder Macarius with his correspondence. Many letters signed by Elder Macarius were actually written by Fr. Ambrose.

When Elder Makary reposed in l860, many of his spiritual children were adopted by Elder Ambrose who became the sole Starets of Optina, in which strenuous position he remained for the next 30 years -years fraught with intense bouts with illness and constant streams of guests with apparently different degrees of worthy motive, but about all of whom he generously and compassionately re marked, "Not to receive them is impossible."

Here, perhaps, is the key to this extra ordinary Elder's greatness. So exhausted that he would often receive visitors lying in bed, he never turned away anyone in need of soul-profiting counsel. Pilgrims streamed to his cell door by the hundreds, both men and women, monastics and laity from all walks of life. To Russian intellectuals, he embodied the Christian philosophy par excellence. Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Aksakov-these famous literary figures were all profoundly affected by their contact with this Optina Elder. But he was as much a spiritual father to simple folk. Neither name nor position had any meaning in his eyes. He was only interested in a man’s soul which was so precious to him that, forgetting himself, he gave all he had so as to guide it onto the path of salvation. God rewarded his self-sacrificing ser vice to his fellow-man by bestowing upon him gifts of clairvoyance, healing, and discernment, of which there is abundant testimony. From him there existed no secrets. A stranger could come to him and say nothing, and Elder Ambrose would know all about his life, his circumstances and what had brought him. He always adapted his advice to the individual and no one's problem was considered too in significant to merit his concern and attention.

He had a special understanding of women, Among them were those seeking to enter upon the monastic path of salvation. But of these many lacked independent means of support which most convents at that time required. Seizing the opportunity when it arose, Elder Ambrose founded a women s convent, Shamardino, which provided a home for many of these unfortunates. He often visited the con vent which was located not far from Optina. l t was during a prolonged visit to the convent in 1890 that his health gave way altogether and he was taken from this world. But his memory remains, as bright and radiant as the Elder himself, and it will continue to pass from generation to generation, as long as hearts continue to be drawn by that unbounded love which lived in this saintly Elder and by which he continues to warm and console a suffering humanity.