Orthodox America


from the Book Shelf - Staretz Amvrosy  


by Monk Nazary

"Model for Dostoevsky's Staretz Zosima", by John B. Dunlop; Nordland, 1972; 173 pp.

"All the books, all the works of the intellect are not equal in my opinion to the examples of a holy Orthodox staretz in whom I can find a guide, to whom I can impart each of my thoughts and whose mouth expresses not a more or less valuable private opinion but the very judgment of the holy Fathers. Thanks be to God that there still exist such startsy in our Russia." (Ivan Kireevsky)

In the preface to the book Staretz Ambrose, the auth or states his intention "to acquaint English-language readers with the life and teachings of a most remarkable Russian staretz" Beginning with St. Paisius Velichkovsky, the long line of Russian "startsi", or elders, came into full bloom in 19th century Russia. Their flowering was particularly in e vi d e n c e in the justly renowned Optina Monastery where thousands upon thousands of pilgrims, including Kireevsky, came like bees to gather the sweet nectar of spiritual nourishment One of the most famous of these elders was Staretz Amvrosy-better known in English as Elder Ambrose-and Mr. Dunlop deserves a great deal of credit for making such an inspiring life and soul-profiting teachings available to the English-speaking world.

Beginning with the early years of Alexander Grenkov (Elder Ambrose’s name in the world), the book examines various aspects of his life and character which led him to become not only the spiritual father of the en tire Optina Monastery, but also of countless numbers of lay people and monastics, both men and women. Constantly struggling with physical weakness and illnesses, Pr. Am brose fervently strove to fulfill the greatest commandment-love. Through his ascetic endeavors he soon attained that spiritual state through which God worked to guide His children who came to the Elder for direction. Included in the book are many letters and portions of letters written to his spiritual children which not only show the elder as a skilled physician of souls, but also serve as a window into the soul of the Elder himself. In addition to these letters written by the

Elder, the book contains liberal quotations from other contemporary sources, primarily the recollections of his spiritual children, the many visitors who came to see him, the monks of the monastery and his own spiritual fathers under whose guidance he grew and matured. These recollections also testify to the Elder's gifts of healing and clairvoyance which are also discussed in the book.

The convent of Shamordino and its founding by Elder Ambrose are given special treatment by the author. It was of utmost importance to the Elder that not only rich girls be able to become nuns (a typical problem in Russia), but that this opportunity should exist for all who felt the calling to serve God in this way. Many less fortunate women turned to the Elder for help in this regard-widows, cripples, orphans-and with the founding of Shamordino, the Elder's dream to have a place for these "abandoned" ones was fulfilled.

The last few chapters of the book deal with the Elder's last years and his death which occurred while he was in Shamordino. Included is a moving and detailed description of the procession by which the Elder's body was brought back to the monastery. The funeral itself, according to eyewitnesses, was "distinguished by an atmosphere more like that of a holiday than of a funeral." The author is entirely justified in calling Elder Ambrose "a saint and even a great saint of the Orthodox Church"-for he is just that. The final chapter entitled "I shall never abandon you" points out that although the Elder is no longer physically alive, he continues to live in a spiritual sense. After his death he helped his spiritual children in many ways. Herein is shown that upon finishing his earthly course, Elder Ambrose was found worthy to receive a crown of unfading glory.

It is also. to the author's credit that he uses Orthodox terminology rather than Western or Catholic words such as mass" or "rosary" which are too often substituted for the Orthodox "liturgy" and "prayer-rope

This helps to give the book a more genuine Orthodox tone. The book also contains a useful glossary of terms which may be unfamiliar to the non-Russian or non-Orthodox reader.

One criticism is the misleading subtitle:

"Model for Dostoevsky's Staretz Zosima" (in The Brothers Karamazov). While this is in tended to help sell the book, it also gives the false impression that Dostoevsky's character in some way reflects the Optina Elder. This was perceptively pointed out by Hieromonk Seraphim who reviewed the book when it was first published in 1972. Although Dostoevsky did visit Elder Ambrose on several occasions, his persona1 spiritual experience did not qualify him to draw an accurate portrait of the elder, even to the extent of using him as a "model". Pr. Seraphim wrote that in his rather romantic approach to Orthodoxy, Dostoevsky produced an "elder" who "according to Orthodox standards, is unquestionably in the state of pre1est or spiritual deception."

In spite of this catering to literary interests, the book deserves high recommendation. Basing his work on two definitive biographies written in Russian, the author draws an unforgettable portrait of one who mastered that  'art of arts", the inner life of prayer, of union with his Creator.

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