by Elder Ambrose of Optina
We are fortunate that there have been preserved many letters which Elder Ambrose wrote in guiding his spiritual
children. Below are excerpts from two letters – the first to a laywoman, the second to a
nun – addressing the problems of specific individuals, yet universal in their
You describe the continuation of what you consider to be an unsuitable situation. The fault here lies in the improper disposition of soul. No matter where we live or under what circumstances, salvation requires that we fulfill God’s commandments and submit to His will. Only in this way shall we attain peace of soul, as the Psalmist wrote: “Great peace have they that love Thy law and nothing shall offend them” (Ps. 118:165). But you persist in seeking inner peace and spiritual comfort through external circumstances. You keep thinking that you are not living in the right place, that you are living with the wrong people, that you have not managed things well, and that others have not acted as they should have. In the Holy Scripture it is written: “In every place is His dominion…”
From all your judgments and deliberations it is obvious that you want to see your salvation clearly laid out before you like the palm of your hand. This can only bring a person either to fall into pride or to become lazy; and we are not given what is not profitable for our souls. The same is true of what is untimely, as for example a premature foreknowledge of our own death. St. Peter Damascene writes that man’s salvation is found between fear and hope in order that he neither fall into despair nor be overly self-assured. If the holy Prohpet David enjoins even the righteous: “Fear the Lord, all ye His saints,” how much more needful and beneficial is it for sinners to have the fear of God, fearing to transgress God’s commandments. This applies especially to judging which can easily cause a Christian to fall into hypocrisy. In the Gospel it is written: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam from thine own eye” (Matt. 7:5). Although it seems to us that we act out of zeal, this zeal is called “zeal not according to knowledge,” unbridled zeal. It is not without reason that the Apostle writes: “Who are thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth…for God is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4)…
In the Holy Gospel the Lord Himself clearly says:
“Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly of
heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt.11:29).
These words indicate first of all that the bearing of Christ’s yoke
consists above all in meekness and humility.
Secondly, we must take as our instruction and guidance in life the
example of Christ the Saviour, rather than the example of people in whom it is
not possible to find absolute perfection by reason of human weakness.
We should not be upset or bewildered when someone does not present the
shining example we had hoped to see. People
have different opinions, different intentions; one thinks and reasons in one way
and another in quite another way. Even
in spiritual life there are different perspectives.
God alone knows the hearts of men. This
is why it is said that there is one judgment of God and another of men.
It is not without reason that the Lord entrusted the Apostle Peter with
the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven while He Himself kept the keys of hell and
death. As St. Demetrius of Rostov
explains, this is so that even the great saints, in the imperfectibility of
their human nature, do not consign to hell those souls who, by some secret deeds
of virtue revealed to God alone, deserve to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lastly, the words of the Saviour show that our anxiety and our confusion
stem not from others but from our own selves, from our lack of meekness and
You ask, how can you attain inward perfection when all your attempts in this direction have come to naught? If you truly desire to succeed in this matter, it is necessary that you first leave others and their actions to God’s Providence and God’s judgment, to their own will. Let them act according to their understanding, their conscience…The One Judge of the living and the dead, seeing the intention of each man’s heart, will reward not according to deeds but according to the intention behind the deed.
Furthermore, we must always remember that we are living in a monastery for our own amendment and not so as to correct others. The second condition, therefore, is that we must endeavor to awaken in ourselves humble and sincere repentance – not superficial, as we were wont to do in the world out of false shame and self-love. We have a sharp eye with regard to the sins and weaknesses of our neighbor, but we see our own faults as through a clouded pane of glass. In order to acquire humble and sincere repentance, one should attentively read (besides other books) the works of St. Ephraim the Syrian. Therein we see that we must first of all abandon all zeal not according to knowledge, which St. Isaac the Syrian calls unbridled zeal and which, under pretense of righteousness, can bring great harm to one’s spiritual life.
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