Under the influence of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, the concept of eldership took root in the Russian soil. Perhaps nowhere did it produce a greater abundance of fruit than in the monastery of Optina. Its atmosphere was penetrated by the spirit of its elders – Leonid, Moses, Antony, Macarius, Ambrose, Anatole, Nektary… From one to another over a span of more than a hundred years, the gift of eldership was passed on like some prophet’s mantle.
Even within ecclesiastic circles the concept of eldership was often misunderstood and criticized as an innovation. Some of the greatest elders – St. Seraphim of Sarov, Elders Leonid and Ambrose of Optina – were severely persecuted for just this reason. However, as Prof. I.M. Kontzevitch points out in the first chapter of his book, Optina and Its Era, elders were no less than the direct successors of the prophets and carried on the same function within the Church.
“Apart from the priesthood, the Apostle Paul lists three other ministries in the Church: apostolic, prophetic and teaching. Directly after the apostles stand the prophets (Eph. 4:11; I Cor. 13:28). Their ministry consists primarily in edifying, admonishing and consoling…
“All of the ministries mentioned by St. Paul have been preserved in the Church throughout its history. United as it was with personal sanctity, the prophetic ministry blossomed in periods of revival in Church life and lapsed in periods of decline. It manifested itself most clearly in the monastic concept of eldership….Vested with the gift of clairvoyance, [the elders] edified, admonished, and consoled; they healed the sicknesses of both soul and body; they gave warning of impending dangers and indicated the path of life, revealing in everything the will of God.
“Grace-filled eldership is one of the highest attainments in the spiritual life of the Church; it is her flower, the crown of ascetic struggle, the fruit of inner silence and union with God.”
(Optina and Its Era, by I.M. Kontzevitch, Jordanville, 1970 – in Russian)
A word of
In his Introduction to Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky, Fr. Seraphim cautions readers not to imagine that there exist today such elders who have the right to “unrestricted authority” over one’s soul. “Many young people today are seeking gurus and are ready to enslave themselves to any likely candidate; but woe to those who take advantage of this climate of the times to proclaim themselves ‘God-bearing Elders’ in the ancient tradition – they only deceive themselves and others. Any Orthodox spiritual father will frankly tell his children that the minimum of eldership that remains today is very different from what Blessed Paisius or the Optina Elders represent.”
Just what was the experience of those who flocked to see Holy Russia’s elders? Below is a sensitive description written by a member of high society, of his first visit to optina and Elder Anatole.
Visit to Optina
Prince G.N. Trubetskoy, Russian Ambassador
I do not wish to lay aside my pen without relating the last impression with which the year 1916 ended for me.
Before going to Vasilyevskoe, my olderst son Kostya and I decided to go to Optina Hermitage. I had thought about this long ago and Kostya was interested in the accounts of his friend, Misha Olsufev, who had been at Optina not long before this. We had at our disposal two days in all for we wished by Christmas Eve to go to Vasilyevskoe. Those two days spent at Optina Hermitage left, however, on both of us an unforgettable impression.
First and foremost, on entering the monastery, I felt such peace and quiet which could not fail to react upon the most perturbed and frenzied soul. Here at the threshold of the monastery gate earthly anxieties subsided. Around these churches and cells generations of prayerful people had created an atmosphere of spiritual concentration.
In the morning after Divine Liturgy I went to the Elder, Fr. Anatoly. He lived in a small white house with columns and a superstructure. Mounting several steps onto the porch, I opened the outer door and went into a passage, where quite a number of visitors were sitting along the walls. Some for want of a place were standing. Here were persons of every calling, townspeople and country folk, wandering pilgrims, monks and nuns, but most numerous were the peasant men and women. There were those from afar and those from nearby. They all were waiting for the Elder to come out, some for several hours. In the room silence reigned, occasionally interrupted by some brief conversation in a half-whisper. What faces, what eyes. I was struck especially by one peasant with a handsome, fine-looking face, a big Russian beard and a deep, fixed look from under overhanging brows. It was evident that a great worry lay on his heart, which he was bringing to the Elder. Beside him sat an officer, probably from the front, while opposite him was a young pilgrim with long hair. He was gnawing a hunk of black bread. Near the door stood a woman with a city look, probably one of the regular visitors, who knew the customs and routines. With her were children, including a diminutive schoolboy, probably of the preparatory class. “Last year Fr. Varnava every time used to give me an apple,” he said dreamily. “You see, you were still little then,” his mother remarked in an admonishing tone. “I’m not expecting it now,” the boy answered with dignity, although one felt that he would by no means refuse an apple if it were offered.
The door creaked and opened. Out came the Elder’s attendant, Fr. Varnava, with a wonderful gentle face and voice. On seeing me he approached and inquired where I was from and who I was. Then he went to report to the Elder and after a minute asked me to go in. I passed through a small ante-chamber and went into a little room. I had only laid eyes on the Elder and wished to bow to him, when he turned toward the icons and began to pray, as if inviting me to begin with that. Then he bowed to me, pointed to a chair, and sat down himself, and here I looked him over. He was a little, bent, old man with a grayish beard, small facial features, all covered with wrinkles, diminutive, and somehow otherworldly. When he addressed me in his kindly, old man’s voice, I did not immediately understand him. He spoke rapidly and mumbled. Everything that he said was perfectly simple and ordinary, but besides the words which I heard from him something far more significant issued from his personality. He proposed to me to make my confession reading aloud a confession of sins written in Old Slavonic characters. I was struck by the fact that although the same confession was read by every one, he listened attentively to every word and, as it were, pondered. That inner spiritual ear, which detected the true thoughts of the heart in an intonation emphasized or underemphasized, was in his case probably developed to a high degree. At the same time he was quickly thumbing through a pile of printed leaflets, setting some of them aside. At the end of confession he gave them to me. These were pamphlets of varied, edifying contents and of course not of identical value, but there was one which he purposedly looked for and gave to Kostya to pass on to me. In it there was told of the confession of a certain wandering pilgrim. I was amazed on reading this pamphlet; it so corresponded to that feeling which I myself experienced yet did not fully acknowledge during confession. Clearly, the Elder’s spiritual insight gave him to understand that precisely that one should be given to me. The Elder blessed me with a little icon.
In the afternoon my son Kostya visited him, then on the following day after partaking of Holy Communion we again called on him, and he received each of us separately and spoke with each. I was glad to see how happy and deeply moved Kostya was when he emerged from the Elder’s cell. The second visit left a still greater impression upon me than the first. It is impossible to communicate the Elder’s conversation; it might seem ordinary, uninteresting. The charms of his personality, the light with which he shone, were incommunicable. In the beginning his eyes seemed small, but during the conversation, under the impression of the heart-felt tenderness which he imparted, they grew as it were and seemed huge. In his glance one felt a burning, which was assimilated. He penetrated into the soul and spoke with it in an inaudible yet unceasing speech, and I felt that which I had very rarely experienced in a dream, in contact with the dead, when an ineffable communion and union of souls occurs. I pray that no one, when I am no longer among the living, on reading these lines will take them for an exaggeration, the fruit of an abnormal fantasy.
As I write I try to remember conscientiously, to realize, and to communicate my experience but feel that I am unable to do this properly and therefore can of course be guilty though unintentionally. Only I should not wish in any way to becloud the clear, radiant image of the Elder with his great, gentle, loving spirit, the living incarnation of the apostolic behest, which at one time my mother wrote on the title page of the New Testament which she gave me:
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. (Phil. 4:4)
His spiritual, loving cheerfulness formed the special charm of the Elder. That is the spirit which inspired Dostoevsky when he created the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. The forms of the Christian spirit and of Christian activity are very varied.
In the Optina Hermitage the joy of a gentle, loving spirit was handed down from one Elder to another and preserved like a living and sacred tradition, and it is felt like a great force.
Those monks with whom we came into contact, Fr. Martinian in charge of the monastery guest house, where we stayed on the instructions of my niece, S.F. Samarin, who directed me to him; the attendant of Fr. Anatoly, Fr. Varnava, the monk who managed the monastery bookstore – they all as it were reflected in themselves the same loving, kindly spirit, whose living source was in the cell of the Elder.
Church service in the Optina Hermitage was not as fine as one might have expected. The war had touched even the monastery and about 150 novices had been called up for military service, as a consequence of which the singing and church services could not be conducted with the former splendor. They served better, more distinctly in the skete, in the chapel. The skete stood in a pine forest. We were there during the night. A full moon illumined the tall pines covered with hoar-frost. White snow glistened on the road and in the clearings. Far off, at the end of the road, the enclosure of the skete showed white. The long, drawn-out ringing of the bell called at midnight to matins.
Everything together created inexpressible poetry, elevated and deeply akin to the spirit of the people. And in the daytime when I returned to my cozy attic room I saw how on the porch of the monastery church an old, bent monk with a gray beard was scattering grain, and on all sides doves were flying down, fluttering like a halo around him. Where is war, where are politics and agitation! Peace and rest, but the rest is not idle or empty; it is impregnated with prayer and a burning of the spirit – that is the last bright image of the disquieting year 1916, on which I conclude, for before what should one fall silent if not before this foreshadowing of the pacification of everything earthly, of eternal rest, and of God’s peace.
(Translated by Mr. M.W. Mansur
from Ruskaya Diplomatia 1914-1917 i Voina
na Balkanakh by Kn. Y.N. Trubetskoy, $18; available at Holy Trinity
Monastery, Jordanville, N.Y. 13361.)
such a wonderful introduction to Elder
Anatole, we would be remiss were we not to include a passage from Russia’s
Catacomb Saints which described the way in
which he received a martyr’s crown
One of the first targets of the Soviet campaign to liquidate religion was Holy Russia’s monasteries. Optina became State property. “Thanks to the efforts of local lay believers, the monastery achieved the status of a State museum, with one church being allowed to function.” The monks were terribly harrassed; some fled, others were arrested.
“Starets Anatole’s turn finally came. Red Army soldiers arrested him several times, shaved him, tortured and mocked him. He suffered much, but he still received his spiritual children whenever he could. Towards evening on July 29th, 1922, a Soviet commission came, interrogated him for a long time, and was supposed to arrest him. But the Starets, without protesting, modestly begged a 24-hour delay in order to prepare himself. His cell-attendant, the hunchback Father Barnabas, was menacingly told to prepare the Elder for departure, as he would be taken away the next day; and with this they left.
“Night came on and the Starets began to prepare himself for his journey. The following morning the commission returned. Leaving their cars, they asked the cell- attendant, “Is he ready?” “Yes,” answered Fr. Barnabas, “the Starets is ready. And opening the door he led them to the Elder’s quarters. Here a disconcerting picture presented itself to their astonished gaze: the Starets, having indeed ‘prepared himself,’ lay dead in his coffin in the middle of the room! The Lord had not allowed His faithful servant to be mocked any further, but had taken him to Himself that very night.”
Over the years the monastery was
freely plundered and was allowed to fall into such a ruinous and dilapidated
state that when the writer Soloukhin visited it in the ‘70’s, he was shocked
by what he could only describe as a “wreckage”.
Fortunately, however, Optina’s ties with Russia’s literary heritage
have in the last decade managed to attract enough attention that funds have been
allocated (a drop in the bucket) for its restoration as a national historic
monument, and work has begun. The
general impression, however, remains very depressing.
The main cathedral is still used for workshops of the agro-technical
institute which for many years has been housed on the premises.
But, as one writer explained, “One cannot blame the devastation on the
agricultural school students, nor on the workers of the kolkhoz who live in the
monks’ cells. The destruction was
consciously instigated by the authorities, from blind hatred towards religion,
towards national treasures, towards the spiritual face of Russia.”
(“Possev”, Sept. 1984)
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