Orthodox America

  The Elder’s Choice – Schema-Abbess Sophia of Shamordino

    Schema-nun Sophia was born to the aristocratic Bolotoy family on July 16, 1845. As a young child she exhibited both the agile and active mind inherited from her learned mother and the vivacious, generous character of her father. When financial setbacks forced the Bolotoys to sell their Moscow house, Sophia's mother took all the children and moved to her brother's country estate in Tula Province, and the children were raised and educated privately on the estate.

     Endowed with great natural talents at birth, Sophia Mikhailovna learned easily and there seemed to be nothing in which she could not excel. However, since everything came so easily to her, she was unable to concentrate deeply on one subject for a long time, but constantly shifted from one interest to another, as if looking for some activity great enough to command all her energy and potential. Her inconstancy and frequent changes of heart grieved and worried her mother and aunt, for Sophia seemed to embody the most incompatible contrasts: her mother's piety, gravity and introspection were mixed with her father's affability and liveliness. Impressionable and highly sensitive, boisterously cheerful one minute, introspective the next, ardent and impulsive, kindhearted and decisive, she created a strong effect on all who knew her, and many were charmed by her at first sight. She threw her. self into, and out of, a host of plans and interests: she would determine to be a stunning young lady of society, or a governess and educator, or a country housekeeper, or a singer, and until the next fancy struck her She would hurl herself into her venture with great vigor.

     Sometimes, however, she would tire of this purposeless life. The longing of her soul for something deeper, something great enough to devote herself to, would prevail, and she would suddenly become quiet and reflective, spending her days fasting and praying, as if she had made up her mind to renounce the world. Thus it was that she went secretly one year to the town of Epiphany and spent all of Great Lent in spiritual struggle and prayer, living near the church with two old nuns. Her family had known nothing of all this and was greatly upset by her sudden disappearance. Their search for her led to nothing, and it was almost Pascha before they found her and persuaded her to come back home. Once home, she continued her solitary life for some time before becoming once again caught up in worldly pursuits.

    Her marriage at the age of thirty, to A. N. Yankov, did not last long, for his health soon failed and he died within fourteen months of their marriage. Their daughter Nadezhda was born three days after the funeral.

    Living in the country, Sophia Mikhailovna looked after the estate and cared for her daughter with loving attention, but this alone was not enough to occupy her heart, and she turned to charity as a means of serving her fellow men. In this as in everything Sophia knew no half-measure, and her labors of mercy turned into a veritable Christian exploit. Living near the main road, which was much traveled, especially on feast days, Sophia Mikhailovna often found drunken peasants lying on the road in all sorts of weather, having fallen unconscious on the highway. Together with her maid Akulina, she collected and sheltered the peasants until they sobered up. Besides Caring for the sick, Sophia gathered around her the neglected children of prisoners and impoverished families, sheltering and caring for them with all a mother' s love, frequently having t w e n t y orphans in her care at once.

     After almost three years of widowhood, Sophia Mikhailovna sold her estate and moved again into her uncle's house in Tula. The people around her still often found her strange and incomprehensible; few understood her complex and richly-endowed soul. Nonetheless she was drawing near the day when, through the God-bearing, Elder of Optina Monastery, Fr. Ambrose, the slumbering power and beauty of her spirit would be awakened and channeled into the building of one of Holy Russia's greatest convents.

    But first there remained one more step in her preparation for the dedication of all her will and strength to God. Sophia had heard much about Staretz Ambrose and decided to go and visit him, but stopped at the Tikhonov Monastery en route to Optina. Feeling a great attraction to Tikhonov, she wished to settle there, and decided to ask Elder Ambrose's blessing for this. One can only imagine her astonishment to hear that the Elder absolutely refused to bless this move, and instead told her that she must marry a total stranger, whom he would point out to her.

    Sophia Mikhailovna's soul underwent a profound change when touched by the grace of God which shone visibly in Elder Ambrose. For the first time in her life she submitted her impetuous, headstrong nature entirely to the will of God. This trial of her faith, which would have been too much for a lesser nature, was instead the means of bringing to life the deep capacity for humility and obedience which lay dormant within her heart.

    One of Fr. Ambrose' most devoted spiritual sons was N. I. Astafiev, a widowed landowner who lived near Optina. He had long wanted to enter monastic life but was restrained by Fr. Ambrose, who always replied that a bride would come to him from Tula. In obedience Nikolai Ivanov always inquired at the Optina guesthouse for visitors from Tula, and it was not long before he and Sophia were married, in obedience to the Elder.

    Sophia Mikhailovna remained firm in her plans despite the incredulity of her family; the marriage lasted only a little more than two years before Astafiev died, and all this time she was being unconsciously prepared for the work that lay ahead of her.

      She spent many hours with Fr. Ambrose, who was very fond of her. Even before Astafiev's death, the Elder made great use of Sophia Mikhailovna's assistance in the practical aspects of organizing the women's community he wanted to establish near Shamordino. Although her husband worried about the toll this took on her delicate health, he knew that Sophia Mikhailovna would enter this convent herself, and so he asked to be buried on the Shamordino grounds.

      After her second husband died Sophia Mikhailovna entered into the work for which she had been prepared by God, and the humility and fervor of her soul matured fully. On Sept. 4, 1884, she was tonsured secretly by Staretz Ambrose, in his cell at Optina, was appointed by him to be Abbess of the new convent dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, and went to take up the care of her sisters, a commission which she discharged with love and the fear of God until her death. Knowing that Sophia Mikhailovna still had certain responsibilities and obligations in the world, Elder Ambrose chose to tonsure her secretly in order that she might begin her work as quickly as possible, and told her she could make it public after she had freed herself from her secular obligations.

      Her love for and obedience to the Elder were boundless, and she threw herself into the organization and solid establishment of the convent with all the force her nature possessed. The simplicity and strictness of her own life, combined with the loving zeal of her care for her sisters, made it possible for her to lead by example and admonish with grace, for even those whom she rebuked knew the depth of her compassion, her insight and her maternal love. She moved among her sisters continually, never separating herself or exalting herself above them, but struggling with and sacrificing herself for them, and her sisters obeyed her with love and sincerity. She spent herself upon them unstintingly, and they, like everyone who knew her, were captivated by her. Someone who knew her well, and knew her attitude toward the sisters and theirs toward her, once said of her to Elder Ambrose, "Batiushka, there never was such a Matushka before." "Never was and never will be," the Elder replied.

     Her health, undermined by her ceaseless labors, began to fail soon after her appointment as Mother Superior. In 1885, while the Elder was visiting Shamordino, Matushka Sophia had a nervous stroke, the first in a series of increasingly severe physical afflictions by which her soul was further purified and refined until her death in 1888.

     Although she was tonsured into the Great Schema in 1886 by Archimandrite Isaac of Optina, she still labored diligently and actively for the foundation of her flock, and following her recovery of a part of her strength after a second crisis in 1887, she threw her waning energies into the planning and building of a beautiful cathedral at Shamordino, working all the more fervently as if she sensed her quickly-approaching death. Her last journeys, to Optina and Kiev, were in fact connected with the planning of this cathedral, and she fell seriously ill on her return from Kiev in November.

     Feeling a deep desire to spend her last days close to her beloved Elder, She decided to go to Optina, and said good-bye to her sisters at Shamoraino. Fr. Ambrose gave her Extreme Unction and communed her, and again on Dec. 30th, after which her condition remained stable for a brief time before rapidly deteriorating. The Elder supported her continually in her last trial, sending his cell attendant to her every day. She received the Holy Mysteries daily until her death on Jan. 2l, 1888, after a final brief agony.

      Her body was taken back to Shamordino for the funeral. Whenever he came to the Convent, Fr. Ambrose always visited her grave, blessing it and saying with tears, "Oh, what a Mother she was!"

    To one of her close friends he said that Matushka Sophia was his "right hand," and added, bursting into tears, "I am sorry for the sisters."

     To the late Matushka Sophia's s i s t e r, Yelena Mikhailovna, he once said, "Do not forget that Mother Sophia is a saint." Some people could not understand how Matushka could have gained her salvation in such a short time, and to them the Elder would say, "Matushka was merciful to others while living a worldly life, and that is why she found speedy mercy with God."

     In 1911, by permission of the diocesan administration in Kaluga, Matushka's body was transferred to a new and beautiful tomb during the night of October 19. What the nuns selected for this task saw within Matushka's tomb as they removed her body remains a secret to us, but many instances of miraculous cures occurring at her tomb allow us to assume that God's grace has visited her long-suffering body. 

(Translated by Mrs, Olga Oleiniko v from Russkie Podvishniki Jordanville, 1966; condensed by Riassaphore-nun Paisia)

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