Orthodox America

Spiritual Treasure Houses  

      In all ages--be it the period of Tatar oppression or the evil years of Bolshevik debauchery--the flame of Russian religious life and thought was preserved and protected with particular care in those worthy spiritual sanctuaries, the monasteries.

      The Grace of the Lord is always present in greater measure behind monastery walls, and in all ages the people came, they came and came to these purest well-springs of their faith. Not in vain did there originate among monastics the saying: "If you want experience--go to Optina." [1]

       And now, when in the vast expanses of the Russian land, instead of hundreds of monasteries and tens of thousands of monks there remain only tiny islands where a few ascetic strugglers conduct an unceasing warfare against the sinful and godless world, it is to these islands that thousands of human destinies, thousands of souls, come sailing through the storms of life, while thousands more have already received help there and have themselves gone to the rescue of others.

      Of course, the God-fighting authorities have been trying with all their might and by any means to disturb and pollute these wellsprings. To this end, believers who with all their heart and mind strive toward God are expelled from the monasteries under various pretexts, and in their stead are planted worldly acquisitors for whom life in a monastery becomes a cover for a passionate, sinful and sometimes even criminal life.

      The authorities contrive in every possible way to have such people infiltrate the monastic communities; what is more, by means of some ordinance, they often force the monasteries to accept these people. Not infrequently these people, having barely set foot on the monastic path, are recommended by the authorities for the highest positions in the monastery administration--that of superior or steward. For monks and nuns in monasteries governed by these pseudo superiors and stewards, life is very difficult. They are constantly subjected to aggressions, persecutions and humiliations, which in most cases are unjustifiable. But these flowers of God's grace only blossom all the more with humility and love. And the believers keep coming and coming to absorb this grace, to inhale its unearthly fragrance, and to spread its truth over all the earth.

      Some monks are categorically forbidden by the monastery administration, under pressure from the Soviet authorities, to receive believers, to engage in discussions with them and, in general, to associate with them outside the walls of the church or to be spiritual instructors--under threat of expulsion should these prohibitions be violated ....

     During cold and rainy seasons not too many visitors come to the monasteries, especially those located in the rural areas. But with the approach of warmer days the flood of pilgrims in the monasteries begins to rise--to such proportions that no dams put there by the godless authorities can hold back the never ending flow. These inconsistencies are easily explained: the authorities forbid monasteries to have guest houses for the pilgrims, and in cold weather it is harder to find overnight accommodations. But during the warmer spring and summer weather those who travel to the monasteries, whether to work at some obedience, or to stay for a few days to pray, to obtain spiritual guidance and to breathe the monastic air--are able to find lodging in a shed or storeroom at the home of one of the local old women who come to pray at the monastery. Many believers who desire spiritual growth and profound devotion to God, do just that. They come to a monastery for their vacation and sometimes even for two or three months. They receive an obedience assigning them to some part of the monastery work-load, they have constant contact with their spiritual father, they attend all the services and have their meals in the monastery refectory, and return home with warmed hearts full of joy, as if cleansed with living waters. How often it has happened that after several such vacations spent at a monastery, people have left prestigious positions in the world and their formerly beloved professions to devote their lives to serving God.

    The reason for this is found in the grace that flows from everywhere in monasteries: from the people, the services, the icons, relics, the surrounding nature. This imprint of the monastery stays in the hearts of all who have been there even once, who have prayed and breathed deeply the monastery air. Many priests, after a few visits to a monastery, have been transformed; their life and service in the Church acquired a new wholeness and depth; instead of a strictly superficial inspiration appeared a deeply prayerful state, a constant turning toward God, and with it a more sincere, mere natural attitude toward people, their sorrows, misfortunes, joys, and consequently also an active--rather than merely formal--participation in confessions.

    If the authorities fail to isolate such a priest, to deprive him of the possibility of sharing his wealth with believers, the fruit of his influence reveals itself in a very short time: in the quality of the services, in the attitude of the believers toward the services and toward faith, in the attitude of the singers, of the readers and other church attendants. Gone are the listless readings, gone is the concert-style singing of the choir --everything becomes spiritual, truly churchly.

    In conclusion I should like to relate one incident which illustrates the prevailing attitude among believers towards these spiritual treasure-houses.

     This happened during the time when the godless authorities were destroying and defiling the nation's sacred objects, kept in churches and monasteries. In order to obtain as easily as possible the precious metals needed to restore their ruined industry, the godless plundered the churches, removing crosses and bells, and appropriating church vessels. It was decided to take down the large 360 pound bell from the Optina Monastery belfry, a bell whose velvety sound was heard for tens of kilometers. The bell would not fit through the opening in the tower, so a larger opening was smashed out. As a result the bell crashed to the ground, shattering into countless fragments. These were gathered by local believers and the last of the pilgrims, who witnessed the affair, in order that the memory of Optina be preserved.

    Today each one of us can ask himself the question: are we capable, do we have the strength not only, figuratively speaking, to preserve these holy fragments but to fuse them together, to let this Optina bronze sound anew, the way it sounded long ago in the ascetic achievements of the monastery's elders and monks?

Vadim Shcheglov
Representative Abroad of the Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights in the USSR

(Translated by Vera Kencis )

What Must We DO?

     Optina's big bell could, conceivably, be replaced by one whose sound would likewise carry far beyond the picturesque Zhizdra River on whose banks the famous monastery is situated. Restoration work has already begun, albeit sluggishly, and one can expect that in the years ahead Optina will regain a fair semblance of its former beauty.

      Indeed, the physical restoration of Optina and other monasteries and churches is feasible enough. But unless content--that grace-filled life which characterized Holy Russia--is restored, they will remain as lifeless as the bones of Ezekiel's vision. As Orthodox Christians--whether Russian, American, Greek, Ukrainian...--we are all members of one Body. And therefore this inner restoration is something to which we all can, and should contribute. How? It was, as Shcheglov poetically points out, not the bell which called people to Optina, but the ascetic achievements of the monastery's elders. If each of us would but intensify our own spiritual labors, our own 'podvig', and acquire in our hearts even a fragment of that spirit which was embodied in Optina, these efforts could by God's grace be fused together to form a bell whose sound, like Optina's, would be heard in the heavens.

[1] A play on the Russian word opit, meaning “experience".

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