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  A Spiritual Giant – Elder Barsanouphius of Optina


Small trees can never replace a giant. (from Elder Barsanouphy's funeral oration)

     Elder Nektary, the last in Optina's golden chain of elders, said of his contemporary, Elder Barsanouphy: "In a single night, by God's assent, a brilliant officer became a great elder," He was a chosen vessel, although this was not manifest in his life until relatively late. While still in the world, Pavel Ivanovitch Plekhanov, as he was then called, met St. John of Kronstadt who kissed his hand. But the future elder paid this prophetic gesture little heed; he had no thought of entering the priesthood, let alone monasticism, and continued his successful pursuit of a military career, with its attendant round of parties, until he suddenly became deathly ill. The doctors had given up hope, and he was listening to the Gospel, preparing to leave this world, when he had a vision. He saw the heavens open and he shuddered, terrified, as his whole life flashed before him. He was overwhelmed by a feeling of repentance, and then he heard a voice exhorting him to go to Optina. There, under the discipleship of then Hieromonk Nektary, he soon became, as one of his spiritual children later expressed it, "a giant of the spirit."

     As a true elder, he bore the prophetic gift of clairvoyance which allowed him to see into men's souls and skillfully prescribe remedies to cure their ills. It was a gift which demanded uninterrupted union with God, and holiness of life. This he achieved while remaining eminently accessible to the multitudes --of both men and women--who thronged to him for counsel. He was particularly concerned with the spiritual welfare of young people, for his eldership coincided with a time of turbulence when many were being caught up in a vortex of revolutionary ideas and false religious teachings; here, the influence of Tolstoy was especially widespread.

     Elder Barsanouphy's spiritual genius and the magnetic power of his Christian love are illustrated below by the late Priest Vassily Shoustin, as he describes his first visit to Optina with two friends , all students, reading The Brothers Karamaov had led him to wonder if the likes of Elder Zosima still existed. His experience went far beyond answering his curiosity; he was left with life-changing impressions similar to those which many pilgrims to Optina carried away in their hearts. 

     Having looked around the monastery and its churches, we made our way through the east gates to the skete --to the abbot of the skete, elder Barsanouphy. The reception of pilgrims had already begun and the doors were open.. Through a small glassed-in porch we entered a corridor lined with benches. Normally, the Elder's cell-attendant would come out from time to time to ask those waiting who they were and where they came from, and convey this information to the Elder. But we didn't see this. As soon as the three of us entered the corridor, the door into the Elder's cell opened and he appeared before us--a handsome figure, tall, stately, his head covered with silvery white hair without a hint of yellow, he smiled affectionately and extended his arms in a welcoming gesture. "At last, the trinity I've so long awaited has arrived! What took you so long to come? Please please, come in." Awestruck, each of us approached him with trepidation for a blessing. He tousled our heads. Standing in the doorway, he told us to go in and find a place to sit. I sat in an armchair near the iconostas and began to look around. The cell was not large; there were several icons in a corner with a vigil lamp and, in front, an analogion. The furniture consisted of a table, a couch and three armchairs. Behind a partition stood the Elder's bed. The walls were hung with portraits of deceased elders.  

      As soon as we had settled ourselves, the Elder straightway came up to me: "You're quite the fellow! I stood in the doorway and watched--who would sit where, and you chose to sit in the elder's chair!" I got up, embarrassed. "Forgive me, Batiushka, I didn't know, I'll move," But he put his hands on my shoulders and sat me down again. "You wanted to be an elder, and perhaps you will be." Saying this, he lifted his eyes and looked upwards. Then he looked at me and continued: "My heart aches for you; you won't finish college"...And so it happened; first I became ill, then there was the war with the Germans, and finally the Civil War, and I was prevented from graduating.

    Batiushka rang a bell. When the cell attendant appeared, he asked him to fire up the samovar and make some tea. Batiushka himself sat with us and began to talk, At first he reminisced about Petersburg where he had lived during his period of officers' training:

     "...At that time I was assigned to the Preobrazhensk regiment and attended services at the Preobrazhensk (Transfiguration) cathedral. I went daily to the early Liturgy. It was a habit instilled by my stepmother, and how grateful I am to her today! In the village, when I was only five years old, she would wake me up every morning at six o'clock. I didn't want to get up, but she shook the blankets and forced me out of bed; and I had to walk--no matter what the weather--a mile to Liturgy, Thanks be to her for such an upbringing! She showed magnificent persistence, and nurtured within me a love for the Church; she herself always prayed with great fervor"...

    While Batiushka was conversing with us, the cell-attendant brought tea in glasses, and set the table with honey from the monastery hives, jam and margarine. Batiushka served us himself, like a genial host. He spooned honey and jam onto our plates, and called for the pressed caviar someone had brought as a gift; he spread it thickly on white bread and bade us not to be bashful. Meanwhile, he went to the women's side to bless those gathered. He didn't admit any more men for talks but simply gave them his blessing. On learning that we had come for more than a week, he arranged for certain days to be spent in preparing for Holy Communion and other days to be at leisure. As we were leaving, he took my head and pressed it to his breast, caressing me with great love and expressing his sorrow that I would not finish college. I was amazed by such treatment and moved to tears; I had not known parental affection. 

His Gift of Clairvoyance

      Before giving confession, the Elder usually held general discussions. With the help of various examples from life, he would point out forgotten or disregarded sins committed by those present.

     There was an incident in my own life. In Petersburg, our family had season tickets for opera performances in the Marinsky Theater. A year before I came to Optina, Chaliapin was to sing in the opera "Faust"; our subscription performance fell on the eve of December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas. I was dying to attend the opera and hear Chaliapin. Well, I thought, I won't make it to the vigil, but I'll get up early the next morning and go to Matins. Having settled on this compromise I went to the opera, and in the morning, a bit late, I went to Matins and stayed through the early Liturgy. "Now then," I told myself, "today I've honored the memory of the God pleaser, St. Nicholas." A slight pricking in my soul was soon forgotten. But now, before confession, I heard Batiushka say that it happens that we don't even suspect ourselves of having sinned. For example, he went on, "instead of honoring the memory of a saint as great as St. Nicholas, December 6, and attending the vigil, people go to the theater for self-enjoyment. The God-pleaser is relegated to a back seat, and this is a sin."

     [The fact that the Elder's gift of clairvoyance was not a product of some extraordinary natural abilities but depended wholly upon God, may be seen in an incident which occurred when the students, at the Elder's invitation, paid him a second visit the following day]:

     Having conversed with us for about an hour, he arose. "I have a custom," he said, 'of blessing my spiritual children with icons. I have a lot of them in a box, all sorts. With prayer, I take the first icon that comes to my reach, and look to see which saint it depicts. Sometimes it is very meaningful." The Elder took from the box an icon for me. It turned out to be an icon of the Mother of God, 'Assuage My Sorrow'. "What great sorrows are you going to be faced with?" Still holding the icon, he became concentrated in thought. "No, the Lord does not reveal this." He blessed me with the icon and again affectionately pressed my head. There, on the breast of the Elder, one felt a depth of reconciliation and voluntarily gave oneself to him, wholeheartedly. His love seized you; it both protected and made you captive. “Tomorrow,” he said, “is Sunday. Today, go to the vigil, and in the morning at 6 o’clock come to the Skete, to Liturgy.” He accompanied us to the porch and blessed us once again. 

     After the general confession he would confess each person individually, very attentively, treating each with love and doctoring each soul .... In blessing those preparing for Holy Communion, he advised them not to eat anything from vespers--during which the canon was read--until after partaking of the Holy Mysteries, There were exceptions when he allowed some tea. I told the Elder that St. John of Kronstadt once allowed me to have Communion the day after I had eaten meat. "Yes," replied Fr. Barsanouphy, "Fr. John was a great man of prayer, a bold ascetic; he could ask the Lord anything, and his prayers would obtain for him anything he asked. But I am a sinful man, and I don't possess such boldness, and for this reason, here in the monastery I don't allow laymen any alteration of the monastic rule. After all, it's not that difficult to fast for two days; often it is even healthy. And now go in peace. May the Lord help you to worthily partake of the Holy Mysteries. After Liturgy, come see me for a cup of tea." And we left, our souls calmed and at peace.

    At 3:30 we went to vespers, at 8 o'clock to evening prayers, and then straightway to sleep because we had to get up at midnight for Matins. Thanks to Batiushka's prayers we managed all this with little difficulty, received Holy Communion at the early Liturgy, and went directly to the Elder's for tea. He met us with joy and thanks to God .... He cautioned us that on the day of receiving Communion it sometimes happens that one experiences a certain heaviness; one mustn't pay attention to this or become despondent; on that day the devil is particularly riled and acts hypnotically upon the person, Batiushka went on to say that hypnosis was an evil force, not Christian. "Thanks to this hypnosis the devil tries to upset us clergy when we perform the Divine Liturgy. He cannot approach the altar, which is surrounded by angels, so he suggests doubtful and blasphemous thoughts. But through prayer and with the help of God they are driven away..."

     After tea he sent us out for a walk. He did not advise taking a nap on the day one received Holy Communion. 

     The narrator cf this account, Priest Vassily Shoustine, became a close spiritual son of Elder Barsanouphy who introduced him to his future wife, a pious girl who wanted to become a nun; the Elder warned her that a convent would ruin her and advised her to marry the young Shoustine. Among his counsels to them was the following: 


    "When you have children, teach them music, real music, of course, not [these modern] songs and dances.' Music facilitates the development of spiritual life. The soul becomes refined. It begins likewise to understand religious music. In church, for example, during the reading of the Six Psalms people often go outside; they don't understand, they don't feel that these Six Psalms are a spiritual symphony, the life of the soul, which seize s the whole soul and fills it with the most sublime delight. People don't understand this; their hearts are stony. Music helps one to appreciate the full beauty of the Six Psalms." 

    The end of Elder Barsanouphy's life was marked by sorrow and personal difficulties which he bore with a degree of humility corresponding to his lofty spiritual stature. He was grieved by the disruptive influence of a small faction of new monks infected by revolutionary ideas. In addtion, a certain wealthy woman, offended by the Elder's refusal to allow her to wield authority in the Skete, slandered him before members of the Synod. As a result, in 1911 Elder Barsanouphy was relieved of his duties as Skete superior, and sent to take charge of the rundown Golntvin monastery in Kolomna. On the way he spent several days in Moscow with Bishop Anastassy (who became Metropolitan of the Russian Church Abroad) who raised him to the rank of archimandrite.

     In two short months Elder Barsanouphy effected a complete transformation of the Golutvin monastery--both external and internal. But in spite of his tremendous outpouring of energy, he saw that his earthly life had all but spent its course. He died two years later, on April 1, 1913.

     A Shamordino nun related that she once saw uncreated light radiating from Elder Barsanouphy's face as he served the Divine Liturgy. May he now rest in the everlasting light of Christ's Kingdom. 

(Materials from Optina Poustin I Yeio Vremya by I.M. Kontzevich; Jordanville, 1970)


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