Orthodox America

  Letters of Spiritual Counsel - By Elder Ambrose of Optina


To parents grieving over the death of their son

       I have learned of your profound grief--the unexpected death of your son, M.N., and offer my heartfelt sympathy. There is a holy tradition--to visit the home of the grieving, but inasmuch as I am weak and infirm and cannot visit you personally, I decided, even if belatedly, to converse with you in a letter in order to assuage as much as possible your great sorrow.

       Given the weakness of human nature, it is impossible for parents who have lost their only son so prematurely, at such an age, in the flower of life, not to grieve; it is impossible, I say, for all these reasons, not to grieve, not to complain, not to sorrow, having so unexpectedly lost their only child. We are not pagans, however, who have no hope concerning the life to come, but Christians, who have a joyful comfort even beyond the grave--which is the gift of a future, eternal blessedness. This consoling thought should temper your sorrow and soothe your profound grief. Although you have temporarily been deprived of your son, in the future life you will again be able to see him and to be joined with him-in such a way that you will never again be separated. For this to happen, however, you must take proper measures: 1) commemorate M's soul at the Bloodless Sacrifice, in reading the Psalter, and in your prayers at home; and 2) in his name give alms and engage in other deeds of charity, as much as you are able. All this will be beneficial not only for your son, but also for you. Although his death has brought you great grief and sorrow, this same grief can serve to strengthen you in the Christian life, in the practice of good deeds and in a Christian disposition of soul. What the Lord works in us is not only good but often exceedingly kind.

       True, we all want to receive salvation and inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but we often forget that this comes "through many tribulations" and not infrequently seek after earthly happiness and temporal pleasures in the affairs of life and attachment to worldly things. The All-good Lord, in His infinitely wise Providence, resolves this dilemma by bringing about unexpected deprivations and sorrow, in order that we might come to our senses and turn our spiritual gaze to the acquisition of good things which are not transitory but eternal, everlasting and unchanging. The Lord does this in His immeasurable love 'for mankind, as the Apostle says! ...whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth....if ye be without chastisement...then are ye bastards, and not sons (Heb. 12:6-8). 

      You have been sent a grievous sorrow, but comfort yourselves in the fact that through this affliction you are numbered among the sons of God, through God's boundless love for you. Guard this great Christian advantage, submitting to the will of God not only un-murmuringly but with gratitude. You wanted the temporal comfort of your son s presence in this life but the Lord win arrange it so that you can take comfort in your son in the endless ages of the world to come.

      Finally, you can rejoice in that your son left you grandchildren whom you can raise and find comfort in. They will be for you both grandchildren and dear children. Make every effort to allay your grief, so that it does not exceed Christian bounds, and the All-good Lord will show you His mercy and send you spiritual consolation. Who knows what would have become of your M. had his life been prolonged. Now you can be certain that he will remain good always.

      Calling upon you peace and God's blessing, I remain, with sincere good wishes... 

21 March, 1867

Letter #XXIX

The need for repentance. The benefits of fasting

      (N) must come to reason. No matter what one thinks or how one looks at it, one cannot escape death, nor avoid God's judgment where each will be given according to his deeds. Therefore, it is good to come beforehand to one's senses and take hold of wisdom. Thec Gospel teaching begins and ends with the words “Repent!" I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, and, Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls (Mat:. 11:28-29). The Lord calls those who labor in battle with the passions and those burdened with sins, and promises to console them through sincere, repentance and sincere humility.

      You write that during Great Lent you see (N) only on Saturdays and Sundays and visit her to drink mint tea, and that the nuns there wouldn't ever think of drinking real tea during Great Lent. Free-thinkers may think there's little difference between drinking real tea and an herbal infusion, when in fact, it is of no small significance. Every privatiion and every effort [to force oneself against one's pleasure] is of value in God's eyes. As the Gospel says the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force (Matt. 11:12). Those who boldly and willfully transgress the rules of fasting are called enemies of the cross, whose God is their belly and whose glory is in their shame (Phil. 3:19). And in the Psalms it is said: from the belly they are gone astray (Ps. 57 7:3).

      It is, of course, quite another matter if someone transgresses the fast by reason of illness or bodily infirmity. But healthy people by fasting become healthier and kinder, and what's more, they often live longer, although they may look rather gaunt. During periods of fasting and abstinence the flesh is less rebellious, one is less inclined to be drowsy, fewer vain thoughts crawl into one's head, there is greater desire for spiritual reading and it is better retained.

       If, for the great Feast, (N) gets at least decently dressed ...... I will be very glad. It is not for nothing that we read in one prayer: "Lord, whether I will or not, save me," and in the Psalms it is said: whose jaws thou must hold with bit and bridle, lest thy come nigh unto thee, (Ps. 31:9).

1881 (no date)