The Optina Elders
“The Startsi of Optina Monastery are holy fathers Moses, Antony, Leonid(Lev), Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatolius I, Isaac I, Joseph, Barsanuphius, Anatolius the Younger, Nectarius, Nikon the Confessor, and Hieromartyr Isaac the Younger. Hieromartyr Isaac was shot by the Bolsheviks on December 26 1937.
The holy Fathers made the Optina Hermitage (Pustyn) a focus for the powerful renewal movement that spread through the Church in Russia beginning early in the nineteenth century, and continuing up to (and even into) the atheist persecutions of the twentieth century. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15) was powerfully influential in bringing the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a ‘headquarters’ from which they spread throughout the Russian land.
The monastery itself had been in existence since at least the sixteenth century, but had fallen into decay through the anti-monastic policies of Catherine II and other modernizing rulers. Around 1790, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow undertook a mission to restore and revive the monastery in the tradition set forth by St Paisius. By the early 1800s the monastery (located about 80 miles from Moscow) had become a beacon of Orthodox spirituality, partly through their publication of Orthodox spiritual texts, but more importantly through the lineage of divinely-enlightened spiritual fathers (startsi, plural of starets) who served as guides to those, noble and peasant, who flocked to the monastery for their holy counsel.
The fathers aroused some controversy in their own day; a few critics (some of them from other monasteries) disapproved of their allowing the Jesus Prayer to become widely-known among the people, fearing that it would give rise to spiritual delusion (prelest). For a wonderful depiction of the deep influence of the Jesus Prayer on Russian life during this period, read the anonymously-written Way of a Pilgrim.”
“The Optina Pustyn (Russian: Оптина пустынь, literally Opta’s hermitage) is an Eastern Orthodox monastery for men near Kozelsk in Russia. In the 19th century, the Optina was the most important spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church and served as the model for several other monasteries, including the nearby Shamordino Convent. It was particularly renowned as the centre of Russian staretsdom. It is not clear when the monastery was established. Its name is derived from the Russian word for “living together”, possibly because nuns were allowed into the cloister prior to 1504.
Most of the monastery buildings were erected at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the monastery was being renovated as a centre of Russian staretsdom. In 1821, a hermitage for startsy was established 400 metres (1,300 ft) away from the monastery. The startsy attracted crowds of devout Christians to Kozelsk….
The cloister boasted a rich library, collected with help from the Slavophile Kireyevsky brothers, both buried within the monastery walls. The philosopher Konstantin Leontyev lived at the monastery for four years and took the tonsure here. The local starets Saint Amvrosy is said to have been a prototype of Father Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov”.
After the Russian Revolution, the last of the startsy were forcibly deported from the monastery, which was declared a gulag. The last hegumen was executed in Tula in 1938. Later, some of the structures were demolished, while the cathedral was designated a literary museum.
In 1987 with the beginning of Perestroika, Optina Pustyn was one of the first abbeys to be returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the 1990s its most notable startsy were glorified as saints. They are commemorated together on October 10 (October 23 on the Gregorian Calendar)…
The holy Fathers made the Optina Hermitage (or Poustinia) a focus for the powerful renewal movement that spread through the Church in Russia beginning early in the nineteenth century, and continuing up to (and even into) the atheist persecutions of the twentieth century. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15) was powerfully influential in bringing the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a ‘headquarters’ from which they spread throughout the Russian land. The Optina Elders were spiritual masters who became renowned throughout the Orthodox world for their holiness and spiritual gifts. Among them the most known are: Schema-Archimandrite Moses, Schema-Hegumen Anthony, Hieroschemamonk Leonid, Hieroschemamonk Macarius, Hieroschemamonk Hilarion, Hieroschemamonk Ambrose, Hieroschemamonk Anatole (Zertsalov) and Hieroschemamonk Barsanuphius.”
The Startsi of Optina Monastery are:
Elder Leonid (1768—1841)
Elder Moses (1782-1862)
Elder Macarius (1788-1860)
Elder Antony (1795-1865)
Elder Hilarion (1805-1873)
Elder Isaac I (1810-1894)
Elder Ambrose (1812—1891)
Elder Anatoly the Elder (1824-1894)
Elder Joseph (1837-1911)
Elder Barsanuphius (1845-1913)
Elder Nektarius (1853-1928)
Elder Anatoly the Younger (1855-1922)
Elder Isaac II (1865-1937)
Elder Nikon (1888-1931)
“Concerning his visit to Optina Monastery, Nikolai Gogol wrote to Count A.P. Tolstoy in June, 1850, saying:
‘While travelling I stopped off in Optina [Monastery] and carried away a remembrance that I shall never forget. I think that on Mt. Athos itself there is nothing better. Grace is visibly present there. One can even sense it clearly in the external serving (in church)… I have never seen such monks anywhere… every one of them, it appeared to me, conversed with everything heavenly. I did not ask them how they live, because their faces speak for themselves. The simplest brothers struck me with their bright angelic kindness, their simplicity of manners, their radiance. Even the workers in the monastery, the peasants and the inhabitants of the neighborhood, struck me in the same way. Several miles prior to reaching the monastery, one senses this spiritual fragrance: everything becomes friendlier, the boughs of the trees are lower, and the attention to a human being much deeper.’
Ivan Kontzevitch, in attempting to describe his time at Optina, notes that “to transmit this impression to one who has not experienced it is impossible!” Yet, offering a “glimpse” he writes:
‘It is an early summer morning. You are walking to church. There is a fresh breeze. Around you is a murmur of the deep forest, whose fragrance hovers all over and in front of you, against the forest, is the grandeur of the white citadel. There is Optina. At the same time, you are experiencing a genuine sense of God’s presence, and from this comes fear for each thought, each action, each feeling, together with an intangible peace in your soul, and joy, which so wondrously harmonizes with the external surroundings.’
Just as all paths leading to a mountain top converge on it, so too in Optina – the spiritual summit – there converged both the higher spiritual podvig of inward activity, which is crowned with an abundance of the gifts of grace through the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the service to the world, satisfying both its spiritual and everyday needs. Many came to see the Elders of Optina in search of consolation, healing, advice, guidance or instructions. The Optina Elders were visited by those who became entangled in the circumstances of their lives or philosophical quests. Like “deer searching for springs of water,” men in their thirst for truth yearned to go to Optina. They all quenched their thirst at this source of “living water.” The outstanding thinkers of the time, philosophers and writers visited Optina: Gogol, the Kireyevsky brothers, Leo and Aleksei Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solviev, Leontiev… and countless others.”
For the Optina Elders, see:
http://stpaisiusmonastery.org/about-the-monastery/life-of-st-paisius/optina-elders/ (which includes brief biographies of each of the Elders as does http://christthesavior.net/?p=880 )
Vol. 1: Fr. Clement Sederholm “Elder Leonid of Optina” [St Herman of Alaska Press, 1990]
“Possessing penetrating spiritual discernment, Elder Leonid (1768 1841) was at the same time loving and fatherly. He could mystically see into the hearts of his spiritual children, knowing when to rebuke, when to exhort, and when to console. He especially cared for those whom no one else seemed to have time for, and thousands came away from him healed both in soul and body.
No one ever saw Elder Leonid disturbed by passionate anger or irritation. During the most difficult times of his life no one ever heard a sound of impatience or grumbling from him no one saw him downcast. It was hard not to marvel at his joyfulness and inward peace. Preserving a holy simplicity, free of hypocrisy, he spoke with everyone in a direct and straightforward way.
Elder Leonid was very significant for Optina Monastery and for all of Russia. He introduced and firmly established in Optina the ancient tradition of eldership transmitted through St. Paisius Velichkovsky a tradition founded on the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Holy Fathers. Also included in this volume is the Life of Elder Leonid s preceptor, Elder Theodore of Svir.”
Vol. 2: Fr. Clement Sederholm “Elder Anthony of Optina” [St Herman of Alaska Press, 1996]
“Elder Anthony, born Alexander Ivanovich Putilov in 1795, came from a pious family of the Yaroslav Province, raised in the fear of God. Of Alexander and his four brothers, three became righteous abbots of renowned monasteries. From early youth Alexander dedicated himself with great zeal to the labors of desert dwelling.
The difficulties of the narrow and sorrowful path of the monastic life became joyful to Alexander through the rewards of spiritual consolations full of grace. To the 20-year-old Alexander, who had striven so long and so zealously toward monastic life, the short, dyed robe, covered with stains and patches, seemed, as he himself later expressed it, “more precious than royal purple.”
“Elder Anthony of Optina”, the prima vita of 1869, is compiled not only from the information of his own personal notes, journals, and letters, but also from memoirs of his spiritual children, particularly the disciple of St. Herman of Alaska–the saintly Sergius Yanovsky–who became a disciple of Elder Anthony after returning from America.”
Vol. 3 Fr. Leonid Kavelin “Elder Macarius of Optina” [St Herman of Alaska Press, 1996]
“During the 19th century Optina Monastery became a herald of the spiritual revival in Russia through the publication of spiritual literature by the Elders.
Elder Macarius was instrumental in proposing the independent publication of patristic literature–an enterprise of historical significance, possible primarily through the patronage of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow and a host of contributing participants, and which was centered in Optina Monastery.
Outstanding philosophers and writers of the time, such as Dostoyevsky and Gogol, began visiting Optina in their search for truth. Among them was Ivan V. Kireyevsky, who would become the most devoted spiritual son of Elder Macarius and his chief collaborator in editing patristic literature. The brief biographies of Kireyevsky and other disciples of Elder Macarius contained in this volume show the amazing influence of this humble elder throughout Russia.
“Elder Macarius of Optina” is a translation of the prima vita written by one of his closest disciples Archimandrite Leonid Kavelin–a man of a great literary talent. The third volume of The Optina Elders Series contains rare memoirs discovered years later shedding light on the mystical aspect of this spiritual director of uncommon caliber–a modern Church Father who has left a legacy of deeply inspiring letters.”
Vol 4: Fr. Sergius Chetverikov “Elder Ambrose of Optina” [St Herman of Alaska Press, 1997]
“The Elders of Optina Monastery have had a tremendous impact on Russian society. During the course of a century, their prophecy and God-illumined counsel attracted spiritual seekers from far and wide.
Elder Ambrose is considered the pinnacle of Eldership in Optina. He embodied the virtues of all the elders in the highest degree–divine humility, purity of mind and heart, overflowing love, and total self-sacrifice for the salvation of his fellow man. Because he had attained the depths of humility, the Lord blessed him with spiritual gifts by which to heal suffering souls. He read human hearts, was granted to know the past, present and future of people, and spoke to them the direct, revealed word of God. So great were his gifts that hundreds of people flocked daily to his humble cabin in central Russia. Among these were the writers Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Leontiev and Solovyev. Dostoyevsky was so moved by his pilgrimage to Optina and Elder Ambrose that he wrote his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, with the specific intention of depicting the spiritual image of Optina Monastery and the Elder. The well-known character of Elder Zosima in his book was modeled after Elder Ambrose, whose words of counsel Dostoyevsky put directly into the mouth of his unforgettable character.
This edition of Elder Ambrose’s life is a faithful English translation of the original Optina edition, printed in Russia in 1912. Through its pages we enter the world of a heavenly man, an angel in the flesh who beheld the mysteries of the future age: the perfect love and silent oneness of immortal spirits.”
Vol 5: I. M. Kontzevitch “Elder Nektary of Optina” [St Herman of Alaska Press, 1999]
“Elder Nektary (1853-1928) was the last elder to function as such at Optina. He was in Optina when it was forcibly closed by the communists in 1923, and spent his remaining years in exile from his spiritual home. He lived through a time of persecution worse than any other in the thousand-year history of the Russian Orthodox Church. At this time of immeasurable sorrow for Christian believers, God gave Elder Nektary to Russia as both a consoler of souls and a voice of prophecy.
Marked by simplicity, childlikeness, spontaneity and creativity, Elder Nektary radiated joy to the thousands of suffering souls who came to him. Having reached the summit of spiritual life, deification, he was beheld in Uncreated Light by his disciple, Fr. Adrian (Archbishop Andrew) Rymarenko. He passed on his Optina inheritance to many worthy disciples, who later transmitted it to America. Among these were Fr. Adrian, Bishop Nektary Kontzevitch, and the author I. M. Kontzevitch–all of who were the preceptors of the American editors and publishers of this volume.
Through the eyewitness accounts of Elder Nektary’s life contained in these pages, this “spiritual grandfather” of Orthodoxy in America can help to ground Orthodox converts in sober spirituality, rooted in unfeigned humility and repentance, which marks all true followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Vol 6: Tatiana Torstensen “Elder Sebastian of Optina” [St Herman of Alaska Press, 1999]
“The spiritual image of Elder Sebastian (1884 1966) is that of a longsuffering, quiet bearer of the vision of the Optina monastic tradition destined to preserve Optina eldership through decades of communist persecution of the Church. After the closure of Optina Monastery in 1923, Fr. Sebastian a disciple of both Elder Joseph and Elder Nektary matured rapidly into a truly compassionate pastor. He suffered arrest and imprisonment by the communists in 1933, and was sentenced to ten years in the Karaganda concentration camps of Kazakhstan.
Elder Sebastian had a constant concern for instilling deep peace in people s souls, and a constant sense of service through his labor and love to those surrounding him. He was exacting in everything, but first of all toward himself. He had the gift of great and profound discernment, and exercised moderation in everything.
“Elder Sebastian of Optina” has been translated from the recently published Russian biography, as well as from original manuscripts and various materials from Elder Sebastian s spiritual children. Also included is an Akathist to the Saint.”
Vol 7: Victor Afanasiev “Elder Barsanuphius of Optina” [St Herman of Alaska Press, 2000]
“Elder Barsanuphius (1845 1913), a disciple of Elder Anatole (Zertsalov) and Elder Nektary, was a highly cultured man and a successful colonel before entering the monastic life at a relatively late age. Due to his purity of heart and spiritual sobriety, he was transformed by God into a grace-filled Elder virtually overnight. The period before the first World War and the Russian Revolution was a complex one. The world was seething in unprecedented passions, and one could clearly sense the approach of darkness. With a sympathetic soul Elder Barsanuphius attended to the world, and the Lord parted a curtain before him, showing him the horrors of the future.
People from the world, thirsting for consolation in their sorrows, streamed to Optina. Elder Barsanuphius, in frail health but strengthened by the power of the Lord, received them, conversed with them, confessed them, and directed them to the only true path. He was a man of extraordinary spiritual vision, and could see clearly into the hearts of those who came to him.
Presented here, for the first time in English, is a complete biography of this great Elder, including his talks on a variety of subjects, excerpts from the journal of his cell-attendant (the future Elder Nikon, himself a great Optina Elder and a subsequent victim of the communist terror), and selections from his spiritual poetry.”