Our monastery’s icon of the Synaxis of the Optina saints, a gift from our sister monastery in Bulgaria, which has severl very talented iconographers.

St. Ambrose of the Optina monastery reposed on October 10/23. Our monastery has a chapel dedicated to him, but since on that day we celebrate the Synaxis of all the Optina saints, we also celebrate his memory individually on December 7/20, together with that of his own patron saint, St. Ambrose of Milan.

St. Ambrose is especially beloved for his approachability, for lack of a better term. A jokester and prankster as a child and young man, he never lost his sense of humor; to this day many quote his quips and rhymes. He was always open to everyone and extremely versatile, in the sense that he could find an individual approach and the right advice, be it for a nobleman, a writer or artist, a monastic, or a simple peasant. For most of his life as a monastic elder he was extremely ill with something that sounds a lot like Crohn’s disease, but he bore this cheerfully and with a complete faith and a reliance on the will of God.

Saint Ambrose was the third of Optina’s trio of great spiritual elders, who were instrumental in the revival of Russian Orthodox monasticism in the 19th.  They were all disciples or followers of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, practioners of prayer of the heart, translaters and publishers of patristic texts, reformers and founders of monasteries, but above all they were the spiritual fathers and guides of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Orthodox Christians. It believe it can be argued that the spiritual path that they taught, their approach to prayer and to the inner, spiritual life, is what made it possible for a huge percentage of Russia’s new martyrs to survive persecution and to embrace imprisonment, exile and martyrdom. The first of this trio, St. Leo, who reposed in 1841, introduced the practice of frequent confession of thoughts and a hesychastic approach to private prayer to Optina and made them cornerstones of monastic life. St. Macarius, reposed in 1860, began the work of collecting Patristic manuscripts, of translating them into contemporary Russian, and of publishing. St. Ambrose, reposed in 1890, built upon the foundation laid down by his predecessors, and became the best known and most loved spiritual advisor of his time. Optina flourished as a monastery, and disciples of the Elders went on to reform, revive, or to found many men’s monasteries, but it was the religious women of 19th century Russia that really took the teachings of these Elders to heart. Many women’s monasteries were completely reformed and hundreds of new communities were founded with the direct assistance of the Elders, or by individuals inspired by them. A history of the Optina monastery and its tradition was one of the first books to really touch my heart as a young girl, and it has always been a special joy to me that my own monastery is linked to Optina, having been founded with his blessing, and with a prayer rule especially blessed by him.

St. Leo of Optina
St. Macarius of Optina
St. Ambrose of Optina

In this day and age of so many false elders and deluded spiritual guides it is especially important to remember the humility and the sobriety  of the Optina Elders, their refusal to ascribe any of their success to themselves, their constant self-effacement, and the respect and Christian love that they demonstrated towards all that came to them. Many of St. Ambrose’s spiritual children attest to this, and I would like to give three examples.

Many biographies of St. Ambrose recall the visit of an ordinary peasant woman, who was responsible for the turkeys on the estate where she worked. As hard as tried, and no matter what she did, the turkeys kept dying off, and she was worried that she would lose her job. Near despair, she came to the elder, weeping and asking his advice. He spent a long time with the woman, asking her all about the turkeys and discussing her problems in great detail. At the same time, several monks were waiting their turn to speak to him, and they grew increasingly exasperated that this supposedly clairvoyant elder was wasting so much time on some woman and her turkeys, instead of addressing their serious spiritual concerns. Finally, when she left, the first monk asked St. Ambrose, “Batiushka, how could you spend so much time with that woman and her worldly concerns, when we, the brothers of the monastery were waiting?!” “You’re being unkind and impatient”, the Elder answered, “don’t you see that her entire livelihood and that of her children depends upon those turkeys? How could I just dismiss her?”

A portrait of St. Ambrose

St. Ambrose’s secretary, Fr. Clement Sederholm, a convert from Lutheranism and former diplomat, relates his experience of trying to guide spiritually a friend of his, an older man, who also converted to Orthodoxy from Lutheranism largely because of the influence of fr. Clement. Feeling responsible for his convert friend, Fr. Clement did everything that he could to teach him about the faith and the liturgy of the Orthodox Church, and to encourage him to attend the monastery services. However, the poor man, not at all accustomed to the unusually lengthy monastic offices, with little understanding of Church Slavonic, let alone of the complicated rubrics, found this extremely difficult, and the harder Fr. Clement tried to push him into attending all the services, the worse it became, until the man began to express his regret at having converted in the first place. Fr. Clement came to his senses, and sent the man to St. Ambrose, who immediately discerned that Fr. Clement was burdening him with something that he was in no way prepared to handle. He advised him to attend only the more important parts of the services, gave him a shorter and more understandable prayer rule, and in general advised him to go at a slower pace and to let God’s grace work upon his soul, rather than trying to go it all alone. The man was greatly consoled, and St. Clement also took this lesson to heart, using it to illustrate how a true Elder operates.

St. Ambrose in his cell

But the most amazing account of St. Ambrose’s guidance concerns an affair that went on for many years. He had a spiritual son that was a carpenter, specializing in building iconostases for churches. This man was very devoted to the Elder and wouldn’t start any project without his blessing. At one point in his career he was completing a big project not far from Optina, and had a new job lined up, also in the same district. He decided to visit Optina and Elder Ambrose in between the two projects. Having collected his payment for the completed iconostasis, he set out to Optina, where the Elder greeted him joyfully, and recommended that he spend a few days at the monastery, preparing for and receiving Holy Communion, as it had been some time since his previous visit. The carpenter hadn’t intended to spend quite so much time at Optina, but he was determined to be obedient. After receiving the Sacrament he went to the Elder to ask for a blessing for his next job. He was intending to meet his customers on his way home. Much to his chagrin, St. Ambrose suddenly recommended that he receive the Sacrament of Unction, and he again agreed, though not without a bit of grumbling. Nevertheless, he figured he could still catch his customer. When he again came to say goodbye to St. Ambrose, much to his disappointment, though the Elder greeted him warmly and thanked him profusely for his obedience, he requested that the man spend one more day at Optina. “Tomorrow morning come and have breakfast with me, and then you can head on home”, he said. “Huh, and they call him clairvoyant”, the carpenter thought. But he couldn’t ignore the Elder’s loving kindness, and he didn’t want to pass up the chance to actually have a brief meal with him, and somehow he felt that this was some sort of test, so he thought, “Well, it’s not that great of a loss, I’ll find other clients”, and stayed the day. He left the following morning greatly consoled by the Elder’s farewell and by his gifts. And then it turned out that his client had been held up on other business, and he arrived at just the right time to finalize everything having to do with this new project. “So the Elder knew after all”, he thought. The project was successful and extremely profitable, and the carpenter wisely ascribed his success to his obedience to St. Ambrose, and continued seeking his guidance up until his repose. But this is only the first part of the story!

A contemporary painting of St. Ambrose and
his visitors. We like to think that one of the
nuns is St. Catherine of Lesna, getting a
blessing to start our monastery.

Many, many years later, and several years after the Elder’s repose, the carpenter’s main assistant, his most trusted worker of many years, lay dying. He called for the carpenter and asked to speak to him privately. “Master”, he said, “I have something to confess to you that I must get off of my conscience before I die”. “There’s nothing between us to confess”, the carpenter said, “We’ve worked together all these years, and I never had reason to suspect you of anything. Go in peace!” “No, master”, the man said, “I have sinned gravely against you. Do you remember the year when you had that big project not far from Optina? I grew jealous, master, and I decided to kill you. I knew that they were going to pay you before you went to the monastery, and that you’d be traveling with a load of money from Optina. Since your family knew that you were going to stop on the way home to meet with a new client, I figured I could do away with you and it would be some time before they realized you were missing. And I would be far away by then… My son and I, we waited for you in the woods for several days, we were stalking you. But you got held up in Optina for a whole week by the Elder, and by then I figured you suspected something, and headed on back home. But you never said anything, and I understood that the Elder’s prayers had protected you and kept me from committing a great evil. So forgive me now, Master, and let me depart in peace”. And only then did the carpenter learn that not only had St. Ambrose not been testing him, not only had he known that everything would work out with his new project, he had been saving the soul of the poor man that lay dying before him, and he had saved the carpenter’s very life. By the prayers of St. Ambrose of Optina may we all learn true discernment, true charity and true humility.    

The Optina skete

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