Elder Ambrose of Optina and the Legacy of the Optina Elders in America

A few unworthy thoughts on the commemoration this Sunday (the Fourth after Pentecost, 6/28/7530 [7/10/2022 civil calendar]) of the Finding of the Relics of the Venerable Elder Ambrose of Optina in 1998.

There are many commemorations of blessed and holy saints each day on the Orthodox Church calendar. Today’s includes the relics of Elder Ambrose of Optina. He lived on this earth from 1812 to 1894, and became perhaps the best known of the hesychastic Elders of Optina (seen in the icon above, including Elder Ambrose), a monastery in western Russia in the region of Kaluga. The name Optina comes from a term meaning “living together” and reminds us of the Russian spiritual term sobornost or mystical unity and solidarity. Perhaps dating to the 15th century, the monastery played an important role in the spiritual history of the Russian Orthodox tradition and on Orthodoxy in America, even for our small mission in central Pennsylvania.

A Pravmir website article (source for much of the below along with some additional accounts) tells us that holy Fathers made the Optina Hermitage a focus for the powerful renewal movement that spread through the Church in Russia beginning early in the nineteenth century, and even into the atheist persecutions of the twentieth century. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky helped bring the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century with the Slavonic Philokalia, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a ‘headquarters’ from which the practice spread throughout the Russian land. The Optina Elders were spiritual masters who became renowned throughout the Orthodox world for their holiness and spiritual gifts.

Of them Elder Ambrose later became as mentioned perhaps the best known historically. The sixth of eight children, the future Elder had a lively personable character which conflicted with his spiritual yearnings. A serious illness helped him to resolve his inner struggle. He arrived at Optina in 1839 when the monastery was spiritually in full bloom. Guided at first by Elder Leonid and then by Elder Makary who chose him as his cell-attendant, he made rapid spiritual progress. After only three years he was tonsured and in another three years he was ordained hieromonk. Illness forced him into semi-reclusion for several years, enabling him with great profit to concentrate on the Jesus Prayer and to experience the meaning of hesychia, the silence of the soul before God. Plagued by a weak constitution for the rest of his life, he continued nevertheless to expend every effort at first in assisting Elder Makary with the translation of the Holy Fathers, with his correspondence, and in conveying his counsel to pilgrims, and later as an elder in his own right.

For 30 years alter Elder Makary’s death, Elder Ambrose was Optina’s principal starets. Countless pilgrims streamed to his cell, and even when he was thoroughly exhausted and had to receive them lying in bed, he never turned away anyone in need of soul-profiting counsel. Men’s souls held no secrets from him; abundant testimony exists of his clairvoyance. He always adapted his advice to the individual and no one’s problem was considered too insignificant.

Dostoevsky found in Elder Ambrose a living example of the Christian ideal, while his younger colleague Elder Nektary called him “an earthly angel and a heavenly man.” Indeed, he was seen more than once surrounded by uncreated light, a sign of transfiguration and citizenship in paradise.his

Elder Ambrose was a model for Elder Zosimas in The Brothers Karamazov, a book that has helped bring many Americans to Orthodoxy, including in our mission. Here is an example of one of Elder Zosimas’ teachings from the novel:

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies.

The real-life Elder Ambrose gave many wise teachings, a number of which recorded in his Life in the Elders of Optina book series of St. Herman of Alaska Monastery Press in California. That Press and Monastery, co-founded by Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory, were significantly inspired by the legacy of the Optina elders, which also had touched some spiritual supporters of the American mission. The work of Father Seraphim, originally blessed by our mission’s patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, also has helped bring many Americans into Orthodoxy, including again some in our mission.

In Elder Ambrose’s Life are collected some of his words, includging:

Where it is simple, angels number a hundred and one; but where it is complicated there are none…. Where there is no simplicity, there is only emptiness.

To those who said they couldn’t do something, he told a story about a merchant who would always say can’t do it, can’t do it, I’m weak. Once the merchant had to travel in Siberia. The merchant rode wrapped in two fur coats in a sledge. He dozed off one night and opened his eyes and saw something glowing like twinkling stars. It was the eyes of wolves. He bounded from the sledge and up into a tree, forgetting the weight of his fur coats, an incredible feat.

“A requested cross is hard to carry,” Elder Ambrose said. “It is better to give yourself over to God’s will in simplicity.” He added, quoting the Apostle Paul: “Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (p. 247, Elder Ambrose of Optina, St. Herman of Alaska Press).

On this date in 1998 the relics of Elder Ambrose were recovered in the re-founded Monastery at Optina, which had been closed by the Communists who sought to erase its history and memory across generations. The finding of the relics remind us of the ever-resilient life of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the continuing spiritual power and impact of the Prayer of the Heart practiced by Elder Ambrose and others in the Optina tradition.

In ending, let us say in our hearts the Prayer of the Elders of Optina:

O Lord, give me strength to face with serenity everything that this day will bring. Grant me to entrust myself fully to Your holy will. Every hour of this day teach me and support me. Whatever news I may receive during the day, teach me to accept it with peace of mind and with firm conviction that everything is according to Your holy will.

In all my words and actions guide my thoughts and feelings. In all unexpected events, do not let me forget that everything is sent by You.

Teach me to deal sincerely and wisely with every member of my family, bringing confusion or sorrow to none.

O Lord, give me strength to bear the weariness of the coming day and all the events of this day. Guide my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to endure, to forgive and to love. Amen.


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