On pilgrimage in holy Russia V: Optyna Pustyn and its influence

Optina Pustyn’s influence is based on the development of its hermitage and the Elder tradition.

Some large monasteries in Russia were quite wealthy. It is estimated that in the fifteenth century, monasteries owned about a third of Russian land. But under Peter the Great, taxes were introduced on monastic wealth which led to the closure of smaller monasteries and an overall decline.

The hermitage at Optina opened in the early nineteenth century and the introduction of a stricter rule of silence helped to strengthen the spiritual life of the monastery.  But, monastic practice at that time was very focused on external practices: singing psalms, fasting, vigils and praying with bows. The Abbot, Moisey, and another senior monk, Antony, were familiar with the works of the Greek Fathers and introduced the idea of spiritual direction by an Elder into the monastery for the first time.

In doing this they were influenced by the work of  Paissy Velichkovsky, a monk from the Ukraine, who in the late eighteenth century spent some time on Mount Athos learning about the Greek tradition of Elders and the importance of prayer, especially the continual repetition of the Prayer of the Heart or Jesus Prayer. In the nineteenth century Optina became a great centre for the translation and publication of the works of St Paissy and the Greek Fathers.

By the 1840s the Elder tradition had become firmly established at Optina. Monks were required to be obedient to the Elder, to confess daily their thoughts, feelings and actions to him, to practice the continuous Prayer of the Heart and to read the Greek Fathers in their free time. Elders were experienced monks who had experienced extended periods of withdrawal from the world and through the strength of the practice had received the gift for spiritual direction and insight.

The reputation of the Elders spread beyond the monastery and many lay people came to them for advice on specific problems, as well as existential crises. These included some of the greatest Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky, it is claimed, based the character of the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov on the Elder Amvrosy. So the revival of monasticism at Optina had a wider impact on Russian society.

St Amvrosy

St Amvrosy is an interesting example of a last nineteenth century elder. Although physically weak from a congenital illness, he began his day at 4.00am and in between the services that punctuated the day he would receive crowds of visitors who came to him for guidance. He would finish the day, exhausted, often as late as 11.00pm. Frequently he was so exhausted he would receive visitors while lying on his bed; he refused to turn people away.

A couple of example from the life of St Amvrosy.

A man came to the monastery to collect some money it owed and called in on the Elder whilst he was there. The Elder kept telling him to postpone his return home from one day to the next and the man became anxious as he was expecting to receive some important customers. Eventually the Elder told him it was time to go and said: ‘ God bless you and, after  while, do not forget to thank God.’ The man returned home safely only to find his important customers arriving at about the same time and apologising for their delay. Later, as one of his most trusted workers lay dying, he confessed to the man that he and some others had laid in wait to rob and kill him  for the money he was brining back from Optina, but had given up when he didn’t show up. The man then remembered the Elder’s words: ‘and, after a while, do not forget to thank God.’

An old woman came to see him for help with the turkeys that she had to look after for her employer, as the birds regularly became ill and died. The onlookers laughed, thinking it a stupid question. However Amvrosy took her seriously, shared her concern, listened to how she currently fed them and then gave her new feeding instructions.’Her life was in those turkeys,’ he said.

The tradition of the Elders lives on. My friend, Dima, went to see the current Elder at Optina, Iliy. Dima’s head was seething with questions he wanted to ask, but he hung shyly at the back of the group of visitors. Finally, as the room emptied, he was left facing the Elder who looked at him and asked whether he wanted to ask anything. Dima later explained: “Suddenly all the questions had gone and my mind was now calmed by the gaze and presence of the Elder. I shook my head and just turned and left.”

On pilgrimage in holy Russia IV: Vespers at Optina Pustyn

The Elder Iliy censing the monks at Vespers

After venerating the relics of the Optina Elders, Dima gives us a choice. We can either go and collect water from another holy spring or we can go to Vespers. For me it’s no contest, I want to hear Vespers sung by the monks, and besides the sun is still fierce, the mosquitoes very active. Most of my fellow pilgrims choose the spring option, so I wonder back towards the cathedral where Vespers is due to start at 5.00pm.

Dima tells me that there is one Elder in the monastery, Starets Iliy (Elijah). I have seen a picture of him in a book where he was officiating at the funeral of the three new martyrs for the faith. As I move through the grounds I see a short wizened monk beset by people seeking advice from him. It’s the Elder.

About 15 minutes before the service is due to start a deep bass bell sounds slowly and rhythmically from the bell tower. As it speeds up, all the other bells gradually join in until the air is full  of the sound. It’s exciting and stirring to be in the midst of all these bells.

Inside the cathedral, the monks stand in the nave in two rows facing each other, separated from the congregation by a low wooden barrier. As befits the Easter season, they are dressed in red and gold vestments . Easter hymns are sung and the Easter greeting – Khristos voskresye! (Christ is risen!) – is shouted by the monks many, many times, with the congregation responding Vo istinu voskresye! (He is risen indeed!). At intervals the monks, in pairs, take it in turn to cense the church and congregation shouting the Easter greeting over and over again.

The Elder Iliy stands closest to the congregation, with his back to us facing the iconostasis. He looks old and frail and when he reads his voice is thin, but he has a great presence. At one point during the service one of the monks drops his censor and charcoal spills onto the red carpet. With amazing speed and agility the Elder rushes over to him and helps him pick up the charcoal.

The singing is wonderfully powerful, some of the best Orthodox chant I have heard. In addition to the two rows of monks in the nave there are two choirs, one in each side aisle.  At several points in the service one of the monks conducts the congregation in hymns.

As in the cathedral in Tula and at Shamordino there is an icon of the last Tsar and his family which seems to be popular judging by the number of candles in front of it.

I notice in the congregation a couple of people taking photographs, one an orthodox nun with a digital SLR. Emboldened by photographing the monastery grounds, I manage to take 3-4 pictures before I am challenged by a monastery official about whether I have a permit. At which point I judge that it might be better to leave the service.

I am sure that my fellow pilgrims are intrigued as to why I am there, but now at Optina they are chattier realising that I speak Russian. I discover that the pilgrims are not all from one church, but from several in Tula. The common link is our organiser, Dima, who is a history teacher and most people are the parents of children he teaches. On the bus home, we are all feeling tired but more relaxed. Dima hands out phials of blessed oil from the icon lamp over St Amvrosy’s tomb and tell us that one of the gifts pilgrims receive is the ability to give comfort and consolation to those around them.

A snowy track in Belarus

Our friend, Vasily, who lives in a town in southern Belarus near the border with Ukraine, sent us this seasonal photograph.

A beekeeper, orchard grower and skilled craftsman, he is a remarkable man and I will do a post on him and how we came across him sometime soon. The picture shows the track leading towards his small plot of land under a couple of feet of snow.

On pilgrimage in holy Russia III: Optina Pustyn monastery

From the bus, you see it first across the River Zhizdra, its blue and golden cupolas glinting in the sun, the soft pastel colours of its buildings, its encircling wall. This is the monastery of Optina Pustyn, once one of the great powerhouses of Russian Orthodox spirituality, which has had a profound influence on Russian society and culture. Set deep in the Russian countryside, it is near the town of Kozelsk in the Kaluga region, about 200 miles south of Moscow.

Optina Pustyn was at the forefront of a revival in monasticism that took place in Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was due to the influence of the Elders (startsy), monks of remarkable spiritual attainment who not only provided direction to the brothers but who also provided advice to ordinary lay people. Thousands of people, rich and poor, came each year to the monastery to seek help from the elders. Among these were some of Russia’s greatest writers Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. I will write a little about the Elders in a separate post as they are an interesting phenomenon.

Before the Revolution there were 300 monks here, but by a decree of the Bolshevik government in January 1918, the monastery was closed and the monks expelled. Many were arrested, tortured and exiled to the camps or subsequently shot. The monastery was blown up, looted and desecrated. During Perestroika, the Soviet government handed the monastery back to the Russian Orthodox Church in November 1987, just in advance of the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Conversion of Russia in 1988.

It is said to be one of the oldest monasteries in Russia, though its exact origins are unknown and most of the buildings, carefully restored since 1987, date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Optina Pustyn is a large complex of buildings and includes five Cathedrals, the largest of which is the Cathedral of the Presentation of the Most Holy Mother of God in the Temple.

Before we go into the monastery itself we walk through the forest to the Hermitage where the monks have their cells. Passing through a gate in the surrounding wall we find ourselves in a large rectangular area bordered by the monastic cells. Within this area are  various buildings and a small church. It was here that the Elders of Optina Pustyn lived. The hermitage was closed in 1918 at the Revolution and the buildings turned first into a children’s home and then a rest home.

Back at the entrance to the monastery itself, I notice a sign saying no video filming. I ask a fellow pilgrim and she tells me no photography is allowed inside the monastery. I check with the people on duty and they tell me that photography is OK but no video. Feeling relieved but guilty, I furtively take pictures when my fellow pilgrims, especially Dima, are not around.

The churches are stunningly beautiful and have been well restored, some are still being worked on. But the overwhelming impression is one of peace and calm.

The graves of the monks are also within the monastery in amongst the Cathedrals. At the centre of the church buildings though is a small covered area behind a wooden fence.

This is where the monastery bells used to hang until the terrible events of Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second monk who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk who, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’.

Graves of the three ‘new martyrs of the faith’

All of the elders, canonised mainly in the 1990s, have been re-buried inside the cathedrals. Dima leads us on a tour of the Cathedrals to reverence the remains of the elders. I join in  and feel like a real pilgrim now – perhaps this was what it was like in the Middle Ages to go on pilgrimage and venerate the relics of saints. Approaching each cathedral, we stop to cross ourselves and bow three times to the icon over the entrance. At each tomb, my fellow pilgrims approach one by one, make the sign of the cross, bow three times, then kiss the tomb and once again make the sign of the cross and bow three times. Some of the tombs even have a small piece of bone embedded in the glass top.

Probably one of the most venerated tombs is that of the Elder (now St) Amvrosy. The glass-topped tomb sits beneath a lit icon lamp hanging from a carved wooden canopy and next to the tomb stands a monk reading prayers aloud. The body is covered by a red cloth but beneath the cloth you can see the shape of the head. I join my fellow pilgrims here in venerating the relics, feeling a special connection with St Amvrosy.