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’.
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.