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 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.”