The Optina Elders have had a huge impact on Orthodox Christians in the 20th and 21st century. Strongly influenced by St. Paisius Velichkovsky, Optina Monastery was responsible for a revival of hesychasm during the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Russia. It is probably most famous for its startzy, or divinely illumined spiritual fathers. These elders were beacons of light in pre-Revolutionary Russia, calling many to repentance before the disastrous ascendance of the Bolsheviks. Through the translation and publishing efforts of I.M. and Helen Kontzevich, Fr. Seraphim Rose, and the St. Herman of Alaska brotherhood, biographies of the elders written before the Revolution and compiled after brought the Optina tradition both to America and back to the Russian faithful. Since the Optina elders have such a special place in the hearts of American Orthodox, and the Russian Church Abroad has a particularly strong spiritual connection to them I knew I would read their biographies at some point. After recommendations from my brother and another friend, I decided now would be as good a time as any to start.
If you’re Orthodox and have developed affinity for any particular saint, you’ll know what I mean when I say I really like Elder Anthony Putilov. He is the younger brother and spiritual child of Elder Moses Putilov, founder of the Optina Skete. In the introduction to his biography, Fr. Herman tells us that he personifies the virtue of “wisdom derived from humility”. I had not planned to read Elder Anthony first (or did I have plans at all?). Fr Herman mentions in the introduction that he found himself bored by a book of Elder Anthony’s letters, finding them too well, meek. He was looking for action and found only a quiet voice. Where was St. Marina, hitting the devil with her hammer? When Fr. Herman later read Elder Anthony’s biography he realized that something had escaped him “simply because [he] had been ‘too loud’.” (Elder Anthony, p.17)
Not unlike Fr. Herman’s experience, I found the biography rather dull at first. The elder’s life was no adventure story, walking across glaciers to get to America. Rather, the book reflects the humble struggle of a true monastic. Elder Anthony aspired to monasticism during his early life, eventually received permission from his family, endured many serious illnesses, carried the cross of abbotship, retired to Optina skete, cared for his spiritual children, and died a Christian death. Fr. Herman talks about his life as the “sound of silence”- true humility. Elder Anthony’s struggle was that of an “ordinary” Christian, a man who did not seek to exalt himself and from whom grace flowed (and still flows!) in abundance. Once I made it past the biography and into the letters/diary entries, I saw that flaw was in myself, rather than the work. The elder’s open admission of his shortcomings brought a few of my own to light in uncomfortable but necessary ways. Truly, who doesn’t feel comforted hearing that the saints also struggled daily? It reminds me that our faith is for us, people living here and now, and that salvation is possible even for we non-superhumans.
Enough of my pontificating. Here’s a passage on forgiveness from the 1823 diary Elder Anthony that particularly struck me.
St. John Chrysostom said: “As fire is to gold, so is affliction for the soul, washing away defilement, making one pure, clear and radiant, this leads to the Kingdom.” For this reason too, Christ said In the world ye shall have tribulation (John 16:33) as something that brings one great good.
A thought came to me: the Saviour commanded us to forgive our brother his sins seventy times seven in a day; but you, wretched one, don’t even want to forgive him once.
Having confessed my grief at a brother to Batiushka, I was told: “We must bear nobly others’ infirmities of soul without grievance. Therefore if someone is ill in body, we not only do not become distressed at him, but moreover we serve him in every way. In such a manner one must address maladies of the soul.”
–Elder Anthony of Optina, p.210
Elder Anthony, pray for us!
Sederholm, Fr. Clement. Elder Anthony of Optina. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA, 1994