The Distinctive Features of Orthodox Spirituality

(Ch. 2 of John Dunlop's, "Staretz Amvrosy")


In order to understand what the fleeting schoolteacher Alexander Gerenkov encountered at the famous Optina Pustyn monastery in Kozelsk, it is necessary to carry out a brief survey of Eastern Orthodox spirituality.  For, as we shall see, Staretz Amvrosy was no "accident"; he was above all else a man totally immersed in a particular "tradition," a tradition which we shall now examine    


According to the New Testament the Christian must pursue perfection through self-renunciation, through a "shifting of the center" in which the overweening human ego is removed to the periphery and God himself is placed as the center of the human personality.  This vital and life-giving shift occurs only through the greatest effort (praxis); the soul must die to this world so that it may pass into the next, which has already been initiated by Christ and will culminate in His Second Coming.  Good will alone is not sufficient to effect such a shift, for there are innumerable pitfalls awaiting one who would heed the Saviour's call.  Not only is God at work in the world but the "enemy," (The expression is Christ's.  See, for example, Matthew 13:39.)  that rebellious spirit who was cast down from the heights of heaven, the "ruler" of this world, is also very much at work, waging "invisible warfare" against the children of light, seeking by every means possible to drag the human soul down into non-existence.  The "enemy" is a wily and skillful antagonist; no Christian can hope to triumph over him alone.  In order to achieve victory the Christian is in need of a battle plan, a spiritual "map" which will assist him in avoiding the adversary's snares.  This map is that provided by Orthodox Tradition, the broad contours of which were sketched in by the New Testament and the details of which were filled in by the ascetic Fathers of the Church.  The spiritual history of Orthodoxy is in large part the history of this "map."  When the map lies open before all and when a prophetic segment of the Church is assiduously following the maps directions, the age is one of spiritual flowering; the fullness of Christianity burgeons forth and floods the world with the light of Christ.  When the map is ignored or, even worse, suppressed, the age is bleak, and Orthodoxy is seen to stumble about as a blind man groping for guidance.


In examining the history and development of this "map" we are of necessity limited to a very cursory treatment of the subject.  We shall deal firstly with the Byzantine developmental period of the map, a period culminating in the logical formulations of St. Gregory Palamas.  Then we shall deal with the "map's" history in Russia, paying particular attention to two very crucial figures, St. Nil Sorsky and Paisy Velichkovsky.  Finally we shall treat the history of Optina Pustyn Monastery in which a charismatic line of startsy was produced, culminating in the career of Amvrosy.


Writing about the early period of Christian spirituality P. Pourrat has observed that, "There were not two spiritualities: one for those who had retreated from the world and one for the simple faithful.  There was only one spirituality: monastic spirituality."  And John Meyendorff has written that, "The Eastern Church has recognized in the monks its authentic 'porte-parole.'  It adopted their liturgy, their spirituality, their type of sanctity."  It is to the monks, therefore, that we must look for our "map."  For it is they who, in seeking spiritual perfection, discovered the basic dimensions of the human soul within which God and the devil carry on a life-long battle for supremacy.


When in the fourth century the emperor Constantine embraced Christianity with an imperial bear-hug, the Church suddenly found itself in an ambiguous position.  As Fr. Florovsky has written, "After so many decades of suffering and persecution, 'this world' seemed to have been opened for the Christian conquest.  The prospect of success was rather bright.  Those who fled into the wilderness did not share these expectations.  They had no trust in the 'christened Empire.'  They rather distrusted the whole scheme altogether.  They were leaving the earthly Kingdom, as much as it might have been 'christened,' in order to build the true Kingdom of Christ in the new land of promise, 'outside the gates,' in the desert."  The flight to the desert provided the background for the development of what was to be to this day the basic spirituality of the Orthodox Church.  In early Christian symbolism the desert was the dwelling place of Satan who, despite all his apparent interest in human affairs, actually preferred to be alone.  The exodus of the early monks to the desert was a direct challenge to Satan.  St. Anthony, the spiritual father of all monks, went directly to dwell in the tombs and challenge Satan in his own kingdom of death.  It was in the desert that these incredible men began to fill in the details of the "map" which had been bequeathed to them by the writings of the apostles and preserved by the death of the martyrs.  The passion and temptations which must inevitably beset any Christian were unearthed and described with almost scientific precision.  Pride, vainglory, sensual lust – each passion was isolated and catalogued.  This "map" of the Christian soul was then passed on from one generation of ascetics to another, each generation profiting from the discoveries of the previous ones.  Not only were the passions and temptations which afflict the soul unearthed, however, but a "system" was developed to combat them.  This system was later to become known as "hesychasm" or "prayer of the heart."


The writings of St. Macarius were of extreme importance in developing this medicinal "science."  Macarius asserted that it is the Christian's vocation to achieve mastery of the heart.  "The heart is in effect the master and the king of the entire corporeal organism, and when Grace takes hold of the pastures of the heart, it assumes reign over all the members of the body and over all thoughts."


Of perhaps even greater importance, however, was the Ladder of Divine Ascent written by St. John Climacus around the end of the sixth century.  Here the "map" is presented in a very detailed form.  The Ladder is a work of spiritual genius, startlingly profound in its knowledge of human psychology.  Its value was such that Staretz Amvrosy did not hesitate to employ it as a virtual text-book of the human soul at the end of the nineteenth century.  In the Ladder the entire doctrine of hesychasm may be discovered in embryo form.


From the earliest period of Christian monasticism, therefore, a "tradition" was developed which dealt with the passions and prescribed methods of dealing with them.  Of all the methods which were used by the early monks the two chief ones appear to have been: "(1) a total confidence in the opening of the heart to a superior to the point where one reveals even one's most secret thoughts to him and (2) the most perfect obedience."  From the earliest period, thus, we find the figure of the staretz (Greek: geron, English: elder) to whom the monk reveals his thoughts and tenders absolute obedience.  Sometimes the staretz would be an established functionary of a monastery such as an abbot; sometimes he would be a hermit to whom less experienced monks would go for advice; and sometimes he would be a simple monk dwelling in a monastery who was seen to possess the charisma of spiritual direction.  Whatever his position, his task was to direct those who came to him on the path toward spiritual perfection.


For centuries the Eastern Church quietly made use of its "map."  Through absolute obedience, the revealing of "thoughts," and mental prayer many were led to heights of spiritual perfection.  In the late tenth and early eleventh century, however, there appeared a Byzantine monk who set forth the "tradition" which had been continually developing for nine hundred years in a forceful lyrical  poetry: "God is Light, and those whom He makes worthy to see Him, see Him as Light; those who receive Him, receive Him as light."  This was St. Symeon the New Theologian whose daring claim to have seen God as Light set off a furor which culminated in the theology of St. Gregory Palamas.  The crucial question which Palamite theology tried to resolve was: "Does man really encounter God in this present life on earth?  Does man encounter God, truly and verily, in his present life of prayer?  Or is there no more than and action in distans?"  The Palamite distinction between essence and energies provided a solution for this problem.  Man communicates with God through His Divine energies which are truly God and yet not His super-transcendent essence which "dwells in approachable light."  Palamite theology, thus, set the seal on what Orthodox monks had claimed to experience all along.  St. Gregory's theology was a theoretical explanation of the real divinization (theosis) which the monks had been experiencing in their witnessing of the Divine Light.  It was this practice and its theological justification which Nil Sorsky and Paisy Velichkovsky would later attempt to bring to Russia.


It behooves us now to take a closer look at the "system" which we have been elaborating.  How do all these elements – knowledge of the mechanism of the passions, obedience, the revelation of "thoughts," prayer of the heart, the vision of the Divine Light – combine in practice?  How are they synthesized?  And what is "prayer of the heart"?  How does it work?  How does one attain it?


Let us first take a close look at the “normal”, i.e. Fallen, man of this world. His spiritual state consists essentially of his relation to the various “thoughts” (in Russian: pomysly) which play about in his mind. In literature this has come to be known as the “interior monologue.” James Joyce made it famous in the concluding pages of his novel Ulysses in which he describes how his heroine, Marion Bloom, is lulled to sleep by the “thoughts” which come and go in her mind. “Thoughts,” the well-known Russian spiritual director Theofan the Recluse writes, “jostle one another like swarming gnats and emotions follow on the thoughts.” That this condition of wandering thoughts is very favorable for the “enemy” is obvious. Like a skillful merchant he is able to hold up one enticing ware after another to our spiritual eye. When we begin to desire one of these wares, when we, as it were, reach out for it, we have already set out on the path of self-destruction.


How, then, does the Christian fight against these thoughts? How can he repulse them? To a certain extent he can, of course, repulse them by an effort of will. But only to a certain extent. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “I can will what is good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Rom. 7:18-19) As long as we content ourselves with doing battle against these thoughts or temptations in the mind alone, we cannot but fail.


The center of man, however, is not the mind but the heart. The New Testament teaches that the heart is “the main organ of psychic and spiritual life, the place in man at which God bears witness to Himself.” Heart is a synonym for person which in Christian theology denotes the depth of one's being, the “I” which makes me absolutely distinct from the “essential” traits (i.e. Mind, memory etc.) which I possess together with all other men. The heart according to B. Vysheslavtsev “is the center not only of consciousness but of the unconscious, not only of the soul, but of the spirit, not only of the spirit but of the body, not only of the comprehensible but o the incomprehensible: in one word, it is the absolute center (of a human being).”


What then, the question might arise, is the relation of the mind to the heart? “The extraordinarily characteristic feature of eastern Christianity,” Vysheslavtsev writes, “consists in the fact that for it the mind, intellect or reason is never the final basis, the foundation of life; intellectual reflection about God is not authentic religious perception. The Eastern Fathers of the Church and the Russian startsy give the following instruction for a genuine religious experience” one must stand with the mind in the heart.'”


The object of the spiritual life according to the tradition of the Eastern Church is, therefore to bring the mind into the heart; otherwise it remains “fallen,” hopelessly prone to sin. Timothy (Fr. Kallistos) Ware has given a marvellous description of this “descent” in his introduction to the Art of Prayer:


By the use of his brain, he (the ascetic) will at best know about God, but he will not know God. For there can be no direct knowledge of God without an exceedingly great love, and such love must come, not from the brain alone, but from the whole man – that is, from the heart. It is necessary then, for the ascetic to descend from the head into the heart. He is not required to abandon his intellectual powers – the reason, too, is a gift from God – but he is called to descend with the mind into his heart.


Into the heart, then, he descends – into his natural heart first, and from there into the “deep” heart – into that “inner closet” of the heart which is no longer of the flesh. Here, in the depths of the heart, he discovers first the “godlike spirit” which the Holy Spirit implanted in man at creation, and with this spirit he comes to know the Spirit of God, who dwells within every Christian from the moment of baptism, even though most of us are unaware of his presence. From one point of view the whole aim of the ascetic and mystical life is the rediscovery of the grace of baptism. The man who would advance along the path of inner prayer must in this way “return into himself” finding the kingdom of heaven that is within, and so passing across the mysterious frontier between created and uncreated.


Referring to this process Bishop Theofan writes, “When the mind is in the heart, this is in fact the union of mind and heart which represents the reintegration of our spiritual organism.”


But how is this union achieved? Here we come to asceticism and the use of the so-called “Jesus Prayer.” Ascetic warfare against the passions is necessary before the descent which we have described can take place. The mind which is divided against itself, which goes chasing after every “thought” which enters it, can in no way attain to the concentration which is necessary for a descent into the heart. It is understandable, therefore why obedience, absolute and unquestioning, and the “revelation” of thoughts to a staretz are necessary disciplinary steps in self-control. The rebellious human will must be broken, and this can only occur when it is surrendered to a spiritual director. The monastic cycle of services and established prayers also help to mould the monk, forming in him the habit of spiritual concentration. All these measures, however, are merely preparatory. The chief spiritual sword by which the Orthodox monk employs in his battle for perfection is prayer.


The Desert Fathers were familiar with the practice of employing short prayers to attain spiritual concentration. The short prayer, as opposed to the long one, does not give the mind a chance to wander after the innumerable “thoughts” trying to force their way into it. The early monks also gave precedence to short prayers centering around the name “Jesus.” This was far from an accident. The New Testament itself attributes a great importance to the “name” of the Saviour just as the Old Testament put great stress on the “names” of God. Many forms of the Jesus Prayer evolved and no one of them can claim precedence over the others. The most wide-spread form of the prayer, however, is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This version of the prayer owes its popularity to its beautiful balance wherein the humanity and Divinity of our Lord are combined with heartfelt contrition and a plea for mercy.


Through the Jesus Prayer, therefore, the mind, constantly repeating the prayer, descends into the heart. This, as E Behr-Sigel explains, “is not so much a matter of starting a psychic mechanism as of freeing one's spiritual spontaneity, a short prayer of the heart which by saying the holy name brings Christ into our presence like water gushing out. The name of Christ is clearly something more than a mere symbol, or rather it is only so if there is a real relation between the instrument and the thing itself.” “The transcendental reality of God, she continues, “becomes known and transmitted through that name (of Jesus) and dominates one's whole being until the very heartbeat becomes prayer and glorifies the Lord. So long as this prayer remains mechanical and mental its full purpose has not been reached. The soul must immerse itself in prayer, which must absorb it until the light of the holy name can reach the very depth of our being and light it up. This is what the startsy mean when they tell their pupils to go down from the mind into the heart. It is not just a matter of a mere intellectual grasp of the meaning of the words accompanied by a certain amount of emotional warmth. The name of Jesus actually brings the presence of God with it.”


Here we see the importance of the Palamite theology which was summoned forth by St. Symeon's claim to have seen the Divine Light. The presence of God in the form of His uncreated Grace actually enters into the human heart. And through this advent of Grace the human being is divinized; his person rises above his created nature and becomes a partaker of the Divinity. That many Orthodox saints were seen to shine with a light “not of this world” follows logically from this analysis; they received into themselves the same Light with which our Lord shone on the mount of Transfiguration.


It is in the Jesus Prayer that the command of St. Paul to pray without ceasing can actually be realized. A lyrical expression of this is given by the anonymous 19th century Russian pilgrim whose Way of A Pilgrim has achieved quite a bit of popularity today:


And that is how I go about now, and ceaselessly repeat the Prayer of Jesus, which is more precious and sweet to me than anything in the world. At times I do as much as forty-three or four miles a day, and do not feel that I am walking at all. I am aware only of the fact that I am saying my prayer. When the bitter cold pierces me, I begin to say my Prayer more earnestly and I quickly get warm all over. When hunger begins to overcome me, I call more often on the Name of Jesus, and I forget my wish for food. When I fall ill and get rheumatism in my back and legs, I fix my thoughts on the Prayer and do not notice the pain....I have become a sort of half-conscious person. I have no cares and no interest.


And Bishop Theofan, more theoretically but equally lyrical, puts it thusly:


The sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction that troubled us before the spiritual life was kindled in our hearts, the unrestrainable wanderings of thought from which we suffered: all cease now. The atmosphere of the soul becomes clear and cloudless: there remains only one thought and one remembrance, which is of God. There is clarity within and throughout, and in this clearness every movement is noticed and valued according to its merit in the spiritual light that flows from the Lord whom we contemplate. Every evil thought and feeling assailing the heart meets with opposition as soon as it approaches and is driven away. If something contrary slips in despite our will, it is at once humbly confessed to the Lord, and the conscience is always kept clear before the Lord. As a reward for all this inner struggle, we are granted boldness of approach to God in warmth of prayer which unceasingly glows in the heart. An unwavering warmth of prayer is the true breath of this life, so that progress in our spiritual journey ends with the cessation of our natural breath.


This is the goal toward which we are directed by the spiritual “map” of the Orthodox Church. The natural destination of our spiritual life is nothing short of direct and constant participation in the eternal Divinity.


The question might then arise: if the Orthodox “map” is so clearly delineated, and if any Orthodox Christian can attain to perfection, why are saints such a rare phenomenon? The answer, of course, stems from the state of our fallen humanity. It is exceedingly difficult to attain to the state of perpetual prayer, for the “old Adam” exerts a tenacious grasp on practically all men in the world. Those Christians who elect to live in the world are hindered from attaining “concentration”in prayer by the many cares and troubles which descend upon them day and night. And monks are forced to do intense and extremely painful battle with their innermost selves before they can even set out on the road toward perfection. The ascetical “ground work” is long and arduous: Orthodox ascetical literature is, as we have seen, a virtual encyclopedia of sins and passions, many of which are highly-refined and subtle.


The higher states of mental prayer also require the strict and knowing guidance of a staretz; such a heightened spiritual consciousness can prove extremely dangerous, even fatal, for the man who is poorly directed . Although skilled startsy have not been plentiful in the spiritual history of Orthodoxy, their worth has been inestimable. This is because, as Vladimir Lossky has expressed it, “One often has a false idea of oneself, on fabricates an artificial conventional 'I' which serves as a passe-partout in external relations, and this mask ends in replacing, even for us, our true person such as it is before God. In these conditions the blind conscience, bound by sins which have not been declared, does not succeed in freeing itself, in righting itself through the sacrament of penance. Christians do not know how to confess, and their confessors, most often, can do nothing to help them.”


Like Christ the Staretz knows “what is in man” and is able to direct those who come to him along the path of salvation. “A staretz,” Lossky writes, “always addresses himself to a human person with its unique destiny, with its vocation and particular difficulties. By virtue of a special gift he sees each being as God sees him, and he searches for a way to help him, opening his interior sense without doing violence to his will, so that the human person, freed from its hidden fetters, can bloom forth in Grace. To accomplish this charismatic operation it is not enough to have that profound knowledge of human nature which is given by long experience. One must each time have a vision of the person; and a person cannot be known except in a revelation.” Often the best disciples of a startez have been able to succeed their masters in their charismatic function. Furthermore, through their writings startsy have been able to provide invaluable assistance to later generations of Christians.


It was this “tradition” which we have been describing, dealing with “invisible warfare” against the devil and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, which encountered the school teacher Alexander Grenkov upon his arrival at Optina Putsyn monastery. The “tradition” would never have reached him, however, were it not for the heroic efforts of several of his predecessors.


In the tenth century St. Vladimir converted to Christianity and adopted Christianity as the faith of the Kievan state. That the Byzantine tradition was the decisive influence on the development of Russian Christianity cannot be denied. However, as Professor Fedotov has shown in the first volume of his Russian Religious Mind, the Byzantine tradition made itself felt on the newly-converted nation chiefly through its liturgy and the ethical writings of a few Fathers such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Ephraim the Syrian. It would be many centuries before Russia would be able to attain to any kind of theological or philosophical maturity. Several of Russia's early saints, such as, for example, St. Feodosy (dd. 1074), attained a high level of sanctity. Feodosy served a function very similar to that of a staretz; both monks and laity came to him to confess their sins and receive spiritual direction. However, if Fedotov is right, no contemplative tradition existed in Russia before the Mongolian conquest: “Saint Theodosius taught the practice of the Jesus Prayer which was used by the mystics. This prayer was in use among certain of his disciples and permanently remained on the lips of the pious Russian people. But for Theodosius, as for Monomakh and pious laymen, it is but a form of ejaculatory prayer, the shortest and easiest formula for 'perpetual' praying.”


We have to wait until the fourteenth century for the appearance of a Russian monasticism which is primarily contemplative in nature:


This new Russian monasticism, which can be dated from the second quarter of the fourteenth century, is essentially different from that of ancient Russia. It is the monasticism of the “desert.” ... Most of the saints of the age left the towns for the virgin forests. We can only conjecture as to the actual motives of this new trend in the monastic movement. One possible explanation is that it reflects the difficult and turbulent life in the cities, which were still subject to occasional devastation by Tartar raids. On the other hand, however, the very decadence of the urban monastic houses prompted the zealous search for new ways that were already indicated in the classical tradition of the desert monasticism of Egypt and Syria... In taking upon themselves the harder task – one necessarily connected with contemplative prayer – they elevated spiritual life to a height not yet achieved in Russia.


The guiding light of this new exodus was unquestionably St. Sergius of Radonezh whose influence on Russian monasticism and spirituality was extremely powerful. In reviving “desert” monasticism St. Sergius raised Orthodox monastic spirituality in Russia to the high level it had enjoyed during the period before the Mongol invasion. As Fedotov has indicated, the influence of the Byzantine hesychast movement on St. Sergius, while it cannot be proven, is “highly probable.” Through the influence of St. Gregory of Sinai, Euthymius of Trnovo, Metropolitan Kiprian of Moscow (a Greek-educated Bulgarian sent to Russia from Constantinople) and other the Hesychast spirituality made definite in-roads in the Slavic lands. Whatever contact St. Sergius had with hesychasm, one thing is certain – he was a genuine mystic in the trdition of the Eastern Church. “Sergius,” Fedotov writes, “was the first Russian saint who can be termed a mystic, that is, the bearer of a peculiar, mysterious, spiritual life that was not limited to asceticism, love and continual prayer.” Also it stands beyond doubt that Sergius functioned as a startez. According to his hagiographer, Epifany the Wise, Sergius was in the habit of receiving brothers for the “revelation of thoughts” (otkrovenie powyslov). It can also be shown that a number of his disciples continued this practice.


The followers of St. Sergius spread far and wide throughout the Russian wilderness. The time was truly a “golden age” for Russian monasticism. A number of Sergius's followers were canonized. Unfortunately, however, none of them left any writings after them. Hence we have no direct link to their minds. In the case of St. Nil Sorsky (1433-1508), however, we have writings which testify to a broad knowledge of the Eastern Patristic Tradition: “Of all the ancient Russian saints, he alone wrote on the spiritual life, and in his works he has left a complete and precise guide for spiritual progress. In the light of his writings, the scanty allusion s in the ancient vitae of the Northern hermits receive their real meaning.” St. Nil represents, as it were, the spokesman for the contemplative tradition of Russian monasticism.


We know that Nil journeyed to Mt. Athos which was at that time the spiritual center of Orthodox monasticism, and it is there he most probably came in contact with Orthodox ascetical literature. We know that he became familiar with the writings of practically all the major Byzantine spiritual writers including Basil the Great, Pseudo-Macarius, John Cassian, Nilus of Sinai, Dorotheus, Barsonuphius, John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac the Syrian, Peter Damascene, Gragory of Sinai and others. This is very important. For, as we have seen, the history of Orthodox Spirituality is very closely tied up with the history of this literature, what we have called a “map”. A monk can, of course, attain to a very high level of sanctity and influence others in a positive way even without this literature. Without the existence of such writings, however, the influence of a monk will not long survive him. That St. Nil is vitally concerned with preserving the “map” is evident from his writing:


We should be faithful to the tradition of the saints and holy fathers and to our Lord's commandments, instead of seeking to exempt ourselves by saying that nowadays it is impossible to live according to the Scriptures and the precepts of the fathers. We are weak indeed, but we must nevertheless follow, according to the measure of our strength, the example of the blessed and venerable fathers, even though we are unable to become their equals.


Nil himself contributed to the corpus of Orthodox spirituality. His writings are not overly original, but they show a total grasp of the Byzantine literature, a grasp such as can come only from experience. It is known that St. Nil was a practicer of “mental prayer.” A glance at his writings demonstrates this quite easily:


We should endeavor to maintain our mind in silence, remote even from such thoughts as may seem legitimate. Let us constantly look into the depths of our heart saying: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” Some of the time we should repeat only part of this prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” then again resuming say: Son of God, have mercy upon me” ; since, according to Gregory of Sinai, this is easier for beginners. However, due order should be observed in this, and such alterations not made too frequently. The fathers in our day add still another sentence: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This is also good, and most appropriate for us sinners. Recite the prayer attentively in this manner, standing, sitting or reclining. Enclose your mind in your heart, and operating your respiration so as to draw breath in as seldom as possible (as Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory of Sinai teach us), call upon God with fervent desire, in patient expectation, turning away all thoughts...


It is obvious that with St. Nil the Byzantine tradition received a highly articulate spokesman. It did not, hopwever, triumph. The famous struggle between St. Joseph of Volok (and the so-called “possessors”) and St. Nil (and the “Transvolgans” or “non-possessors”) ended in the defeat of the latter. We shall not enter into a discussion of this conflict about which there is an enormous literature. Suffice it to say that the “possessors” stressed the duty of Church to the world and insisted on the right of monasteries to possess extensive holdings. The Trans-volgans denied that monasteries should own lands and were wolrd-denying ascetics. Father Florovsky has indicated that there was a truth in both movements. Nevertheless, with Joseph and especially his followers the negative side of the Church's involvement in the world became readily apparent. St. Nil and his followers, who were spiritually vastly superior to their opponents, were heavily pressured and at times even persecuted by the “Josephites”; eventually they virtually disappeared from the scene.


The sixteenth century was one of decay for the “map”; the two following centuries were catastrophic. The rise of Moscow was accompanied by a collapse of monastic spirituality. Only a few solitaries remained in the wilderness carrying on the tradition. Maxim the Greek and Metropolitan Filipp of Moscow (both 16th century), both of whom clearly represent Byzantine spirituality, were sacrificed to the pride of the “Third Rome.” Under Peter the Great (1682-1725) a “gevernmental secularization” of the Church too place which had disastrous consequences for the Russian Church. After Peter things went from bad to worse. In the Ukraine scholastic theology more or less won the day, and German pietism exerted a great influence on many Russians of the time. Although there were a few brilliant exceptions to this general spirit of corruption (the most brilliant probably being St. Tikho of Zadonsk who lived in the 18th century), the situation of Christianity in general and of Orthodox contemplative spirituality in particular was very poor indeed.


The revival of Orthodox spirituality in Russia is due very much to the efforts of one man – Paisy Velichkovsky (1722-1794). With him is concerned the fate of the “map” which, as we have seen, had been virtually lost since the 15th and 16th centuries. Although Paisy himself lived in the eighteenth century, his influence was greatest after his death, in the nineteenth century. Fleeing from Kiev where Latin theology ruled, he hied to Mount Athos as St. Nil had done three hundred years before in order to get in touch with with the living sources of Orthodoxy. Like St. Nil, Paisy fell in love with the Byzantine ascetic literature and realized the need for such literature in Russia. Paisy, therefore, began a collection of ascetic writings and set about translating them. He was greatly assisted in his task by the publication in 1782 of the Philokalia, a collection of writings of the Fathers dealing with mental prayer and war against the passions, which had been edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Paisy and his helpers translated this work into Slavonic.


Paisy was, however, far more than a translator. He was also a staretz of acute perception, and his writings on the Jesus Prayer show his thorough grasp of, and experience with, his subject. His monastic following was immense; from his “base” monastery in Moldavia he was able to send disciples into all the Slavic lands. Many of these followers came to Russia, bringing with them not only the great staretz's teachings but Slavonic translations of Greek Patristic literature as well. Through Paisy's prodigious efforts the “map” once again succeeded in taking root in Russia, this time for good.


Staretz Paisy was a “return movement of the Russian spirit to the Byzantine Fathers.” Optina Putsyn, about which we shall now speak, is indisputably a spiritual child of this great Moldavian ascetic who taught that Christians should be like bees collecting honey from the works of the Fathers.


The monastery of Optina Putsyn itself is located some two miles from the town of Kozelsk, not overly far from Moscow. Although the monastery had come into existence as early as the first half of the sixteenth century, it had fallen into a state of complete desuetude by the end of the eighteenth: “At the end of the century their remained only three monks in it, one of whom was blind.” It was at this thime that Metropolitan Platon of Moscow in making the rounds of his diocese happened upon Optino and realized its potentials. He summoned a certain Makary, a disciple of Paisy's about whom the staretz had spoken very favorably to his other followers, and asked him to recommend a monk to serve as an abbot for a renewed Optina Putsyn monastery. Makary sent a certain Avramy who set about nuilding Optino into a serviceable monastery. As a disciple of Paisy's, Avramy was in direct contact with the Byzantine spirituality which was then making inroads into Russia.


In 1821 a skit was constructed in the monastery in honor of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. It was in this skit that the Optina startsy were to spend their lives and spread the fame of the monastery throughout Russia.


What exactly is a “skit”? A very good description is offered by Sergei Chetverikov in his book Opisanie Zhizni Optinakogo Starca Ierosximonaxa Amvrosija (Kaluga, 1912):


For those who are unfamiliar with the structure of Optino and of monastic life in general we would remark that, compared to regular monastic life, life in a skit is stricter and more solitary. Apart from the fact that in the skit there is not such a multitude of pilgrims as in the monastery, the skit brothers live in far greater solitude than those of the monastery. While church services are performed daily in the monastery, in the skit they are served only on Saturdays and Sundays and on certain feast days. On other days the Psalter is read.... The monks perform the rule of prayer in their own cells in which in general they spend the greater part of their time in solitary contemplation of God and in the reading of spiritual literature. On entering the skit the visitor will very rarely meet any of the skit dwellers, and the skit produces the impression of a deep wilderness. For rest the skit dwellers work with their hands binding books, making covers, doing woodwork, making spoons and copying (writing down the rule). The inhabitants of the skit fast the whole year except for Christmas, Easter and the weeks requiring no fast. To keep a check on themselves spiritually the skit dwellers are required to go as often as possible to a staretz in order to confess their thoughts to him in great detail. (p. 45)


Philaret who was later to become a well-known Metropolitan of Kiev (and should not be confused with Philaret of Moscow), was at that time made bishop of the new diocese into which Optina Putsyn happened to fall. He placed great emphasis on the skit because he was of the opinion that in addition to the monastery there should be a special place for those who wished to live a more contemplative and strictly ascetical life. As directors of the skit, Philaret chose two brothers, Moises and Anthony, who had already spent ten years living in another skit under the spiritual direction of some of Paisy's disciples. Moisei and Antony were to have a long and remarkably fruitful career at Optino. Moisei soon became the abbot of the entire monastery, and Anthony was made sole director of the skit. Both men attained to an extremely elevated level of spirituality, and both were deeply venerated by the monastery brethern. Staretz Amvrosy would often tell anecdotes about the spiritual wisdom of these two brothers for the instruction of his listeners. The skill with which they guided Optino during the flowering of it starchestvo contributed in no small way to the success of the startsy.


The most important dramatis personae were, however, still to arrive. In 1829 Father Leonid (also known as Lev, the name he took upon becoming a skhima monk) Nagolkin settled in the skit of Optina Putsyn. This was an event of no small importance. For Father Leonid had already reached an extremely high state of spirituality by the time he entered Optino. He had ived for a number of years with a monk named Fyodor who had been for a period of time a monk at Paisy's monastery in Moldavia. Being guided by Fyodor, Leonid's attained to virtual perfection in mental prayer. Leonid's prayer was in fact so “unceasing” that he once answered that “for the love of one of his neighbors, he was prepared to speak to him for two days straight if necessary without experiencing the least agitation in his mental prayer.”



Leonid was born into a family belonging to the merchant class, and for a period of time he himself functioned as a merchant going from market to market selling his goods. He soon saw the emptiness of such a life, however, and entered the monastic life. He appears to have bee a big, powerful man of a rather simple nature. His physical and moral strength were extremely providential inasmuch as he, as it were, took upon himself the task of establishing the starchestvo as an acceptable practice. It should not be forgotten that for many the whole Byzantine tradition with its “revelation of thoughts” and “mental prayer” was regarded as an “innovation” and even “heresy.” Paisy had bee required to defend himself against such charges, and Leonid underwent some real persecution before the starchestvo was able to win acceptance. Before coming to Optino, Leonid and his teacher Fyodor had been persecuted by the bishop of Valaamo for their “strange” practices. Even when he came to Optino, however, his problems did not cease. For it was considered that a monk of his stature who chose to live in a skit should have nothing to do with visitors but should devote himself to a solitary life of prayer. Leonid proved to be very “rebellious” at this point; whenever a peasant or other visitors would come to him for spiritual guidance, he never hesitated to provide it. At one point he was actually forbidden by his bishop to receive visitors. Abbot Moisei was, therefore, more then a little surprised when, upon visiting Leonid, he noticed a crowd of visitors about him. “Father!” he is reported to have shouted. “What are you doing? You are forbidden to receive visitors! You could be summoned to the bishop and sent to Solovki!” But Leonid answered, “Do what you want with me. Look at these sick ones – can I refuse them in their prayer in which they alone hope and which because of their faith and diligence toward the Mother of God will give them healing?” The persecution of Leonid ceased only because of personal intercession on his behalf of Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev. Leonid, as we shall see, served as Amvrosy's first staretz, directing his spiritual life until his death in 1841.


In 1834 Optino's second great staretz, Makary, arrived. Two years after his arrival he began to share the duty of the starchestvo with Leonid; after Leonid's death he assumed complete responsibility for the spiritual direction of the monastery. Outwardly Makary was Leonid's mirror opposite. Leonid had been a merchant; Makary came from gentry (the Ivanov family) of Orlov province. Leonid had been rugged and simple; Makary was both an asthete and an “intellectual.” He loved to read and as a youth had even been proficient at playing the violin. Even when a startez “he reserved himself one free hour a day during which time he walked alone in the garden, stopping to admire each flower for a long time.” Whereas Leonid had been prodigiously strong, Makary was rather frail and was often seriously ill. However, although their characters and backgrounds were strikingly different, their spiritual education was much the same. Like Leonid, Makary had briefly considered a career in the world and had even contemplated marriage, but upon visiting a monastery in his province he was struck by the grat beauty and holiness of the monastic vocation and ceased to think of a worldly career. He entered the monastery of Polahchansk and came under the spiritual direction of an immediate disciple of Paisy Velichkovsky, the monk Afanasy. Thus, both Leonid and Makary were fortunate enough to receive their training from men who had been under the direct influence of the great moldavian staretz. Makary spent thirteen years under Afanasy's tutelage; these years were undoubtedly decisive for his spiritual development.


From 1836-1860 Makary directed the lives of the brethern of Optina Putsyn. His activities, however, extended far beyond this arduous task. He also carried on a vast correspondence with laymen and clergy from all over Russia. It was during Makary's tenure as staretz that the Russian intelligentsia began to flock to Optino, finding there the light which eluded them in Western philosophy and social action movements. Nikolai Gogol, the spiritually tormented Russian writer, visited Optino and conferred with Makary and other monks from the monastery. The most important intellectual to come under Makary's wing was, however, the well-known Slavophile philosopher Ivan Kireevsky. At first an adept of German idealistic philosophy, he evolved into an ardent Christian under the influence of his pious wife Natalia, her spiritual father and Staretz Makary, whom Kireevsky met through his wife. The encounter was fortuitous for the history of Russian spirituality. Both Makary and Kireevsky were interested in that wealth of spiritual writings which we have referred to as a “map.” Paisy Velichkovsky had accomplished the monumental task of collecting this material, but much of it was unpublished or existed in unsatisfactory translations. It was decided, therefore, to begin publishing the material for the benefit of all Russians who were interested in the spiritual life. Besides Makary and Kireevsky a number of first-rate scholars were involved in the project. Among them were Professor Shevyrev of Moscow University and Professor Golubinsky of the Moscow Theological Academy. Also a number of well educated monks at Optina Putsyn were able to participate in the work. The best known of them was Father Kliment Zadergol'm, a convert to Orthodoxy from Lutheranism and the holder of the title of a master in classical philology from the University of Moscow. This small but extremely talented group was able under the imposing protection of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow to publish a number of patristic writings among which were: a life of Paisy Velichkovsky, the writings of Isaac the Syrian, John and Barsanuphius, Mark the Ascetic, Symeon the new Theologian, Maximus the Confessor, Theodore the Studium, Gregory of Sinai and others. When Makary wrote to one of his spiritual children, “I have told you nothing that is an invention of my own. All of what I say comes from the writings of the Fathers,” he was telling the truth. He was in fact, an embodiment of Orthodox Tradition, seeking nothing more than to pass on what he had received. Among the many whom he was able to assist by drawing on this great tradition was one who was to succeed him, Alexander Grenkov, the future Staretz Amvrosy.



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