It’s such a blessing, on this beautiful late October day, to have so many pilgrims here with us to join in the celebration of a feast which is dear to the heart of our monastery – the feast of the Holy Elders of Optina. The Optina Elders are dear to us not only because they were (and continue to be!) a light for monastics and lay people alike, both in Russia and around the world, and who were so near to our own time – the very spiritual heart of Russia, right up until the revolution. It is not only for this reason that the Optina Elders are dear to us, but the Optina Elders are dear to us because they were dear to the heart of our founder, Hieromonk Kallistos. In founding his new monastery, this monastery – the Hermitage of the Holy Cross, Fr. Kallistos made a conscious effort to base the spiritual life of his monastery on the lives, the spirituality, and the monastic spirit of the Optina Elders. Now, for instance, when a man comes to the monastery and is interested in monastic life, one of the very first things that he reads in a rather long list of required novice reading are all the lives of the Optina Elders. Reading these lives is important to the monastic formation of any novice or candidate who comes to the monastery, and indeed, they continue to be a source of inspiration and a spiritual guide throughout our monastic lives. The sayings of the Optina Elders – their grace-filled words and their holy examples – are the foundation of our spiritual life and the lodestar which guides us on our way in a life striving to draw closer to Christ in the monastic Arena.
By the grace of God, I was blessed to have an opportunity to visit Optina Monastery myself in the summer of 2013. It was the first time that I had ever been to Optina and to Russia, generally. Our stop to Optina was part of a two-week pilgrimage, in which we visited many wonderful monasteries and holy places – St. Sergius-Trinity Lavra, Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, and many others. But Optina, some how, was different. It was without question that there was much holiness and much grace in many of the places we visited in Russia. But Optina was different. Optina stood out.
What was it about Optina that was different? After spending some time at Optina, and after looking at the faces of the pilgrims, the monks, the elderly schema-monks talking to the children and patting them on the head. I could tell there was, in Optina, true spiritual joy. This is the joy of a life lived in Christ. It is the joy of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, there was joy in other places that I’ve visited, but it was truly in Optina where this joy shined out. And I think you see this shining through in the very lives and the words of the Elders of Optina.
The words of Elder Anatoly come to mind particularly. In a spiritual reading journal from my first months at the monastery, I have these words of Elder Anatoly written down and starred. Elder Anatoly said, in a letter to a young nun: “A monk should always be joyful. If he is not, that means he is not living in the way a monastic should live.” In a way, this admonition has stuck with me through my monastic life here. It is a test and a standard, if you will. “Am I joyful”? If not, why not? Is God not good? Has he not given me everything that I need here for my salvation? How could we not rejoice, and say whole-heartedly, “Glory to God for all things”? Elder Anatoly’s simple reminder is very helpful in an age wrought with distraction and anxiety. We must be joyful. And this joy come from the Holy Spirit – in a life lived in a truly spiritual manner. It is a joy that comes from prayer. On prayer, Elder Anatoly said:
Do it according to your strength, do it with humility and self-reproach, and you will get used to and will love the prayer so that they cannot take it from you by force. This is because it is sweet and gives joy. I remembered God and I was gladdened (Ps.76:3).
In speaking of the Jesus Prayer, Elder Anatoly said:
One should trace on the soft young heart the Sweetest Name – the radiant prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ From that time on there will be the greatest joy and eternal happiness.
Elder Anthony of Optina echoes this when he said:
There is joy in frequent remembrance of God, as it is written: I remembered God and I was gladdened.
And of course, Elder Ambrose reminds us that “we must begin with thanksgiving for everything. The beginning of joy is to be content with your situation.”
At Optina, I could feel this joyfulness. I could feel it in the church services, in the singing, in my interaction with other monks and pilgrims. Our visit corresponded on the feast of the Ascension. Walking back to my cell, I came across a group of younger monks talking amongst themselves. Seeing me, they stopped and looked at me, and cried out joyfully and enthusiastically, “Spraznikom!” And it felt very familiar to me. Something about the joyfulness, the smiles and the warmth made me feel back home in West Virginia. Indeed, I began to feel some similarity between the two monasteries, Optina and our own. It was a sort of familiarity that I felt there – a feeling hard to explain.
It is this joy which comes from prayer, from a life of repentance, and from the grace of the Holy Spirit. By historical standards in the Church, the elders at Optina were not severe ascetics. They did not live in caves, nor did they starve themselves. They lived in cells much like ours. They drank tea. They were jovial at times, even. Yet they were real men of prayer. They met with many, many people – both lay people and monastics – to help them with their problems, to confess them, and ultimately to heal them, spiritually. And they did all of this with sincere love – love for God and love for neighbor. A joyful love. With a Paschal joy – the joy of the Risen Christ. And it is a joy that only comes in Christ Jesus. As Elder Nikon of Optina said: “If we will be with Christ and in Christ, then no kind of sorrow will confuse us, but joy will fill our heart so that even in times of sorrows and temptations we will rejoice.”
So let us look at ourselves, and at our spiritual lives. Let us look at our disposition. Are we joyful? Do we give thanks to God for all things? According to Elder Anatoly of Optina, if we are not joyful, and if we do not give thanks to God for all of the good things (and even the bad things) in our lives, and if we are not joyful, then there is something not quite right in our spiritual lives, and we aren’t living the way we should as monks, says, Elder Anatoly. For this joy is not just an emotion. True joy comes as a gift from God – the grace and fruit of the Holy Spirit. It comes from a life lived in Christ, with Christ, through Christ, and for Christ.
On this feast day of the Holy Elders of Optina, let us remember the great joy of these wonderful Elders who have gone on before us. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the peace [and indeed, the joy] of the Holy Spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.” The Optina Elders acquired this peace – and how many thousands of people have been saved because of them – through their council, their example, their words, their witness and their prayers? Let us keep all of these words in our heart, as we continue with Liturgy and move on throughout the day, and throughout all our lives, thanking God and singing, “Glory to God for all things.” Amen.