AN OPTINA ELDER. A STORY
On learning that I work at Optina Hermitage, people often ask me, “Are there elders at Optina in the present day?” or “How can I get to talk with an elder?”
At first, I was troubled by such questions… After all, more often than not, we—even those of us who have been in the Church for a long time—are beginners, spiritual infants… My first spiritual director, Abbot Savvaty, who had already lived within the Church for 40 years, and who had 25 years of experience since his ordination, would sometimes say about himself, “I have studied in a religious school; well, perhaps I completed two grades… but my spiritual director, Fr. John Krestiankin, he, well… he was a spiritual professor….”
Yes, an Elder is a spiritual professor… But why does a spiritual infant need a professor? Any Optina spiritual director is capable of answering a beginner’s questions… but people obstinately continue to look for an Elder. They seek our Optina Schema-Abbot, now a Schema-Archimandrite, Fr. Ilie (Nozdrin). They ask him questions, ask his prayers, and want to be given an Elder’s blessing. I told Abbot A___, a renowned spiritual director at Optina Hermitage about how this disturbed me, and he answered:
“Do not let it disturb you. Elders are the beauty of Orthodoxy, the spirit of Orthodoxy, the witness to the truth of our Faith. Through an Elder, a person sees God. In the 19th Century, when thousands would come to the Monastery to visit St. Ambrose, were people disconcerted? Sometimes, you hear from our contemporaries, ‘Now, there are no more Elders.’ In what century did the Psalmist David say, [the Lord] ‘forsaketh His saints?’ That Jesus Christ—yesterday and today, remains the same One, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit remain the same gifts …
Everyone who has had occasion to meet with Fr. Ilie is certain that even the briefest of meetings with him is an event of great spiritual importance in their lives. I feel the same. By God’s grace, I was able to speak with the Elder on several occasions, to go to him for Confession and to receive Holy Communion from him. In 2009, after Fr. Ilie questioned me about my earliest stories, he blessed me to work as a writer. It was after receiving the Elder’s blessing that over the course of three years, I, who had never had any dealings with publishers or with the book publishing industry, wrote my books Monastic Encounters, and True Stories.
I began to carefully record stories about the Elder that his spiritual children so generously shared with me, as well as accounts by other people who had simply had the opportunity to meet with Fr. Ilie. These stories were somehow “gentle, quiet ” ones: It was as if the Elder’s meekness and humility extended both into the stories and into the storytellers… You wanted to relate their accounts in hushed tones, as people do when talking about some precious, cherished secret.
Nun Philareta permitted me to record her account of her encounter with the Elder.
All of her life, Mother Philareta—then simply Liudmila Grechina, had believed in God, but she became a regular churchgoer only as an adult. After graduating from the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), she was an aerospace engineer, working in the area of data storage for satellite rocket launching. She is convinced that, had she not come to God, she would already be dead, as are several of her co-workers who were of the same age as she. When someone is spiritually growing, the Lord does not cut off the unripe fruit, but grants the person additional time in which to mature.
Liudmila Grechina’s coming into the Church was something quite miraculous. She and her son were on vacation in Italy. Going out for an evening walk, she was enjoying the vista of hills in the distance, and the wonderful view of a monastery that could be seen from the prominence where she stood. Suddenly, she heard a voice saying:
“When you return to Russia, you will go to the monastery.”
These words were so clear and distinct that, upon returning to Russia, Liudmila—then already 57 years old—decided to consult an Elder. She came to Optina Hermitage to see its Elder, Fr. Ilie.
It is always difficult to get to see Fr. Ilie. There are always more people wanting to ask his advice, to ask his prayers, or to just get his blessing than can be accommodated in one day, even by such an ascetic. However, with God’s help, Liudmila was not only able to talk with him immediately, but was able to become his spiritual child. It was granted to the Elder to foresee her future monastic path. He immediately proposed that Liudmila go to the Novodevichy Monastery.
“What? To Novodevichy? But it is a museum, batiushka!”
The Elder smiled and replied:
“There is a monastery there. It has already been open for four months.”
“But who would take me in at my age?!”
“Go, go! Fear not; the abbess there will accept you!”
And he described the abbess and gave such an assurance, without ever having laid eyes upon her.
Liudmila moved to Novodevichy Monastery, and has been living there for 18 years. Fr. Ilie became her spiritual father. True, she does not get to go see him often. Once, after she had already been tonsured a nun, she thought to herself, “I rarely see batiushka. Does he perhaps not even consider me his spiritual child?” The idea saddened her. A couple of days later, she received a letter from the Elder. It began with the following words: “My spiritual child!” Batiushka had brought her solace …
Mother Philareta recalled instances of her spiritual father’s penetrating vision: “Batiushka could sometimesrepeat word for word things said in a cell at Novodevichy Monastery, even though he was at Optina Hermitage, 400 km from Moscow.”
She once happened to bring her spiritual father a gift—a natural cotton cassock of extremely high quality, obtained on a pilgrimage to Alexandria. She put the gift in a bag, and went in search of the Elder. No one could see what was in the bag; it was to be a surprise for batiushka … She was walking through Optina, and spied the Elder talking to some pilgrims, next to a church.
Mother Philareta stood off to the side, and waited for Fr. Ilie to finish his conversation, so that she might give him his present. While waiting, she recollected that the Elder would always immediately give away any gifts he received. She remembered how, when a pilgrim gave him a jar of strawberry preserves, he immediately gave it to Mother Philareta and said, “Lets give those preserves to matushka, who needs them more than I do.”
And her thoughts began to turn to the cassock: So batiushka won’t be wearing it; he will give it to someone else! I wish he would wear it himself! It is such a good inner cassock! No, he won’t be wearing it himself… He will certainly give it to someone else…
At that very moment, the elder turned to her and said, “All right, all right, give me my present! I will, I will, wear it myself!”
She happened to introduce me to her spiritual sister, Schema-nun Elizabeth, another of Fr. Ilie’s spiritual children. Mother Elizabeth gave me an account of her meeting with the Elder.…
She had also come to the Faith as a mature adult, by then not only a mother, but also a grandmother. She came to the Faith as if she had been seeking it all of her life. On finding it, she embraced and clung to it as to a healing spring that heals spiritual wounds. Quickly growing into the life of the Church, she lost interest in television, and came to love fasting and church services. Finding herself in need of spiritual direction, she went to Optina.
The events that followed developed in a rush. She saw the Elder, surrounded by pilgrims, and very much wanted to talk with him for at least a minute or two. However, the crowd was too great, and she decided to put it off until the next day.
The next day, the Elder was not at the Monastery. He had gone to the metochion in Moscow. She found out the telephone number of the metochion, got the courage to call, and in spite of doubts that such a thing was possible, asked to speak to batiushka. There was a pause, and then they asked for her telephone number, and politely ended the conversation… “Well, that is that,” she thought. “It did not work… It was stupid of me to even hope… The Elder has more than enough things to do without having a conversation with every old woman who wants to talk to him!”
The very next day, the phone rang, and, interrupting her daily tasks, she picked up the receiver. She picked it up, and almost dropped it again, for it was batiushkahimself who was calling! And he invited her to come see him at the metochion.
Beside herself with nervousness, she came, and found herself sitting next to the Elder. And he was talking with her as if he had known her all of his life. At the conclusion of the conversation, Fr. Ilie said, “And did you know that the path you are to take is a monastic one?” With that, he gave his future spiritual child the prayer rule.
For several years, she sought spiritual nourishment from batiushka. Then the time came when the Elder warned her, “Prepare for your tonsure.” She became extremely worried, not understanding how to prepare… Thus, she approached Archdeacon Fr. Iliodor. A kind and solicitous man, he immediately brought her back to the Elder and asked the spiritual father:
“Batiushka, would you bless me to take this sister to Shamordino, so that they might sew her monastic vestments for her tonsure?”
Fr. Ilie turned around, and fixed them with a careful gaze. He sometimes had such a piercing and penetrating gaze, that it seems as if he could see not only the person talking with him, but also that person’s past and future. Thus, after giving his spiritual children such an intense and penetrating look, the Elder replied:
“You don’t need to go anywhere. They will sew the vestments. At Danilov Monastery.”
She had never had any acquaintances at that Monastery. However, the Elder had spoken, so he must know better. The future nun returned to Moscow. At the time, she was a parishioner at the church of Tsarevitch Dimitry, and it was at that church that she had organized a nursing school dedicated to the Holy Great Martyr Elizabeth. Fr. Anatoly was the parish rector. She shared with him her concerns about monastic vestments, and he said to her:
“We will ask one of the sisters at our school; she makes vestments. Say, Valya, come here.”
Valya came running, and happily agreed to help. The next day, she announced that they will sew the vestments, and that they will do it for free—to the glory of God.
“Where do such kind people work?”
“What do you mean, where? I work, sewing vestments, at the Danilov Monastery. That is wehre they will be made.…”
And so the circle was closed. And yet, the Elder had never looked at Valya face to face. …
And so, batiushka tonsured his spiritual child in honor of Holy Great Martyr Elizabeth.
People often ask: “What kind of person is Elder Ilie?” It is difficult to answer such a question. How can we, living by reason and intellect, understand a spiritual person? A spiritual person sees and understands everyone, while one who lives by reason alone cannot comprehend one who lives by the Spirit. We only sense the grace of God, the love and humility that emanates from the spiritual person, and our hearts are drawn to him, and are opened up before him. …
After the service at the Church of the Kazan Icon of the Most-holy Theotokos, batiushka comes out onto the soleas, and the hands of pilgrims reach out to him, asking for a blessing and for prayers, or handing him lists of names for him to commemorate. Standing next to me is a tall, powerful man wearing an expression of grief on his face. He tries to approach the Elder, but there are too many people in front of us. To my horror, I notice that out of spiritual torment and suffering, the man next to me is quietly weeping. It is hard for me to look at a man shedding tears; gasping, I feverishly try to think of some way to help him get close to the Elder.
However, Fr. Ilie, who is not tall of stature, and who is completely hidden from us by the crowd, already hears that sorrow. The crowd parts, and he comes up to the suffering man. We see the Elder lovingly hug him, like a mother consoling her weeping child. Through his tears, the man tries to explain, to tell about, his woe, and the people around him recognize that it is over the loss of someone dear to him. The man is already sobbing, bowing his head to the Elder’s shoulder, and batiushka, himself almost weeping is tenderly hugging the sobbing man. There is such love expressed in the Elder’s face…
Тhere they stand, pressed against one another, and everyone comprehends that batiushkais praying for the suffering man, with the full intensity of his spiritual powers. Gradually, the sobbing man calms down, and his face changes in some way that is hard to describe. It is hard to put in words: despair, strain and depression are replaced by hope and consolation…This is what sometimes happens when someone takes upon himself your pain and your suffering.
The next evening, the monks of the Optina brotherhood come out of the Altar for the polyeleos, and arrange themselves in two rows, according to seniority of ordination. We and the nuns stand not far from the middle of the nave, along with the pilgrims who have come to pray. We hear one of the brethren—who has decided that the Elder is occupying a place below his spiritual rank and honor, say to him, “Batiushka, you are standing in the wrong spot.” And the Elder humbly goes over to the other side. Over there, it seems to the brethren that he should be standing in a more honored place, in the other row, and they again say to him, “Batiushka, not here; over there.” Again, he humbly crosses over to the other side. There, they again say to him, “No, batiushka, not over here,” until one of the senior monks, realizing what is happening, bursts out, “What are you doing?! Leave the Elder in peace!”
Meanwhile, each time, batiushka quite unabashedly and calmly crosses over to whatever side he is asked to go. He, spiritual director of the monastic brethren, remains absolutely unperturbed; he shows no indication of anger or of being upset in any way. Being disturbed is a usual concomitant of pride and vanity: what do you mean, I did something wrong?! That disturbance is not characteristic of one who is meek and humble. At the same time, that meekness and that humility are not at all self-abasement!
Batiushka blesses a certain person under obedience to read the 50th Psalm, but the person misunderstands, and says agitatedly, “Read it fifty times?” Everyone in the area begins to laugh. However, the Elder does not laugh. He is a person of such subtle discernment and delicacy, and has such love for others, that he does not even give a hint that the person has made an error. It is as if everything is in good order. Batiushka humbly and lovingly explains, “No, not fifty times; you will read it once.” And all of us who had laughed are ashamed of ourselves for having laughed at a person who had simply misunderstood…
Through His merciful kindness, the Lord gives us elders. Bishop Panteleimon (Shatov) of Smolensk and Vyazma wrote the following about a contemporary elder, Fr. Pavel (Troitsky): “You know, I came to the faith when I was already an adult, and after I had already become a priest, I would sometimes encounter thoughts of disbelief. When I came to know Fr. Pavel, I would respond to those thoughts of disbelief as follows: ‘If Fr. Pavel exists, that means God exists. For me, the fact that Fr. Pavel exists was the best proof of the existence of God.’ No matter how gloomy the darkness, no matter what thought the devil might put into my stupid, empty, head, no matter what feelings might be crowded in my evil, hardened heart, my remembrance of the fact that Fr. Pavel exists, and the knowledge of the grace that is given man by God, of course kept me from disbelief, kept me from despondency, kept me from various temptations, temptations that are so numerous in our life.”
Those same words could be said about Elder Ilie. …