The Life of St. Ambrose of Optina
Commemorated October 10/23
Hieromonk Ambrose was born on November 23, 1812 to the family of a sexton Michael Feodorovitch and his wife Martha Nikolaevna, in a village called Big Lipovitsa, situated in the district of Tambovsk. On the eve of his birth, many guests gathered at the house of his grandfather, who was the village priest. On that day, the house was overflowing with bustling people—inside as well as in the courtyard. Martha Nikolaevna was moved to the bathhouse, and shortly thereafter, gave birth to Alexander—future Elder of Optina hermitage—holy Ambrose of Optina. Later in life, the Starets would jokingly reiterate: “Just as I was born in the middle of a crowd, I continue to live surrounded by them.”
Michael Feodorovitch had 8 children: 4 sons and 4 daughters; Alexander was the sixth child. As a child, Alexander was a lively, happy and bright boy. According to the custom of that time, Alexander was taught to read in Slavonic alphabet, both the Prayerbook and Psalms. Every church festive day, he would read and sing with his father in the choir section. As he was brought up in a strictly church and religious environment, he never saw or heard anything corrupt.
When he turned twelve, he was enrolled in first form at the ecclesiastical college of Tambovsk. He studied well, and upon finishing the course in 1830, was admitted to the Tambovsk Seminary. Once again, study came easy to him. As one of his former classmates used to reminisce: “Sometimes, you would spend your last cent to buy a candle so that you can continue studying your lessons; he (Alexander Grenkov) however studied little, but would appear in the classroom and answer all the mentor’s questions—just as it is written, better than anyone.” In July 1836, having successfully completed his studies, Alexander did not enter the ecclesiastical Academy nor did he enrol to study for priesthood. It was as though he felt a special calling in his soul and was therefore in no hurry to commit himself to a fixed position; as though he was expecting God’s call. He spent some time as private tutor to a country squire’s family and then as a teacher in a religious school at Lipets. Possessing a lively and cheerful disposition, benevolence and a sharp wit, Alexander Mihailovich was loved by his friends and workmates. Falling dangerously ill during his final year of studies at the Seminary, he gave a promise that should he recover, he would be tonsured into a monastic order. Upon recovering from his illness, he did not forget his promise. Nevertheless, he delayed its fulfilment for a few years, because as in his own expression, he was “reluctant.” However, his conscience was not giving him any peace. The more time elapsed, the greater were his pangs of remorse. Periods of youthful and carefree gaiety and insouciance were replaced with intervals of sharp anguish, melancholy, fervent prayers & tears.
Once, during a walk through a forest in Lipetsk, he paused on the bank of a river and through the bubbling sounds of the water, distinctly heard the words spoken “Praise God, love God.”
Returning home and isolating himself from inquisitive eyes, he started to pray ardently to the Mother of God so that She may enlighten his mind and direct his will. On the whole, he did not possess a strong will, and in his old age would say to his spiritual children: “You must listen to me from my first word. I am a very obliging person. If you start to argue with me, I may accede and that would not be to your benefit.” In the same diocese of Tambovsk, in the village of Troyekoorovo, there lived a well renowned ascetic Hilarion. Alexander Mihailovich came to him for advice and was told by the starets: “Go to Optina hermitage—there you will become experienced. You could also go to Sarov, but now there are no experienced elders as there were before” (Seraphim of Sarov reposed a short time earlier). When the summer holidays arrived in 1839, Alexander Mihailovitch together with his seminarian friend and colleague from Pokrov educational institution at Lipetsk, outfitted a tilt-cart and set out on a pilgrimage to the Troitsa- Sergius Monastery to worship before the Abbot of Russia—Saint Sergius.
Returning home to Lipetsk, Alexander Mihailovitch continued to hesitate and could not make the decision to forsake the world. Nonetheless, this did happen one evening as he was amusing fellow guests. Everybody was happy and contented, and dispersed to their respective homes in high spirits. With regard to Alexander Mihailovitch, if in the past, under similar circumstances, he felt remorse, now his promise given to God vividly conjured up in his mind. He remembered the fervidness of the spirit in the Troitsa monastery, the former long prayers, the lamentations and tears, God’s directives conveyed to him through Fr. Hilarion.
In the morning, on this occasion, his resolve grew firm. Fearing that he may start to waver because his relatives and friends might try to persuade him to stay, and without even receiving permission from the diocese authorities, Alexander Mihailovitch quietly departed for Optina.
Here he found monastic life at its height: such stalwarts as Abbot Moses, elders Leo (Leonard) and Macarius. Brother of ascetic and sagacious Moses—Hieromonk Anthony—was the superior of the monastery and was equal in spiritual eminence to Alexander Mihailovich.
Under the guidance of the elders, monastic life carried the imprint of spiritual virtue. Simplicity (honesty), meekness and humility—all were outstanding features of Optina monasticism. Junior brothers attempted to humble themselves not only before the seniors, but also in front of other junior members. They were even afraid to offend by looks and any misunderstanding saw the brother hurry to seek forgiveness.
It was in this atmosphere that Alexander Grenkov arrived at the hermitage on 8th Oct. 1839. Leaving his coachman at the guesthouse, he went directly to the chapel. After Liturgy, he proceeded to Elder Leo for his blessing to remain in the monastery. The starets blessed him and directed him to initially live in the guesthouse, transcribing the book “Salvation for sinners” (translated from Modern Greek), dealing with the struggles against carnal desires.
In Jan. 1840 he moved into the monastery although he did not wear an under-vestment. At this time there was an ongoing correspondence with the diocesan authorities – regarding his disappearance – and the superior of Optina had not received a directive from the Archbishop of Kaloozh, inducting teacher Grenkov into the monastery.
Finally, in April 1840, A.M.Grenkov received a blessing to wear monastic raiment. For a short period, he acted as cell assistant and reader (rites and church services) to the elder Leo. Initially, he worked in the monastery bakery producing yeast and baking bread. Then in November 1840, he was transferred to the hermitage. From there, the young novitiate continually visited the starets Leo to receive preceptorials from him. At the hermitage he was an assistant cook for a whole year. Because of his work he often had to visit elder Macarius, to receive his blessing regarding food preparation, or whether he had to toll the bell before a meal, or for some other associated matter. These opportunities allowed him to express his spiritual state to the elder and receive his answers. The aim was for a person to conquer temptation, and not temptation man.
Starets was especially fond of the young novitiate and affectionately called him Sasha. However, motivated by spiritually educational aims, the elder used to test his humility in front of others. With this in mind, he gave him a nickname—”chimera”—and at times would take on an appearance of being angry with him. This name was intended to mean a sterile flower just like cucumber plants produce. But to others he would say “He will be a great man.” Expecting his imminent death, starets Leo called Father Macarius and told him about the novitiate Alexander. “Here is a man that has sought refuge in us elders. I am now very weak. So now I am handing him over to you completely, guide him as you will.”
After the death of elder Leo Alexander became a lay brother to starets Macarius (1841-1846). In 1842, he was tonsured and took the habit with the name Ambrose (in honour of Saint Ambrose of Milan (whose memory is celebrated on the 7th. Of December). This was followed with him becoming a hierodeacon (1843) and 2 years later—ordained as hieromonk.
During these years, Fr. Ambros’s health was greatly weakened. On the 7th of December 1846, during his journey to Kalooga for his ordination, he caught a cold which impacted on his internal organs, leaving him ill for a long time. From that point on, he never really recovered. However he did not feel despondent but rather acknowledged that his physical infirmity was beneficial to his soul: “God does not expect physical deeds from a sick person, but only patience with humility and gratefulness.”
From September 1846 to the summer of 1848, his health deteriorated so dangerously that he was tonsured into schema (the severest monastic order) in his cell with the retention of his name. However, to the surprise of many, he started to improve rapidly and even went for outside walks. This sudden break in his illness was a clear sign of God’s will, and as the elder himself would comment later: “Merciful God! In the monastery, the ill do not die quickly but linger on and on, until their illness brings them some real benefit. It is good to be slightly ill in a monastery, particularly for the young, so that the flesh does not rebel and to minimise empty thoughts entering one’s head.”
During those years, Father Ambros’s training was not only guided by physical ailments sent by God, but through his beneficial communion with the senior brothers, among whom there were real ascetics. As an example, we will cite an event about which subsequently the elder himself related.
Shortly after being ordained as a deacon, he had to serve at a liturgy in a church at Vedensk and consequently, came into the altar to receive abbot Anthony’s blessing, who in turn asked him:”Well, are you getting used to it?” Father Ambrose replied in a nonchalant manner: ” With your prayers father!” To which Father Anthony continued: “Toward fear of God?”….Father Ambrose understood that his tone of voice was out of place in the altar and became confused. “In this way,” concluded Father Ambrose ” the former elders were able to teach us reverence.”
During those years, his communion with elder Macarius was especially important for his spiritual augmentation. Notwithstanding his illness, as before, Fr. Ambrose remained in full obedience to the starets, giving him an account of even his minor actions. Receiving Fr. Macarius’s blessing, he busied himself translating books written by holy fathers, and in particular, prepared for publication, the work “The Ladder” written by the holy Abbot John of the Sinai.
Thanks to elder Macarius’s guidance, Fr. Ambrose was able to learn without any special hindrances, the skill of skills—wise prayer. A novitiate’s activity is accompanied by many dangers, and through his inexperience, in trying to apply his own will in the face of significant lamentations, the devil attempts to lead that person toward self-exaltation. In following this path and without a spiritual guide, a novitiate can inflict great harm to his soul. This is what happened to starets Macarius himself when he independently attempted to master this skill. Because he had a highly experienced guide in elder Macarius, Fr. Ambrose was able to avoid the pitfalls of distress and sorrow during his progression through the clever prayer. Although the starets loved his student, but in order to destroy the novitiate’s self-love, it did not stop him, on occasions, to place him in humiliating circumstances. Starets Macarius was guiding him to become a strict ascetic, adorned with poverty, humility, patience and other novitiate virtues. Whenever anybody defended Fr. Ambrose with “Father, he is an ill person!,” starets Macarius would respond “Do I know less than you? However, to a monk, reprimands and criticisms are but brushes that sweep away sinful dust from his soul; without this, a monk rusts.”
Even while starets Macarius was alive, some of the brothers would visit Fr. Ambrose to discuss their innermost thoughts.
This is how Abbot Mark (he retired to Optina) described it, “As much as I could notice, in those days, Fr. Ambrose lived in isolation without speaking to anyone. Whenever I visited him—which was nearly every day—to discuss my thoughts, I always found him reading spiritual books. Absence from his cell meant that he was with starets Macarius, helping him with correspondence with his spiritual children, or, that he was translating spiritual books. Sometimes I found him sitting on his bed, holding back barely perceptible tears in his eyes. It seemed to me that the elder always moved as if he was in God’s presence, or as though he was constantly aware of His presence, just as it states in a psalm “I have set the Lord always before me…” (Psalm 16:8). Consequently, all his actions were made for God’s sake and to please Him.” That is why he constantly agonised, afraid that he may offend God, and this feeling was reflected in his face. Whenever I was in his presence and seeing this concentrated look of the starets, I was always trembled with reverence. And it was impossible for me to be otherwise. Whenever I knelt before him as I usually did to receive his blessing, he would very quietly inquire “Brother, what can you say to me that is good?” Perplexed by his concentration and feelings, I answered “For God’s sake, forgive me batushka. Maybe I have come at a wrong time?”—”No” was the elder’s reply—”say what you have to say, only be brief.” Having listened to me attentively, he would reverently give me beneficial instructions and affectionately, release me.
Although rich in spiritual intellect, his instructions did not come from his personal wisdom or reasoning. When he did instruct his spiritual young, it was as if he was one of the learners, offering them not his personal advice but invariably, the potent teachings of holy Fathers.” If Fr. Mark complained to Fr. Ambrose about an individual that had inflicted a hurt upon him, the starets would respond in a sad tone of voice “Brother, brother! I am a person that is dying,” or, “Today-tomorrow I shall die. What will I do with this brother? After all I am not the Father Superior. You need to reproach yourself, humble yourself before the brother and you will find peace.” Such replies used to evoke self-reproachment in Fr. Mark’s soul. After bowing humbly before the starets and asking his forgiveness, he would leave composed and comforted—”fly out as though on wings.”
Apart from monks, Fr.Macarius encouraged the bringing together of his lay spiritual children with Fr.Ambrose. Upon seeing Fr.Ambrose conversing with them, he would murmur jokingly “Look, look at that, Ambrose is taking my bread away from me!” In this way, Fr.Macarius was gradually preparing himself a worthy successor. When starets Macarius reposed (7th Sept 1860), the slowly changing events developed in such a way that saw Fr.Ambrose appointed in his place. Forty days after the death of starets Macarius, Fr.Ambrose relocated to another building close to the abbey courtyard, to the right of the belfry. On the western side of this building was an addition called “Shanty,” which served as a reception area for visiting women (as they were not allowed inside the abbey). Fr.Ambrose spent thirty years at this abbey, independently serving his brothers before departing for “Shamardino.”
He had two cell-assistants: Fr.Michael and Fr.Joseph (future elder). His main secretary was Fr.Clement (Zederholm), son of a Protestant pastor. A highly educated individual, who was a Master of Greek literature, he converted to Orthodoxy.
Initially, in order to observe the rites, he would wake up at 4 am, ring the bells which summoned his assistants, who would then read the morning prayers, twelve selected psalms and First Hour. Afterwards, he would retire to spend time in wise prayer. After a short rest, the starets would attend the hours: third, sixth and typika, and depending upon the time of the day, the canon and acathithus to Jesus Christ or His Holy Mother. He would listen to these akathists standing. After prayer and a light breakfast, the working day would begin, interrupted by a short lunch break. The amount of food the starets would consume equalled to that given to a three-year-old child. During lunch, the cell attendants would relay questions to him posed by the visitors. After a brief rest, the intense toil recommenced—continuing deep into the night. Notwithstanding his weakened and ailing state, the starets always finished the day with evening prayer rule, made up of small compline, canon to the Guardian Angel and evening prayers. The continuous flow of people visiting the starets had his cell attendants run off their feet. Occasionally the elder would lie still, as though without any feeling. After the Rule, the starets would ask forgiveness “for having sinned gravely by deed, word, thought.” Having received his blessing, the cell attendants would head for the door, as the bells would peal the Hour. The starets would inquire feebly “Which hour is it?,” “The twelfth” came the response. “You are late” would be his comment.
After two years, a new sickness overtook the starets. If before his health was fragile, now it was completely feeble. From that point on, he was unable to go to church and partook of the Holy Sacraments in his cell. In 1869, his health reached such a low point that hope for his recovery started to wane. The miracle-working icon of Mother of God of Kaloozh was brought to him. After Te Deum, cell vigil and Extreme Unction, his health improved although extreme weakness remained with him for the rest of his life.
These severe relapses returned more than once. It is difficult to imagine how the starets, confined to his bed totally fatigued in a state of debilitating infirmity, continued daily to receive multitudes of people and respond to tens of letters. It was through him that the words “God’s strength is realised through infirmities” became a reality. Without God’s selection of him as His crucible through which He spoke and acted, such a feat and gigantic labour would never have been possible through purely human effort. Clearly, God’s life-giving benevolence and assistance was present.
God’s abundant benevolence that resided in him, was the source of those spiritual blessings that allowed him to serve those that visited him, comforting the grieving, strengthening the faith in those that were wavering and directing everybody toward the path of salvation.
Among the spiritual blessings that were gifted to starets Ambrose, which drew thousands of people to him, his perspicacity has to be mentioned in the first instance. He would penetrate deeply into the soul of his visitor and without any need for any explanations, would read it like a book. Without anyone noticing, he would subtly point out the person’s weaknesses, compelling him to think about them seriously. One woman, who visited him often, was addicted to playing cards but too embarrassed to acknowledge this. Once on her visit, she started to ask the starets for his card. Attentively, the elder fixed her with his distinctive look and said: “What mother? Do you think we play cards here at the monastery?” She understood the allusion and confessed her weakness to the starets. His sagacity amazed many, and this immediately influenced them to place themselves fully in his hands in the firm belief that the starets knew better than them what they lacked, what was beneficial for them and what was harmful.
One highly qualified young woman, having finished her higher education in Moscow, and who was an offspring of a woman that was one of Fr.Ambrose’s spiritual daughters, although having never met Fr.Ambrose, did not like him and called him “hypocrite.” Her mother talked her into spending some time with Fr.Ambrose. Arriving at a public visit to the starets, she stood at the back of everyone, next to the doorway. In opening the door to enter, the starets isolated her behind it. Having said a prayer and glancing over the multitude, he suddenly looked behind the door and said: “And who is this giant standing here? Is this—Faith having come to view a hypocrite?” Afterwards, he spoke to her privately, and this changed the young woman’s attitude toward him completely. She came to love him deeply and her fate was settled—she entered a convent at Shamordino. Whoever placed himself – with total faith – under his guidance, never regretted their decision even though initially they may have received directives from him that seemed strange and totally impossible to fulfil.
Usually, very many people gathered at Fr.Ambrose’s. Once, a young woman that was persuaded to visit the Batushka, became irritated because she was kept waiting. Suddenly the door opens wide. The starets, with a bright face, appears in the doorway and loudly states: “Those who are impatient come to me.” Coming up to the young woman he leads her away. After their conversation, she becomes a frequent guest at Optina and visitor to Fr.Ambrose.
On one occasion, a group of women gathered in the courtyard. One of them, an elderly woman with a pained face sitting on a tree stump, related how she walked from Voronezh in the hope that the starets would cure her afflicted legs. Seven miles from the monastery, she became lost on the snow-covered path and fell on a log, exhausted. Suddenly, an old man approached her. Dressed in an under-vestment and skoufia, he approached the woman and enquired as to the cause of her tears. Pointing which path to take with his walking stick, the woman followed his direction and rounding some bushes, immediately sighted the monastery. Everybody agreed that the old man was either the monastery’s forester or one of its brothers. Suddenly, a young novice appeared on the perron and loudly asked: “where is Eudoxia of Voronezh?” Everybody glanced at one another but kept quiet. The novice repeated his question, only louder, and added that Batushka is calling her. Having just arrived at the monastery, the woman with the afflicted legs exclaimed, “Dear me, but Eudoxia of Voronez is I!” Forging through the throng that had given way, she arrived at the top of the steps and disappeared through the doorway. After some 15 minutes, she came out of the house in tears, sobbing that the old man in the forest that directed her was non-other than Father Ambrose himself, or someone that looked very much like him. However, there was nobody in the monastery that looked like him, and during winter, due to ill health, he was unable to venture out of his cell. Yet here he is, appearing in the forest, giving directions to a traveller, and then having detailed knowledge of her, half an hour before her arrival!
Here is another instance of Fr.Ambrose’s perspicacity as related by an artisan that visited him: “Shortly before the death of the Starets, some 2 years, I had to travel to Optina to get some money. We had finished making an iconostasis and I was there to receive a rather large sum of money from the father-superior. Having received my payment, I dropped in to Fr. Ambrose to receive his blessing for my return journey. I was in a hurry to get home as was waiting to receive a large order—for about 10,000 roubles, and the clients would definitely call at my home the following day. As usual, the number of people waiting to see the Starets was overwhelming. Having found out about my waiting to see him, he sent his cell attendant to ask me to come in the evening to drink tea with him. Although I was hurrying to get home, the honour and joy to have tea with the Starets were so great, that I reasoned that if I delayed my journey till the evening, I will still be able to get home on time if I travelled all night.
When evening arrived, I went to the Starets. Greeting me, the Starets was so happy and joyful that I did not feel the ground beneath my feet. Batushka, our angel, kept me fairly long as it was getting dark. “Well, go with God” he said, “Sleep here tonight and tomorrow I will bless you to attend liturgy, and afterwards come over for tea. “What’s this?” I thought. However, I didn’t dare object. I slept over, attended liturgy and went to drink tea with the Starets while lamenting about my clients, thinking: perhaps I will be able to get home in the evening. Here’s hoping! Finishing my tea and before I can say to the Starets: ‘Bless me on my journey’, he announces ‘Come over tonight and sleep here.’ Even my legs started to sag; yet I could not object. The day passed, the night passed! In the morning, I became a bit bold and thought: To be or not to be, I shall leave today: perhaps my clients will wait for me for one day. Would you believe! I couldn’t open my mouth when the Starets said: “Go to vespers tonight and liturgy tomorrow morning. Then sleep here again.” What sort of parable is this! Here, I began to really grieve, and to be truthful, sinned against the Starets: what a sage! He knows precisely that because of his generosity, a lucrative job has slipped through my fingers. I was so incommodious with the Starets that I was unable to relay my feelings to him. This time, during vespers, I was not up to praying as thoughts flooded my head: “Well here’s a great Starets! Here is a sage…! Your earnings are blown.” Ah, was I really annoyed at that time! And my Starets, well, as though purposely and to my sin, God forgive me, and seemingly to taunt, greets me in a joyful mood after the all night vigil! I became bitter and insulted: I thought why is he so happy…But I still did not have the audacity to voice my thoughts. I spent the third night in the usual manner. Overnight, my lament slowly diminished: it was like water under the bridge. In the morning, I came over to the Starets, to be told by him: “Well, its time for you to depart! Go with God! God will bless you! And with time, do not forget to thank God!”
From this point, all my sorrows fell away from me. I left Optina with such a light heart and joy that it is impossible to convey…Only why did batushka tell me: “Later, do not forget to thank God!”…..I thought it was maybe because He gave me the great honour of spending three days in church. Travelling home unhurriedly and not even thinking about my clients, I was very happy that batushka treated me the way he had. I arrived home and what do you think? I am driving through the gates and my clients are right behind me. They were three days late! Well, I thought, my blessed Starets! Your works are indeed wondrous Lord!….However, this did not end here. You listen to what happened further!
A short time later, Fr.Ambrose passed away. Two years after his righteous death, my senior artisan is taken ill. A trusted person, he was worth his weight in gold. He lived with me continuously for twenty years. His illness is life threatening. We sent for a priest to administer the last rites while he was still conscious. Approaching me from the deathbed, the priest says: “The sick person is calling for you, he wants to see you. Hurry, before he dies.” As soon as he saw me coming, he somehow managed to prop himself up on his elbows, looked at me and burst into tears: “Please forgive my sin boss! I did want to kill you….” “You what, God forbid! You are delirious….” No boss, I truly wanted to kill you. Remember when you were three days late in returning from Optina. Well, through my arrangement with two others, we waited for you three nights under the bridge: we were after the money you received at Optina for the iconastasis. Due to someone’s prayers, had God not led you away from an unrepentant death, you would not have been alive that night. In God’s name, forgive me, an accursed one, and release my soul with peace!” “God forgive you as I forgive you.” He then began to emit death rattles. May his soul rest in Heaven. Great was his sin, but great was his repentance!”
Father Ambrose’s perspicacity was combined with another most valuable gift, especially for a clergyman—discernment. To people who thought deeply about religion, his directives and advice appeared as sound and practical scripture. Often the Starets would give his preceptorials in a semi-humorous format, thereby lifting the person from despondency, yet not diminishing the deep meaning of his words. Because of Fr.Ambrose’s picturesque expressions, people would invariably ponder over them and remember their meaning for a long time. Sometimes, during general gatherings, the constant question would be raised: “How to live?” To this, the Starets would benignly reply: “We must live on earth just as a wheel turns, where only one point is in contact with the ground, while the rest reaches out upward: but we, once we lie down, are unable to get up.”
As examples, we will cite some other sayings of the Starets.
- “Where there is simplicity, there are a hundred Angels, but where there is cleverness—there are none.”
- “Do not boast peas that you are better than beans, once you are soaked—you too will burst.”
- “From what does a person become bad?—From forgetting that there is a God above him.”
- “Those who think of themselves as having nothing, will lose out.”
The Staret’s reasoning also extended toward practical questions, far removed from those problems of spiritual life. Here is an example.
An affluent landowner comes to the Starets and as a matter of course, announces that he intends to establish a watering system throughout his wide-spread apple orchards. Totally occupied with the watercourse, batushka begins with his usual words: “People say that the best way”—and then pictures the waterway in detail. Returning home, the landlord begins to read literature on the topic and realises that batushka’s description was the latest invention in this field of technology. The landlord returns to Optina. ‘Well, what about the watercourse?” asks batushka. Everywhere, apples are spoiling, but with the landlord—a bumper harvest.
Thanks to the powers of reasoning and perspicacity within Starets Ambrose that combined with a remarkable, pure maternal softness of the heart, he was able to alleviate the heaviest sorrow and console the most grieving soul.
Some 3 years after the death of Starets in 1894, one inhabitant from Kozelska related the following: “I had a son who worked for the telegraph company by delivering telegrams. Batushka knew us both. My son used to deliver telegrams to him quite often while I went to him for his blessing. Then my son became ill with tuberculosis and died. I came to him—we all came to him with our sorrows. He stroked my head and said: “Your telegram has been cut short!” “Yes, cut short batushka!” and I began to cry. His compassion made my soul feel light, as though a heavy stone was removed. We lived beside him as though with our own father. Now, there are no more staretses like him. Maybe God will send another one to us.”
Love and wisdom—these were the precise qualities that attracted people to the Starets. From morning till evening, people came to him with their pressing questions into which he immersed deeply, living them during the conversation. He always encompassed the crux of the matter with reason and explicated it with incomprehensible wisdom. However, during this 10 to 15 minute dialogue, not only was one issue decided, but during this time Fr.Ambrose intercalated into his heart, the whole human being—with all his attachments, desires—his whole being, internal and external. By the elder’s words and directives, it was clear that he loved not only that person that he was conversing with, but all his loved ones, his life and everything that was dear to him. Considering all aspects of life that may be affected by the subject matter, Fr.Ambrose always bore in mind the possible resultant, significant ramifications—independent of the matter at hand—that may arise from his determinations and affect not only on that person, but others as well. What type of mental concentration was required to solve these problems? Yet these types of enigmas were brought to him by tens of lay people – not counting fellow monks and 50 letters that arrived and were attended to—on a daily basis! Being close to God and in possession of His gift of clairvoyance, the Starets’s words carried great authority. It was prophet’s work.
Insignificant matters did not exist for the Starets. He knew that everything in life had value and its own consequences. Consequently, there was no question that he did not respond to with commitment and a desire to do good. Once, a woman employed by the wife of a landowner to look after her turkeys came to the Starets. For some reason, the turkeys in her charge were dying off and the employer was on the verge of dismissing her. “Batushka!” she turned to him tearfully “I am running out of strength giving all my time to them. I look after them as I would after a treasured one—yet still they fall ill. The mistress wants to replace me. Have pity on me father.” The people present laughed at her. Sharing her concerns and after hearing how she fed them, the Starets gave new feeding instructions, blessed her and sent her home. The Starets then pointed out to those that laughed that her whole life revolved around those turkeys. Later it became known that those turkeys became sickness-free.
Instances of his healings were countless and would be impossible to enumerate in this short treatise. The Starets always tried to hide these occurrences.
Once, stooped and leaning on his stick, Starets Ambrose was walking along the road from somewhere toward the abbey. Suddenly, he is confronted with the following scene: a cart fully loaded, next to it lies a dead horse over which a peasant is crying. The loss of a horse, provider to the peasant’s existence, was a substantial misfortune! Nearing the horse, the Starets commenced to walk around it, slowly. Then taking a switch he whipped the horse, shouting: “Get up, loafer”—and the horse stood up obediently.
To many, Starets Ambrose appeared as a distant figure, comparable to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, either for the purpose of healing or for liberation from misfortunes. To some, extremely few, the Starets’s power of prayerful intercession before God was revealed graphically. We will bring the recollections of a nun who was one of Fr.Ambrose’s spiritual daughters.
“In his cell an image lamp was alight and a small wax candle was burning on his table. It was too dark and I had no time to read from my notes. I hurriedly said what I remembered and then added: ‘Batushka, what else can I say?’ In what else do I repent?—I’ve forgotten.’ Starets rebuked me for this. Suddenly, he got up from his bed. Taking two steps he stood in the middle of his cell. Standing on my knees, I involuntarily followed him with my eyes. Starets straightened out to his full height, lifted his head and raised his arms upward, as though in a prayerful position. It appeared to me at the time that his steps were separated from the ground. I was looking at his radiant head and face. I remember that the ceiling of the cell was as if it was not there, it separated, while the head of the Starets seemingly went upwards. All this appeared to me quite clearly. After a minute, Batushka came up to me in my astonished state and leaning in front of me, blessed me saying; ‘Remember, this is what repentance can lead you to. Go.” I left him swaying, and all through the night I wept over my senselessness and negligence. In the morning, we were given horses and we left. During his lifetime, I was unable to relate this to anyone. He forbade me once and for all of talking about such events, saying threateningly: “Otherwise you will lose my help and benevolence.” People from all the ends of Russia converged on hut of the Starets—poor and rich, the intellectuals and the plain folk. He was visited by well-known public figures and authors: F.M. Dostoevski, V.C. Soloviev, K.N. Leontiev, L.N. Tolstoy, M.N. Pogodin, N.M. Strahov and others. He greeted all of them with equal affection and benevolence. He had a constant need to perform charitable acts, distributing his largess through his cell-attendants while he personally looked after the widows, orphans, the sick and the suffering. During the last years of his life, he blessed the establishment of a women’s monastery some 12 miles away at Shamordino. At that time, it was distinct from other women’s monasteries because it accepted mostly ill and destitute women. In the 90’s of the nineteenth century, the number of novitiates reached 500.
As fate would have it, the hour of death would find Fr. Ambrose precisely at this monastery. On June 2 1890, he left to spend summer at the monastery, as was his usual practice. At the end of summer, the Starets attempted to return to Optina, but due to illness, was unable to do so. After a year, the illness intensified and he lost his hearing and voice. His final sufferings began. As he himself acknowledged, they were of such severity, the likes of which he had never experienced. On the 8th of September, Hieromonk Joseph together with Frs.Theodore and Anatolius, administered Extreme unction to the Starets, and the next day, Holy Communion. On the same day, the Father Superior of Optina, Archimandrite Isaac arrived to visit the Starets. The following day, October 10, 1891, at 11.30, after three deep breaths and crossing himself three times with difficulty, the Starets expired.
The liturgy of the Departed with the order of Burial was performed at the Vedensk church in the Optina hermitage. Nearly 8000 people congregated for the funeral. On the 15th of Oct, the body of Starets Ambrose was interred on the southeasterly side of the church, next to his teacher Hieromonk Macarius. It is worthy to note that one year earlier, on that very same date of Oct 15th, Starets Ambrose instituted the feast day in honour of the miracle-working Mother of God icon ” Ripening of the harvest,” before which he used to utter his fervent prayers on many occasions.
Immediately after his death, miracles began to occur through which, as in life, the Starets healed, instructed and called for repentance.
The years passed, but the path to the Staret’s grave did not grow over with weeds. A period of massive upheavals arrived. The Optina Hermitage was looted and closed. The small chapel on the Staret’s grave was demolished. However, the memory of the great God-pleasing Starets was impossible to eradicate. The people marked the position of the chapel and continued to flow to their teacher.
In Nov 1987 the Optina Hermitage was returned to the Church and in June 1988, the local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church acclaimed Starets Ambrose into the ranks of the Saints. On the day of his death—23rd Oct. when his memory is commemorated—in the presence of many pilgrims, a triumphant hierarchical liturgy was performed in the Optina Hermitage. By this time, the remains of Blessed Ambrose were discovered. On that day, everybody involved in this celebration, experienced a pure and indefinable joy that the holy father loved to endow during his life to all those that came to him. One month later, on the anniversary of the monastery’s renaissance and by the grace of God, a miracle occurred: the icons of Mother of God of Kazan and Saint Ambrose, as well as his remains became odoriferous by exuding fragrant oils. His holy remains performed many other miracles, assuring us sinners that he has not stopped interceding for us before our Lord, Jesus Christ. Eternal praise be to Him! Amen.
Translated by Seraphim Larin