AND THE LAST MONK-CONFESSORS OF OPTINA MONASTERY
Commemorated July 30 (†1922)
Examine yoursleves, whether ye be in the faith.
II Cor. 13:15
When the Soviets finally closed and destroyed the monastery in 1925-27, they also attempted to silence their bloody deeds. Thus, for example, one monk, Fr. Panteleimon had his head chopped off; many of the buildings were destroyed; the famous manuscript library was shipped away and sold off by auctioneers in Paris in the 1930’s – some of these books were saved by the grieving Optina monks and others who cherished them and hoped to see in them tokens of its future restoration.
HAVING ARRIVED at Kozelsk, located not far from Optina Monastery, we walked across a beautiful meadow covered with a luxuriant green growth. It spread itself before us like a wonderful car-pet that was adorned with varicolored flowers. And then, on a slope of a hill towering over the river Zhizdra, there it was: the Optina Monastery, that great monastic desert, our own Thebaid or Trans-Jordan... We came to the Zhizdra. There was a ferry-boat ready to take us across the river. And then with awe we stepped onto the soil of the holy monastery, where everything had been sanctified by the ascetic labors of the monks, with their tears and unceasing prayers. When we entered the monastery we were told that to see Starets Anatole we must go past the orchard and then out through the monastery gate, taking a little path through the thick pine forest that leads right up to the Skete.
Finally we arrived and saw the Skete bell tower, and on the right of it a little hut where the great Startsi had lived. At last, in the depth of the Skete in a small cell, we saw ‘Father Anatole, who received us with love. As we conversed with him his gift of clairvoyance was revealed to us. This first meeting with him remained in our memory for life...”1 And indeed there was in the whole personality of Father Anatole something similar to the freshness of the sun-lit wildflowers, a youthfulness and quiet joy.
From his early years Alexander Potapov wanted eagerly to become a monk, but his mother did not wish it, even though he was not the only son in the family. Like St. Sergius of Radonezh, he went to the monastery only after her death, joining the Optina brotherhood, and for many years was the cell-attendant of the great Starets Ambrose, absorbing the spirit of his great master so well that while still only a hierodeacon he functioned already as a Starets, at first in the Skete and later as the main Starets in the Monastery it self, being revered and loved especially by the visitors and pilgrims from out side.
From his very first days in Optina he fully absorbed the spirit of its severe asceticism: the tense wakefulness of spirit, the being shut up in one’s cell, which is that “cleft in the rock where the Lord spoke to Moses” (St. Isaac the Syrian); and on the other hand he fully partook of the simple and sincere attitude towards everything outward, towards his brethren, the visitors, nature, and the whole surrounding world of God. The Monastery’s way of life in accordance with the Typicon, with its church services, its Elders, its spiritually rich work of enlightenment, nurtured in him a great ascetic. At night he did not sleep at all, giving himself fully over to the Jesus Prayer. Often from fatigue he would doze off in church during the reading of the Psalter, only to meet the criticizing eye of someone who did not know of his nightly labors. This inward activity, however, gave rise in him to that unshakable peace which enabled him, in full accord with all the Startsi who had preceeded him, to become a great benefactor to the whole of society as well, educating the souls of thousands of Russian people in true Christian piety. It is quite significant that he should highly value St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, often presenting as a precious gift the Saint’s book, On True Christianity. A half century later one of his spiritual sons recalled with awe: “In 1921, blessing me to pastoral work as a priest, Starets Anatole told me: ‘Take True Christianity and live according to its directions.’
Having appropriated the essence of monastic direction, Statets Anatole governed the inward life of the monks with full spiritual power. When, for example, during the monks’ confessions twice a day, when they opened their thoughts to him, with deep reverence and concentration they would come up to the Starets one by one, kneel before him, take his blessing and exchange a few words with him, during which time his clairvoyance was often made evident. Some would be brief, others would take a bit longer. It was apparent that the Starets was acting with fatherly love and power. With quiet peace and a feeling of consolation they would withdraw, their soul cleansed anew. And indeed a monk’s life in Optina was without a shadow of disturbance or grief; everyone there was deeply joyous in heartfelt concentration.
Father Anatole had a striking gift of seeing the movements of a man’s soul, his thoughts and feelings: “In 1916 I was informed that Starets Ana tale was expected in St. Petersburg and would stay at Mr. Usov’s; and so three of us, my brother, sister and I, went there. On the way my brother and sister both declared that all they actually needed from the Starets was his blessing, but I said that I would like very much to talk with him. After some time he came out into the vestibule to all the people who were waiting for him and began giving his blessing, saying a few words to each one individually. In appearance Father Anatole was very much like St. Seraphim as depicted on his icons: bent over, with a loving and humble face. One would have to see it for himself, for it is impossible to describe. When our turn came, the Starets blessed my brother and sister, but to me he said: ‘But you wanted to talk to me, didn’t you? Right now I can’t; come to me in the evening.’ The Elder, read my fervent desire, although I had not expressed it in words.”
During his last years St. Anatole lived not far from the church, right opposite it within the monastery wall. The unrest in the people evoked by the revolutionary atheism led the faithful to the Elders — Anatole and Nectarius — for spiritual support. Father Anatole, although the younger of the two and not yet gray-haired, was the center of attention, Father Nectarius preferring to remain in the background. In his humility Starets Nectarius, when he saw visitors approaching his own cell, would go up to them and say, “Whom are you going to?” and he would lead them away to Father Anatole without their suspecting who he was.
The Soviet authorities began the persecution of monks throughout Russia. Optina became State property, and the godless State obviously had no use for a monastery. Thanks to the efforts of local lay believers, the monastery achieved the status of a State museum, with one church being allowed to function. The monks were terribly harassed; some were arrested, and some just went away wherever they could go. But even more did the Orthodox faithful come, flocking the holy place in search of consolation.
Starets Anatole’s turn finally came. Red Army soldiers arrested him several times, shaved him, tortured and mocked him. He suffered much, but he still received his spiritual children whenever he could. Towards evening on July 29th, 1922, a Soviet commission came, interrogated him for a long time, and was supposed to arrest him. But the Starets, without protesting, modestly begged a 24-hour delay in order to prepare himself. His cell-attendant, the hunchbacked Father Barnabas, was menacingly told to prepare the Elder for departure, as he would be taken away the next day; and with this they left.
Night came on and the Starets began to prepare himself for his journey. The following morning the commission returned. Leaving their cars, they asked the cell-attendant, “Is he ready?” “Yes,” answered Fr. Barnabas, “the Starets is ready.” And opening the door he led them to the Elder’s quarters. Here a disconcerting picture presented itself to their astonished gaze: the Starets, having indeed “prepared himself,” lay dead in his coffin in the middle of the room! The Lord had not allowed His faithful servant to be mocked any further, but had taken him to Himself that very night.
A few days before the Elder’s repose, one of his spiritual daughters (E.G.R.) received a letter from him inviting her to come and stay at the Monastery for a while. She delayed in going, and she arrived only on the ninth day after his repose. There she met other people who had likewise been called by the Elder, either by letter or in a dream. One person received word through the Elder of his own repose several hours before it occurred. The body was buried next to the Starets Macarius, whose relics were then found incorrupt.
The next year, just before Easter, the Monastery was finally liquidated. All the remaining monks were arrested and banished, the churches sealed, the graves of the Startsi desecrated, and the Skete turned into a resort for the Soviet “upper class.” Abbot Isaac and Starets Nectarius were imprisoned in Kozhelsk; but the latter was soon released and banished 50 miles away from the Monastery, where in the house of a devoted believer he lived until his death in 1928, thus ending the glorious Era of the Startsi of Optina.
In one of the many popular books about Optina Monastery that appeared just before the Revolution, On the Banks of God’s River, is a touching description of a holy child, the five-year-old son of Fr. Anatole’s spiritual daughter. When pregnant with him she fervently prayed to her beloved St. Sergius of Radonezh, promising to dedicate the child to him. However, while attending St. Seraphim’s canonization in Sarov (1903), she felt the child leap in her womb, and she began to wonder whether she shouldn’t name the child Seraphim instead; but because of a dream she named the child Sergius (Serezha) after all. Five years later, “when Vera and Serezha were leaving our monastery I went to see them off. At that very time I saw that one of our most respected old monks, Father A., was coming out to meet us. We approached him and bowed down to take his blessing. Serezha, putting his little hands forward, said, ‘Bless me, Batushka.’ Instead, the old monk himself bowed down low to Serezha, touching the ground with his hand, saying, ‘No, you first bless me.’ And to our astonishment the child put his fingers into the proper position and blessed the old monk with a priest’s blessing. What does the future hold for this boy?” concluded the author.
And the answer to this question, as witnessed by N. V. Urusova a third of a century later, comes from Holy Catacomb Russia:
“When my sons were arrested in 1937 and banished by the GPU for ten years without right of correspondence, one can well imagine my sorrow. I shed many, many bitter tears, but not even in a single fleeting thought did complain, but only sought consolation in church; and this could only be in the Catacomb Church, which I sought out everywhere, and by God’s mercy I always found it very quickly; and I poured out my grief to the true God-pleasing priests who celebrated catacomb services. And so it was also when, after the arrest of my sons, I left Siberia for Moscow. My sister — who to my horror recognized the Soviet Church — had not been arrested, despite the fact hat she had been a Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress. She directed me to a childhood friend of ours with whom she differed on church questions, since this friend was a fervent participant in catacomb services. This woman and other members of this holy catacomb Church greeted me with open arms.... I lived with my sister periodically and visited all the services, which took place private houses in various parts of Moscow. There was a certain Father Anthony, an old hieromonk, who was our priest and spiritual father. I constantly heard him say: ‘As the Starets commands, whatever the Starets says,’ and the like. I asked Fr. Anthony where I might see this Starets in order to pour Out my grief to him and receive comfort. Whenever he was mentioned it was with great reverence, and he was called an extraordinary holy man. ‘No,’ Fr. Anthony said, ‘that’s out of the question; I will tell him everything that you need from him.’ In 1941 I became acquainted with a lady in Mozhaisk who had been banished from Moscow because of the arrest of her husband and her only daughter. She was also a member of the Catacomb Church and had been the spiritual daughter of this Starets from the very first years of his priesthood. She told me that the Starets (she didn’t give his name) was staying now in a village two miles from Mozhaisk and that she secretly visited his services. To my question whether she couldn’t ask him to receive me she replied: ‘No, that isn’t possible; all the faithful have been denied this, since the GPU has been looking for him for 25 years, and he travels over the whole of Russia from one place to another, being evidently informed by the Holy Spirit whenever it is necessary to go.’ Of course I was saddened at this, but there was nothing I could do about it. The Feast of the Holy Trinity that year was on June 7. Just as nothing in life is due to chance, so was it now: I could not go to Moscow, and in sorrow I sat in my room alone on the eve of the Feast. And then I heard a light tapping at my window; I looked and was dumbfounded. An old nun was tapping, and she was dressed as a nun, in spite of the fact that it was strictly forbidden to wear such garb. It was towards evening. I opened the door and she came in to me with the words ‘The Starets, Father Seraphim, invites you to come to him early tomorrow morning, and if you wish you can confess and receive the Holy Mysteries.’ She showed me which road to take and told me to be careful.
Before the village itself there was a rye field already in full ear, and she advised me to walk bent down. The back road through this field led right up to the hut where the Starets was staying, and right opposite, across the road, was the GPU station. One can imagine my feelings after the nun, so affable with her radiant face, left. She was called Mother N. There were two nuns with the Starets; the other one was called Mother V. They were always with him. The Starets would stay peacefully at one place for as long as two months or so, and then entirely unexpectedly, at any hour of the day or night, would suddenly say: ‘Well, it’s time to go!’ And he and the nuns would put on rucksacks, which contained all the objects for church services, and immediately leave in any direction, until the Starets would stop and enter some hut or other, evidently by inspiration from Above.
“Early in the morning I set out, walking not on the street but, as had been indicated to me, on the dirt road which led to the back door. Before me was a wondrous monk, not at all old. I have no words to describe his holy appearance; the feeling of reverence before him can’t be communicated. I received confession and it was wonderful. After the Divine service and my reception of the Holy Mysteries, he invited me to eat with him. Besides myself there were the lady I mentioned above, the two nuns, and another of his spiritual daughters who had come from Moscow. Oh, the mercy of God! I shall never forget the discourse of which he deemed me worthy, and which continued for several hours. Two days after this spiritual happiness which I experienced while visiting Father Seraphim, I found out from that lady that on the next day, while they were sitting at table, Father Seraphim stood up and said to the nuns: ‘Well, it’s time to go-’ They instantly gathered them selves together and left, and within half an hour, no more, the GPU came looking for him; but the Lord had hidden him. Three months passed; the Germans were already in Mozhaisk when, suddenly, there was again a light tapping on the window, and the same Nun N. came in to me with the words:
‘Father Seraphim is in the town of Borovsk (40 miles from Moscow), and he sent me to give you his blessing; and he ordered me to reveal to you that he is the very Serezha before whom Father A. bowed down!”
The Era of Optina is past, the Monastery destroyed. But after such a revelation from the Catacombs of enslaved Russia, who can say that the tradition of Optina is dead? Who can even guess what further mysteries of the life of Holy Russia await God’s time to be revealed to an unworthy world?
He was known by the persecuted believers as the last carrier of the Optina spirit—absolute humility and meekness. When he served he was transported into another world. He was obviously clairvoyant, a highly experienced father-confessor to whom the soul of the penitent was opened and he knew how to heal sick and tormented souls.
Father Barnabas came from a peasant family but was well educated. In his youth he worked in some mines where he suffered a catastrophe and lost his leg. When he lay in the hospital he decided to become a monk. God healed him and he went to Optina where he eventually became Elder Anatole’s cell-attendant and was vouchsafed to behold the blessed repose of that great Elder. Were it not for the Bolsheviks’ closing of Optina with its renowned institution of God—bearing eldership, Father Barnabas would have become a successor elder in his own right. He was truly a man of spiritual insight and his words had power.
He was tall, had a large black beard and his long dark hair on his shoulders was graying. He had a special penetrating gaze; his eyes were dark, kind and shone as if exuding some inward light, especially during the church services. He never smiled but his whole countenance was joyous. His sense of humor was emphasizing simplicity and submission to God’s will. He taught complete monastic renunciation of the will.
I remember how I felt during my first confession with him.
In trepidation I knelt before the analogion. For the first time in my life my soul automatically fully opened up. I clearly felt the closeness of the Lord. As the experienced elder posed questions before me, in my memory would arise long- forgotten sins. I admitted that earlier I, a baby in religion, did not even consider them as sins. But here, suddenly, they rose up as grave sins. And my soul, freed from their heavy burden, became winged with light-hearted joy and limitless devotion to the grace-bearing elder. One felt like telling him everything, because he would understand everything in the light of Christ’s wisdom and love. He was not only a witness of the confession, but also a transmitter of Light and Grace. This was my first real confession. Only then I understood what is confession. The darkness which was enveloping my senses, began to fade away and the laws of spiritual life began to reveal themselves before me. For the first time in my life I began to consciously strive toward the Light. And I was not alone. How many other people did he lead also to that Light!
In the fall of 1932, Father Barnabas was arrested and two years later released. He went into the catacombs—he served Liturgy and received people for confession in his own little one-room cabin. From that time on his true self became revealed in the fullness of its depth. He was indeed a true Optina elder.
In 1938 he was arrested once more and never heard of again. From the information received concerning his whereabouts, it was clear that he met his martyrdom then, in 1938.
Holy Hieromartyr Barnabas pray to God for us.
As I read this Gospel, I remembered an incident in Optina Monastery.”
This is the great monastery which was renowned in recent times for its clairvoyant elders.
When the Revolution of evil memory broke out in Russia, and when the God-fighting regime began its fight against religion, a so-called “liquidation commission” was sent to this monastery there was a Hieromonk Nikon in the monastery. He had tuberculosis. He read and sang on the cliros. And when this “liquidation commission” began its work, when they began to arrest monks, this Hieromonk Nikon was also arrested. He was the kindest of men. He was condemned, shaved of all the hair on his body, mocked, spat upon, slandered, and in the end he was sent, already a sick man, to a concentration camp. There he died of tuberculosis. He was already in his last days when he wrote a letter to a nun of his acquaintance. (This nun was my mother, and when she read us this letter we children sat and wept as we listened.)
I would like to share this letter with you. He wrote: “There is no limit to my happiness.” Why? Because he came to the monastery for the sake of Christ. And the sorrows which he endures, he endures for the sake of Christ. And therefore we have the words of the Saviour that if men will hate and separate you and reproach you for the sake of Christ, He gives a promise: “Rejoice ye and leap for joy, for your reward is infinitely great in heaven.” “And so I believe my Lord” (the letter continues), “that these words apply to me also, and therefore I await with impatience that happy moment when I will be dissolved from this corruptible body and will be united with my Lord.”
This came to my memory as telling us how to look upon sorrows. If a man endures for the sake of Christ, he will receive a reward. And this is a great source of instruction for our earthly life. It is by many sorrows that we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. And therefore, if someone has any sorrow and bears it for the sake of the Lord with joy, this will be a step into, the Kingdom of Heaven, Bishop Nektary.
There has been preserved the text of another letter which New- Martyr Nikon sent from Optina Monastery at the time (in the mid-1920’s) when the approaching end of its existence was felt by all the brethren there. This deeply-felt, poetic letter, addressed to his sorrowing mother, is all that is left from this martyr.
OF OPTINA TO HIS MOTHER, 1922
I fervently desire for you peace and joy in the Lord, and I ask your holy prayers and mother’s blessing.
About myself, what can I write? I am alive and well, I have no particular needs, I receive everything I need, I labor a little as a secretary, I am very busy with various things in the monastery or rather, things which touuch in general on our common life: I sing on the cliros, and finally. I serve, standing before the holy altar of God.
As for my inward life, my cell and my soul, not everyone can know this, My cell is five yards long and three and a half wide, with one window This cell is dearer to me than any sumptuous houses or halls.
As for the conditions of our common life, this is something which is complicated, but at the same time very simple: complicated, because it is difficult to put on paper what the former monastery is like now, and everything that we are experiencing and doing; but simple, because except the Lord build the house, in vain do they labor that build it, in the words of the Psalm (Ps. 126:1). Yes, one must take the measures that are possible, prompted by common sense, which are not contrary to the Christian spirit and monastic life; but, in taking them, one must expect success entirely from the hand of the Lord.
Human pride says: We will do, we will attain—and we begin to build a tower of Babel, we demand of God an accounting for His actions, we desire to have the universe at our disposal, we dream of thrones beyond the clouds—but no one and nothing submits to us, and the powerlessness of man is demonstrated with all apparentness in bitter experience. Observing this experience in the history both of ancient, long-gone days, and of recent times, I have come to the conclusion that the ways of God’s Providence are past finding out for us; we cannot understand them, and therefore we must with all humility give ourselves over to the will of God.
Then, secondly: No one and nothing can harm a man if he does not harm himself; on the contrary, if one does not avoid sin, a thousand means of salvation will not help him. Consequently, the only evil is sin:
Judas fell while in the presence of the Saviour, but the righteous Lot was saved while living in Sodom. Such and similar thoughts come to me when I take instruction from the reading of the Holy Fathers and when I mentally glance upon my surroundings.
What will happen? How will it happen? When will it happen? If such-and-such happens, which way should one bend? If such-and-such happens, where can one find spiritual strength and consolation? 0 Lord, Lord! And a fierce perplexity takes hold of the soul when you wish to foresee everything in your mind, to penetrate into the mystery of the future which is unknown but somehow frightful. The mind becomes exhausted, and the plans and methods it has devised are a childish fantasy, a pleasant dream. A man wakes up, and everything has vanished, pushed away by harsh reality, and all one’s plans are destroyed. Where is there hope? Our hope is in God.
The Lord is my hope and my refuge. By giving over myself and everything to the will of God, the will of God will be done in me, and it is always good and perfect. If I am God’s, then the Lord will defend and console me. If for my benefit some temptation is sent to me—blessed be the Lord Who has arranged my salvation. Even in the midst of sorrows the Lord is mighty to give great and most glorious Consolation . . . Thus do I think, thus do I feel, thus do I observe and believe.
From this do not think that I have experienced many sorrows and trials. No, it seems to me that I have not really seen any sorrows yet. If I have gone through things which at a superficial glance seemed to be some thing sorrowful, they have not caused me any great pain of heart, have not caused any sorrow, and therefore I would not call them sorrows. But I do not close my eyes to what is happening and to the future, so as to prepare my soul for temptation, so that I might say in the words of the Psalm: “I pre pared myself and was not disturbed.”
I have told you that we had an investigation; they reviewed the business of our association. This investigation is not yet finished, and there has been no trial. When the trial will be, and how it will end—God knows. But, beyond any doubt, without the will of God nothing can happen either to me in particular or to us all in general, and therefore I am calm. And when one’s soul is calm, what more can one seek?
Now 1 have come from the All-night Vigil and am finishing this letter, which I began before the Vigil. 0 Lord, what happiness! What marvellous words are proclaimed to us in church! Peace and quiet, the spirit of sanctity are sensibly felt in church. The Divine service ends, everyone goes to their homes, and I also come out of church.
A wondrous night, a light frost. The moon with its silvery rays drenches our quiet little corner. I go to the graves of the reposed ElderS. bow down to them, ask their help in prayer, and for them I ask of the Lord eternal blessedness in heaven. These graves say much to our mind and heart; from these cold inscriptions there is a breath of warmth. Before the mental gaze of my mind there stand the wondrous images of reposed giants of the spirit.
During these days I have remembered Father Barsanuphius many times. I have remembered his words, the instruction which he gave me once— and perhaps more than once. He told me: “The Apostle exhorts: Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (II Cor. 13:15), and he continued:
“Look at what the same apostle says: 1 have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown (II Tim. 4:7-8). Yes, it is a great thing to keep, to preserve the faith. Therefore I also tell you: Examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith. If you keep the faith, you can have a good hope over your lot.”
‘When the reposed Elder told me all this (and he spoke well, with enthusiasm; as far as I recall it was in the evening, by the quiet light of an icon-lamp in his dear, cozy elder’s cell), I felt that he was saying something wondrous, exalted, spiritual. My mind and heart seized on his words with eagerness. I had heard this utterance of the Apostle before, but it had riot produced in me such a response, such an impression.
It seemed to me that “keeping the faith” was something special. I believe, and I believe in the Orthodox way; I have no doubts at all regarding faith. But here I felt that in this utterance there was something great—that indeed it is great, in spite of all temptations, all the experiences of life, all the offending things, to keep in one’s heart the fire of holy faith unquenched, and unquenched even until death, for it is said: I have finished my course, that is, the whole of earthly life has already been lived, finished, the path which one had to travel has already been traveled, I am already at the boundary of earthly life, beyond the grave another life already begins, the life which has been prepared for me by my faith which I have kept. I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. And my wondrous Elder gave as his testament to me to test myself from time to time in the truths of the Orthodox faith, lest I might, unnoticed by myself, deviate from them. He advised me, among other things, to read the Orthodox Catechism of Metropolitan Philaret and to become acquainted with the Confession of the Orthodox Faith of the Eastern Patriarchs.”
Now, when the foundations of the Orthodox Russian Church have been shaken, I see how precious is this instruction of the Elder. Now, it seems, the time of testing has come, to see whether we are in the faith. Now one must also know that the faith can be kept by one who believes warmly and sincerely, to whom God is dearer than everything, and this latter can be true only in one who preserves himself from every sin, who preserves his moral life. 0 Lord, keep me in the faith by Thy grace!
The idea that the faith can be kept only with a good moral life is not my own; this is the teaching also of the Gospel and the Holy Fathers. Here is what it says in the Holy Gospel according to St. John, 3:19-21:
Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.
Christ here calls Himself the Light. He tries to persuade the Jews of His time to abandon the search for honor from each other, while doing which a man is incapable of faith; but they only mocked . . . How can ye believe,which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only? (John 5:44).
And Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, indicating these words of the Gospel, says that, like other passions, the passion of vainglory annihilates faith in the human heart: like them, it makes the human heart incapable of faith in Christ, of confessing Christ . . . Therefore, I fervently entreat your holy prayers, that the Lord might preserve me from every evil—that is, from sin in all its forms—and then no outward situation will be able to harm me.
I only wished to tell you briefly that I am alive and well and, beyond my intentions, I was drawn into writing this. In writing this letter, I have scarcely been able to follow my thoughts and record what they have dictated to me. All this has somehow involuntarily poured out of my pen, and it represents my profound conviction.
May the Lord preserve us all.
I ask the holy prayers of all, and I myself, according to my own infirm powers, will always remember everyone in prayer. Forgive me.
May the grace of our Lord and God Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
November 15-16/28-29, 1922. Optina Monastery.
It is already two o’clock at night.
Father Vincent was born in Petersburg in a well-to-do clerk’s family by the name of Nikolsky. He completed law school and became interested in philosophy to such an extent that it gripped his thoughts and feelings. At that time he was far from Christ and His Church. Just then one of his brothers died unexpectedly. This had a profound effect upon his life. The first thing that came to mind was to commit suicide. He was studying Neitzche who, in a sense, whispered this idea into his ear. The only thing holding him back was his love for his mother. He wanted to prepare her for this and, therefore, secretly left home and hid on his family’s estate where during wintertime no one lived. His parents, however, found out where he was and sent an old relative, a nun, to him. As if accidentally, upon the table in the room where Father Vincent was hiding, she left a book by Bishop Theophan the Recluse— What is Spiritual Life and How Does One Attain It. Father Vincent read this book and with enthusiasm began to read the other writings of Bishop Theophan. Soon he became acquainted with the Archbishop of Tula and Belyov, Partheny (Levitski) whom Father Vincent remembered with special gratitude, considering him an ascetic and a truly humble monk. Vladika Partheny directed him to go to Optina Hermitage.
Father Vincent came to Optina when Archimandrite Xenophont was the abbot. His first monastic obediences were working in the kitchen and reading out loud the monastic rule to the already sick Archimandrite Xenophont. The guidance of his spiritual life was in the hands of Father Nektary who, after the repose of Elder Joseph, was selected to be the spiritual father of all the brethren and the monastery elder. Father Nektary was a doer of the Jesus Prayer. He was taught the Jesus Prayer by the great Elder Anatole (Zertsalov). The mental activity of the Jesus Prayer—when one acquires the habit of walking in the remembrance of the Name of God—became the tone of the whole life of Father Vincent. This inward activity was the determining factor in his life. All external things were viewed from this all- encompassing, spiritually refined way of life. Nothing else in his life interested him. He had only one aim—to abide in the Name of the Lord. He was always filled with joy. He encountered no difficulty in the monastery obediences since the main task was the acquisition of spiritual sobriety. He worked in the bakery, the prosphora bakery, in the office and, much to his liking, he was often sent to get the mail. From the monastery to the post-office in Kozelsk it was almost four miles. These eight miles (there and back) were filled with great joy, for during this time he fulfilled his obedience to his elder concerning sobriety and prayer.
In this period of his life the Revolution occurred. The young monk did not wish to leave in those first difficult years of the Revolution when the monastery was being gradually torn apart. According to Father Vincent, his father, a dignitary, did not want him to enter the monastery. He was very disappointed that his son had thrown away the possibility of rising up in the secular world. But in the turbulent years of the Revolution, his father wrote him a letter:
“Father Vincent, (in such a way did he address his son) how you were right! Oh, how I wish I could change my already spent life. How I wish that from my youth I had accepted your way of life. I am dying and, looking towards my grave, I weep. An unworthy slave of Christ.” This letter of a father to his son gave strength to Father Vincent at a time when the wave of the Revolution was destroying monasteries, and causing their inhabitants to seek some other shelter. Father Vincent did not seek anything. He was, as before, in obedience to his elder and con ducted his own spiritual work. At this time, Optima Monastery was looking for places to sent her monks. Elder Nektary sent Father Vincent to a parish priest, Father Adrian Rymarenko, so that under the protection of the parish church the life of the monk-ascetic might be preserved. This priest, who in America became Archbishop Andrew, later wrote concerning Fr. Vincent:
“The Lord enabled us to behold a candle burning before God....It is difficult to say what this monk spent his time doing. I can only say that now I weep, remembering the past. I know that I didn’t always know how to cherish this refined and polished vessel of the grace of God... .For’ the two years he stayed with us, he was not once of his own accord outside the gate of the church. Not once did he sit at the table at trapeza. He never conversed with anyone for the sake of his own interest. He never pushed upon anyone his own ideas. The whole time he was with us one could sense in him the power of God.
“The godless authorities who arrested and sent him away from me, treated him peculiarly. It seemed that they feared his sanctity. He was sent, like I was, on ‘administrative exile’. Automatically the thought came to me: how would he survive the approaching trials? Father Vincent wrote his elder a letter in the style of a Soviet person—it sounded like nonsense: he asked the elder to bless him to be a pauper. In the Soviet Union there was no place for a pauper. The elder blessed him. I know that the Lord did not abandon his slave. Nor did our parishioners forget him; they sent him parcels of food and other necessary things.
“In 1933 he returned from his first exile and arrived in Kozeisk at the time of the common arrest of the last Optina monks. He was arrested again and exiled to Tashkent. There, in the first month of his exile, according to the authorities, he died from some obscure disease. I know that before he was arrested one of our Kievan monks visited him while he was still in Kozel and told me that he was living in a small cabin that reminded one of a cave. Utter poverty. Deprivation. Yet at that moment he was a rich man—only his riches were not earthly, but heavenly. He was already prepared to die as a monk-martyr.
Before the final dispersion of the monks, Archimandrite Xenophont asked Father Vincent if he would accept ordination to the priesthood. Father Vincent was obedient but told Father Archimandrite that if he would ask him what he desired, then he would reply that he cared to remain a simple monk. Archimandrite Xenophont decided then to grant his wish. And thus, Father Vincent was never ordained; he remained his entire life as a simple monk.
O, holy monk-martyr Vincent, pray to God for us.
Sources: M. Poisky, The New Martyrs of Russia, Vol. II, p. 220.
1 Memoirs of the Canadian Missionary, Archimandrite Amvrossy Kanavalov.
2 Memoirs of Elena Kartsev (now Mrs. H. Koritzevitch).