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Elder Barsanuphius of Optina

Talks with Spiritual Children (Part I)

January 2, 1911

Glory be to the Lord!

We’ve made it to the Feasts. The present days are called “Svyatki,” that is, holy days, since the Church dedicates them to the commemoration of the Nativity of the Savior of the world.

But what is now taking place in the world is terrible to consider!—overeating, drunkenness and debauchery.

Gogol has a story entitled “How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich.” In it is described how, for insignificant reasons, two friends quarrelled throughout their whole lives, exhausted all their means on court cases and became impoverished, if only to prosecute one another. A sad story! Gogol ends his tale with the words, “It’s wearisome to live in this world, sir!”

We are living through terrible times: people are rising up against one another, often sparing neither relations nor friendships. They’re rising up against the lawful authorities; everything is being trampled upon—faith, virtue and modesty. The unruliness increased after the declaration of all manner of freedom under Alexander II. It’s not wearisome, but terrible to live in this world, sir! But then again, it does not follow that one should fall into despair over this. It has been even worse in the past. As for the present, things will calm down yet. It’s not yet the time before antichrist.

The theater at the present time acts in a corrupting way upon the soul, since such immoral things are played in it as Andreyev’s “Anathema” and similar plays. The Lord is merciful but is also just. The Holy Scriptures say, “The Lord will not be mocked” (cf. Gal. 6:7). He will endure sins and iniquities for a long time, but if a man does not want to correct himself, He will punish the wicked one with sudden death. “In whatsoever state I find you, so will I judge you” says the Lord. Horrible will be the fate of a man who dies suddenly while committing sins.

One rich man who had married a poor girl began soon afterwards to taunt her in every way and gave himself over to a loose life. Once he was at the theater at an immoral show. During the intermission he went to the buffet, took a glass of wine, and suddenly fell down dead. How will such a soul appear at God’s judgment?!

Or here’s another similar incident. Once in Vienna in the Rink-Theater some sort of profane show was playing. Suddenly a fire broke out, which quickly spread throughout the building, and a great number of people perished. A staggering impression was produced by the sight when a mass of coffins later followed one another to the cemetery. And what was the fate beyond the grave of these people? It’s frightful to consider!

Now everything is permitted, and theatrical performances play even on great feasts. Earlier, shows did not play in public theaters on feast days. I remember how once in Kazan, on the feast of St. Nicholas, a performance was allowed. Suddenly a fire broke out in the wings which gave rise to a general panic. However, there were no human victims—the Lord was merciful, by the prayers of the Holy Hierarch. For a long time after this shows were not permitted on the feast of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker.

When I was in the world I loved opera. Good, serious music gave me pleasure and I always had a subscription—a seat in the orchestra. Later on, when I learned of different, spiritual consolations, the opera ceased to interest me. When a valve of the heart closes to the receptivity of worldly enjoyments, another valve opens for the reception of spiritual joys.

But how does one acquire this? First of all, by peace and love towards one’s neighbors: Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth... (I Cor. 13:4-8). Then, by patience. Who will be saved? He that endureth to the end shall be saved (Matt. 10:22). Also, by withdrawing from such sinful pleasures as, for instance, card-playing, dances, and so on.

One man had a dream of people dancing the quadrille, and an angel of the Lord taught him, saying, “Take a look at what they are doing.” And he saw it: “Lord, this is actually a desecration of the Cross of Christ.” In fact, the French quadrille was invented during the era of the revolution to trample on the Cross—you see, either four or eight people dance it, so that it turns out to be a cross.

A schema-nun had a similar dream. It seemed to her that the dancers were engulfed by flames and encircled with ropes and demons were leaping about and gloating over the destruction of the people.

So now it’s “Svyatki,” but what a sharp difference there is between those celebrating these holy days in the world and in the Monastery. There, in the world, they’re serving the enemy; here in the Monastery there is service to God. While in the world iniquities are reaching their greatest degree of development, in the Monastery there is joy and peace in the Lord. The solemn church services touch the soul and dispose it to begin to feel more strongly the whole limitless goodness of the Lord, Who is now being born of the Bride of God, the Virgin Mary. In our Monastery, nature itself disposes one to a quiet joy in the Lord.

At the same time that people in the world are attracted to worldly literature, often of immoral content, in the monasteries there is the reading of the Psalter and, in one’s free time, the Lives of Saints. When I entered the Monastery, the desire arose in me to reread all of our classics. I revealed this to the Elder, but he forbade me. I’m glad now that I heeded his wise counsel, since the desire to occupy myself with worldly literature was the enemy’s fishing line, to arouse within me recollections of worldly life and, perhaps, regrets over it. I don’t wish to say that reading the works of our great writers is a sin—but there is reading that is more profitable and edifying. In the first place, there is the reading of the Psalter—this book was written by the holy King and Prophet David at the urging of the Holy Spirit. The Prophet David himself says, My tongue is the pen of a swiftly writing scribe (Ps. 44:1). And the Lives of Saints are indispensable readings, which act beneficially upon the soul, especially if you read them in Slavonic.

At the present time many do not understand the Slavonic language, but meanwhile it’s incomparably more beautiful and rich than Russian. One expert compared Slavonic and Russian and said that there is such a difference between them as there is between a magnificent cathedral and a simple village church. In the world people have entirely left off reading the Lives of Saints, especially in Slavonic. Don’t you conform to the customs of this age—take up this salvific reading.

Visit the monasteries, especially on feast days, even when I’m not here. Don’t forget to come here to give rest to your soul. And maybe the Lord will vouchsafe one of you the monastic rank. Although monastic life is full of afflictions and temptations, it still bears within itself great consolation as well, of which the world hasn’t the slightest comprehension.

However, it doesn’t matter how you’re saved, just as long as you are saved and reach the Kingdom of Heaven, which may the Lord vouchsafe all of us. Amen.

April 11, 1911

It is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant, O ye people; this is the Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord, from death to life and from earth to heaven, Christ our God has passed us, who sing a hymn of victory.... What could be more ecstatic, more joyful, than this Canon?! Where could there be an expression of greater joy?!

Full joy does not occur in this life, where we see God only through a glass, darkly. This joy will begin yonder, beyond the grave, when we will see the Lord face to face. Not everyone will see God the same way, but each will see Him according to the measure of his own receptivity. In fact, even the vision of the Seraphim is distinguished from the vision of simple angels. One can only say—whoever has not seen Christ in this life will not see Him in the next. The capability of seeing God is attained through work on oneself in this life.

The life of any Christian person can be depicted graphically in the form of an uninterruptedly ascending line. But the Lord does not allow a man to see this ascent; He conceals it, knowing human weakness, knowing that by observing his own improvement it would not take a man long to become prideful, and where there is pride, there too is a fall into the abyss. [Benjamin] Franklin thought up a horrible thing, proposing that people, on special little boards, make note of their successes of the day, of the week, and so on. In this way one can reach a state of terrible prelest, and tumble down into the abyss of destruction.

No, ours is a different path. We must all strive towards God, towards heaven, towards the East; but we must see our sins and weaknesses, confessing ourselves to be the first among sinners, seeing ourselves as beneath all, and all others as above us. However, this is a difficult thing; we all try to take notice of others—he’s weak in this, but I’m not; I’m a good boy, better than him. One must struggle against this trait. This is a tough struggle, but without it it’s impossible to see God. True, only a few people have seen God face to face, like St. Seraphim of Sarov, but we must all, without exception, strive, if only to see His reflection. If we believe in Christ and try, according to our strength, to fulfill His commandments, then even if only through a crack, we’ll still see Him. Our vision of Christ and the vision of the saints can be compared to the ability of a man and an eagle to look at the sun. The eagle rises high above the earth, soars in the sky, and with unblinking eyes looks at the sun. But man’s sight is not adapted to this; man cannot bear the fullness of the light. Thus it is as well with Divine light—those who are adapted to this spiritual sight will see Him, and the rest will not.

One distressed intellectual wrote to me: “I’m having a very difficult time. Outwardly everything is fine—business is going well, there’s harmony in my family, and I have a good wife. But the trouble is that I have no one to whom I can bare my soul. My wife doesn’t understand what I’m depressed over, and the children are still small. What can I do? How can I be delivered from melancholy and sorrow?”

I advised him to read the Psalter. “In the 93rd Psalm is the following: According to the multitude of my sorrows in my heart, Thy consolations brought gladness unto my soul (Ps. 93:19). Take this verse and start reading the Psalter. I think God will comfort you,” I wrote to him. Some time passed. I received a letter: “I heeded you and began to read the Psalter, but I don’t understand anything at all in it.” I wrote to him: “The great Elder Ambrose replied to such a statement, ‘You don’t understand, but then again, the demons understand perfectly and run away.’ Read for now, without understanding, and at some point you’ll begin to understand.” I don’t know what will happen next. And to you I repeat—read the Psalter daily, even a little, and the Lord in His mercy will not abandon you, and will always be your Helper and Comforter. Amen.

April 12, 1911

In the first century the followers of Christ the Savior received Communion every day, but they led a life equal to that of the angels and were ready every minute to stand before the face of God. None of the Christians were safe. It frequently happened that a Christian would receive Communion in the morning and in the evening he would be seized and led out to the coliseum. Being in constant danger, Christians looked after their spiritual peace with a watchful eye and conducted their lives in purity and holiness.

But the first centuries passed, persecutions from unbelievers ceased, and the constant danger passed. Then, instead of daily Communion they began to commune once a week, then once a month, and now even once a year.

Here in the Skete we follow the rule of Mount Athos, compiled by holy elders and handed down to us for our edification. All the monks commune six times a year, but with a blessing, sometimes even more often. They’ve gotten so used to this that more frequent Communion attracts general attention....

“Why did Fr. Jerome receive Communion today?”

“The Elder permitted him.”

“But why?”

“The devil appeared to him in a tangible form and he’s become totally debilitated.”

“Ah ... well, then it’s understandable.”

However, it’s always possible to confess, even every day, and here they confess quite often. The skete-dwellers come to the Elder every day for revelation of thoughts, while the monastery brethren do so once a week. From the monastery brethren, and especially from the skete brethren, an exalted life according to the commandments of Christ is required; a life equal to that of the angels. Our reposed Elders fulfilled these lofty precepts, and the Lord glorified them. Their bodies, we believe, lie incorrupt. It’s known concerning Fr. Macarius that his body did not undergo corruption, which they were able to make certain of when a chapel was placed over him—and, you know, he reposed sixty years ago.

It’s a remarkable phenomenon: the bodies of righteous ones and ascetics are incorrupt. Of the bodies of the kings and rulers of this world there remains a handful of ashes and nothing more. Not long ago it was written that during excavations of the catacombs there were found the tombs of Diocletian, Nero, and other rulers, before whom the whole world once trembled. And what was the fate of their dust? When they asked a menial worker what was in the urns, he replied indifferently, “Ashes.”

“And where are the ashes?”

“I gave them to my wife to wash the laundry with—they were good ashes.”

My God! Could these kings and rulers ever have supposed that their dust would wind up in a tank for washing dirty laundry?! How much care these people took for their bodies, and look what their fate was. But the saints and all our Optina Elders mortified their bodies and they remained incorrupt.

Our holy Monastery attracts many worshippers. And one often hears the opinion that whoever visits Optina even once will gravitate towards it with his whole soul. Our Monastery has neither wonderworking icons nor glorified relics; but here, it seems, the whole earth is covered with the blood and sweat of the holy Elders, and their prayers send down grace upon the souls of believers. Even our Vladyka who, being a bishop, has visited many monasteries, has said that there’s something special in Optina.

In Russia there are not many sketes.... But our Skete is the only one in which there are very rarely outsiders in the church—and then, only for the Liturgy. But we always celebrate Matins only with our skete family. Our skete church makes a powerful impression on the visitor: such singing of ancient chants, moving services, the absence of people. The monks each have their specific places in which they regularly stand. Special also is the sound of the skete bells—quiet and monastic. One pious man once donated a bell to us weighing 5,400 pounds, but it never made it to the Skete and was taken away. The very largest we have weighs 1,400 pounds.

Glory be to the Lord that in the present century, a century of unbelief and totally unbridled morals, there are still holy places in Russia, quiet havens for those who wish to be saved. It’s difficult to be saved in the world amidst the seductions and the customs of this world that go counter to the Holy Church. Evil communications corrupt good manners (I Cor. 15:33). It’s difficult to be saved in the midst of dissolute society. In the Holy Scriptures it is said, With the holy man wilt thou be holy, and with the innocent man wilt thou be innocent. And with the elect man wilt thou be elect, and with the perverse wilt thou be perverse (Ps. 17:25-6). Sinful passions act destructively upon the soul and body. Reading the Holy Fathers, when already living in the Monastery, I learned for the first time that the passions are just as contagious as infectious diseases, and how they can be transmitted through objects. When St. Spyridon the Bishop of Tremithon was traveling to the First Ecumenical Council, he stopped along the way at an inn. Someone who was accompanying the holy hierarch, going in to see him, said:

“Father, I can’t understand why our horse won’t eat the cabbage I bought for her from our host. The cabbage is good and fresh, even for a man to eat—but the horse won’t eat it.”

“Because,” replied St. Spyridon, “the beast senses an unbearable stench coming from the cabbage, which proceeds from the fact that our host is wounded by the passion of miserliness.”

A man not enlightened by the Spirit of God doesn’t notice this, but the saints have the gift from God of discerning the passions. From the belongings of a passionate man one can be infected by his passion.

It’s surprising, of course, that animals sense the stench of passions—not always, it’s true, and only by the special Providence of God—but many animals do possess a so-called second sight, and see spirits, when among people only saints have that capability.

In the Holy Scriptures it’s recounted how an ass saw an angel that was barring the way, but the prophet Barlaam didn’t see him. Such special visions occur with beasts, of course, to teach us.

There was a fire in the home of one rich landowner. Suddenly his father, who had died not long before this, came running into the room, dressed as he was in the coffin, and cried out “Fire!” The dog, who had been sleeping there, rushed at the dead man with a frightful barking. The man of the house awoke and couldn’t understand anything—why was the dog barking?—since he didn’t see his dead father. Only his servant, who told him about it later, saw him, as well as the dog.

Natural surroundings also give us much that is edifying. Everyone is familiar with the sunflower. It always turns its yellow head towards the sun; it’s drawn towards it, and from this it has received its name. But it happens that a sunflower ceases to turn towards the sun. Then people who are experienced in this matter say that it’s begun to spoil; a worm has appeared in it and it needs to be cut down quickly.

A soul that hungers for the statutes and the mercies of God is similar to a sunflower and strives for and reaches out for God. If it ceases to seek Him, it perishes. It’s essential in this life to sense Christ. Whoever has not seen Him here, will never see Him there, in the future life. But how can one see Christ? The way to this is the unceasing Prayer of Jesus, which instills Christ in our souls.

St. John Climacus was asked if there are reliable signs by which it’s possible to know whether a soul is drawing near to God or moving away from Him. After all, regarding ordinary things there are clear signs as to whether they’re good or not. When, for instance, cabbage, meat or fish begins to rot, it’s easy to notice it, since the rotting object begins to give off a foul odor, the color and taste change, and its external appearance witnesses to its deterioration. Well, and what about the soul? After all, it’s bodiless and can’t give off a bad smell or change its appearance. To this question the Holy Father replies, “A sure sign of the deadening of the soul is the avoidance of church services.”

A man who is growing cold towards God begins first of all to flee attending church. At first he tries to come to services later, and then he ceases altogether to visit God’s temple. Therefore it’s mandatory for monks to attend church services. True, it’s sometimes permitted, due to urgent matters, not to go to all the services, but when possible, it’s regarded as a necessary duty. Here in the Skete we even make the rounds of the cells on feast days, so that no one evades church services.

When I was still in the world, I had a friend who regarded monasteries with skepticism. “I don’t understand—why do these people, especially monks, sit alone in cells and isolate themselves from the gaze of people?” Meanwhile, this man was a monk in his soul. His soul was pure and lofty. A poet and musician, he had a special ability to read poetry like no one else. Music was his passion. He would often be telling us something and would suddenly exclaim, “No, I can’t explain this in words, but here!” And he would sit down at the piano, toss his head back and play. “Did you get it?” he would ask later. Often you wouldn’t understand him, but he did not change his method of explanation.

His apartment was furnished with taste; there was nothing banal in it—everything was beautiful, elegant and original, as outstanding as its inhabitant. His soul was always nourished by lofty ideals. Rejecting monasticism at first, he found full satisfaction for his lofty yearnings precisely in a monastery, on Mount Athos, to which he went, abandoning the world.

In the world I was fortunate to have become close with people who were worthy of profound respect. I had occasion to be at large gatherings. The others would play cards and dance, but I would find myself a person with the same inclination of soul as myself, and we would go off somewhere, to the farthest room, and would have a conversation. Even in the world I didn’t like to talk nonsense, and when there was nothing to say I would become silent, sometimes all of a sudden. Many people noticed this. Of course, my withdrawal from the seductions of this world perplexed many, and when I stopped attending noisy gatherings and grew fond of visiting a monastery, they began to speak of me as someone crazy or, at least, not entirely normal.

“Did you hear? Paul Ivanovich has become friends with monks!”

“Really? Now there’s an unfortunate man!”

Such was the opinion of worldly people about me.

Yes! It’s hard to be saved in the world. St. Nicholas, the Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, went to the desert to labor there in fasting and prayer, but the Lord didn’t bless him to remain there. Appearing to the Saint, the Lord commanded him to go to the world. “This is not the field upon which you will bring forth fruit for me,” said the Savior. Saints Thaisia, Mary of Egypt and Eudocia likewise did not live in monasteries. It’s possible to be saved anywhere, only don’t leave the Savior. Cling to the robe of Christ, and Christ will never leave you.

Now are the days of holy Pascha, of the greatest feast of the Christian Church—the Feast of feasts and Triumph of triumphs. Each day the church is filled with the sound of the odes of the Paschal Canon. I recall how captivated Matushka Euphrosyne was by the Canon.... “Here,” she said, “my life has gone by, and I know of nothing good concerning myself, with which I can stand before the Throne of God—and I hear the ode, It is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant, O ye people, and my soul becomes joyous and peaceful. From death to life and from earth to heaven, Christ our God has passed us....” The Lord fulfilled the wish of Matushka Euphrosyne, and she reposed during the Paschal period. When they lifted the coffin with her withered eighty-year-old remains, the choir began to sing It is the day of Resurrection... instead of Holy God.... The doors of the church were opened wide, light streamed in from outside in waves, and she went off into the eternal, unsetting light.

May the Lord vouchsafe us such a blessed end. Pray for this, and when the deacon exclaims, “A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, peaceful...”—don’t forget to make a bow, and may the Lord grant you rest with His saints. Amen.

From Elder Barsanuphius of Optina (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press), pp. 439-450. Copyright 2000 by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California. Used with permission.