Selections from the fourth volume of the
Optina Elders series of books,
published by the St. Herman Brotherhood.
The life of Elder Ambrose by Archpriest Sergius Chetverikov.
Elder Ambrose is considered the pinnacle of Eldership in
Optina. He embodied the virtues of all the elders in the highest degree: divine
humility, purity of mind and heart, overflowing love, and total self-sacrifice
for the salvation of his fellow man. Because he had attained the depths of
humility, the Lord blessed him with spiritual gifts by which to heal suffering
souls. He read human hearts, was granted to know the past, present and future
of people, and spoke to them the direct, revealed word of God. So great were
his gifts that hundreds of people flocked daily to his humble cabin in central
Russia. Among these were the writers Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Leontiev and
Solovyev. Dostoyevsky was so moved by his pilgrimage to Optina and by Elder
Ambrose that he wrote his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, with
the specific intention of depicting the spiritual image of Optina Monastery and
the Elder. The well-known character of Elder Zosima in his book was modeled
after Elder Ambrose, whose words of counsel Dostoyevsky put directly into the
mouth of his unforgettable character.
This edition of Elder Ambrose's life is a faithful
English translation of the original Optina edition, printed in Russia in 1912.
Through its pages we enter the world of a heavenly man, an angel in the flesh
who beheld the mysteries of the future age: the perfect love and silent oneness
of immortal spirits.
Manifestations of the Grace of God in Elder Ambrose
ALL WHO KNEW ELDER AMBROSE spoke unanimously of
his characteristic gift of clairvoyance. For him there were no secrets. A
stranger could come to him and be silent, but the Elder knew his life and his
circumstances, his spiritual state, and why he had come. Fr. Ambrose questioned
his visitors, but to an attentive man, it was clear by the kind of questions he
posed that the matter was known to the Elder. Thus, a young man from the gentry
once came up to him with his hand bandaged and began to complain that he could
in no way be healed. Another monk and a few laymen were with the Elder then.
The man had not managed to finish saying, "It hurts, it hurts a lot!"
when the Elder interrupted him. "And it will hurt — why did you offend
Marriage or Monasticism
Once two sisters came from St. Petersburg to the
Elder. The younger one was a prospective bride in a joyful mood; the older one
was quiet, thoughtful and reverent. The first asked a blessing to be married,
the other to go to a monastery. The Elder gave a prayer rope to the fiancée and
said to the elder sister: "What kind of monastery? You'll get married —
but not at home that's what you'll get!" And he named a province, to which
she had never traveled. They both returned to the capital. The bride learned
that her bridegroom had betrayed her. This brought about a terrible change, for
her emotional attachment was deep. She comprehended the vanity of all that had
occupied her before; her thoughts turned to God, and she soon entered a
monastery. Meanwhile, the elder sister received a letter from that distant
province from an aunt she had forgotten about, a devout woman who lived close
to a women's monastery. She was summoning her to have a look at the life of the
nuns there. But it turned out otherwise: while living with her aunt, the niece
became acquainted with a man no longer young but quite suited to her by his
character, and she married him.
A rich merchant once proposed marriage to a poor
woman of the gentry because of her beauty. But the Elder said to her mother:
"You need to refuse your bridegroom." The mother threw herself at
him: "What do you mean, Batiushka?! Such a thing was beyond our wildest
dreams; God sent him to an orphan, and you tell us to refuse!" But Fr.
Ambrose answered, "Refuse this one; I have another bridegroom for your
daughter, better than this one." "But what do we need a better one
for she's not going to marry a prince, is she?" said her mother. "I
have such a great bridegroom that it is difficult to express. Refuse the
merchant." They turned the merchant down, and the girl became ill and
died. Then they understood what kind of Bridegroom the Elder was talking about.
A resident of Kozelsk by the name of Kapiton had
an only son, a grown-up youth, clever and handsome. He decided to send him off
to work and brought him to the Elder to obtain a blessing from him for this
notion. They were both sitting in the corridor, and near them were several
monks. The Elder came out to them. After he and his son had received a
blessing, Kapiton stated that he wished to send his son off to work. The Elder
approved his intention and advised him to send his son off to Kursk.
Kapiton began to argue with the Elder. "In
Kursk," he said, "we don't know anyone; but bless, Batiushka, to send
him to Moscow." The Elder, in a joking tone, answered, "Moscow will
knock his socks off and smack him with boards. Let him go to Kursk."
But Kapiton nevertheless did not obey the Elder
and sent his son to Moscow, where he quickly found a good job. The employer
into whose service he had entered was at this time constructing a building.
Suddenly, several boards fell down from the top of the building and crushed
both legs of the young man. His father was immediately informed by telegram.
With bitter tears he came to the Elder to inform him of his sorrow, but it was
already impossible to help his grief. The injured son was brought back from
Moscow. He ailed for a long time, and though the wounds healed, he remained a
cripple for good, unable to do any kind of work.
Fr. George Kosov, the now-famous priest of the
village of Spas-Chekriak, of the Orel Province, related the following:
"When I arrived at my parish, I was seized with panic: What am I supposed
to do here?! No way to live, no way to serve! The house was old — dilapidated.
The church — you go to serve and you might fall through the floor boards. There
was almost no income; the parishioners were far from the church and from the
clergy. The people were poor; in the best of times they could barely feed
themselves. What could I do here? I was then a young priest, inexperienced. On
top of that my health was weak, and I coughed up blood. My matushka was an
orphan, poor, without any dowry. Consequently, neither from here nor from there
was there any support, and I also had younger brothers on my hands. It remained
only to run away. That's what I contemplated. At that time the glory of Elder
Ambrose was great. Optina Monastery was thirty-six miles from us. Once in
summer, on a sleepless night I raised myself up from my pillow. It was neither
light nor daybreak. I put my knapsack on my shoulders and off I went to him for
a blessing — to leave the parish. At 4:00 in the afternoon I was already at
Optina. Batiushka didn't know me, either by sight or by having heard about me.
I went into his 'hut' and there were already people there — a crowd, waiting
for Batiushka to come out. I stood on the side to wait. I look, and out he
comes, and straight at me through everyone he beckons me to come to him: 'You,
priest! What on earth are you contemplating? To abandon all? Eh? Don't you know
Who assigns priests? And you want to leave?!... His church, see, is old; it has
started to fall down… But you — build a new one, a big, stone one, and warm.
And the floor — make it wooden. They'll bring sick people there, so it will be
warm for them. Go home, priest, go; and kick that nonsense out of your head.
Remember — a church. Build a church, like I'm telling you. Go, priest; God
"But I had no sign of priestly garb on. I
couldn't utter a word. I went home right away. I'm walking and thinking: what
on earth is this? I have to build a stone church? At home you're almost dying
from hunger, and now build a church. How skillfully he consoles; there was
nothing to say.
"I came home and somehow dodged my wife's
question. Well, what was I supposed to say to her?! I said only that the Elder
didn't bless me to ask for a transfer. What was going on in my soul then, you
can't even put into words…
"A nagging depression came over me. I want to
pray but no prayers go on in my mind. I didn't talk with people, not even with
my wife. I became lost in thought. And I began to hear, both night and day,
mostly at night, some kind of strange voices: 'Get out,' they say, 'quick!
You're alone and there are lots of us! How are you going to fight with us?!
We'll be the death of you altogether!...' Hallucinations, it must be… Well,
whatever it was, it finally got to the point that not only was I unable to
pray, now blasphemous thoughts began to pop into my head… Night comes. I can't
sleep — and some kind of power throws me right off the bed onto the floor, and
not in a dream, but right when I'm wide awake. It just picks me up and tosses
me from the bed to the floor. And the voices, even more dreadful, more
terrible, more persistent: 'Get away, get away from us!'
"Terrified, barely remaining sane from the
fear I was going through, I again rushed to Fr. Ambrose. Fr. Ambrose, as soon
as he saw me, straightway, without questioning me at all, says to me:
"'Well, what are you scared of, priest? He's
one, and there are two of you.'
"How is that, Batiushka?" I say.
"Christ God and you — see, that comes out to
two. And the enemy — he's one. Go home,' he says, 'and do not be afraid of
anything that's before you. And the church, the big stone church, and warm —
don't forget to build it. God bless you!'
"And with that, I left. I come home, and it's
as if a mountain had fallen from my heart. And all fear fell away from me.
Right then I began to pray to God. I put an analogion in the church behind the
left cliros before the icon of the Heavenly Queen, lit a lampada, lit a candle;
and I began, all alone in the church, to read a Canon to Her. I began to add
some of the other prayers.
"I look and, after a week, someone else came
alone, stood by himself in a corner, and together with me prayed to God. Then
another, a third, and already they began to gather and fill the church…"
We will add to this that now, by the care of Fr.
George, a large stone church, a hospice, orphanages and schools have been
built, and from all the ends of Russia worshippers come for advice, a blessing,
prayer and consolation.
A Life-Saving Delay
Here is yet another striking occurrence. A master
Iconostasis builder from K. conveyed the following. "Not long before the
repose of the Elder, about two years, I had to go to Optina for money. We were
building an Iconostasis there, and I was due to receive a fairly large sum of
money from the Superior for this work. I received my money and before my
departure visited Elder Ambrose to be blessed for the return trip. I was in a hurry
to go home; I was waiting to receive a large order on the next day — ten
thousand rubles — and the customers were to be, without fail, at my place in K.
on the next day. That day, as usual, there was a swarm of people at the
Elder's. He knew about me, that I was waiting, and he told me through his cell
attendant to visit him in the evening for tea.
"Even though I needed to hurry home, the
honor and joy to be with the Elder and have tea with him was so great that I
decided to put off my trip until evening, in full confidence that, even if I
had to travel all night, I would manage to get there on time. Evening came, and
I went to the Elder. He received me so gladly and so joyfully that I didn't
even feel the ground under my feet. Batiushka, our angel, kept me for a pretty
long time — it was beginning to get dark, and he said to me, 'Well, go with
God. Spend the night here, and I bless you to go to Liturgy tomorrow; and from
Liturgy, stop by to have tea with me.'
"'How can this be?!' I thought. But I didn't
dare contradict the Elder. I spent the night, attended the Liturgy, went to the
Elder for tea, but I was grieving over my customers and thought to myself,
'Maybe I'll make it to K. at least by evening.' But it didn't work out that
way! We finished tea. I wanted to say to the Elder, 'Bless me to go home,' but
he didn't let me utter a word: 'Come to me today to spend the night,' he says.
My legs were giving way, but I didn't object.
"The day passed, the night passed! In the
morning I had already become bolder, and I thought, 'No matter what, I am
leaving today. Maybe my customers waited for me with the money.' No, you'll
never make it! Again the Elder didn't give me a chance to open my mouth. 'Go to
the All-Night Vigil,' he says, 'and tomorrow to Liturgy. Spend the night here
again today!' What a strange thing! At this point I really began to get upset
and, to confess, I sinned against the Elder: 'Well, here's a clairvoyant! He
just does not know what's going on with me; by his mercy a profitable business
has now gone right out of my hands.' And I was so agitated at the Elder that I
can't even express it to you. I wasn't able to pray at the Vigil that time —
there just knocks around in my head: 'Here's your Elder for you! Here's your
clairvoyant!... Now your wages are whistling by…' Ach, how annoyed I was at
"But my Elder, as luck would have it, well,
just as if — Lord forgive me — in mockery of me, meets me so joyfully after the
Vigil!. .. I became bitter and hurt. 'And what,' I think, 'is he so happy about?'
But all the same I did not dare to express my grief aloud. I spent the third
night sort of well. During the night my sorrow eased somewhat: 'You can't bring
back what has floated away, and it floated off right through your fingers…' In
the morning I come from Liturgy to the Elder, and he says to me, 'Well, now it
is time for you to go home! Go with God! God bless you! But after a while, do
not forget to thank God!!'
"And right then all my grief fell away. I
left Optina for home, and my heart was so light and joyful that I can't
describe it… Only, why did Batiushka say, 'After a while, do not forget to
thank God?...' It must be, I thought, for the fact that the Lord made me worthy
to be in church for three days in a row. I went home in no hurry, and I didn't
even think about my customers; I was so gratified that Batiushka had treated me
"I arrived home, and what do you think? I'm
at the gate, and my customers are right behind me. They were three days later
than our arrangement. Well, I think: Ah, my grace-filled little Elder! This is
the real thing — Wondrous are Thy works, O Lord! However, this all didn't end
here. You listen to what happened next! A little time went by after that. Our
Fr. Ambrose died. Two years after his righteous repose, my senior foreman
became sick. He was a trustworthy man; not just a worker, but real gold. He
lived with me continually for more than twenty years. He was sick unto death.
They sent me for a priest, to confess and commune him while he was still
conscious. Only, I look and the priest comes to me from the dying man and says,
'The sick one is calling for you; he wants to see you. Hurry, before he dies!'
I come to the sick man and he, as soon as he sees me, raises himself up somehow
on his elbows, looks at me, and now he begins to cry, 'Forgive my sin, boss! I
actually wanted to kill you!...'
"'What are you talking about? God be with
you! You're delirious…'
"'No, boss, I really wanted to kill you.
Remember, once you were three days late coming home from Optina? Well we —
there were three of us — by my arrangement, we lay in wait for you on the road
three days in a row under a bridge. We were envious of the money you were
bringing from Optina for the Iconostasis. You would not have been alive at this
time but the Lord, by someone's prayers, saved you from a death without
repentance. Forgive me, the wretch; for God's sake, let my soul go in peace.'
"'May God forgive you as I forgive you!'
"Right then my sick one started wheezing and
began to die. May his soul be granted the Kingdom of Heaven! Great was his sin,
but great was his repentance!"
Hit in the Teeth
In imitation of one of his predecessors in
Eldership, Hieroschemamonk Leonid, Fr. Ambrose sometimes liked to conceal his
miraculous help with humorous words or gestures, to divert the attention of
witnesses. For instance, a monk once came to the Elder with a terrible
toothache. Walking past him, the Elder hit him in the teeth with his fist with
all his might and merrily added: "Well done, eh? "Well done,
Batiushka," the monk answered, to general laughter, "but it really
hurts." However, upon leaving the Elder he felt that the pain had gone,
and it did not return afterwards.
Peasants noticed well this characteristic of Fr.
Ambrose, and those who suffered from headaches would say to him:
"Batiushka Ambrose, hit me; my head hurts."
Deliverance From Tobacco
The St. Petersburg resident Alexis Stepanovich
Maiorov, excessively addicted to smoking tobacco, sensed the danger to his
health from this. He wrote a letter to Elder Ambrose, asking for his advice on
how he could be delivered from this passion.
In answer to this request, the Elder sent Maiorov
a letter on October 12, 1888, in which the following was written: "You
write that you cannot stop smoking tobacco. That which is impossible for man is
possible with the help of God. Only stand firm in your decision to quit,
realizing the danger from it for soul and body, since tobacco debilitates the
soul, increases and strengthens the passions, darkens the mind, and destroys
bodily health by a slow death. Irritability and melancholy are the result of
the infirmity of soul that comes from tobacco smoking.
"I advise you to make use of spiritual
treatment against this passion: confess in detail all the sins of your whole
life from the age of seven, receive the Holy Mysteries, and read the Gospel
daily while standing, one chapter or more. And when depression attacks, then
read it again, until the depression passes. If it attacks again — read the
Gospel again. Or, in place of this, when alone make thirty-three full
prostrations in memory of the earthly life of the Savior and in honor of the
When he received this letter, Alexis Stepanovich
read it through and then began to smoke a cigarette, but he suddenly felt a
strong pain in his head together with an aversion to tobacco smoke, and that
night he did not smoke. The next day, by habit, he attempted four times to
smoke a cigarette, but he could not inhale the smoke due to the severe pain in
his head. Thus he quit smoking easily, while in the previous two years when he
had tried to force himself to cease smoking, he could not. And though it had
made him ill, he had smoked seventy-five cigarettes a day all the same.
Deliverance From Alcoholism
The beloved older brother of one lady had suffered
from alcoholism for many years. There was nothing the man had not tried and no
one he had not turned to, but nothing had come of it. Meanwhile, the
unfortunate man's health and resources had been ruined. The matter finally
reached the point that the doctors who had been treating him stated that if he
did not cease drinking he would die of a heart attack. The poor woman lost her
head and, not knowing what to do, recalled that in Optina Monastery there was a
great and righteous Elder who could do anything through his prayers. She
squinted her eyes and, though she had never seen Fr. Ambrose, tried to imagine
him, mentally begging him to help her brother. Since it was evening, she soon
fell asleep. In a dream she saw an old man coming towards her and instantly
understood that this was Elder Ambrose. He said to her, "Go to the
pharmacy and buy twenty-five kopecks' worth of the herb 'chernogorki-staronos,'
finely chopped, and boil two tablespoons of it in five teacups of water. Let
the teapot stand in the stove for a half hour, then take it out and let the
sick man drink all five teacups at one sitting, either hot or cold — it makes
no difference. Since this herb is quite bitter, he can drink it with sugar or
honey. After taking it there may be vomiting, but do not be frightened by this
— it means that the remedy has worked. If after this dose he again has the
desire for vodka, then you must repeat the dose. After this treatment he will
lose his appetite, but this is not dangerous. Then he has only to take
twenty-five drops of Witte's stomach elixir and ten drops of Hoffman's in a
shot glass of water each time before taking food."
The woman instantly woke up and copied down this
recipe during the night. When she arose in the morning she sent to the city for
the herb. By the time they went to the city, looked for the herb and brought it
home it was already evening. Not wishing to lose precious time, the
compassionate sister prepared the remedy, and night had already fallen by the
time she gave it to her brother to drink. To her great horror, before he was to
go to sleep her brother began to vomit to such an extent that the poor woman
was confounded. And, as usually happens, all kinds of thoughts began to lead
her mind astray, such as, "How careless I am; how could I trust all kinds
of dreams? This is some kind of terrible poison!" In a word, the poor
woman could not sleep all night, and dozed off only when it was almost morning.
Again she saw the same old man, who approached her and said, "Do not be
frightened, Matushka; do not be frightened, I tell you. This is harmless, and
the vomiting is the root of the wine being destroyed."
In those days there were no Theories of
auto-suggestion, the subconscious, and the like. The woman calmed down and,
indeed, from that moment her brother's urge for alcoholic beverages was taken
away as if by a touch.
Many years later this woman went to Optina, and
how delighted and gratified she was when she saw Elder Ambrose, exactly as she
had seen him in her dream.
Missionary Leaflet # EA15
Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox
Mission466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
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