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Instructions of the Holy Fathers on Spiritual Life
Part III.
by Bishop Alexander (Mileant); Translated by S.Larin/ N.Semyanko/ Fr. S.Kisilev

As an introduction, we have included an article by the talented church writer, archpriest Fr. Nicholas Deputatov, "Startsi (Elders) and their instructions." In this short work, the author paints a typical profile of a startsa-spiritual father, at one time so accessible and close to the spiritually disposed Russian person. While the author’s vista only encompasses the last Elders of Optina, his portrait has become one of a universal nature. This is because the spirit of love and sagacity, which radiated from the pre-revolutionary Saints of Russia, was absorbed by them from the more ancient ascetics of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Athos. Consequently, we believe that Fr. Nicholas’s writing may assist the reader to more actively visualize the images of these Saints, whose instructions are the subject of this booklet.

The Elders and their instructions.

Eldership unvails a deep spirit of sanctity, the spirit of Christ. The elder leads his pupil by the arm so that he doesn’t fall into the abyss of sin. He approaches him with kindness, enlightenment and a blessing for his forthcoming struggles. The elder sketches a representation of the future and points out the present joy in communing with God. The elder speaks of illnesses as a ready source of salvation; of forging humility through sufferings, which redeems even without any other good deeds. The elder lives the joys and sorrows of his pupil, as though merged with his soul. The elder teaches that prayer is the suspiration of the spirit. If there is a prayer — the soul is alive; if there is no prayer — the soul is dead. The elder is competent, authoritative and experienced in many things. His voice is firm, clear, penetrating into the poor and ashamed soul of the sinner.

As an example, let us take the instructions of some of the last Russian elders and attend to their unpretentious words, which are remarkably calm, yet firm and soul-penetrating: "You once told me that your enemy is sending his arrows against you. Do not fear! Not one of them will touch you; do not fear any trash, as trash will remain trash. Only accept my advice as a rule: before your morning and evening prayers read Psalms 26 and 90 — and before them, the Archangel’s rejoicement — Virgin Mother of God, rejoice… If you do this, no conflagration will ever consume you, nor water will drown you… A bomb will not blow you apart" (Elder John of Optina).

"When you are besieged by people and despondency overtakes you, genuflect 100 times with prayer to God, then not only grapeshot but cannons will not frighten you" (Abbot Anthony of Optina).

"To be humble in spirit — this is such a blessing that there is none greater! A humble person resides on earth as though he is in Heavenly Kingdom, always joyful and content with everything." "An intrepid soul is afraid of no one or any thing, except of God alone." My advice is that instead of having longings, nourish your soul with prayer to God and trust in Him, without Whose will, even birds do not perish, let alone a human being. Be calm in spirit (Abbot Anthony of Optina).

"One wise elder said: Illness has overtaken me — praise be to You God! The illness has intensified — praise be to You God! The illness has become incurable — praise be to You God! For it’s better for me to be in Heaven with You than with people on earth…and should it happen that a person dies the same day he had Holy Communion, the Holy Angels will receive that soul on their hands, in honor of the Sacraments" (Abbot Anthony).

"Let us mentally censure and condemn ourselves over everything, but not others; because the humbler you are — the more profitable it is for you: for God loves the humble and showers His blessings upon them! That is why no matter what distress befalls you, whatever unpleasantness occurs, say; I am enduring this for Jesus Christ! Just say this and you will feel much easier, because the name Jesus Christ is powerful; with it, all unpleasantness abates, the demons disappear; your sorrow will abate and your faintheartedness will settle down — when you repeat His sweetest name!" (Abbot Anthony).

Father Barnabas of the Gethsemane Abbey says: "It is senseless to cut out a section for every name during Proskomedia. One drop of the Divine Blood of Jesus Christ washes away sins from the souls of millions of people. " "But I am glad" — says an elder to a visitor — "that you are ill: you will be more humble" — and shakes him affectionately by his shoulder. The pain disappeared as though in one swipe. "May Christ deliver you from the sickness of the spirit — depression, sadness, pride, envy, hatred against others. These illnesses, which happen through the demons' directives, are more frightening and dangerous than physical ailments... Tell your heart: Why are you being impetuous — you will not reform anyone with anger but only harm yourself. Do not let your heart be impetuous, be patient; we will do what is necessary tomorrow, tomorrow we will speak with those that we have to. A quietly spoken word will convince and exhort quicker than anger. Act this way and with God’s help you will conquer the demon of anger."

Elder Sche-Abbot Anthony of Optina instructed one woman: "Here God is sending you temptation — so that your passion will perish. …The Lord sees all your deeds quite clearly, attentively, into your very soul, like we view a person’s face. Observes and tests, to see how you reveal yourself in grief. If you endure it, then you will be His beloved. And if you do not sustain it and complain, but then repent — you will still be His beloved…Only God decrees when and who receives sorrows, whether at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of their lives… do everything according to your capacity; do not value your own achievements and do not enumerate your good deeds; but notice your own weaknesses and sins and the Lord will never abandon you… That you are living incorrectly — do not despair, but abase yourself and the Lord will accept your humility, more than great deeds that are not humble…Exert yourself according to your strength; render with humility and contrition; you will grow accustomed and will get to love prayer so much that they will not be able to forcibly tear you away from it. Because it is sweet and joy-creating."

"A person needs enlivenment, inspiration… So, in order that a lamp shine — it is insufficient to only clean the glass, it is necessary to have a lit candle inside it. This is what the Lord did with His Apostles. Having cleansed them with Truth, He enlivened them with the Holy Spirit, even though they were already chaste, and they became the light for humanity.

This process has to be undertaken with every Christian. First, cleansing with the Truth, and then enlightenment by the Spirit. Truth rejects the inborn inspiration as polluted and destroys it, so that upon arriving, the Spirit will resurrect in its renewed state.

If a person directs his own self-inspiration before being cleansed by the Truth, then he will emit to himself and to others, a mottled and false light, because his heart does not contain plain goodness, but one that is more or less mixed with evil. Anyone, look into yourself and check my words with your heartfelt experiences: you will see how precise and right they are, copied from nature itself…

It is desirable that a person who displays selflessness be moored to the quay of Truth, which is the beginning of all spiritual blessings. For this reason, in relation to religion, I advise all my friends to read only the writings of the Holy Fathers, who, having amassed the knowledge of purification and enlightenment — like the Apostles — only then wrote their books, from which pure Truth emanates and which communicate to the reader the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Outside this initially narrow and afflictive path for the mind and heart, everywhere is darkness, everywhere are declivities and chasms!"

We will augment this with the words of elder Siluanus: "In Heaven as on earth, the Lord is discovered through the Holy Spirit and not science… When grace is within us, then night and day the spirit strains towards God, because grace binds the soul to love God, and because of this, it does not want to be separated from Him, as it cannot satiate itself with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit… The proud and the willful do not allow grace to abide within them and therefore never have spiritual tranquility, while the Holy Spirit enters easily into the soul of the obedient, giving it joy and tranquility… It is possible to return this bliss through atonement."

The instructions of the Elders are a bottomless pool. We have carefully saved only one drop and now present it to the reader as a gift from the Elders — a gift of deliberations and grace. Let us be grateful to these God-inspired fathers, before whose spiritual eyes, all our inner secrets and hidden thoughts are exposed. Although they lived among us, their lives wore a character that was beyond time and space. Let us lovingly learn from them eternal salvation.

Archpriest Nicolas Deputatov

Published with the kind permission of Bishop Alexander Mileant

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