The Holy Elders of Optina

Icon of the Holy Elders of Optina.

My last couple posts have dealt with my personal spiritual practices, and I wanted to continue in that vein for today’s post. Since my journey into Orthodoxy began, I have discovered many beautiful and moving prayers. My favorite is the morning prayer of the Holy Elders of Optina.

The Optina monastery was established centuries ago in present-day Kaluga Oblast, about 160 miles south of Moscow. It became one of the most important centers of Russian Orthodoxy during the religious revivals of the early nineteenth century. The monastery became a kind of hub for startsy in Russia during this period (a starets is essentially an elder with great spiritual authority). Optina, which included a vast library, produced many important startsy throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These men were renowned for their wisdom and many traveled throughout Russia providing spiritual mentorship and fostering religious revival. Optina served as a model for the monastery that Alyosha joins in the first half of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and the starets character Father Zossima was based on St. Ambrose of Optina.

After the Bolshevik revolution, the startsy were forced from the monastery, which was converted into a gulag (the five thousand victims of the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre were housed at Optina prior to their deaths). The last hegumen (essentially an abbot) of the monastery was executed in 1938. The prayer below is sometimes called the morning prayer of the Last Elders of Optina, emphasizing the tragedy of their deportation, their execution, and the monastery’s conversion into a political prison. The Optina monastery was one of the first former church properties to be returned to the Russian Orthodox Church during perestroika. By 1990, the ROC had glorified several of the Optina startsy as saints; the Holy Fathers and Startsy of Optina are celebrated each year in the Russian Orthodox Church on October 11.

The morning prayer of the Holy Elders of Optina reads as follows:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that his coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to thy holy will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to thy holy will. Guide my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, let me not forget that all is sent down from thee. Grant me to deal in a straightforward and wise manner with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. O Lord, grant me power to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that will take place during it. Guide my will and teach me to prayer, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

The blogger Steve Hayes noted how the prayer reflects an extraordinarily humble attitude given the political and social upheavals that the Optina startsy witnessed: he writes, “The ‘news that reached them in the course of the day’ was often that some of their brethren had been arrested, tortured, or killed.” Hayes’s reminder is important. On the one hand, my days are more mundane than ever: I’m working from home and, amidst a massive coronavirus surge in my state, staying home most days. I only really interact with my wife. I feel as insulated from the world as, well, a monk. There aren’t many obvious obstacles or “unexpected occurrences” that I need to overcome each day; there isn’t much fatigue to endure; life is fairly predictable right now.

On the other hand, this is a period of political turmoil in the United States unparalleled since the 1960s—perhaps since the 1860s. I have no idea what the future of my nation will look like. As this tumultuous election season continues (we are now less than fifty days away from November 3), I have discovered a need to protect myself from the spiritual ravages that accompany political extremism (your spirt becomes ravaged and exhausted whether you embrace the extremism or fight against it). At first, I decided I should opt out of social media until the election was over: the news and the interactions there were poisoning my soul. But disengagement is never the answer. Instead, I need to cultivate “a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to [God’s] holy will.” Whatever I experience politically (and let’s be honest, as a thirtysomething white man, the worst I’m likely to experience right now is a few uncomfortable exchanges on Facebook) pales in comparison to what Orthodox Christians endured in the twentieth century. And even if things become dramatically worse in my country, the morning prayer of the Holy Elders of Optina offers a model for enduring times of unrest and upheaval.

I did not intend for this post to become political. One of the things I love most about the morning prayer of the Holy Elders of Optina is its emphasis on daily life, on interactions with family and friends. This is the heart of Orthodox faith, I think: daily life. Daily struggles. Practical instruction. My priest continually advises me, as I learn to cultivate a Christlike love for others, that I should always begin with my wife. It’s easier to love distant people in the abstract; it’s much harder to maintain that level of charity for the people with whom you share a home. It is arguably more important, my priest tells me, to be kind to my wife—to make sure she is never sad, hurt, or embarrassed because of my actions—than to demonstrate flashy acts of charity for people I hardly know or commit heroic acts of asceticism. This prayer reminds me that the Christian life begins wherever I am at any given moment. It is a domestic prayer, and in that sense it’s an appropriate prayer for this time of pandemic, when we are home far more than we expected to be.

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