The following are a few selections from Bozhii lyudi (Moi dukhovnye vstrechi) [God’s People (My Spiritual Encounters)] by Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov).
Of course they [remembrances] do not include every aspect of monastic life; they do not speak about the selfless struggle of monks, which only they themselves, their spiritual father, and God Himself knows. I will speak only about the more eminent personalities and inspiring occurrences in Optina. It is understood that such a description will be one-sided. Correctly did a friend and fellow student at St. Petersburg Theological Academy, subsequently Archimandrite John (Raev), who would die early from consumption, one day remark that with such descriptions I am leading the reader, but foremost the listener, into some delusion. He then used the following comparison: If you look at a meadow or a flowerbed from above, then it will seem beautiful with its flowers and bright green color. But if you lower your eyes you will see a naked tube with shoots. Also here is not the source of life but lower, in the ground, where the rough and sinuous roots seek (in complete darkness) nourishment for the beautiful leaves and flowers. Here is nothing appealing for the eyes, but, on the contrary, it is ugly and dirty… And, what is more, various worms crawl around and even chew and kill the root and with it the leaves and flowers wither and die.
It is the same in monasticism, said Fr. John, which is only pretty on the outside (looking from above), but the very podvig of a monk is arduous, passes through uncleanness, and for the most part the monastic life is a battle of the cross with sinful passions. And this is what you, he said, do not show in your stories.
All of that is completely true, I said, but also in the lives of the saints more time is spent describing the inspiring moments of their lives and rare podvigs. But the battle with sin is usually remembered briefly and in passing; hardly ever is it recalled in detail. The only exception is the life of St. Mary of Egypt–from stinking sin to angel-like purity and perfection. But in this case, the writers comment that they tell of it as a necessity, so that with the example of such a change they could console and strengthen the weak and despairing strugglers in the world and in monasteries. So will we, generally, not dwell on the dark side–it is not instructive. And I do not even know about it in other people–what would I speak about? However, where it is necessary this also will be mentioned. For it is truly necessary and beneficial to remember that the height and holiness of God-pleasers is preceded and accompanied by a spiritual battle; sometimes it is not very easy or pretty.
By the way, the Fr. John mentioned should himself, in all justice, be counted among the ascetics. He lived for a short while and died while the inspector of the Poltava Seminary.
On Father Anatolii (St. Anatolii the Younger of Optina)
After two or three days, some news spread through the monastery: the Kaluga Icon of the Mother of God (September 2 [Church calendar]/ September 15 [secular calendar]). At the appointed time, many monks and pilgrims went out to meet the holy icon on the forest road and, taking it, started back for the monastery singing hymns. Suddenly I saw that several people were separating from the crowd and very hastily went to the right side. After a few moments a dense crowd had already gathered. They were surrounding someone or something in a compact circle. From simple curiosity I also headed over wondering what it was all about. To leave an icon of the Mother of God, there has to have been a good reason. Pushing a little bit to the center of the crowd I saw that everyone, with touching love and happy smiles, was looking at some small monk in a klobuk with a small unkempt gray beard. And he was also smiling at everyone a bit. The crowd was trying to receive a blessing from him. I saw how everyone around that small old man really did light up and rejoiced. It was just as darling children meet their own mother.
“Who is that?” I asked the one next to me. “It’s batushka Fr. Anatoly!” he affectionately answered, surprised, however, at my ignorance.
I had heard about him but had not happened to meet him yet, nor was there a particular need as I did not have any questions for him. But now the question about Fr. Anatoly himself appeared: what is this miracle? People even left an icon and rushed to a man. Why was this? And the answered just appeared: a holy man is also a miracle of God, just like an icon, just a manifest miracle. A saint is an image of God, only personified in man. As in an icon, so in holy people, God Himself, by his grace, lives. Both by one and the other God Himself draws us to Himself with His gifts of joy, comfort, mercy, and spiritual light. It is like when the Savior, Moses, and Elias appeared on Mt. Tabor in the grace-filled, uncreated light to the disciples and Peter in delight exclaimed, “Lord! It is good for us to be here” (Luke 9:33). So also, through holy people, that transfiguring grace both shines and warms. Sometimes, as happened more than once with St. Seraphim of Sarov, it was apparent in a visible, although supernatural, light. It was the same in this case, through batushka (what a tender and respectful word!) shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God. And people warmed themselves and were comforted in that light.
I’m reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul about Christians, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you…?” (I Cor. 6:19)
And another of of his sayings that every Christian must grow into a perfect image, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13)… This is the height given to the Christian: the God-Man Christ Himself!
And this is not boldness of robbing the unattainable (Phil. 2:6) but a command of the Savior given at his last conversation, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23)
This is the aim and task of the Christian life: communion with God through the grace of the Holy Spirit. And then grace-filled people will begin to shine their light, that is, God’s light, also on others.
O Lord, how great in and of themselves and how extremely important for other people are these holy people! There is no one higher than them!
I also happened to meet my own so-called “great” people but I never felt their greatness: a man is just a man, ordinary. But when I happened to stand before saints their true greatness was clearly felt. These are extraordinary people! And sometimes it is even frightful to stand before them-as I vividly experienced while serving with Fr. John of Kronstadt.
Then it becomes understandable why we venerate saints, write icons of them, prostrate before them, and kiss them. They are truly worthy of this! It also becomes clear why in church we incense not only icons of the Savior, the Theotokos, and saints but also generally all Christians: in incensing, we render worship and veneration to God Himself, who is apparent in his images: both in icons and in people.
For every Christian must be an image of God. One day I happened to ask a certain elder: “Generally, how should we relate to man?” “With reverence,” he answered. I was surprised at his words, “Why?” “Man is the image of God,” he said.
And when that image is restored in man, even people honor him; in paradise, even beasts obeyed Adam. In the lives of Gerasim of the Jordan and Seraphim of Sarov this is written about; and demons even feared them. But residents of heaven rejoiced over them. When the Mother of God appeared with the Apostles Peter and John to St. Seraphim, she said to the Apostles, “This is one of our kind!”
Fr. Anatoly was also of the very same kind. So much joy, love, and tenderness flowed from his face on all that gazed upon him in a sunny glade in the Optina forest.
On Bishop Innocent (Solotchin) of Kherson
Vladyka ate the most simple food: potatoes, schshi, porridge. But if some “important” guest showed up, he gave directions to serve the hidden salted fish, eggs, and milk products. He, however, did not touch such “luxuries.” I will write a detailed list later.
“Vladyka, why don’t you eat that yourself?” “It doesn’t agree with my stom-m-mach,” he answered slowly while showing the place where that capricious stomach was located. And he looks at us again with child-like, naive eyes. We were sure that he was only covering up his fasting. He not only did not eat, of course, non-fasting foods, but of fasting foods he picked out the most simple: this also is not at all easy or ordinary.
“Potatoes,” and he amicably pointed at a couple of potatoes, “they agree with my stomach.”