On the Heights of Humility Elder Joseph of Optina
Hieroschemamonk Joseph was the closest disciple of the great Elder Ambrose – the closest not only outwardly, as his cell-attendant of 30 years, but also in spirit, on the strength of his obedience, devotion and love. There in Elder Ambrose’s modest quarters, permeated by the wise counsels of the great elders Leo and Makary and by the prayers of their continuator, Elder Ambrose, Elder Joseph found a “school of piety” where he immersed himself in that greatest of all disciplines – monasticism, and grew to be, like his more renowned predecessors, a clairvoyant “instructor of monks and converser with angels.” It all happened so simply, so quietly, many did not even notice.
Elder Joseph, Ivan in the world, was born in 1837. His parents were simple, pious people. His father wanted one of his children to enter monasticism, and Vanya’s older sister Alexandra became a nun. It soon became clear that something special was also in store for Vanya. A happy, affectionate child, he was playing in the yard one day when suddenly his face was transfixed; he lifted his head and his hands and then collapsed, unconscious. Questioned later, he said that he had seen in the air the Queen of Heaven.
By the time he was 11, the boy had lost both parents. His older brother dissipated the family patrimony, and Ivan was shuffled from one domicile to another frequently enduring cold and hunger and sometimes beatings, before finding a position in the home of a merchant who took a liking to the youth on account of his quiet ways; he even offered Ivan his daughter’s hand in marriage. But he saw that the youth had already committed his heart to the Lord, and the merchant kindly released him to go on a pilgrimage, which Ivan hoped would give direction to his future.
Setting Kiev as his goal, Ivan stopped along the way to see his sister at the Ss. Boris and Gleb Hermitage. There, Schema-nun Alypia recommended that he go not to Kiev but to the elders at Optina, and when Elder Ambrose, after hearing the story of his life, advised him to stay there in Optina, Ivan took this to be a sign of God’s will. It was March 1, 1861; the orphan had come “home”.
At Optina Ivan worked briefly in the kitchen before being assigned to Elder Ambrose. It was a difficult obedience: on the one hand the proximity to the Elder was a consolation; but the constant bustle attendant upon the crowds of visitors was burdensome, and the youth again began to entertain thoughts of going to Mount Athos or Kiev. Elder Ambrose broke in on one such reverie: “Brother Ivan, it’s better here than on Mt. Athos; stay with us.” Struck by the Elder’s clairvoyance, Ivan realized his thoughts were only a temptation. The incident cemented his attachment to Elder Ambrose; he became his devoted, most beloved disciple, regarding the Elder’s will, his every word as a command.
The senior cell-attendant had a rather harsh temperament; he did not show the newcomer what and how things should be done, and rebuked Ivan for his mistakes. Ordinarily one would take offense at such injustice, but when a person is spiritually mindful of his conscience, he accepts another’s criticism as deserved chastisement from God and, rather than taking offense or getting upset, thanks his neighbor for rendering such service. So it was with Ivan. Thus schooled in patience and self-reproach, he progressed rapidly in the monastic discipline; his already characteristic modesty blossomed as a remarkable meekness and humility which only deepened with Elder Ambrose’s repeated testing.
His humility was tangibly apparent and readily transmitted; his very presence brought to the Elder’s always-crowded reception room a perceptible tranquility. Clement Sederholm, a convert who later became a monk at Optina, said, “Father Joseph is the only person with whom I cannot become irritated.” It was, undoubtedly, this superior humility which prompted Elder Ambrose to say, “Father Joseph will surpass me,” just as he also used to tell his spiritual children, “I give you to drink wine diluted with water, but Fr. Joseph will give you unmingled wine.” As to Fr. Joseph, he never ascribed to himself any gifts or spiritual achievements: “What do I know,” he would say, “without Batiushka? Zero, and nothing more.”
In 1872 he was tonsured a monk and given the name Joseph. Five years later he was made deacon and, in 1884, at the triumphal Liturgy marking the opening of the nearby Shamordino Convent which later came under his spiritual care, he was ordained a hieromonk (i.e., priestmonk). Except to add new responsibilities, none of these changes affected Fr. Joseph’s way of life. He continued as before, serving Elder Ambrose with selfless devotion, meekly and quietly going about his duties. All these years he did not even have his own cell but slept in the reception room which was frequently occupied until 11 o’clock at night. On those days when it was his turn to serve he had barely time to lie down before going to Matins at 1 a.m.
Recognizing in his disciple a vessel of the Holy Spirit, Elder Ambrose gradually prepared him for eldership. He referred to Fr. Joseph as his “right hand,” and when in his latter years he became ill and overburdened with people seeking his counsel, he would send many of them to Fr. Joseph. They had grown so close spiritually that their answers to the same questions invariably agreed, and when, in 1891, Elder Ambrose reposed, his spiritual children felt confident in bringing their needs to Elder Joseph. Already the superior of the Hermitage, Archimandrite Isaacius, had made Fr. Joseph his confessor, and after the repose of Elder Anatole (Zertsalov) in 1894, Fr. Joseph was chosen to take his place as father-confessor and superior of the skete.
For all their spiritual similarities, Elder Joseph and Elder Ambrose were quite different in manner. Whereas the latter was very sociable, loquacious and sometimes couched his advice in epigrammatic humor, Elder Joseph was reticent. He generally spoke only to answer questions, and his answers were characteristically terse; even so, they were rarely surpassed in strength by another’s lengthier discourse.
The Elder frequently advised patience and fortitude. “Without patience even a temporary home is not built, let alone the eternal one … But we keep looking for the easy way. What is easy for the body is not useful for the soul, and what is useful for the soul is difficult for the body – so we should proceed through labor to the Kingdom of Heaven.” When someone would complain of difficulties, he would say, “Well, what can be done? One should endure; we will not be harmed by it and the benefit will be great if we bear it with humility.” “It is beneficial to be pushed. A tree which the wind sways develops stronger roots, while one which stands undisturbed soon falls.”
In maintaining an external character of quiet restraint, Elder Joseph succeeded in cultivating a rich inner life of prayer in spite of his being constantly surrounded by people and the distractions of his administrative duties as skete superior. Here, too, the key to his attainment was his humility. To someone who asked for help against distractions during prayer, the Elder wrote: “It is impossible for us, sinful people, to be entirely free of distractions during prayers.
Nevertheless, one should strive as much as possible to gather one’s thoughts and lock one’s mind into the words of prayer, into each word. One should not be troubled by coldness and hard-heartedness but persist in forcing oneself towards prayer, recognizing oneself as unworthy of consolation and compunction. If prayer is cold, one mustn’t conclude that it is displeasing to God; sometimes even such prayer is counted as an ascetic feat if only the person humbles himself in everything before God.” The Elder cautioned against seeking the heights of prayer prematurely He used to say that prayer of the heart comes of itself, following upon purification and experience in oral prayer. “Even if you do not fully attain the fruits and perfection of prayer, it is already a good thing if you depart this life on the path leading towards it. Do not seek the sublime (i.e., consolation and spiritual vision); this will come in God’s time.” “Even spiritual consolation brings more harm than good to the inexperienced; they lead imperceptibly to high-mindedness, and when the soul becomes accustomed to them it grows weak and when sorrows and misfortunes strike it becomes fainthearted and falls. Patience is the mother of consolation – this is what the Holy Fathers say.” As to the intent of prayer, the Elder counseled, “Salvation; to ask mercy rather than consolation.”
It was also Elder Joseph’s experience that discernment, that “mother and guide of all the virtues,” comes not with knowledge acquired through mental processes but as a fruit of spiritual struggle: “As a ray of the sun cannot penetrate fog, so the speech of a person who, although educated, has not mastered his passions cannot affect the soul. But he who has vanquished the passions and acquired spiritual understanding finds access to every heart, even without formal education.”
Like his abba, Elder Joseph had a weak physical condition. On one occasion in February 1888, illness brought him close to death. The prayers for the departure of the soul were read and he was tonsured into the great schema. At this time he was granted a vision of the Mother of God who said to him, “Endure, my beloved one, little time is left,” and he gradually recovered. However, his multifold responsibilities and the inner and outer trials he bore so calmly as to pass unnoticed by others, eventually demanded that he be relieved of his position as skete superior. Nevertheless, he continued until his death to receive those seeking spiritual guidance, applying his gift of discernment to direct people to the highest good – the doing of God’s will.
As Elder Joseph’s physical strength grew dim, the brilliance of his spiritual attainments manifested themselves still more brilliantly – at times quite literally. In 1907, Archpriest Pavel Levashev, visiting the Elder for the first time, saw him surrounded by uncreated light. He later attested: “I could not tear myself away from such a wondrous sight; I bade the Elder farewell about ten times as I kept looking at his radiant countenance, illumined with an angelic smile and that other-worldly light. The light which I saw over the Elder bore no resemblance to any earthly light – sunlight, phosphorescence, electric, moonlight; I’ve never seen anything like it in visible nature…”
Four years later the Elder’s face was similarly illumined as he lingered in this world long enough for the grieving Optina brethren and the Shamordino nuns to take their leave of him before he departed to the next world, to a place among the saints, where the Never-fading Light doth shine.