The Litovkins had six children, and they often read to them from spiritual books, especially from the Lives of the Saints. The second of their three sons (the future Saint Joseph) was baptized with the name John in honor of Saint John the Merciful (November 12). Instead of providing them with earthly wealth, the couple endowed their children with heavenly treasures, raising them in piety, obedience, and in the fear of God.
John learned to read even before he started school, taught by his older sister Alexandra at home. He was a sickly child, nearsighted and hard of hearing in one ear. He also met with various accidents. Once he was knocked down by another child and bit off the tip of his own tongue. Another time he was scalded with boiling water. In spite of all this, he was a happy and affectionate child. His father knew there was something special about John, and others also believed that God’s special favor was upon the boy.
When he was only four, John’s beloved father died, and his mother had to raise the children herself. When he was eight, John was playing with some friends, and suddenly froze on the spot. He raised his arms and his head toward the sky, then fell down unconscious. They carried him home and put him to bed. When he awoke, they asked him what had happened. He told them that he had seen the Queen of Heaven in the air.
“What makes you think you saw the Queen?” they asked.
“Because she had a crown with a cross,” he replied.
From that time on, the boy became more quiet and thoughtful, and started to avoid children’s games. Soon after this, the family moved into a new home. There was a great fire in the village, and John prayed that the Mother of God would protect their house from the flames. The Livotkin home was spared, even though everything around it was burned.
In 1848, their mother died during an outbreak of cholera. John was only eleven at the time. His older brother Simeon and his sister Anna were both married before their mother passed away, and his sister Alexandra had gone to the Borisovsk monastery in Kursk Province to become a nun. Simeon became the head of the family, although his drinking problem made him rather unreliable. Simeon took care of John for a while, and their younger brother Peter went to live with Anna. Simeon decided to leave home, and so John was placed in the care of various people, including a tavern keeper and a grocer.
Unable to endure conditions in the homes of such people, John went to live with a cousin who was a deacon in Novocherkassk. He ate nothing on his journey, for he was ashamed to beg, and people did not offer him any food on their own. When he arrived at the church where his cousin served, John sat down outside and waited for the Liturgy to end. Two women with rolls passed by and took pity upon him. One of them gave him a warm roll, which the boy regarded as manna from heaven.
John stayed with his cousin for a brief time, then moved on to other places, taking various jobs to support himself. Later in life he was asked whether he had ever had a girlfriend when he was living in the world. He shook his head and said, “Since I was nearsighted, I couldn’t really see anyone at a distance, and I was too shy to approach anyone up close.”
While living in the world John was often unhappy, and he found consolation in prayer and in church services. One day he received a letter from his sister, Mother Leonida, suggesting that he enter the skete at Optina, which was blessed with experienced Elders. Then the desire to leave the world and embrace the monastic life began to grow within him.
Learning that John was planning to make a pilgrimage to the Kiev Caves, the man for whom he was working offered him his daughter in marriage. Years later Father Joseph would say, “It’s always that way. As soon as one begins to think of following the path to salvation, obstacles and temptations begin to appear.”
With his employer’s permission, John started out for Kiev. On the way, he stopped to visit his parents’ graves and the place where he had spent a happy childhood. He stayed briefly at the Dormition Monastery in Kharkov’s Holy Mountains, but he did not wish to remain there. Finally he went to the Borisovsk Women’s Hermitage to visit his sister, Mother Leonida. She had spoken to Saint Macarius of Optina (September 7) of her concern for John. He told her not to worry, because John would become a monk.
Mother Leonida’s Eldress, Schemanun Alypia, overheard some of their conversation and said to John, “Forget about Kiev. Go to the Elders at Optina.” Mother Leonida gave him a look indicating that John should obey.
He traveled to Optina with some nuns of the women’s monastery at Belev, driving the cart for them. Saint Macarius had already departed to the Lord in 1860, and was succeeded as Elder by his disciple, Saint Ambrose (October 10). Knowing of John’s monastic inclinations, the nuns jokingly introduced him as “Brother John.” Saint Ambrose replied solemnly, “This Brother John will prove useful to us, and to you.”
On March 1, 1861 John found himself standing before the Elder Ambrose, telling him of his life, and asking for a blessing to go to Kiev. Father Ambrose told him to remain at Optina, forseeing the blessings he would bring to Optina, and to the women’s monasteries which were under the guidance of the Optina Elders. Taking Saint Ambrose’s words as an indication of God’s will, John murmured, “May it be blessed.”
John, like all new novices, was given an obedience in the kitchen. He was assigned to help the cook in the skete. From the very start, John demonstrated perfect obedience and humility. Life in the monastery was everything he had hoped it would be, and he was glad to leave the tumult of the world behind.
In June the Superior of the Skete, Father Paphnutius, asked John if he would like to move in with the Elder Ambrose as his cell-attendant. The next day he moved to the Elder’s quarters, where he remained for the next fifty years. As happy as he was to be near the Elder, he was disturbed by the constant flow of visitors. He felt that there was no time to pray or go to church, and began to have misgivings. He was tempted by the thought that perhaps he would be better off in Kiev or on Mount Athos, and did not notice that Father Ambrose had entered the cell. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard the Elder say, “Brother John, it’s better here than it is on Athos. Stay with us.”
John realized that his thoughts had been sent by the Enemy of our salvation, and he fell down at Father Ambrose’s feet in repentance.
On April 15, 1872 he was tonsured as a rassophore (wearer of the rassa), then on June 16, 1872 he was tonsured as a monk, receiving the name Joseph in honor of Saint Joseph the Hymnographer (April 4). He was unexpectedly ordained as a deacon in 1877 in a way which demonstrated that God was directing the course of his life.
On December 7 (Father Ambrose’s nameday), Igumen Isaac served Liturgy in the skete church. Later, he visited Father Ambrose to offer his congratulations, and the cell-attendants Father Joseph and Father Michael served them tea. The Superior asked Father Ambrose about a monk whom he proposed to recommend for ordination to the diaconate. The Elder said that the time was not right for that particular monk, recommending someone else instead. Noticing Father Joseph standing nearby with a tray, Father Isaac smiled and said, “Well Father, you don’t want my candidate, and I don’t want yours. Let’s ordain Father Joseph.”
So it was that Father Joseph was sent to Kaluga, where he was ordained by Bishop Gregory on December 9. It was customary at Optina that a newly-ordained deacon or priest would serve every day for forty days. Father Joseph’s health did not permit him to fulfill the forty days, however. He developed an inflammation on his right side, and he nearly died.
Father Joseph’s life continued as it had before, but with more responsibilities. He had no cell of his own, but continued to sleep in the reception room, which the Elder used each day until almost 11 P.M. Father Ambrose frequently tested his cell-attendant in order to give him the opportunity to acquire patience and humility, following the instructions of Saint John of the Ladder (Book 4, paragraphs 27 and 28).
Father Ambrose built the Shamordino Convent about eight miles from Optina, and on October 1, 1884 Bishop Vladimir of Kaluga came for its opening. At the Liturgy that day, Father Joseph was ordained as a priest and from that day forward the nuns regarded him as their priest, and he became the spiritual director of the convent after the repose of Father Ambrose.
Father Joseph now became the Elder’s senior cell-attendant, and tried to protect him and also to placate the visitors who grumbled about having to wait for so long to see Father Ambrose. In spite of his duties, Father Joseph found time to read spiritual books. He particularly loved the PHILOKALIA and the writings of the Fathers. In these books he found spiritual wisdom, which he shared with those who came to him for advice.
Saint Joseph’s inner life was known only to God, but his advice to others indicates that he practiced unceasing prayer of the heart. Forseeing that Father Joseph would serve as Elder after him, Father Ambrose blessed some people to start going to Father Joseph for their spiritual needs.
Father Joseph attended Saint Ambrose for thirty years, until the Elder’s death on October 10, 1891. Father Ambrose prepared Father Joseph for eldership, teaching him by word and by example. He would also refer some visitors to Father Joseph for advice. There was such oneness of mind between them that when people would ask Father Joseph about something and then ask Father Ambrose about the same thing, they would receive the very same answer.
Father Joseph’s health was not good, and he was susceptible to colds in winter. In February 1888 he became very ill and took to his bed, and he received the Mystey of Holy Unction. The doctor recommended that he be moved to the infirmary for treatment, but Father Joseph did not wish to leave Father Ambrose. The Superior of the skete insisted on the transfer, however. The ride to the monastery in a sleigh during cold weather only made his illness worse.
Father Joseph was tonsured into the schema (the highest level of monasticism) during the Liturgy on February 14. The next day, prayers for the Departure of the Soul were read for him, and people came to bid him farewell. A novice, sitting behind a screen, heard Father Joseph praying aloud. Peering through a slit in the screen, he saw Father Joseph gazing at an icon of Christ and lifting up his hands. This novice went to the infirmary later and heard someone behind the screen say, “Be patient, my dear one, only a little remains.” He looked behind the screen, but saw no one there except Father Joseph. Later, Father Ambrose told people that Father Joseph had seen the Mother of God during his illness. Though he had been quite near death, he got well.
After his recovery, Father Joseph began to hear confessions on a regular basis, since this was becoming too difficult for Father Ambrose. He blessed people to go to Father Joseph “not just once, but always.”
In the summer of 1888, Father Ambrose blessed Father Joseph to go on a pilgrimage to Kiev. After nearly thirty years, he was able to fulfill his desire to visit the holy places of Kiev. On his way back to Optina, he stopped to visit his sister Mother Leonida at Borisovsk.
Father Ambrose usually spent three weeks during the summer at the Shamordino Convent, accompanied by Father Joseph. In June of 1890 Father Joseph began to prepare for the journey, but Father Ambrose said, “I’m not taking you this time, you’re needed here.” He ordered Father Joseph to move into his cell and to transfer a large “Surety of Sinners” Icon (March 7 and May 29) into the reception room. Father Joseph had a premonition that Father Ambrose would never return.
Although he missed the Elder, Father Joseph resigned himself to the situation. He did go to Shamordino once a month to visit Father Ambrose, however. In the absence of Father Ambrose, many monks who confessed to him began to go to Father Joseph. During the Nativity Fast Father Ambrose started sending his spiritual children at Shamordino to confess to Father Joseph as well. This was difficult for the nuns, who were used to Father Ambrose. Even when he heard a nun’s confession himself, Father Ambrose would send her to Father Joseph for the prayers of absolution. In this manner, he indicated that he was entrusting his spiritual children to no one but Father Joseph.
In September 1891 Father Ambrose became ill, but no one thought it was serious. On October 8, he was so critical that they sent for Father Joseph. That evening the service of Holy Unction was performed, and the next morning Father Joseph gave Father Ambrose Communion for the last time. Saint Ambrose reposed on the morning of October 10, and no one grieved more than Father Joseph. Even in his sorrow, however, he comforted and consoled others.
Without any outside influence or pressure, the monks of Optina began coming to Father Joseph just as they had come to Father Ambrose. When the nuns of Shamordino asked to whom they should go for spiritual direction, Father Isaac told them, “At Optina all we have Father Joseph as our common Elder, and he must be yours as well.”
For the next twenty years, Saint Joseph received visitors, gave spiritual counsel to those who asked for his advice, and even performed miracles of healing for the afflicted. Out of humility, Father Joseph never said anything on his own authority, but quoted the words of Father Ambrose, or gave examples from his life. He spoke very little, and then only to answer a question which had been put to him. Some laymen, and even some of the monks, were annoyed with him because he did not say more.
One monk had the thought that since Father Joseph was filled with spiritual wisdom and was so familiar with the writings of the Fathers, he could have said many beneficial things to people. The Elder explained this to him, quoting Saint Peter of Damascus, who said that one should not say anything helpful unless asked by the brethren, because then the resulting benefit would come from their free choice. Even concerning something which might be useful for salvation, the ancient Fathers would not speak without being asked, considering unsolicited advice as idle talk (Vol. 3 of the English PHILOKALIA, p. 186).
His greatest care was for the Shamordino Convent, which remained unfinished, and for the spiritual welfare of its nuns. The Superior of the convent now turned to Father Joseph to consult him about everything related to the life of the convent, and would do nothing without his blessing. He went there twice a year, during the Apostles’ Fast, and during the Dormition Fast, to hear the confessions of the sisters. In the winter, they would visit him at Optina for Confession. Soon he was obliged to give up traveling to Shamordino because of his health.
Father Joseph was officially appointed as confessor for the Optina brotherhood near the end of 1893 when Father Anatole became ill and could not fulfill this duty. Many of the monks had already been confessing to Father Joseph, but now they all came to him.
On January 25, 1894 Saint Anatole, the head of the skete, fell asleep in the Lord. Archimandrite Isaac and the bretheren unanimously chose Father Joseph to succeed Father Anatole as Superior of the skete. Although he never sought this honor, Father Joseph accepted his election with all humility. He discharged his duties, not by issuing orders, but with paternal love and humility.
As Superior, he could have chosen to serve only on major Feast Days when the priests concelebrated, and designated one of the priests of the skete to serve on other days. He often served as a simple monk, however, with only one deacon to assist him.
During the last years of his life, Father Joseph grew weaker and was often ill. In May of 1905 he felt that he lacked the strength to carry out his duties, and he asked to retire as Superior of the skete. He also had to give up hearing the confessions of visitors, since this exhausted him. His spiritual children were saddened by his decision, but the monks and nuns continued to come to him with their spiritual wounds and afflictions.
In 1911 Father Joseph was weak and ill, but began to feel somewhat better during Great Lent. He was unusually joyful during Holy Week, which led some to believe that he had had some sort of vision. On April 11, the third day of Pascha, Father Joseph developed a fever and stopped seeing visitors. The following week, a doctor diagnosed him with maleria, declaring that there was no hope for recovery.
On April 20 the wonderworking Icon “of the Sign” was brought to his cell and a molieben was served. In the afternoon, the Kazan Icon and the rassa of Saint Seraphim were brought to him. Two days later, he requested that the skete brotherhood be permitted to come to him so that he could bid them farewell and ask their forgiveness. Then he asked that the Shamordino nuns also be allowed to come.
Father Joseph stopped taking food from April 28 on, nourishing himself only with the Holy Mysteries of Christ. Up until the time of his death, he was conscious and lucid, answering questions and dictating replies to letters. On May 8 he felt a little better, then became weak again. On the morning of May 9 he received Holy Communion, then at four in the afternoon he received some people for a final blessing.
That evening the Elder lay resting on his bed with his eyes closed, and his face shone with an unearthly radiance. At 10:45 he drew his last breath and departed to the Lord with a smile on his face.
After the body was prepared for burial, panikhidas were served one after another for the departed Elder. The saint appeared to some of the brethren in dreams both that night and on subsequent days.
The body was placed in a coffin at six o’clock the next morning and was carried to the skete church. Following the Liturgy, a panikhida was served, then the casket was brought to the monastery church of Saint Mary of Egypt. The monks began taking turns serving panikhidas for Father Joseph until his burial.
Several miracles took place on the day Saint Joseph was laid to rest at the feet of Father Ambrose. Even today, he continues to intercede with God and to work miracles for those who entreat him with faith.
Saint Joseph became a great Elder because first he had been a great disciple. He was obedient to his Elder Father Ambrose in all things, and never contradicted him. Because he renounced his own will, refrained from judging others, and reproached himself for his own sins, Father Joseph acquired humility and the grace of God. He also obtained from the Lord the discernment to recognize every sort of spiritual illness, and how to treat it.
The Moscow Patriarchate authorized local veneration of the Optina Elders on June 13,1996. The work of uncovering the relics of Saints Leonid, Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatole I, Barsanuphius and Anatole II began on June 24/July 7, 1998 and was concluded the next day. However, because of the church Feasts (Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, etc.) associated with the actual dates of the uncovering of the relics, Patriarch Alexey II designated June 27/July 10 as the date for commemorating this event. The relics of the holy Elders now rest in the new church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God.
The Optina Elders were glorified by the Moscow Patriarchate for universal veneration on August 7, 2000.