On January 22, in his seventy-ninth year of life, after a serious illness, the abbot of the Entrance of the Theotokos Optina Pustyn Monastery, Archimandrite Benedict (Penkov) departed to the Lord. He was the creator and guardian of the monastic life there, and also a keen spiritual father. Here is what several archpastors and pastors who knew the newly-departed Archimandrite Benedict have to say about him.
“Fr. Benedict, like the apostle Paul, bore all of his children in his heart”
Bishop Guriy of Arsenyev and Dalnegorsk:
When I came to faith, at first I went around to Moscow priests, confessed to them, and then went to Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. I remember going to St. John the Forerunner Skete, and Fr. Benedict was holding general Confession there. I listened to it, and promptly got in line to see him. The line was huge, and I didn’t manage to see him the first time; but I had already purposefully tried to see precisely this confessor for Confession. The next time I went, I listened to the general Confession, and this time the Lord granted me, apparently for my persistence, to personally confess to Batushka.
Afterwards, having had a spiritual conversation with him, I already realized that his image was laid upon my heart, and I reached out to him as to a spiritual father. I began to visit him often, turning to him with my questions.
Batushka would hold wonderful conversations, and not just with his own spiritual children—we would go see him with our parents too—and unbelieving parents at that! Thanks to speaking with him, my mother began to believe. Of course, the Lord leads people to Himself, but I saw Him call many before my eyes, and from among my family and friends through Fr. Benedict.
Batushka would constantly say to me: “Go see Fr. Kirill. Go see Fr. Naum.”
When I went to see Fr. Naum, he asked who I confess to. I told him.
“Fr. Benedict, like the apostle Paul, bears all of his spiritual children in his heart,” the elder then said.
A glimpse of Paradise
Archimandrite Melchizedek (Artyukhin), abbot of the Moscow Optina Podvoriye:
The main work of an abbot is the creation of a brotherhood that lives the Gospel life, or at least trying sincerely and selflessly to live that way. Not proving anything to anyone, but just loving God, the brothers gathered by Fr. Benedict cannot live otherwise. People feel his podvig. You don’t even have to suggest or say anything to them then. They see the example of Gospel living and are inspired to follow the Gospel in their own lives. We don’t need to constantly call ourselves Christians and monastics: It’s better not to compulsively call ourselves Christians but to be Christians, than to call ourselves Christians and not be Christians. A book is valued not for the number of words, and not for the thickness of the spine, but for its contents; and here, people just see how many humble, meek, Spirit-bearing fathers, for whom the most important thing is love for God and neighbor, have gathered in Optina Pustyn, and they aspire to this holy habitation. Some, you see, therefore seek monasticism.
The fathers in Optina Pustyn reveal this golden mean, the royal Christian path: to please God and not to forget men. But then, sometimes it happens that they love people, but have no time for God, and don’t go to church. Or vice versa: They have only services on their agenda, and forget about their fellow man. No, Fr. Benedict made it clear how much it’s all connected; he simply lived by the principle that when God is in first place, then the rest will be in its proper place. That is how he taught all the Optina brothers to live.
In the weak modern world, there must be some kind of core, and people need firm examples of confession of faith. Elder Paisios the Athonite would say, “Monks are not lampposts that shine at people’s feet so they don’t stumble in the hustle and bustle, darting from one thing to another, but a lonely lighthouse, which stands in the raging sea, indicating the path for ships that could sink.”
Dostoyevsky also said, “The Russian man seeks nothing so much as sacred objects and a saint. He says, ‘I lie, I am a sinner, but there must be someone holy, there must be truth somewhere, there must be sanctity somewhere.’ He thirsts for this sacred object, will find it, and venerate it, and glorify God.” Therefore, it’s important to manifest this image of holy life, so people in the world would understand: “Yes, we have disorder and falsehood, but in the monasteries they live according to the Gospel; they have discovered the Truth.” Optina Pustyn manifests this righteousness of life according to the Gospel commandments, both in ages past, and in our times. There exist there, of course, the greatest sacred objects: wonderworking icons, the relics of the elders—but the most important—the continuation of the spiritual life by the contemporary monks.
All of Orthodox Moscow has recently flocked to the Moscow Podvoriye of Optina Pustyn to the coffin of this abbot. This commander has left 200 monks, warriors of Christ. Archimandrite Benedict has left numerous spiritual fathers and prayerful monks for Orthodox Russia. There is nothing more valuable than prayer. A monastery’s work is not in having a good farm. One great man has said of Optina Pustyn: “How many it has made, and how many more it will make into citizens of Heaven.”
Elder Barsanuphius of Optina composed the following lines about the monastery:
Clearer here than the heavens and purer than its azure blue…
Bearing a worldly yoke and the mournful completing
Amid the darkness and straits of life’s thorny path,
I was honored to see a glimpse of Paradise…
On this day, Optina Pustyn itself manifests this glimpse of Paradise—thanks to the podvig, labors, and personal example of Fr. Benedict.
To what did he most often call us? To read the Holy Scriptures, to memorize the Holy Scriptures, to fulfill the Holy Scriptures—and you will be saved! Let us pray for him. May God grant his memory to be eternal.
The restoration of a holy place
Archpriest Alexander Tikhonov, rector of the Church of the Prophet Elijah on Vorontsovo Pole:
I studied in seminary together with Archimandrite Benedict’s nephew—Fr. Alexei Penkov, who now serves in the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in Konkovo. For him, of course, his uncle was a model Christian and pastor. He would often compare himself with him, and use him as an example in conversation with us, although he himself was very humble. When he told us, “My uncle was appointed as the abbot of Optina Pustyn,” we, his classmates, did not believe him. But then it turned out that his uncle really did become the head of this monastery most important for Russia.
The first abbot of the resurrected Optina Pustyn was the now-Metropolitan of Vladimir and Suzdal, Evlogy. Most likely, when Vladyka Evlogy, appointed to the See of Vladimir, left Optina Pustyn, he spoke his weighty word in favor of appointing, instead of himself, Fr. Benedict, who, still being a monk of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, had proven himself.
I remember, I was at Optina Pustyn thirty years ago—when we finished school we went there to labor for the glory of God. What destitution they all lived in then! Vladyka Evlogy did a great deal, but the restoration was still a way’s off when he was transferred…
There was nothing there: neither walls in the tumbledown churches, nor bell towers. The Church of St. Mary of Egypt was just props—four walls made out of plywood. From afar you would see something like a church, but as you approached—plywood nailed together, just painted on the outside. There, where the tower with the angel is, the sole church at the time, in honor of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, was quickly rebuilt, and that’s where they served. The people were always packed in there, like fish in a barrel. The Kazan Cathedral was turned into a garage under the Soviets. There were no arches. The four-sided roof and the gates in the altar were broken through, through which trucks would drive into the church—a terrible sight… The monastery had no eastern wall, and no south side either. Wherever you look, there used to be ruins there.
And what residents lived there! Some of them were just drunkards, foul-mouthed brawlers, and hooligans. There was one such physical education teacher there. We boys tried to clean up some stuff there. I remember, they sent me to bring some water from the icon studio. I rinsed out the bucket and poured the water out on the grass—how he rushed at me with his fists out. They were seriously repulsed by the restoration of the sacred site there. This is the kind of contingent Fr. Benedict had to deal with.
There were secular people living in the St. John the Forerunner Skete too. At first, under Fr. Evlogy, only the hut of St. Ambrose was released, while Fr. Benedict was obliged to secure all the rest. It was a horror. And now—glory to God! The restoration of a holy site, and a monastic brotherhood gathered.
Memory eternal to this faithful servant of Christ!
“What do you mean, a divorce?”
Sergei Maximov, the head of the Blessed Athos pilgrimage center:
Sometimes Fr. Benedict would spot me at Optina Pustyn, and would sit me in his car, and I could spend several days that way with him. I think I even once spent an entire work week this way.
Later he blessed me to get married.
Having gone to Optina Pustyn with my wife, we, as often happens in such holy places, started fighting out of the clear blue sky; and so much so that we already wanted a divorce—and that’s that!
“Alright,” I said to my other half, “go draw up the divorce papers in the morning.”
There was a call to our guesthouse room early in the morning.
Fr. Benedict’s cell attendant was calling: “Batushka is calling for you and your wife for some reason…”
I was surprised. We were planning to leave very early in the morning. My wife had urgent plans…
We went to see him.
Fr. Benedict was sitting there quite perturbed, not knowing how to begin the conversation. There was a pause of about three minutes… Then he began with the words,
“Well, what do you mean a divorce? What divorce?!”
We went pale.
And then—his brilliant discourse for about an hour, without a break.
We let go of everything! We made up.
Somehow, Fr. Benedict foresaw what my wife and I were talking about, and in what tone…
Archimandrite Benedict (Vladimir Andreevich in the world) was born on June 24, 1939. He graduated from the Moscow Theological Seminary, and from the Theological Academy in 1973 with a candidate degree in theology. In the 1970s, he was a monk of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra where he was tonsured in 1990 and given the name Benedict in honor of St. Benedict of Nursia.
He was appointed as abbot of Optina Monastery in 1990 and was elevated to the dignity of archimandrite. Fr. Benedict managed the life of the monastery for twenty-seven years, beginning in 1990.
On January 9, 2018, he underwent a serious operation. Fr. Benedict was still in the intensive care unit a week after the operation—post-operative complications had begun. Batushka’s health seriously deteriorated on January 19, and on January 22, he left this world…