A typical worldly girl
Everything in my life has developed well from childhood: a prosperous family, loving parents, a wonderful grandmother, a serene life without any special difficulties. And my fiancé was a very good man and we had big plans for the future, but we lived without God and the Church, like many of our contemporaries, raised in an atheistic state in the soviet times.
Overall, I was a typical worldly girl named Olga Evgenievna Osipova. In 1988, at the age of nineteen, I accidentally wound up at Optina Hermitage. After that, my whole former life ended and my new life began: I have been laboring in the monastery for nearly three decades.
How I arrived at Optina
But let me tell you all about it in order. My parents really loved traveling, romance; my mama worked as a glaciologist, studying glaciers, and my papa as a surveyor. And it would seem I inherited a love of nature from them. I really liked going on hikes, and once in the monastery, I tried to dig a cave in the forest and struggle alone in the woods, as the monks struggled in antiquity.
I arrived to Optina unbaptized, with unbaptized friends, on a hot summer day, in shorts and with guitar across my back. We had no idea then where we were going and what a monastery was: We just read the information from the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments. We, students, (I was studying at the Moscow State Pedagogical University), all responded to the Society’s calls to participate in the restoration of ancient mansions and churches, and Optina Hermitage had only just been returned to the Church; it lay in ruins and in need of help.
We went by bus, singing tourist songs, and then we even read Kontzevich’s famous book about Optina, which was quite rare at that time. We were particularly enticed by the description of the pond in the skete. I remember, we read that in the old Optina the elders didn’t bless novices to go there alone, because there had been some incidents there. Nothing was clear about these incidents, but, of course, we wanted to see the pond, and definitely at night, so there would be a real adventure.
The first Optina brothers
We arrived at the monastery, which had only just begun to revive. The brothers of the first call were very humble, full of love—the Lord called them and they responded, and He gave them a special grace. They immediately saw that we were spiritual babes and knew absolutely nothing, but they treated us with great patience, like younger sisters. They didn’t reject us or scold us for our totally unsuitable appearances for a monastery, but fed us at the trapeza, gave us a place for the night, and treated us with such love, such patience, and such meekness as we’ve never experienced in the world before—we were very struck by this—such an incarnation of the Gospel commandments in life.
The grace of the reviving monastery, which the Lord gave in the ruins, among nettles the size of people, was so strong that all us unbelieving and unbaptized young students came to God, were baptized, were catechized, and many even chose the monastic path. We very quickly understood how to dress properly in a monastery and exchanged our shorts for long skirts and sundresses and began to look quite pious.
The first night in the monastery
Our first night in Optina, they had us spend the night inside the monastery walls, in what is now the Church of St. Mary of Egypt. Before the transfer of the monastery to the Church there was an agricultural school there, so the Church of St. Mary of Egypt was half-ruined above, and the lower, basement rooms were used by the school as workshops. The brothers built two large pilgrims’ cells there: one for men and one for women. We spent the night in the women’s cell on mattresses directly on the floor.
But before going to sleep, we of course slowly headed as we had planned for the pond we read about in Kontzevitch. Nothing interesting or terrible was found there, but we returned in complete darkness, and the gates to the monastery were closed. We remembered that there was a hole in the fence somewhere, and we went along the wall, trying to feel out this entrance. As the oldest, I went first. I remember noticing that the brick wall ended and I felt lattice under my hands.
Then we quietly climbed climbed through the lattice and onto our mattresses. I crawled. Can you imagine? A young student, with a guitar on her back (how I loved to sing, and now I am a choir director), climbing into a men’s monastery at night through a hole in the wall. Suddenly I saw the light of a flashlight. A large and good-natured novice was coming out and reproachfully said to me: “Young lady, why are you climbing through the fence?! I would have opened the monastery gate for you.”
Obediences in Optina
The restoration of Optina Hermitage I planned to go to the monastery for a couple of days, but wound up staying there all summer and working at rather difficult obediences. Previously, I had never held anything heavier than a pen, a spoon, or a guitar; I was unaccustomed to physical labor, but there we helped to unload bricks, we washed heaps of dishes—we did everything we had to do.
When the skete was returned to the monastery, the skete church, where there was a museum, had to be put in order. The museum moved out, and the shelves were pulled out of the altar one after another, and behind them—dust, cobwebs, and flies. We washed and cleaned everything. Now women are usually not allowed into the skete—only on the feast of St. John the Forerunner, and at that time we didn’t properly realize what a joy it is to participate in the rebirth of an ancient monastery. I was given the obedience of scouring the tiled oven in St. Ambrose’s cell, and the Lord showed me such mercy—to labor in a holy place. We were very grateful to the brothers and to God who allowed us to come into contact with this holy place.
The abbot at that time, Archimandrite Evlogy (Smirnov), now Metropolitan of Vladimir and Suzdal, blessed them to baptize us in the spring of St. Paphnutius of Borovsk. They didn’t have any fonts then, just a well and a frame. One fine morning, at dawn, we former unbelieving soviet students received holy Baptism.
Autumn came, but I didn’t want to return to Moscow and continue my studies. I probably would have quit the institute and immediately left for a convent, so strongly was this calling grace acting within us, but I was already beginning to understand what “obedience” is. Hieromonk Melchizedek (Aryutkhin), now archimandrite, the rector of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul—the Optina dependency in Moscow—blessed me to continue studying and go to the parish church of the Transfiguration of the Lord in Bogorodskoe, because in his youth he himself had started to sing on the kliros there.
A wondrous meeting
I returned to Moscow and began to study further; I went to the church and learned that after a fire there in 1954, only the Tikhvin Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos and an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker survived. The Tikhvin Icon was especially venerated; they served molebens before it. And I had such an encounter, such a wonderful meeting!
I remembered how I had encountered this icon already in my childhood. My grandmother, born in 1913, grew up as a believer, confessed, and communed like most people in Russia in those years. At the age of fifteen she confessed and communed for the last time, and then such strong persecution began against the faith that they closed all the churches in the area, one after the other. My grandmother was even married to a communist, but she preserved faith in her soul.
Tikhvin Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos Then, when my grandmother was already eighty and I was eleven, we spent the summer in the village. She saw that her neighbor was making a door to the stable from a large church icon—the Tikhvin Mother of God. The icon had turned very black, but it was possible to make out the face. My grandmother redeemed this icon from the neighbor for a substantial sum for her, a retiree, at the time.
We cleaned the icon of dirt, and at eleven years of age, I had the sense to consult with some artists my father knew about how to properly restore it. For three years I spent all my free time sitting at this icon, cleaning it with egg emulsion and an iron. My peers were out having a good time, but I didn’t leave this icon saved by my grandmother. Why did I, a soviet pioneer, understanding nothing in matters of faith, do this so tenaciously? What attracted me to this holy icon?
I still can’t explain it, but it seems to me that from that time, the Most Holy Theotokos has covered my entire family and me with her Protecting Veil and guides us through life.
The Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos
As I remembered later, I arrived at Optina on the feast of the Tikhvin Icon, and the first church where I learned to sing had a revered Tikhvin icon.
My mother was baptized on the feast of the Tikhvin Icon. At first she had no intention of being baptized—she was offended when I left for the monastery. But then she came to our monastery on the feat of the Tikhvin Icon and ended up talking with an Orthodox doctor. The doctor told her how unbelievers die and how Orthodox people die. Within this five-minute conversation, my mother completely changed—such a strong impression the conversation made on her. It is evident that the Most Holy Theotokos arranged it so that my mother was baptized that same day.
The Most Holy one also covered my grandmother with her Protecting Veil. She was already ninety when she had a stroke and was paralyzed. I was already in the monastery. I went to see my grandmother; I called priests to come visit her, but for some reason I couldn’t find anyone—they were all busy. Then a friend asked Fr. Artemy Vladimirov, and he didn’t refuse. He went to see this unknown old woman, gave her Unction, and confessed and communed her, and my grandmother peacefully departed to the Lord.
How we became “hopelessly ruined for the world”
Having been baptized, my friends and I still really wanted to go the monastery immediately—secular life had somehow lost its appeal for us. Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), having been in Pskov Caves Monastery in his youth, wrote: “The only place where I felt good now was church. Neither friends, nor entertainment, nor a once-coveted job—nothing touched my heart. Even books, even my beloved Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy did not hold my attention. I realized that I had completely changed. Or perhaps I had been hopelessly ruined for this world, so dear to me before. A new life was opened to me, compared to which everything I had lived in my twenty-four years could not even compare.”
And so we went to Optina, by all appearances “hopelessly ruined for the world”… Sometimes people say they went to a monastery to leave an unhappy love. Mother Abbess notes about this: “We left for the monastery out of happy love—love for God.”
Our spiritual father—the elder Schema-Archimandrite Mikhail (Balaev) (1924-2009), who labored in the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, said: “A person does not become a monk at the monastic tonsure, but while still in the world, when his heart burns with love for Christ.”
Then we decided to get Elder John (Krestiankin)’s blessing for our departure to the monastery and we headed for Pechory. It was 1989, and Fr. John was very agile, alive, with entirely white hair. He also turned out to be very open and joyful—he looked at us girls as if he had known us our entire short lives. He immediately hugged us like family, and when we told him from the doorway that we wanted to go to a monastery, he replied: “You will be in a monastery, but first you must finish your studies! And it would be good if your parents blessed you for monasticism, then, under the protection of the parental blessing, your entire life will go right.”
You will get a degree—then go wherever you please!
T Elder John (Krestiankin) he expectation of a blessing for monasticism from my mother was unrealistic: She really wanted me to finish the institute and get a degree. And when, following the elder’s advice, I told her that I would be finishing my studies, she calmed down and replied: “You will get a degree—then go wherever you please!”
Of course, my mother didn’t expect that I would actually take the monastic tonsure. She was hoping that her daughter would soon cool down and “throw this foolishness out of her head.” And I was very pleased with her words and later joyfully announced to Fr. Melchizedek: “Batiushka, my mother blessed me to go to a monastery!”
“Go, child, wherever you want!”
My mother decided to play it safe and went to the dean’s office, asking him to influence her daughter. They called me to the dean’s office and said: “We have found out that you’re planning to go to a monastery! The state spent money on your studies, and by soviet law you have to work in a school for three years after finishing the institute.”
Nun Mikhaila I replied that I was ready to work, but I was very upset that my dream was postponed for another three years. In frustration, I went to my first legal consultation and naively asked what I should do. There were big, important lawyers at the consultation. Having heard my sad story, one of them tenderly said: “Go, child, wherever you want! They abolished that law long ago, so go to your monastery, to your heart’s content, and pray there for all of us!”
Thus, I found support in a completely unexpected place…
How my education came in handy
Later, my pedagogical education really came in handy: Mother Abbess sent me to teach the Basics of Orthodox Culture at the orphanage school and even at a private boarding school where children from fairly wealthy families studied.
I started to teach the older students; some of them were pampered, and I was very afraid that they wouldn’t want to listen to a new teacher. But children are children, and they were drawn to the word of God, asked many questions, and listened with interest.
“Lord, please bring our boys back alive!”
I mentioned that I had a fiancé. The guys from our class all wound up in the war in Afghanistan, including him. I was very afraid that he would be killed because of my desire to become a nun. That was my compulsive thought. I prayed: “Lord, I will go to the monastery, and You, please bring our boys back alive.”
Amazingly, all of them miraculously survived, and my ex-fiancé quickly found himself another fiancé, which I was very happy about.
The Tolga Convent
I was finishing the institute in 1990, and they were just then planning to open the convent in Shamordino, near Optina. Since it hadn’t opened yet, my spiritual father advised me to go on winter break to the Tolga Entrance of the Theotokos Convent. I really liked it there and I even had the thought of remaining there in that monastery after graduation.
They gave me the obedience of reading at trapeza for the pilgrims. I opened to the bookmark, and found there: “Elder Ambrose’s founding of the Shamordino-Kazany women’s communities.” It was the life of Elder Ambrose of Optina—a pre-revolutionary reprinting of the book by Schema-Archimandrite Agapit (Belovidov), and I read this section every day at trapeza, as if the Lord were giving me a sign about Shamordino.
“Where is the Shamordino novice?”
Then my spiritual father blessed me to go to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra to his spiritual father, the ever-memorable Archimandrite Benedict (Penkov) (1939-2018), the future abbot of the Optina Hermitage.
I was standing in the back of the line for confession; standing and waiting, in colorful secular clothes—an ordinary girl. Suddenly Fr. Benedict, whom I had never met before, beckoned me: “Where is the Shamordino novice there? Come here!”
I went up to him in complete shock, and Fr. Benedict immediately said to me: “If you want to go to Shamordino, I bless you, but first you must take your exams and get your degree. Then you can go.”
This was the feast day of the holy Great Martyr George the Victorious, and on that day, they brought the reposed Patriarch Pimen (Izvevov, 1910-1990) to the Lavra. I never saw him, but I heard that he was a man of holy life and suffered much. I went up to him to bid farewell and somehow get his blessing. I kissed his hand—it was completely warm, alive.
Schemanun Seraphima Bobkova
Schemanun Seraphima (Bobkova) also unexpectedly called me a Shamordino novice. My spiritual father had sent me and another girl to her to ask about the old Optina. Mother Seraphima was already 100 years old; she lived in Gomel with her relatives, in a hut that had so sunk into the ground that her window was on the level of the road. In her youth, the eldress, then Nun Irina, was nurtured at Optina; she was a spiritual child of the Optina elder the Confessor Nikon (Belyaev) (1888-1931).
Patriarch Pimen In 1931, not fearing the dangers and threat of her own arrest, Mother searched for her spiritual father in the village of Valdokure in Archangelsk Province, where he was exiled, and found him already fading away with tuberculosis, covered with lice. In such a situation, he continued to fulfill his prayer rule, read the Sacred Scriptures, and write letters. Mother brightened his last dying days with her care.
Despite her years, Mother Seraphima had a very bright and clear mind. When we sang the canon of St. Andrew of Crete, she began to sing along with us. She knew all the irmosi by heart and even taught us a special Lenten chant. By all appearances, she was clairvoyant, since she had called us Shamordino novices, which we soon became. The girl with whom I went to see the eldress is now the abbess of the monastery, also named Mother Seraphima.
When the monastery opened in Shamordino, Eldress Seraphima went and lived there about half a year. She taught us, the young novices. We were all looking for some kind of worldly justice: Why is it this way, why not that way? But she was a spiritual person and taught us humility and obedience.
On Pascha, my Godmother Lyudmila, the future Abbess Nikolaya, and I went to Shamordino—as the Kazan-St. Ambrose women’s hermitage near the village of Shamordino, seven miles to the north of Optina, is usually unofficially called. They weren’t serving Liturgy yet; the monastery had only just begun to be restored. They served the Paschal Matins and sang as best they could, out of sync. By that time, I had already been singing on the kliros in a parish church for two years and I knew the Paschal Hours, hymns, and stichera by heart.
Abbess Nikona (Peretyagina) (1941-2012) received us well. Being a wise, spiritual person, she understood that we, new novices, could not immediately humble ourselves, and so treated us with leniency; but she was stricter with the older sisters. I was given the obediences of singing on the kliros and embroidery.
A miraculous healing
Abbess Nikona (Peretyagina) I have to say that I’ve had bad eyes since childhood. My vision had fallen to -9 and I underwent several operations in school, after which my vision was restored to +1 at first, but with time, it fell to -4 again—but at least it wasn’t -9.
So I was assigned to do embroidery, and, from my novice zeal, I embroidered day and night, except when I was singing on the kliros. Then Great Lent began. I was working on black vestments and I strained my eyes and my vision again seriously deteriorated from the great pressure. I practically went blind: I couldn’t embroider, I couldn’t read, and I couldn’t see anything on the kliros.
Mother NIkona blessed me to run morning and evening to the spring of the Kazan Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos to wash my eyes. A week later, my vision had fully recovered and I even took off my glasses completely.
I was of a rather obstinate character in the world, and I happened to show disobedience in the monastery sometimes. Once I asked Mother to go see my parents in Moscow for some unimportant matter. She didn’t let me go, but I talked her into it, and a temptation occurred. I knew for certain that my parents were home, but no one answered when I knocked on the door.
I had to spend the night at the train station and I almost got into trouble with the police. It’s a good thing the police turned out to be nice—they went with me to find out where I lived. We rang the doorbell, and my parents opened and said they had been in the apartment the whole time and hadn’t gone anywhere.
How I planned to labor ascetically in a cave
They had a very strict order in Shamordino from the very beginning. There were night services, and we didn’t particularly rest during the day. Everyone went to the Midnight Office, and then we had to pray according to our strength. All the sisters wanted to, of course, but not everyone had the strength. I had enough strength in my youth, and I had so much zeal that I nearly fell into delusion: Everything was drawing me to the desert, and I even dug a cave for myself in the forest, to labor there ascetically. If not for my spiritual father and for Mother, I would have certainly perished.
Abbess Nikona saw my excessive zeal, and in order to placate me at least somewhat, to slow down my pace at least somewhat, she gave me the obedience of pulling up young birches and grass that were growing on the roof of the Kazan Cathedral at that time. I was afraid of heights, but for obedience, with my zeal, nothing was scary, and I fluttered along the roof like a bird.
I had strength and health, and I sang during the day and at the night services, but to embroider I would run to the forest, to the cemetery—I really liked to embroider there and pray in solitude—a quiet place over a cliff. So that I would have at least some benefit as I ran through the forests, and so my willfulness would not be so evident, Mother Nikona gave me the task of bringing water from the holy spring for the altar, for the sick, and then she proposed that I dig up trees in the woods. I would bring mountain ash and viburnum and I planted an alley in the monastery. Everything worked out, and Mother did not scold me very much.
“As long as you’re in the monastery, God’s protection is over you”
Elder Mikhail When we would go to our Elder Mikhail in the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, I had the realization that we were all novices in Shamordino, and our zeal was largely not according to reason. I told my spiritual father how we fervently labored, how we didn’t sleep at night, how everything was calling me to the cave in the forest, but I myself realized it was all extremes, that I could easily fall into delusion. I expected the elder to begin chiding us, but he didn’t, but said with a smile: “Try everything: fasting, and prayer, and nighttime labors: It’s all useful in monasticism. Fear not—as long as you’re in the monastery, God’s protection is over you. But if you leave, you will be defenseless.”
In my monastic tonsure, they named me, like my spiritual father, Mikhaila. The elder didn’t take my hikes through the forest very seriously, but embroidery, the kliros, iconography (I had begun to learn to paint icons), he called a true, “not futile, work,” and even called it prayer.
“A school for future nuns”
The spiritual father of Shamordino, Fr. Polycarp (Nechiporuk), also understood that we were beginners, and would say: “We have here now a school for future nuns.”
And I spent ten years in this school for future nuns. Then began the real monastic life. The Lord led me to the St. Nicholas-Chernoostrovsky Convent, where I labored for many years under the spiritual guidance of my Godmother and spiritual mother—the abbess of the monastery.
Now I am the elder sister at the Holy Dormition Monastery, which is a dependency of St. Nicholas Monastery in the village of Gremyachevo in the Peremyshl District of the Kaluga Province.
We, the former novices of the 1990s, grew up and matured long ago. All these years of the monastic life taught me something, of course, although we have to work at grasping this science until the end of our days. The spiritual life is very complicated.
I told all these stories recalling how my generation came to God. In the jubilee year of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’, the state finally turned to face the Church and began to return the monasteries that were seized in the years of persecution. Old monasteries were returned and new ones emerged, and young people received the monastic tonsure, made unavoidable mistakes, fell and got up again, fought and did not give up.
Now, thirty years later, all of my peers are now over fifty, and it is they who are the core of the current monasteries. Perhaps my stories are interesting as a portrait of one of those who entered the first monastic calling after many years of persecution against the Church.
The sisters of our monastery are gathering interesting and edifying stories and I hope to tell them to you in the near future. God bless you!