St. Ambrose, Elder of Optina

The great saint of Optina Monastery, Elder Ambrose (Grenkov), commemorated on June 27/July 10 and October 10/23, talks about depression, illness, suffering, and family life in his letters to spiritual children.

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With the increase in the number of his spiritual children, Fr. Ambrose's correspondence with those seeking his spiritual guidance also increased. Not only monastics turned to him, but also lay people from every walk of life, station and even nationality and religion, with the most multiform questions concerning faith and Christian life. Fr. Ambrose considered it his duty to provide answers to the questions they directed to him, and these answers vividly reveal Fr. Ambrose's personality, his views on various questions of faith and life, and his relationship to people. In this light, we consider it necessary to acquaint the reader with the most important content of the Elder's correspondence.

Fr. Ambrose persuaded those who sought his advice that they must never, under any circumstances of life or unpleasantness be depressed, but they must always hope in God's Providence. "People of olden times decided," writes Fr. Ambrose, "that you will never live your life through without a lesson," and added that "if a pot clashes with a pot, how much more impossible is it for people to live together without clashing. This particularly occurs from differing views on things—one thinks one way about a matter, and another, another way. One is convinced in his own concept, which seems firm and well-founded, while the other believes in his own reasoning. In the first rule of arithmetic one plus one equals two; in the third rule, two times two equals four; if we come to fractions, then we have a number above and a number below, and between them a bar—thus it is in human affairs. If you divide people up, you end with displeasure above and below, with some kind of barrier in between. As I said and wrote to you earlier, so will I tell you now: if you trust in God's Providence and hope in God's omnipotent assistance, then you will not meet with such problems as you suppose. Furthermore, peace of soul will always be within your reach."

In another letter, Fr. Ambrose writes:

"I received two despairing little letters from you. You write to me: 'I have perished, for my horses have been stolen from my homestead.' Come to your senses—what are you saying? That your horses have been stolen is not some sort of mortal sin for which you must perish. Furthermore, you would not be able to take those horses with you to the other world. We take there only our deeds—good or evil. If we do not possess any virtues, then we will try at any rate to be delivered from our sins through repentance and endurance of the sorrows that God's Providence has sent us to cleanse our souls from sins, vices, and all impure dross. I know that you have many sorrows and much domestic unpleasantness. But tell yourself, enlighten yourself with the remembrance that in hell it is much worse, more wearying and doleful, and there is no hope of deliverance from it. If a person endures sorrows with submission to God's will, confessing his sins, then he will, through this, be delivered from eternal torments. Therefore we had better endure troubles here, no matter how difficult they are, turning our grief over to God and praying to Him with humility that He deliver us from faintheartedness and despair, which are the worst of all sins."

To a mother who grieved over her son's atheism and rebelliousness, Fr. Ambrose wrote: "You wrote that you were disturbed when the beggar to whom you gave alms, asking him to pray for your son, prayed for the repose of his soul. Do not be disturbed at this. Nothing could have happened or is happening to your son because of a beggar's mistake and misunderstanding. And there is nothing greater or better to wish for someone than that they be made worthy in their time of the heavenly kingdom. If in your sorrow over your son you have sometimes thought that it would be better that he were dead than living as he does, then you should reproach yourself for it and give yourself and your son over in complete faith to the will of the all-good and all-wise God. If the Lord extends one's days, then He is bestowing benefactions; if He should cut short one's days, then He bestows just the same. In general, according to the sayings of the holy Church, the Lord in the depths of His wisdom dost provide all things out of love for mankind, and grantest unto all that which is profitable.[1] Therefore, there is nothing better or more profitable for mankind than devotion to God's will, and the ways of God are unfathomable. You know that we ourselves are in many ways guilty in that we did not know how to raise our son as we should have. Self-reproach is profitable, but you must be aware of your guilt, humble yourself and repent, and not be distressed and in despair. Neither should you be over-troubled by the thought that you exclusively are the involuntary cause of your son's present condition. This is not altogether true—every person is endowed with free will and must answer for himself before God.

"You ask if you should not write to your son in Moscow, and how you should write to him in order to touch his heart. Write briefly to him at first just to find out where he is. When you find him, you can write him in more detail. Then you can tell him that now he has learned through his own experience what atheism and rebellion leads to; that, in craving unbridled freedom he forgot that from sin, especially in defiance of one's parents, came slavery itself, which had not existed before on earth, and so on. Having prayed to God, write as the Lord puts it in your heart to do.... In general you should not be concerned now so much with enlightening him as with praying for him, so that the Lord Himself, through ways known only to Him, would enlighten him. Great is the power of a mother's prayer. Remember how Blessed Augustine's pious mother's prayers drew her son out of such a depth of evil. And as you pray for your son pray also for yourself, that the Lord would forgive you for whatever sins you may have unknowingly committed."

To another mother who grieved over her daughter's illness, the Elder wrote: "I have heard that you are grieving beyond measure, seeing your sick daughter's suffering. Truly, it is humanly impossible for a mother not to grieve when she sees her little one in such pain and suffering day and night. In spite of that, you should remember that you are a Christian who believes in the future life and the future blessed reward not only for labors, but also for voluntary and involuntary suffering. Therefore, you must not become unreasonably faint­hearted and sorrowful beyond measure, like the pagans or unbelievers who believe in neither eternal blessedness nor eternal punishment. No matter how great are the involuntary sufferings of your little child S., they cannot after all be compared to the voluntary sufferings of the martyrs; and if they do compare, then she is equal to them and will receive a blessed state in the paradisal abodes. By the way, you must not forget also about our twisted times, in which even little children's souls are damaged by what they see and hear, and therefore require cleansing, which cannot occur without suffering. The cleansing of the soul happens most often through physical suffering. Let us suppose that there was no damage to the soul. Even so, you must know that paradisal blessedness is not given to anyone who has not first suffered. Do even the tiniest infants pass into the future life without sickness or suffering? By the way, I do not write this way because I wish that the suffering child S. would die, but I write particularly for your consolation, enlightenment, and true persuasion, not to grieve unreasonably and beyond measure. No matter how much you love your daughter, you must know that our all-good God, Who uses any means for our salvation, loves her more than you do. He Himself bears witness in the Holy Scripture as to His love for every believer, saying: Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee (Is. 49:15). Therefore try to calm your sorrowing over your sick daughter, turning this sorrow over to God: Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself (Eph. 1:9). I advise you to commune your daughter following a confession. Ask the confessor to question her wisely and carefully during the confession."

Fr. Ambrose gave the following advice to a couple about to be married and begin family life: "You must always remember that our lives will only pass peacefully and happily if we do not forget ourselves or God, our Creator and Redeemer, the Giver of everything good—temporal and eternal. Not forgetting Him means trying to live according to His divine and life-giving commandments; and when we break them because of our infirmity, to sincerely repent and to set about straightway to correct our mistakes and departures from those commandments."

"If spouses always shared equally in a Christian manner the burden of their lives," the Elder wrote in another letter, "then life would be good for people even on earth. But since spouses are often slack, one or both of them, our earthly happiness is not enduring."

The following incident reveals what love Fr. Ambrose had for his spiritual children. To one of his disciples who expressed the fear that he might abandon her, Fr. Ambrose wrote: "I wanted to put you at ease long ago, much-worrying N., concerning your fear that I might abandon you and stop writing to you. If due to my weak character I did not abandon you when I hardly knew you, but rather agreed to your request, for I did not wish to grieve you in your time of extreme spiritual need—could I abandon you now that I, because of my lack of any real sense, have neglected my own soul and left its salvation to its own fate, thinking to care for the profit of my neighbors' souls? I don't know—could there be anyone more foolish than I?!"

Why do people experience depression? "Depression, according to Mark the Ascetic, is a spiritual cross sent to us in order to cleanse our former sins. Depression comes also for other reasons: from offended self-love, because we are not getting our own way; also from vainglory, when one sees that his equals enjoy greater privileges; from stressful situations during which our faith in God's Providence and hope in His mercy and omnipotent help is put to test. We often lack faith and hope, and that is why we are tormented."

It is not personality but the direction of the will that is significant in God's judgment, Fr. Ambrose would say. "You know, personalities are only significant in human judgment, and that is why they are praised or scorned. But in God's judgment, personalities, like natural tendencies, are not approved or disapproved. The Lord looks at good intentions and struggle for the good, and values opposition to the passions...."

How should we confess? "We should confess how we sinned and what sin we committed—that is all. It is good to write a confession ahead of time, not according to the books,[2] and read it yourself to the confessor. It will be understandable and less burdensome for the confessor, as well as easy and consoling for the penitent."

When asked what children should be given to read, Fr. Ambrose wrote: "It is my opinion that a young mind should first of all be occupied with sacred history and readings of the Lives of saints of your choice, which will unnoticeably sow the seeds of the fear of God and Christian life. You especially need to make them understand, with God's help, how important it is to keep God's commandments and what disastrous consequences follow when we break them. All of this will lead them away from the example set by our first parents, who ate the forbidden fruit and were therefore exiled from Paradise. You can put Krylov's fables away until later, for now teaching your child some prayers by heart, like the Symbol of Faith and certain Psalms, for example: He that dwelleth in the help of the Most High (Ps. 90), The Lord is my light (Ps. 26), and the like. The main thing is that the child himself be occupied, according to his strength, and directed toward fear of God. Everything good and kind comes from this, while, to the contrary, idleness and not being instilled with the fear of God are often the cause of all evil and misfortune.

"When the fear of God is not instilled, children will not bring forth the desired fruits of good morals and a well-ordered life, no matter what you occupy them with. When the fear of God is instilled, all occupations are good and profitable."

In another letter, Fr. Ambrose wrote about the upbringing of children: "You write that you have noticed a dryness, insensitivity and other inadequacies in your son. But there are not many children who have real and true feelings; they usually come forth at a riper age, when a person begins to understand and to experience life. Besides, an abundance of inner feelings inadvertently becomes a reason for secret self-exaltation and judging others; while a dearth of feelings and dryness involuntarily humbles one when one begins to understand this. Therefore, do not be overly concerned that you notice this inadequacy in your son; in time, inescapable trials in life will inevitably awaken necessary feelings in him. But just try as much as you can to impart to him a healthy understanding that is in accordance with the teachings of the Orthodox Church.

"You write that up till now you have studied with him yourself and have gone over the sacred history of the Old Testament; and you ask, how and what should you teach, and whom should you choose to teach him? Having gone through the Old Testament with him, you yourself should finish this with him, that is, you should proceed to the New Testament. Then you should begin the catechism. You are afraid that the dryness of the catechism will not make him any warmer. The catechism does not make anyone warmer—it is sufficient that children should have a correct understanding of the dogmas and other subjects of the Orthodox Church. If you wish that the Orthodox teaching would also influence your son's heart, then read the Orthodox Confession and the School of Piety with him. Then let the teacher of religion instruct him in the catechism as is acceptable in learning institutions….

You should put more care into finding him a confessor. So as not to upset your own confessor, you should explain to him beforehand that you are seeking what is necessary and profitable for your son. Ask him in addition for permission to arrange this, for in your understanding a holy atmosphere is needed for a child during confession, although for one who has an understanding of confession this does not have any special significance. Before confession you yourself must work with your son to prepare him for this Mystery as well as you are able. Have him read the commandments before confession and explain them to him. Concerning the correction of his shortcomings in general, you can talk to him in a half-joking tone: 'You are a young prince after all, don't muddy your face with a fall.' You write that you are deeply convinced that there is no other source of goodness on earth nor of blessedness in Heaven than the Church of Christ, and that anything outside of this is worthless; and you wish to transmit this conviction to your children, so that it would become, as it were, the treasure of their life. But it seems to you that you are not endowed with a teaching vocation, and cannot speak with the strength of conviction required for this great subject. As a loving mother, you yourself must witness to these subjects to your children as best you can. No one can take your place in this, because to another you would first have to explain your own understanding and desires. Besides, no one else can know your children's souls, emotional structures and needs. Furthermore, a mother's words will have a greater effect on them than those of an outsider. An outsider's words affect the mind, while a mother's words affect the heart. If it seems to you that your son knows a great deal, understands a great deal, but feels little, then I repeat: do not be distressed over this. But pray to God about it, that He would arrange what is profitable for him as He knows best. You write that he has an excellent memory—use this as well. Besides your instructions, tell him soul-profiting stories, asking him at times to repeat them to you as he heard and understood them. Everything he hears from you will be preserved in his memory and mind, and then, with God's help, when he experiences life these things will pass from mind to feeling."

The Elder wrote about this same subject to one of his spiritual daughters: "The experience of the ages shows that the sign of the cross has great power over all a person's actions during the entire course of his life. Therefore it is necessary to strive to root in children the habit of protecting themselves with the sign of the cross often, especially when receiving food and drink, going to bed and waking up, before departing some­where in a vehicle, before leaving and entering any place; and they should not make the sign carelessly or according to fashion, but precisely, beginning with the forehead to the solar plexus, then to both shoulders, so that a proper cross is produced.... The sign of the cross has saved many from great dangers and afflictions.

"You write—'I would like that my husband and I could escape the destructive disagreement in matters of upbringing that I seem to observe in almost all marriages.' Yes, this is truly a subtle thing! But it is not good to argue about this in front of the children, as you yourself noticed. Therefore, in cases of dispute, either turn away from it and leave, or pretend not to have heard it—but never argue about your differing views in front of the children. Counsel and discussion about this should be in private and as dispassionate as possible, so that it will be more real. Incidentally, if you succeed in implanting the fear of God into your children's hearts, then various human foibles cannot have such a corrupting effect on them."

The Elder wrote to one of his daughters the following about the impermissibility of divorce: "You write that your mother tries in any way she can to get you to persuade your sister-in-law to divorce her husband, but you are not in sympathy with this.

You are right not to support them in this. Divorce is hateful to God. If it is allowed, it is only because of human weakness. Defend your sister-in-law as much as you can. You should not allow your mother to do this, even though this might cause you to bear unpleasantness from her. You should not only save yourself but your mother from sin.... Calling for peace and God's blessing upon you, your husband, your sorrowing sister-in-law and her children, I remain, with sincere best wishes, the much-sinful Hieromonk Ambrose."

From Elder Ambrose of Optina, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1997.

[1]From the Pannikhida, or Requiem service.Ed.

[2]That is, not just according to the published guidelines on confession.Ed.

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