They say that Dostoevsky took his character, Elder Zosima, from Fr. Ambrose. But even if that be true, it must be said that the image by no means does justice to its prototype, and Dostoevsky did not completely present Elder Ambrose's fullness and greatness of spirit; he adequately portrayed neither his determined love for people, nor especially his vibrant love of God.
Only an accurate picture of his life can give us a real image of the Elder, and that only to the extent that those who knew him preserved memories of him. We will try to portray this image, as much as we are able, based on fragmented sketches by witnesses of the Elder's inner spiritual countenance.
The overwhelming feature of his relationship to his neighbor was a deep, compassionate love.
"To love his neighbor so that he wished him every happiness that God may bless, and to try to bring him that happiness—that was his life and breath," said one man who knew him personally "And there was such power in this flood of love that poured onto all who came to Fr. Ambrose that it could be felt without any words or actions. It was sufficient only to approach Fr. Ambrose in order to feel the strength of his love; and in response to this love one's heart opened up, and a complete true and utter kinship was born.
"In a world of general coldness and indifference, people are often completely averse to seeing others or even to being aware of their own existence, and many find it hard to live. They need a man to whom they can bring everything that troubles their souls, to whom they can disclose all their thoughts, hopes, and every secret, without holding back in the least, so that their lot might be easier and happier. In order to maintain that trust, there must not be the least surprise perceptible in the sensitive answer to the sufferer's questions. This sympathy, one of the hardest things to find in life, must shine in every sound, every movement. One craves a compassionate look, an affectionate word; and the awareness that someone loves him and believes in him. One needs that which is the rarest and greatest treasure in the world—an attentive heart. Such a heart beat in the breast of Fr. Ambrose.
"The love that animated Fr. Ambrose was of the kind that Christ commanded his disciples to have. It differs greatly from the feeling that the world knows as love. It is no less poetic, but it is broader, purer and knows no bounds. Its main difference is that it gives everything and asks nothing in return."
"The love that Fr. Ambrose had flowed inextricably with his faith. He firmly and unwaveringly believed in man and in his divine soul. He knew that even in the greatest perversion of a man there lies a spark of divine good, and Fr. Ambrose honored that spark. No matter how sullied was the man with whom the Elder spoke, his skillful counsels made the sinner aware that the holy Elder looked at him as an equal, and therefore he had not utterly perished and could be reborn. He gave even the most fallen people hope, encouragement and faith that they could walk on the right path."
To sum up Fr. Ambrose's great effectiveness with people, it could be said simply that he had compassion for them.
Just the same, this all-encompassing Christian love that Fr. Ambrose possessed, his sympathy and compassion for people, though rooted in his spiritual nature, was strengthened and enlarged in him under the influence of his ascetic life. Christian love, as a gift of God's grace, is unceasingly and deeply linked with Christian faith and heartfelt prayer; but faith and prayer can perhaps only be obtained by true humility, which is fostered in a man by unceasing inner struggle, self-abasement, sorrows and all manner of trials. All the saints walked this long path, which is clearly indicated to us by the Church and her great ascetical fathers. Fr. Ambrose also travelled this path under the guidance of his spiritual instructors before he reached full spiritual maturity. He passed through the spiritual dangers and temptations spoken of by Fr. Macarius in one of his letters: "Respected A. came to the Monastery with an entirely good disposition and the desire to “seek Jesus,” that is, to acquire His love. This is very good and noble, but it needs to have a firm foundation; for love is tested by adversity.
"Because of her fervency and purity of soul, she will soon experience consoling and pleasing feelings. This will give her hope in acquiring Jesus and His love. But these feelings are very dangerous and close to prelest, for without her having first warred with the passions, without coming to know her weaknesses and humbling herself, they are not reliable or consoling feelings. Let them come when they do, but she must not accept them or be deceived by them, but rather consider herself unworthy. St. Isaac the Syrian writes in his second homily: “The activity of taking up the cross is twofold, in conformity with the duality of our nature, which is divided into two parts. The first is patient endurance of the tribulations of the flesh, which is accomplished by the activity of the soul's incensive part and this is called righteous activity. The second is to be found in the subtle workings of the intellect, in steady divine rumination, in unfailing constancy of prayer, and in other such practices.
Every man who, before training completely in the first part, proceeds to that second activity, though it be not out of sloth but out of passionate longing for its sweetness, will have God's wrath come upon him, because he did not first mortify his members which are upon the earth; that is, he did not heal the infirmity of his thoughts by patient endurance of the labor which belongs to the shame of the cross. For he dared to imagine in his mind the cross's glory,” (that is, consolations), which are given only after the soul is cleansed from the passions, and humility is settled in the heart; then it will not be dangerous. Therefore we propose that you take care to caution her should she begin to have feelings of delight, that she should not rely on them and not consider them to be anything great; they will soon leave her. If on the other hand she is deceived by them and accepts them out of time, she will soon be deprived; and when it is time she will not receive them, like a careless and foolish husbandman who, when he sees a blossom growing plucks it as though it were fruit—he will never have any fruit. Many have suffered along this path and have gone astray. Instead of humility they had a high opinion of themselves, seeking exultation. In the words of the same St. Isaac: “The prayer of one who does not consider himself sinful is not well-pleasing to God.” Remind her that divine love is tested by adversity: various passions will rise up and she must struggle with them, and for him who possesses humble wisdom even the struggle can be uplifting. But against him who has a high opinion of himself and relies on his consoling feelings, a greater warfare is allowed, so that he would be humbled by an awareness of his weakness.
Defeat is unbearable to such people and makes them fainthearted—and that is a sign of their pride. One must beware of prelest, which is multiform. Either by deceiving her with false sanctity it will blind the eyes of her soul, or, if after a burst of joyful and consoling movements she is deprived of them, she will fall into various kinds of passions. But if you work with her gradually and steadily lead her, working meticulously, then something good can come of her in time. Tell her to read the more active patristic teachings: Abba Dorotheos, St. John of the Ladder, and St. Symeon the New Theologian; and have her reveal all of her words, deeds, thoughts and actions to you. For what is revealed is light, and what is not revealed is darkness."
Having passed along this sorrowful way of the cross under the guidance of experienced elders, Fr. Ambrose acquired true humility, true faith, prayer, purity of heart and love, that is, the totality of those gospel perfections, thanks to which he became a good pastor, instructor, guide, helper and consoler to all who wandered in the darkness of the passions, still tempest-tossed by sinful temptations and lusts.
In the 1860's, Fr. Ambrose had a remarkable dream that revealed to him the inevitability of this sorrowful way of salvation. "It seemed to me," the Elder related later to his spiritual children, Fr. Clement and Fr. Anatole, "that I was in my cell. Suddenly a man came to me who appeared to be in authority and ordered me to follow him. I came out of my cell. I saw there a dark, stormy night. It was as if a sea or large lake swirled before me. By the shore was a boat with oars, but it was impossible to see the oars clearly in the darkness. At the behest of my guide I sat in the boat, and it rocked away from the shore. The angry waves began to toss the boat to-and-fro like a feather. I was in great terror of my life. But there in the distance, in the yawning abyss, out of the impenetrable darkness an extraordinary light appeared to me; and I saw a kind of city of such wondrous beauty as I had never seen in all my life. All my attention was riveted on it. The sea, the waves, the storm—all this was forgotten, and I was in a sort of sweet rapture until the boat rocked up to the shore. The thud of its side against the ground recalled me from my reverie. Stepping out after my guide onto the shore, I went into a house at his behest, where there were two men whom I knew. One, after having received a blessing from me, called himself Vsevolod, a Czech prince, while the other seemed to me to be the Russian prince Boris Vladimirovich [St. Boris]; then I quickly woke up."
In this dream of the Elder's there is a deep and consoling meaning for every ascetic who conducts inner warfare. The ascetic should always remember that trials are followed by reward. Without trials there in fact cannot be a reward.
From Elder Ambrose of Optina, by Fr. Sergius Chetverikov (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1997).