At that time, the Elder, pressed by the people, was removing his phelonion, cuffs, and stole. He saw me in the crowd, waved to me, beckoned to me, and silently handed me the vestments. In a split second, he was caught by the crowd and he left. I remained standing, having received a comprehensive answer to my unasked question.
Archpriest Viktor Tseshkovsky, the rector of the Church of the Holy Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos in Los Angeles, shares his thoughts on the “first and second courses and dessert” for the human soul, and on the medicines for despondency and burnout.
Faraway Athos, I will never see you: your mysterious mountains and austere monasteries, secluded kellias and kalyvias, rocky trails to Karoulia and the peaks of Katounakia; I will never descend to the blue waves of the Aegean Sea, will never awaken to the sound of the wooden tuaka in the pilgrim’s quarters—arxontariki. The monastic republic of Athos is inaccessible for women. But I can listen to stories about Athos from my first spiritual guide—Igumen Savvaty.
Igumena Nikolaya (Ilina) is the abbess of the St. Nicholas-Chernoostrovsky Monastery in Maloyaroslavets. A native Muscovite, a scientist with two higher education degrees… How and why did she “trade” pure intellectual tasks for hard physical work, nearly always dirty, in restoring a ruined monastery, and what joy did she find in it?
We’ve already been home for a long time, but our climb to the summit of Mt. Athos has remained with us—in our souls, our hearts, transfigured by the grace of God there, in the tiny Athonite Church of the Transfiguration. Eugene Valentinovich keeps the clothes he climbed to the top in as something sacred. And Fr. Simeon and I keep this journey in our hearts, and share it with you, the readers of this story, with love.
On August 24, we honor the memory of the great elder Archpriest Nikolai Guryanov (1909-2002). For more than forty years the elder served in the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker on the island of Talabsk (Zalit) in the Pskov Diocese. Being himself a great elder, Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) said of Archpriest Nikolai that he was “the only true clairvoyant elder on the territory of the former USSR.”
The abbess of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God Convent in Volsk, in the Saratov Diocese, Abbess Makaria (Semenova), speaks about how and why she came to monasticism, about the lessons of the monastic life, and about the restoration of the Volsk Monastery.
Once we were serving the All-Night Vigil at the monastery. The sisters of the monastery were praying quietly. Suddenly a tall, elderly man with the deportment of a former soldier literally burst into the church. He confidently went up to the kliros and thunderously asked: “Where is your icon of St. Nadezhda?!...”
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.
From ancient times until 1868 the Convent of the Kazan icon of the Holy Theotokos in the city of Kaluga [around 100 miles southwest of Moscow] was the only convent in the diocese of Kaluga. Closed after the Bolshevik Revolution, its revival began in 1991. Its sisters have experienced very much over these years and are willing to share some of their stories—sad, funny, and edifying ones.
From this article you will learn what it is like growing up in a family with thirteen children who are “people of the old school”—what kind of protection all of us have, how to overcome fear and find a spiritual father, what is the power of a parent’s blessing, the mystery of Divine providence, and many other interesting and miraculous stories.
Abbess Vitalia (Kochetova) has shared wonderful stories with me which can be compared with those from the Lives of Monastic Fathers of old times. I believe all the readers remember from the Lives of the Fathers how one monk was ordered to plant a dry stick in the sand and water it as obedience, which he did until it blossomed.
The horrifying whirlwind of change blew her family from Harbin, China, to Tianjin, then Hong Kong, then further: to Brazil and finally California. In several nations, three continents, and everywhere was the bitter bread of exile, foreign languages and traditions, alien religions.
Visiting the convents that were founded by Geronda Ephraim, a spiritual child of the great Elder Joseph the Hesychast from Mt. Athos, is a unique opportunity for women to feel both the spirit of this holy mountain and the holy elder’s prayers through the prayers of his spiritual children.
When I went to the monastery, I thought I was ready for monastic life: sewing, knitting, cooking… Only years later did I realize that I don’t know how to do anything and I don’t know anything. Socrates said: “I know that I know nothing.” Me too…
The deputy abbot of the Zverinets Monastery of the Holy Archangel Michael in Kiev Archimandrite Leonty (Zolotarev) speaks about the role of Divine Providence in choosing one’s life’s path, and recalls his meetings with grace-filled ascetics and the wonderful miracles of God performed through the intercessions of the venerable fathers of Zverinets Monastery.
Kiev boasts a wealth of wonderful ancient monasteries, yet the most mysterious of them is the Zverinets Monastery of the Archangel Michael of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (the UOC-MP), located in the capital’s Pechersky district, to the south of the Kiev Caves Lavra.
Bishop Athanasius firmly hoped in God’s Providence. Imprisoned for many years, he wrote to his spiritual children, “My situation is not disastrous. I look at everything calmly, knowing that our service does not depend upon earthly rulers, but upon the One Who holds even the fate of rulers in His hands.”
After the Liturgy the people took their time as they ambled out of the church. The sun was shining and warm, the autumn leaves were golden, and the air was especially clear—everything on that day in October was festive, as if nature itself was rejoicing on the day of St. Sergius of Radonezh.
Abbess Methodia of the Convent of the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord John near the Greek city of Naousa, under the spiritual direction of Elder Ephraim, spoke to us about the monastery and about her path there by the prayers of the holy people God had blessed her to meet.
Fr. Michael met us in his monastery in the center of Tbilisi, in the Old City, on the banks of the Kura River. He spoke about a lot: how he came to God, and how he labored on Mt. Athos, of his meetings with the patriarch, with St. Gabriel (Urgebadze), and other interesting and edifying stories.
On June 4 we honor the repose day of blessed Gerondissa Macrina, abbess of the Panagia Hodigitria Monastery near Volos, Greece, and spiritual daughter of Elder Joseph the Hesychast and Elder Ephraim of Philotheos (and Arizona) (Moraitissa). Eldress Macrina acquired numerous spiritual gifts and was worthy of very lofty spiritual states.
What difficulties do we have in the monastery? For me the most difficult is when you speak to people, pilgrims, about salvation, and they don’t listen or don’t believe—they don’t want to be saved. And then I pray that the Lord would open their souls.
Matushka was an ascetic of prayer. Natalia was once witness to her prayer. They were talking about something that happened, and Mother Maria, turning away, prayed for someone who had fallen into trouble. Natalia recalls that she was struck by this short prayer: Matushka addressed the Mother of God as if she were standing right there. She prayed for all her spiritual children and could feel in her spirit when something was wrong with them, and her spiritual children could feel the eldress’ prayer. Everything worked out through her prayer, and all fell into place. Matushka’s prayers helped in difficult circumstances.
"I was standing in these amazing night services and thinking that women can’t go to Mt. Athos, so visiting the Monastery of St. Anthony the Great and the others founded by Elder Ephraim is a unique opportunity for women to feel the spirit of Athos. You’re touched by the prayers of the holy Athonite elder Joseph the Hesychast, through the prayers of his spiritual children who have themselves become great elders. This prayer and love can be felt anywhere on earth, even at a distance of a thousand miles. You pray in your mother tongue, and in some miraculous manner, by the grace of the Holy Spirit Who gave the apostles the gift of speaking in other tongues, the elder, having acquired this grace, understands you."
Last year Olga Rozhneva was blessed by the providence of God to visit the well-known Monastery of St. Anthony the Great in the Arizona desert, founded by Elder Ephraim (Moraitis), a disciple of the venerable Elder Joseph the Hesychast. Amongst the brethren of the monastery is the Russian Hierodeacon Seraphim, who spoke with us about his path to God, how he found himself in a monastery in the middle of the American desert, and the instructions of Elder Ephraim.
Gerontissa Macrina was the abbess of the Monastery of Panagia Hodigitria near the city of Volos, a spiritual child of Elder Joseph the Hesychast († 1959) and Elder Ephraim of Philotheou and Arizona. Gerontissa led monasteries founded with the blessing of Elder Joseph the Hesychast for more than thirty years, from 1963 to 1995. She acquired numerous spiritual gifts and was blessed with high spiritual states.
November 9/22 we remember St. Nektarios of Aegina, a modern ascetic and wonderworker. His life is amazing: the Lord manifested in a visible and tangible way His care for those who please Him. The saint acquired the gifts of the Holy Spirit: unceasing prayer and spiritual discernment, healing, clairvoyance, and prophecy. When he served the Divine Liturgy, in a prayerful state, his face radiated light which was visible to others.
We hope that the example of this Orthodox Christian, having combined within herself the virtues of motherhood and monasticism, would inspire our God-loving readers, both laity and nuns, to try to imitate her measure of strength in podvigs and prayerful labor. We also hope that readers of this article will come to love Mother Theophano, and begin to turn to her for prayerful help and beseech her intercession and teaching, undoubtingly believing that she has found boldness before the Lord God, Whom she so loved and Whom she sincerely served with her whole heart until her final breath.
The blessed gerontissa Taxiarchia acquired the gifts of ceaseless prayer, of healing the human body and soul, clairvoyance, fervent faith, and the love of Christ. Gerontissa labored in monastic podvigs for many long years. There are known cases of when her prayers healed cancer patients. After Gerontissa Taxiarchia’s blessed repose the Lord attested to her podvig by the appearance of fragrant myrrh on her face. We present here a collection of memories of Gerontissa, from those who knew her well.
The first monastery built by Elder Ephraim in America was the women’s monastery of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in Saxonburg, PA. Elder Ephraim founded it in 1989. Pilgrims meet here a peaceful corner of nature, where you can forget for a time your worldly cares and anxieties and you can immerse yourself in a world of silence and prayer. The sisters of the monastery labor purely for the prayer of the heart and mind. Here and there you here: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The Byzantine singing in church during the services leaves pilgrims in awe.
"In this difficult period Elder Ephraim had so much grace that he exuded a sweet fragrance. Everything the elder touched began to sweetly smell. When he confessed children, covering their heads with his epitrachelion, their hair had this fragrance for a few days. If he touched napkins they began to emit this fragrance. His clothes and skufias emitted the fragrance. The stronger were the temptations, the stronger this fragrance was felt."
My interviewee has had an extremely interesting and unusual life for an American woman. Charming, intelligent, she looks some 15 years younger than she really is. And behind her there is a long life full of the hard labors of a noble, self-sacrificing person who seeks to see Divine providence in every turn of her life. Here she is: secretary of Bishop Basil (Vasily) Rodzianko, assistant to Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen), an expert in the Russian literature and arts, honorable parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey.
So I stood there awkwardly, no young people near, I couldn’t understand the services, in fact I didn’t even speak very good Russian at the time… But then during the services something in my soul changed. It was just one incident, but it turned everything upside down in me.
“Everything is gained by prayer. You are only approaching the first step, you haven’t yet ascended it, only approach it and you still have to enter the door, but you can’t go in by any effort if God’s mercy is not there. That is why you first of all need to ask, “Open unto me the doors of Thy compassion, O Lord!”
The priest’s whole life turned around after meeting the elder. Fr. Savvatty came up to him and felt that he had no words, nothing to ask. He wanted just to stand next to him and feel the love radiating from this man. It was like a heavenly force coming from his soul. Fr. John poured out this heavenly love over everyone around him, and at first he couldn’t understand: How could Fr. John love everyone?
The interrogation of the aging nun lasted 16 days and nights. During the course of this time they did not allow her to sleep—or even to sit. When she fell from exhaustion, they brought her back to consciousness by pouring ice water all over her. In spite of the torture,
The spiritual life does not mean just living in the clouds; it consists of the discovery of the laws of spiritual life, as far as they are applied to a given person in his situation and in his circumstances. And the Optina Elders revealed these spiritual laws to laypeople, helped them to understand and give meaning to life’s circumstances, and instructed them on the way to salvation.
St. Hilarion was a skilled spiritual physician. He taught people who were suffering to go over their whole previous life from the age of seven, to recall forgotten unrepented sins, in which were often hidden the reason for a spiritual illness.
St. Anthony of Optina replied to a question about the choice of the monastic life, that one can be saved both in a monastery and in the world. And he reminded us that the enemy may give zeal for virtues that are beyond our strength, while, on the other hand, he may instill neglect and carelessness towards deeds that are within our power.
“Many who have laid down their lives on the field of battle, will doubtless receive remission of sins, and many will be crowned with imperishable crowns of heavenly glory, while their close ones who are left behind — and all in general who are suffering over this inside and enduring a lack of many things — involuntarily will leave luxury and will be strengthened in the faith.”
“When these three fields are cleansed, then other passions stemming from them are also imperceptibly cut off with them—that is, anger and remembrance of wrongs, earthly sorrow, envy, hatred, coolness and laziness regarding prayer and works of piety.”
In the world, pride and self-esteem are sometimes raised almost to the status of virtues or signs of the nobility of one’s nature. This view is erroneous and happens, according to the words of St. Macarius, “out of ignorance or from darkening by the passions.”
August 12 is the commemoration day of Venerable Anatoly (Potapov), one of the last of the Optina elders. In contrast to the preceding Optina saints, there was no one left to compose the life of this elder after the Revolution. There remained only fragmented memories of pilgrims, notes of spiritual children, and letters of the elder, in which biographical details were often lacking, but in which his image rises up brightly and vividly. We honor the memory of the elder and reminisce with these recollections.
God’s providence leads us through life; and how good it is for those who can hear it in time, who try to understand God’s will for themselves. If we make plans for one thing or another but find numerous obstacles on our path to attaining it, we have to slow down and try to discern—is this plan God’s will for us? Sometimes the Lord protects us from danger, holds us back from our impulsive race through life, but we don’t understand it, we keep fussing, insisting upon our own will, instead of simply stepping back, waiting a bit, trying some other way...
It’s cold. Thorny flakes of snow strike his face amidst the swirling snowstorm. Where is the earth, where the sky? Nothing but whiteness and indifference, nothing but loneliness and anguish, just like the life of Slavka, otherwise known as “the Czech”. He has nowhere to go; no one is waiting for him, anywhere. Why is he living? Why was he born? He tries to forget, raising his head to the empty sky to forget all that is bitter and wearying, to spill out his pain.
“Well, that is that,” she thought. “It did not work… It was stupid of me to even hope… The Elder has more than enough things to do without having a conversation with every old woman who wants to talk to him!” The very next day, the phone rang, and, interrupting her daily tasks, she picked up the receiver. She picked it up, and almost dropped it again, for it was batiushkahimself who was calling! And he invited her to come see him at the metochion.
While they were still in the secular world, and before they entered the monastery, those who were to become the Optina Elders had work experience in various areas: one managed an estate, another was a merchant, others were tailors, soldiers, or teachers. Even in our day, lessons can be drawn from the Elders’ work experience.
Can and should a church-going Orthodox person be a successful member of society? Can one take the path toward God and at the same time ascend the steps of a career ladder? Should one seek positions of authority or refuse them? St. John Climacus (“of the Ladder”) wrote his famous “Ladder” on the subject of spiritual growth. His book does not contain advice about how to make a career for yourself. It would seem that the Holy Fathers gave little thought to the idea of making a success of yourself in society.