Abbot Simeon (Kulagin) of the Sviyazhsk Holy Dormition Monastery talks about the providence of God in his life, about how he was drawn to monasticism, and about his spiritual experiences and meetings with his spiritual mentors.
How I went to Optina
In the spring of 2005, I decided to take a pilgrimage: I had the irresistible desire to stay in a monastery. Everything I used to be interested in seemed irrelevant to me now. I began to realize that I didn’t just want to go to church, but I wanted to live in the Church. It was such a sting from God, a call from God, that I couldn’t just shake it off and go on living as before.
I’d gone on pilgrimages before, but now my soul was simply torn. My spiritual father said:
“It’s Great Lent. Wait for Pascha, then go.”
So I waited for Pascha, and then I asked for leave from the head of the department and went. I went to several monasteries on the same trip, because I didn’t know where to go. First I visited Danilov Monastery in Moscow, then I spent a week at Borovsk Monastery, and then I went to Optina. I was only able to spend three days there, because I had to get back to work on time.
My friend and I got out at the intersection and walked to Optina through the woods. When the trees parted and the monastery appeared before us, I felt such tender emotion, delight, and warm joy that I hadn’t encountered in other monasteries before.
“Just stay, and rely on the will of God”
I spent three days at Optina, and the feeling that I had found my home grew stronger and stronger over the course of the days. In the end I realized that I wanted to stay here. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I spent the three days doing obedience in the fish shop. I went to the morning and evening services, and the rest of the time, I cleaned fish. (A few years later, when I had an obedience as cellarer, the fish shop was also under my command.)
I saw Elder Iliy several times during those three days, but he was surrounded by such a crowd that it was impossible to get through to him. And then, on the third day, at the end of work, I came out of the fish shop, across from which were the brothers’ quarters, where the Elder was living then. I saw Fr. Iliy all by himself, going to the lower guardhouse. My inner voice immediately said: “Hurry, hurry, make it in time!”
I rushed over to the Elder. He was then, and now, despite his advanced age, distinguished by the fact that he always listens very carefully and delves into the problems of everyone who asks his advice or help. He has a very loving heart. And, as usual, in his characteristic way, he said to me:
“Well? Go ahead, speak…”
“I want to stay here, but I have to return to work at the university. What should I do, Batiushka?”
“Batiushka, how long should I stay?”
“Just stay, and rely on the will of God.”
And all the tension left me immediately. Before that, I was worried, thinking: “Only two days before I have to leave; just one day before I have to leave…”
And out of trust in Elder Iliy, a man of high spiritual life, I stayed at Optina. And I’ve never regretted it for a second.
After that, the Elder became my spiritual father. I always confessed to him, and he received me in monastic tonsure. I was tonsured by the abbot, Archimandrite Benedict, who had entrusted me to the elder as my spiritual father. I was twenty-seven.
My novitiate in the monastery
For my first two years in the monastery, I had the obedience of a cattleman in the barn. I cleaned up the manure and cleaned the cows’ stalls. Then I became a shepherd, and that was my favorite obedience. We would go out to the fields, where I could read the holy fathers, the Old Testament, and all the books I hadn’t had time to read in the world.
I was a city boy, and before that I hadn’t seen any cows up close. I studied in a university, then taught in a university, and now—I was a cattleman. It was a challenge for me. It was difficult, unfamiliar, and dirty. And it wasn’t just me that this happened to in the monastery. The abbot brought up all the workers this way; he was a wise guide. The time spent as a worker is always very difficult…
Going to a monastery is a very serious change in life. Workers and novices need a good, correct novitiate that allows them to seriously test themselves and their dispensation, their desire for monasticism. The novitiate before the tonsure is a trial. If I hadn’t had a serious intention, I could have worked a little in the barn and turned around and went home, as often happened with many workers.
Later, I myself was in charge of the workers—there are usually about 150 of them at Optina. There are seasonal fluctuations. The first decline is after Pascha, the second after the Dormition Fast. The first is because people try to survive Great Lent, and then—that’s it, they can’t anymore, so they leave. The second is because summer’s over, so people also leave. The biggest arrival of laborers is usually during Great Lent, and the vast majority can’t withstand the novitiate. The same thing happens in every monastery. If someone just arrived and says: “I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life,” it means nothing. The majority don’t make it.
As I said, my novitiate was spent in the barn. Had I been a villager, perhaps such a trial would have been easy for me, but I was from the city.
If a worker passes the test, he sees that he is ready to labor in this monastery, and the brothers and abbot see that he fits them, that worker becomes a novice and is officially enlisted as a member of the brotherhood. After a year of obedience in the barn, they put me in a cassock and I officially became a novice of Optina Monastery. A year is pretty quick. Many workers remain in this capacity for several years.
I will die, but as a novice
I was very glad when they gave me a cassock. I was really inspired by it, and I went out to feed the cows in a cassock, as a real novice. We went out to the meadow with twenty-five cows and one bull.
My partner and I were feeding the flock when suddenly I beheld a strange scene: The bull began jumping across the field like a jerboa. Imagine: an adult black bull weighing a ton, such a huge body, easily jumping about. He had strong, powerful legs. I looked at this picture first with surprise, and then with horror.
The bull turned his gaze upon my cassock and suddenly charged straight at me. The open field was about half a mile wide. On one side was the Zhizdra River, on the other, a forest, but I wouldn’t make it there: A bull can run much faster and if he catches you, he’ll just lift you up with your horns, then throw you on the ground and trample you. And there I stood in the middle of the field, with an enraged bull rushing at me. And I had the thought: “How good it is that I managed to become a novice! That means I’ll die in obedience.”
I was lucky that I didn’t run (although I really wanted to). I was also lucky that I had been tending cows for a year and had learned how to use the whip. I managed to straighten it. To deliver a good blow, the whip has to be completely spread out to its full length (ten feet) behind you. If the whip is rolled up, you won’t be able to strike. It takes more than a week to learn to use the whip properly.
The bull was running at me and I hit him with the whip. Bulls can’t take a strike to the face, so he turned around, went around to my left, and attacked again. I hit him with the whip again. It was amazing, but I fought with the enraged animal for several minutes, and I didn’t miss a single time. Had I missed, I wouldn’t be telling you this story now. But I didn’t miss, and it didn’t even depend on my skills, because the tip of the whip could simply get tangled in the grass; it was nothing but the mercy of God. It was a matter of life and death.
I was starting to run out of breath chasing the bull away, when my partner ran up from the other end of the field and started helping me fend off the bull with his whip. Together, with great difficulty, we drove him into the barn. After that, we didn’t release the bulls into the field anymore. A few years before this, a bull killed a novice at the Pskov Caves Monastery. But by the grace of God, I survived.
The next day, when my partner saw me, he said:
“I didn’t think you’d come pasture the cows anymore…”
An elderly worker, Dmitry Egorovich, who had been working in the barn for a long time, didn’t really believe our story and decided that we, as city boys, simply didn’t know how to handle the animals. He himself wasn’t afraid of this bull, since he had raised him and fed him by hand as a calf, and the bull was also very fond of him. But still, the bull later caught Dmitry with his horns, and he died a few days later in the hospital. The bull was given to the meat processing plant, and all the other bulls have stayed in the pens since then.
The amazing grace of God
The mercy of God also manifested in my life in tragic circumstances, associated with my mother, Natalia Sergeyevna.
I should say that my mother came to God when I had that Divine visitation I spoke about above. I took Communion then and for three days was in such a state of grace that it apparently even affected those around me. After speaking with me, my mother was baptized the next day in the same Church of St. Nicholas where I had communed that time. She was a parishioner there ever since then, and they later buried her there. My sister also sang on the kliros there as a child.
After getting baptized, my mother went to church and confessed and communed every Sunday. Many people turned to her for advice in Church life and they later told me about it. My mother was a sober, reasonable person and could help newcomers.
My mother, Natalia Sergeyevna A year ago (when I had already been living in a monastery for fifteen years), my mother became seriously ill, and the hospital told me she was in critical condition. I was in the Sviyazhsk Monastery near Kazan and she was in Barnaul. There were no direct flights that day, but I didn’t want to wait so I flew to Novosibirsk through Moscow, and from there I took a taxi to Barnaul. It’s a rather difficult journey: two flights, three transfers, and a few hours by taxi.
I drove straight to the hospital and I was taken to the ward. I saw the doctor, and he told me my mother’s condition was hopeless. I called a priest I knew to consult with him about what could be done. He replied that he had already gone to see my mother in the hospital at my request and given her confession and Unction, and now he was ready to come and give her Communion.
I was ready to wait for him an hour or two. Barnaul is a big city, but to my surprise, not even ten minutes passed before he came into the room in an epitrachelion with the reserve Gifts. He said he was going past the hospital right when I called him and he just had to get off at the bus stop.
He communed my mother, we said our goodbyes, and literally half an hour later, she departed to the Lord, holding my hand. It was a difficult, tragic event for me, but it also showed God’s mercy for me. First, even with all those transfers, I still managed to arrive to see my mother less than two hours before she departed; second, a priest was able to come and commune her with the Holy Gifts in the last hour of her life. And I’m very grateful to the Lord for His mercy!
As I said, Elder Iliy blessed me for monasticism, received me in the tonsure, and became my confessor. I confessed to him every week. I was quickly put to work as an altar server, and they always have loads of work to do, but Elder Iliy would often put the brakes on me and say:
“Go to confession. Don’t forget what’s more important.”
The Elder’s advice and answers to my questions greatly helped me in the beginning of my monastic life. The first period for a newly-tonsured monk is always very difficult: now a cooling period, now zeal not according to knowledge. The period of formation after your tonsuring can be compared with the age of youth in a man’s life—after all, there are many temptations in youth.
For example, here is one of the Elder’s instructions: There are bad habits and there are good habits—whichever kind you teach yourself will determine your monastic life. For example, it’s hard to get up at half past four in the morning, but if you get used to it, then you’ll get up for years without noticing the difficulties.
Elder Iliy and the head of the skete, Igumen Tikhon (Borisov) As a true elder, Fr. Iliy also taught us with his ascetic example. I really loved watching him in the altar. The carelessness and lukewarmness that often characterizes us was completely absent in him. He devoted himself entirely to serving, prayer, and helping others.
I’m always struck by the attention and love with which the Elder always relates to people—he never speaks with anyone indifferently. I myself hear confessions and know how difficult it is to concentrate and pay attention to every person when a huge flood of pilgrims comes for confession, how you have to fight so your attention doesn’t dissipate, to treat people not formally, but with love, and to delve into everyone’s problems.
I’m also struck by the Elder’s phenomenal memory. He has a lot of people to care for, and I was one of many—an unremarkable young monk. But Fr. Iliy remembered all the circumstances, all the details, all the questions that concerned me. What is even more amazing: When my family (father, brother) would come visit me, I would take them to him, and he would then remember all the details of their lives, the problems they shared. Even many years later, the Elder remembered every detail and would ask me about them.
Considering the Elder’s age(he was about eighty then, now he’s around ninety)and that he kept all this in his memory—this is definitely possible only with the help of God. It’s a Divine gift. After all, he’s very ill, and has been for a long time. Fr. Iliy has many chronic sicknesses, but nevertheless, his ministry is very active and is an example for every priest and monk.
His cell attendants and assistants—those who are close to him—often admit that they fall from fatigue, that they don’t have enough strength to live like him and help him in his labors, even though they’re several decades younger than him. This, of course, testifies that Fr. Iliy is clearly strengthened by God’s grace.
The healing of the paralytic
Several cases of healing of sick people by the Elder’s prayers occurred right before my eyes. I’ll tell you about one of them. It was 2008, Great Lent, with very long Lenten services in Optina. They last almost until lunchtime, but most of the brothers depart to their obediences after the Midnight Office. I was already tonsured in 2008. I had the obedience of a reader, so I stayed in church, in the Entrance of the Mother of God Cathedral.
We’d been seeing a pilgrim with a disabled son, eight or nine years old, at the services for several days already. He couldn’t move without support. He seriously dragged his legs, and she would practically carry him into church. Apparently she came with faith and hope in prayerful help.
At some point, Fr. Iliy came out of the altar, went up to them, talked with them, and then laid his stole on the sick boy’s head and began to pray. He prayed for a long time, probably thirty minutes, and I saw how fervently he was praying.
I happened to see him fervently praying several times. He would also go to the side altar to be alone. He prayed very fervently, with hands raised, and he would be embarrassed if anyone saw him. I accidently “caught” him several times, and I would quietly leave so as not to disturb the Elder’s prayer.
And then Fr. Iliy prayed over the sick child, and it was clear that he was giving all his strength to prayer, that he was even weary and exhausted: So much spiritual and mental strength he sacrificed, imploring the Lord’s mercy for the boy. Then the Elder asked the altar server for holy water and sprinkled the child with it.
A little later that same day, I again saw the pilgrim with her son in the church and noted that the boy began to walk unsteadily, but on his own. Eight years passed, and I, already a hieromonk, had the obedience of hearing confessions. I went out to hear them one Saturday night. The church was full with many pilgrims. One of them came up to me to confess, and afterwards joyfully said:
“You know, Batiushka, a lot in my life is connected with Optina… I brought my sick son here eight years ago. Elder Iliy prayed over him, and he got better.”
I remembered this pilgrim. It’s amazing: There were only a few people in the church back then who could have seen the healing, and now it was me she came to. I had already forgotten about this miracle because of my feeble mind, and this was apparently the providence of God, so I would remember everything. That is, the Lord apparently did this for me, and probably for those who are now reading this…
I asked her:
“And where is your son now?”
“He’s right here behind me!”
And I saw standing behind her in line for confession a tall, burly guy.
I think that such gifts, like the healing of the sick or clairvoyance, don’t work automatically, like aspirin—take a pill and your temperature goes down, or line up everyone who is sick, and an elder goes down the line healing everyone. I think it’s not just the elder’s spiritual gifts that are important here, but also the will of God and the spiritual state of the person who has come to see him. A miracle can’t be predicted. The Lord is a Person, and only He Himself knows when a miracle will take place. If someone goes to an elder with faith, prayer, and repentance, then a miracle of healing will probably take place, and the miracle of clairvoyance…
May God help all readers of OrthoChristian.com in their good deeds!