The future Bishop Joseph (Korolev) made the firm decision to become a monk before he was even twenty. Having gone to St. Paphnuty of Borovsk Monastery, he became the spiritual child and cell attendant of the well-known Schema-Archimandrite Vlasy (Peregontsev), who told him he wouldn’t die until he received an episcopal blessing from his spiritual child. And everything happened according to the Elder’s word. Bishop Joseph is now the abbot of Optina Monastery. During our conversation, he told the story of his monastic path.
How Binya the bull hindered my success in obedience
At the beginning of my monastic path, my success in obediences was seriously hindered by the monastery’s black and white bull named Binya. Binya was large, just gigantic: I would barely have been able to wrap my arms around his neck. I had just turned seventeen, and I was short and skinny with glasses. My vision was rapidly deteriorating, possibly because of my youthful zeal in immoderate reading of the Holy Fathers. I was a little embarrassed by my glasses.
One of my first monastery obediences was at the cowshed. One day, I went to graze the herd without my glasses; malicious Binya didn’t fail to take advantage of the situation and led two cows away to feast on the harvest of the local villagers. The monastery had to compensate for cabbage from four gardens, and they wanted to kick me out of the monastery altogether, but then they pitied me. I wrote a letter where I sincerely repented of my inattentiveness.
How I was rejected from Optina
To tell the truth, I faced other, more serious obstacles than the bull Binya at the beginning of my monastic path. For example, at first, I was rejected from Optina Monastery. I went there with my mother and younger sisters.
I firmly intended to become a monk. Like all novices who go to a monastery in their youth, I had a certain zeal, a thirst for prayer. By the grace of God, I easily remembered the morning and evening prayers and the Psalter. I lived by the services.
If it’s a little hard to go to the services at first—it becomes quite difficult over the years. Looking back at my youth, at myself, a young boy, I think how good it would be to carry such a fire, such zeal for ascetic labor throughout the decades! When the Lord calls a man, He gives him initial grace and zeal, He lights a fire of faith in him, and the work of a believer is to preserve this fire, to not let it extinguish, to not turn into a burned out charcoal.
The Apostle Paul called us to:
Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:19-22).
St. Theophan the Recluse instructed in this regard:
Grace calling to salvation awakens the sleeping sinner… From this moment on, a Christian begins to burn in spirit, that is, he has relentless zeal to fulfill everything his conscience points out to him as the will of God.
The Holy Hierarch sternly warned that the burning of the spirit is extinguished by “deviating the attention from God and the works of God, an immoderate preoccupation with everyday affairs, indulgence in sensual pleasures, and pleasing the flesh with lusts and addictions.”
And the consequences of the extinguishing of the spirit are terrible:
In extinguishing this spirit, the Christian life is extinguished. A man becomes again as he was, negligent and careless, and begins to live without really worrying about whether he does good or evil.
And it’s especially necessary to try to lay a good foundation, to be strict with yourself and attentive to your duties from the very first days of your monastic life.
St. John Climacus wrote:
A firm beginning will certainly be useful for us when we later grow slack. A soul that is strong at first but then relaxes is spurred on by the memory of its former zeal. And in this way new wings are often obtained.1
Then, my mother and I asked at Optina which brother we should talk to about being received at the monastery, and they pointed us to Fr. Tikhon, who’s now the head of the skete. In 1994, he was almost thirty years younger than now, and of course he wasn’t head of the skete yet, but was responsible for housing the pilgrims.
Fr. Tikhon looked at me, short and thin (I looked younger than my sixteen years), and seriously doubted that they could accept me into the monastery. He said:
“We don’t have anyone to look after a boy…”
Maybe the thing was that there had been a murder in the monastery just a year prior: Hieromonk Vasily and Monks Trophim and Therapont were killed. Maybe Fr. Tikhon just doubted that I’d be able to handle the monastic life or labor at obediences because of my young age—I can’t say for sure now; but he refused my mother and I and suggested that we go to the St. Paphnuty of Borovsk Monastery in honor of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, adding:
“Maybe they’ll take him there…”
If I got upset, it wasn’t much, because I firmly knew that I would become a monk all the same, and at which monastery wasn’t so important.
How my whole family came to God
My parents were simple laborers. We lived in the Altai Region, in the city of Biysk, and there was only one active church in the whole city in those years. My mama and papa always believed in God, and wore crosses, but they didn’t know about Church life. One time my mother accidentally, we could say, went to the church and bought a pair of spiritual books. And it was exactly what I needed at that time. The ways of the Lord are inscrutable… How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! (Rom. 11:33).
I was somewhat withdrawn by nature, more of a homebody. Perhaps the Lord was preserving me from the temptations and turbulent waves of youth. I loved to read. I didn’t think I possessed the gift of eloquence, and I wouldn’t be able to write an essay for the university entrance exams, so I went to study for a technical degree at the Altai Polytechnic College. And it was just then that my mother brought these spiritual books home. I read them the whole way through, and that was it. I was fifteen, and it grabbed me. The Lord, the reader of human nature, knows when to touch the heart of a man, and here He ever so lightly touched mine.
I went to the church on the other end of the city, and then I started going regularly. I was thirsty to read the Holy Fathers, St. Theophan the Recluse, The Philokalia… I started inviting my parents to church, and they listened and started going to the services. My younger sisters also started going to church. The oldest of them graduated from the seminary in Tobolsk; she studied to be a choir director and married a future priest, and is now raising six children. My middle sister has five children, and the youngest was born after I’d already gone to the monastery… They’re all active believers.
I took the Patristic books as a call to action. They wrote that we should read the morning and evening prayers—that means we have to pray. I saw a notice with a request for help in repairing a church, and after class I started taking the tram to the other end of the city to help with the repairs. To my surprise, I noticed that I was the only parishioner who came—the rest were workers. Well, anyways…
We beat on the walls, and I dragged off buckets of old plaster. I started going every day to help with the construction. Of the parishioners, only a few came besides me, but I didn’t pay it any particular mind—I was already inwardly set for a monastery, where I’d have to labor and endure physical hardships.
In 1993, I turned sixteen. Some classmates at the technical school said to me one day:
“We saw you in church!”
They laughed at me for going to church, but I didn’t react at all. They saw me—okay.
The fast had begun, and I announced to my parents that we would be fasting now. They were surprised at first, but then they agreed. My parents and I always had a trusting, sincere, and respectful relationship…
My mother then started working at the candle desk in the church, and later as the treasurer. About ten years after I went to the monastery, they moved from Biysk to Borovsk.
When a man comes to God, he wants to share it with others, and I tried to share. Then I got really sick with pneumonia twice, and it took a long time to recover, and I gave the doctors who treated me spiritual books.
I myself read all the Optina Elders (they weren’t canonized yet then), and I read the journal of the Venerable Confessor Nikon (Belyaev). I started keeping a journal myself.
In 1994, Archimandrite Germogen (Rositsky; 1939-2018), one of the most revered clerics in Biysk, the rector of our Holy Dormition Cathedral, gave me a note for the Optina Elder Iliy requesting to receive me into the monastery. And my mother took me and two of my sisters to Optina to leave me there. She already understood that there was nothing for me to do in the world.
But, as I already said, they didn’t accept me at Optina, and we went to the St. Paphnuty of Borovsk Monastery.
How my monastic life began
Everything was very simple at St. Paphnuty Monastery in those years. There were chickens walking down the road. They put my mother and sister in the pilgrim’s hotel, and me with the workers, then they took me to my future spiritual father, Fr. Vlasy (Peregontsev). Batiushka looked at me and blessed me to stay in the monastery.
My mother implored Batiushka:
“Look after him!”
Then she left, and I stayed. I liked everything in the monastery; it quickly began to feel like home. They put me to work in the store—I liked that too. When there were no customers, I would make prayer ropes and pray. I wanted to pray and labor ascetically. Batiushka Vlasy supported me in my zeal. I was also an altar server.
Fr. Vlasy would serve the early Liturgy, and I would go early with him, at five in the morning. He would serve the proskomedia, and I’d help him commemorate all the names. Batiushka served very penetratingly, and gathered a whole church full of people.
After the service, I’d go to the store. One day I asked our steward why we were selling secular books together with spiritual books—wouldn’t it be better just to sell spiritual books? That’s what I thought then. The steward was a harsh man (he later left the monastery), and he got angry and kicked me out of the store to go work at the cowshed, where I met Binya, whom I told you about at the beginning of my story.
I worked at the cowshed for a year and learned to milk cows. They had an oven there, and I learned how to bake bread too.
Then they accepted me into the brotherhood and gave me a cassock. It was a very serious and important day for me when I put on the cassock, monastic belt, and skufia. This was my first monastic clothing, and Fr. Vlasy told me to never take it off, to not change into secular clothes when going outside the monastery. This was 1997. I was so happy! It was quite simply happiness for me! I joined monasticism, I integrated myself into the monastic community, and started going to trapeza with the brethren.
Then Fr. Vlasy got sick with cancer, and he went for treatment, then to Mt. Athos, where he spent six years; and he was my spiritual father from the first days of my life in the monastery. I really loved him as a spiritual father and felt his spiritual love.
Obedience and grumbling
While I was still a novice, I shared a cell with another novice. We were both zealous and eager for asceticism, and we prayed together. Unfortunately, his excessive zeal gradually led him to condemning the brothers and the monastery authorities. He started grumbling more and more, noticing and denouncing the disorder and deficiencies that exist everywhere and always: In Thy sight shall no man living be justified (Ps. 142:2).
The Holy Fathers say that for a monk, murmuring is the greatest temptation. St. Ephraim the Syrian warned:
Woe to him who hasn’t acquired obedience, but who has given himself over to murmuring. For murmuring is a great sore for a monastery, a temptation for the community, the destruction of love, the dissolution of harmony, the destruction of peace.
When you start grumbling, grace leaves. And if grace leaves you, you can’t labor. And in the end, you leave the monastery. Unfortunately, that’s what happened with this novice. He left the monastery.
Monastic tonsure and new obediences
In 2001, they offered to tonsure me, and I refused at first: I wanted to wait for Batiushka Vlasy. But in 2002, I agreed, and I was tonsured as a riassaphore monk in honor of St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, a disciple of St. Paphnuty of Borovsk.
I was entrusted with the new obediences of accountant and treasurer, and I was in charge of the monastery administration. Batiushka Vlasy returned in 2003, and he took me as his cell attendant. He started receiving people as a spiritual father. Huge lines would form to see him, and I stood in the hallway at the reception. It was a school of patience, humility, and communication for me. The people were all different. Some were sick, some demanded or asked to be let in without waiting in line, some grumbled.
They later told me that I was calm, unflappable, and tried to calm everyone down and gave everyone a peaceful spirit. I don’t know how true that really was, but I really did try to console those who came to see Batiushka. Fr. Vlasy received people from four in the morning till nine in the evening without a break to eat. Priests, bishops, and famous people would come to see him. And I was also on duty from four in the morning till nine in the evening. Then I got new obediences, and some of Batiushka’s spiritual children, his assistants, replaced me on duty in the hallway.
Batiushka didn’t receive people on feast days. He served the Liturgy, and the night before—the polyeleos. Despite his age and sickness (his feet seriously swelled up, and every year he went through a round of chemotherapy), he was the first to get to church for the brothers’ moleben. The moleben would begin at 5:30, but Batiushka was already in church by 5:00, giving an example to the brethren.
The unique Church of the Holy Protection
The residents of Borovsk showed me a unique wooden church, built in the seventeenth century on the place where St. Paphnuty of Borovsk labored, where his parents were buried. No one served there, but it was such a wonderful, old, prayerful church: wooden walls—logs that had absorbed four centuries of history. There was a special spirit there! Such churches can only be found in Arkhangelsk, and I really wanted to pray in it.
I got a blessing from the abbot and started walking three miles every day through a field and river to get there and read an akathist to St. Paphnuty of Borovsk and to the Holy Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos.
A year later, the church was given to our monastery as a dependency, considering their historical connection. I was already a hierodeacon by then, and we started serving Liturgy there. The church needed restoration, and we started preparing for it.
In Soviet times, unsupervised burials were carried out on church grounds, so there was no way to walk or drive close or have a cross procession around the church. Batiushka Vlasy told me there has to be a road to the church and a space around it, and some graves would have to be moved.
It was scary for me to deal with this and have to move graves, but I started negotiating with the relatives, talking with them kindly, and when you speak kindly to people and you explain it to them, they understand and agree. In this way, we moved about twenty graves, and every time I tried to serve a panikhida (in March 2005, I was tonsured into the mantia with the name Joseph in honor of St. Joseph of Optina, and in April I was ordained a hieromonk, so now I could serve panikhidas). And at the new spot, we tried to put up a fence and a memorial to those whose graves we moved.
Before we started the restoration, I was appointed rector of the dependency. It was a new and difficult obedience for me. The Ministry of Culture and other benefactors took part in the work. It was decided to unroll the church one log at a time, make repairs, replace the rotten places with inserts, and put it back together. The terrace around the church was restored, a basement was added, and the church rose.
How we formed our parish
We started forming a parish. People would come from Moscow, Obninsk, Naro-Fominsk, Balabanovo, and other places. After the service, we would gather in the trapeza and eat and talk together. In our time, as the Apostle said: Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold (Mt. 24:12). People long for love, and if you give them such love, they’ll gather in a community around their pastor:
But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers (Jn. 10:2–5).
Perhaps an entire life isn’t enough time to try to attain to such an ideal of a shepherd, but the Lord has called us clerics to strive for this.
By the grace of God and the prayers of St. Paphnuty of Borovsk and my spiritual father, Batiushka Vlasy, we managed to form a friendly parish community, which grew with every passing year. I served alone, hearing confessions, communing, conversing. More than 200 people would come to the services—the church couldn’t even hold everyone who wanted to come. We had up to 330 Baptisms a year. Of course, this wasn’t my merit, but the holy prayers of St. Paphnuty and the Most Holy Theotokos.
Then my spiritual children built a Sunday School, and within a year, it became an Orthodox school. They also built a tea house on the banks of the Protva River, which became a beloved place for the locals to relax. It’s a beautiful place…
“I won’t die until you give me a hierarchical blessing!”
And life went on. I graduated from the Kaluga Seminary by correspondence, and then the Moscow Theological Academy. After graduating from the Academy, Metropolitan Kliment drew me into teaching in the seminary and working for the Patriarchate Publishing Council. I worked on the project, Chronicle of the Life of St. Theophan the Recluse (there were many unpublished documents in the archives). I also worked on reviewing books. I defended my dissertation, “History of the St. Paphnuty of Borovsk Monastery in the Fifteenth-Seventeenth Centuries.” I studied the history of the monastery, and it became even more dear to me.
My spiritual father, Batiushka Vlasy, repeatedly called me “Vladyka” half-jokingly, and I didn’t take it seriously. But later he seriously said, in front of other people, that I will be a hierarch, but I still took it as a joke then. Finally, I heard these unusual words from him:
“I won’t die until you give me a hierarchical blessing!”
He also told me:
“When I die, that’s when your sorrows will begin…”
And so, two years ago I was consecrated Bishop of Tarusa, vicar of the Kaluga Diocese. In January 2021, the abbot of our monastery, Hieromonk Paphnuty, departed to the Lord, and I was appointed the new abbot. I introduced Compline, and every evening after dinner, the brotherhood and I went to Compline with the rite of forgiveness—it really unites the brethren. There were many plans, but I didn’t manage to fulfill them all.
In September 2021, after a long absence, Batiushka Vlasy returned to the monastery. He got very ill again and was in the hospital for half a year, underwent chemotherapy again, and was further held in the hospital because of the coronavirus. He didn’t tell us he was coming. He took the bus and then walked from the bus stop on foot.
I ran into him at the monastery gates. He already knew that I was now a bishop and abbot of the monastery, and he took my blessing and asked:
“Well, Vladyka, will you bless me to go to my cell?”
I was embarrassed, but blessed my spiritual father.
Batiushka immediately started serving. We had plans to restore the monastery, but he got sick with the coronavirus; his condition deteriorated very quickly, and on November 4, he departed to the Lord at the age of eighty-seven. An entire epoch of the monastery came to a close. It was a serious blow for me. I wept; I blamed myself for not protecting Batiushka. I served his funeral myself.
Optina Monastery: one of the spiritual centers of Russia
And last December, I was appointed abbot of the Holy Entrance of the Theotokos Optina Monastery and vicar of His Holiness the Patriarch with the title Bishop of Mozhaisk. This was also very hard for me. I was ready for anything, if only they didn’t take me from St. Paphnuty of Borovsk Monastery, where every stone, every person was dear to me… One doesn't just live there—everything for me was tied to this monastery, which had become my home; to this Holy Protection Church which had become so dear to me, to these people who became my spiritual children. My whole life was connected with it. So I remember Batiushka’s words about sorrows.
What is the obedience of abbot of Optina to me? It’s clear that Optina is one of the spiritual centers of Russia, and I take the obedience placed upon me very seriously. I try to be attentive to the needs of the brethren, to be accessible, and to communicate kindly, with love.
I hope that, with God’s help, we will become worthy successors to the venerable Fathers who labored here.
O our venerable Fathers, the Optina Elders, pray to God for us!