Counsels to a Christian on Unceasing Watchfulness over Oneself

On June 27/July 10, the Church celebrates the uncovering of the relics of St. Ambrose of Optina. We offer to our readers a letter from the forthcoming book by Pokrov Publications, St. Ambrose of Optina. Letters to Laymen.

Your Illustrious Excellency!

I was reading what you dictated, and also heard a verbal explanation from Fr. K. regarding your present situation in an ailing condition. And you would like to know my feeble-minded opinion on everything that you expressed. I reflected not a little on your situation, and I find that now, especially in your ailing condition, you should not despise the fact that—whether it be words that you heard, or a dream of this sort—it had a good influence on you and produced a good impression. The Lord God has many means to the end of turning the thought and care of a person to the one thing needful, in time, and primarily to what was spoken by the Lord in the Gospel: “be ready at all times, for ye know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man will come.” If, according to the word of St. John of the Ladder, the thought of death brings a Christian great benefit, then how much more can preparation for death profit the soul of a person who awaits his departure out of this life with faith and hope! It seems to you that being solicitous about preparing for death makes you less capable of everything good and necessary. But this is wrong. It seems this way to you because you are not completely sure of your future fate. But who can be completely sure of this, when even the perfect ones and God-pleasers, for instance Arsenius the Great and Agathon the Great, awaited the approaching hour of death not without fear? The monk-martyr Peter Damascene says that “the salvation of a Christian is found between fear and hope, and therefore under no circumstances must one either be bold or despair.” You complain of old habits and your imagined laziness. But what sick person does not feel both mental and spiritual weakening? Recently, in “Soul-Profiting Reading,” there was printed a conversation of St. Anastasius of Sinai on Psalm 6 (March issue). I find that this conversation is very fitting to your present situation. Read it with attention yourself, or have someone read it to you—and read it through more than once. In it you will find much that can set you at ease, and strengthen you, and make understood to you on what primarily you should focus your attention regarding that well-known preparation. The outward preparation, however, as I think, should start from two main subjects: to write your spiritual testament, and to receive the mystery of Unction, after having made confession and received Holy Communion beforehand. As to which of these two you ought to pursue first, it doesn’t matter—as circumstances direct.

In the spiritual testament, regarding your possessions, look at the zeal and disposition of your soul; but do not make the disposing of it according to simply human feelings alone, but behave with discernment, having in view what is profitable for your soul. I likewise will say to you concerning Holy Unction, that you should not put it off. Through this mystery bodily health has been restored to many. Its main benefit, however, is the forgiveness of forgotten transgressions.

Finally, you are in doubt as to where you should begin your preparation—on Mt. Athos or in our monastery, or in Moscow. I find that, in your present situation, you should postpone all concern about a trip to Athos, as something difficult to fulfill, and impossible. But if it pleases the Lord God to grant you strength to such an extent that you are able not only to travel, but also to live there for a while, then it will be possible to think about this subject. But meanwhile begin your preparation in Moscow, waiting to see what state your health will be in at the beginning of the year. If you have strength enough then to travel to our monastery, then nothing hinders doing that—and welcome! Then we will talk in person about everything, if by the will of God we are alive. It says in the proverb: “in one’s homeland even death is beautiful.”

St. Ambrose of Optina
Translation by Dimitra Dwelley


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