3RD MONDAY AFTER PASCHA
3rd Monday after Pascha, The Holy Prophet Esaias (Isaiah), Christopher the Martyr of Lycea, Elder Hieronymos of Simonopetra, Monk-martyr Nicholas who lived in Vuneni, of Larissa in Thessaly, Epimachos the New Martyr of Alexandria, The New Martyrs of Novo Selo, Bulgaria
ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 6:8-15; 7:1-5, 47-60
In those days, Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated men, who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and set up false witnesses who said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us." And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
And the high priest said, "Is this so?" And Stephen said: "Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Depart from your land and from your kindred and go into the land which I will show you.' Then he departed from the land of the Chaldeans, and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living; yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot's length, but promised to give it to him in possession and to his posterity after him, though he had no child.
But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as the prophet says, 'Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?'
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
At that time, there was an official whose son was ill. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Jesus therefore said to him, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." The official said to him, "Sir, come down before my child dies." Jesus said to him, "Go; your son will live." The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went his way. As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was living. So he asked them the hour when he began to mend, and they said to him, "Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him." The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, "Your son will live"; and he himself believed, and all his household. This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.
The Holy Prophet Isaiah lived 700 years before the birth of Christ, and was of royal lineage. Isaiah’s father Amos raised his son in the fear of God and in the law of the Lord. Having attained the age of maturity, the Prophet Isaiah entered into marriage with a pious prophetess (Is 8:3) and had a son Jashub (Is 8:18).
Saint Isaiah was called to prophetic service during the reign of Oziah [Uzziah], king of Judea, and he prophesied for 60 years during the reign of kings Joatham, Achaz [Ahaz], Hezekiah and Manasseh. The start of his service was marked by the following vision: he beheld the Lord God, sitting in a majestic heavenly temple upon a high throne. Six-winged Seraphim encircled Him. With two wings they covered their faces, and with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew about crying out one to another, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with His glory!” The pillars of the heavenly temple shook from their shouts, and in the temple arose the smoke of incense.
The prophet cried out in terror, “Oh, an accursed man am I, granted to behold the Lord Sabaoth, and having impure lips and living amidst an impure people!” Then was sent him one of the Seraphim, having in hand a red-hot coal, which he took with tongs from the altar of the Lord. He touched it to the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah and said, “Lo, this has touched thy lips, and will take away with thine iniquities, and will cleanse thy sins.” After this Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord, directed towards him, “Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?” Isaiah answered, “Here am I, send me” (Is 6:1 ff). And the Lord sent him to the Jews to exhort them to turn from the ways of impiety and idol worship, and to offer repentance.
To those that repent and turn to the true God, the Lord promised mercy and forgiveness, but punishment and the judgment of God are appointed for the unrepentant. Then Isaiah asked the Lord, how long would the falling away of the Jewish nation from God continue. The Lord answered, “Until the cities be deserted, by reason of there being no people, and the land shall be made desolate. Just as when a tree be felled and from the stump come forth new shoots, so also from the destruction of the nation a holy remnant will remain, from which will emerge a new tribe.”
Isaiah left behind him a book of prophecy in which he denounces the Jews for their unfaithfulness to the God of their Fathers. He predicted the captivity of the Jews and their return from captivity during the time of the emperor Cyrus, the destruction and renewal of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Together with this he predicts the historical fate also of the other nations bordering the Jews. But what is most important of all for us, the Prophet Isaiah with particular clarity and detail prophesies about the coming of the Messiah, Christ the Savior. The prophet names the Messiah as God and Man, teacher of all the nations, founder of the Kingdom of peace and love.
The prophet foretells the birth of the Messiah from a Virgin, and with particular clarity he describes the Suffering of the Messiah for the sins of the world. He foresees His Resurrection and the universal spreading of His Church. By his clear foretelling of Christ the Savior, the Prophet Isaiah deserves to be called an Old Testament Evangelist. To him belong the words, “He beareth our sins and is smitten for us…. He was wounded for our sins and tortured for our transgressions. The chastisement of our world was upon Him, and by His wounds we were healed….” (Is 53:4-5. Vide Isaiah: 7:14, 11:1, 9:6, 53:4, 60:13, etc.).
The holy Prophet Isaiah had also a gift of wonderworking. And so, when during the time of a siege of Jerusalem by enemies the besieged had become exhausted with thirst, he by his prayer drew out from beneath Mount Sion a spring of water, which was called Siloam, i.e. “sent from God.” It was to this spring afterwards that the Savior sent the man blind from birth to wash, and He restored his sight. By the prayer of the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord prolonged the life of Hezekiah for 15 years.
The Prophet Isaiah died a martyr’s death. By order of the Jewish king Manasseh he was sawn through by a wood-saw. The prophet was buried not far from the Pool of Siloam. The relics of the holy Prophet Isaiah were afterwards transferred by the emperor Theodosius the Younger to Constantinople and installed in the church of Saint Laurence at Blachernae. At the present time part of the head of the Prophet Isaiah is preserved at Athos in the Hilandar monastery.
For the times and the events which occurred during the life of the Prophet Isaiah, see the 4th Book of Kings [alt. 2 Kings] (Ch 16, 17, 19, 20, 23, etc.), and likewise 2 Chr:26-32.
The Holy Martyr Christopher lived during the third century and suffered about the year 250, during the reign of the emperor Decius (249-251). There are various accounts of his life and miracles, and he is widely venerated throughout the world. Saint Christopher is especially venerated in Italy, where people pray to him in times of contagious diseases.
There are various suggestions about his descent. Some historians believe that he was descended from the Canaanites, while others say from the “Cynoscephalai” [literally “dog-heads”] of Thessaly.
Saint Christopher was a man of great stature and unusual strength. According to tradition, Saint Christopher was very handsome, but wishing to avoid temptation for himself and others, he asked the Lord to give him an unattractive face, which was done. Before Baptism he was named Reprebus [Reprobate] because his disfigured appearance. Even before Baptism, Reprebus confessed his faith in Christ and denounced those who persecuted Christians. Consequently, a certain Bacchus gave him a beating, which he endured with humility.
Because of his renowned strength, 200 soldiers were assigned to bring him before the emperor Decius. Reprebus submitted without resistance. Several miracles occurred along the way; a dry stick blossomed in the saint’s hand, loaves of bread were multiplied through his prayers, and the travellers had no lack thereof. This is similar to the multiplication of loaves in the wilderness by the Savior. The soldiers surrounding Reprebus were astonished at these miracles. They came to believe in Christ and they were baptized along with Reprebus by Saint Babylus of Antioch (September 4).
Christopher once made a vow to serve the greatest king in the world, so he first offered to serve the local king. Seeing that the king feared the devil, Christopher thought he would leave the king to serve Satan. Learning that the devil feared Christ, Christopher went in search of Him. Saint Babylas of Antioch told him that he could best serve Christ by doing well the task for which he was best suited. Therefore, he became a ferryman, carrying people across a river on his shoulders. One stormy night, Christopher carried a Child Who insisted on being taken across at that very moment. With every step Christopher took, the Child seemed to become heavier. Halfway across the stream, Christopher felt that his strength would give out, and that he and the Child would be drowned in the river. As they reached the other side, the Child told him that he had just carried all the sins of the world on his shoulders. Then He ordered Christopher to plant his walking stick in the ground. As he did so, the stick grew into a giant tree. Then he recognized Christ, the King Whom he had vowed to serve.
Saint Christopher was brought before the emperor, who tried to make him renounce Christ, not by force but by cunning. He summoned two profligate women, Callinika and Aquilina, and commanded them to persuade Christopher to deny Christ, and to offer sacrifice to idols. Instead, the women were converted to Christ by Saint Christopher. When they returned to the emperor, they declared themselves to be Christians. Therefore, they were subjected to fierce beatings, and so they received the crown of martyrdom.
Decius also sentenced to execution the soldiers who had been sent after Saint Christopher, but who now believed in Christ. The emperor ordered that the martyr be thrown into a red-hot metal box. Saint Christopher, however, did not experience any suffering and he remained unharmed. After many fierce torments they finally beheaded the martyr with a sword. This occurred in the year 250 in Lycia. By his miracles the holy Martyr Christopher converted as many as 50,000 pagans to Christ, as Saint Ambrose of Milan testifies. The relics of Saint Christopher were later transferred to Toledo (Spain), and still later to the abbey of Saint Denis in France.
In Greece, many churches place the icon of Saint Christopher at the entrance so that people can see it as they enter and leave the building. There is a rhyming couplet in Greek which says, “When you see Christopher, you can walk in safety.” This reflects the belief that whoever gazes upon the icon of Saint Christopher will not meet with sudden or accidental death that day.
The name Christopher means “Christ-bearer.” This can refer to the saint carrying the Savior across the river, and it may also refer to Saint Christopher bearing Christ within himself (Galatians 2:20).
The Transfer of the Relics of Saint Nicholas to Bari in Italy. His Life is found under December 6.
In the eleventh century the Byzantine Empire was going through some terrible times. The Turks put an end to its influence in Asia Minor, they destroyed cities and villages, they murdered the inhabitants, and they accompanied their cruel outrage with the desecration of churches, holy relics, icons and books. The Mussulmen also attempted to destroy the relics of Saint Nicholas, deeply venerated by the whole Christian world.
In the year 792 the caliph Aaron Al’-Rashid sent Khumeid at the head of a fleet to pillage the island of Rhodes. Having lain waste this island, Khumeid set off to Myra in Lycia with the intent to rob the tomb of Saint Nicholas. But instead he robbed another tomb standing alongside the crypt of the saint. Just as they succeeded in committing this sacrilege, a terrible storm lifted upon the sea and almost all the ships were shattered into pieces.
The desecration of holy things shocked not only Eastern, but also Western Christians. Christians in Italy were particularly apprehensive for the relics of Saint Nicholas, and among them were many Greeks. The inhabitants of the city of Bari, located on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, decided to save the relics of Saint Nicholas.
In the year 1087 merchants from Bari and Venice went to Antioch to trade. Both these and others also proposed to take up the relics of Saint Nicholas and transport them to Italy on the return trip. In this plan the men of Bari commissioned the Venetians to land them at Myra. At first two men were sent in, who in returning reported that in the city all was quiet. In the church where the glorified relics rested, they encountered only four monks. Immediately forty-seven men, having armed themselves, set out for the church of Saint Nicholas. The guards, suspecting nothing, showed them the raised platform, beneath which the tomb of the saint was concealed, and where they anointed foreigners with myrrh from the relics of the saint.
At this time the monks told them about an appearance of Saint Nicholas that evening to a certain Elder. In this vision Saint Nicholas ordered the careful preservation of his relics. This account encouraged the barons, they saw an avowal for them in this vision and, as it were, a decree from the saint. In order to facilitate their activity, they revealed their intent to the monks and offered them money, 300 gold coins. The guards refused the money and wanted to warn the inhabitants about the misfortune threatening them. But the newcomers bound them and put their own guards at the doorway.
They took apart the church platform above the tomb with the relics. In this effort the youth Matthew was excessive in his zeal, wanting to find the relics of Saint Nicholas as quickly as possible. In his impatience he broke the cover and the barons saw that the sarcophagus was filled with fragrant holy myrrh. The compatriots of the barons, the priests Luppus and Drogus, offered a litany, after which the break made by Matthew began to flow with myrrh from the saint’s sarcophagus. This occurred on April 20, 1087.
Seeing the absence of a container chest, the priest Drogus wrapped the relics in the cloth, and in the company of the barons he carried them to the ship. The monks, having been set free, alerted the city with the sad news about the abduction of the relics of the Wonderworker Nicholas by foreigners. A crowd of people gathered at the shore, but it was too late.
On May 8 the ships arrived in Bari, and soon the joyous news made the rounds of all the city. On the following day, May 9, 1087, they solemnly transported the relics of Saint Nicholas into the church of Saint Stephen, not far from the sea. The solemn bearing of the relics was accompanied by numerous healings of the sick, which inspired still greater reverence for God’s saint. A year afterwards, a church was built in the name of Saint Nicholas and consecrated by Pope Urban II.
This event, connected with the transfer of the relics of Saint Nicholas, evoked a particular veneration for the Wonderworker Nicholas and was marked by the establishment of a special Feast day on May 9. At first the Feast day of the Transfer of the Relics of Saint Nicholas was observed only by the people of the city of Bari. It was not adopted in the other lands of the Christian East and West, despite the fact that the transfer of the relics was widely known. This circumstance is explained by the custom in the Middle Ages of venerating primarily the relics of local saints. Moreover, the Greek Church did not establish the celebration of this remembrance, since they regarded the loss of the relics of Saint Nicholas as a sad event.
The Russian Orthodox Church celebration of the memory of the Transfer of the Relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra in Lycia to Bari in Italy on May 9 was established soon after the year 1087, on the basis of an already established veneration by the Russian people of the great saint of God, brought from Greece simultaneously with the acceptance of Christianity. The glorious accounts of the miracles performed by the saint on both land and sea, were widely known to the Russian people. Their boundless power and abundance testify to the help of the great saint of God for suffering mankind. The image of Saint Nicholas, a mighty wonderworker and benefactor, became especially dear to the heart of the Russian people, since it inspired deep faith and hope for his intercession. The faith of the Russian people in the abundant aid of God’s saint was marked by numerous miracles.
A significant body of literature was compiled about him very early in Russian writings. Accounts of the miracles of Saint Nicholas done in the Russian land were recorded at an early date. Soon after the Transfer of the Relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari, a Russian version of his Life and an account of the Transfer of his holy relics were written by a contemporary to this event. Earlier still, an encomium to the Wonderworker was written. Each week on Thursday, the Russian Orthodox Church honors his memory in particular.
Numerous churches and monasteries were built in honor of Saint Nicholas, and Russian people are wont to name their children after him at Baptism. In Russia are preserved numerous wonderworking icons of the saint. Most renowned among them are the icons of Mozhaisk, Zaraisk, Volokolamsk, Ugreshsk and Ratny. There was no house or temple in the Russian land in which there was not an icon of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.
The significance of the intercession of the great saint of God is expressed by the ancient compiler of the Life, in the words of whom Saint Nicholas “did work many glorious miracles both on land and on sea, aiding those downtrodden in misfortune and rescuing the drowning, carrying to dry land from the depths of the sea, raising up others from corruption and bringing them home, liberating from chains and imprisonment, averting felling by the sword and freeing from death, and granting healing to many; sight to the blind, walking to the lame, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute. He brought riches to many suffering in abject poverty and want, he provided the hungry food, and for each in their need he appeared a ready helper, an avid defender and speedy intercessor and protector, and such as appeal to him he doth help and deliver from adversity. Both the East and the West know of this great Wonderworker, and all the ends of the earth know his miracle-working.”
An Antiochian by birth, Saint Shio of Mgvime was among the Thirteen Syrian Fathers who preached the Christian Faith in Georgia. His parents were pious nobles who provided their son with a sound education.
When the twenty-year-old Shio heard about the great ascetic labors of Saint John of Zedazeni and his disciples who labored in the wilderness, he went in secret to visit them. Saint John promised to receive Shio as a disciple, provided his parents agreed to his decision.
But when Shio returned home he said nothing to his parents about what had transpired.
Time passed and Shio’s parents both entered the monastic life.
Then Shio sold all his possessions, distributed the profits to the poor, widows, orphans, and hermits, freed all his family’s slaves, and returned to Fr. John.
Saint John received Shio joyfully, tonsured him a monk, and blessed him to remain in the wilderness. He labored there with Saint John for twenty years. Then John was told in a divine revelation to choose twelve disciples and travel to Georgia to increase the faith of its people. Shio was one of the disciples chosen to follow him on this holy mission.
The holy fathers arrived in Georgia and settled on Zedazeni Mountain. Then, with the blessings of Catholicos Evlavios and Fr. John, they dispersed throughout the country to preach the Word of God.
At his instructor’s command, Saint Shio settled in the Sarkineti caves near Mtskheta and began to lead a strict ascetic life. There was no water there and many wild animals made their home in the caves, but the privations and tribulations he encountered did not shake Saint Shio’s great faith. Like the Prophet Elijah, Shio received his food from the mouths of birds that carried it to him.
Once, after Saint Shio had prayed at length, a radiant light appeared suddenly in the place where he was, and the Most Holy Theotokos and Saint John the Baptist stood before him. After this miraculous visitation Saint Shio began to pray with even greater zeal, and he would spend hours alone in the wilderness.
Another time, Saint Evagre (at that time ruler of Tsikhedidi and military adviser to King Parsman) went hunting in the Sarkineti Mountains. There he encountered Saint Shio and, astonished by his piety, resolved to remain there with him. The news of the ruler’s conversion soon spread through all of Georgia, and many people flocked to witness the venerable father’s miraculous deeds. Many remained there with them, following Saint Evagre’s example.
Once Saint Shio prayed to God to reveal to him the place where He desired a church to be built. He placed a lump of hot coal in his hand and sprinkled incense on it, as though his hand were a censer. Then he followed the smoke as it swirled up from the hot coal. In the place where it rose straight up like a pillar, he took his staff and marked the ground where the church would be built.
When King Parsman heard about his military adviser’s radical change of life, he was deeply disturbed and wandered into the wilderness to find him. But when he witnessed the divine grace shining on Saint Shio’s face, he took off his crown and knelt humbly before him. Fr. Shio reverently blessed the king, helped him to stand up, and replaced the crown on his head. Following the king’s example, all the royal court came to receive Shio’s blessing. A certain nobleman with an injured eye knelt before Saint Shio, touched his eye to the holy father’s foot, and received healing at once.
At another time King Parsman asked Saint Shio if there was anything he needed, and he answered, “O Sovereign King, God enlightens the hearts of kings. Do that which your heart tells you!” In response, the king donated much wealth for the construction of a church in the wilderness: the lands of four villages, a holy chalice and diskos, a gold cross, and an ornately decorated Gospel that had belonged to the holy king Vakhtang Gorgasali (†502).
When construction of the church was complete, the king traveled there in the company of the catholicos, several bishops and Saint John of Zedazeni. The hierarchs consecrated the newly built church, and a monastic community soon grew up on its grounds. Eventually, the number of monks laboring at King Parsman’s monastery grew to nearly two thousand. Many people visited this place to receive Saint Shio’s wonderworking blessings, and they were healed from many diseases.
Saint Shio performed many miracles: Once a wolf that had been prowling the monastery grounds ravaged a herd of donkeys. When Saint Shio heard this, he prayed to God to transform the wolf into the protector of the herd. From that time on the wolf grazed peacefully among the other animals.
With the blessings of both his teacher, John of Zedazeni, and the catholicos of Georgia, Saint Shio gathered his disciples, advised them on the path they should follow, appointed Evagre his successor as abbot, and went into reclusion in a well that he had dug for himself. There Saint Shio spent fifteen years in prayer and fasting. Finally, when God revealed to him that his death was approaching, Saint Shio partook of the Holy Gifts and lifted up his hands, saying, “O Lord, receive the soul of Thy servant!”
Later, during one of the Persian invasions, the soldiers of Shah Abbas uncovered the holy father’s relics and carried them back to Persia. In the same year Persia was ravaged by a terrible plague, and the frightened invaders returned the holy relics to the Shio-Mgvime Monastery.
Saint Joseph of Optina was born on November 2, 1837 in the village of Gorodishcha in the province of Kharkov. His name in the world was John Litovkin, and his parents Euthymius and Maria were simple but pious people. They were generous to the poor, and often lent money to those in need even when there seemed little chance that it would be repaid. Euthymius also loved to receive monks who came to his door collecting alms for their monasteries. Invariably, he would give each one five rubles for the needs of the monastery.
The Litovkins had six children, and they often read to them from spiritual books, especially from the Lives of the Saints. The second of their three sons (the future Saint Joseph) was baptized with the name John in honor of Saint John the Merciful (November 12). Instead of providing them with earthly wealth, the couple endowed their children with heavenly treasures, raising them in piety, obedience, and in the fear of God.
John learned to read even before he started school, taught by his older sister Alexandra at home. He was a sickly child, nearsighted and hard of hearing in one ear. He also met with various accidents. Once he was knocked down by another child and bit off the tip of his own tongue. Another time he was scalded with boiling water. In spite of all this, he was a happy and affectionate child. His father knew there was something special about John, and others also believed that God’s special favor was upon the boy.
When he was only four, John’s beloved father died, and his mother had to raise the children herself. When he was eight, John was playing with some friends, and suddenly froze on the spot. He raised his arms and his head toward the sky, then fell down unconscious. They carried him home and put him to bed. When he awoke, they asked him what had happened. He told them that he had seen the Queen of Heaven in the air.
“What makes you think you saw the Queen?” they asked.
“Because she had a crown with a cross,” he replied.
From that time on, the boy became more quiet and thoughtful, and started to avoid children’s games. Soon after this, the family moved into a new home. There was a great fire in the village, and John prayed that the Mother of God would protect their house from the flames. The Livotkin home was spared, even though everything around it was burned.
In 1848, their mother died during an outbreak of cholera. John was only eleven at the time. His older brother Simeon and his sister Anna were both married before their mother passed away, and his sister Alexandra had gone to the Borisovsk monastery in Kursk Province to become a nun. Simeon became the head of the family, although his drinking problem made him rather unreliable. Simeon took care of John for a while, and their younger brother Peter went to live with Anna. Simeon decided to leave home, and so John was placed in the care of various people, including a tavern keeper and a grocer.
Unable to endure conditions in the homes of such people, John went to live with a cousin who was a deacon in Novocherkassk. He ate nothing on his journey, for he was ashamed to beg, and people did not offer him any food on their own. When he arrived at the church where his cousin served, John sat down outside and waited for the Liturgy to end. Two women with rolls passed by and took pity upon him. One of them gave him a warm roll, which the boy regarded as manna from heaven.
John stayed with his cousin for a brief time, then moved on to other places, taking various jobs to support himself. Later in life he was asked whether he had ever had a girlfriend when he was living in the world. He shook his head and said, “Since I was nearsighted, I couldn’t really see anyone at a distance, and I was too shy to approach anyone up close.”
While living in the world John was often unhappy, and he found consolation in prayer and in church services. One day he received a letter from his sister, Mother Leonida, suggesting that he enter the skete at Optina, which was blessed with experienced Elders. Then the desire to leave the world and embrace the monastic life began to grow within him.
Learning that John was planning to make a pilgrimage to the Kiev Caves, the man for whom he was working offered him his daughter in marriage. Years later Father Joseph would say, “It’s always that way. As soon as one begins to think of following the path to salvation, obstacles and temptations begin to appear.”
With his employer’s permission, John started out for Kiev. On the way, he stopped to visit his parents’ graves and the place where he had spent a happy childhood. He stayed briefly at the Dormition Monastery in Kharkov’s Holy Mountains, but he did not wish to remain there. Finally he went to the Borisovsk Women’s Hermitage to visit his sister, Mother Leonida. She had spoken to Saint Macarius of Optina (September 7) of her concern for John. He told her not to worry, because John would become a monk.
Mother Leonida’s Eldress, Schemanun Alypia, overheard some of their conversation and said to John, “Forget about Kiev. Go to the Elders at Optina.” Mother Leonida gave him a look indicating that John should obey.
He traveled to Optina with some nuns of the women’s monastery at Belev, driving the cart for them. Saint Macarius had already departed to the Lord in 1860, and was succeeded as Elder by his disciple, Saint Ambrose (October 10). Knowing of John’s monastic inclinations, the nuns jokingly introduced him as “Brother John.” Saint Ambrose replied solemnly, “This Brother John will prove useful to us, and to you.”
On March 1, 1861 John found himself standing before the Elder Ambrose, telling him of his life, and asking for a blessing to go to Kiev. Father Ambrose told him to remain at Optina, forseeing the blessings he would bring to Optina, and to the women’s monasteries which were under the guidance of the Optina Elders. Taking Saint Ambrose’s words as an indication of God’s will, John murmured, “May it be blessed.”
John, like all new novices, was given an obedience in the kitchen. He was assigned to help the cook in the skete. From the very start, John demonstrated perfect obedience and humility. Life in the monastery was everything he had hoped it would be, and he was glad to leave the tumult of the world behind.
In June the Superior of the Skete, Father Paphnutius, asked John if he would like to move in with the Elder Ambrose as his cell-attendant. The next day he moved to the Elder’s quarters, where he remained for the next fifty years. As happy as he was to be near the Elder, he was disturbed by the constant flow of visitors. He felt that there was no time to pray or go to church, and began to have misgivings. He was tempted by the thought that perhaps he would be better off in Kiev or on Mount Athos, and did not notice that Father Ambrose had entered the cell. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard the Elder say, “Brother John, it’s better here than it is on Athos. Stay with us.”
John realized that his thoughts had been sent by the Enemy of our salvation, and he fell down at Father Ambrose’s feet in repentance.
On April 15, 1872 he was tonsured as a rassophore (wearer of the rassa), then on June 16, 1872 he was tonsured as a monk, receiving the name Joseph in honor of Saint Joseph the Hymnographer (April 4). He was unexpectedly ordained as a deacon in 1877 in a way which demonstrated that God was directing the course of his life.
On December 7 (Father Ambrose’s nameday), Igumen Isaac served Liturgy in the skete church. Later, he visited Father Ambrose to offer his congratulations, and the cell-attendants Father Joseph and Father Michael served them tea. The Superior asked Father Ambrose about a monk whom he proposed to recommend for ordination to the diaconate. The Elder said that the time was not right for that particular monk, recommending someone else instead. Noticing Father Joseph standing nearby with a tray, Father Isaac smiled and said, “Well Father, you don’t want my candidate, and I don’t want yours. Let’s ordain Father Joseph.”
So it was that Father Joseph was sent to Kaluga, where he was ordained by Bishop Gregory on December 9. It was customary at Optina that a newly-ordained deacon or priest would serve every day for forty days. Father Joseph’s health did not permit him to fulfill the forty days, however. He developed an inflammation on his right side, and he nearly died.
Father Joseph’s life continued as it had before, but with more responsibilities. He had no cell of his own, but continued to sleep in the reception room, which the Elder used each day until almost 11 P.M. Father Ambrose frequently tested his cell-attendant in order to give him the opportunity to acquire patience and humility, following the instructions of Saint John of the Ladder (Book 4, paragraphs 27 and 28).
Father Ambrose built the Shamordino Convent about eight miles from Optina, and on October 1, 1884 Bishop Vladimir of Kaluga came for its opening. At the Liturgy that day, Father Joseph was ordained as a priest and from that day forward the nuns regarded him as their priest, and he became the spiritual director of the convent after the repose of Father Ambrose.
Father Joseph now became the Elder’s senior cell-attendant, and tried to protect him and also to placate the visitors who grumbled about having to wait for so long to see Father Ambrose. In spite of his duties, Father Joseph found time to read spiritual books. He particularly loved the PHILOKALIA and the writings of the Fathers. In these books he found spiritual wisdom, which he shared with those who came to him for advice.
Saint Joseph’s inner life was known only to God, but his advice to others indicates that he practiced unceasing prayer of the heart. Forseeing that Father Joseph would serve as Elder after him, Father Ambrose blessed some people to start going to Father Joseph for their spiritual needs.
Father Joseph attended Saint Ambrose for thirty years, until the Elder’s death on October 10, 1891. Father Ambrose prepared Father Joseph for eldership, teaching him by word and by example. He would also refer some visitors to Father Joseph for advice. There was such oneness of mind between them that when people would ask Father Joseph about something and then ask Father Ambrose about the same thing, they would receive the very same answer.
Father Joseph’s health was not good, and he was susceptible to colds in winter. In February 1888 he became very ill and took to his bed, and he received the Mystey of Holy Unction. The doctor recommended that he be moved to the infirmary for treatment, but Father Joseph did not wish to leave Father Ambrose. The Superior of the skete insisted on the transfer, however. The ride to the monastery in a sleigh during cold weather only made his illness worse.
Father Joseph was tonsured into the schema (the highest level of monasticism) during the Liturgy on February 14. The next day, prayers for the Departure of the Soul were read for him, and people came to bid him farewell. A novice, sitting behind a screen, heard Father Joseph praying aloud. Peering through a slit in the screen, he saw Father Joseph gazing at an icon of Christ and lifting up his hands. This novice went to the infirmary later and heard someone behind the screen say, “Be patient, my dear one, only a little remains.” He looked behind the screen, but saw no one there except Father Joseph. Later, Father Ambrose told people that Father Joseph had seen the Mother of God during his illness. Though he had been quite near death, he got well.
After his recovery, Father Joseph began to hear confessions on a regular basis, since this was becoming too difficult for Father Ambrose. He blessed people to go to Father Joseph “not just once, but always.”
In the summer of 1888, Father Ambrose blessed Father Joseph to go on a pilgrimage to Kiev. After nearly thirty years, he was able to fulfill his desire to visit the holy places of Kiev. On his way back to Optina, he stopped to visit his sister Mother Leonida at Borisovsk.
Father Ambrose usually spent three weeks during the summer at the Shamordino Convent, accompanied by Father Joseph. In June of 1890 Father Joseph began to prepare for the journey, but Father Ambrose said, “I’m not taking you this time, you’re needed here.” He ordered Father Joseph to move into his cell and to transfer a large “Surety of Sinners” Icon (March 7 and May 29) into the reception room. Father Joseph had a premonition that Father Ambrose would never return.
Although he missed the Elder, Father Joseph resigned himself to the situation. He did go to Shamordino once a month to visit Father Ambrose, however. In the absence of Father Ambrose, many monks who confessed to him began to go to Father Joseph. During the Nativity Fast Father Ambrose started sending his spiritual children at Shamordino to confess to Father Joseph as well. This was difficult for the nuns, who were used to Father Ambrose. Even when he heard a nun’s confession himself, Father Ambrose would send her to Father Joseph for the prayers of absolution. In this manner, he indicated that he was entrusting his spiritual children to no one but Father Joseph.
In September 1891 Father Ambrose became ill, but no one thought it was serious. On October 8, he was so critical that they sent for Father Joseph. That evening the service of Holy Unction was performed, and the next morning Father Joseph gave Father Ambrose Communion for the last time. Saint Ambrose reposed on the morning of October 10, and no one grieved more than Father Joseph. Even in his sorrow, however, he comforted and consoled others.
Without any outside influence or pressure, the monks of Optina began coming to Father Joseph just as they had come to Father Ambrose. When the nuns of Shamordino asked to whom they should go for spiritual direction, Father Isaac told them, “At Optina all we have Father Joseph as our common Elder, and he must be yours as well.”
For the next twenty years, Saint Joseph received visitors, gave spiritual counsel to those who asked for his advice, and even performed miracles of healing for the afflicted. Out of humility, Father Joseph never said anything on his own authority, but quoted the words of Father Ambrose, or gave examples from his life. He spoke very little, and then only to answer a question which had been put to him. Some laymen, and even some of the monks, were annoyed with him because he did not say more.
One monk had the thought that since Father Joseph was filled with spiritual wisdom and was so familiar with the writings of the Fathers, he could have said many beneficial things to people. The Elder explained this to him, quoting Saint Peter of Damascus, who said that one should not say anything helpful unless asked by the brethren, because then the resulting benefit would come from their free choice. Even concerning something which might be useful for salvation, the ancient Fathers would not speak without being asked, considering unsolicited advice as idle talk (Vol. 3 of the English PHILOKALIA, p. 186).
His greatest care was for the Shamordino Convent, which remained unfinished, and for the spiritual welfare of its nuns. The Superior of the convent now turned to Father Joseph to consult him about everything related to the life of the convent, and would do nothing without his blessing. He went there twice a year, during the Apostles’ Fast, and during the Dormition Fast, to hear the confessions of the sisters. In the winter, they would visit him at Optina for Confession. Soon he was obliged to give up traveling to Shamordino because of his health.
Father Joseph was officially appointed as confessor for the Optina brotherhood near the end of 1893 when Father Anatole became ill and could not fulfill this duty. Many of the monks had already been confessing to Father Joseph, but now they all came to him.
On January 25, 1894 Saint Anatole, the head of the skete, fell asleep in the Lord. Archimandrite Isaac and the bretheren unanimously chose Father Joseph to succeed Father Anatole as Superior of the skete. Although he never sought this honor, Father Joseph accepted his election with all humility. He discharged his duties, not by issuing orders, but with paternal love and humility.
As Superior, he could have chosen to serve only on major Feast Days when the priests concelebrated, and designated one of the priests of the skete to serve on other days. He often served as a simple monk, however, with only one deacon to assist him.
During the last years of his life, Father Joseph grew weaker and was often ill. In May of 1905 he felt that he lacked the strength to carry out his duties, and he asked to retire as Superior of the skete. He also had to give up hearing the confessions of visitors, since this exhausted him. His spiritual children were saddened by his decision, but the monks and nuns continued to come to him with their spiritual wounds and afflictions.
In 1911 Father Joseph was weak and ill, but began to feel somewhat better during Great Lent. He was unusually joyful during Holy Week, which led some to believe that he had had some sort of vision. On April 11, the third day of Pascha, Father Joseph developed a fever and stopped seeing visitors. The following week, a doctor diagnosed him with maleria, declaring that there was no hope for recovery.
On April 20 the wonderworking Icon “of the Sign” was brought to his cell and a molieben was served. In the afternoon, the Kazan Icon and the rassa of Saint Seraphim were brought to him. Two days later, he requested that the skete brotherhood be permitted to come to him so that he could bid them farewell and ask their forgiveness. Then he asked that the Shamordino nuns also be allowed to come.
Father Joseph stopped taking food from April 28 on, nourishing himself only with the Holy Mysteries of Christ. Up until the time of his death, he was conscious and lucid, answering questions and dictating replies to letters. On May 8 he felt a little better, then became weak again. On the morning of May 9 he received Holy Communion, then at four in the afternoon he received some people for a final blessing.
That evening the Elder lay resting on his bed with his eyes closed, and his face shone with an unearthly radiance. At 10:45 he drew his last breath and departed to the Lord with a smile on his face.
After the body was prepared for burial, panikhidas were served one after another for the departed Elder. The saint appeared to some of the brethren in dreams both that night and on subsequent days.
The body was placed in a coffin at six o’clock the next morning and was carried to the skete church. Following the Liturgy, a panikhida was served, then the casket was brought to the monastery church of Saint Mary of Egypt. The monks began taking turns serving panikhidas for Father Joseph until his burial.
Several miracles took place on the day Saint Joseph was laid to rest at the feet of Father Ambrose. Even today, he continues to intercede with God and to work miracles for those who entreat him with faith.
Saint Joseph became a great Elder because first he had been a great disciple. He was obedient to his Elder Father Ambrose in all things, and never contradicted him. Because he renounced his own will, refrained from judging others, and reproached himself for his own sins, Father Joseph acquired humility and the grace of God. He also obtained from the Lord the discernment to recognize every sort of spiritual illness, and how to treat it.
The Moscow Patriarchate authorized local veneration of the Optina Elders on June 13,1996. The work of uncovering the relics of Saints Leonid, Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatole I, Barsanuphius and Anatole II began on June 24/July 7, 1998 and was concluded the next day. However, because of the church Feasts (Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, etc.) associated with the actual dates of the uncovering of the relics, Patriarch Alexey II designated June 27/July 10 as the date for commemorating this event. The relics of the holy Elders now rest in the new church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God.
The Optina Elders were glorified by the Moscow Patriarchate for universal veneration on August 7, 2000.