25 October 2018
Elder Joseph of Optina
St. Joseph of Optina (Litovkin or Litovky) 1837-1911
Elder Joseph of Optina was Glorified with all of the Optina Elders by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1990.
Synaxis of the Optina Fathers October 10 Church calendar
Feastday of Elder Joseph May 9 Church calendar
St. Joseph of Optina
Whose memory the Holy Church Celebrates on the 9th of May
Of the disciples of the venerable Ambrose, Saint Joseph of Optina was the closest, not only outwardly, but in spirit, in the strength of his obedience, devotion and love. The venerable Joseph, whose secular name was John Efimovich Litovkin, was born 2 November 1837, in the village of Goroditsa, in the Starobyelsk district of the province Kharkov. His parents were simple folk, but very pious, good, and wise. His father enjoyed great respect and love in his village. Both he and his wife were very generous to the poor, loved to receive monks in their home, and invariably would give each of them five gold rubles as a donation for this monastery.
One day when John was eight years old he was playing in the yard when suddenly his facial expression changed. He lifted up his arms, raised his head, then fell senseless to the ground. When he returned to consciousness, they asked him what had happened. He answered that he had seen the Queen of Heaven in the air, and near her was the sun. John's teacher said that something extraordinary had happened to him.
the sister of the venerable one, who later became a nun, related that as a young boy John was very affectionate, and that in his tender and sensitive soul he was somehow able to feel the grief of others. When John was four years old his father died, and he was left without a mother when he was eleven. Then began for him the bitter trials of orphanhood.
Yet attachment to the things of the earth was foreign to John. In the world he always experienced a sense of melancholy Prayer, the only inheritance left him by his pious parents, was his constant companion in this sorrowful life.
He set out to make a pilgrimage to Kiev, to worship at the holy places, leaving all to the will of God. But before he went there he visited the Holy Mountain, and then the Borisovsk Convent, where his sister was a nun. This convent was renowned for the strictness of its rule. There, the schema-nun Alypia advised him not to go to Kiev, but to go instead to the elders at Optina, where some of the nuns were also headed. John heeded her advice and traveled with them to Optina.
When they arrived at Optina, the nuns went to Elder Ambrose and, among other things said to him: "Batiushka, we have also brought with us Brother John" – jokingly calling him "brother" because of his monastic inclinations. The venerable one gazed at them with a serious expression and said: "This Brother John will prove useful to us and to you." Saying, "Give your blessing!" John bowed down before the venerable Ambrose and entrusted himself to him. This took place on 1 March, 1861.
From the first days of his new life the goodly traits of his soul revealed themselves. His instincts for unquestioning obedience, silence and modesty began to strengthen and a develop under the influence of his spiritual education.
Before long he had to go over to the cabin of the venerable Ambrose, where he spent fifty years. There, in that cramped cell, which became a "school of piety" for him, he mastered the most sublime of sciences – monasticism, and in due course became himself an instructor of monks.
In those early days he was comforted, on the one hand, by his closeness to the venerable Ambrose; but on the other the constant vanities of the world which encroached upon him, and the duty of receiving visitors, distressed and weighed upon him. He again began to dream of Kiev and Athos. One day, the venerable Ambrose discovered him entertaining such thoughts. Reading his mind, he said to him: "Brother John, we have it better here than on Athos. Stay with us." These words pierced the young novice to the heart, and he understood that his fantasizing was merely a temptation. Therefore, he became the most devoted and loving disciple f the venerable Ambrose. For him, it was not only the elder's will, but his every word, which was law.
In 1872 John was tonsured into monasticism, receiving the name Joseph. Five years later he was ordained a hierodeacon. His life did not change after this; on the contrary, he was given more work and responsibilities.
In 1884, the Shamordino Convent, located not far from Optina, was solemnly opened. At the liturgy, the venerable Joseph was ordained a hieromonk. For his first day as a priest he served evenly, intelligibly, unhurriedly, and piously. On whatsoever day he was assigned to liturgize, he was somehow filled with joy.
by this time, the venerable Joseph had become the senior cell attendant of the venerable Ambrose. He considered it his primary responsibility to care for the elder and see to his tranquility. His invariable good humor had an influence on everyone. With all, he was peaceful, and he was able to humble everyone by his own humility, meekness and tractability. Despite being constantly occupied with his responsibilities, the venerable Joseph found time to read the works of the fathers, especially the Philokalia. He was a man of deep interior activity, a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer.
Gradually, the venerable Ambrose prepared him for the ministry of eldership, teaching him both by his word and by his personal example. When someone asked the venerable Ambrose something, he would reply. if the same question were afterward put to the venerable Ambrose, the exact same reply, even in the same words, would be received. Moreover, the venerable Ambrose would invariably smile while answering, as though letting one know that he was aware of what was going on. Apparently, the venerable Ambrose did this to strengthen belief in his disciple. He loved him and trusted him in all things, calling him his right hand. Over a period of thirty years, until his departure to Shamordino, he was never apart from him.
The venerable Joseph did is work quietly and modestly. He was a true helper, for the elder, yet comported himself as though he were not so highly placed. He treated all the brethren alike, pursuing no close acquaintance with any of them, and going to none of them, except in church, unless sent by the elder.
In 1888, the venerable Joseph fell seriously ill and prepared himself for death. During this illness, the all-pure Theotokos visited him, strengthening him in patient endurance. The venerable Ambrose sent him the message: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth." And the great monk rose up from his deathbed.
In June of 1890, the usual collections in aid of Shamordino were begun. But the elder said to the venerable Joseph: "I will not take you with me this time. You must stay here. You are needed." This was the first time this had happened in the thirty years of their life together, that the venerable Ambrose traveled without him. Moreover, the venerable Ambrose ordered the venerable Joseph to move into his own cell.
A year later, in 1981, the venerable Ambrose fell seriously ill, and soon after died. All who were close to him bore this loss with grief, but non more so than the venerable Joseph. Yet he did not grow despondent or permit his spirits to flag; rather, he comforted the others. After the venerable Ambrose's death, the responsibility of caring for the Shamordino convent fell to the venerable Joseph. Shortly after the death of the venerable Anatolius, the superior of the skete, the venerable Joseph also took over that responsibility, and at the same time became the elder for all the brethren of Optina Hermitage. In the venerable Joseph the spiritual children of the venerable Ambrose saw the latter's successor.
The order of the venerable Jospeh's day never varied. In the morning he receive visitors. After the noon meal he rested a little, and then again received people. He was always very strict with himself, and never permitted himself any indulgences. In his relations with others he treated everyone the same. His speech was reserved and full to overflowing with Christian sympathy. He was never particularly affectionate, but, if it was necessary, he showed himself indulgent and lenient. With those close to him he was always more strict. This helped him nurture in his flock humility, the cutting off of one's own will, and submissiveness. The discourse of the venerable Joseph, like that of his teacher, the venerable Ambrose, was able to regenerate men's hearts.
"How may one acquire complete dispassion?" asked the venerable Joseph. "By complete humility," he replied. To one nun he gave the following instruction: "The example of God's long-suffering must curb our impatience, which gives us no rest. Nothing so calms us and reconciles us to the doings of others as silence, prayer and love. To each, this or that manifestation of the behavior of one's neighbor seems to be a great thing which accuses him of something."
One day, those who were walking in a forest with the venerable one told him that there were recluses in a certain convent. He replied: "It is a dangerous path. The passions grow in seclusion. It is better to be among the people. Out away from where people walk the grass grows high; but where they walk the path is bare. Sometimes people go in for solitude out of intolerance. But it is good for us when we are jostled. The tree which the wind blows against has the deepest and strongest roots; but that which grows undisturbed is more likely to be blown over."
Teaching others patience, humility and guilelessness, the venerable Joseph in himself provided an example of the fulfillment of all the virtues. The interior spiritual life of the saint was hidden from all. One thing only is known for certain: he was a practitioner of interior prayer.
The venerable one both prayed unceasingly and counseled others to take up the Jesus Prayer. In is instructions he quite frequently spoke of prayer as that which is most necessary for man's soul. He called his spiritual children to practice the Jesus Prayer, showing that while doing so it is necessary to comport oneself humbly in all things: in one''s gaze, gait and dress.... Through prayer is prayer itself attained. Those who were impatient and inexperienced, the venerable one would restrain decisively and strictly, not permitting them to attempt the higher degrees of prayer, teaching them to walk this path gradually, beginning with the Jesus Prayer uttered aloud and counted out upon a prayer rope in a definite number.
The monks told the following story. The venerable Joseph immersed himself in prayer to such an extent that he often did not notice that someone had approached him, and only came to himself when he was spoken to a second time.
Archpriest Paul Levashev was counted worthy to behold the venerable Joseph shining with the light of Mount Tabor, which is the mark of a high degree of interior prayer, as the fathers write in the Philokalia. He recounts: "At that time Father Joseph was ill. We greeted one another. A moment later I saw an unusual light around his head, and also a broad ray of light shining down upon him from above, as though the ceiling of the cell had opened up. The ray of light fell from heaven and was just like the light which surrounded his head. The elder's face became suffused with grace, and he smiled."
In addition to the influence he had on men's spiritual disposition, the venerable Joseph also possessed the gift of healing the sicknesses of their souls and bodies. A certain peasant woman was ill. The glands about her neck were very swollen. Twice an operation was performed on her, but the swelling only increased, so much so that she could no longer move her neck. She turned to the venerable one for advice as to whether or not she should undergo yet another surgical procedure. He told her: "There is no reason for an operation. But have a service of supplication served to the holy greatmartyr Panteleimon, and you will get better." The peasant woman had such a service performed, and the swelling of the glands abated, leaving not a trace.
A certain person in Optina fell grievously ill, and she asked that she be brought to the venerable one at his cabin. He received her and, placing a prayer-rope in her hands, went into his bedroom, saying: "Wait." And when he returned, she noticed that her illness had completely gone.
Another person remembered having received immediate help through the mere invocation of the saint's name.
There was a well-known case of the healing of a certain nun who was suffering intense pain. But the most diverse miracles and healings too place not during the holy one's lifetime, but after his repose. On the ninth day after his passing, a demonized woman was completely cured at the site of his grave.
On the night when the venerable one reposed, a nun of the Belevsk Convent, who lived in poverty on the alms he provided her, and was very distressed as to how she would survive, beheld him in a dream. The venerable one came to her, radiant with light and joy, and said to her: "Grieve not! Batiushka Ambrose is sending you twenty-five rubles for your needs." When she awoke and learned that the venerable Joseph had reposed that very night, she thought that not only Batuishka Ambrose, but now also Batiushka Joseph, would never again come to her, and that she would not be receiving any further support from any quarter. Imagine her astonishment when, several days later, she received a writ for twenty-five rubles! And soon after that a benefactress sent her more.
The venerable Joseph functioned as a superior of the skete and elder for the brethren for twelve years. The last five years he began to weaken, and sometimes he would receive no one for two days at a time. beginning in 1905 that state of his health fluctuated between illness and recovery, yet in spirit he was always cheerful.
He eventually felt compelled to resign from the responsibility of superior of the skete. In Shamordino Convent the wise and gifted abbess reposed. Immediately, the influx of business, questions and troubles increased. The venerable Joseph took to his bed and never left it again.
Having bade farewell to the brethren of Optina and the nuns of Shamordino and Belevsk, the venerable Joseph reposed on 9 May 1911.
Translated from the Russian by the reader Issac E. Lambertsen, from The Optina Elders (London, ON, Canada: Zarya Publishing, Inc. 1990), pp. 41-47, 53--63, 68-72. Translation copyright ©1992. All rights reserved by the translator.
source: Living Orthodoxy magazine #195 May-June 2013