Today we celebrate the Synaxis of the Holy and God-bearing Elders of Optina Monastery. These fourteen saints, forming an unbroken chain spanning a century, were at the heart of the last spiritual flowering of Holy Russia before the coming of the Communist yoke. Thousands upon thousands of people of every walk of life came to Holy Elders from all corners of the Russian land. These visitors would wait days – sometimes even weeks – for the opportunity to have even one brief conversation with these holy men… or perhaps only to receive their blessing.
What was it about these men that drew the soul of a vast empire to this once-obscure hermitage? Was it the invaluable patristic books which they translated and published? Was it the wise advice they gave? Was it their simple – yet profound – teaching on prayer and the spiritual life? Was it the miracles and healings which they performed? For ordinary sinners like us, any one of these things would be far more than the feat of a lifetime. And yet the fact remains that none of them are worthy even of comparison with the great grace which was granted to the Optina Elders: to encounter them was truly to encounter Christ. To hear their words was to hear the words of Christ. To look into their faces was to see Christ Himself looking back at you.
More than any other spiritual charisma, it is clairvoyance that is particularly associated with the grace of eldership. The ability to see into a person’s thoughts, into their past, into the very depths of their heart – deeper than even they themselves can see – is the gift that transforms an ordinary spiritual father or mother into a true elder. And truly, this gift was poured out upon the Holy Elders of Optina in abundance.
But for many of us, such a prospect is nothing short of terrifying. It is as another righteous one who shone forth in Optina, the slain Hieromonk Vasily, wrote:
[The saints] fill the church, peering at me searchingly. It is useless to turn my eyes away from their faces, to hide in some dark corner of the church. The God-pleasers look not at my face, but at my heart. And where might I hide my heart? Thus do I stand in the rough shirt of my helplessness and unworthiness before their all-seeing eyes… The saints’ gaze possess an unfathomable omniscience. There is nothing hidden in my soul from them; everything is accessible and open. It is very uncomfortable to think that someone knows everything about you! How fearful it is to acknowledge that there is nowhere to hide, that even the body cannot withhold its secret thoughts and feelings.
Why does God allow such a fearful experience to come upon us? Why does He even give this as one of His highest gifts to those whom He especially favors and chooses? Why do so many zealous and pious Christians yearn for such an experience with all their hearts?
It is true that most of us today do not know how it feels to come into the presence of a God-bearing elder. We do not know what it feels like to hear someone reply aloud to all of our hidden thoughts and feelings. We do not know what it feels like to hear them answer the questions which we cannot bring ourselves to ask. We do not know what it feels like to have a total stranger confess our whole life on our behalf before the Holy Cross and Gospel.
Yet fundamentally, each one of us knows intimately this same sense of fear and shame. It has been with us all our lives. It was that same fear which gripped the hearts of Adam and Eve when they saw their nakedness and sewed for themselves clothing from fig leaves, and which made them flee when they heard the footsteps of God in the Garden.
It is this fear which makes us hide ourselves from God and from others, which makes us weave for ourselves coverings for our sinful hearts. We cover the truth about ourselves with any number of things: with our talents, our humor, our money, our intelligence, our friends, our knowledge, even our piety. We hide ourselves because deep down, we are afraid that if anyone, anyone– our friends, our families, our God, or even our own self – sees who we really and truly are, then they could never possibly love us.
And this is in fact precisely why God gives the gift of clairvoyance to His saints: so that a few of us can have the experience of another human being looking into the very depths of our soul – with all of its sinfulness, spitefulness, and ugliness – and then see that same person looking back at us with nothing but the all-seeing and all-forgiving compassion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, which embraces (as says the troparion for this feast) “both the wicked and the good with love.” So that by this experience we can learn to stop hiding from the truth about ourselves, to stop running from God, and to fulfill with our entire lives the commandment which is given more than any other commandment in all of Sacred Scripture: “Fear not.” For as the Apostle says, “God is love…There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.”
It was this living experience of the ineffable love, mercy and compassion of Christ that drew thousands upon thousands of faithful and unbelievers alike to Optina Hermitage. But in fact, this great gift of grace is not given only to those who have met one of the holy elders; this gift is given to each and every Christian whenever we come to the Mystery of Holy Confession.
And this is truly the most important thing about Confession: not that we fulfill some formal obligation to recite the list of sins which we have committed, nor that we feel sufficient guilt about the wrongs we have done, but rather that we come naked into the healing presence of the Lord God – hiding nothing, coming as we truly are – and simply ask for His grace and His mercy. And this is also part of the reason why we confess our sins in the presence of a priest: so that when another human being sees us as we truly are, with all of our filth and ugliness, and responds to all the worst things about us with nothing but mercy and compassion and forgiveness, we will catch but the smallest glimpse of the ineffable love and compassion which our All-merciful Savior has for every each and every one of us sinners.
More than anything else, the Optina Elders sought to teach their disciples humility. Over and over again, they proclaimed that humility can cover even the greatest multitude of sins, and in fact can take the place of all the other virtues. This is because only the humble are able to stand in the presence of God – to see and to freely admit the true depths of their sinfulness and unworthiness – and to accept, in the face of this, the superabundant love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May He grant this great and divine gift of humility to all of us, through the intercessions of His Most Pure Mother, of the Holy and God-bearing Elders of Optina, and of all the saints. Amen.