Below the reader will find a very spiritually edifying letter from St. Nikon of Optina.
St. Nikon was one of the last Elders of the Monastery of Optina. He served in Optina until it was totally shut down by the Soviets in the early 1920s. St Nikon, like hundreds of thousands of other Orthodox Christians, completed a great feat of confession for Christ Jesus under the theomacist Soviet regime. He ended his earthly sojourn in exile and severe illness.
The letter provided was written to his mother shortly before the full closure of Optina Monastery. The letter contains much valuable spiritual counsel for us today.
The New Martyrs of the Soviet era are the vanguard of our times. The systematic theomacist agenda of the modern age was applied in one of its earliest and clear forms upon the Christians of what was the Russian Empire. Thus, these Christians are vital teachers for us today.
St. Nikon faithfully reminds us of a number of important spiritual principles that we must make part of our own hearts, I highlight a few here –
It is a great temptation to think that we as people may attain something by our own power. As Christians we should not think this is only about “unbelievers,” no more so about Christians. When we seek our own “wisdom” and “power” above the true wisdom and power of the Gospel and the Holy Fathers, then we are clearly seeking to build a place without God. How terrible it is to build a palace to human pride in the name of God!
Nothing can truly harm us except for sin. Sin is the only evil. The Saint calls us to meditate upon this spiritual principle, Judas fell while in the presence of the Savior, but the righteous Lot was saved while living in Sodom. Our only hope is to guard our hearts in Christ the Lord. In keeping our hearts in Christ they will have deep roots, which are needed so that we are not driven here and there by the winds of perplexity.
There is nothing, most of all for a true Christian, that takes place outside of the Providence of God. The Saint boldly proclaims, If I am God’s, then the Lord will defend and console me.
We must examine ourselves daily to see if we are in the faith. We are exhorted to keep our hearts on fire for the Holy Faith. May we be given the grace to do so when it seems that in our days there are those who bear the name of Orthodox and yet are actively seeking to destroy the Faith. They will not succeed, but we will feel the effects of their godless efforts. Keep your heart steadfast and do not listen to the deceivers of our times.
The enemy is conducting an assault on the foundations of the Church. The Church will stand, let us make sure that we stand with Her in Christ. The Elder admonishes us, Now, it seems, the time of testing has come, to see whether we are in the faith. Now one must also know that the faith can be kept by one who believes warmly and sincerely, to whom God is dearer than everything ….
Well, enough of my own words. I provide the beautiful letter in full below (the title is my own for purposes of this blog). May you be nourished by these words for our times.
Letter of New Hieromartyr Nikon of Optina
Christ is in our midst, dearest mother.
I fervently desire you peace and joy in the Lord, and I ask your holy prayers and mother’s blessing.
About myself, what can I write? I am alive and well, I have no particular needs, I receive everything I need, I labor a little as a secretary, I am busy with various things in the monastery, or rather, things which touch upon in general our common life: I sing on the cliros, and finally, I serve, standing before the holy altar of God.
As for my inward life, my cell and my soul, not everyone can know this. My cell is five yards long and three and a half wide, with one window. The cell is dearer to me than any sumptuous house of halls.
As for the conditions of our common life, this is something which is complicated, but at the same time very simple: complicated, because it is difficult to put on paper what the former monastery is like now, and everything that we are experiencing and doing; but simple because except the Lord build the house, in vain do they that labor build it, in the words of the Psalm (Ps. 126:1). Yes, one must take the measures that are possible, prompted by common sense, which are not contrary to the Christian spirit and monastic life; but, in taking them, one must expect success entirely from the hand of the Lord.
Human pride says: We will do, we will attain – and we begin to build a tower of Babel, we demand of God an accounting for His actions, we desire to have the universe at our disposal, we dream of thrones beyond the clouds – but no one and nothing submits to us, and the powerlessness of man is demonstrated with all apparentness in bitter experience. Observing this experience in the history both of ancient, long-gone days, and of recent times, I have come to the conclusion that the ways of God’s Providence are past finding out for us; we cannot understand them, and therefore we must with all humility give ourselves over to the will of God.
Then, secondly: No one and nothing can harm a man if he does not harm himself; on the contrary, if one does not avoid sin, a thousand means of salvation will not help him. Consequently, the only evil is sin: Judas fell while in the presence of the Savior, but the righteous Lot was saved while living in Sodom. Such and similar thoughts come to me when I take instruction from the reading of the Holy Fathers and when I mentally glance upon my surroundings.
What will happen? How will is happen? When will it happen? If such-and-such happens, which way should one bend? If such-and-such happens, where can one find spiritual strength and consolation? O Lord, Lord! And a fierce perplexity takes hole of the soul when you wish to foresee everything in your mind, to penetrate into the mystery of the future which is unknown but somehow frightful. The mind becomes exhausted, and the plans and methods it has devised are a childish fantasy, a pleasant dream. A man wakes up, and everything has vanished, pushed away by harsh reality, and all one’s plans are destroyed. Where is there hope? Our hope is in God.
The Lord is my hope and my refuge. By giving over myself and everything to the will of God, the will of God will be done in me, and it is always good and perfect. If I am God’s, then the Lord will defend and console me. If for my benefit some temptation is sent to me – blessed be the Lord Who has arranged my salvation. Even in the midst of sorrows the Lord is mighty to give great and most glorious consolation … Thus do I think, thus do I feel, thus do I observe and believe.
From this do not think that I have experienced many sorrows and trials. No, it seems to me that I have not really seen any sorrows yet. If I have gone through things which at a superficial glance seemed to be something sorrowful, they have not caused me any great pain of heart, have not caused any sorrow, and therefore I would not call them sorrows. But I do not close my eyes to what is happening and to the future, so as to prepare my soul for temptation, so that I might say in the words of the Psalm: “I prepared myself and was not disturbed.”
I have not told you that we had an investigation; they reviewed the business of our association. This investigation is not yet finished, and there has been no trial. When the trial will be, and how it will end – God knows. But, beyond any doubt, without the will of God nothing can happen either to me in particular or to us all in general, and therefore I am calm. And when one’s soul is calm, what more can one seek?
Now I have come from the All-night Vigil and am finishing this letter, which I began before the Vigil. O Lord, what happiness! What marvelous words are proclaimed to us in church! Peace and quiet, the spirit of sanctity are sensibly felt in church. The Divine service ends, everyone goes to their homes, and I also come out of church.
A wondrous night, a light frost. The moon with its silvery rays drenches our quiet little corner. I go to the graves of the reposed Elders, bow down to them, ask for their help in prayer, and for them I ask of the Lord eternal blessedness in heaven. These graves say much to our mind and heart; from these cold inscriptions there is a breath of warmth. Before the mental gaze of my mind there stand the wondrous images of reposed giants of the spirit.
During these days I have remembered Father Barsanuphius many times. I have remembered his words, the inscription which he gave me once – and perhaps more than once. He told me: “The Apostle exhorts: Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:15), and he continued: “Look at what the same apostle says: I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; hence forth there is laid up for me a crown (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Yes, it is a great thing to keep, to preserve the faith. Therefore I also tell you: Examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith. If you keep the faith, you can have good hope over your lot.”
When the reposed Elder told me this (and he spoke well, with enthusiasm; as far as I recall it was in the evening, by the quiet light of an icon-lamp in his dear, cozy elder’s cell), I felt that he was saying something wondrous, exalted, spiritual. My mind and heart seized on his words with eagerness. I had heard this utterance of the Apostle before, but it had not produced in me such a response, such an impression.
It seemed to me that “keeping the faith” was something special. I believe, and I believe in the Orthodox way; I have no doubts at all regarding faith. But here I felt that in this utterance there was something great – that indeed it is great, in spite of all temptations, all experiences of life, all the offending things, to keep in one’s heart the fire of holy faith unquenched, and unquenched even until death, for it is said: I have finished my course, that is, the whole of earthly life has already been lived, finished, the path which one had to travel has already been traveled, I am already at the boundary of earthly life, beyond the grave another life already begins, the life which has been prepared for me by my faith which I have kept. I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. And my wondrous Elder gave as his testament to me to test myself from time to time in the truths of the Orthodox faith, lest I might, unnoticed by myself, deviate from them. He advised me, among other things, to read the Orthodox Catechism of Metropolitan Philaret and to become acquainted with the “Confession of the Orthodox Faith of the Eastern Patriarchs.”
Now, when the foundations of the Orthodox Russian Church have been shaken, I see how precious is this instruction of the Elder. Now, it seems, the time of testing has come, to see whether we are in the faith. Now one must also know that the faith can be kept by one who believes warmly and sincerely, to whom God is dearer than everything, and this latter can be true only in one who preserves himself form every sin, who preserves his moral life. O Lord, keep me in the faith by Thy grace!
The idea that the faith can be kept only with a good moral life is not my own; this is the teaching also of the Gospel and the Holy Fathers. Here is what it says in the Holy Gospel according to St John, 3: 19-21: Light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.
Christ here calls Himself the Light. He tries to persuade the Jews of His time to abandon the search for honor from each other, while doing which a man is incapable of faith; but they only mocked … How can ye believe, which receive honor one from another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only? (John 5:44).
And Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, indicating these words of the Gospel, says that like the other passions, the passion of vainglory annihilates faith in the human heart: like them, it makes the human heart incapable of faith in Christ, of confessing Christ … Therefore, I fervently entreat your holy prayers, that the Lord might preserve me from every evil – that is, from sin in all its forms – and then no outward situation will be able to harm me.
I only wished to tell you briefly that I am alive and well and, beyond my intentions, I was drawn into writing this. In writing this letter, I have scarcely been able to follow my thoughts and record what they have dictated to me. All this has somehow involuntarily poured out of my pen, and it represents my profound conviction.
May the Lord preserve us all.
I ask the holy prayers of all, and I myself, according to my own infirm powers, will remember everyone in prayer. Forgive me.
May the grace of our Lord and God Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
November 15-16/28-29, 1922. Optina Monastery.
It is already two o’clock at night.
Source: The Orthodox Word, 1980, vol. 16, no. 2 (91). March-April.
About the author
Husband, father, and Priest.
Schooling: Kharkov State University (Ukraine); Brownsville School of Ministry; St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary (M.Div.).
Author and illustrator of St. Patrick, Enlightener of the Irish Lands (Conciliar Press, out of print) and illustrator of The Life of St. Brigid (authored by Jane G. Meyer).
Proprietor and writer at the Inkless Pen Blog, at which, based on the foundation of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, a wide variety of topics are addressed. Fr. Zechariah has translated some works by St. Dimitry of Rostov and New Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvesdensky), these translations are also available on his blog.