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LIFE OF SAINT ISAAC THE ELDER OF OPTINA (1810-1895)

Saint Isaac, in the assembly of Optina elders, represents a type of ascetic-builder. For 32 years he headed Optina Monastery, devoting himself entirely to the monastery, taking care of the brethren, continuing to create that particular “Optina” spirit that his predecessors planted. He took over the management of the monastery after the death of Archimandrite Moses and was abbot during the flourishing of the monasteryduring the time of the Elder Ambrose, and his successors in eldership, Father Hilarion and Father Anatoly (the Elder). Under his leadership the future Elders Joseph, Barsanuphy, and Anatoly (the Younger) grew and developed. Archimandrite Moses revived Optina Monastery after a period of desolation, and Father Isaac continued his work, consolidating the state of the monastery, while not sparing himself from hard labor for its improvement. Elders Macarius and Ambrose blessed him in the difficult obedience of superior, seeing the high spiritual qualities, prayerfulness, simplicity, and humility of Father Isaac, and from these the ability to take care of the organization of the monastery—both external and internal.

It may seem that the Elder Isaac, who carried the cross of superiorship, dwells, as it were, in the shadow of the elders who spiritually nurtured the monks and pilgrims of the monastery—Ambrose, Hilarion, and Anatoly. Little of his teachings and statements were saved, so that there are not such detailed memories of him. But this is his special achievement—by carrying the heavy burden of economic affairs of the monastery, he served the brethren and pilgrims, revealing an amazing height of humility. Behind his simplicity is an amazing depth, integrity, and strength of spirit. The period of his superiorship was the best time in the life of Optina.

Antimonov Family

Ivan Ivanovich Antimonov (the name of Saint Isaac in the world) was born on May 31, 1810, and was descended from an eminent, wealthy merchant family of the city of Kursk. The Antimonovs had the title of honorary citizens. The patriarchal spirit reigned in the house of the Antimonovs; the way of life was built strictly in accordance with Church rules, and only respect towards elders and obedience to them were accepted. Thus, the skills of piety and obedience, which are so important for a monk, the future ascetic received in his own home.

The head of the house was Ivan's grandfather—Vasily Vasilyevich Antimonov. He was particularly zealous to attend divine services. His eldest son Ivan Vasilyevich had thirteen children from three marriages. Ivan Jr. was the last, fifth child from his first marriage with Anna Puzanov. Little Ivan was a favorite of his grandfather, who often took his grandson with him to the church. Vasily Vasilyevich visited the church every day—he went without fail to the Matins and Vespers services.

Ivan Vasilyevich inherited his father’s piety and love for the Church, according to his upbringing; his simplicity and good disposition towards people produced a favorable impression on everyone. A family story is preserved about Saint Isaac’s father’s journey to Kiev in 1809 to the elder, Hieromonk Parfeny, who greeted Ivan Vasilyevich with the words: “Blessed be the womb that gave birth to a monk.” In raising the young Ivan and other children, he adhered to strict rules but never allowed himself to be rude to the children. He did not raise his hands at them—although at that time this was common in merchant families. The children, while behaving respectfully towards their father, loved him at the same time.

The Antimonov family enjoyed universal respect in the city for impeccable honesty, true piety, and wide charity—they were generous donors for Church needs and helped the needy. In the house there was even a certain day of the week appointed in which alms were given to the poor.

It was in such an atmosphere that Ivan Ivanovich’s years of childhood and youth passed. Details about this period of his life do not survive, but it is known that he was distinguished by modesty and was fond of silence. At the same time, despite his reserved nature, Ivan was endowed with natural gaiety and wit; his presence always enlivened family gatherings.

Life in the World

Upon reaching mature age, Ivan Ivanovich began to help his father in trade affairs. He constantly had to deal with people, give orders, and conduct financial calculations. He knew how to find an approach to a man, and he won people over by his heartfelt kindness and sense of justice. He had the most beneficial influence on his subordinates; he forced them to end any habit of fraud, any attempts to act deceitfully. Immaculate honesty in business earned Ivan Ivanovich universal respect.

Although strict in his requirements, the venerable one never took offense. Such a case is known: one of his workers, a man of obstinate nature, because of the constant punishments that Ivan Ivanovich gave him for carelessness and audacity, decided in his mind to kill him. When this became known to him, Ivan Ivanovich forgave the worker and released him, not handing him over to the hands of justice.

In the life of Ivan Ivanovich there were events that clearly revealed to him the action of the providence of God, which repeatedly protected him from mortal danger. A compilation he himself made of the descriptions of such significant cases has even been preserved. Once, on a feast day, Ivan Ivanovich was obliged to work, weighing goods. Suddenly, the crossbar on which the scales were supported collapsed. Ivan Ivanovich was threatened with death, but, marvelously, the heavy iron rocker weighing 550 pounds did not even touch him. Since then, he vowed not to work on feast days. On another occasion of God’s providential protection, he was leading a horse to a watering place, which creature almost kicked him in the stomach—he managed to block it with his hand, receiving a heavy wound. One incident happened to him in childhood. They sent Ivan, together with the clerk, to escort a herd of bulls, which was a difficult task for the boy. Suddenly, two bulls rushed off to the side; Ivan tried to get them back and rushed after them on a horse. Suddenly the horse stopped at the edge of a deep ditch; he even involuntarily exclaimed, “Ack, Lord, what on earth is this?” After these words, the ditch disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared, and the horse brought him to the herd in utter exhaustion. Another time, on the Black Sea coast where the Antimonovs were fishing, somehow Ivan Ivanovich almost maimed himself, and again salvation came in a miraculous way. All his life he was grateful to God and did not consider deliverance from these misfortunes an accident. These events may also have played a role in the determination of his future path.

The idea of entering the monastery matured in Ivan Ivanovich's soul gradually. While still living in the world, he voluntarily took upon himself the fulfillment of certain feats in the name of the Lord. There is a story passed down that every day during prayer he offered a thousand bows. Even on non-fasting days, he did not eat meat, although this was not noticed by his family members. The love of the Church and divine services, instilled in him by his pious grandfather, awakened an interest in Church singing. Ivan sang on the kliros, gathered chanters at his home on feast days, arranged rehearsals, and studied music notes, some of which he later took with him to the monastery.

One of the obstacles for deciding to leave the world was the fact that it was Ivan Ivanovich himself whom his father saw as his successor. He was gradually handing over to him the management of all the affairs of the Antimonovs. He would not agree to let go of his son, upon whom he placed so many hopes. Meanwhile, one of his eldest sons, Mikhail Ivanovich, entered monasticism in Optina Monastery. Ivan Ivanovich often visited Optina to see his brother. His example had a great influence on Ivan. One time he turned to his brother with a request to give him advice about joining the monastery. Mikhail decisively refused to give such advice, believing that in this matter one should make his own choice.

By this time, Ivan had repeatedly appealed for help from the Optina elders and was convinced of the spiritual strength of their counsels. Ivan Ivanovich’s memory of his first meeting with Elder Leonid was preserved: “Being a worldly man, I came for the first time to Optina Monastery and wished to receive the blessing of Father Leonid. I came to the elder early in the morning. He did not have any people yet. Only some woman was kneeling before him. The cell attendant reported about me: "Ivan Ivanovich Antimonov has come." “Let him wait,” the elder said loudly. I sat in the front on the bench. Having released the woman, the elder loudly called out, “Vanyushka!” By no means did I think that this word was directed at me, so I sat quietly. And the cell attendant, smiling, said, "The batyushka is calling you." To me, who carried myself in such an official manner, such a fatherly address seemed very unexpected. But I was not offended by this at all. On the contrary, such a simple appeal of the great elder appealed to my heart and for some reason very much comforted me; and I still remember this with spiritual delight. “Vanyushka! Come over here,” the elder continued to call me to himself, “I am calling you!...” I went to the elder, took a blessing from him and, standing on my knees, explained to him my circumstances which worried me. The elder, having listened to everything with fatherly love, comforted me very much with his conversation and, as he was letting me go, foretold to me that in time, I also would live in monasticism. And after seven years, the prediction was fulfilled.” Interestingly, the elder referred to Ivan in the same way as his beloved grandfather had once called him. After the death of the Elder Leonid, Ivan Ivanovich, still frequenting Optina, resorted to the advice of the Elder Macarius.

In 1842, Ivan had already decided to leave secretly for Optina, but halfway there, due to his own hesitation and judging that he was going without the blessing of Elder Macarius, he returned to Kursk. A letter he received later from Father Macarius, with a blessing to enter Optina, confirmed his resolution.

At 36 years old, Ivan Ivanovich finally clearly revealed his intention to leave for the monastery. The family tried to dissuade him through yet another unsuccessful matchmaking attempt. His father repeatedly offered someone for him to marry, but each time, for one reason or another, attempts to settle him into a family life failed.

In 1847, his father sent Ivan on trade business to Ukraine. Having fulfilled the assignment, he decided to carry out his long-standing intention and go to Optina Monastery without returning home. Having written a letter to his father in which he announced his decision, Ivan at last went to Optina. It was as if thunder struck Ivan Vasilyevich with the news of his son leaving for the monastery. According to recollection, upon learning of what had happened, the forlorn father exclaimed: “He, the barbarian, has slain me!” Ivan Vasilyevich could not compose himself for a long time, shedding tears over his beloved son. The hardest thing for the one who decides to leave the world is to part with his relatives, to escape from the typical, conventional way of life. After all, the Elder Ambrose, who for a long time did not carry out his decision to leave the world, in the end went to the monastery secretly, without announcing it either to those close to him or the authorities—fearing that, being led by worldly thinking, and out of the best of intentions, they would interfere in bringing his decision to fulfillment. In these situations, the meaning of the words of the Savior, which may seem too “tough,” especially to modern people, becomes obvious: “A man’s enemies shall be those of his own household” (Mt. 11:36).

Even on his way to the monastery, Ivan Ivanovich had to struggle with the desire to turn back. The desire was especially strong at the last station, but he overcame the temptation and arrived happily at Optina Monastery.

In the Monastery

Ivan Ivanovich entered the monastery in 1847, under the Hegumen Moses and the Elder Macarius. At that time, his brother had already been transferred to the Kaluga Tikhonov Monastery as the Hieromonk Meletios and later transferred to the Kiev-Pechersky Lavra. But the brothers maintained amicable relations, and the younger one often turned to the elder for advice; he appreciated his spiritual wisdom.

Ivan Ivanovich was immediately appointed to reside at the Saint John the Baptist Skete. As is the custom, his first obediences were those that especially contributed to the building up of humility and patience in a novice. At first he labored in the kitchen—he baked bread, and later he became a cook. He also performed general brotherly obediences such as haymaking, harvesting potatoes, and other heavy work. He was distinguished by robust health and powerful strength—he could lift weights up to 550 pounds. Although he was of medium height, he was stocky, with fine-looking features, and he stood out among the brethren. He always had a concentrated look that reflected his inner state.

The Elder Macarius favored the novice, whom he knew well before his admission to the monastery. He foresaw the future ascetic in him. Father Macarius particularly appreciated the simplicity inherent in Ivan—a very important quality for a monk. The elder trained the novice towards monastic life. In turn, Ivan Ivanovich devoted himself wholeheartedly to the leadership of the elder. The progress of a monk is not easy—the struggle with passions is accompanied by sorrows "to bloody sweat." The ascetic said that the primordial enemy of the human race strongly disturbed his soul with thoughts of leaving the monastery: “While disturbed by such thoughts, I was walking one time on a path along the skete's fence. ‘Ey! leap over the fence,’—the thought flashed before me. But having reflected a bit, I thought: ‘Yes, if I simply wanted to leave, the gate isn’t even shut.’ Such a contradictory statement to the thought, although unintentional, together with the invocation of help from God, eased the battle.”

The Elder Macarius humbled his disciple, cultivating in him the main monastic virtue—unquestioning obedience. Once his spiritual son carelessly spoke about the customs of the monastery. Father Macarius would not accept him for several days. One time he confessed to the elder about vain thoughts about his strong, beautiful voice, and Father Macarius humbled him, citing as an example a bull, who, possessing a much louder bass, does not pride itself in it.

According to recollections, the Elder Macarius repeatedly predicted to close people that the novice Ivan would become the abbot. He treated him with particular attention, carefully fostering the future instructor of monks.

Ivan Ivanovich showed zeal in everything—he punctiliously attended divine services, coming to the church first and leaving last, not allowing himself any conversations during the time of the service. He also strictly followed the cell rule. Without even having a school education, the lack of which was compensated for by a natural intellect, rich in life experience, novice Ivan engaged himself much in reading the works of the holy fathers, which allowed him to deeply comprehend the science of “inner work.” But the chief guide for him was the elder's advice.

Thus, ascending gradually along the stairs of spiritual virtues, Ivan Ivanovich passed successively through the stages of monastic life. In 1851, he was tonsured as a rassaphor; on October 5, 1854—into the mantia with the name of Isaac. A year later, Father Isaac was ordained a deacon, and in 1858 he was elevated to the rank of hieromonk.

Having left the worldly life without a parental blessing, while still a novice, Ivan painfully endured this rift with his father. Therefore, having lived in the skete for about a year, he, along with the Elder Macarius, went to Kursk to be reconciled with his father. Through the prayers of the elder and with his assistance, peaceful relations were restored. Before his death, 85-year-old Ivan Vasilyevich was even tonsured by Father Isaac in private into the mantia. Receiving the parting blessing of the Mysteries of the holy Church, he peacefully reposed in the Lord.

In 1860, Elder Macarius died. Father Isaac then began to turn to Father Ambrose for advice. And he lived under his guidance until the death of that elder (1891). In 1862, the Abbot of Optina Monastery, Archimandrite Moses, died. It is known that in 1860, foreseeing his end approaching and knowing of the morbid state of Archimandrite Moses, the Elder Macarius had made a trip to Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, who always especially favored Optina. Being warmly received by the metropolitan, Father Macarius expressed to him his desire that after the death of Archimandrite Moses, the position of superior of Optina Monastery would be taken up by the skete Hieromonk Isaac. Vladyka fully endorsed the opinion of Father Macarius, and since then, the election of Father Isaac as superior was already decided. As soon as the rumor of this reached the humble Father Isaac, he immediately went to the elder asking his advice in this matter and trying to reject this appointment. But Father Macarius answered him: “Well, so what, so what? If the will of God is in this and he will elect you, do not refuse. Just do not become proud! Go!”

But when the time came to elect a new superior, most of the brethren voted for the monastery’s superior to be Father Paphnutius. In the minority, the ones who voted for Father Isaac, were actually the oldest and the most revered members of the brethren, however. Vladyka Gerasim, Vicar of the Kaluga Diocese, who was present at the elections, was puzzled by this result. He turned to Father Ambrose and learned that the reposed Elder Macarius had intended Father Isaac as superior. Father Ambrose himself was of the same opinion. The elder did not participate in the elections, in so far as he already promised it to Father Isaac, who did not want to take upon himself the superiorship. Then, by his own decision, Vladyka approved in the appointment to the post of superior—Father Isaac.

At the Head of the Monastery

Father Isaac took charge of the monastery in 1862, at the age of 52, having lived there 16 years until now. The beginning of the activities of the new superior was complicated by the fact that his election took place against the will of the majority of the brethren. Indeed, and even Father Isaac himself did not strive for this calling. It turns out that shortly after taking the superiorship, Father Isaac, while alone with Vladyka Gregory, the Bishop of Kaluga, expressed his grief to him regarding his election as superior, pinned upon him against his will: “I would rather, Your Eminence, have agreed to go to the bakery than to be the superior.”

“Well, so what,” said Vladyka, “if you wish, bake some bread.”

“And who will be the abbot?”

“You will be the abbot.” To these words of His Eminence, Father Isaac could not find anything to say.

Father Isaac carried out the management of the monastery in accordance with the Optina spirit, with which he was thoroughly infused during the years of his life in the monastery under the guidance of the elders. He did nothing without the advice of Elder Ambrose; this was his main principle. Deep spiritual love and full confidence tied the elder with the ascetic-superior. At the beginning of his activity, taking up the work with zeal, Father Isaac wanted to increase the severity of the life of the brethren, but Father Ambrose stopped him, understanding that the desire for spiritual feats should not exceed the strength of the monks, especially the new ones. Father Isaac obeyed without retorting and did not make any changes to the rule.

In every possible way, Father Isaac took careful watch of the preservation of peace among the brothers. He instructed the quarrelsome, inclining them towards reconciliation. “Oh, brothers! Please end in peace,” he appealed to the stubborn ones, and these simple words had an impact. In all the difficult cases, he sent monks to Elder Ambrose, who maintained the spiritual life of the monks at the same height as it was under his predecessors. The grace-filled force that emanated from the elder often compelled a person to submit to his instructions, even against his own will.

Laying upon the elder the spiritual nourishment of the brethren, Abbot Isaac did not abandon his own concern for the upbringing of the monks in the Christian virtues. His instructions were simple, but edifying and effective, because they were the result of life experience and came from a loving heart and a sincere desire for good towards his spiritual children. “Well, look brother, I’m forewarning you, and now see to it for yourself, so that I won’t answer for you before God,” he often said, deeply aware of the responsibility of the abbot before God’s judgment seat for each brother. Tonsures and ordinations were done after proper testing, and the superior was sure to carefully examine each monk and gauge his spiritual condition. He explained to the brethren that tonsure into a ryassophore or mantia is not a promotion to a rank, like secular ranks, but an image of humility.

Father Hegumen Isaac paid special attention to the attendance of brethren at the divine services. If he noticed that someone rarely went to the services, then during the trapeza he would give an admonition to the whole brotherhood: “Holy fathers! You all forget the church. We need to know why we came to the monastery. After all, we have to answer for this before God. I plead with all of you not to forget the temple of God.”

One of the penalties was deprivation of a monthly portion of tea. Almost until his death, Father Isaac himself distributed tea and sugar to the brethren at the beginning of each month, thus being able to talk with everyone, encouraging one and scolding another. If someone expressed displeasure and grumbled at the monastic order, Father Isaac usually answered: “Brother! Take my keys and be the superior, and I will go to fulfill your obedience.” One day, to a monk who was trying to evade his obedience, he said, “Now look! If you do not want to, then you already know how it goes.” With these simple words, the abbot touched him so much that he, throwing himself at his feet, asked for forgiveness and immediately agreed to everything. Then Father Isaac gladly blessed him and said, “This is how it will be better—to obey and reject your own will. You will walk this way, and in all things you will continue to be well and joyful.”

For personal insults, he never punished, trying whenever possible to reason with the offender. One monk, distinguished by his heavy temper, having come to the abbot once, accused him of insolence and even wanted to hit him in the face. But the father hegumen calmly said to the exasperated monk: “Go ahead.” Struck by such humility, the monk turned around and quickly left. The following episode was also remembered: a novice from the well-educated, having left Optina Monastery, wandered for a long time to different places and after a while again appeared to Hegumen Isaac, accused him of being dictatorial and finished with the words: “You are an hegumen, but not smart.” [Note: “smart” in Russian is oomen, like the end of hegumen.] After quietly listening to this reproach, Father Isaac, grinning, replied: “And lo! you are smart, but not an hegumen.”

Improvement of the Monastery

Abbot Isaac used to say, “I received a monastery with a single dime.” This was said in no wise figuratively. Indeed, after the death of Archimandrite Moses, only one dime turned up in the money bag, and that only because it had fallen somewhere in a crack. In addition, there was a great debt against the monastery. Father Isaac was very distressed about how he could manage the monastery with such a debt and lack of funds. But right at the beginning of his superiorship, there followed the unmistakable help of God, which Father Isaac interpreted as an admonition and a blessing for further work. A long-time benefactor of the monastery paid off the debt, and another donor contributed a large amount to the maintenance of the monastery. Afterwards, Father Isaac never ceased to rely on the providence of God, repenting of his faint-heartedness. When the material needs of the monastery were so quickly resolved, he exclaimed: “Lord! I, the ungrateful one, not having hope in Thee, began to complain, and lo, already help is sent by Thee.” The economic life of the monastery always went well with him. Here, fully useful was his rich experience in doing business, acquired in the world.

Hegumen Isaac completed the construction of the church dedicated to All Saints in the new cemetery. The iconostases were renewed in Vvedensky [Entrance of the Theotokos] Cathedral, wall paintings were restored, stone floors were replaced by wooden ones. Later, work was carried out to expand the Kazan Church.

With the expansion of the monastery, the monastic elderly home demanded rebuilding. Elder Ambrose had long wanted to build a church in the name of his patrons, Saint Ambrose of Milan, in honor of whom he was named in monasticism, and the pious Prince Alexander Nevsky—the patron saint of the elder in Holy Baptism. At the expense of admirers of Ambrose's father, the old ruined building in 1885 was rebuilt with a church and two chapels in honor of the patron saints of the elder, as well as a new two-story building for the elderly.

In 1874 a new hospital was built with two floors, with a church in the name of Saint Hilarion the Great—the initiator in this case was the skete superior, Father Hilarion, who in his old age suffered from a difficult prolonged illness. Abbot Isaac also set up a bookstore—it was transferred from an inconvenient room in the gatehouse to a more suitable place and expanded.

The abbot did not tire of taking care of all the needs of the monastery. They acquired forest landand thereby solved the problem of firewood for heating and wood for constructioncompleted the construction of an aqueduct, bought some marshland and, through drainage works, turned it into floodplain meadows, and also built a candle factory. Good wax for making candles, at low prices or sometimes donated, was supplied to the monastery by the nephew of the superior, with good-willed reverence towards the monastery.

The chief assistants to the superior were the treasurer Father Flavian and the clerk, Hieromonk Makarius (Strukov), who spared no effort in working for the benefit of the monastery. Father Isaac encouraged the desire of Flavian’s father to plant gardens and vegetable gardens in the monastery. The places, which used to be filled up with garbage before, were carefully cleared, fertilized and planted with fruit trees and assembled seedbeds.

But the activity of the hegumen concerned not only the needs of the monastery and the brethren; in his presence the pilgrims in the monastery met true fatherly care. By order of Father Isaac, a new guesthouse was constructed and the old guesthouses were improved at the holy gates. For the nuns, who came to the Elder Ambrose for advice, a separate building was constructed where they could stay for free. All visitors to the bookstore were given little icons for free and inexpensive soul-enriching literature as a memento of their visits to the monastery.

The monastery supported the needy, both with alms and various kinds of help. For the wanderers, poor, and needy Father Isaac built a special house of hospitality where, according to his order, about 300 people were fed every Saturday, while giving alms from 10 to 15 rubles to everyone in need. In addition, every day after the brethren’s trapeza, a free-of-charge trapeza was offered to visitors. After acquiring new land at the monastery, the timber forest was more than sufficient for the needs of the brotherhood, so the abbot offered lumber to poor peasant families to build houses free of charge.

When Father Ambrose was engaged in the arrangement of the Shamordino Convent, he began to leave the monastery often, and then moved entirely to Shamordino. For Father Isaac, who was accustomed to having the beloved elder always nearby and being able to quickly turn to him on any issue, it was hard to be separated from his spiritual father. But following the lead of Father Ambrose, he began to treat Shamordino as his precious child; after the death of the elder he defended the sisters and supported them in everything. Even when Vladyka Vitaly, who did not favor the Shamordino Convent, tried to hinder the help that Optina rendered to the young convent, Abbot Isaac, without fear of Vladyka’s dissatisfaction, continued to assist the sisters of the convent—he sent spiritual fathers there to nourish the sisters, and inquired of all their needs.

The long-term activity of Abbot Isaac for the benefit of the monastery did not go unnoticed. Repeatedly, he was recognized with various Church awards. But his unhypocritical humility and modesty never allowed him to be exalted by any distinctions. When in 1872 he was chosen to be elevated to the rank of archimandrite, he evaded this “promotion,” and only in 1885, without asking his consent, was Father Isaac made an archimandrite.

At the end of his life he also had to bear unjust reproach. Denunciations began to arrive to His Grace Vitaly, making it seem as if the Optina abbot, Father Isaac, because of his age, was incapable of administering the monastery. After inquiry and the unanimous confirmation of all the brethren that “their superior is exemplary and they wish to remain under his leadership until his very death,” Bishop Vitaly showed Father Isaac those written denunciations of him, promising to strictly punish those responsible. But he, with tears, asked Vladyka not to punish anyone.

The Spiritual Character of Archimandrite Isaac

Elder Isaac, according to recollections, gave the impression of a stern monk. He was silent, and his eyes were usually lowered in public. At first glance, those who saw the abbot were even initially afraid of his strict appearance. But his main characteristic was amazing simplicity in everything. In his daily life, he did not stand out among the brethren. He dressed like everyone else—he wore an old, worn cassock. He went to trapeza together with the brethren and never had food cooked for him separately. The furnishings of his life were ascetical. Father Isaac occupied two rooms in the superior’s apartment: one served as a bedroom, the other—a prayer room. In the bedroom there was a simple bed with a hard mattress and a desk, at which he engaged in business. It had a clock, inherited from Archimandrite Moses, with the inscription "Do not waste time."

Father Isaac chose the best way to educate and edify the monks—by his own example. His severity towards himself amazed everyone. Father Isaac rose at midnight, fulfilled the cell rule given in the monastery and then went to Matins. The monk in charge of waking him up never found him asleep. To the early vigil he went constantly, commemorating all his relatives and the benefactors of the monastery during the Proskomedia. During the late service and after a short afternoon rest, he received visitors, was engaged in the affairs of the monastery, and at the first ring of the bell for Vespers he hurried back to the church again. He observed fasts with all rigor. On the first week of the Great Fast, even in old age, he always read the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete. He especially liked the services of the Great Fast. Until his last days, he retained a beautiful, deep, low voice; his reading in the church was always clear and imbued the service with prayerfulness.

Having moved involuntarily to the monastery from the skete, Father Isaac reminisced with sadness about the solitary life. When one of the novices came to him, asking him to appoint him to the skete, the superior, praising his intention, said, “This is good. God help you! The skete is a quiet haven. I myself lived in it for 16 years and would go there again and leave my superiorship; blessed are the days that I spent in the skete.”

While occupying the highest position in the monastery, Father Isaac could never allow himself the thought of making any decision without the blessing of his spiritual father, Elder Ambrose. It was on this foundation that the special Optina spirit was built, which made an indelible impression on all visitors to the monastery. The subordination of all the brethren—from the superior to the last novice—to an elder is the submission to God's will, revealed through the elder. Human reasoning, thoughts, and considerations in resolving issues of monastic life are thus eliminated.

How Father Isaac reached gracious humility can be seen from his words to the monk who asked how to conquer pride: “How does one conquer? For this, struggle and self-compulsion to humility are necessary. It does not come suddenly but with time. This is the same as shedding blood. Ask God. Gradually you will be acquainted with humility, and then it will turn into a skill.” Bright episodes have survived, of which it was manifest that the humility in the soul of Father Isaac had indeed turned into a “skill.” Once there was a burial at the monastery. Father Isaac did not reach the grave in time and made his way through the thick crowd of brethren to bid farewell to the dead. Taking one of them by the sleeve, Father Isaac wanted his help to climb on the earth piled at the grave, but he, not noticing the abbot, pushed him away strongly, so that Father Isaac almost fell down. But he was not at all disturbed. He walked away and humbly began to wait his turn. When the visitors who watched this expressed their surprise, some of the brethren remarked, “Truly, we have never seen him ever blame anyone for such actions; by occupation he is our boss, but he behaves like a brother.” Father Isaac never singled out any of the brethren, so as not to embarrass the others, but he was able to, imperceptibly for others, show attention to the weak, sick, or elderly monks, rendering them help with condescension.

Hegumen Isaac happened to be managing the monastery when free-thinking and disobedience to the authorities began to spread like a plague in Russian society. Those who came to the monastery were often already infected with this spiritual illness of their time. Father Isaac tried to impress upon the novices the need for a Christian to be humble and obedient. If a guilty brother sincerely repented, the abbot never remembered his guilt. But if the novice showed stubbornness, boldness, or disobedience, the abbot, without hesitating, expelled him from the community, so as not to disturb the established order or scandalize the newcomers.

The brethren loved their abbot very much, and this was manifested in the fact that among themselves the inmates called Father Isaac “grandfather.” Numerous testimonies of the prayerful assistance of the abbot towards his disciples have survived. Many recognized the strength and effectiveness of his words. Often the monks, coming in frustrated with him, left the “grandfather” forgetting all their sorrows. “What are our sorrows?” Father Isaac said. “We do not have sorrows, but little sorrowshkies. This is the world of sorrow: a wife, children, cares about everything. But what about us? Come on! God is provoked to wrath. It is necessary only to thank Him; we live provided with everything.” If he addressed a person with instruction, it was always deep, wise, and useful to the soul. One of the educated visitors after a conversation with Father Isaac asked, "Father, which university did you attend?" Surprised by such an unexpected question, Father Isaac told her that he had not graduated from any educational institutions. When Father Isaac told the elder about this, they both laughed heartily at this scene.

The Last Days and the Death of Archimandrite Isaac

The state of Father Isaac, even in his advanced years, heretofore distinguished by good health and good spirits, was seriously affected first by the departure of the Elder Ambrose to Shamordino and then by his death. All the years of his superiorship, he was “by the elder,” guided by his help and counsels. These events also influenced the affairs of the monastery; after the death of the Elder Ambrose there were fewer pilgrims, and the donations were reduced. Maintaining the economy of a large monastery was no longer simple.

Owing to these circumstances, the first blow of illness struck Archimandrite Isaac; it was light, though, and the sick one soon recovered. But his health thereafter deteriorated. He wished to take the tonsure into the great schema in private, which was fulfilled by his brotherly confessor, the skete abbot, Father Anatoly. In June 1895, the superior-ascetic was afflicted with a mortal disease—dysentery, and he began to noticeably weaken and prepare for the end. The brethren, seeing the state of the hegumen, were seriously worried about his illness, and the inhabitants began to come in to receive their last instructions and parting words. The elder blessed each with an icon and spoke a profitable word. When asked to indicate his successor, he answered: "The Mother of God herself will indicate to you the abbot." During the whole time of his illness, he listened to the cell rule, and two weeks before his death he began to receive daily the Communion of the holy Mysteries of Christ. He did not resort to medical means, although at the beginning of his illness, at the insistence of the brethren, he once invited a doctor from Kozelsk.

It was a hot summer. It was too stuffy for the sick one to lie in a cell, and he wished to be in the open air. His bed was placed in the courtyard of the his apartment, under the shade of a large tree. Both brethren and visitors flocked here to bid farewell to him. It was moving to see an ascetic surrounded by a crowd of people who each waited with a sinking heart, waiting to approach for a blessing and receive spiritual edification. His last admonition to all was the following: "Live according to your conscience and ask for help from the Queen of heaven, and everything will be fine." Many of them saying goodbye to him wept.

On August 20th, another blow followed, after which Father Isaac could no longer speak. He was transferred to his abbot's chambers, and the dying man expressed a desire to partake of the holy Mysteries of Christ, which was done. In this position, Father Isaac spent two more days without losing consciousness and constantly praying with a prayer rope. On August 22nd, at 8pm, he peacefully reposed in the Lord at the age of 85.

The next day, the body of the deceased abbot was solemnly transferred to the church. On August 24, after the celebration of Divine Liturgy, the rite of burial was performed. The body of the newly departed Archimandrite Isaac was interred in Kazan Cathedral, by the right wall behind the choir.

Let us conclude the life of Elder Isaac with the words of Hieromonk Tryphon, pronounced in the Vvedensky Cathedral of Optina Monastery at the Panikhida service on the ninth day after the death of Archimandrite Isaac: “Behold, his life of asceticism has ended, finished is the difficult battle with the passions and desires, cleansed is the heart, the season of examinations has passed,…and now, we trust that he has flown into the heavenly abodes of light, leaving as a legacy those beginnings by which the purity of the heart and the vision of God are achieved—the cutting off of one's own will and the killing of passions by asceticism. And as long as they are firm among monks, Optina Monastery will be firm. And in their memory let them be established and strengthened in it forever. And this will be his best reward, for we believe and hope that from the height of heaven he will look at the children of his abode and rejoice and be gladdened in their spiritual progress and their search for salvation.”


Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
USA
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