Letters of Elder Macarius of Optina

St. Macarius
  of Optina

IV. Blessed are they which do
hunger and thirst after righteousness:
for they shall be filled

1. Presumption

For enlightenment on the subject you are worried about, read the Commentaries of John Chrysostom:’ Faith is truly a gift, gained for us through Christ’s advent. But this does not abolish our freedom or responsibility. God desires of us not only faith but action too. However, because of the prevenience of His grace which, through our conscience, summons us to be just and to reverence goodness, we have no occasion to be proud, either of our faith or of our works....

When God, using our conscience, calls us to righteousness and yet our self-will opposes Him, He respects our freedom and lets our own will be done; but then, alas, our minds grow dull, our will slack, and we commit iniquities without number. On the other hand, the fruits of the spirit are soon granted to them who follow the commandments of Christ our Lord....

Our penitence is only true and real when we decide never to revert to our sin. When we do not firmly make this resolve, our penitence is worse than useless. If we continue our indulgence in a sin, when we have already recognized it for what it is and regret its hold on us, we show that we unreasonably count on God’s readiness to forgive. This unreasonableness is quite as much to be condemned as despair. [51]

2. Repentance

You are, of course, quite right: there is no room for doubt! The Lord does indeed long to gather all into His arms. All-but particularly the worst sinners.

This truth must, however, be rightly interpreted, rightly understood: the Lord calls to Him all sinners; He opens His arms wide, even to the worst among them. Gladly He takes them in His arms, if only they will come. But they have got to make the effort of coming. They must seek Him, go to Him. In other words, they must repent. It is not that He rejects those who do not repent. He still longs for them, and calls them. But they refuse to hear His call. They choose to wander away, in some other direction. [781

You say that whenever you go to confession, you are so feverish with fear that, losing your memory, you cannot collect your thoughts; you stammer or else stand dumb.

I conclude that when you appear before your confessor you are possessed by a great agitation. It is quite impossible to feel penitent, to be distressed about one’s sins, in this condition. Beware: the enemy has found a useful weakness in you, and he is attacking you in your most vulnerable spot: your vainglory....

We should go to confession filled with awe, steeped in humility, transfused by hope. Filled with awe, because we have offended God; steeped in humility, because we are fully conscious of the portent of our villainies; transfused by hope, because we are begging forgiveness of our loving Father, whose Son took up our sins and nailed them to the Cross, there to wash them with His own precious blood.

If you ponder this all fear should vanish. Fear is the backwash of that great agitation which springs from false shame blended with pride and vainglory. And it is this that overcomes you when you are confronted by the task of exposing the secret chambers of your heart to a servant of the altar.

Think of the publican and the prodigal son: you are both of them; and God is not only just, but also merciful. This should give you the courage necessary to regain your poise. But if you still find it difficult to remember all you ought to say, ask your confessor’s permission to write it down, and glance at your notes during confession. There are examples of this practice in the teaching and life stories of the Fathers. [162]

An easy-going dismissal of our sins, the light-hearted decision that they are unimportant, betrays a lack of sensitiveness, a blind spot in the eye of our mind, a blemish of death in that which should be living.

As to this grief without reason that you say besets you, accept it as a spiritual cross. Accept it humbly, patiently, gratefully. The courageous bearing of this cross washes away our sins and frailties. Sometimes it even makes us perceive, at last, other sins of ours of which we were previously unaware. [177]

Since you diligently read the Gospels and the Fathers, you must know that no sin of ours can equal our Creator’s mercy, let alone exceed it....

If, at confession, you have been pardoned a sin committed in the past, it is unnecessary to mention it again. But it may sometimes be useful to ponder it, so that your repentance should not be dulled. See, however, that this does-not lead to depression. If it should, drop it at once.

But try to combat the stoniness of your heart through intensifying your humility, not through calling forth tears; these are a special grace and should not be striven after. [191]

Without fear of God, beset by passions as we are, we cannot hope to accomplish God’s will and train ourselves to love Him and our neighbour. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death (Prov. 14:27)....

The three mightiest warriors in the enemy ranks are the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (I John 2:16); when, aided by our self-love, they gain a foothold in our mind and heart, the portcullis of our soul is soon opened to a host of other sins and vices which then beset us on all sides and at all times....

Beware of the usual temptation to think of God as abundantly lenient, before you have sinned; and to think of Him as wrathful, harsh, and unforgiving, after you have sinned. A sure way to despair, this is clearly a snare of the devil. [261]

Through your spiritual reading you have now come to see that you are weighed down under many heavy crosses, heaped on you by the world, the flesh, and the devil. And you are distressed, terrified.

Let not your heart be troubled! (John 14:1). Rather, rejoice. Think: you are no longer only a soldier of the Tsar but also a soldier of the king of Heaven. You have joined those who wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12).

May despair never afflict you. In all extremities call out: Save, Lord, I perish (Matt. 8.25). And, while living in accordance with the commandments, keep strictly to the path of penitence and humility: the narrow path! [93]

3. Trust in providence

Listen! God Himself says, Call upon me in the time of trouble; so will I hear thee, and thou shalt praise me (Ps. 50:15-16). Afflictions confirm us in our faith, and teach us to set worldly glory at nought. Believe firmly that no suffering or sorrow can visit us-not a hair of our heads can fall-without God intending it. Although we are always inclined to put down our misfortunes to the ill-will or stupidity of other men, these are, in reality, only tools in the hand of God. Tools, used to fashion our salvation. Therefore take heart and pray to our Lord who is always at work for our salvation, using to this end both what we call happiness and what we call sorrow. [423]

Since your desire to attend church services is good, this overpowering anxiety about what may happen to your children while you are away from home can be nothing but a subtle temptation.

A father’s presence in the home is naturally a great help to all; but since David the Prophet says, The Lord preserveth the simple (Ps. 116:6), can you think that your presence alone, without His help, is worth anything to them? On the other hand, surely His care is sufficient without your presence. And if God should allow some accident to befall one of them, could you prevent it, even if you were on the spot at the time?

When you leave home to go to church, commit your children to the care of our Lady and their guardian angels. In church, pray for them. But do not put off going there because of unreasonable scruples, anxieties and fears. [203]

To us, who firmly believe in Providence, even the most bitter adversities are but a movement of the hand of God; a movement of the hand of our Lord who is never weary of drawing man’s attention to his personal way into the infinite; never weary of pointing out this way.

But for them who lack our faith the sorrows of this world are truly bitter. Is it to be wondered that the death of one they love leaves them disconsolate for life? [84]

Do not indulge despondency and distress if illness prevents you from going to church. The Apostle has told us that we ourselves are the temple of the living God.’ Let that temple suffice you.

You, particularly, who say you receive special graces in church, should beware of spiritual pride, and recognize that you are now deprived of frequenting this source of graces because you are not worthy of them. The humbler we grow, the more firm and secure our spiritual life becomes.

Be active, of course; never cease being active; but do not hope to achieve much for your own salvation either by your works or by your merits. It is only the mercy of our Lord that saves us. [107]

Having learned of the calamity that has visited you, the temptations that beset you, I hurry to send a word of counsel and consolation. Was there ever a man who did not require the help of God and the support of fellow-men in moments of great sorrow? Even the wisest of us are, alas, inclined to lose clarity of thought and serenity of heart at such moments....

Since you are not, and can in no way consider yourself to be, guilty of the crime you are accused of, accept this visitation as a punishment for other wrongs that you have committed.

All that happens to every one of us is permitted by God. So you must realize that even this He has permitted; for your good, for the washing away of some of your sins. Strive calmly to review the whole of your life, seeing it of a piece as He does. Then, diligently uproot the evil you must, inevitably, discover after such an examination. And abstain from accusing others even in your most secret thoughts: accusations only destroy our peace of mind, they serve no purpose at all. [260]

None of your suffering has come by chance. Nothing can happen to us without our Lord’s consent; and His consent is not only wise but always dictated by His love of us. Carefully examine your conscience and your life, and I am sure you will understand what I mean. Sorrow weighs you down? Never mind. The grateful heart, humble and wise-the heart which has become grateful, humble, and wise-will be greatly consoled and blessed with serene joy. [341]

To hold the faith does not only mean that we believe God to be our Creator. It also means that we recognize His unceasing and detailed attention to our good. This, however, our weak mind stifled by the gloom of our passions is, mostly, incapable of perceiving....

It is not a dulling of ourselves under the downpour of sorrows, a schooling of ourselves in lack of sensitiveness, that we should seek, but the art of gratefully accepting and bearing sadness.

And remember: it isn’t really the weight of this or that sorrow that overwhelms us. No, the onrush of grief is unsettling only to the unbalanced heart. Strive for the inner composition of peace. [42]

Do not worry about the future, the Lord is kind! Strive only to act strictly in accordance with His commandments in the present. And harbor no enmity towards any one, Live peaceably with all men (Rom. 12:18). [144]

4. Dependence on grace

When the enemy inserts despair into your heart, conjuring up in your mind thoughts of past sins so black that there can be no hope of pardon, refrain from weighing your own merits against your sins. Think only of the merits of Christ our Lord: the only merits that afford our salvation.

Remember, too, that Mother Church prays for all sinners, at every Eucharist. [110]

After a careful study of your disposition, which life has encouraged you to undertake, you have at last come to see that you have never loved; nor do you know or understand anything about love. And now you ask what is the best way to learn something about it. I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), said the Lord. And all His teaching is a teaching of love and meekness. But however we may strive to practice any of this, we must always remember that without Me ye can do nothing (John 15:S), and that even when we have done all the things that are commanded us, we can still only say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do (Lk. 17:10).

Our achievements must never loom large in our eyes; only our failures. But this must never lead us to despondency-the constant temptation-only to humility....

We are told by our Lord humbly to bear persecution. Notice the word. He does not say the punishments we merit for our misdeeds. (That goes without saying.) But what He insists on is our gladly accepting unjust persecution for our good deeds. [243]

As I wrote before your last letter reached me, I cannot possibly come and stay with you just now; my Lenten duties are numerous and there is no one to replace me here.

Write and tell me all in detail. If you should find it easier to write as though it was another man’s story, do so. I shall understand. Take courage. Do not fall into despair even in the darkest moments of the fight. But rather choose these specially to fling yourself on the mercy of our Lord, offering Him your stricken self and begging for His help. I warmly approve of your intention to go to confession at once and then to communion. [313: to the same correspondent as 312]

Praised be the Lord that Absolution and Communion have so completely healed you. But remember His words, Behold thou art made whole: sin no more (John 5:14). [314: to the same correspondent as 313 and 312]

5. Co-operation with grace

I cannot think why my saying that I am unable to help you without our Lord’s succour and without your own effort should have caused you such consternation. How could I possibly assume that, on my own, I can be of any use to anyone? Actually, when asked to help, I pray fervently, recognizing the full weight of my sinful unworthiness, and fully aware that it is only in obedience to our Lord’s command that I dare attempt anything at all. But even with God’s concurrence, my prayers and efforts must still be of no avail if your will is not exerted.

Remember the story of the two kings, David and Saul.

Two most holy men prayed for them, Nathan for David, Samuel for Saul. And yet only David was forgiven. Why? Dimitri of Rostov’ says it is because David fasted, wept and prayed all through the night, while Saul never thought of doing anything of the kind, but only sought distraction and amusement.

Now let us assume that because of God’s grace, working through the sacraments of Penance and Communion, you yourself do obtain forgiveness for the past. So far so good. But the onslaught of evil will be renewed and, if you are not to fall even more pitiably than before, your will must be keyed to heroic resistance. Therefore I insist: if I am to help you your will must be exerted.

In your letters you go on to say that even when your will is set in the right direction, it is still hopelessly weak. That doesn’t matter. Let this weakness be a source of humility, Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak! (Ps. 6:2). Resolutely steer the right course and hope for the best. Search the most hidden meanders of the dark labyrinths that surround the luminous core of your heart. And uproot pride wherever you find the weed.

When the dark passions seem to be getting the better of you, refuse to lose heart. Alone, you were weak indeed, but with God’s help you are mighty strong. Steeling your own will to do His, humbly throw yourself on His mercy. If you do so, my prayers will be of the greatest help to you. [316]


From Russian Letters of Direction 1834-1860 Macarius Starets of Optino, by Iulia De Beausobre. Originally published March 1944 by Dacre Press, Westminster. Copyright 1975 St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

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