Letters of Elder Macarius of Optina

St. Macarius
  of Optina

V. Blessed are the merciful:
for they shall obtain mercy

1. Life in the world

I am glad that you have come to see that a life lived in the world can be as good, in the eyes of God, as one spent in a monastery. It is indeed only the keeping of God’s commandments, love of all, and a true sense of humility that matter, wherever we are. [106]

2. Wealth

In ancient times, following the call of God, many men left the world. Using, with God’s help, the weapon of humility, and following, with God’s help, a rule of life entirely shaped in view of one end, they overcame all needs of the flesh. Requiring nothing of the world, they sought no riches. But their virtue attracted crowds of others, who hoped to find the way to salvation under the guidance of those who had forsaken the world.

Soon, mighty God-fearing princes sent treasures for the upkeep of the settlements. After much prayer, the Fathers would sometimes accept the gifts, distressed that this should entail the breaking of their vow of silence. But they never accepted any gift unless they had received a clear intimation that God wished them to: because of the multitude of souls which-both in the immediate and in the distant future-would thereby find salvation.... Out of the fullness of their hearts, people bring to the shrines of saints some a pound, some a shilling, some a penny. The saints require none of this. And certainly God doesn’t. But He gladly accepts the heart’s pure impulse; that is always an acceptable sacrifice. [43]

I cannot approve of your intention to send your son to B. Nor can I understand why you should attach so much importance to the special commercial training he would get there. What is the point of learning how to make greater profits?

As I see it, he can very well be trained at home in everything that really is important. He need not leave home to become a good Christian, a kindly man, a respectful son. Nor need anyone wander abroad to learn prayer, and respect for the Church and for the servants of the altar. Are we more likely to acquire, far from home, the wish to work for the profit of our own soul and for the profit of the souls of others? Or to learn to love our neighbor? Or to be sober in all things? Or to lead a pure life? Or to resolve never to hurt another’s feelings? Or to keep our humility alive and active?

You are quite rich enough as it is; your land not only provides an honest income for yourself and your family, but makes it possible for you to extend your charity to the needy. The tilling of the soil was blessed by God at the beginning of time. Be satisfied with the profit He sends you for your honest toil.

The small commercial business that has sprung up around it is quite big enough. Why seek to make this subsidiary side of your life grow? It is wiser to refrain from doing so. Remember: They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil (I Tim. 6:9-10). [208]

Living in the world, surrounded by your family, you cannot possibly give away all your possessions. So you must aim at finding the golden mean, and strive to keep to it: never turn your back on the world, but see to it that the world does not engross you.

All things that your children require you should carefully keep for them. Any surplus of any kind, give away to the needy. [233]

Your impulse to help these poor people, whose houses were destroyed by fire, is good. But it will remain good only if you temper your impulse with reason. And, although your help must be kept within reasonable limits, give your mite with a feeling of deep compassion. But, above all, be reasonable.

Even if you gave all you have, you could not properly alleviate the intense misery of them all. On the other hand, you have your family to care for and must strive to keep them comfortable, although it is right to dispense with all luxury for yourself and for them. But beware of the temptation to be unreasonably lavish. Besides, if you should follow this impulse on the spur of the moment, you would regret it later when it became clear that your children were doing without bare necessities. Then you would be well caught in the cauldron of a great and hopeless agitation. Humble yourself and find peace. [238]

There is much on charity both in the Old and New Testament. God smiles on the compassionate heart. Every time a beggar knocks at your door, try to perceive Christ Himself under the humble disguise. Would you, under any circumstances, let Christ knock in vain?

The moral qualities of the individual beggar have nothing to do with it; that is Christ’s concern, not yours. Who are you to judge your brother? Christ is using his hand and mouth to test your compassion of Himself. Will you fail Him?

But, rather than cut down your allowances to your poor relations, I should recommend careful examination of your own expenses, with a view to cutting down a multitude of unnecessary little luxuries. There is a large margin between this and “failing to live up to the requirements of your station,” which is certainly not what you should aim at. This, a self-righteous form of shirking your responsibilities, would be quite wrong....

Self-love is not natural to man. It is the result of original sin, which is contrary to man’s true nature. [396]

3. Wages

I gladly give you my blessing. Do, by all means, ask your master to raise the pay of his workmen. Withholding, in one way or another, a decent living wage which would make the toilers’ life bearable, so that they could praise the Lord for it, is a great evil which cries to heaven for vengeance. May these distressing conditions be eradicated in your concerns. God bless your decision. If you succeed, weary men will weep with joy on the eve of our great festival, and will join their prayers to mine for you and for your master. [427]

4. Work

I haven’t time to write much but want to send you, without delay, a word of encouragement and my blessing. It is certainly right that after much searching of the heart and mind, you have accepted this new responsibility.

If I had time I could quote endless texts to the point, but will sum them all up in these words: living in the world, benefiting by the worldly society of men, it is a sin to evade responsibilities and to thrust them on others.

May God constantly increase your wisdom and humility! I shall pray. [302]

I know the editor of the Moskovityanin’ well. A religious and intelligent man,’ he wanted religion, morality, and learning to be united in the pages of his journal. I upheld him in this, because I think such an effort particularly valuable at a time when the majority of people who call themselves learned are trying to tear religion and leaming asunder. Unfortunately, ill health now forces him to do little himself, and he is obliged to leave most of the work to other, lesser men. [306]

Tell your wife that it is unreasonable of her to be distressed because your son finds his new job hard. Did not the Lord God say, In the sweat of thy face (Gen. 3:19)? Besides, what would happen if he did not work hard? Idleness begets many vices and he is of an age when the lusts of the flesh easily beset and overcome us. Arduous work often prevents this.

And if it is the lowliness of the job that distresses her, tell her that she is suffering from pride, which she should busy herself uprooting. Tell her from me to rejoice, praise the Lord, and spend more time at prayer. All work is good, but prayer is the best work of all. [422]

I am glad that your wife is no longer upset about your son’s work. It is excellent that he should be learning the actual work before training as manager. This will help him to acquire a right judgment on many problems which would otherwise escape him. A manager should have inside knowledge of the life of those whom he directs. [424: to the same correspondent as 422]

5. The life of religion

You say your incapacity to resist temptations, your slowness to conquer your passions, and your general moral debility depress you greatly, which only proves that you count on acquiring salvation by your own merits.

I, however, would have you bear this in mind: you such as you are today-could perhaps rid yourself of every one of the sins that depress you; but only at the price of developing one that is the root of them all. And yet, the thought of this one has, apparently, never depressed you: because you have never suspected it was there. For good reason, it is your pride.

But look: if we are humble, God helps us to fight our sinfulness; if we are proud, He does not. And how can we acquire humility unless we are constantly humbled through seeing ourselves as we are-the worst of sinners? Unless we are constantly brought to our knees in penitence?

If our daily work-the constant fight against passions and inertia-did not keep us on the alert, we should come to live in an illusion of our sinlessness, joyously nursing our pride. And we would soon be wallowing in the abominable sin of imagined saintliness.

You may be sure that when you enter the monastery, and, particularly, when you are professed, this fight will grow even more intense; in order that, perceiving your utter worthlessness, you may work at uprooting your pride....

You say that your father has at last consented to your becoming a nun. Praised be the Lord! You have my blessing for it too. But remember that this step must be taken with the utmost care. Do not tear the bonds that still unite you with your family and friends. Before cutting them, loosen them gently.

But the chief thing for you now is to pray that God’s will may be done. Abandon yourself to it completely. [134] Regarding your suggestion that your sisters’ great distress, and the calamities that have befallen them. are the result of their not having kept the vow they made, I cannot say if this is so or not. But we must always remember how merciful a master our Lord is.

If it is true that they have failed to carry out their vow only because of circumstances that are beyond their control or for lack of money, they should do penance, disclosing the whole situation to their confessor. Do not doubt that the Lord will pardon them.

But it may be as well for them to ask their confessor for a dispensation from this impossible undertaking. He could easily substitute for it another, to be carried out as an obedience. This may be best, in the long run. [211]

Do not think that even here any one of us constantly enjoys consolation. No: here, as everywhere, flesh and mind are at war; here as everywhere, there is falling into pride and purification through humbling: here, as everywhere, we long for consolations but must learn to carry a weighty cross. This cross tests our love. Can we, do we love God even under the weight of the most bitter adversities? [92]

Your condemnation of the nuns of X. is as wrong as your ideas on monasticism are erroneous. The call to the Life does, of course, come from God, although we accept it in full freedom to save our souls. But in order that men may recognize their spiritual sores, they require long tests, many temptations, and bitter sorrows; all of which purifies the heart and restores health to the stricken soul, sundered from the All-Good at the time of the Fall. Therefore monasteries are not, and cannot be the “quiet havens ringing with prayer and filled with calm, unruffled obedience” which you imagine them to be. This illusion of yours is an ugly one indeed, since such an existence were a mechanical one, far from perfection and in no way leading to it.

Although you can know nothing of the sinister temptations and grim fight waged by religious, you may get an idea of what I mean if you carefully read the four first Rungs of John Climacus. In practice, you will never know any of this, and there is no need for you to study it in detail. Still, it is good to try to see that, reacting rightly to such gossip, religious may use it for their own betterment and turn it into a weapon of perfection. Some of us cannot attain to simplicity, meekness, and humility without the help of sharp shocks: such gossip, spread by scandalmongers, and the actual fires of which such gossip is the greatly exaggerated, lurid smoke....

But your immediate concern should be with yourself. Strive hard to be a Christian wife and a Christian mother. This is not easy. If you do strive for it, you, in your world, will find as many snares and pitfalls as we do in ours. Yours may be of a different kind but they are no less difficult to evade. Remember always that, once we have decided consciously to strive after righteousness, we cannot escape catastrophes and sorrows, no matter where we are. [251]

You have accomplished one of the tasks set before the faithful: filled with admirable zeal, you not only visited the shrines of saintly men and women, but devotedly followed the steps of our Master in the Holy Land.

Through all these efforts you acquired great spiritual treasures, and the hardships and temptations that now beset you are apparently intended as a test. Prove, through bearing up manfully, that you really have made these spiritual treasures completely yours; prove to yourself and us that nothing can wrest them from you. Accept this visitation with gratitude and whole-hearted composure. You will soon perceive that the treasures you had formerly acquired now shine with a new brightness. [222]

Do not exaggerate the blessings enjoyed by those who frequently visit us; abstain from rashly concluding that your own work prevents you from coming here because, in God’s eyes, you are “unworthy of obtaining grace.”

Everyone who comes here receives spiritual benefit according to his faith. Those whose faith is poor find little benefit, and, sometimes, none at all. On the other hand, God is the Lord of all places. Now-since the IncarnationJerusalem is no longer the only sanctified spot; the whole earth shines with glory; there is no place whence the incense of prayer cannot rightly rise. The manna of the Word of God rains down on every city and every wilderness; the incorruptible feast can be partaken of in the humblest church of the poorest village; the living waters of grace can be drunk by all who courageously and unflinchingly seek Him who says, I f any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink (John 7.37). [299]


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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