Venerable Macarius of Optina

The future St Macarius was born in 1788 into the noble Ivanov family, and was baptized with the name Michael in honor of St Michael of Tver (November 22). His parents Nicholas and Elizabeth had an estate in the village of Shepyatino in the Dimitrov district in the Orel province. They also owned property in other provinces, including the village of Zhelezniki in Orel Province where they lived. The Ivanovs moved to Moscow in 1794 so Elizabeth could receive medical treatment for tuberculosis.

Michael’s beloved mother died on January 21, 1797, and was buried in the St Andronicus monastery. The nine-year-old Michael moved to the village of Karachev to live with his sister Daria and her husband Simeon Peredelsky, who had been elected to the District Court of Karachev. Michael received his primary education there in the local parish school.

Around 1801, Michael and his two brothers moved into the house of his aunt Anna M. Verevkina, where they were educated along with her own son. In 1802, when he was fourteen, Michael and his brother Alexis were hired as assistant bookkeepers in the District Treasury of Lgov. Although the job was difficult, Michael carried out his duties with precision and care that he attracted the attention of the provincial authorities.

In 1805 Michael was appointed as head of the Financial Board (Treasury) in Kursk. When he was not working, he liked to spend his time reading or playing the violin. Michael’s father died on March 17, 1806 after a long illness, and was buried near the parish church at Turischev.

Michael visited the Ploschansk Hermitage, twenty-four miles from his family’s estate in Schepyatino, in October of 1810. From there he wrote to his brothers saying that he was leaving the estate to them, for he intended to remain at the hermitage. His only condition was that they donate 1000 rubles to build a stone church at Turischev where their father was buried.

Those closest to Michael never knew whether his visit to Ploschansk was accidental or premeditated. He did seem inclined to the monastic life, but perhaps he did not make a final decision to become a monk until he had observed the monastic life at Ploschansk.

Michael entered the Ploscansk Hermitage of the Theotokos at the age of twenty-two. It had no large buildings, no great wealth, and was far from populated areas. Perhaps he was attracted by the unpretentiously humble circumstances of the place. There were fifty monks at the Hermitage, led by Hieromonk Joannicus.

Michael was enrolled as a novice a month after arriving at Ploschansk, and was tonsured as a rassophore on December 24, 1810 with the name Melchizedek. He did not mind the privation and hard work at the Hermitage, but there were no Elders there capable of offering spiritual guidance.

Hearing that Elders of lofty spiritual life were living in the forests of Bryansk, and in the monasteries of the Orel and Kursk dioceses, Fr Melchizedek longed to meet them and profit from their teaching. However, the opportunity did not arise for some time.

In 1814, he went on pilgrimage to Kiev, where he venerated the relics of various saints. On the way back, he met some experienced Elders and was able to converse with them.

Father Paul, who came from a family of Rostov merchants, and who was tonsured on Mount Athos, became the new Superior of Ploschansk in 1815. He noticed Fr Melchizedek’s zeal for the monastic life, and for fulfilling his obediences. On March 7, 1815 Fr Paul tonsured him as a monk with the new name Macarius. A few days later, on March 12, Bishop Dositheus of Orel and Sevsk ordained Fr Macarius as a hierodeacon.

Schemamonk Athanasius (Zakharov), a disciple of St Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15) was visiting Ploschansk in 1815. He had lived at White Bluff Monastery and Florischev Hermitage in the Vladimir Province. While at Ploschansk, Fr Athanasius fell off a bench and dislocated a joint in his leg. He went to Cholnsk Monastery in 1816 and partially recovered, but he could no longer walk without a crutch. In 1817 he returned to Ploschansk, and Fr Macarius moved to his cell to take care of him.

Elder Athanasius had a great influence on the spiritual development of Fr Macarius, who revered him as his Father and teacher. For seven years he had lived in the Neamts Monastery, where he was tonsured by St Paisius Velichkovsky. Fr Athanasius finished the course of his earthly life on October 17, 1825, and died in the arms of Fr Macarius. He had lived at Ploschansk for ten years, and Fr Macarius derived much benefit from his Elder’s example.

Fr Athanasius had copies of the translations of the ascetical Fathers made by St Paisius, and he himself had translated the Life of St Gregory of Sinai, the Catechetical Homilies of St Theodore the Studite, the homilies of St Gregory Palamas, and many other profitable writings. Not only did Fr Macarius read and copy these translations and absorb the wisdom contained in them, he later published them for the benefit of others.

Fr Macarius was ordained to the holy priesthood by Bishop Dositheus of Orel and Sevsk on May 27, 1817. When Igumen Paul retired to the bishop’s residence at Kaluga in 1818, he was replaced by Hieromonk Seraphim, a disciple of Fr Basil (Kishkin), the Superior of White Bluff Hermitage. Fr Seraphim brought good order to Ploschansk, instructing the monks in the spiritual life.

With Fr Seraphim’s blessing, Fr Macarius made a pilgrimage to Kiev in 1819 with Hierodeacon Palladius. There they met Archimandrite Anthony, who later became Archbishop of Voronezh and Zadonsk. On the way back to Ploschansk, the two visited Glinsk Hermitage. Fr Macarius became acquainted with Hierodeacon Samuel, who was experienced in mental prayer. Since Fr Athanasius had never spoken to him of this activity, Fr Macarius was gratified to meet someone who could speak about it from personal experience.

In 1824, Fr Macarius went to Rostov to venerate the relics of St Demetrius (September 21 and October 28). On that same trip he visited Optina Monastery and its new Skete for the first time.

Two of Fr Macarius’s spiritual guides passed away within a short time: Elder Athanasius in 1825, and Igumen Seraphim in 1826. Hieromonk Marcellinus was appointed as Superior of Ploschansk in addition to his duties as Bishop Gabriel’s steward. He continued to live at Orel for two years, while the Ploschansk Hermitage was administered by Fr Anatole, the treasurer.

Fr Macarius was made dean of the Hermitage on June 10, 1826. In January of 1827, he was assigned as confessor at the Holy Trinity Convent of Sevsk. This began his period of spiritual direction and spiritual correspondence which lasted until his death. He did not assume such a role on his own, but only in obedience to the will of the bishop.

In 1828 Fr Leonid (Nagolkin) came to Ploschansk from the St Alexander of Svir Monastery with several disciples. Fr Macarius thought that the arrival of Fr Leonid was the answer to his prayers, for Fr Leonid was a man of great spiritual wisdom. This holy Elder, who had struggled against many visible and invisible foes, was able to give useful advice to those who were experiencing temptations. He understood from personal experience that those who wish to serve the Lord must prepare their souls for temptation (Sirach 2:1). He agreed to Fr Macarius’s repeated requests to accept him as a spiritual son and disciple. When Fr Leonid moved to Optina in 1829, Fr Macarius kept in touch with him through letters.

Fr Macarius visited Optina and Fr Leonid in 1831 on his way to Petersburg, where Bishop Nicodemus of Orel was serving his term in the Holy Synod. He appointed Fr Macarius as treasurer and steward, much to the latter’s chagrin. Fr Macarius did not care for the bustle of the city, and longed to return to the tranquility of the monastery, yet he remained in his position out of obedience to the bishop.

After serving for almost a year in Petersburg, Fr Macarius returned to Ploschansk Hermitage. On the way back, he visited Fr Leonid again at Optina. He also submitted a request to Fr Moses to be admitted to the Skete at Optina as soon as this might be arranged. The desired transfer from Ploschansk to Optina did not take place until January 14, 1834.

Fr Macarius had lived at Ploschansk for twenty-three years, and always retained a certain fondness for the place for the rest of his life. Fr Macarius finally arrived at Optina on February 5, 1834.

At the age of forty-six, Fr Macarius placed himself at the feet of Fr Leonid, humbling himself and demonstrating complete obedience. At first, he helped the Elder with his correspondence, but later his responsibilities increased. In October of 1836 he was appointed as confessor for the monastery. After Fr Anthony was assigned to St Nicholas Monastery in Maloyaroslavets as abbot, Fr Macarius succeeded him as Superior of the Skete on December 1, 1839. Fr Macarius’s relationship with Fr Leonid did not change because of his new position. He never did anything without consulting Fr Leonid, and always attributed any success he achieved to the blessing and prayers of his Elder.

Fr Macarius remained humble and obedient to Fr Leonid until the Elder’s death on October 11, 1841. Even when Fr Leonid was transferred from the Skete to the Monastery in 1836, Fr Macarius visited him every day to ask his advice on various matters.

During his final illness, Fr Leonid told his spiritual children to go to Fr Macarius for spiritual counsel. Seeing in Fr Macarius the same spiritual gifts possessed by Fr Leonid, people recommended him to their friends and acquaintances. As a result, the number of Fr Macarius’s disciples grew larger every year. He was also assigned as instructor of the new novices, and of those who were about to be tonsured.

Fr Macarius received visitors from morning until night, and also kept up an extensive spiritual correspondence. Sometimes he was exhausted by the crowds of people, and by the number of letters he had to write. His humility and love for people who were afflicted in body and in spirit would not permit him to curtail his activities, however.

Fr Macarius had always loved reading and studying patristic literature. At Ploschansk, he had copied many translations done by St Paisius Velichkovsky which were in the possession of Schemamonk Athanasius. His knowledge and understanding of the Fathers increased at Optina under the guidance of Fr Leonid, a disciple of Fr Theodore of Svir, who was himself a disciple of St Paisius. Fr Anthony, abbot of the Skete and Fr Moses, abbot of the Monastery, both encouraged the study of patristic books. Conditions for the publication of these manuscripts, translated and corrected by St Paisius, were quite favorable, for Optina possessed the best copies of these writings.

In 1845, Ivan V. Kireyevsky, the editor of The Muscovite, asked Fr Macarius to write a biography of St Paisius for his magazine. In 1846, Fr Macarius was visiting the Kireyevskys at their estate, and the discussion turned to the lack of spiritual books offering instruction in the Christian life. Natalia Kireyevsky, the spiritual daughter of Fr Macarius since 1838, happened to have some manuscripts of ascetical literature. They both asked Fr Macarius, “What prevents us from offering these spiritual treasures to the world?”

At the beginning of 1847 a biography of Fr Pasius Velichkovsky, with extracts from his writings, was published. Over the course of time, sixteen books of patristic literature were published under the Elder’s supervision, including works by St Nilus of Sora, Sts Barsanuphius and John, St Simeon the New Theologian, and St Isaac of Syria.

In 1853, Fr Macarius resigned as Superior of the Skete of St John the Baptist, and was succeeded by Fr Paphnutius. This took place on November 30, exactly fourteen years from the time Fr Macarius had first assumed the office.

In 1859, one of Fr Macarius’s spiritual daughters, was at the point of death. Maria asked Fr Macarius to pray that God would spare her life so that she could see her son again. The Elder told her that she would recover, and that they would both die around the same time. The old woman told her friends of this prediction, saying, “Beware my death, for it is connected with the Elder’s death. Maria died on August 23, 1860 in the presence of Fr Macarius and Fr Leonid Kavelin.

On August 26, the Elder became ill with ischuria. A doctor who happened to be at Optina saw him and treated him with drugs. Fr Macarius felt worse that evening, and so they sent for a certain nobleman’s personal physician. That doctor was not available, so Fr Kavelin went to another doctor to ask for advice. Fr Macarius showed no improvement, so he received Holy Unction and the life-giving Mysteries of Christ. On September 2, he received two gifts which delighted him. One was an enamel icon of the Vladimir Mother of God from Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, which wore on his breast. The other was a cross containing a relic of the Cross of Christ.

The Elder felt weaker on September 4, and received Holy Communion after Vespers. During his illness the brethren who cared for him read the daily rule of prayer for him at the proper times. He also asked them to read certain portions of the writings of the holy Fathers.

On September 5, Fr Macarius was moved from his small bedroom into the larger reception room where the air was fresher. During the night the ninety-year-old Schemamonk Hilarion reposed, and the church bell was rung three times according to the custom of the Monastery, indicating that one of the brethren had departed. Many of Fr Macarius’s disciples and some visitors in the guesthouse thought that the bell tolled for him. They became alarmed until it was announced that Fr Hilarion had passed away.

The Elder experienced shortness of breath on September 6. He received Communion, and was visited by two doctors, but there was nothing they could do for him. Fr Macarius felt worse that evening, and received Holy Communion a second time around 8:00 P.M. Around midnight he talked with his confessor for about half an hour, receiving absolution and forgiveness of his sins.

Fr Macarius asked to have the prayer for the dying read, which he heard while sitting in a chair. The Canon and Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos were also read, and the Canon to the Sweetest Lord Jesus Christ was read during Matins. During these readings it appeared that the Elder’s sufferings were alleviated.

During the night Fr Macarius asked to be moved several times from the bed to the chair. He was calm and peaceful, and thanked those around him for caring for him. At 6:00 the next morning he received Holy Communion for the last time.

At 7:00 on the morning of September 7, 1860, Fr Macarius departed to the Lord while the Ninth Ode of the Canon for the Departure of the Soul from the Body was being read. Two years before his death, he was secretly tonsured into the Great Schema. Therefore, a schema which had been blessed on the Lord’s Sepulchre was placed on his body. Several Panikhidas were offered for his soul throughout the day.

Fr Macarius was laid to rest on September 10, in a grave prepared for him opposite the altar of the St Nicholas chapel in the main church. He was buried to the right of the grave of Fr Leonid, his friend and fellow ascetic.

The Moscow Patriarchate authorized local veneration of the Optina Elders on June 13,1996. The work of uncovering the relics of Sts Leonid, Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatole I, Barsanuphius and Anatole II began on June 24/July 7, 1998 and was concluded the next day. However, because of the church Feasts (Nativity of St John the Baptist, etc.) associated with the actual dates of the uncovering of the relics, Patriarch Alexey II designated June 27/July 10 as the date for commemorating this event. The relics of the holy Elders now rest in the new church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God.

The Optina Elders were glorified by the Moscow Patriarchate for universal veneration on August 7, 2000.