Leo Nagolkin, the future St Leonid, was born in Karachev in the Orlov Province in 1768. As a young man he worked for a merchant, making long and frequent trips on his employer’s business. He met all sorts of people, and this experience helped him later in life when visitors of diverse backgrounds would come to him for spiritual advice.
Leo first entered Optina Monastery in 1797, but remained for only two years. Then he went to White Bluff monastery in the Orlov diocese, where Hieromonk Basil (Kiskin) was igumen. He tonsured Leo as a monk in 1801, giving him the new name Leonid. In December of that year, Fr Leonid was ordained as a deacon and then as a priest.
Fr Leonid’s rise to prominence was unusually rapid. He was an example to others in the way he fulfilled his obediences, and this attracted the notice of his superiors. In 1804, after only five years at White Bluff, he was appointed by Bishop Dorotheus of Orlov and Svensk to succeed Fr Basil as igumen.
Before assuming his new duties, Fr Leonid spent some time at Cholnsk monastery, where he met Schemamonk Theodore, a disciple of St Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15). Fr Theodore, who was about ten years older than Fr Leonid, was also from Karachev. Under his direction, Fr Leonid learned a great deal about spiritual struggles and how to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Fr Leonid was saddened when he had to leave his wise Elder in order to assume his responsibilities at White Bluff. Their separation was not long, however, because Fr Theodore moved to White Bluff in 1805. Their frequent conversations inspired him to even greater progress in the spiritual life.
Fr Theodore longed for solitude, and was permitted to live in a cell about a mile from the monastery with his disciple Fr Cleopas. Fr Leonid joined them after resigning as igumen in 1808. It is possible that Fr Leonid may have been tonsured into the Great Schema with the name Leo during this time.
The fame of these ascetics soon spread throughout the area, and many visitors came to seek their advice. They found these distractions detrimental to their spiritual struggles, and they resolved to move to a more remote place.
Fr Theodore was the first to leave. In 1809 he stayed briefly at New Lake Monastery. Then Metropolitan Ambrose of St Petersburg sent him to the Palei Island Hermitage, where he remained for three years. Fr Theodore moved to the All Saints Skete of Valaam Monastery in 1812. Fr Leonid and Fr Cleopas also moved there in 1812, and were reunited with Fr Theodore. Hieroschemamonk Cleopas died in 1816, and Fr Leonid and Fr Theodore moved to the St Alexander of Svir monastery.
Tsar Alexander I visited the monastery in 1820 in order to meet these Elders, of whom he had heard. They replied to the Sovereign’s questions with the briefest of answers, since they did not want to seem too talkative. When he asked for their blessing, Fr Theodore told him that he was not an ordained monk. The Tsar bowed and went on his way.
Fr Theodore went to the Lord on April 7, 1822 (Bright Friday). After this Fr Leonid left the monastery to live in a more secluded place with some like-minded disciples. Archbishop Ambrose (Podobedev) of Kazan knew about Fr Leonid, and was willing to receive him in his diocese. Fr Leonid was also invited to live at the Ploschansk Hermitage in the Orlov diocese. Fr Leonid, however, chose to accept the invitation of St Moses (June 16) to live at Optina. Bishop Philaret of Kaluga also wanted Fr Leonid to live at Optina, but it was not possible for him to do so just then.
Fr Leonid had to remain at the Svir monastery for five more years before he was allowed to leave. In April of 1829 he arrived at Optina with six of his disciples. He was given a cell in the Skete, near the apiary. Cells were also found in the Skete for his disciples.
The arrival of Fr Leonid marked a new chapter in Optina’s history, for it was he who introduced eldership at this monastery. Guidance by an Elder has always been recognized as a sure and reliable path to salvation. It spread from the deserts of Egypt and Palestine to Mt Athos, and later to Russia. Fr Leonid received this teaching from Fr Theodore, the disciple of St Paisius Velichkovsky. Through Fr Leonid and his disciple St Macarius (September 7) eldership was established at Optina.
With the arrival of Fr Leonid, the whole way of life at Optina was changed. Nothing important was ever done without his knowledge and blessing. Each evening the brethren came to him to discuss their spiritual needs and to reveal how they had sinned in thought, word, or deed during the day. He offered consolation in their sorrows, advice in their spiritual struggles, and help in resolving their problems.
St Leonid’s wisdom and spiritual counsels made him known outside of Optina. People from cities and villages, of all social classes, flocked to Optina seeking his help. He treated their spiritual afflictions with the knowledge and experience he had gained after thirty years of living in asceticism. Sometimes he healed their physical infirmities as well, anointing them with oil from the lamp that always burned before the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God in his cell.
Fr Macarius (Ivanov) moved to Optina Skete from Ploschansk in 1834. He had been under the guidance of an Elder who had been a disciple of St Paisius Velichkovsky. After the Elder’s death Fr Macarius felt orphaned, and prayed that God would send him an experienced spiritual guide. His prayers were answered when Fr Leonid came to Ploschansk in 1828. Even after Fr Leonid left Ploschansk Fr Macarius stayed in touch with him through letters.
At Optina Fr Macarius assisted the Elder with his correspondence, and in the spiritual care of the brethren and those who visited Fr Leonid. After 1836 Fr Macarius became the spiritual Father of the Monastery. Although he had been the spiritual Father of the Sevsk convent for more than seven years, he regarded himself as nothing. Disdaining human glory, he was content to submit his will to Fr Leonid in all things. Fr Leonid, in turn, showed similar humility toward Fr Macarius, regarding him as a friend and fellow laborer rather than a disciple.
Even though he had a high regard for Fr Macarius, he was mindful of the saying of St John of the Ladder that in the first place, a spiritual guide would be deprived of a reward himself if he did not correct those under them. Secondly, the spiritual guide acts unjustly when he might bring profit to others, but does not do so. Thirdly, even those who are hard-working and patient might suffer harm if they are left for a time without reproaches from the Superior, for then they can lose the meekness and patience they once had (Step 4:27). Therefore, he gave Fr Macarius many opportunities to win the crown of victory by testing his patience so that others might benefit by the example of his humility.
One day Fr Macarius was summoned by the igumen Fr Moses, who asked him to sponsor some of the brethren at their tonsure. Regarding the igumen’s request as a command, he merely bowed and left. He went to see Fr Leonid, who was surrounded many people seeking his advice, and informed him why Fr Moses had sent for him.
Fr Leonid gazed at him sternly and asked, “What did you do? Did you agree to it?”
“I almost agreed,” Fr Macarius replied, “or perhaps it is better to say that I did not dare to refuse.”
“That is typical of your pride,” the Elder said. Then he raised his voice and reprimanded Fr Macarius as though he were really angry with him.
Fr Macarius bowed continually, asking forgiveness. Those who were present were astounded by this. Finally, when Fr Leonid fell silent, he bowed and said, “Forgive me, Father. Do you bless me to refuse?”
“How can you refuse?” he demanded. “You asked for this yourself, and now you wish to refuse? You cannot refuse, it has been settled.”
On the other hand, Fr Leonid showed his love and respect for Fr Macarius by confiding him, and by making him his helper and coworker.
Fr Leonid’s spiritual influence extended beyond Optina, and he established eldership in two other monasteries of the Kaluga diocese. There were also nuns from other dioceses who were guided by Fr Leonid. In three women’s monasteries (in Belev, Sevsk, and Borisov), some of his disciples were more advanced in the spiritual life than others. These became Eldresses for the other sisters both during Fr Leonid’s lifetime and after his repose.
Fr Leonid endured persecution during 1835-1836 over the institution of eldership at Optina. Those who instigated the persecution were unlearned people who did not understand the concept of eldership, regarding it as an innovation. Even some of the monks complained to the bishop about Fr Leonid, but they were not always successful.
Bishop Gabriel of Kaluga visited Optina and was favorably disposed toward Fr Moses. In the presence of all the brethren, he reprimanded the malcontents and ordered them to correct themselves.
Some of the monks, however, remained unhappy with Fr Leonid because of the many visitors who came to him. They sent reports to the bishop complaining that the peaceful routine of the monastery was being disrupted. Nicholas, the new Bishop of Kaluga ignored these reports at first. Then a false accusation against Fr Moses and Fr Leonid was sent anonymously to the bishop. Bishop Nicholas, for whatever reason, ordered that Fr Leonid leave his cell near the apiary and go to live in the Monastery. He would not allow Fr Leonid to receive the laity of either sex. Since there was no cell available in the Monastery, Fr Leonid moved to a cell in the Skete. A directive was sent in 1836 ordering Fr Leonid to move to the Monastery without fail. The igumen Fr. Moses and the Skete Superior Fr Anthony were caught in the middle. They knew Fr Leonid was innocent, yet they had to obey the bishop.
In 1837 Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev visited Optina accompanied by Bishop Nicholas of Kaluga. The Metropolitan had known Fr Leonid previously at White Bluff Monastery, and he showed his respect for the Elder and for the igumen Fr Moses. The detractors of Fr Leonid and Fr Moses were taken aback by this. Even Bishop Nicholas began to give less weight to the complaints, and Fr Leonid’s position began to improve.
In the years before his death, Fr Leonid had to endure another trial. This time it affected his spiritual children at the Belev Convent of the Exaltation of the Cross.
The nuns of Belev were under the Eldress Anthia, who had advanced under the guidance of Elder Leonid. Abbess Epaphrodite was pleased to see how Mother Anthia and those close to her had cut off their own will, purified their thoughts, and uprooted the passions. Seeing that the abbess loved these nuns for their spiritual progress, some of the other nuns became jealous. One in particular complained to her spiritual Father and spread false stories about Mother Anthia and the sisters.
The priest was already inclined to believe evil against Mother Anthia, and he also resented the fact that they went to Fr Leonid for spiritual counsel. He began spreading accusations and slanders against Fr Leonid, for he did not understand the nature of eldership. Hearing rumors that the priest had uncovered a new heresy at the Belev Convent, Bishop Damascene of Tula summoned him and Mother Epaphrodite in order to question them. He believed the priest’s erroneous opinions and decided to take action. In February of 1841 he ordered the expulsion of Mother Anthia and one of the other sisters from the convent.
Fr Leonid was labeled as a troublemaker and a rebel against authority, but he bore everything with patience. He was ordered to leave his cell by the apiary and move to a cell as far as possible from the monastery gates. He was also forbidden to receive lay visitors.
In the end it was Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev who interceded with the Bishop of Tula on behalf of Fr Leonid. He also helped Mother Anthia and the other nun. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow also wrote to Bishop Damascene, who came to realize that he had been deceived by the priest’s misguided zeal which was not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Both of the expelled sisters were received back into the convent on October 4, 1841, just a week before St Leonid’s death.
Fr Leonid’s health began to decline in September of 1841, and he was ill for five weeks. He refused to see a doctor or to take any medicine, however. He received Holy Unction on September 15, and from that time he began to prepare for death. He said farewell to the brothers who came to him, and blessed them. He also gave each one something as a remembrance, an icon, a book, etc.
He received Holy Communion on September 28, and requested that the Canon for the Departure of the Soul be read. The brethren were grieved by this, but the Elder told them that perhaps they would have to read the Canon several times for him. In fact, it was read eight times before his death.
Between September 28 and October 11, he took no food, but only a little water. He was strengthened by the life-giving Mysteries of Christ, however. During the last two weeks of his life, Fr Leonid received Holy Communion twelve times. After October 6 he could no longer stand up, and he asked the brethren to pray that the Lord would shorten his sufferings.
On the morning of October 11, 1841 St Leonid received the Holy Mysteries, and was visited by Basil Braguzin, who was known in the area as a fool for the sake of Christ. Braguzin had foreseen the Elder’s repose and had journeyed more than 180 kilometers to bid him farewell.
At ten o’clock that morning, the Elder began to cross himself and say, “Glory to God.” After repeating this many times, he became quiet. Later, he spoke again to those around him saying, “Now the mercy of God will be with me.” After an hour or so, he became very joyful despite his physical pain. He could not hide his happiness at the blessings he was about to receive, and his face grew more radiant.
That evening he said farewell to those who were with him and silently blessed them. They left the room, and only one disciple remained with the Elder. At 7:30 he closed his eyes and surrendered his soul to God.
The saint’s body remained in the church for three days with no sign of an odor. His body was warm, and his hands remained soft. From morning until night the church was filled with people who came to pay their respects. St Moses served the funeral on October 13 with all the hieromonks and the hierodeacons who were present. Fr Leonid was buried near the main church of the Entrance of the Theotokos, opposite the chapel of St Nicholas.
Bishop Nicholas of Kaluga visited Optina in 1843 and served a panikhida at the grave of St Leonid. He told the igumen and the brethren he regretted the fact that he had not properly appreciated the Elder during his lifetime, and had even believed some unsubstantiated rumors about him, which caused him to regard Fr Leonid with suspicion and distrust. He acknowledged that he was wrong to believe what certain people had told him, and expressed a hope that the Elder’s biography would be published someday.
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 of Moscow 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.