Lives of all saints commemorated on May 9

Bright Thursday

On Bright Thursday the Gospel reading is John 3:1-15, which mentions the Pharisee Nicodemus who came by night to speak to Christ. The Lord told him that a man could not see the Kingdom of God unless he were born again. Nicodemus, taking Him much too literally, could not understand how such a thing was possible.

The Savior then clarified His words, saying that one must be born “of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), referring to Baptism. Nicodemus, however, still found it difficult to understand Him.

The Lord said, “If I have told you of earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:12).

The reading from Acts 2:38-41 also speaks of Baptism. St Peter told the crowd, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you... and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The main focus of today’s readings is on Baptism, but they also point to other things. We are to raise our mind and understanding from earthly to heavenly things, and to seek the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Prophet Isaiah

The Holy Prophet Isaiah lived 700 years before the birth of Christ, and was of royal lineage. Isaiah’s father Amos raised his son in the fear of God and in the law of the Lord. Having attained the age of maturity, the Prophet Isaiah entered into marriage with a pious prophetess (Is 8:3) and had a son Jashub (Is 8:18).

St Isaiah was called to prophetic service during the reign of Oziah [Uzziah], king of Judea, and he prophesied for 60 years during the reign of kings Joatham, Achaz [Ahaz], Hezekiah and Manasseh. The start of his service was marked by the following vision: he beheld the Lord God, sitting in a majestic heavenly temple upon a high throne. Six-winged Seraphim encircled Him. With two wings they covered their faces, and with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew about crying out one to another, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with His glory!” The pillars of the heavenly temple shook from their shouts, and in the temple arose the smoke of incense.

The prophet cried out in terror, “Oh, an accursed man am I, granted to behold the Lord Sabaoth, and having impure lips and living amidst an impure people!” Then was sent him one of the Seraphim, having in hand a red-hot coal, which he took with tongs from the altar of the Lord. He touched it to the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah and said, “Lo, this has touched thy lips, and will take away with thine iniquities, and will cleanse thy sins.” After this Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord, directed towards him, “Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?” Isaiah answered, “Here am I, send me” (Is 6:1 ff). And the Lord sent him to the Jews to exhort them to turn from the ways of impiety and idol worship, and to offer repentance.

To those that repent and turn to the true God, the Lord promised mercy and forgiveness, but punishment and the judgment of God are appointed for the unrepentant. Then Isaiah asked the Lord, how long would the falling away of the Jewish nation from God continue. The Lord answered, “Until the cities be deserted, by reason of there being no people, and the land shall be made desolate. Just as when a tree be felled and from the stump come forth new shoots, so also from the destruction of the nation a holy remnant will remain, from which will emerge a new tribe.”

Isaiah left behind him a book of prophecy in which he denounces the Jews for their unfaithfulness to the God of their Fathers. He predicted the captivity of the Jews and their return from captivity during the time of the emperor Cyrus, the destruction and renewal of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Together with this he predicts the historical fate also of the other nations bordering the Jews. But what is most important of all for us, the Prophet Isaiah with particular clarity and detail prophesies about the coming of the Messiah, Christ the Savior. The prophet names the Messiah as God and Man, teacher of all the nations, founder of the Kingdom of peace and love.

The prophet foretells the birth of the Messiah from a Virgin, and with particular clarity he describes the Suffering of the Messiah for the sins of the world. He foresees His Resurrection and the universal spreading of His Church. By his clear foretelling of Christ the Savior, the Prophet Isaiah deserves to be called an Old Testament Evangelist. To him belong the words, “He beareth our sins and is smitten for us.... He was wounded for our sins and tortured for our transgressions. The chastisement of our world was upon Him, and by His wounds we were healed....” (Is 53:4-5. Vide Isaiah: 7:14, 11:1, 9:6, 53:4, 60:13, etc.).

The holy Prophet Isaiah had also a gift of wonderworking. And so, when during the time of a siege of Jerusalem by enemies the besieged had become exhausted with thirst, he by his prayer drew out from beneath Mount Sion a spring of water, which was called Siloam, i.e. “sent from God.” It was to this spring afterwards that the Savior sent the man blind from birth to wash, and He restored his sight. By the prayer of the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord prolonged the life of Hezekiah for 15 years.

The Prophet Isaiah died a martyr’s death. By order of the Jewish king Manasseh he was sawn through by a wood-saw. The prophet was buried not far from the Pool of Siloam. The relics of the holy Prophet Isaiah were afterwards transferred by the emperor Theodosius the Younger to Constantinople and installed in the church of St Laurence at Blachernae. At the present time part of the head of the Prophet Isaiah is preserved at Athos in the Hilandar monastery.

For the times and the events which occurred during the life of the Prophet Isaiah, see the 4th Book of Kings [alt. 2 Kings] (Ch 16, 17, 19, 20, 23, etc.), and likewise 2 Chr:26-32).

Martyr Christopher of Lycia

The Holy Martyr Christopher lived during the third century and suffered about the year 250, during the reign of the emperor Decius (249-251). There are various accounts of his life and miracles, and he is widely venerated throughout the world. St Christopher is especially venerated in Italy, where people pray to him in times of contagious diseases.

There are various suggestions about his descent. Some historians believe that he was descended from the Canaanites, while others say from the “Cynoscephalai” [literally “dog-heads”] of Thessaly.

St Christopher was a man of great stature and unusual strength. According to tradition, St Christopher was very handsome, but wishing to avoid temptation for himself and others, he asked the Lord to give him an unattractive face, which was done. Before Baptism he was named Reprebus [Reprobate] because his disfigured appearance. Even before Baptism, Reprebus confessed his faith in Christ and denounced those who persecuted Christians. Consequently, a certain Bacchus gave him a beating, which he endured with humility.

Because of his renowned strength, 200 soldiers were assigned to bring him before the emperor Decius. Reprebus submitted without resistance. Several miracles occurred along the way; a dry stick blossomed in the saint’s hand, loaves of bread were multiplied through his prayers, and the travellers had no lack thereof. This is similar to the multiplication of loaves in the wilderness by the Savior. The soldiers surrounding Reprebus were astonished at these miracles. They came to believe in Christ and they were baptized along with Reprebus by St Babylus of Antioch (September 4).

Christopher once made a vow to serve the greatest king in the world, so he first offered to serve the local king. Seeing that the king feared the devil, Christopher thought he would leave the king to serve Satan. Learning that the devil feared Christ, Christopher went in search of Him. St Babylas of Antioch told him that he could best serve Christ by doing well the task for which he was best suited. Therefore, he became a ferryman, carrying people across a river on his shoulders. One stormy night, Christopher carried a Child Who insisted on being taken across at that very moment. With every step Christopher took, the Child seemed to become heavier. Halfway across the stream, Christopher felt that his strength would give out, and that he and the Child would be drowned in the river. As they reached the other side, the Child told him that he had just carried all the sins of the world on his shoulders. Then He ordered Christopher to plant his walking stick in the ground. As he did so, the stick grew into a giant tree. Then he recognized Christ, the King Whom he had vowed to serve.

St Christopher was brought before the emperor, who tried to make him renounce Christ, not by force but by cunning. He summoned two profligate women, Callinike and Aquilina, and commanded them to persuade Christopher to deny Christ, and to offer sacrifice to idols. Instead, the women were converted to Christ by St Christopher. When they returned to the emperor, they declared themselves to be Christians.Therefore, they were subjected to fierce beatings, and so they received the crown of martyrdom.

Decius also sentenced to execution the soldiers who had been sent after St Christopher, but who now believed in Christ. The emperor ordered that the martyr be thrown into a red-hot metal box. St Christopher, however, did not experience any suffering and he remained unharmed. After many fierce torments they finally beheaded the martyr with a sword. This occurred in the year 250 in Lycia. By his miracles the holy Martyr Christopher converted as many as 50 thousand pagans to Christ, as St Ambrose of Milan testifies. The relics of St Christopher were later transferred to Toledo (Spain), and still later to the abbey of St Denis in France.

In Greece, many churches place the icon of St Christopher at the entrance so that people can see it as they enter and leave the building. There is a rhyming couplet in Greek which says, “When you see Christopher, you can walk in safety.” This reflects the belief that whoever gazes upon the icon of St Christopher will not meet with sudden or accidental death that day.

The name Christopher means “Christ-bearer.” This can refer to the saint carrying the Savior across the river, and it may also refer to St Christopher bearing Christ within himself (Galatians 2:20).

Martyr Callinike of Lycia

St Callinike was converted by St Christopher, and suffered for Christ with St Aquilina.

St Christopher was brought before the emperor, who tried to make him renounce Christ, not by force but by cunning. He summoned two profligate women, Callinike and Aquilina, and commanded them to persuade Christopher to deny Christ, and to offer sacrifice to idols. Instead, the women were converted to Christ by St Christopher. When they returned to the emperor, they declared themselves to be Christians.Therefore, they were subjected to fierce beatings, and so they received the crown of martyrdom.

Martyr Aquilina of Lycia

St Aquilina was converted by St Christopher, and suffered for Christ with St Callinike.

When St Christopher was brought before the emperor, the emperor tried to make him renounce Christ, not by force but by cunning. He summoned two profligate women, Callinike and Aquilina, and commanded them to persuade Christopher to deny Christ, and to offer sacrifice to idols. Instead, the women were converted to Christ by St Christopher. When they returned to the emperor, they declared themselves to be Christians.Therefore, they were subjected to fierce beatings, and so they received the crown of martyrdom.

Translation of the relics of St Nicholas the Wonderworker from Myra to Bari

St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia. The Transfer of the Relics from Myra of Lycia to Bari in Italy His Life is found under December 6.

In the eleventh century the Byzantine Empire was going through some terrible times. The Turks put an end to its influence in Asia Minor, they destroyed cities and villages, they murdered the inhabitants, and they accompanied their cruel outrage with the desecration of churches, holy relics, icons and books. The Mussulmen also attempted to destroy the relics of St Nicholas, deeply venerated by the whole Christian world.

In the year 792 the caliph Aaron Al’-Rashid sent Khumeid at the head of a fleet to pillage the island of Rhodes. Having lain waste this island, Khumeid set off to Myra in Lycia with the intent to rob the tomb of St Nicholas. But instead he robbed another tomb standing alongside the crypt of the saint. Just as they succeeded in committing this sacrilege, a terrible storm lifted upon the sea and almost all the ships were shattered into pieces.

The desecration of holy things shocked not only Eastern, but also Western Christians. Christians in Italy were particularly apprehensive for the relics of St Nicholas, and among them were many Greeks. The inhabitants of the city of Bari, located on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, decided to save the relics of St Nicholas.

In the year 1087 merchants from Bari and Venice went to Antioch to trade. Both these and others also proposed to take up the relics of St Nicholas and transport them to Italy on the return trip. In this plan the men of Bari commissioned the Venetians to land them at Myra. At first two men were sent in, who in returning reported that in the city all was quiet. In the church where the glorified relics rested, they encountered only four monks. Immediately forty-seven men, having armed themselves, set out for the church of St Nicholas. The guards, suspecting nothing, showed them the raised platform, beneath which the tomb of the saint was concealed, and where they anointed foreigners with myrrh from the relics of the saint.

At this time the monks told them about an appearance of St Nicholas that evening to a certain Elder. In this vision St Nicholas ordered the careful preservation of his relics. This account encouraged the barons, they saw an avowal for them in this vision and, as it were, a decree from the saint. In order to facilitate their activity, they revealed their intent to the monks and offered them money, 300 gold coins. The guards refused the money and wanted to warn the inhabitants about the misfortune threatening them. But the newcomers bound them and put their own guards at the doorway.

They took apart the church platform above the tomb with the relics. In this effort the youth Matthew was excessive in his zeal, wanting to find the relics of St Nicholas as quickly as possible. In his impatience he broke the cover and the barons saw that the sarcophagus was filled with fragrant holy myrrh. The compatriots of the barons, the priests Luppus and Drogus, offered a litany, after which the break made by Matthew began to flow with myrrh from the saint’s sarcophagus. This occurred on April 20, 1087.

Seeing the absence of a container chest, the priest Drogus wrapped the relics in the cloth, and in the company of the barons he carried them to the ship. The monks, having been set free, alerted the city with the sad news about the abduction of the relics of the Wonderworker Nicholas by foreigners. A crowd of people gathered at the shore, but it was too late.

On May 8 the ships arrived in Bari, and soon the joyous news made the rounds of all the city. On the following day, May 9, 1087, they solemnly transported the relics of St Nicholas into the church of St Stephen, not far from the sea. The solemn bearing of the relics was accompanied by numerous healings of the sick, which inspired still greater reverence for God’s saint. A year afterwards, a church was built in the name of St Nicholas and consecrated by Pope Urban II.

This event, connected with the transfer of the relics of St Nicholas, evoked a particular veneration for the Wonderworker Nicholas and was marked by the establishment of a special Feast day on May 9. At first the Feast day of the Transfer of the Relics of St Nicholas was observed only by the people of the city of Bari. It was not adopted in the other lands of the Christian East and West, despite the fact that the transfer of the relics was widely known. This circumstance is explained by the custom in the Middle Ages of venerating primarily the relics of local saints. Moreover, the Greek Church did not establish the celebration of this remembrance, since they regarded the loss of the relics of St Nicholas was a sad event.

The Russian Orthodox Church celebration of the memory of the Transfer of the Relics of St Nicholas from Myra in Lycia to Bari in Italy on May 9 was established soon after the year 1087, on the basis of an already established veneration by the Russian people of the great saint of God, brought from Greece simultaneously with the acceptance of Christianity. The glorious accounts ot the miracles performed by the saint on both land and sea, were widely known to the Russian people. Their inexhaustible strength and abundance testify to the help of the great saint of God for suffering mankind. The image of St Nicholas, a mighty wonderworker and benefactor, became especially dear to the heart of the Russian people, since it inspired deep faith and hope for his intercession. The faith of the Russian people in the abundant aid of God’s saint was marked by numerous miracles.

A significant body of literature was compiled about him very early in Russian writings. Accounts of the miracles of St Nicholas done in the Russian land were recorded at an early date. Soon after the Transfer of the Relics of St Nicholas from Myra to Bari, a Russian version of his Life and an account of the Transfer of his holy relics were written by a contemporary to this event. Earlier still, an encomium to the Wonderworker was written. Each week on Thursday, the Russian Orthodox Church honors his memory in particular.

Numerous churches and monasteries were built in honor of St Nicholas, and Russian people are wont to name their children after him at Baptism. In Russia are preserved numerous wonderworking icons of the saint. Most renowned among them are the icons of Mozhaisk, Zaraisk, Volokolamsk, Ugreshsk and Ratny. There was no house or temple in the Russian land in which there was not an icon of St Nicholas the Wonderworker.

The significance of the intercession of the great saint of God is expressed by the ancient compiler of the Life, in the words of whom St Nicholas “did work many glorious miracles both on land and on sea, aiding those downtrodden in misfortune and rescuing the drowning, carried to dry land from the depths of the sea, raising up others from corruption and bringing them home, liberating from chains and imprisonment, averting felling by the sword and freeing from death, and granting healing to many; sight to the blind, walking to the lame, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute. He brought riches to many suffering in abject poverty and want, he provided the hungry food, and for each in their need he appeared a ready helper, an avid defender and speedy intercessor and protector, and such as appeal to him he doth help and deliver from adversity. Both the East and the West know of this great Wonderworker, and all the ends of the earth know his miracle-working.”

Repose of the Venerable Shio the Anchorite of Georgia

An Antiochian by birth, St. Shio of Mgvime was among the Thirteen Syrian Fathers who preached the Christian Faith in Georgia. His parents were pious nobles who provided their son with a sound education.

When the twenty-year-old Shio heard about the great ascetic labors of St. John of Zedazeni and his disciples who labored in the wilderness, he went in secret to visit them. St. John promised to receive Shio as a disciple, provided his parents agreed to his decision.

But when Shio returned home he said nothing to his parents about what had transpired.

Time passed and Shio’s parents both entered the monastic life.

Then Shio sold all his possessions, distributed the profits to the poor, widows, orphans, and hermits, freed all his family’s slaves, and returned to Fr. John.

St. John received Shio joyfully, tonsured him a monk, and blessed him to remain in the wilderness. He labored there with St. John for twenty years. Then John was told in a divine revelation to choose twelve disciples and travel to Georgia to increase the faith of its people. Shio was one of the disciples chosen to follow him on this holy mission.

The holy fathers arrived in Georgia and settled on Zedazeni Mountain. Then, with the blessings of Catholicos Evlavios and Fr. John, they dispersed throughout the country to preach the Word of


At his instructor’s command, St. Shio settled in the Sarkineti caves near Mtskheta and began to lead a strict ascetic life. There was no water there and many wild animals made their home in the caves, but the privations and tribulations he encountered did not shake St. Shio’s great faith. Like the Prophet Elijah, Shio received his food from the mouths of birds that carried it to him.

Once, after St. Shio had prayed at length, a radiant light appeared suddenly in the place where he was, and the Most Holy Theotokos and St. John the Baptist stood before him. After this miraculous visitation St. Shio began to pray with even greater zeal, and he would spend hours alone in the wilderness.

Another time, St. Evagre (at that time ruler of Tsikhedidi and military adviser to King Parsman) went hunting in the Sarkineti Mountains. There he encountered St. Shio and, astonished by his piety, resolved to remain there with him. The news of the ruler’s conversion soon spread through all of Georgia, and many people flocked to witness the venerable father’s miraculous deeds. Many remained there with them, following St. Evagre’s example.

Once St. Shio prayed to God to reveal to him the place where He desired a church to be built. He placed a lump of hot coal in his hand and sprinkled incense on it, as though his hand were a censer. Then he followed the smoke as it swirled up from the hot coal. In the place where it rose straight up like a pillar, he took his staff and marked the ground where the church would be built.

When King Parsman heard about his military adviser’s radical change of life, he was deeply disturbed and wandered into the wilderness to find him. But when he witnessed the divine grace shining on St. Shio’s face, he took off his crown and knelt humbly before him. Fr. Shio reverently blessed the king, helped him to stand up, and replaced the crown on his head. Following the king’s example, all the royal court came to receive Shio’s blessing. A certain nobleman with an injured eye knelt before St. Shio, touched his eye to the holy father’s foot, and received healing at once.

At another time King Parsman asked St. Shio if there was anything he needed, and he answered, “O Sovereign King, God enlightens the hearts of kings. Do that which your heart tells you!” In response, the king donated much wealth for the construction of a church in the wilderness: the lands of four villages, a holy chalice and diskos, a gold cross, and an ornately decorated Gospel that had belonged to the holy king Vakhtang Gorgasali (†502).

When construction of the church was complete, the king traveled there in the company of the catholicos, several bishops and St. John of Zedazeni. The hierarchs consecrated the newly built church, and a monastic community soon grew up on its grounds. Eventually, the number of monks laboring at King Parsman’s monastery grew to nearly two thousand. Many people visited this place to receive St. Shio’s wonder-working blessings, and they were healed from many diseases.

St. Shio performed many miracles: Once a wolf that had been prowling the monastery grounds ravaged a herd of donkeys. When St. Shio heard this, he prayed to God to transform the wolf into the protector of the herd. From that time on the wolf grazed peacefully among the other animals.

With the blessings of both his teacher, John of Zedazeni, and the catholicos of Georgia, St. Shio gathered his disciples, advised them on the path they should follow, appointed Evagre his successor as abbot, and went into reclusion in a well that he had dug for himself. There St. Shio spent fifteen years in prayer and fasting. Finally, when God revealed to him that his death was approaching, St. Shio partook of the Holy Gifts and lifted up his hands, saying, “O Lord, receive the soul of Thy servant!”

Later, during one of the Persian invasions, the soldiers of Shah Abbas uncovered the holy father’s relics and carried them back to Persia. In the same year Persia was ravaged by a terrible plague, and the frightened invaders returned the holy relics to the Shio-Mgvime Monastery.

Venerable Joseph of Optina

Saint Joseph of Optina was born on November 2, 1837 in the village of Gorodishcha in the province of Kharkov. His name in the world was John Litovkin, and his parents Euthymius and Maria were simple but pious people. They were generous to the poor, and often lent money to those in need even when there seemed little chance that it would be repaid. Euthymius also loved to receive monks who came to his door collecting alms for their monasteries. Invariably, he would give each one five rubles for the needs of the monastery.

The Litovkins had six children, and they often read to them from spiritual books, especially from the Lives of the Saints. The second of their three sons (the future St Joseph) was baptized with the name John in honor of St John the Merciful (November 12). Instead of providing them with earthly wealth, the couple endowed their children with heavenly treasures, raising them in piety, obedience, and in the fear of God.

John learned to read even before he started school, taught by his older sister Alexandra at home. He was a sickly child, nearsighted and hard of hearing in one ear. He also met with various accidents. Once he was knocked down by another child and bit off the tip of his own tongue. Another time he was scalded with boiling water. In spite of all this, he was a happy and affectionate child. His father knew there was something special about John, and others also believed that God’s special favor was upon the boy.

When he was only four, John’s beloved father died, and his mother had to raise the children herself. When he was eight, John was playing with some friends, and suddenly froze on the spot. He raised his arms and his head toward the sky, then fell down unconscious. They carried him home and put him to bed. When he awoke, they asked him what had happened. He told them that he had seen the Queen of Heaven in the air.

“What makes you think you saw the Queen?” they asked.

“Because she had a crown with a cross,” he replied.

From that time on, the boy became more quiet and thoughtful, and started to avoid children’s games. Soon after this, the family moved into a new home. There was a great fire in the village, and John prayed that the Mother of God would protect their house from the flames. The Livotkin home was spared, even though everything around it was burned.

In 1848, their mother died during an outbreak of cholera. John was only eleven at the time. His older brother Simeon and his sister Anna were both married before their mother passed away, and his sister Alexandra had gone to the Borisovsk monastery in Kursk Province to become a nun. Simeon became the head of the family, although his drinking problem made him rather unreliable. Simeon took care of John for a while, and their younger brother Peter went to live with Anna. Simeon decided to leave home, and so John was placed in the care of various people, including a tavern keeper and a grocer.

Unable to endure conditions in the homes of such people, John went to live with a cousin who was a deacon in Novocherkassk. He ate nothing on his journey, for he was ashamed to beg, and people did not offer him any food on their own. When he arrived at the church where his cousin served, John sat down outside and waited for the Liturgy to end. Two women with rolls passed by and took pity upon him. One of them gave him a warm roll, which the boy regarded as manna from heaven.

John stayed with his cousin for a brief time, then moved on to other places, taking various jobs to support himself. Later in life he was asked whether he had ever had a girlfriend when he was living in the world. He shook his head and said, “Since I was nearsighted, I couldn’t really see anyone at a distance, and I was too shy to approach anyone up close.”

While living in the world John was often unhappy, and he found consolation in prayer and in church services. One day he received a letter from his sister, Mother Leonida, suggesting that he enter the skete at Optina, which was blessed with experienced Elders. Then the desire to leave the world and embrace the monastic life began to grow within him.

Learning that John was planning to make a pilgrimage to the Kiev Caves, the man for whom he was working offered him his daughter in marriage. Years later Fr Joseph would say, “It’s always that way. As soon as one begins to think of following the path to salvation, obstacles and tempataions begin to appear.”

With his employer’s permission, John started out for Kiev. On the way, he stopped to visit his parents’ graves and the place where he had spent a happy childhood. He stayed briefly at the Dormition Monastery in Kharkov’s Holy Mountains, but he did not wish to remain there. Finally he went to the Borisovsk Women’s Hermitage to visit his sister, Mother Leonida. She had spoken to St Macarius of Optina (September 7) of her concern for John. He told her not to worry, because John would become a monk.

Mother Leonida’s Eldress, Schemanun Alypia, overheard some of their conversation and said to John, “Forget about Kiev. Go to the Elders at Optina.” Mother Leonida gave him a look indicating that John should obey.

He traveled to Optina with some nuns of the women’s monastery at Belev, driving the cart for them. St Macarius had already departed to the Lord in 1860, and was succeeded as Elder by his disciple, St Ambrose (October 10). Knowing of John’s monastic inclinations, the nuns jokingly introduced him as “Brother John.” St Ambrose replied solemnly, “This Brother John will prove useful to us, and to you.”

On March 1, 1861 John found himself standing before the Elder Ambrose, telling him of his life, and asking for a blessing to go to Kiev. Fr Ambrose told him to remain at Optina, forseeing the blessings he would bring to Optina, and to the women’s monasteries which were under the guidance of the Optina Elders. Taking St Ambrose’s words as an indication of God’s will, John murmured, “May it be blessed.”

John, like all new novices, was given an obedience in the kitchen. He was assigned to help the cook in the skete. From the very start, John demonstrated perfect obedience and humility. Life in the monastery was everything he had hoped it would be, and he was glad to leave the tumult of the world behind.

In June the Superior of the Skete, Fr Paphnutius, asked John if he would like to move in with the Elder Ambrose as his cell-attendant. The next day he moved to the Elder’s quarters, where he remained for the next fifty years. As happy as he was to be near the Elder, he was disturbed by the constant flow of visitors. He felt that there was no time to pray or go to church, and began to have misgivings. He was tempted by the thought that perhaps he would be better off in Kiev or on Mount Athos, and did not notice that Fr Ambrose had entered the cell. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard the Elder say, “Brother John, it’s better here than it is on Athos. Stay with us.”

John realized that his thoughts had been sent by the Enemy of our salvation, and he fell down at Fr Ambrose’s feet in repentance.

On April 15, 1872 he was tonsured as a rassophore (wearer of the rassa), then on June 16, 1872 he was tonsured as a monk, receiving the name Joseph in honor of St Joseph the Hymnographer (April 4). He was unexpectedly ordained as a deacon in 1877 in a way which demonstrated that God was directing the course of his life.

On December 7 (Fr Ambrose’s nameday), Igumen Isaac served Liturgy in the skete church. Later, he visited Fr Ambrose to offer his congratulations, and the cell-attendants Fr Joseph and Fr Michael served them tea. The Superior asked Fr Ambrose about a monk whom he proposed to recommend for ordination to the diaconate. The Elder said that the time was not right for that particular monk, recommending someone else instead. Noticing Fr Joseph standing nearby with a tray, Fr Isaac smiled and said, “Well Father, you don’t want my candidate, and I don’t want yours. Let’s ordain Fr Joseph.”

So it was that Fr Joseph was sent to Kaluga, where he was ordained by Bishop Gregory on December 9. It was customary at Optina that a newly-ordained deacon or priest would serve every day for forty days. Fr Joseph’s health did not permit him to fulfill the forty days, however. He developed an inflammation on his right side, and he nearly died.

Fr Joseph’s life continued as it had before, but with more responsibilities. He had no cell of his own, but continued to sleep in the reception room, which the Elder used each day until almost 11 P.M. Fr Ambrose frequently tested his cell-attendant in order to give him the opportunity to acquire patience and humility, following the instructions of St John of the Ladder (Book 4, paragraphs 27 and 28).

Fr Ambrose built the Shamordino Convent about eight miles from Optina, and on October 1, 1884 Bishop Vladimir of Kaluga came for its opening. At the Liturgy that day, Fr Joseph was ordained as a prieSt From that day forward the nuns regarded him as their priest, and he became the spiritual director of the convent after the repose of Fr Ambrose.

Fr Joseph now became the Elder’s senior cell-attendant, and tried to protect him and also to placate the visitors who grumbled about having to wait for so long to see Fr Ambrose. In spite of his duties, Fr Joseph found time to read spiritual books. He particularly loved the PHILOKALIA and the writings of the Fathers. In these books he found spiritual wisdom, which he shared with those who came to him for advice.

St Joseph’s inner life was known only to God, but his advice to others indicates that he practiced unceasing prayer of the heart. Forseeing that Fr Joseph would serve as Elder after him, Fr Ambrose blessed some people to start going to Fr Joseph for their spiritual needs.

Fr Joseph attended St Ambrose for thirty years, until the Elder’s death on October 10, 1891. Fr Ambrose prepared Fr Joseph for eldership, teaching him by word and by example. He would also refer some visitors to Fr Joseph for advice. There was such oneness of mind between them that when people would ask Fr Joseph about something and then ask Fr Ambrose about the same thing, they would receive the very same answer.

Fr Joseph’s health was not good, and he was susceptible to colds in winter. In February 1888 he became very ill and took to his bed, and he received the Mystey of Holy Unction. The doctor recommended that he be moved to the infirmary for treatment, but Fr Joseph did not wish to leave Fr Ambrose. The Superior of the skete insisted on the transfer, however. The ride to the monastery in a sleigh during cold weather only made his illness worse.

Fr Joseph was tonsured into the schema (the highest level of monasticism) during the Liturgy on February 14. The next day, prayers for the Departure of the Soul were read for him, and people came to bid him farewell. A novice, sitting behind a screen, heard Fr Joseph praying aloud. Peering through a slit in the screen, he saw Fr Joseph gazing at an icon of Christ and lifting up his hands. This novice went to the infirmary later and heard someone behind the screen say, “Be patient, my dear one, only a little remains.” He looked behind the screen, but saw no one there except Fr Joseph. Later, Fr Ambrose told people that Fr Joseph had seen the Mother of God during his illness. Though he had been quite near death, he got well.

After his recovery, Fr Joseph began to hear confessions on a regular basis, since this was becoming too difficult for Fr Ambrose. He blessed people to go to Fr Joseph “not just once, but always.”

In the summer of 1888, Fr Ambrose blessed Fr Joseph to go on a pilgrimage to Kiev. After nearly thirty years, he was able to fulfill his desire to visit the holy places of Kiev. On his way back to Optina, he stopped to visit his sister Mother Leonida at Borisovsk.

Fr Ambrose usually spent three weeks during the summer at the Shamordino Convent, accompanied by Fr Joseph. In June of 1890 Fr Joseph began to prepare for the journey, but Fr Ambrose said, “I’m not taking you this time, you’re needed here.” He ordered Fr Joseph to move into his cell and to transfer a large “Surety of Sinners” Icon (March 7 and May 29) into the reception room. Fr Joseph had a premonition that Fr Ambrose would never return.

Although he missed the Elder, Fr Joseph resigned himself to the situation. He did go to Shamordino once a month to visit Fr Ambrose, however. In the absence of Fr Ambrose, many monks who confessed to him began to go to Fr Joseph. During the Nativity Fast Fr Ambrose started sending his spiritual children at Shamordino to confess to Fr Joseph as well. This was difficult for the nuns, who were used to Fr Ambrose. Even when he heard a nun’s confession himself, Fr Ambrose would send her to Fr Joseph for the prayers of absolution. In this manner, he indicated that he was entrusting his spiritual children to no one but Fr Joseph.

In September 1891 Fr Ambrose became ill, but no one thought it was serious. On October 8, he was so critical that they sent for Fr Joseph. That evening the service of Holy Unction was performed, and the next morning Fr Joseph gave Fr Ambrose Communion for the last time. St Ambrose reposed on the morning of October 10, and no one grieved more than Fr Joseph. Even in his sorrow, however, he comforted and consoled others.

Without any outside influence or pressure, the monks of Optina began coming to Fr Joseph just as they had come to Fr Ambrose. When the nuns of Shamordino asked to whom they should go for spiritual direction, Fr Isaac told them, “At Optina all we have Fr Joseph as our common Elder, and he must be yours as well.”

For the next twenty years, St Joseph received visitors, gave spiritual counsel to those who asked for his advice, and even performed miracles of healing for the afflicted. Out of humility, Fr Joseph never said anything on his own authority, but quoted the words of Fr Ambrose, or gave examples from his life. He spoke very little, and then only to answer a question which had been put to him. Some laymen, and even some of the monks, were annoyed with him because he did not say more.

One monk had the thought that since Fr Joseph was filled with spiritual wisdom and was so familiar with the writings of the Fathers, he could have said many beneficial things to people. The Elder explained this to him, quoting St Peter of Damascus, who said that one should not say anything helpful unless asked by the brethren, because then the resulting benefit would come from their free choice. Even concerning something which might be useful for salvation, the ancient Fathers would not speak without being asked, considering unsolicited advice as idle talk (Vol. 3 of the English PHILOKALIA, p. 186).

His greatest care was for the Shamordino Convent, which remained unfinished, and for the spiritual welfare of its nuns. The Superior of the convent now turned to Fr Joseph to consult him about everything related to the life of the convent, and would do nothing without his blessing. He went there twice a year, during the Apostles’ Fast, and during the Dormition Fast, to hear the confessions of the sisters. In the winter, they would visit him at Optina for Confession. Soon he was obliged to give up traveling to Shamordino because of his health.

Fr Joseph was officially appointed as confessor for the Optina brotherhood near the end of 1893 when Fr Anatole became ill and could not fulfill this duty. Many of the monks had already been confessing to Fr Joseph, but now they all came to him.

On January 25, 1894 St Anatole, the head of the skete, fell asleep in the Lord. Archimandrite Isaac and the bretheren unanimously chose Fr Joseph to succeed Fr Anatole as Superior of the skete. Although he never sought this honor, Fr Joseph accepted his election with all humility. He discharged his duties, not by issuing orders, but with paternal love and humility.

As Superior, he could have chosen to serve only on major Feast Days when the priests concelebrated, and designated one of the priests of the skete to serve on other days. He often served as a simple monk, however, with only one deacon to assist him.

During the last years of his life, Fr Joseph grew weaker and was often ill. In May of 1905 he felt that he lacked the strength to carry out his duties, and he asked to retire as Superior of the skete. He also had to give up hearing the confessions of visitors, since this exhausted him. His spiritual children were saddened by his decision, but the monks and nuns continued to come to him with their spiritual wounds and afflictions.

In 1911 Fr Joseph was weak and ill, but began to feel somewhat better during Great Lent. He was unusually joyful during Holy Week, which led some to believe that he had had some sort of vision. On April 11, the third day of Pascha, Fr Joseph developed a fever and stopped seeing visitors. The following week, a doctor diagnosed him with maleria, declaring that there was no hope for recovery.

On April 20 the wonderworking Icon “of the Sign” was brought to his cell and a molieben was served. In the afternoon, the Kazan Icon and the rassa of St Seraphim were brought to him. Two days later, he requested that the skete brotherhood be permitted to come to him so that he could bid them farewell and ask their forgiveness. Then he asked that the Shamordino nuns also be allowed to come.

Fr Joseph stopped taking food from April 28 on, nourishing himself only with the Holy Mysteries of Christ. Up until the time of his death, he was conscious and lucid, answering questions and dictating replies to letters. On May 8 he felt a little better, then became weak again. On the morning of May 9 he received Holy Communion, then at four in the afternoon he received some people for a final blessing.

That evening the Elder lay resting on his bed with his eyes closed, and his face shone with an unearthly radiance. At 10:45 he drew his last breath and departed to the Lord with a smile on his face.

After the body was prepared for burial, panikhidas were served one after another for the departed Elder. The saint appeared to some of the brethren in dreams both that night and on subsequent days.

The body was placed in a coffin at six o’clock the next morning and was carried to the skete church. Following the Liturgy, a panikhida was served, then the casket was brought to the monastery church of St Mary of Egypt. The monks began taking turns serving panikhidas for Fr Joseph until his burial.

Several miracles took place on the day St Joseph was laid to rest at the feet of Fr Ambrose. Even today, he continues to intercede with God and to work miracles for those who entreat him with faith.

St Joseph became a great Elder because first he had been a great disciple. He was obedient to his Elder Fr Ambrose in all things, and never contradicted him. Because he renounced his own will, refrained from judging others, and reproached himself for his own sins, Fr Joseph acquired humility and the grace of God. He also obtained from the Lord the discernment to recognize every sort of spiritual illness, and how to treat it.

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.