Throughout her history, some of Russia's most popular figures have been spiritual leaders and elders who provided ordinary people with much needed guidance.
This is an insightful article from RIA Novosti, Russia's largest mainstream news agency. It lists some of the best-known and most popular elders, their impact on Russian society, and how this tradition of eldership is still alive today.
That these sorts of articles are not uncommon in Russia's mainstream media testifies to the extraordinary inroads Christian culture have made into Russian society, encouraged and supported by Russia's ruling establishment.
Machine translated. Apologies in advance for clunkiness or inaccuracy. Link to original.
Original Headline in Russian:
'A Lot of if Came True' - What Did Our Christian Holy Men Prophecy About Russia?
On Saturday, Orthodox Christians honor the memory of St. Ambrose of Optina, the most revered Russian elder. Eldership is very popular in Russia: believers turn to wise confessors for help in personal matters and in the hope of knowing the future.
The confessor of all Russia
In the second half of the 19th century, there was probably no one more famous in Russia than the tsar, and yet when the simple monk Ambrose came to the Optina Hermitage in 1839 he quickly became “the confessor of all Russia”. He was visited by pilgrims from all parts of the empire, including some very important personalities.
In 1878, for example, Fyodor Dostoevsky visited the monastery. It was with Ambrose in mind that he wrote his character Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. A year earlier Leo Tolstoy had visited the monastery. The meeting with him, however, was ambiguous.
It is not known what the writer talked about with the monk. But Hieromonk Clement (Zederholm), who served as clerk to Ambrose, quoted some of the elder's words, that the famous writer “will do much harm with his arbitrary interpretation of the Gospel”. And so, it happened. In 1881 the author of War and Peace published his own version of Scripture, for which he is condemned by the Church.
The Venerable Ambrose was noted for his amazing insight. According to the testimonies of his contemporaries, the elder called those who came to his cell by name, though he was meeting them for the first time. He would say who they were and where they came from.
The saint also predicted major social cataclysms. Long before World War I and the flu epidemic (Spanish flu) he said: “There will be war, and where it will pass, there will be no people! But before that God will send the people sicknesses, and they will die.”
St. Ambrose of Optina
The elder also prophesied about Russia. "Great Russia," he said, "can become even greater. It needs to unite in alliance with neighboring states and flourish." But in order to do so "she must preserve her piety." Otherwise, the saint warned, unprecedented cataclysms await Russia and the world.
Ambrose of Optina had a tremendous influence on many generations of believers. But he was not the only one revered during his lifetime.
Craving for the genuine
In fact, eldership originated in the Christian Church from the very beginning.
"There were two levels of authority: the hierarchical authority and the charismatic authority, which is connected not with the status of the ascetic, but with his personal gifts. Old age is the phenomenon of charismatic spiritual authority in the life of the Church," explains Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, chairman of the Educational Committee of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Trinity Sergius Lavra
In different eras it manifested itself in different ways. In the Russian Church there were periods of both ups and downs in the popularity of the elders. For example, in the fourteenth century, people from all over Russia flocked to the Trinity Monastery, to the Venerable Sergius of Radonezh. A hundred years later, such centers of attraction no longer existed.
“The revival of eldership,” Father Maxim continues, “should rather be attributed to the XIX century. It was then that it was marked by religious consciousness, and the word ‘elder’ became commonly used. The spiritual renaissance was associated with St. Seraphim of Sarov and some monasteries, primarily the Optina Hermitage.”
Even during the years of persecution of the faith - under Soviet rule - crowds still flocked to the “visionary patriarchs”.
People near the Optina hermitage monastery in the Kaluga region
"We know the names of pious devotees in the 20th century associated with the Glinsky hermitage, the Pskov-Pechersk monastery. In the latter for a long time, lived Archimandrite John Krestiankin. At that time, elders were also found among the white clergy [another name for the married clergy]. For example, Archpriest Nikolai Guryanov was a priest on the island of Zalit and served there in the church for much of his life. Archimandrite Seraphim Tyapochkin also served in a parish in the Belgorod region," says Archpriest Maxim Kozlov.
The tradition of eldership is alive in Russia today. This is due, the clergy say, to the fact that people seek spiritual mentors whose words do not differ from deeds, whose thoughts and deeds are inextricably linked.
"Eldership is the example of a monk or priest in whom the gifts of grace are clearly evident. People believe this man because he teaches prayer not from a book: he himself knows how to pray. He gives some kind of instruction on how to live, and he lives according to it. This inspires great confidence," Father Maxim explains.
Archpriest Nikolai Guryanov
However, now the trust of the Orthodox is often used. There are also those in the Church who consider themselves to be elders. This was the case, for example, in the Urals: St. Sergius (Romanov) was visited from all over Russia, and his admirers called him "a great ascetic. But in fact, the clergyman spread myths about the coronavirus and "Satan's electronic camp" among his parishioners and clashed with the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a result, he was defrocked and then excommunicated from the Church. Now the spiritual leader is standing trial on charges of inducement to suicide, violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religion and arbitrariness.
The Church calls this kind of thing maladaptation - when a priest or monk thinks he has reached a certain spiritual height and abuses it.
"This shift of emphasis - 'it is not given to me, but I myself have achieved it' - distorts one's inner world and spiritual practice. It is also important to understand that a true ascetic of piety, as a rule, entered this public ministry not by his own desire, but by the providence of God: through various life circumstances or a direct indication from above," the cleric specifies.
Former schema monk Sergius (Nikolai Romanov) in the Basmanny Court in Moscow
There is another misconception. Many believe that the elder must necessarily be visionary, that is, with a strongly developed intuition.
"The mere ability to see and evaluate does not necessarily indicate the correct inner disposition of a person," Father Maxim notes. - Experienced psychologists are also insightful enough. Hindsight is something given to a person who is in demand in the public service of the Church, for the benefit of the cause. After all, the main thing is the spiritual benefit that the elder brings to the people."
According to the archpriest, the capacity for soul-searching, a deep understanding of a person on the basis of a brief encounter with him is one of the main qualities of an experienced elder.