Some Wisdom From Optina

The following is a letter from Elder Macarius of the Optina monastery in Russia to one of his spiritual children on the topic of death and suffering.  Enjoy.

On the 20th of January, the letter announcing to me the sad news of my esteemed grandmother, A.P., reached my hand. Thanks be to the merciful God, Who allowed her to leave this world when she had reached her declining years, in the white garments of sincere repentance and confession of her sins, bearing the seal of Holy Unction upon herself, and having Christ within her by partaking of His Holy and Life-giving Mysteries! I thank you for the detail of her death, for they all give hope for her future well-being. I thank you also that you did not conceal from me the feelings of your saddened heart, because I like to share grief with the grieving. I owe you the greatest sympathy, since your love inspired you to look for me in this distant, silent, and unknown corner.

Having lost a person we realize his actual value, dearest Paul Joachimovich, and maybe even overestimate him. The law of destruction was imprinted since my conception; on each newly developing member, death applied its menacing seal, saying: “This is mine.” The links of my days are a chain of greater or lesser suffering; every new day of my life is a step that draws me closer to decay. Sicknesses come, and my trembling heart asks them: “Are you just the forerunner of my death, or have you already been given the authority to separate my soul from my body with a dread and terrible parting?” Sometimes my spiritual eye, distracted by the cares of life, abandons the contemplation of my sad destiny. Yet, as soon as an unexpected sorrowful event strikes me, I quickly come back to my favorite teaching, like a baby to its mother’s breast, i.e., to a discourse on death, for in sincere grief is hidden true consolation, and the wise remembrance of death breaks the bonds of death.

Thou, Who by Thy unspeakable goodness hast created us, tell us, why didst Thou fill our lives with grief? Dost not Thy mercy make Thee pity our sufferings? Why dost Thou grant me being and later take it away through a painful death?

I do not enjoy, says God, your illnesses, O man. But, out of the seeds of your grief and sorrow, I want to bring forth for you fruits of eternal and majestic joy. I imprinted the law of death and destruction not only in your body, but also in every object of this visible world. I commanded the whole world, together with your body, to cry out to you that this life is not the true and real life, and thee is nothing permanent here to which your heart should become attached through justifiable love. When you do not hearken unto the threatening voice of the entire universe, then My paternal mercy, which always wishes you unlimited good, compels Me to lift the scepter of chastisement. WHen I torment you with temptations, wear you out with illness, with pangs of remorse, it is that you might abandon your folly, become wise, cease seeking after shadows and return to the path of truth, and at the same time to the path of salvation. My unutterable mercy and unlimited love for human beings compelled Me to take your flesh upon Myself; through My abasement I have revealed the greatness of God to the human race (cf. John 14:9) By suffering on the Cross for the salvation of men, whom I desire to draw to Myself, I first afflict them with grief, and with these arrows of affliction I deaden their hearts to temporary pleasures. The scepter of punishment is an emblem of My love for men. Thus, I first afflicted the heart of My servant David, and when a torrent of temptations separated him from the world, then some unusual thought arose and took possession of his mind. He writes; “I called to mind the years of ages past, and I meditated,” i.e., I glimpsed the past days of my life and they appeared to me as a momentary dream, an apparition that quickly disappeared, dead to life. Then I thought about eternity and compared it with the brevity of my past life, and comparing the eternal with the short and temporary, I came to a conclusion. What is this conclusion? “Man like a shadow shall pass away and disquiets himself in vain (Ps. 38:6.)” That is, no matter how much a man may bustle about, no matter how much he may care for acquiring different passing goods, all this has no value for he does not cease being and incidental brief apparition, a guest and wanderer in this world. Such feelings and reflections made him retreat from the world of the passions, and he began to study the law of the Lord day and night and to strive toward knowledge of himself and of God, as the thirsty hart runs toward a stream of fresh water. Being a King, David had opportunities for temporary pleasures, but after he tasted the sweetness of inner blessings, he even forgot to eat his bread.

I have written you, my dear uncle, of my feelings. If they do not correspond with worldly thinking, at least they are sincere, and this sincerity might be a consolation in this time of grief.

Your late mother, before her death, exhorted you to be a good Christian, and I wish this for you with all my heart. Then in your eyes death will lose its threatening aspect and will become a most pleasant transition from temporary affliction to unending delight. It will carry you to the chambers where, as we may almost certainly suppose, your mother now dwells. Grief for the dead, in the light of the right way of thinking, disappears, and is replaced by a good hope that consoles you and makes your soul rejoice. Fanaticism hinders man’s thinking-true faith gives it freedom. This freedom reveals itself through a man’s steadfastness in all possible good or unpleasant events. The sword that severs our bonds is a purified mind., which recognizes in every circumstance its true, hidden, mysterious cause. Anyone who strives toward this goal may reach it by examining his own nothingness, and reverently asking for divine protection and help.

Glory be for all things to the most merciful God, Who pours out His ineffable blessings upon us in every circumstance. For the Fount of Goodness can produce no other waves but waves of goodness. Man, often not recognizing this, murmurs against the All-Gracious One.

-Hieromonk Macarius

The entire text of the letter is found in the book Elder Macarius of Optina by Fr. Leonid Kavelin and published by St. Herman of Alaska Bortherhood.

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