Letters of Elder Macarius of Optina
I. Blessed are the poor in spirit:
for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven
What I write to you, I write for you alone, and I must ask you to refrain from passing any of it on to others as a general rule of conduct for all. It is nothing of the kind. My advice to you is fashioned according to your inner and outer circumstances. Hence, it can be right only for you. 
Yes! There can be no doubt that under these circumstances a man requires special help from God, and the guidance of a wise man experienced in the fight. 
It is certainly a great consolation, and a great help on the way, to find a director under whose wise guidance our will is cured of self-will, our mind of self-regard. But in these days, it is most difficult to find one. 
I am afraid you have written to me only because you have illusions about me. You tell me almost nothing about yourself: you say nothing about your social background, family life, obligations, or connections. But how can I, thus kept in the dark, hope to form a right judgment on the particular situation on which you consult me? I am, indeed, hard put to it to find a particle of firm ground on which to build my reasoning. I fear you have not realized that, being unworthy of the grace of seership, I cannot have recourse to supernatural means of knowledge. Still, I shall endeavor to do my best for you. 
You say that I have helped your aunt. That cannot be. Only the mistakes are mine. All good advice is the advice of the Spirit of God; His advice, that I happen to have heard rightly and to have passed on without distorting it.... I shall try to answer you as best I can, but you must pray. Pray that God may grant me the ability to say the right words which will bring you help. Pray too, that He may grant you the right faith: faith in our Lord as the lord of all wisdom. No good can come of this letter without His special help. 
It was with shame and consternation that I read that passage of your letter where you ascribe to me qualities and virtues in which I know myself to be sadly lacking. May the Lord reward you according to your faith: may He help me really to become such as you think I am.  It is difficult for me, uneducated and insignificant as I am, to give advice to you who have been guided, for many years, by one of our most eminent churchmen. My mind is poor; my heart is even poorer! But being loath to augment your sorrow by a refusal, and placing all my hope in our Lord’s guidance, I shall try:
Above all follow carefully every instruction of the great counsellor and friend who has left us.’ And-since he insisted that you should-refrain from attempting the monastic life, but remain where you are, alone in your peaceful retreat.
And since he instructed you in the rule of silence, keep to this as rigorously as he would expect; I mean, in the measure and manner he indicated.
Then you will certainly have to limit the number of people you see. The scruples you elaborate-hurting their feelings and so on-are not important enough for you to break, because of them, the obedience you still owe him. 120]
I cannot possibly give her any guidance unless she herself asks for it. And even if she did, I am doubtful whether I could: her mind is divided, she is quite uncertain as to what it is she wants; and at times she doubts if she wants anything at all.
I can only answer direct, sincere, and simple questions put with simple faith. God Himself sees to it that such questions receive the right answer. An insincere question, put halfheartedly, is no question at all. Confronted by it, [ can get no help. I should not know how to answer it. As to your playing the piano, that has nothing to do with your spiritual life and I have nothing to say on the matter. 
I do not like the way you have of repeatedly exclaiming that after I have read this letter of yours I shall be disgusted with you. Nor do I like these assurances that it cost you much and that you are smarting with shame. I think, by now, you yourself will clearly have seen from what source all this uneasiness and anxiety spring.
In truth I am, of course, profoundly touched by your frankness: it shows your affection for me. And this only augments my compassion for you, making me even more anxious to find for you the right counsel. If you had joyously described your successes on the path, I, examining my heart, could have found nothing to say in answer. May the Lord increase your wisdom, strengthen you on your thorny way, and bless you, your husband, and your children. 
I am very much to blame for having offended you with my unwise letter. You are right, I was indeed at my wits’ end, torn between visitors, my work, and my immense correspondence. Besides, I was feeling so ill, so weak, that I could not find in my empty and shallow mind suitable answers to all the problems that came pouring in.
But you must not conclude that I had rather you did not describe your difficulties to me. Tell me all about them; but pray that the Lord may grant me the wisdom to find the right words for your consolation and guidance. And, in order to make things a little easier, perhaps you could underline the questions, thus singling them out from the rest of the text? 
As to this life insurance, since I have read nothing on the matter in the Scriptures or the Fathers, I can say nothing about it. Knowing nothing at all about such matters I can neither permit nor forbid your taking this step. Nor can I give you my blessing for it, or even offer advice. But read Matt. 6:34. 
Since these thoughts bring into your inner life such embarrassment and commotion, they must have been suggested to you by the devil. The right thought brings with it certitude, courage, and peace. Strive for that.
As to those who are happy without seeking spiritual direction and quite blissful without bothering much about the deeper Christian life-the life of the mind and heart theirs is the peace of this world, not the peace of our Master.
Whenever we set out firmly to tread the inner path, a storm of temptations and persecutions always assails us. It is because of this dark host that spiritual direction is profitable, nay necessary, to us whether we retire to a monastery or continue to live in the world.
But those who blissfully ignore the deeper issues and implications of Christianity, and are quite happy without bothering much about anything, know nothing of the peace we seek and of which we drink now a drop, now a draught, all along our stormy, harsh, and bitter way. 
How can you say that your spiritual sores can be cured by none but me? Who am I? Dust and ashes, cast in the likeness of the unregenerated Old Adam.
Seek help of our merciful Lord Jesus Christ whose loving wounded heart is open to all. His pure blood is always there to wash away our sins. Keep near the great physician. Seek Him, call Him, knock at the door.
He came down to call to Him sinners, not the righteous and the good. Whenever you have sinned - and no matter what your sin be - run to Him and do penance, firmly resolved to refrain in future from sinning in this way.
If my advice and instruction have ever helped you, praised be the Lord! Realize, however, that it is not really I who have done this but the Lord’s mercy, which is granted you according to your faith. 
I have told you nothing that is an invention of my own. All of what I say comes from the writings of the Fathers.’ Mine is only the humble work of choosing passages suitable to your particular case.
And this humble work has been of the greatest profit to me, since it has freshened up much that was growing dim in my constantly weakening memory. So you must see that there is no occasion at all for you to thank me so extravagantly: Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name give the praise (Ps. 115:1). May we all constantly sustain each other by counsel and through prayer. 
Do not limit yourself to striving for the right outward order: fasting and prayer. Strive also for greater inward order, only to be attained through intensified love and deep humility.
You say that the longing for obedience has pierced your heart, and you ask, “How can I attain to it?” Shall I tell you?
In the world you live in, Princess, you must have seen how long it takes an artist to train for his art, and how much effort he must devote to it. Is it not natural that the art of arts should exact even more time and even greater effort?
Pray that you may be granted the grace to read the Fathers with the right understanding, the grace to live up to the standards they put before you, and the grace clearly to see your own frailty. You will not . long be left wanting and waiting. God will give you help.
In the meanwhile carefully examine the movements of your heart, the pattern of your thoughts, the intention of all your words and actions. In your case, it may even be good to do this in writing. It may help to make more clear to you your utter poverty; it may humble your pride of mind. 
It is excellent that you should have found work as tutor to the sons of so influential a family. Passing on to others the knowledge God has permitted you to acquire, you double your talent.
Have recourse to God in all your difficulties: in discipline, ordinary teaching, and the teaching of divinity. Your clumsiness in society and your inability to gain the love of your charges, provide lessons in the art of living, and are good for you as a counterweight to your preoccupation with theories. You are still very young and only beginning to try your wings in the great flight. Life itself must teach you, in one way and another, what is wrong, and what is right. Use your mistakes to encourage and develop your humility, and to increase your perspicacity and discrimination. Employ most of your spare time in reading the Greek and our own Fathers. No art is acquired easily or without much diligent study and practice. Could it be otherwise with the greatest art of all-the art of artsthe spiritual life, the soul’s salvation? 
It almost sounds as though you had thought you could scale the ladder with giant strides! But take it from me, you have faith, you have indeed. If you had not, could you have seen through the enemy’s machinations? But, on the other hand, you aspire after the higher and more consoling forms of faith, and this shows your lack of humility. Rest content with what has been given you; all faith is a grace, and God will give more when, and if, He finds fit.
When you fail, no matter in what, do not be trapped into agitation but, humbling your mind and heart, make penance and strive to keep our Lord’s commandments. 
Every reverse is a pointer to some spiritual truth that we were in danger of forgetting. You should therefore strive calmly to settle down and examine, from this point of view, the reverse that has so deeply shocked you.  You are distressed to find that whenever you now examine your conscience, you see yourself as bad; whereas formerly, when you were young, such examination showed you to be, on the whole, good rather than bad. What an extraordinary reason for distress!
It is infinitely better for us to see ourselves as bad than good. In the first case, we acquire humility, and find the door to forgiveness, the door to grace; in the second, we grow proud; and pride blocks the way to grace.
As to the real value of our deeds and actions, of that God alone is judge; He, who knows the most secret impulses of every human heart. 
Let us allude no more to the past but rather keep to what may be profitable in the future.
According to the teaching of the Fathers, any impression which, touching the heart,’ fills it with a great agitation, must come from the region of passions. Therefore impulses which spring from the heart should not be followed at once, but only after careful examination and fervent prayer. God preserve us from a blind heart! It is well known that passions do blind the heart and screen the shining sun of the mind that we should all strive to gaze at. [41 ]
And so at last, the long period of eclipse is over; in your heart the sun shines bright, and in your mind the air is sweet and clean. Sweeter and cleaner than ever before. Praised be the Lord! This is a direct grace; though it is also, in a sense, the fruit of your own bitter sufferings. But this new ability to pray is also a test; and so, The purified heart, according to the Eastern tradition, is the center of the rational will. Beware! If you permit yourself to relish the delight of your new ability, an even denser cloud of darkness than before will descend and envelop you. This is inevitable on the path we tread: delight in a spiritual attainment imperceptibly, surely, quickly draws us into the meshes of that great snare-spiritual pride. Then are we mightily humbled! And rightly; for we have proved incapable of accepting with pure gratitude a grace generously bestowed upon us.
Until humiliations have swept away all pride, any virtues we may laboriously acquire rest on a foundation of sand. It takes much time and requires great effort to build a foundation of rock, on which the art of prayer can securely thrive. 
Our quest for spiritual advancement cannot lead our soul only on to the meadows of joy and consolation, and leave it there. Sooner or later it is inevitably led on to the way of the cross. Carrying our spiritual cross we learn patience and docility.
You should definitely know that spiritual joys are always followed by a spiritual Calvary. 
4. Conformity with the will of God
Deeply moved as we are by your sorrow, yet what can we say? Open your heart, perceive the will of God. From Him seek help, in Him seek consolation.
Believe firmly: this tragedy is not the outcome of a chance concatenation of events. God Himself-God, whose ways are inscrutable-has confirmed them with the seal of His divine purpose. Why? Either as a punishment-but not necessarily for any sins of yours-or to try the power of your faith, and steel it. But whatever the reason, the whole occurrence is one more proof of His love of you, for Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receveh ... But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons (Heb. 12:6, 8). These are not words of our own invention. It is the Apostle Paul himself who thus testifies that you are a beloved child of God.
Strive hard for patient endurance! Do not weaken. Hourly thank God for all. And He will see to it that good comes of your right attitude.
Accept all, even this tragedy, as God’s judgment: you perfectly forgave this man; you refrained from inflicting any punishment on him, but the judgment of God singled him out, followed him, and struck him down. Who knows what ways of helping evil in its dark work on earth he might not have found, had he remained among us? But now his departure is a frightful, chastening example to multitudes. Had you sought to punish him, you would have reason to condemn yourself. As things are, there is no occasion for this.
We commit you to the protection of our Lord; may He-who alone can-stem the source of your sorrows and afflictions. 
The longing to seek God, to come near Him, is an actual grace; it comes of our having, at last, heard His call. And it is imperative that, having heard, we should actively respond.
This we can only do by carefully keeping His commandments. No matter where we are and what our circumstances may be: in solitude or in company, in a monastery or in the world, everywhere and at all times we must keep them, His commandments. This is never easy: for, wherever we are and whatever our circumstances, the enemy always tries to prevent us from actively responding to the call.
Pray for help. For help that you may never fail to respond. And beware lest, having received help and having done the right deed because of it, you should grow proud and acquire the habit of condemning others, in the secret chambers of your heart.
Beware! For this would make all the fruits of your good works wither. 
Since you clearly want me to be quite outspoken, I tell you frankly that I cannot think it right for you to leave the Service and restrict your activities to the peaceful, uneventful occupation of organizing and improving the life of a hundred men or so. Remember the parable of the talents.
Considering the benevolence that our Monarch is pleased to show you, who can doubt that you may be of much greater use to humanity remaining where you are?
You say, “At Court vainglory may seize me.” It is good that you should fear this; but do not let fear grow into panic. Accept promotions gladly though humbly-not as food for pride but as an occasion to help others-listening carefully, all the while, to the voice of conscience resounding in your heart. God will not refuse His help.
As to this girl who has so much impressed you, why not marry her? You say you seek neither beauty nor riches but gentleness, intelligence, and devotion to the faith. The lady in whose house you met confirms your impression that she has all these qualities, and says she is well educated too. No mean advantage in a wife.
But, not daring to influence you in so important a matter, I can only recommend you to God. Pray that you may learn to read His will, and that, having read it, you may accept it.
If this marriage is agreeable to Him, your eagerness will increase after prayer. Then have a molieben said, requesting the special blessing of our Lord and our Lady, and tackle the business straight away.
But if after prayer your eagerness wanes, accept this as a sign that God does not approve. Then drop the matter. 
You certainly have my deepest sympathy, but your own attitude to your misfortune will, in the long run, prove to be more helpful towards your regaining your poise than any feelings of mine could be. You are right: it is, of course, you yourself who have made the cross which you must now carry. A saintly man once said, “The wood of the cross that now breaks your back first grew in the soil of your heart.” He was right.
Punishments are always harsh; but when accepted with humility, they bring us nearer God. And what else matters? If, under all circumstances, you carefully abstain from self-approbation on one hand, and from despair on the other, God will grant you His blessing. 
Once again you sink into melancholy and despair! Have you forgotten that the hand which chastises is also the hand that grants the greatest gifts? Heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning (Ps. 30:5). When we are incapable of scaling the peaks of virtue, all we have to do is to descend into the ravine of humility. Our humility is our surest intercessor before the face of the Lord. It is by dint of humility and penance that the last shall be first. Therefore take courage. 
Since God’s will works in two ways, it does not bind us or make us unfree. Some things He desires; others He permits. This second way is made manifest when we insist on things happening as we think best. But when we docilely abandon ourselves to His will, He manifests the first, which is, ultimately, of greater advantage to us. 
5. Liberty of Spirit
When you must quickly come to a decision, and feel that you ought to have some advice on the point in question but have no one by you who could give it, turn to God as the Fathers teach us, invoking His help three times.  God bless your decision to move into a new house, and may all go well with you there. But I cannot approve of this passion for smoking cigars. Just think, until recently you could call yourself a free woman, but now you are a slave, in bondage to a silly fad. Think too, how much money you squander on it.
Mind you, I do not forbid this indulgence; you must do as you choose. But my advice is: leave off. Leave off for your own good. 
Truly I have nothing at all to say to your lengthy descriptions of our Monarch’s graciousness to you and your family, your gift of the icon, the incident with the portrait of the starets Seraphim, or to your opinion of the Bishop of Kiev. All these matters are far beyond the scope of a humble monk, weighed down with age, harassed by bodily and mental shortcomings, preoccupied by a ceaseless stream of ordinary hard work.
As to your daughter’s wish, discuss it with her, not me. She is old enough to know her own mind. Question her, noting most carefully how she answers you. If her desire remains steadfast, if the sequence of her thoughts on this subject is unmuddled, and if she maintains perfect serenity throughout the whole discussion, you should look upon all this as true signs that God has stamped her desire with His seal. You should then definitely refrain from raising any more objections. Far from creating difficulties, you should give her your blessing. 
I understand that you now constantly torment yourself for having said during our talk, “Marriage-that were God’s punishment!” Since your return home too, your friends and relations have been telling you that these words of yours must have greatly angered God because, through them, you showed your firm intention to build your life according to your own will, and not in accordance with His. They say, these friends and relations, that every wish and desire is sinful, and that you should fully abandon yourself to whatever comes along-God’s will!
Do not seek truth or consolation in the richly garnished reasoning of worldlings. Seek them only in the Word of God. It is He, and no other, who bestows on man intelligence and free will. These gifts of His should be used in a constant valiant fight for betterment: your wish to dedicate yourself to God springs from this deep well of your free will.
When our desires, illumined by our own intelligence, are aimed at bringing about good-that is the will of God on earth-and when we act in accordance with this aim, God is well pleased and supports us. Even when, in a fit of wild madness, we wish to contest His will and strive to act in a manner that conflicts with it, He still refrains from breaking our will, and permits us to act wrongly, but freely. True, in the first case we reap our reward, in the second punishment, as is abundantly testified in Holy Writ.
But we only act true to our human nature when we ardently desire good, and persistently, valiantly strive to bring it about. This is no evil practice. It is nonsense to say that all desire is sinful, that we should never ask God to fulfil our wishes, that we should feebly abandon ourselves to what comes along. Surely, to act in this manner would be contrary to reason, to human nature, and to Holy Writ. Desire is not a sin; only the desire of evil is wrong. How could man belong to the kingdom of the Word, be a reasonable creature and free-if all desires were wrong? And if you should now strive to wish for nothing, neither for a happy marriage nor for the purity of the virginal life, what kind of a life would yours be? You are not a log or a stone; nor were you ever intended to be. You were made woman, free to desire, choose, and act. 
There is no occasion to be afraid of praise; we must only guard ourselves against feeling gratified by it. St. Isaac tells us that such gratification, whenever felt by us, is in itself our full reward. But praise to which we are indifferent is harmless.
And do not agitate yourself over your resolution to read a litany daily at a fixed hour: this resolution which, you say, you now find impossible to carry out. To your question, “When it has been quite impossible to do so at the appointed hour, may I read it later, while knitting and minding the children?” I answer: No! this would be quite wrong. Our pledges are not debts owed to a harsh master who wants them carried out to the letter and cares for little else. The Lord does not wish to enslave us, He wants us free.
When you really cannot carry out a resolution, make penance, thinking of yourself as a humbled debtor. If you then refrain from the temptation of feeling agitated, it will be of greater profit than halfhearted mumblings followed by self-satisfaction and the pride of having kept your pledge in spite of all difficulties. 
The lives of men are subject to drastic changes. These changes are gradual at times; at others, lightning quick. But even those of us who enjoy long years of opulence and fame can find no consolation, no gladness, unless our heart is illumined by the steady light of peace. It is this peace that we must seek, it is for this peace that we should pray. The peace that our Lord gave to His disciples and to all those who really have faith in Him....
You say your daughter and son-in-law are persuading you to go and live with them, and that you can come to no decision unless I give you my blessing and say that all will go well with you there and that you will be happy! But how should I know anything about it? Who am I to say what will happen to you in this village or that town? I’m no seer or prophet.
All I can say is that I can hardly think this change, out of quiet into hubbub, will be of much profit to you. It is, of course, agreeable to be with those dear to our heart; but can this pleasure endure?
Still, I do not want to influence you either way; in this I want to leave your will quite free. I only pray that you may seek to blend it with God’s will. 
From Russian Letters of Direction 1834-1860 Macarius Starets of Optino, by Iulia De Beausobre. Originally published March 1944 by Dacre Press, Westminster. Copyright 1975 St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
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