Letters of Elder Macarius of Optina

St. Macarius
  of Optina

III. Blessed are the meek:
for they shall inherit the earth

1. Humility

“There is nowhere to hide from the host of temptations, except in the depths of humility.” Do you remember these words? They are your own. [94]

Our war against the spiritual hosts of darkness is bitter indeed, since our enemy is mighty and never sleeps, since he is wily, cruel, proud, and yet fleshless.

All the more reason for us to enclose ourselves in the fastness of wise humility, alone impregnable to thieves and robbers. But while we are still far from having entered this fastness-this wise humility which is also perfect lovefear of God is our armor: The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death (Prov. 14: 27). [98]

You should know by now that great storms of passion are allowed to assail us whenever we have been indulging pride, self-adulation, high opinions of our own intellectual powers; or when we have pandered to the vicious pleasure of humbling others, intentionally. The medicine is simple: humility, a sincere humbling of self. This alone can bring relief: through meekness-the harbinger of peace. [393]

John Climacus has said: Love and humility form a holy pair; what the first builds, the second binds, thus preventing the building from falling asunder.’ [349]

2. Simplicity

Praise the Lord for all, thanking Him for His judgment no less than for His mercy; for the years of misfortune as well as for the hours of happiness....

Your desire to say family prayers for your sick master is good; but your scruples about doing it in the right way are finicking. Pray simply: “Lord, have mercy upon our master and his family. Grant him a safe home-coming, good health, and peace of mind.”

But see you pray humbly. If you should proudly think your prayer agreeable to the Lord and worthy of being answered, take it from me that it won’t be heard. [419]

It is wrong to draw particular attention to oneself, during public prayer, through excessive kneeling or mistimed bowing. Bowing and prostrations should only be performed during those parts of the service where they are customary. Then most of the people present will be doing likewise and no one will pay any attention to you.

As a rule, outward signs of emotion and tenderness should be mastered in public and the effort to master them offered to God as a humble sacrifice. [245]

As to your asking forgiveness (of those whom you have hurt) when you know that they will only mock and abuse ‘Philocalia, II. you for doing so before your going to confession,’ do not approach the matter so formally.

The first thing for you to aim at is a clear perception of your own misdeed. By the time you have attained to this, and true penitence has matured within your soul, these people may also have experienced a change of heart. But if you know that they have not and that they really will mock and abuse you, you should beg forgiveness of God in your prayers, and of them in your hushed heart. Then consider the subject closed and rest in peace. [240]

You seem greatly perturbed whenever you must touch upon the wrong actions of others in order to make your own actions clear. You are, in fact, so much perplexed by this necessity that you prefer altogether to omit mentioning the incidents involved.

Such scruples are unhealthy. When on due examination, you see that if you are to make the situation clear to me, you really must mention the evil deeds committed by others, do so quite calmly. You will not be judging these friends of yours or soliciting my condemnation of them, but only clarifying the situation so that your own perplexities and consternation may be relieved. If you tackle the matter with faith and humility, God will see to it that this relief is granted you. [239]

You ask if you may communicate twice during these seven weeks of Lent. You not only may, but should. The Church tells us to go to confession and communion, at least once, even during the shortest lents of the church calendar.’

As to the difficulty of making your mind clear before confession, that should disappear if you face the matter with humility, without a trace of self-justification. Tune the whole of your heart and mind to the words: I have sinned, forgive me! Then, tell your confessor how you did it, and the load will roll away.

As I once told you, Peter Damascene explains how and why, after strenuous improvement and much practice of the Christian virtues, men at last come to see their sins spread around them as far, wide, and thickly as sand is at the bottom of the sea. This he describes as the first glimmer of light and the first flicker of humility. [235]

You say that, as far as your own failings go, you have calmly and fully accepted the new cross laid on you: the consumption that, the physicians say, has settled in your throat. But you go on to deplore the burden, the nuisance, you have now become to others.

This is very wrong of you! Why think so disobligingly of others? Why assume that they are such bad Christians? I cannot think that they are so uncharitable as to treat a sick person as a nuisance. Surely, if they have ever read the Gospel, they must know that, when nursing you, they are, as it were, nursing Christ himself!...

With regard to your being ordered to eat ordinary-not Lenten-food during Lent,” I cannot possibly give you my “permission” to do so. We cannot permit what the Church forbids.

But here is my advice: accept this food as you do all other prescribed medicines. Then make your confession. Your confessor can remit a sin, once it has been committed and humbly confessed; and I have no doubt that he will. But neither he nor I can pick and choose in the wholeness of the Church’s rules and, while insisting that you keep one, allow you to omit another.

Your chief concern, however, should be to achieve complete docility and ease of mind, even under these difficult circumstances. And there is no need for you to exhaust your weary body with spiritual exercises. Keep your heart open in praise of God, and thank Hun for the cross He lets you carry. That is all you, in your condition, need do. [209]

Your so-called “daring,” your gesture of writing with your blood a declaration always to serve God and the Community, is simply absurd.

Your divagations about pride and humility, and your wordy self-justifications, wander far from the point. John Climacus writes: Wherever we can note a fall, we may be certain that pride preceded it.

Not one of us can boast of having acquired humility: our actions, the whole of our life, prove the contrary. And where there is a lack of humility, pride is always present. Where light is wanting, darkness reigns.

Even when you take the oath to the Tsar, nothing as spectacular as this declaration will be expected of you. Can you really think our Lord rejoices in it? [123]

Can you really think that the inner peace you are seeking depends on the locality you finally choose to live in? Surely, inner peace is acquired only by humbly living in accordance with the commandments: Learn of me: for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls (Matt. 11.29).

Where you do it is beside the question....

In constant intercourse with other people we can sooner come to see our defects than we should in solitude. When, humbled through perceiving our ugliness of soul, we pray for God’s help, we are never long left wanting. He is our peace (Eph. 2:14) and nothing but the grace of God can make of the human heart a heaven. [156]

You seem unduly distressed about your relations’ disapproval of your actions. Why this great agitation? Since in all conscience you are certain of not being responsible for their hostile attitude to you, and since you are sure you have done nothing to induce them to feel or think as they do, be at peace. Be at peace and pray for them. We cannot persuade all that our actions are right, our motives pure. Everyone has his own way of approaching life, his own ideas on most things.

Offer up the whole of your actions as an offering to our Lord. But in discussions on faith speak with humility, and not as a schoolmistress. [248]

Do not attempt to assess the quality of your prayer. God alone can judge its value. To us, our own prayer must always appear so poor an effort, so inadequate an achievement, that the cry of the publican spontaneously rises to our lips. [252]

3. Patience

Read Job and praise the Lord for all. When you have acquired enough humility, the punishment will cease. Until then, exercise your patience. Isaac the Syrian writes: Patience begets consolation, cowardice begets misery and pain.’ [346]

4. Meekness

When people offend and mock you, remember that even this cannot possibly stand outside the pattern of God’s providence. Take it as a pointer to your frailty, and as a sign that you should cure that frailty; take it, in fact, as the cure itself. It gives you an opportunity to exercise your powers of resistance, your strength to fight evil, your capacity to acquire humility.

I can well believe that it is not easy for you to live in the world. But until the Lord calls you and makes it possible for you to retire to a monastery, force yourself to live cheerfully, keeping His statutes and commandments; and guard yourself from condemning others for their lack of zeal. The Lord is strong; He can see to their salvation and grant them the ardor to seek it, when, in His eyes, their time is ripe. [101]

Mr. Burachyok rightly says that the Lutherans’ do possess gold (the Word of God) and silver (men with good dispositions) but that to this gold and silver they have added so much alloy (reasoning of proud, self-opinionated men) that the alloy has reduced the value not only of the silver but even of the gold. For this they bear responsibility and will have to answer. [241]

I was very glad to hear that you are so happy and so much at peace with yourself and others, now that you have become a member of our Church which has kept the Apostolic Tradition unbroken and unadulterated.

As to those people who are good and kind but are not believers, we cannot and must not judge them. The ways of the Lord are inscrutable; let us leave these good people entirely to His judgment and to the grace of His Providence. He alone knows how and why He has built the argosy of humanity, and the small boat of each one of us, such as it is.

Refrain from heated discussions on religious matters; there is no good in them....

Be not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work and you shall be blessed in your deed (Jas. 1:25). But remember that growth in meekness is every man’s greatest and most urgent work. [376]

Remember that the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Rom. 8:7). Therefore a man whose mind is not filled with faith and humility cannot be at peace; nor can the words in which he expresses his reasoning spread peace.

Learn meekness and docility from our Lord: Learn of me: for 1 am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls (Matt. 11:29). [166]

5. Brotherly love

In the eyes of God, it is always preeminently right that a man should spend himself in devising new means for spreading consolation to his subordinates, who are his charges. [404]

Bear in mind that prayer alone, unaccompanied by moral improvement, is useless. St. Macarius of Egypt says of such prayer that it is unreal; that it is, as it were, a mask of the real prayer.’

As to your longing for solitude, bear in mind that, as Nilus of Sora tells us, it does not profit everyone. Our love of God finds expression in our love of men. And even when men hate us we should thank them for it, because they are then the tools of our correction.

When you are well satisfied, and consider yourself to be enjoying much grace, beware: the enemy never sleeps, and humility is the only weapon that shatters him. [105]

When, conscious of being in the wrong, you insist on justifying yourself before others and work yourself up into a state of great irritation, this comes, as you know, of your lack of humility.

Strive to acquire humility. And charity-the real charity, which never limits itself to gifts no matter how generous, but, consuming the heart with infinite compassion for all creatures, generates a pure flame of good will and the firm decision to help every single one of the great host of unfortunates. [233]

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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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