Optina elder hieromonk Macarius was born Mikhail Nikolayevich Ivanov on November 20, 1788 in a noble family distinguished by its piety. The family lived in the environs of Kaluga, in a very beautiful place near the Lavrentyev monastery, from which the ringing of bells was heard daily, summoning the monks to prayer. At the age of five Elder Macarius lost his mother, who had loved him ardently, sensing that he would be an unusual person. Due to his mother’s illness the family had to move frequently. He graduated from school in the city of Karachevo and in 1814 took on the job of accountant, which he did well, gaining favorable notice. However, he continued to live in his own inner world. He read a lot, searching for answers to the most important questions in his mind and heart. He loved music and was an excellent violinist. At the age of 24, after the death of his father, he retired and settled down to live on his village estate. He was a poor estate manager. One time the peasants stole a large amount of buckwheat. Mikhail counseled them at great length, citing the Holy Scriptures. As a result the peasants fell to their knees in repentance, to the shame of Mikhail’s relatives, who had laughed at his spiritual efforts. An attempt was made to marry him off, but since he was un-attractive in face and stuttered, besides having no inclination in that direction,– the matter was abandoned. He buried himself in religious books and from time to time went to a woodworker’s shop, where he worked to the point of exhaustion, thus subordinating his young flesh to the spirit.
In 1810 he went on a pilgrimage to the Ploshchansk Hermitage, where he remained, sending his brothers a document renouncing his rights to the estate. Here, under the guidance of Arseny – a disciple of Paisius Velichkovsky, he received proper initial instruction and also studied church canons and singing. He helped with letter writing and other secretarial work. In 1815 he was tonsured with the name of Macarius. 1824 was the year of his first visit to Optina. The following year his elder died, and Macarius was appointed father confessor to the Sevskiy convent. Thus began his work as confessor. He had a hard time without an elder, but in response to his prayers the Lord sent him Father Leo, who visited the convent with his disciples. In this manner Father Macarius once again acquired an instructor. Soon Father Leo was sent to Optina. The two of them corresponded, and after a while Father Macarius also moved to Optina.
Father Macarius remained with Father Leo until the latter’s death. From Father Leo he learned to treat with great love all the poor people who came to him in physical and spiritual distress, to heal their illnesses, and not to disdain anything except sin. The elder often saw clairvoyantly where evil lay, denounced it, but afterwards treated the person with such loving warmth that the latter remembered for the rest of his life the joy of reacquiring a clear conscience.
Father Macarius was of a gentler disposition than Father Leo and was exclusively modest. He and Father Leo together “nurtured” the great elder Ambrose. After Father Leo’s death the entire burden of spiritual guidance fell upon Father Macarius, who was always full of tranquility and joy in the Lord.
The elder was a huge man, with an unattractive pockmarked face, but with shining eyes full of quiet modesty. He had an extremely lively and energetic nature and an excellent memory: after a first confession he remembered the person for the rest of his life. However, his stuttering and shortness of breath in speaking was an embarrassment to him throughout his entire life. He was also always dressed poorly. But he had the gift of clairvoyance: seeing a person for the first time, he often called him by name before the latter introduced himself. Sometimes he replied to letters even before receiving them, so that the sender received a reply to a letter sent only an hour before. The elder’s life was full of pastoral concerns. In church he established the singing of the Kievan chant and instituted good reading and the singing of special melodies. Father Macarius himself, though a hieromonk, did not officiate at services, primarily due to his modesty, but he often sang with fervor and tears of tenderness.
The elder spent 20 years in his humble monastic cell, which consisted of a waiting room and a very small bedroom, the furniture of which comprised a narrow cot, a writing desk covered in an orderly manner with piles of letters waiting to be answered, spiritual magazines and the writings of the Holy Fathers, and an armchair with a pillow. The icon corner contained a specially-venerated icon of the Vladimir Mother of God, with an ever-burning lampada before it and a wooden triangular shelf with the Gospel and other books for reading the monastic prayer rule. The walls were covered with views of monasteries and portraits of ascetics. Everything attested to his secret aspirations and to a spirit which had renounced the worldly lot. Here the elder often spent sleepless nights and got up, as a rule, at the ringing of the skete bell at 2:00 A.M.; often he himself woke up his cell attendants. The morning prayers were read. At 6 A.M. the hours were read for him, and he drank one or two cups of tea. Afterwards he received visitors. Here he listened to human sorrows. He clearly possessed the gift of spiritual discernment, as well as the strength of humility and love, which made his words especially powerful and effective. After speaking with him, people felt themselves renewed. By anointing people with oil from his ever-burning lampada, he brought great benefit to the sick. There were numerous healings, particularly of those possessed by demons.
At 11 A.M. the bell rang for lunch and the elder went over to the refractory, after which he rested and then once again received visitors. At 2:00, with a crutch in one hand and a prayer rope in the other, the elder went to the pilgrim’s inn, where hundreds of people awaited him, each with his own need, both spiritual and worldly. The elder lovingly heard each person out, instructing some and pulling others out of the rut of despair. Exhausted, barely able to breathe, he went back after his daily labor. The time came to hear the evening rule. The bell rang for the evening meal, which was sometimes brought to him. But he made use even of this time to receive the monks of both the monastery and the skete. Often he visited their monastic cells personally, and always in time, leaving behind him tranquility and joy. He also gave out an obedience: to read the writings of the Holy Fathers according to each monk’s level of spirituality. He did not tolerate idleness and for this reason established craftwork in the skete: bookbinding, lathery, etc. Each of the brothers knew and felt that his burden of labors and sorrows was shared by his loving and wise spiritual father, and this made monastic life easier.
At the end of the day they listened to the evening prayers and the remainder of the evening rule, after which the elder blessed everyone and dismissed them. It was already very late. The elder went into his monastic cell. His body ached from exhaustion and his heart from the impressions of all the human suffering that had been revealed. His eyes filled with tears… and yet on the table lay a pile of letters awaiting a reply. He sat down and began to write. When the candle burned down, the elder got up and stood to pray. Prayer never ceased within him, whether he was among a throng of people, at a meal, engaged in conversation, or in the quiet of the night.
Besides all that, to Father Macarius belongs the inestimable merit and labor of publishing the writings of the Holy Fathers. For this work he sacrificed his brief time of rest. This work united all spiritually aspiring intellectual forces, but all those individuals, besides their literary relations with the elder, also made use of his spiritual guidance.
The elder foretold the time of his death. A week prior to his repose he made his farewells, gave away his modest belongings, and gave out final instructions. People thronged to his cell to have a last look at him at least through the window. At around midnight he called for his confessor and asked him to read the prayers for the departing soul. At 6:00 in the morning he took Holy Communion and an hour later, fully conscious and with tenderness of spirit, the great elder Macarius peacefully and painlessly departed for the Heavenly Kingdom. This was on September 7, 1860.
Counsels of the venerable Elder Macarius
…To your question as to what constitutes happiness in life – whether it is grandeur, glory and wealth, or a quiet, peaceful family life, – I will tell you that I agree with the latter, and I will also add that a life spent with a pure conscience and with humility brings peace, tranquility, and true happiness, while wealth, honors, glory, and high position are often the cause of many sins and do not bring happiness.
People for the most part desire and seek well-being in this life, and tend to avoid sorrows. This seems to be good and pleasant, but constant well-being and happiness are harmful to a person. He falls into various passions and sins and offends the Lord, while those who lead a life of sorrow attain salvation, and for this reason the Lord has called a merry life the broad path: “the wide gate and the broad path lead to destruction, and many there are which follow it” (Matt. 7:13), while the life of sorrow He called “the strait gate and the narrow way which lead unto eternal life, and few there are that find it” (Matt. 7:14). Thus, out of His love for us and seeing its possible benefit for those who are worthy of it, the Lord leads many people away from the broad path and places them on the narrow and sorrowful path, in order to arrange their salvation through their endurance of illnesses and sorrows, and to grant them eternal life.
…You not only wish to be good and not do anything bad, but you also wish to see yourself as such. The desire is laudable, but the wish to see one’s own good qualities provides food for vanity. Even if we acted sincerely and correctly in all things, we still would have to regard ourselves as unworthy servants. However, being faulty in all things, we must not consider ourselves to be good even in our thoughts. For this reason we are embarrassed instead of being humble. For this reason God does not give us strength for the execution of things, in order for us not to have pride in ourselves, but to attain humility. And when we do attain it, then our virtues will be strong and will not allow us to be vain.
… We, weak-minded people, thinking to arrange our possessions, bustle around, despair, deprive ourselves of rest, only in order to leave our children a good estate. But do we know whether it will be of benefit to them? A foolish son is not helped by wealth – it only serves to lead him into immorality. We must concern ourselves with leaving our children the good example of our lives and rearing them in the fear of God and His commandments – that is their primary treasure. When we seek the Kingdom of God and His truth, all that is needful here will also be added (Matt. 6:33). You will say: but we cannot do this, the modern world requires different things now! All right, but have you borne your children for this world only, and not for the hereafter? Comfort yourself with the word of God: if the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you (John 15:18), while the carnal mind is enmity against God: it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Rom. 8:7). Do not desire earthly glory for your children, but that they may be good people and obedient children, and when God grants it – kind spouses and tender parents, concerned for those serving them, loving to all, and tolerant of their enemies.
… You wish to get nearer to God and attain salvation. That is the responsibility of all Christians, but it is done only through the keeping of God’s commandments, which consist entirely of love for God and neighbors, and even stretch to love for one’s enemies. Read the Gospel and there you will find the way, the truth, and the life; preserve the Orthodox faith and the canons of the Holy Church; study the instructions contained in the writings of church pastors and teachers, and arrange you life according to these teachings. However, rules of prayer alone will not help us do good… I advise you to pay as much attention as possible to works of love for your neighbors, to your relations with parents, spouses, and children, and try to bring up your children in the Orthodox faith and good morality. The holy Apostle Paul, enumerating the different type of virtues and labors of self-sacrifice, says: “Even if I do such-and-such, but have no love, there is no benefit to me.”
From the Article: Assembly of the Holy Optina Elders,
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church