Thursday, July 10, 2008

Elder Ambrose of Optina

Today we celebrate the memory of the uncovering of the relics (in 1998) of St Ambrose of Optina, perhaps the most renowned of the great Elders of the Optina Hermitage. Even those who know little of the inner life of the Orthodox Church will likely have made acquaintance with him indirectly: he served as one of the models for Dostoevsky's Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky himself visited the Elder at Optina in 1878, shortly after the death of his young son Alyosha – whose name, of course, he lent to the idealistic young protagonist of his great novel. Dostoevsky was not the only great writer or philosopher to visit various of the Optina Elders: others included Gogol, Khomiakov, Tolstoy, Leontiev, Kireevsky, and Solovyev. (For the thoughts of the Elder Barsanuphius of Optina on the creative arts, see my post here.)

Those interested in his life are encouraged to read the book Elder Ambrose of Optina by Fr Sergius Chetverikov. John B. Dunlop's Startez Amvrosy: Model for Dostoevsky's Startez Zosima is also very good, especially as an introduction for those whose knowledge of the Orthodox spiritual tradition is limited. A good short online life can be read here.

I am a great admirer of Dostoevsky. Yet I can't help but feel that the holiness of the Elder Ambrose is better evoked by the single photograph above than by hundreds of the great writer's pages. True holiness is best seen on a man's face.


Aaron Taylor said...

I'm a big fan of Dostoevsky myself, but I wonder what you think about the criticisms that have been made, first, by Leontiev, and second, by Fr Seraphim (Rose) (in Fr Damascene's biography) of D's portrayal of the elder in 'Brothers K'. Also, your comments about writers visiting Optina made me wonder, have you read Leonard Stanton's book on Optina Pustyn and Russian literature? Despite flaws, I love this book!

Felix Culpa said...

Thanks very much for your comment. For a few of my thoughts on the matter, see my post "The Russian Christ" from February 2, 2008.

I'm afraid I don't specifically recall the criticisms you mention, although I think I can remember the gist of them. I've also heard that the monks of Optina themselves distanced themselves from The Brothers K, and I also recall that the Holy Synod did not give a blessing to print the chapter "The Russian Monk" (which contains Zosima's central teachigns) as a separate pamphlet. The best short treatment of the issue I know of, and one I frequently recommend, is one written by the late Fr Sergei Hackel and published in a volume entitled, if I recall correctly, "New Essays on Dostoevsky." (Now there's a dated title if there ever was one.)

In my opinion "Crime and Punishment" is superior to the Brothers K both as a novel and as an expression of Christian thought, although less explicitly religious in character.

Thanks very much for your recommendation of Dr Stanton's book, which I've never seen. The price is high enough that I'll need to request it through a library, but it looks eminently worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I agree! This has always been my favorite photograph of St. Ambrose. Thank you for this post.