August 22, 2018

Saint Isaac I (Antimonov) of Optina (+ 1894)

St. Isaac of Optina (Feast Day - August 22)

Father Isaac (Antimonov) was born on May 31, 1810 and came from a line of rich Kursk merchants, who sold livestock at fairs. This life did not satisfy Ivan (which was Isaac's name in the world), so one day on the way to a fair to sell livestock, he turned around the horses and ended up at Optina Monastery under Elder Macarius. He entered the Skete of Optina in 1847, when he was thirty-six, at about the same time as Father Ambrose. There he undertook various obediences, such as in the refectory as a cook, singing in the choir, and being a bookbinder. He was tonsured with the name of Isaac in 1854 and later ordained to the diaconate in 1855 and the priesthood in 1858, notwithstanding his reluctance. During the liturgy he could not hold back his tears as he contemplated on the Divine Mystery.

About his extraordinary silence, there were many stories. Once, on the occasion of a feast day in one of the monasteries, there was a bishop present. Among those who served there was also Father Isaac. After the service, all gathered in the chambers of the abbot to drink tea. There was a lively conversation. Only one, Isaac, was silent. Finally the abbot, wishing to draw him into the conversation, said: "And what about you, O Archimandrite, you will not tell us anything? I see that you are only listening." "Holy Father!", answered Isaac, "if everyone speaks, then who will listen?"

Later he was recommended to the holy Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow by Elder Macarius to succeed Father Moses as Abbot of the main monastery in 1862. With great faith, and obedient to divine Providence, Father Isaac forsook his beloved solitude, to spend over thirty years occupied with extensive and much-needed building works and with restoring the monastery’s economic stability, which Father Moses had neglected. He relied on the discernment of Elder Ambrose and asked his advice on every matter of importance. For all his great responsibilities, he remained humble and simple with his brethren.

Continuing the construction begun by Elder Moses, he completed the Church of All Saints in a new cemetery, a new iconostasis was built in the Kazan Cathedral and the old one in Vvedensky was rebuilt, a new painting of the walls was done, a monastery hospital with a pharmacy for free use was built, with the church in the name of Saint Hilarion the Great, a two-story building, the water pipeline was completed, the building of a new hospice was built and many rooms were restored, remodeled, renovated and rebuilt. Under his wise management, Optina acquired forest plots – so the problem of fuel was solved. He also purchased meadow lands on the Bolhov mill, a candle factory opened, and the cultivation of monastic gardens and vegetable gardens was encouraged. Thus Optina in the second half of the nineteenth century became one of the flourishing monasteries of Russia. But not only economic concerns limited the activities of the abbot. The main thing for him was paternal strict care of the monks and the rule of the brotherhood, and there was no exception for himself.

Already being abbot, and later, in 1885, an archimandrite, the Isaac did not perform any monastic affairs without the blessing of the elder Ambrose and taught this to the brotherhood. "Fathers and brethren! You have to go to the elder to cleanse your conscience," he often repeated. So, reverently, almost to belittle himself, he stood with all of them in line for his confessor, Elder Ambrose, and talked with him, kneeling like a simple novice.

The simplicity, modesty and humility of Elder Isaac can be judged by the following incident. Some visitor, who was walking around the monastery and living in the hospices, eating at the refectory and receiving alms from the abbot and treasurers, came for charity and to Father Isaac, and for some reason remaining unhappy, roughly said: "Here you are abbot, and not smart!" Elder Isaac answered him kindly: "And you, brother, although smart, you are not the abbot!"

On Saturdays, when he went for confession to Father Ambrose, he would wait his turn with the other visitors. He hesitated for a while before backing the foundation of Shamordino. When Elder Ambrose went to live there permanently, he did not disguise his disappointment. He said that for more than thirty-two years he was the abbot of the monastery, and said that according to the prayers of the elder he had known no sorrow for all this time, until Elder Ambrose departed for the Shamordino community. Even so, he resolutely took up the cause of the Convent when the Bishop wanted to sever its connection with the Monastery of Optina. The withdrawal of Father Ambrose marked the beginning of a time of trials for the monastery. Father Isaac himself was stricken by paralysis, and only recovered some strength during the last year of his abbacy. In the end, he fell ill with dysentery and gave up his soul to God while deep in prayer on 22 August 1894, at the age of eighty-five. He died quietly, surrounded by his weeping spiritual children, to whom he gave his final instruction: "Love God and others, love the Church of God, attend the services of the church, pray, seek not earthly blessings, but heavenly ones. Here, in this holy abode, where you laid the foundation of the monastic life, finish your days."