The Life Story of Elder Nektary (Tihonov), the Last Optina Elder

Among the great elders of Optina monastery, its last Starets Nektary enjoyed an especial love. Born in 1858 of poor parents Basil and Helen Tihonov, he was christened Nicholas. His father, who worked at a local mill, died at an early age. Nicholas and his mother had a very deep spiritual bond. While being strict with him, she usually applied kindness and knew how to reach his heart. However, she too died early leaving Nicholas a complete orphan.

    In 1876, Nicholas arrived at the Optina forest with a bundle swung over his shoulder, containing nothing but a copy of the New Testament. Many years later, the holy father recalled his first impressions of Optina: "Lord! How beautiful it is with the sun flooding the area from sunrise, and the flowers! Just as though in paradise!" Nicholas was received by none other than elder Ambrose, and his initial dialogue with this great sagacious elder produced such a deep impression that he remained there for the rest of his life. Elders Ambrose and Anthony (Zertsalov) became his spiritual mentors.

    Nektary’s first act of obedience was to look after the flowers, followed by serving as a sexton. The door of his cell (where he spent 25 years) faced the side of the church.

    Because of his many responsibilities of obedience, he quite often arrived late for church services, appearing with bloodshot and swollen eyes, as though he overslept. To the complaints from some of the brothers, elder Ambrose would usually reply in rhyme, "Wait. Nicholas being oversleepful – to all will be useful."

    Obedience had great meaning: "The first and greatest virtue is obedience. Christ came to us because of His obedience to His Father, and a person’s life on earth is obedience to God." Later, in his more mature years, Father Nektary would say, "Without obedience a person is first gripped by an aimless urge, then acrimony which later leads to weakening and coldness. Initially, obedience is difficult to perform, but subsequently, all the impediments are smoothed out."

    During these years, Father Nektary read extensively and pursued a program of self-education. He read not only spiritual material but educational books. He studied mathematics, history, geography, Russian and foreign classic literature, learned the French and Latin languages. In 1894, Father Nektary was consecrated as hierodeacon, and, 4 years later, Kaloozhski Archbishop Makarius ordained him hieromonk. This is what he had to say about his consecration: "When Archbishop Macarius was consecrating me as hieromonk, he foresaw my spiritual turmoil and, upon its conclusion, offered me some brief yet powerful words. These words were so potent that even though many years had elapsed, I still remember them to this day and will not forget them for the rest of my life. And did he say much to me? He called me into the altar and said, ‘Nektary, when you are sorrowful or depressed and heavy temptation overtakes you, just keep repeating one thing: "Lord, be merciful, pardon and save this servant of Yours."’ That is all that vladiko (the Bishop) told me! But this advice saved me many times, and is still saving me to this day because it was spoken with authority."

    It is not known from what specific grief he was saved by these words, although the Starets did reveal some of the temptations he encountered. One occurred during the early days of his spiritual probationership. In his younger days, he had a magnificent voice and his ear for music remained with him into his old age. During his first few years at the Optina, he sang in the choir on the right side of the hermitage church, and was also required to sing " ." However, there was a custom at the hermitage: Once a year, the choirmaster from the monastery would come over to listen and select the best voices for his choir. Those chosen were then transferred to the monastery. Even though he did not want to leave, Brother Nektary’s fine voice threatened him with this fate. At the same time, to sing solo was both flattering and comforting. Nonetheless, during singing sessions in front of the choirmaster, he falsified his voice by singing off-key and earned a relegation to the lower ranks in the choir. Needless to say, there was no further question of his transfer to the monastery.

    Another temptation overtook him while being a hieromonk. Becoming a semi-recluse, he even covered the windows of his cell with sheets of paper, in order to intensify his prayers and enhance his self-education. Although having completed secondary schooling only, his constant reading gave him a many-faceted knowledge, so that he could converse freely on general social and specific subjects, as well as spiritual ones. He could discuss Pushkin and Shakespeare, Milton and Kriloff, Spengler and Hogarth, Bloch, Dante, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. After lunch, during his one hour of rest, he would ask someone to read to him folkloric stories – Russian or from brothers Grimm.

    Having read about earth’s wide variety of wonders, he developed a passion to travel so that he could see them for himself. At that time, Optina received instructions from the Holy Synod, directing them to appoint an hieromonk as the chaplain aboard a ship that was to circumnavigate the globe. The Archimandrite offered this post to Hieromonk Nektary. Returning to his cell, he was so excited and anxious that he started to pack, forgetting that at Optina, nothing is undertaken without first receiving a blessing from the Starets. It was some time later that having remembered this, he immediately went to Starets Joseph for his blessing. However, the Starets did not bless him and Father Nektary accepted this submissively.

    So as not to develop any pride, Father Nektary started to act the fool for Christ. For example, over his under-cassock, he would wear a floral, woman’s jacket: when he sat down to eat, he would put all his food into one container, be it sweet, sour or salty: he would wear a felt boot on one foot and a leather shoe on the other. During his period of "starchestvovania," he used to perplex his fellow monks by surrounding himself with toy automobiles, ships, cars, and planes.

    His transition from living a solitary life in a cell to serving the public did not come easily to him. In 1913, upon the insistence of Father Benedict (Father superior at Borovsko and an ecclesiastical Superintendent), the Optina brotherhood met to choose a new Starets. It was first offered to Archimandrite Agape who was retired and lived at Optina. This was a man of wide knowledge and high spirituality. Author of the brilliant autobiography of Starets Ambrose’s life, he had steadfastly refused the post of Bishop offered to him on a number of occasions. Here, he too flatly refused to be Starets. At that time, he had a few close pupils among whom was Hieromonk Nektary.

    When the brothers asked Father Agape to nominate a worthy candidate, he named Father Nektary, who due to his humility was not even present. The brotherhood unanimously chose Father Nektary as their Starets and sent Father Averky to fetch him. Arriving at the cell, he advised, "Reverend father, you are needed at the meeting," to which Father Nektary refused, saying, "They will be able to make their selection without me." However, Father Averky insisted with "Father Archimandrite sent me to ask you to come." Obediently, Father Nektary put on his cassock and wearing his usual felt boot on one foot and a shoe on the other, went to the assembly.

    Upon arriving, he was greeted with "Father, you were chosen as the spiritual head of our abbey and our Starets." Father Nektary objected "No, fathers and brothers, I am simple minded and would not be able to carry such a heavy load." Finally, on hearing archimandrite’s determinate words – "Father Nektary, accept this obedience," he submitted to the call.

    During this period Starets Nektary became close to Constantine Leonti Bolotov, a scholar who became a monk living in Optina, and who used to read his original literary works to him. He studied painting under this academic and throughout his life maintained an interest by sketching icons and closely following new developments in trends and techniques. For example, his sketch of the Annunciation was made in the final year of his life at Optina.

    Having a talent for painting, this art was especially close to Starets Nektary. He used to declare, "Currently, the art of painting is on the decline. Previously, before commencing a painting a painter used to prepare himself – both internally and externally. Before sitting down to the task, he would prepare all the necessary items: canvas, paints, brushes etc.... and would then paint not only a few days, but years, and sometimes a whole lifetime, like painter Ivanov’s ‘Appearance of Christ to the people’. Great masterpieces were created in those days. Today, painters work hurriedly, without thought or feeling… For example, when painting a spiritual work, it is necessary for the light to emanate from an angel rather than it fall upon him."

    The Starets badly wanted a painting to be done of Christ’s Birth. "It is necessary for the world to remember this enormous event. After all, it happened only once in the entire history!… The shepherds are dressed in short frayed clothing, facing the light with their backs to the viewer. And the light should not be white but slightly golden, be totally whole – not as rays or clusters – and only the far corner of the painting should be darkened, so as to remind us that it was night. In order to make it quite clear that this beauty was not human but heavenly and not of this world" added the elder with particular emphasis, "the light from the angels’ configurations must be soft, barely discernible." Another time the Starets mentioned to a girl: "Why were the shepherds worthy to see the angels that night? – Because they were vigilant."

     Once the elder was shown an icon, depicting Christ’s Transfiguration, where the light from Mount Tabor contrasted with the dark ganglionic trees in the foreground. The Starets ordered their erasure, explaining that "where there is light from Tabor, there is no room for darkness… When there is this light, every nook and cranny is illuminated."

    Father Basil Shoostin and his wife, who used to visit Starets Nektary, had some valuable recollections of him. As Father Basil recalled: "Batushka says to me, ‘empty out the samovar and fill it up with fresh water. The water is standing in the corner, in a copper jug. Take it and pour it in.’ The jug was massive. I tried to move it, to no avail – I didn’t have the strength. Batushka continued, ‘Just take the jug and fill up the samovar.’ ‘But Batushka, it is too heavy. I cannot move it.’ Then Batushka came up to the jug, blessed it and said ‘Pick it up.’ I did so and found it to be quite light."

    After evening prayers, the brothers from the monastery used to visit Elder Nektary to receive his blessing before going to bed. This occurred in the morning and evening of every day. The monks would come up for their blessing bowing, and some would openly confess their thoughts and doubts. Batushka would comfort some, enhearten others and granted remission to all those that confessed their sins, dispelling their uncertainties and lovingly allowing them to leave in peace. It was a very emotional scene. During the blessing, Batushka had an extremely serious and concentrated appearance, and each of his words was filled with love and concern for the agitated soul. Afterwards, Batushka would withdraw to his retreat and pray for 1 hour, returning after a lengthy absence to clear the table.

    "During one of my visits to Optina," recalled Fr. Basil, "I witnessed how Fr. Nektary read sealed letters. He approached me with approximately 50 letters that he had received and started to sort them unopened. Some he would put to one side with the words ‘These require replies, while these are letters of gratitude and require no response.’ Without reading them, he knew their contents. Some he would bless, while some he even kissed, and he gave my wife 2 letters saying ‘Here, read these aloud as this will be beneficial to you.’

    "In 1914, my elder brother [Fr. Basil’s] entered Optina as a novice and at times acted as a lay brother to Starets Nektary. As he was establishing his own personal library, he often wrote and asked our father to send him money so that he could purchase religious books. I was always perturbed by this and often said: "Once you have left the material world through your calling, you must sever your ties with your passions." And he had a passion for books. I wrote to Fr. Nektary, voicing my concerns on this matter. Batushka did not reply and my brother continued his purchases. I then wrote a somewhat sharp letter to Batushka, accusing him of not curbing my brother’s passion. Once again, Batushka did not respond. In 1917, my wife and I were able to leave the front and visit Optina. Batushka greeted us with a low bow and said: "Thank you for your candor. I knew that after the letters you would come personally and I am always glad to see you. Always write these types of letters and then come personally for answers. Now I can tell you that soon there will be a famine of spiritual books and you will not be able to obtain them. It is very good that he is collecting this spiritual treasure, as it will be extremely useful. Heavy times are upon us. The number six has been and gone on earth while the numeral seven is approaching – the age of silence is approaching. ‘Keep quiet, keep quiet,’ said Batushka, tears streaming from his eyes. The Emperor is enduring humiliation for his mistakes. It will be worse in 1918 – the Emperor and his whole family will be murdered, martyred. One pious girl had a vision: Jesus Christ is sitting on His throne with 12 Apostles near Him while terrible moans are heard coming from earth. Apostle Peter asks Christ: ‘Lord, when will these torments cease?’ and Jesus Christ answers him: ‘I am granting a period up to 1922. If people will not repent, will not come to their senses, then they shall perish.’ And here, in front of God’s Altar, stood the Emperor with a martyr’s crown. Yes, this Emperor will be a great martyr. In the closing stages, he will redeem his soul, and if people do not turn to God then not only Russia, but the whole of Europe will collapse.’"

Right from the beginning, Father Nektary did not want to be Starets and was overwhelmed with this obedience. Most of the time he spent in isolation in the cell of former Starets Ambrose. Showing great humility, he would say of himself: "What kind of Starets am I and how can I be a successor to the former Elders? They had benevolence within them the size of a big loaf, while mine is that of one small slice." He always had a book lying on the table of his ante-chamber, opened on a specific page. This was done so that the visitor, in having to wait for an audience, would invariably start reading the book, not realizing that it was one of Father Nektary’s methods of hiding his perspicacity by using the open pages to give a warning, or indicating the question or advising the answer in the forthcoming conversation. He blessed all his visitors with a very large sign of the cross. He was slow in movement and very focused, giving the impression that he was carrying a cup filled with a precious fluid that he was afraid to spill.

    The Revolution ushered in a period of heavy trials for Starets Nektary. With the collapse of Optina, he wanted to relinquish his position of spiritual administrator and conclude his life as a wanderer. However, during the night he had a vision in which the former deceased Elders appeared to him and said: "If you want to be with us, do not leave your children." Elder Nektary resigned himself to the cross that was placed upon him.

    The Optina hermitage survived until 1923 when all of the churches were shut. Very little is known of the post-revolutionary period. One eyewitness related that because of the measures taken in liquidating the neighboring women’s monasteries, all the nuns, like birds that had their nests destroyed, hastened to Optina. They found refuge there as they had nowhere else to go. Crowds of laity also brought their grief, asking how to pray for their missing loved ones: the horrors of the revolution and civil war brought losses to nearly every family.

    After banishing Starets Nektary from Optina, the Bolsheviks brought an occultist into his cell, hoping to find treasure. It was night and a kerosene lamp was burning in the cell. The sorcerer-occultist began his witchcraft, and while the lamp continued burning, the cell was filled with a dim fog. A nun in the adjoining cell took Father Nektary’s rosary beads and made the sign of a cross with them, in the direction of his cell. Immediately, his cell became bright while the occultist was gripped in an epileptic fit, convulsing and thrashing around on the floor.

    The fundamental features of Starets Nektary were humility and wisdom. He approached everybody on a personal and individual level with a specific objective. He used to say: "You cannot demand that a fly do the work of a bee." The reverend father was not tall with a semi-circular face; long tufts of grayish hair protruded from under his skullcap, hands clutching rosary beads made out of granite. When he took confessional, he would wear a red velvet epitrahelion with blue crosses. His face seemed ageless: first it may be old and fierce, then young and full of expression, then childlike, pure and serene. During his days of being Starets, he was stooped, wore a wedge-shaped beard, was thin and his eyes wept continually. Consequently, he always had a handkerchief in his hand with which he frequently wiped his eyes. He loved to keep a low profile and be unnoticed. As a result, he was against being photographed and consequently, there are very few photographs of him. This was very characteristic of him.

    Starets Nektary died on April 29, 1928, in the village of Holmisha in the district of Briansk. He was buried in the local cemetery. When he was alive, he used to say that he would not have a grave and indeed, there was fierce fighting and obliteration in that area. However, the memory of Elder Nektary was alive among the faithful.

    Nonetheless, despite the devastation of the revolution and changes during the long years under communism, the grave of Starets Nektary was located. In 1992, brothers from the restored Optina monastery arrived at his gravesite and began digging. At 1.5 meters, they unearthed the coffin of schemanun(?) Nektarii(?) Kontsevich – mother of Bishop Nektary of Seattle – one of Elder Nektary’s novitiates. Digging further and slightly to the side, they came upon the coffin of the Starets. When they opened his grave, all those present became aware of a very fragrant aroma emanating from the coffin. It also revealed his mantle remained whole and uncorrupted. On Sunday, July 16, the remains of Starets Nektary were ceremoniously relocated from the cemetery at Holmisha to the Annunciation cathedral at Optina.

    This was the beginning of Elder Nektary’s reassuring prophecies: "Russia will awaken and while she will not be materially wealthy, she will be spiritually rich, and Optina will have another seven lightgivers, seven pillars."

An article by Bishop Alexander Mileant

Source: https://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/nektary_e.htm