There is no other such witness and sign of faithful love towards Christ as care for brethren and concern over their salvation. - St. John Chrysostom
The Optina Hermitage, renowned for its "golden chain" of God-bearing elders, was closed by the communists in 1923, but its spirit lived on in its disciples and through them was spread abroad. One of these disciples was Archimandrite Ambrose, abbot of Milkovo Monastery in Serbia. It was under his spiritual tutelage that Archbishop Anthony of Western America and San Francisco became a monk. Our brief account is based on a Life which Archbishop Anthony compiled of his beloved abba, and thanks to which the memory of the Milkovo elder will be cherished by future generations, grateful for its inspiration.
Archimandrite Ambrose (Kurganov) was born January 1, 1894, in the Russian province of Ryazan. His father and one of his grand-fathers were village priests, and his other grand-father was a secret monk, so it is not surprising that Vladimir, as he was named at baptism, came to choose the monastic life. Already as a student at Warsaw University, he was guided in the Jesus Prayer by a talented priest of the white clergy, who soon turned him over for spiritual direction to Archimandrite Benjamin (Fedchenko, later metropolitan). Vladimir's studies were interrupted by the war, when he went to the front to work in a medical detachment. He resumed his studies briefly before becoming a military cadet in Moscow. The slogans of impending revolution grated upon his religious and patriotic feelings, and hastened his desire to withdraw from the world. From Archimandrite Benjamin he had heard about Optina Hermitage and, still wearing his soldier's greatcoat, he squeezed onto a train bound for Kozelsk. By God's Providence, Vladimir was accepted straightway into the Skete of the Forerunner, the strictest part of the monastery. He labored unsparingly in the garden under the exacting Fr. Job, knowing that physical toil begets humility. He loved the brothers and the brothers loved him. But even the most apt pupil in the monastic school is bound to stumble occasionally. One day Vladimir approached Fr. Theodosy, the skete abbot. "Batiushka, bless me to study English." "Lord have mercy, brother Vladimir, why do you need English?" "I want to read Milton's Paradise Lost in the original." "Lord have mercy, why do you need Milton? Here are Anthony the Great, Macarius the Great; read them." "I went away from him with my soul boiling," he related later. "What does this peasant understand?!" Vladimir was so upset that he left the skete and went home. He soon realized that the incident was but a temptation and he returned in repentance.
Historical circumstances complicated his novitiate. To avoid being inducted into the Soviet army, Vladimir received a blessing to go south. In Poltava, at the residence of Archbishop Theophan, he shared quarters with a young hieromonk, the future Archbishop Ioasaph of Canada. When the Bolsheviks began searching for him, he hid for two or three months in the adjacent coachhouse, where he occupied himself by reading the ascetical works of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov. Joining the volunteer army, he was wounded in one lung and became severely infected with typhus; he never fully recovered. Eventually he was reunited with his dear Bishop Benjamin in Sevastopol. But the march of war soon forced him out of Russia and, in the fall of 1920, he arrived with other refugees in Constantinople. The life of a refugee in a bustling metropolis was hardly conducive to the monastic discipline. Vladimir kept himself focussed by reading the works of St. John Chrysostom and the Prologue whenever time allowed. He always tried never to be without a guide, and he was greatly consoled there in Constantinople to make the acquaintance of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), the "father of monks and those searching for monasticism." At the metropolitan's initiative, Vladimir was ordained subdeacon by Vladika Anastassy, who later succeeded Vladika Anthony as First Hierarch of the Church Abroad.
The diary Vladimir kept during this time reveals an exemplary submission to the will of God. One day the wound in his lung opened and he coughed up a lot of blood. He did not pray that his life be prolonged, writing in his diary, "Does He not know my being, does He not know my life? Is not my innermost self open to Him? Does He have little love? Does a potter not know when to remove a clay vessel from the kiln? May He be blessed in all His works, for everything of His is good."
The diary likewise reflects a height of contemplation remarkable in one only twenty-seven years old:
"The mind is emptied of thoughts and images and becomes somehow simple; the heart, like the quiet flame of a votive-lamp, trembles joyously from this 'inexpressible' which is revealed to it. Without images, without thoughts, there is somehow ineffably revealed to the soul this Most Blessed, Holy, Pure Being, God."
Further on, he writes:
"Your sweetness is unspeakable, Your peace inexpressible. Oh, if only I could always love You, always abide in You, Oh Lord, my Lord." This love for God was mirrored in his love and concern for others. As poor as he was, he shared what he had with unfailing hospitality. Later, in Serbia, his favorite obedience was to receive pilgrims. Even before he became a priest, he noted in his diary, "It is impossible to abandon a person's soul."
Together with many other Russian refugees, Vladimir found a brotherly welcome in Serbia. But life remained unsettled for the aspiring novice. In the space of a year and a half, he moved to three different monasteries before the Serbs gave his abba, Bishop Benjamin, the Petkovitsa Monastery, and Vladimir received a blessing to join him there.
In Petkovitsa, Vladimir spent six months as a novice, although one could say that he had been a novice for five years, since his time at Optina. Everywhere, he read and tried to apply the teachings of the monastic fathers: Saints Abba Dorotheus, John of the Ladder, Theodore the Studite. He had formed such a close bond with Bishop Benjamin that it hurt him deeply when the latter unexpectedly declined to be his sponsor at his tonsure. It served, however, as a valuable lesson that such strong attachment must be reserved for our Lord Jesus Christ alone and not any human personality, no matter how holy. Before his tonsure, Vladimir submitted the names of three favorite saints, and he was clothed with the name Ambrose. Two weeks later, Metropolitan Anthony, with whom he continued to correspond, came to Petkovitsa and ordained him to the diaconate.
Petkovitsa began to flourish; new monks arrived, and there were plans for a printing press and a broad program of missionary activity. Sadly, nothing came of this. Bishop Benjamin, who was very sociable by nature and took an active part in the life of the monastery, soon left to undertake missionary work in Carpatho-Russia, appointing his teacher, Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, to take his place at the helm of the monastery. Vladika Theophan had a very different character; a severe ascetic, he did not eat with the brethren or work with them in the fields. He himself recognized that he was not suited for the position and, after a time, decided to leave. Prior to his departure, on October 1, 1923, the feastday of the monastery church, he ordained Hiero-deacon Ambrose to the priesthood. During the service, St. Parasceva-Petka herself was seen standing in the sanctuary.
For various reasons, the monastery began to decline and, in the autumn of 1924, Batiushka Ambrose accepted the invitation of Bishop Seraphim (Sobolev) to come to Bulgaria where, with the approval of Metropolitan Anthony, he was appointed abbot of a small, recently established Russian monastery nestled in the Balkan mountains.
Building on the foundation of his monastic training at Optina and the experience-both positive and negative-which he had acquired at Petkovitsa, he was able to shape his tiny synodia of five novices into a real coenobia, a harmony of physical and spiritual labor. But, just as gold is refined by fire, so too, writes St. Paul, the spiritual man is purified through trials, and this promising beginning soon came to a sorrowful end. All sorts of slander and complaints against Fr. Ambrose were made-especially about his putting an end to using the monastery as a resort-and he was compelled to leave. Metropolitan Anthony, who saw his gifts and kept a watchful eye on him, arranged for his transfer to Serbia, where the monastic-loving Bishop Mitrofan of Branich was searching for an abbot for the small monastery of Milkovo.
When Batiushka Ambrose was still in Petkovitsa, after Archbishop Theophan had left, Metropolitan Anthony had sent him an encouraging letter in which he had written, "And you yourself, with your enthusiastic soul and the ability to fulfill God's service, will be one of the main bearers of the monastic spirit, and you will establish your own brotherhood." There at Milkovo, his prophetic words found their fulfillment. Fr. Ambrose arrived at the monastery on January 24, 1926, with four novices, for what was to be the final and most fruitful chapter of his life. He was just thirty-two years old.
The spiritual personality of the young elder is most vividly reflected in the chapter, "The Spirit of Milkovo: Batiushka." Here, Archbishop Anthony draws on his own recollections, and we can do no better than to quote him directly.
It was necessary to build both spiritually and materially. The new arrivals met with a shortage of everything. There was some half-moldy corn, one bag of wheat flour, and a broken-down cart. Concerning Milkovo's poverty, I shall briefly note that the first years were very difficult. We managed to clothe ourselves only with the help of benefactors.
In the first year, our feast on the Sunday of Forgiveness-the last meal before the beginning of the Great Lent-consisted of sauerkraut, the gift of a neighboring priest. But Batiushka began to set the economy aright and to gather brethren. Some could not endure the poverty and left, others came to settle. Older monks came from Russian or Athonite monasteries. Of the Russians, most were from Valaam, banished from their own monastery for not accepting the secular [new] calendar. Young people also came. Some Serbs came as well, though not many.
But how much all this cost Batiushka! How many departures from the monastery did he have to weep over. In some extreme cases, he himself had to worry about transferring to other monasteries those who were altogether unsuitable.
Batiushka was patient, however, and he covered the weaknesses of others with his love, which acted most beneficially upon those whom he sheltered, and upon all the brethren. In Milkovo, refusing to judge one's neighbor was honored as the most indispensable virtue. I remember how a youth who had not fully made up his mind to remain in the monastery, was temporarily placed in the room of a Serbian worker. Hearing of this, I said, "But Grisha will only learn to curse from Mika." Batiushka became indignant, "What? Are you judging Mika?" "Forgive me, Batiushka," I responded. "Go away, go away from me; judging is worse than fornication." "Forgive me, Batiushka," I repeated. "Go away. Go away."
So that we would not judge others, Batiushka taught us to search for something good in each soul. For example, we had with us for a time a hieromonk from Petkovitsa. Being a tailor, he sewed for private persons for money, without a blessing. Batiushka struggled with this evil and finally transferred the priest, but he said to us, "You know, he is so chaste."
While the monastery grew and winnowed, the monastery's economy grew aright and a relative abundance appeared. We even began to sow our own wheat (previously, the land had been rented out). The Lord blessed the monastery vineyard and gardens. Benefactors donated blankets, some clothing and sent money. The brotherhood began to stand on its feet.
There was much work to do in the monastery and Batiushka helped. He would also look in everywhere, encourage, advise and often he would walk up to someone and say, "Just see how good it is here-a real monastery. Luke is painting icons, Serge is building the pig-pen, Theophanushka is making candles and Alyokha is kneading dough."
Or, he would glance into the chicken-coop where a novice was diligently cleaning and say to him, "Weep, weep. No one sees you here," and go on his way, while the novice would remember this all his life.
Batiushka took upon himself two special obediences-to chant the Liturgy when others were occupied, and to maintain the monastery stoves. Both obediences caused bleeding in the lung which had been wounded. Batiushka would stop chanting for a while. A month would pass and he would chant again. Batiushka spared himself even less with the stoves. If he was working on one and blood began to flow by evening, then he would continue in the morning. (These were brick and plaster stoves, something like a fireplace, but with the front enclosed and a door in the front for wood. Often they would be long and could be slept upon in the winter, the hot coals warming the occupant on cold winter nights.)
It would often happen that Batiushka would stand through the Midnight Hour and part of the Matins and then go off to work on some stove clay. The priestmonks would come out of the church and go to the abbot to receive a blessing while still in klobuks with mantias over their arms. Batiushka would tear himself away from the clay or bricks, wipe his hands and face with the skirt of his cassock or apron, and exchange the hand-to-hand priestly kiss with the fathers.
Batiushka not only worked on a par with the brethren but he also gave us cell-peace (i.e., his cell was open at all times to anyone with troubles) which is so desired by a monk. Batiushka would want to read and pray in seclusion but he chose a different, difficult path. Entry to the abbot's cell was unrestricted. There was no surrogate for the abbot. Perhaps this was because the brotherhood was small and also because Batiushka was so very concerned about our every step. And so, the abbot had no refuge for solitude. This was the cell to which the cook came for a blessing to cook, the baker to bake and the herdsman came to receive a blessing to sound the symantron for meals or Vespers, or to let the cattle out or bring them in. Here they came to tell their sorrows. Here were the books which Batiushka gave us to read. Here stood his wide iron cot and a little pedestal table with pictures incidentally found in Milkovo. There was grating on the windows, cut during his fatal illness so that there would be more air in the cell. In the corner was a wooden icon of the Saviour. The other icons were on cardboard, or simply of paper.
Preserving material and spiritual harmony, he took care that the toiling brethren "matured in the beauty of the Lord, and attended His holy temple," as it is sung in the psalm.
I do not know if I am partial, but for me the spirit of the Divine services at Milkovo was incomparable with anything. . . . Batiushka fulfilled the services in such a way that we loved them and strove to participate in them. For example, Fr. Stefan, the cook, would get up at night in order to complete his baking in time to be on cliros, although this was not required of him, and Fr. Raphael, the herdsman, would hurry with the milking and pasturing of the cows in order to arrive at least by the middle of the night Vigil. And the little old monk from Valaam, accustomed to the correct services and then starving for them in his exile, upon arriving at Milkovo, remarked, "Yes, this is a monastery!"
Batiushka felt the Lord's beauty in the Divine services, especially in the old Znamenny chant. He also liked Serbian chanting.
He clearly understood the beauty of the Lord in iconography. Batiushka especially liked ancient icon-ography, and knew the symbolic significance of the various colors. He had mastered the brush well, but in Milkovo he hardly touched it. On the other hand, he participated with all his soul in the work of his spiritual son, the future abbot, Luke. He rejoiced over his artistic gift as if it were his own.
The Milkovo-Presentation monastery bore the same name as Optina. Batiushka fervently strove to have the Theotokos glorified in the monastery. After the dismissal of the morning and evening Divine services, we sang the troparion of the Presentation and then went to the church porch where, before the locally honored icon of the Mistress, we chanted, in a Valaam chant, the moving stichera, "To human protection entrust me not, but do thou thyself preserve me..."
He always strove to accustom us to the Jesus Prayer. To some he gave the instruction to read from the Philokalia the chapter of Nicephorus the Solitary or the Word of Hesychius the Presbyter. But guarding against self-deception, he said, "Read twice and what will remain in the head will remain. Do not read more."
Batiushka's Constantinople diary is punctuated with the words or beginning letters of the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." In his New Testament, he had many times underlined the words about the grace-filled power of Jesus' name.
More often, Batiushka gave ascetic instructions in private conversations or letters. In general, he observed the rule of the great Optina elder Ambrose, and lived simply. He loved humor but behind this humor a great love was felt. The Milkovo herdsman recalled how once he had pastured the cattle in the field and read the psalter there, and then returned to the monastery. Batiushka met him near the gate and encouraged him saying that he would ride into the Kingdom of Heaven on cows.
He used to call us all by diminutives and endearing names-"Savushka," "Ivanushka," "Alyo-kha," even giving nicknames.
It was not in vain that Vladika Anthony reminded Batiushka how St. Seraphim had taught Abbot Antony Bochkov to be not only a father but also a mother to the brethren. Was it not like a mother that Batiushka gave away warm clothes which were brought to him, to another monk, even though he himself was weak and feeble? Was it not as if about his own blood children that he wrote to his friend about the brethren, describing how one celebrates the services, how one flourishes, how one rejoices, and he exclaims, "My dear father, they are all righteous ones."
Batiushka taught us that while living our own special monastic life, we must not lock ourselves up in isolation. Not only the visiting clergy, both monastic and married, not only the archpastors, but also the lay people who had crossed the Morava to come to us, entered into our family. As a pastor, Elder Ambrose had a gentle approach, which some mistakenly interpreted as weakness. "Once," writes Archbishop Anthony, "not understanding, I said to him after confession, 'Why, Batiushka, you are not even giving me an epitemia.' He meekly replied, 'You know, I have observed for myself that a kind word acts with more strength than anything else.' " At the end of 1932, the wound in his lung opened up again. That year had brought a number of trials: the monastery was in danger of losing some land due to flooding; a young novice drowned, and a severe storm damaged a third of the monastery crops. The elder's anxiety for the brethren taxed his already poor health. He became ill towards Great Lent and, on the Feast of the Holy Martyrs, he was taken to the hospital. When, after a month, it became clear that his condition was hopeless, he asked to be taken back to his monastery.
Lying in his cell, Fr. Ambrose would often turn to a portrait of St. Ambrose of Optina and repeat, "Batiushka, Father Ambrose!" He had a special veneration for the Optina elder, and he shared more than just his name. Vladika Anthony writes:
"I remember how, while walking across the yard, he showed me a book of letters of Ambrose of Optina. He lifted it toward me and said with delight, 'Here is a book, Anthony!' Reading this book later, I experienced a feeling of emotion, as if I was once again conversing with our Batiushka: I met so much there that was familiar. For example, it is characteristic of the letters of Ambrose of Optina that they give encouragement and the reader remains unaware that they were written by a man who was, for many years, welded to a bed with illness. In the same manner, Batiushka encouraged and rejoiced us, not faltering in this service even though he was ill and weak in body. It was not by artful imitation, but in his very being, that Batiushka was near in spirit to the great elder." A month later, on May 17, 1933, the young elder reposed. "The Heavenly Potter extracted His new vessel from the kiln. A true monk left this world and departed into that other one, which is reflected in the very word 'monk'."
The Young Elder: A Biography of Blessed Archimandrite Ambrose of Milkovo by Archbishop Anthony, is available from Holy Trinity Monastery, P.O. Box 36, Jordanville, NY 13361; 70 pps.,[OA/_private/oabot.htm]