Guiding ‘starets’: Russian youths discover Orthodox monasticism

Editors: A short preview of a documentary on faith in Russia today is available at A full video accompanying this story can be found at

OPTINA PUSTYN, Russia (CNS) — On Christmas night two years ago, Anya Bulochnikova, 29, first discovered Optina Monastery’s golden onion-shaped domes rising above the bucolic hills and snowdrifts of Russia’s Ugra National Park.

“It was just like a dream,” Bulochnikova said. “There was no electric lighting, but only candles inside the church.”

“There were other young people, just like us, attending the beautiful Christmas services,” she said. “We felt that our souls were warm and full of grace; I will remember this feeling of celebration forever.”

Bulochnikova’s discovery of monastic worship exemplifies a growing identification with Orthodoxy among Russians since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to a recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, the number of Russians who identify themselves as Orthodox Christians rose from 37 percent in 1991 to 71 percent today. At the same time, weekly church attendance remains low — 6 percent — according to the survey.

Optina Monastery is one of the main centers of Orthodox monasticism in Russia, famous for its monks’ reputation for holiness.

The monks are so virtuous that “you feel you don’t even have a right to speak to them,” Bulochnikova said.

For Father Kalinnik, a monk of Optina, it’s that reputation of sanctity that draws pilgrims to the monastery each day.

“Monasticism is a spiritual root of the Orthodox Church that nourishes the whole body,” he said. “This way of life can give you the deepest possible spiritual experience.”

“The history of the Orthodox Church proves this, as the greatest saints were mainly monks,” Father Kalinnik said. “It is harder to become a saint living in the secular world.” While monks in the Orthodox Church must be celibate, married men can and do become priests.

During their lifetimes, some monks achieve a special reputation for wisdom and holiness and come to be called “starets,” or elders.

The word means a “person who has come a long way spiritually and attained spiritual experience and grace, which helps him to lead people along the same way of Christian life,” Father Kalinnik explained. “Sometimes these people can heal the sick or foretell the future.”

Before the 1917 communist revolution, many pilgrims, including the great Russian writers Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, visited the monastery, Father Kalinnik said.

“In the Old Testament, we see how God was ready to forgive a city if there were a few righteous men inside it,” he said, “and the world also exists so long as there is some hope that it is still possible for people to become saints living in the world.”

“Perhaps we can say that such places [as Optina] give that chance to the whole world,” Father Kalinnik said.

But, he added, “it is not the place that saves a person, even if we speak about a place famous for many saints. … The crucial point is how one lives himself, the way he lives.”

Bulochnikova, the young woman, said she comes to the monastery to get the spiritual advice she needs to live her life well.

“I try to confess here regularly,” she said. “A confession here is not the same as anywhere else; priests here are stricter, and you feel that it is a real spiritual work.”

As a result, she said, “the joy you feel here after confession is also so bright that you can’t compare it to anything else.”

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