In the last century a cross-section of Russian society–peasants, nobles, writers, soldiers–streamed to the Optino Hermitage for advice–and received it, from a succession of startsi, or “elders,” monks whose God-given wisdom and insight enabled them to serve as spiritual guides to others.
In these letters of spiritual direction by Macarius, second of the Optino startsi, we find the reason for this quest. “Should I complain to my employer about working conditions in his factory?” “How can I get along better with my husband?” “How should I pray?” Such were the questions asked of Macarius. His response was invariably concrete, and not a generalized rule of conduct for all. Yet, at the same time, Macarius’ words of council reflect a tradition stretching back to the Desert Fathers. This realization of freedom within tradition’so characteristic of true Orthodox spirituality’makes Macarius’ advice to nineteenth-century Russians pertinent for us today as well.