October 10 – Ambrose of Optina; Angela Truszkowska

Ambrose of Optina (1812–1891), son of a priest, ranked among the top students at Dad’s old seminary. In his penultimate (is that a great word?) year, however, he came down with something unpleasant. He promised God that if he survived, he would become a monk. God kept His end of the bargain immediately. Ambrose took a little longer.

After graduation he took a position as a tutor, then as a teacher at a parochial school. Monkification didn’t seem on his radar at all. Yet for some reason he went with a buddy to see a famous hermit to ask what they should do with their lives; the hermit told him to go to the monastery of Optina. Sasha blew it off and prepared to start the new school year. Then (insert ominous chords here) he went to a cocktail party, where he was witty and brilliant and punny. His timing was perfect, his jokes were faultless—in short, he was the life of the party, and he knew it. (Your intrepid hagiographer’s admirable modesty prevents him from making any comparisons here.) He left feeling disgusted with himself, and in the morning he turned in his registration and caught the next train to Optina.

He was monkified in 1842 and priestified in 1845, and his reverence and holiness were soon noticed by the other monks. He was seen at least once bathed in the Uncreated Light, for instance, which can do things to your reputation. He grew ill shortly after his priesting, and spent nearly two years convalescing, during which he learned the Prayer of the Heart*. After he was able to walk again (with a cane), he helped Father Macarius (whom he served as a cell attendant) translate St. John’s Ladder (see Mar 30), serving as interim abbot when Macarius was away in Moscow. When Macarius died intestate, all of his potential replacements one by one either died or got appointed to lead other monasteries. When the dust settled, Ambrose stood alone. “Well, there’s that, then,” he said, and he was made abbot.

Ambrose had the gift of reading souls, and so was sought far and wide as a spiritual guide (or “staretz”). Attending to the needs of his monks and his visitors left him little time for sleep, and that was before answering his voluminous correspondence. (Was it “reply all” in 19th century Russia? No, it was not!) Tolstoy visited him thrice and Dostoyevsky once; the latter used him as a model for the monk Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Finally Ambrose’s many labors wore him down. His funeral was attended by “throngs” (what that is in metric, I do not know). He was glorified in 1988 by the Moscow Patriarch.

Blessed* Angela Truszkowska (1825–1898) had from her earliest days a heart for the suffering, and gave all her candy money to the poor[1]. Her brain was as big as her heart (metaphorically speaking), so her parents arranged for the best education they could arrange for. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at 16, she was sent to convalesce in Switzerland, returning to Warsaw to finish her schooling in private tutelage. In all, she mastered Latin, French, contemporary philosophy, ethics, and social thought.

After accompanying her father to his own spa-town rehabilitation, including a memorable spiritual experience at the cathedral in Cologne, she returned to Warsaw and joined the Franciscan Third Order*. She and her cousin Clothilde worked with the poor in Warsaw, and, joined by others, before long grew into the order* of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice (or “Felician Sisters,” depending on how much you want to type). Angela served as the superior general of the order until ill health forced her to step aside. She kept active in the order for some thirty years, however, doing whatever humble tasks were needed, be it tending the flower garden or embroidering altar cloths. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

[1] This is not a euphemism.