19 April 2010

'A Successor of the Grace of Optina Eldership'—St Sebastian the Confessor

Today, 6 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Sebastian the Confessor of Optina and Karaganda (1884-1966). Although St Sebastian carried out his struggles as an Elder far away from the monastery of his repentance, in exile in Kazakhstan, in the decree of his glorification, Archbishop Alexei of Alma-Ata and Semipalatinsk describes him as ‘successor of the grace of Optina eldership’. [1] (For those as yet unfamiliar with the Elders of Optina, I have written of their number and glorification, compiled some links, and reposted an overview in a post here.) St Sebastian was renowned for his ‘soft-heartedness and compassion’. [2] According to his Life, St Barsanuphius of Optina called him ‘the grace-filled one’, while his own Elder, St Joseph, said, ‘He is a tender soul.’ [3] Here is a brief overview of his life by the compiler of the available material on St Sebastian at the time of his glorification, Vera Koroleva:

One of the last elders who grew up from the root of pre-revolutionary Optina is Schema-archimandrite Sebastian (Fomin, 1966)—a disciple [and cell-attendant] of Elder Joseph and, after his death, of Elder Nektary. Having absorbed within himself the traditions and the grace-filled patristic spirit of Optina Monastery and having been tried, like iron, in the furnace of fiery trials, enduring banishment and imprisonment in the soviet camps, he, by the ineffable judgments of God, bore his service of eldership in the sultry steppe of Central Kazakhstan, in much-suffering and blessed Karaganda where, during the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, one of the most tragic acts of the God-fighting drama of our century unfolded. The unbounded steppe of Kazakhstan stretches out like a massive antimension, filled with the blood of the martyrs and sanctified by their prayers, over which the Optina Elder, Schema-archimandrite Sebastian of blessed memory, extended his powerful wings. [4]

Even as a child, St Sebastian had longed to follow an older brother into Optina. He studied hard and ‘had a great thirst for reading’. [5] He worked as a shepherd, being very fond of animals all his life, and this gave him time for reading and prayer. Later, as a monk under the guidance of Elders Joseph and Nektary, ‘he developed the spiritual gifts which he had had since birth and acquired many new, lofty ones—the gifts of meekness, discernment, exalted prayer, clairvoyance, mercifulness and compassion.’ [6] He was eventually ordained a hierodeacon. After the forced closure of the monastery in 1923, St Sebastian followed his Elder, St Nektary, performing errands for him, and undergoing ordination to the priesthood, until the latter’s blessed repose in 1928 under the epitrachelion of the future Archbishop Andrew of Novo-Diveevo.

St Sebastian’s hagiographer, T.V. Torstensen, tells us the Elder ‘had a natural breadth of soul, a love for beauty in general and for the beauty of nature in particular. . . . He felt great warmth and love for art. There was a certain special softness of soul in him.’ She continues:

All of these qualities and all of his spiritual experience—acquired during fourteen years of life in the Skete and nineteen years of close daily interaction with the great Optina Elders, his life having passed under their guidance—predetermined his path toward active ascetic service to men, taking the most varied forms of help. [7]

For five years St Sebastian served as a priest in Tambov province, continuing to receive spiritual children. The Elder became a Confessor for the Faith when he was arrested and taken to the GPU in 1933. According to the files of the UFSB in Tambov province, St Sebastian told the authorities:

I look upon all the measures of the soviet authority as the anger of God; this authority is a punishment for the people. I have expressed such views among those close to me, as well as among the rest of the citizens with whom I have had occasion to speak on this topic. At these times I have said that one must pray, pray to God, and also live in love. Then only can we be delivered from this. I have been little pleased with the soviet authorities because of the closing of churches and monasteries, since by this the Orthodox Faith is being destroyed. [8]

St Sebastian was placed in a forced labour camp in the summer of 1933 and was transferred to Karaganda in Kazakhstan in May of 1934. He remained there, subjected to beatings and tortures in an attempt to destroy his faith, until the eve of the Ascension, 1939. A number of spiritual children, in particular a few of the nuns of Shamordino, followed him into exile and did what they could to help him while he suffered in the camp. When he was released, these nuns formed the core of a community of spiritual children who lived as best they could a monastic life in the world. As long as necessary, the Elder would conduct services in secret at the homes of the faithful. Torstensen writes:

Ah, Batiushka! Batiushka! How gentle, radiant and loving! Whoever was once with him at Lower Street will never forget it. Soon the residents of Mikhailovka learned about him and began to invite him over to their houses with liturgical request, since he could not receive them at home. After the daily refectory meal Fr Sebastian would take the addresses which had been left for him and would go to conduct the requested services until evening. Permission to conduct the various services had not been given, but he went without refusing. The people in Karaganda were faithful then. ‘Don’t betray him,’ they would say. Even the children, although they all knew, observed the rule ‘not to tell’.

People in other suburbs also heard about him and strove to come to see him. Yea, and not only people, but even the beasts as well. When he, small and insignificant, walked with his quick, light stride along the street of Mikhailovka in his long, black overcoat and black skufia, dogs would crawl out from behind all the fences to see him. They rushed, fearing to be late, to miss him. When the gap in the fence was narrow and they could not crawl through it, then, having sniffed the Elder, they would dig a hole with their paws under the fence in order to force their heads through and would lie there, flat as a pancake. Laughing, their owners would tell of this, and I myself saw it. ‘When Fr Sebastian walks by,’ the people said, ‘they crawl out like snakes.’ Where houses had low garden fences, the dogs would fly over them like birds. They would all decorously sit in front of their homes. They did not run out onto the street, nor did they bark at anyone. They would sit quietly, following the Elder with their heads as he passed by. What were they trying to express? Ah, the dogs of Mikhailovka! The dogs of Mikhailovka! How they impressed me with the keenness and depth of their dog souls and hearts. [9]

It wasn’t finally until 1955 that St Sebastian obtained permission to turn the very shabby house church in which he and the sisters had been praying into a church temple where they could hold the Divine Liturgy. Gradually, in order to get help in caring for the spiritual needs of the faithful in those dark times, the Elder brought about the ordination of three of his spiritual children to the priesthood. One of them, the former church warden, Paul Alexandrovich Kovalenko, ‘had competed several times, with the Elder’s blessing, in debates with a Baptist leader who had come to the church courtyard to put the “popes” [priests] to shame in debate. But the Baptist himself had been put to shame by Paul Alexandrovich.’ [10]

The Russian literary critic and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, in one of the religious debates characteristic of the early years of the godless communist regime was reported to have ‘complained of, and worried about, the fact that socialism had no care for the dead (as if there weren’t enough services for the dead!), and that, accordingly, in some future time, the people would not fogive us such neglect’. [11] Thus, it is interesting to note that the commemoration of the dead played an enormous rôle in the Elder’s ministry. Torstensen relates the following story:

Once the Elder was walking with the nuns Maria and Matha to the cemetery which lay beyond Tikhonovka. There, in the middle of the cemetery, were common graves in which two hundred reposed peasants a day had been buried, who had died from hunger and sickness. They had been buried without funerals, without mounds, without crosses. The Elder, after seeing and hearing about it, said, ‘Here, day and night, over these common graves of the martyrs, there burn candles from earth to heaven.’ And Fr Sebastian was an intercessor for them all. [12]

When St Sebastian’s community was petitioning the authorities for the opening of the church in Mikhailovka, Torstensen tells us, ‘The parents of soldiers who had died during the Second World War wrote to the military commander of the Karaganda Province that their sole consolation was to pray for their sons who had died in the war. “But,” one letter said, “they deprive us even of this possibility.”’ [13] When the church finally was opened, we read of St Sebastian:

He especially loved memorial services celebrated according to the monastery custom he had inherited—he zealously served Pannikhidas daily, and continued celebrating funeral services until the end of his life. He said that he liked to commemorate and serve funerals for women more because among women there were far fewer sins. To him all the sins of people were visible. [14]

But St Sebastian did not neglect the living either. According to Torstensen, ‘The Elder expended much labor for the nurturing of his flock. . . . The lives of these people were models of virtue. They were called the “Batiushka-ites”. . . . It was said that a good half of Mikhailovka was like a secret monastery in the world.’ [15] In addition, apart from the people immediately around him in Mikhailovka, St Sebastian would travel to other settlements to minister to the faithful there as well. Of these, he especially loved the distant community at Melkombinat, where there was a grain-milling factory. ‘He would say that in Mikhailovka he had his “Optina”, and in Melkombinat he had his “Skete”. He gathered his orphans and widows there, bought them a house and became their guardian. . . . A spirit of peace reigned here.’ [16]

Torstensen relates from her own experience what it was like to live in obedience to the Elder:

For thirteen and a half years I was Elder Sebastian’s spiritual daughter. This happiness cannot be compared with anything. There was such total protection in everything, such love. No matter what would happen, if you would only manage to run to him and succeed in informing him, he would take everything away and right every wrong. He would even prolong one’s life. As he once told me, or, to be more precise, as he once spilled out during a frank conversation, ‘How many lives I’ve prolonged.’ [17]

During Great Lent of 1966, St Sebastian’s health declined rapidly, a process Torstensen relates in minute detail in a diary she kept daily during those weeks. He fell asleep in the Lord on Tuesday, 6 April on the Church’s calendar, on Radonitsa. In the words of Tatiana Torstensen:

The earthly path of his half century of pastoral care and twenty-two years of guidance of eldership was completed in the church in Mikhailovka in the city of Karaganda, whose cemetery will always be famous, and where a white marble cross shines over the grave of Elder Sebastian. The sacred podvig of the blessed Elder, who had acquired great gifts of grace from the Lord, was now completed. His service to God, through upholding the good in mankind for the salvation of souls, had come to its end, and his superb example of holy spiritual love was concluded—‘his fruit is unto holiness and the end everlasting life’ (Rom. 6:22).

Fr Sebastian often spoke of eternal life and the kingdom of God, and this found its expression through a certain concept of his—the ‘Great Family’. Once, not long before his death (I did not note the date), to my words, ‘Batiushka, stay alive with us,’ he replied, ‘They’re already waiting for me there.’ [18]

The volume on St Sebastian compiled by Vera Koroleva, which includes Torstensen’s biography, also contains numerous accounts of his miracles by various spiritual children. Here, as just a tiny sample, are two stories related by Monk Sebastian (Khmyrov):

One day I came to church in the evening, when suddenly during the service I was seized by a fever and my nose began to feel very painful. I decided to wait for the anointing and then leave—I felt that bad. I stepped up to be anointed, and Fr Sebastian anointed me and touched my nose as if by accident. It was so painful! I was walking towards the exit and felt that I was getting better, and I understood that he had sensed my illness and had healed me.

Once he invited my sixteen-year-old daughter Lyuba, my eldest, to see him in his cell. He spoke with her, and during their conversation he was suddenly transfigured—he became young, beardless, and bright as an angel, and the whole cell was covered by an unusual light. In this manner the Lord revealed the spiritual greatness and purity of the Elder, even while he was still alive. [19]

Koroleva also has a section of various teachings of the Elder, as well as one of selections from his sermons. From the first section:

He repeatedly said, ‘If you fail to observe the fasts without a good reason, the time will come when you’ll be overtaken by sickness. Then you’ll fast against your will. The Lord will allow this because of sins.’

He would speak with pity of those who rarely came to church and who rarely if ever received Communion (especially the elderly). As an example, he would point out those who lived next door to the church: ‘They sit on the bench during the whole service but don’t come to church, even though they call themselves Christians! And other people who live in distant places, even many miles away from the church, find time, for the sake of the salvation of their souls, to come to church on feast days to pray.’ . . . [20]

And here are a couple of brief paragraphs from the ‘Selections from Sermons’:

Sermon on the Repentant Sinner
(January 18/31, 1960)

Sinner, abandon your passions and sinful habits. Heaven, with more than ninety-nine righteous ones is calling you! The angels in heaven rejoice over a single repentant sinner. Heaven is seeking your salvation. Only repent and be converted, and break yourself of sin.

For your sake the Lord Himself was born in a manger of dumb beasts and suffered. He was insulted, spat upon, crowned with thorns, and was nailed to the Cross by the hand of his own creation. He suffered and died so as afterwards to be glorified and exalted. But you, O man, what can you be proud of? What do you possess that is truly yours, which is fit for eternity? You won’t take your riches with you, and honor, glory, and health are temporal. Let us enrich ourselves for the future, and gather our wealth there through beggards, the poor, and the sick. You are a citizen of heaven, so why are you glued ot the earth?! You are an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven and you possess an immortal soul, which the Only-begotten Son Himself redeemed by His death upon the Cross. [21]

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Saint:

Troparion, Tone 3

O servant of the Holy Trinity, * earthly angel and heavenly man, * successor of the spiritual eldership of Optina, * initiate of the mysteries of Christ and confessor, * all-honorable abode of the Holy Spirit, * holy and venerable Father Sebastian, * ask for the world peace, * and for our souls great mercy.

Kontakion, Tone 3

Let us glorify, O ye faithful * him who hath entered into the joy of the Risen Lord, * the fellow-member of the choir of the Elders of Optina, * sharer in the lot of the martyrs and confessors, * co-celebrant with the initiates of God’s mysteries, * earthly angel and heavenly man, * godly adornment of the city of Karaganda, * exceeding great intercessor for the land of Kazakhstan, * praise of the Church of Russia, * and let us cry out to him with gladness: * Rejoice O our all-honored and venerable Sebastian. [22]

[1] Tatiana V. Torstensen, Elder Sebastian of Optina, ed. Vera Koroleva, tr. David Koubek (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), p. 174.

[2] Ibid., p. 33.

[3] Ibid., p. 54.

[4] Ibid., p. 21.

[5] Ibid., p. 26.

[6] Ibid., p. 32.

[7] Ibid., p. 72.

[8] Ibid., p. 43.

[9] Ibid., pp. 57-8.

[10] Ibid., p. 70.

[11] Qtd. in Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, tr. Wlad Godzich, Vol. 13 of Theory & History of Literature (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994), p. 4.

[12] Torstensen, pp. 56-7.

[13] Ibid., p. 53.

[14] Ibid., p. 71.

[15] Ibid., p. 75.

[16] Ibid., p. 76.

[17] Ibid., p. 78.

[18] Ibid., pp. 162-3.

[19] Ibid., p. 240.

[20] Ibid., p. 350.

[21] Ibid., p. 373.

[22] Ibid., p. 448.


Papa John said...


Thanks for this, Aaron. We had a young woman visit us from Kazakhstan last year and the Orthodox there have a great love and veneration for St Sebastian. I will send a link to your piece to her.

+fj in gb

aaronandbrighid said...


Glad you liked it, Father!