Hilarion of Optina
Our venerable father Hilarion (Ponamarov) of Optina was a Hieroschemamonk among the group of monastics of Optina Monastery in the nineteenth century who were known as the Optina Elders. The Elder Hilarion is venerated on September 18 and with all the Optina Elders on October 11.
Rodion Ponamarov was born in Kluch, Russia during the night of Pascha, April 8-9, 1805, to Nikita and Euphemia Ponamarov. He always considered April 8, the day of his patron saint's commemoration, as his birthday. Not well coordinated as a child, Rodion did not play much with other children as his clumsiness brought him their ridicule. The way he was treated made him thoughtful and introspective. Injuries that he incurred also had an effect on his health, which was never robust.
In 1820, his family moved to the Novopersk region of Voronezh, and Rodion lived there until he was twenty. He helped his father in his work as a tailor and gradually acquired skill in tailoring. While his parents wanted him to follow this trade, Rodin developed a desire for a monastic life, but he applied himself to tailoring, knowing that this handicraft would be very useful in the monastery. In December 1825, Rodion went to Moscow to learn more about being a tailor, arriving with little money. He worked with various tailors. The work was difficult, and illness and poor health, as he related in later life, probably saved him from falling into many vices. After increasing his proficiency as a tailor, Rodion left Moscow and returned home.
In 1829, his family moved to Saratov. Engaged to marry twice, neither was consummated as the Lord did not want Rodion to follow this path. His first fiancée died after a short illness, and Rodion simply lost interest in the second.
In Saratov, Rodion became involved with Orthodox activists who tried to refute the false teachings of the many sectarians in the area. Through these missionary labors, Rodion may have influenced many sectarians to return to the Orthodox Church. However, through some misunderstanding Rodion and his friends were put on trial, and he was kept under observation for the next four years by the authorities. This scrutiny hampered his efforts to conduct his affairs.
The study of the Holy Scripture and the writings of the holy Fathers for his missionary efforts awakened Rodion's desire to become a monk and set him on a task of finding the monastery that was most suitable for him. During 1837 and 1838, Rodion visited many monasteries, among them Sarov, Suzdal, Rostov, Tikhvin, Moscow, and Pochaev, before he came to the gates of Optina in 1839. Drawn by the presence of Elders Leonid and Macarius, Rodion remained. He was then thirty-four years old.
Initially, Rodion was placed in a cell next to Fr. Barlaam, a retired igumen of Valaam Monastery. Fr. Barlaam was a man of great spiritual stature, who had a profound influence on Rodion, and became his first instructor in the Jesus Prayer. In December 1939, the Elder Macarius, the monastery's confessor, succeeded Fr. Anthony as the Superior of the Skete, and Rodion was assigned to be his cell attendant, remaining in this obedience until the Elder's death in 1860. In an effort to cleanse himself of the passions, Rodion renounced his own will and obeyed Elder Macarius in all things.
In addition to serving as cell attendant to Fr. Macarius, Rodion had other obediences: tending the flower and vegetable gardens and working as a baker and a bee-keeper. These he carried out without complaint. In time, Rodion received the monastic tonsure and was given the name Hilarion. Recognizing his disciple's spiritual maturity, Fr. Macarius predicted that Fr. Hilarion would succeed him and Elder Ambrose as Elders after his death. In 1863, Fr. Hilarion was chosen the Superior of the Skete and the monastery's Father Confessor.
During the last two years of his life, Fr. Hilarion became very sick. During this time he asked to be given the patience to help him bear the illness. He received Holy Communion frequently and was given Holy Unction twice. During the last month of his illness Fr. Hilarion was unable to lie down in bed because of water in his lungs and remained seated on a couch in great discomfort. He was unable to sleep well.
Fr. Hilarion continued to observed the cell rule of prayer until the last moments of his life. Early on the morning of September 18, 1873 he listened to the morning rule being read, and received Holy Communion. Five hours later, he rested from his labors and gave his soul into the hands of God. Elder Hilarion was buried next to his beloved Elder St. Macarius.
Elder Hilarion of Optina was glorified with all the Elders of Optina by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1990. The feast day for St. Hilarion of Optina is September 18.