The beginnings of the Optina Pustyn Monastery are not formally known because there is no actual documentation as to when the Monastery was established. What is known is legend, which, as the tradition relates; in the 15th century, Opta the Outlaw renounced the world, asking forgiveness of his sins, and by embracing holy monasticism, became the Monk Makarii. It was he who founded the Monastery of Optina Pustyn.
Optina Pustyn means, “living together”, in Russian. A name earned because prior to 1504, both nuns and monks had residences within the cloister. The first evidence of this was discovered during Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich’s reign in the 17th century. At this point the Monastery was but a small wooden structure with a few monastic cells, one church and less than twenty monastics.
In the period of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the Monastery increased significantly both in size and in income. The advent of the Staretz or Starchestvo, which means ‘a lineage of wisdom of prayer’ maintained by Startsi, the Russian Orthodox ‘Elders’, stimulated and contributed to the growth of the Monastery. St Sergius of Radonezh introduced this tradition to Russia, the roots of which are found in hesychasm (see St Gregory Palamas, 14-15th century). St Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15) was powerfully influential in bringing the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a ‘headquarters’ from which they spread throughout the Russian land. The monastery itself had been in existence since at least the sixteenth century, but had fallen into decay through the anti-monastic policies of Catherine II and other modernizing rulers. Around 1790, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow undertook a mission to restore and revive the monastery in the tradition set forth by St Paisius. By the early 1800s the monastery (located about 80 miles from Moscow) had become a beacon of Orthodox spirituality, partly through their publication of Orthodox spiritual texts, but more importantly through the lineage of divinely-enlightened spiritual fathers (startsi, plural of starets) who served as guides to those, noble and peasant, who flocked to the monastery for their holy counsel. The fathers aroused some controversy in their own day; a few critics (some of them from other monasteries) disapproved of their allowing the Jesus Prayer to become widely-known among the people, fearing that it would give rise to spiritual delusion (prelest). For a wonderful depiction of the deep influence of the Jesus Prayer on Russian life during this period, read the anonymously-written Way of a Pilgrim.
Optina Pustyn Monastery became a primary center of this holy tradition.
Read it all here.