Alexander Michailovich Grenkov was born 23 November 1812 in the Russian province of Tambov. His parents raised him strictly and with fervent piety. He did well in his studies and was ranked among the top students. About a year before graduation Alexander became seriously ill. He promised that if God healed him, he would become a monk. Although his prayer was answered, Alexander seemed to forget his promise. After graduation from the seminary he took a position as tutor to the children of a certain landowner and remained with this family for a year and a half. After this he became a teacher at the local parochial school.
After a night socializing with friends, Alexander was disgusted by his own frivolity. Perhaps his unfulfilled promise to become a monk weighed on his conscience. The next morning he quit his job and arrived at Optina Pustyn in October of 1839. After a trial period he decided to remain in the monastery and dedicate his life to God. He received the name of Ambrose at his monastic tonsure in 1842. Ambrose knew the famous spiritual directors Elder Leonid and Elder Macarius. He was the cell attendant of Elder Macarius, who undoubtedly influenced the young monk’s spiritual development.
Ordained as a priest in 1845, Father Ambrose’s reverence and piety in celebrating the divine services were noticed by the other monks. In 1860 Father Ambrose became as the undisputed spiritual director of the monastery. In his role as Elder, Father Ambrose had to receive many people each day to hear confessions and give advice. He used to say:
“The Lord has arranged it so that I would have to talk to people all my life. Now I would be happy to remain silent, but I cannot.”
From all over Russia, people flocked to the venerable Elder. The writer Tolstoy visited him on at least three occasions, and left impressed by the wisdom of the holy monk. Fyodor Dostoevsky came to Optina in 1878 after the death of his son Alyosha and was profoundly affected by his meeting with St Ambrose. The novelist used Father Ambrose as a model for Starets Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.
In 1884 the saint founded Shamordino convent, which was near Optina. St Ambrose welcomed any woman who wished to follow the monastic path as a nun. Shamordino began to decline after the death of the first abbess, Mother Sophia. St Ambrose went there in June 1890 to straighten out the convent’s affairs. He was unable to return to Optina due to illness; then winter made it impossible for him to travel. Father Ambrose continued to see visitors at Shamordino, even though his health continued to deteriorate.
By September of 1891, it was clear that he had not long to live. He reposed in the Lord on the morning of 10/23 October 1891. Throngs of people attended his funeral and also his burial at Optina. Fathers Joseph, Anthony, Benedict, and Anatole succeeded him as Elder until the monastery was closed after the Russian Revolution. St Ambrose was glorified a saint in 1988.
*Compiled from various sources