Elder Schema-archimandrite Ambrose (Kurganov) of Milkovo, spiritual Father of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and hegumen St John of Shanghai and San Francisco
Reposed on May 17/30, 1933
Archimandrite Ambrose (Kurganov) was born January 1, 1894, in the Russian province of Ryazan. His father and one of his grand-fathers were village priests, and his other grand-father was a secret monk, so it is not surprising that Vladimir, as he was named at baptism, came to choose the monastic life. By God’s Providence, Vladimir was accepted straightway into Optina Hermitage the Skete of the Forerunner, the strictest part of the monastery.
Historical circumstances complicated his novitiate. To avoid being inducted into the Soviet army, Vladimir received a blessing to go south. he was wounded in one lung and became severely infected with typhus; he never fully recovered. But the march of war soon forced him out of Russia and, in the fall of 1920, he arrived with other refugees in Constantinople.
The diary Vladimir kept during this time reveals an exemplary submission to the will of God. One day the wound in his lung opened and he coughed up a lot of blood. He did not pray that his life be prolonged, writing in his diary, “Does He not know my being, does He not know my life? Is not my innermost self open to Him? Does He have little love? Does a potter not know when to remove a clay vessel from the kiln? May He be blessed in all His works, for everything of His is good.“
The diary likewise reflects a height of contemplation remarkable in one only twenty-seven years old:
“Your sweetness is unspeakable, Your peace inexpressible. Oh, if only I could always love You, always abide in You, Oh Lord, my Lord.” “It is impossible to abandon a person’s soul.”
Together with many other Russian refugees, Vladimir found a brotherly welcome in Serbia.
The pious young Vladimir on March 22/April 4, 1923, was tonsured a monk with the name Amvrosy in Petkovica Monastery. And at the suggestion of Vladyka Anthony (Khrapovitsky), was ordained a hegumen in the ancient Serbian monastery of Milkovo. Fr. Ambrose arrived at the monastery on January 24, 1926, with four novices, for what was to be the final and most fruitful chapter of his life. He was just thirty-two years old. Batiushka began to set the economy aright and to gather brethren.
Batiushka was patient, however, and he covered the weaknesses of others with his love, which acted most beneficially upon those whom he sheltered, and upon all the brethren. In Milkovo, refusing to judge one’s neighbor was honored as the most indispensable virtue. I remember how a youth who had not fully made up his mind to remain in the monastery, was temporarily placed in the room of a Serbian worker. Hearing of this, I said, “But Grisha will only learn to curse from Mika.” Batiushka became indignant, “What? Are you judging Mika?” “Forgive me, Batiushka,” I responded. “Go away, go away from me; judging is worse than fornication.” “Forgive me, Batiushka,” I repeated. “Go away. Go away.”
So that we would not judge others, Batiushka taught us to search for something good in each soul.
Subdeacon Andrei Tarasiev writes: Abbot Amvrosy conquered everyone’s favor and lent his guidance with all-forgiving love, his ascetic life and fatherly benevolence. Despite the illness he suffered (the lingering chest wound eventually led to tuberculosis), he himself performed many tasks: he led divine services, singing on the kliros, teaching the monks to paint icons, constantly attending the labors of his brethren and his continuing spiritual lessons. According to Abbot Tadej, he forgave all except those who made accusation against his brother monastic. Hieromonk Feofan (Shishmanov) once said to the author of these lines that he had once made a critical comment about one of his novices. The abbot then refused to give him his blessing that day, and since this had not been the first time, he gave Feofan penance of fifty prostrations, saying he would be making them alongside the guilty novice! “He is pounding the floor, I am pounding the floor right next to him, both of us were in tears!” concluded the future Archimandrite Feofan.
The great but secretive ascetic did not spare himself, hiding his illnesses from everyone and avoiding no labors (for instance, in the construction of the Russian-style bath). His example, his teachings drew not only future monks but pilgrims from all over, wherever Russian refugees lived. The monastery was visited by Metropolitan Anthony, Bishop Tikhon, Bishop Nikolai and Archbishop Feofan of Kursk with the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign.”
Over his seven years as abbot at Milkovo, Fr Amvrosy gathered and guided an enormous number of young men thirsting for spiritual direction. Among those tonsured in Milkovo were St John (Maximovich) of Shanghai; future hierarchs Anthony (Senkevich) of Los Angeles; Anthony (Medvedev) of San Francisco and Archimandrite Kyprian (Kern), Professor at St Sergius Theological Institute in Parish. It was here that the following received their first monastic lessons: Bishop Leonty of Geneva; Archbishop Anthony (Bartoshevich) of Western Europe; Archimandrite Feofan (Shishmanov); Archimandrite Nikandor (Belyakov), Archimandrite Zosima (Valyaev); Hegumen Luke (Rodionov), who succeeded Fr Amvrosy; Ivan (Philipp) Gardner, scholar of ancient Russian liturgical music, and many others. Milkovo became a genuine spiritual hearth.
He always strove to accustom us to the Jesus Prayer. Batiushka’s Constantinople diary is punctuated with the words or beginning letters of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In his New Testament, he had many times underlined the words about the grace-filled power of Jesus’ name.He loved humor but behind this humor a great love was felt.
He used to call us all by diminutives and endearing names-“Savushka,” “Ivanushka,” “Alyo-kha,” even giving nicknames.
It was not in vain that Vladika Anthony reminded Batiushka how St. Seraphim had taught Abbot Antony Bochkov to be not only a father but also a mother to the brethren. Was it not like a mother that Batiushka gave away warm clothes which were brought to him, to another monk, even though he himself was weak and feeble?
Batiushka taught us that while living our own special monastic life, we must not lock ourselves up in isolation. As a pastor, Elder Ambrose had a gentle approach, which some mistakenly interpreted as weakness. “Once,” writes Archbishop Anthony, “not understanding, I said to him after confession, ‘Why, Batiushka, you are not even giving me an epitemia.’ He meekly replied, ‘You know, I have observed for myself that a kind word acts with more strength than anything else.‘ “But, just as gold is refined by fire, so too, writes St. Paul, the spiritual man is purified through trials, and this promising beginning soon came to a sorrowful end. In early 1933, the wound in his lung opened up again, and he began to cough blood.
Lying in his cell, Fr. Ambrose would often turn to a portrait of St. Ambrose of Optina and repeat, “Batiushka, Father Ambrose!” He had a special veneration for the Optina elder, and he shared more than just his name.
Making his farewell with each of the monks and accepting the Great Schema, he quietly went to the Lord on the evening of May 17/30, 1933. “The Heavenly Potter extracted His new vessel from the kiln. A true monk left this world and departed into that other one, which is reflected in the very word ‘monk’.”
Holy Abbot Amvrosy, pray to God for us!