Fr. Zosima and Alyosha, Part I

One of the most remarkable figures in all of literature is Dostoevsky’s Fr. Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. It is unique in that it is a portrait of a holy monk, indeed of a spiritual guide. Fr. Zosima plays such an important role in this major work of literature and in Dostoevsky’s mature vision that it is worth spending some time pondering this figure.

Fr. Zosima is an “elder” or spiritual guide, a “spiritual father,” in Russian a staretz. This is a universal type that is found in most traditions–most notably, the shaman, the guru, the zen master, the lama, the spiritual director, etc. There is a certain commonality to all these figures, but it is also important to point out that each is not reducible to this commonality and that each carries a particular uniqueness that emerges from their tradition. This is all the more so for the Russian staretz–this is true to such an extent that one almost wants to take the staretz out of this list. He is SO different from the others. This is a debatable assertion but perhaps it will become more convincing as we go on.

In 19th Century Russia, in the Optina Skete, a few hundred miles from Moscow, this tradition of the staretz was in full bloom. In a sense this tradition goes back to the Desert Fathers of Egypt and the beginnings of Christian monasticism when someone would come to one of the holy older, more experienced monks for a “word”–which was not just good advice but a matter of life and death for the spiritual journey of the one seeking the “word.” Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and so many other big names in Russian culture visited Optina at that time and had lengthy encounters with the staretz. There were a number of them through the century until the Communist Revolution in 1917 destroyed all that. But among these there were 3 giants: Leonid, Macarius, and Amvrosy. The last one is the one both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy got to know in several visits, and he is the one who is Dostoevsky’s model for Fr. Zosima. Now what is important is not that Fr. Amvrosy met all these big figures, but that in fact most of his visitors were common people, indeed mostly peasants, and there were hundreds of them every day, and they came for a multitude of reasons, hardly any of them would pertain to what we would call “spiritual practice”–in other words most came not with some question about “spirituality.” In a sense it was all very simple, there is God and there is life, and that’s your spiritual practice! Some of the great zen masters were like that, but here the spiritual practice is even more immanent in daily life and its pains and aches and enigmas and problems. The important thing is to focus on them in the right way. Both the staretz and the zen master would agree that there is no secret teaching here–“the Way” begins with your next step right in front of your nose. But the staretz often brings “more heart” to the situation as it were. Dostoevesky witnessed a peasant woman who had lost her child and had come to Fr.Amvrosy. Dostoevsky portrays this encounter in the novel with his fictional Fr. Zosima. First of all, Zosima unites his heart with her heart, so she is not alone in her sorrow and grief. He acknowledges the sorrow and grief–it is legitimate and true. He then unites her heart with the heart of her dead child. She and the child are in a communion that transcends death. All this takes place in a matter of minutes. Then comes a woman who has killed her husband who had been extremely abusive to her. Again what is striking is the calmness and compassion of the staretz. In both cases the person who presents themselves before the staretz feels themselves in deep trouble. In both cases the operative dynamic is communion, so that neither person is left isolated in their darkness. And it is no ordinary communion, but the realm of mercy and forgiveness and understanding and tenderness. In other words, the most important thing the staretz does is open up to each person the nearness of God to their own heart no matter what predicament they are in. This is a special gift of Russian spirituality.

Consider this scene from early in the novel. The Karamazovs, the three sons and the Father, and several friends come to the monastery to meet with Fr. Zosima ostensibly to settle a dispute between the father and one of them, Dmitri. This is a dysfunctional family to say the least. Old man Karamazov, Fyodor by name, is abusive, manipulative, lecherous, greedy and a buffoon on top of it all. Dmitri is a total hothead ready to explode in emotion and on the verge of being out of control. Ivan seems to be a cold intellectual, the best educated of them. Alyosha, the youngest, has become a novice monk and has come under the wing of Fr. Zosima. He seems to be the only one with his humanity still intact. So they are there with all the other people who have come to see Fr. Zosima. He gives them a private meeting during which the father, Fyodor, makes a total ass of himself and Dmitri explodes as usual and so much more happens. The staretz takes it all in even as he seems very tired and sickly. Then, in the words of Dostoevsky:

“But the whole scene, which had turned so ugly, was stopped in a

most unexpected manner. The elder suddenly rose from his place.

Alyosha, who had almost completely lost his head from fear for him

and for all of them, had just time enough to support his arm. The elder

stepped towards Dmitri…and having come close to him, knelt before him.

Kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his

feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor

with his forehead”

The meaning of this gesture is the key to understanding the spiritual meaning of this novel. Dmitri is enmeshed in a deep darkness; he is on the verge of killing his own father–he is very much tempted, driven to such a thought. He is certainly very capable of doing such a deed. In the Russian hesychast tradition, God is MOST present in the deepest and darkest places in the heart and in the most trying moments. Recall the mysterious words of the Lord to Staretz Silouan on Mt. Athos: Keep your heart in hell and despair not. A more mundane expression of this is the old Pauline adage: where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. For the Russian staretzi this was not a trite expression but a profound spiritual truth, and so Fr. Zosima intuits Dmitri’s heart and the overwhelming presence of God there in the form of unspeakable mercy and forgiveness and nearness–or better yet, oneness. He does not preach to Dmitri, but uses his whole body in this gesture to open Dmitri’s heart to an awareness of the reality of God within Dmitri’s tortured heart. Dmitri is totally shaken by this gesture and he runs out of the monk’s cell.

The staretz is very much able to read a person’s heart, but sometimes the medicine that is applied is a bit more analytical. When the old father is ranting and raving in front of the gathering and being abusive under his buffonery, Fr. Zosima does not get sharp with him but calmly and peacefully tells him: “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.” This is an acute analysis of Fyodor’s problem, which really is a problem at the level of the heart. True Fyodor should give up his drunkeness, his lechery, his greed, his abusiveness, but all these are merely symptoms of his real problem. Incidentally, Gandhi made the same kind of analysis with regard to violence–the root of it was lying to oneself and to others.

Another encounter along this same line takes place with an upper class lady that comes to Fr. Zosima. She is benevolent in her actions; engages in charitable activities; engages in all kinds of movements “for the benefit of humanity.” However, she confesses to Zosima that she has the hardest time tolerating people close to her, those she has to deal with in close encounters–how they “rub her the wrong way.” She can’t stand people who don’t show gratitude to her. She actually shows a grasp of her state of heart:

“In short, I work for pay and demand pay at once, that is, praise and a return of love for my love. Otherwise I’m unable to love anyone.”

Zosima leads her into still greater depths of self-knowledge and then beyond that into an awareness of the Lord who is Love and who is leading her to a place she does not want to go:

“Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love, and meanwhile do not even be very frightened by your own bad acts. I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing, compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment–I predict this to you–you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.”

Then there is the pathos of what Fr. Zosima tells his young novice monk, Alyosha. As Zosima is dying, he sends Alyosha away from the monastery–he reads Alyosha’s heart as one who will discover oneness with God in another way: “For the time being your place is not here. I give you my blessing for a great obedience in the world. You still have much journeying before you. And you will have to marry–yes, you will. You will have to endure everything before you come back again. And there will be mujch work to do. But I have no doubt of you, that is why I am sending you. Christ is with you. Keep him, and he will keep you. You will behold great sorrow, and in this sorrow you will be happy. Here is a commandment for you: seek happiness in sorrow.”

So we can see something of the authentic spiritual guide in Zosima. The two absolute criteria for authenticity in a spiritual guide are compassion and freedom. And one of the existential ways that freedom manifests itself is that the authentic spiritual master does not seek or hold disciples–he/she only seeks the good of whoever comes to them. The hesychast staretz is so immersed in prayer and so totally surrendered to God that he now becomes merely an instrument in God’s hands to facilitate the work of God in every situation and with every person. This is far beyond being a teacher of a spiritual practice. Everything else is secondary or tertiary!

In Part II of our reflection, in a later posting, we will consider the heart of Fr. Zosima’s teaching to his monks, and very importantly, Alyosha’s trial and breakthrough with Fr. Zosima’s death.


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