Monthly Archives: February 2010

Fr. Zosima & Alyosha, Part II

We continue our reflection on Dostoevsky’s  Fr. Zosima and his novice monk Alyosha.  The heart of Fr. Zosima’s teaching is actually very difficult for the modern mind to penetrate.  Words like “guilt,” “sin,” “forgiveness,” etc are difficult in any context, but here they come right at you undiluted, and if you find them an obstacle or even worse, perhaps this language is not for you.  One hesitates to say this, but given the contemporary state of mind, there are a lot of people for whom this kind of language is very problematical, and another way must be found.  However, one should be encouraged to try and penetrate the meaning of this language before walking away from it because it holds profound truths, unspeakable liberation and the gateway to Paradise.

Consider the following words from Fr. Zosima:

“Love one another, fathers.  Love God’s people.  For we are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, but, on the contrary, anyone who comes here, by the very fact that he has come already knows himself to be worse than all those who are in the world, worse than all on earth…. And the longer a monk lives within his walls, the more keenly he must be aware of it.  For otherwise he had no reason to come here.  But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then well the goal of our unity be achieved.  For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth.  This knowledge is the crown of the monk’s path, and of every man’s path on earth.  For monks are not a different sort of men, but only such as all men on earth ought also to be.  Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and that knows no satiety.”


“There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men.  For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.”

And this kind of language is repeated several times in various ways.  Now there is a kind of neurosis, a pathological feeling of guilt that begins and ends in self-hatred and self-rejection.  This is definitely not what Fr. Zosima is talking about.  There is also the question of “how can I feel guilty about the sins of others–that’s their problem.”  This comes from a purely moralistic approach to sin and from a totally individualistic sense of our identity.   There are these rules, and if you break a rule then guilt comes as a psychological consequence. Also, goodness in this case is a matter of how one looks in the “mirror” of self-reflection–in other words, goodness is something one bestows upon oneself when one doesn’t break these rules and one does certain other prescribed things.  Here goodness is a “self-manufactured” thing and guilt is merely the flip side of this.   However, Fr. Zosima’s “guilt” is of another order, and it is something which is at the heart of the Russian hesychast tradition.

Let us begin with that parable in the Gospel of the Pharisee who comes to the temple to pray(Luke 18: 11):  “God, I thank you I am not like other people…I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income…  But the tax collector standing far off,  would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  From the standpoint of Fr. Zosima and Russian hesychasm (and so many other spiritual traditions), the fundamental mistake of the Pharisee is that he has an erroneous sense of identity as this isolated self that can “polish” his image up by “doing good thing”–he has broken his real solidarity with his fellow human being, his communion, his onenes at the level of the heart.  Now what makes Fr. Zosima’s teaching so trenchant is that we are most prone to break our solidarity with our fellow human being when we see him/her doing “something wrong,” especially if that wrong is directed at ourselves.  That’s when we see “the other” as truly other than ourselves, but it is precisely then that Fr. Zosima says we should see him/her as our very selves.  If someone slaps you in the face as it were, it seems silly to ask forgiveness and to assume “responsibility” for that act, but if one does, then “the doors of Paradise open up in one’s heart.”  It is not a kind of psychological trick of make-believe or pretending, but a matter of the heart.  It is also not a matter of “not seeing” the evil people do–that’s another kind of pretending–no, it is rather a living from a fundamental sense of oneness and unity.  There is a Hasidic story about a very holy rabbi who one day was walking with some of his associates and a woman came up to him and struck him with her umbrella.  The associates started to threaten the woman, but the holy rabbi told them to let her go for she had done no wrong.  He told them, “She has not struck me but the man who abandoned her many years ago.”  While not exactly what Fr. Zosima teaches, this story illustrates a spiritual insight close to it.  The holy rabbi does not say, “Thank God I am not like this woman who does this wrong,” but he sees the pain and hurt she is carrying in her heart–it is an indirect way of pointing to a fundamental solidarity that he has with her.

“Solidarity” is actually a weak word to convey the meaning of what is meant.  There is a Russian word, “sobornost,” which comes closer in meaning and which is really untranslatable, but it still is not fully adequate to convey the reality of this oneness.  We shall reflect on this word in a later posting. “Solidarity,” especially, seems to indicate a more external form of bonding–like we hold hands in solidarity.  But this reality is at the very core of our being, at the center of our identity, the real source of our personhood and at the same time our oneness and unity with even the “great sinner.”  Thus it is not unusual for one spiritually awake to “feel the guilt” of the sinner, etc.  In fact, this “fellow feeling” should extend “in every direction” and is one of the central axioms of all religious traditions.  As D.T. Suzuki put it:  “Vimalakirti’s words, ‘I am sick because my fellow beings are sick,’ expresses the essence of religious experience.  Without this there is no religion, no Buddhism, and accordingly, no Zen.”

But as Fr. Zosima puts it this oneness extends to all of creation:

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth.  Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.  Love animals, love plants, love each thing.  If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things.  Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day.  And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire , universal love.  Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy.  Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose.”

And: “My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world.  Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier.  All is like an ocean, I say to you.  Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin.  Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.”

Here Fr. Zosima seems connected to the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the great Western saint who is considered heretical to many Orthodox monks.  Of course in Dostoevsky’s own time, the views he put in the mouth of his character, Fr. Zosima, were also rejected as heretical by many Orthodox monastic figures.  Thus it is not surprising that in the novel Dostoevsky shows this rejection by many of Zosima’s fellow monks led by the “super-monk” Fr. Ferapont.

One final point to consider: Fr. Zosima’s disciple, the novice-monk Alyosha.  The young monk seems ideally suited for the monastic life.  His piety and goodness are manifold and obvious.  Yet Fr. Zosima sees that “God’s ways are not our ways,” and the “obvious thing” in becoming a monk is not Alyosha’s  journey.  Fr. Zosima sends Alyosha away from monastic life, but his departure is to take place after Fr. Zosima’s death for the old staretz still has one more very important lesson for the young monk.  As good as Alyosha is, he is still, not surprisingly, caught up in his own self-image and in a kind of psychological transference–if he is a disciple of a holy man, he himself is therefore “special”.  And if so many people and so many monks question Zosima’s holiness, it will be vindicated after his death and Zosima will be victorious over his enemies and Alyosha as his former disciple will share in the victory.  Of course Alyosha does not put it that way, but it shows in the “shadows” of his inner thoughts.  Dostoevsky puts it like this:  “The conviction that the elder, after death, would bring remarkable glory to the monastery, reigned in Alyosha’s soul perhaps even more strongly than in anyone else’s in the monastery.  And generally of late a certain deep, flaming inner rapture burned more and more strongly in his heart.  He was not at all troubled that the elder, after all, stood solitary before him: ‘No matter, he is holy, in his heart there is the secret of renewal for all, the power that will finally establish the truth on earth, and all will be holy and will love one another…and the true kingdom of Christ will come.’  That was the dream in Alyosha’s heart.”

The “rapture” in Alyosha’s heart is a counterfeit rapture; the expectation that he is living for will be shattered.  It is all clothed in religious sentiment, religious feeling and religious language, but it is counterfeit–not the real thing.  But Fr. Zosima will lead his young disciple to the truth, but the way there is only through the valley of death.  Both Fr. Zosima’s own death, and something that must die within Alyosha himself.  The whole novel is prefaced by this line from the Gospel of John:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

During his life Fr. Zosima had both kinds of people around him in the monastery–those who admired him and considered him a holy man, and those who criticized him for his teaching, for his “soft” life, and who considered him a phony.  The first group believed that they would be vindicated through Fr. Zosima’s death.  There is a traditional belief among some Russian Orthodox and some Catholic circles that one of the marks of  a holy life is that the dead body of the person in question will not decompose–indeed, there might even be a fragrant odor emanating from the corpse.  It is as if Heaven indicates its approval of the life lived through some such sign.  So the  supporters of Fr. Zosima had this high expectation and seeking vindication for their teacher–in fact they were secretly hoping that miracles would happen in connection with the dead holy man.  However, quite the opposite happened!  Fr. Zosima’s corpse, as it was laid out in his cell, began to stink even more rapidly than normally expected.  This was a shock.  The smell was so bad that they had to keep the windows open.  Most of Fr. Zosima’s “fan club flees” and his enemies and critics seem to win the day.  Needless to say this is a deeply traumatic moment for the young monk, Alyosha.  However, as Dostoevsky masterfully points out, Alyosha’s crisis is not about doubting Fr. Zosima’s goodness and holiness but rather the way God is present in the world:

“And now he who, according to his hope, was to have

been exalted higher than anyone in the whole world, this

very man, instead of receiving the glory that was due him,

was suddenly thrown down and disgraced!  Why?  Who had

decreed it?  Who could have judged so?  These were the

the questions that tormented his inexperienced and virgin

heart….  Let there be no miracles, let nothing miraculous

be revealed, let that which was expected immediately not

come to pass, but why should there be this ignominy, why

should this shame be permitted, why this hasty corruption…?

Where was Providence and its finger?  Why did it hide its

finger at the most necessary moment(Alyosha thought)….?

That was why Alyosha’s heart was bleeding, and of course,

as I have already said, here first of all was the person he

loved more than anything in the world, and this very person

was ‘disgraced,’ this very person was ‘defamed.'”

Dostoevsky depicts Alyosha going through his “dark night” in a masterful yet subtle way.  He cannot show directly what is going on in Alyosha’s heart; only indirectly and in a very subtle depiction can he show the young monk emerging into a profoundly new awareness.  The culmination is depicted in one of the great scenes in all of world literature: the Cana of Galilee chapter in the novel.  Alyosha comes back to the monastery late at night(the night darkness is symbolic of the darkness that Alyosha finds himself in where there seems to be no trace of God, and yet something unexpected is emerging), and Fr. Paissy, the remaining loyal disciple of Fr. Zosima is reading out loud the Gospel of John over the dead body–this was the custom.  Fr. Paissy is precisely at the Cana of Galilee account in the Gospel.  Let us listen a bit to Dostoevsky’s narration:  “It was very late by monastery rules when Alyosha came to the hermitage…. Alyosha timidly opened the door and entered the elder’s cell, where his coffin now stood.  There was no one in the cell but Father Paissy, who was alone reading the Gospel over the coffin….  Alyosha  turned to the right of the door, went to the corner, knelt, and began to pray.  His soul was overflowing, but somehow vaguely, and no single sensation stood out, making itself felt too much; on the contrary, one followed another in a sort of slow and calm rotation.  But there was sweetness in his heart, and strangely, Alyosha was not surprised at that.  Again he saw this coffin before him, and this dead man all covered up in it, who had been so precious to him, but in his soul there was none of that weeping, gnawing, tormenting pity that had been there earlier, in the morning.  Now, as he entered, he fell down before the coffin as if it were a holy thing, but joy, joy was shining in his mind and in his heart.  The window of the cell was open, the air was fresh and rather cool–the smell must have become even worse if they decided to open the window, Alyosha thought.  But even this thought about the putrid odor, which only recently had seemed to him so terrible and inglorious, did not now stir up any of his former anguish and indignation.  He quietly began praying.…”

Then, over the space of several pages, Dostoevsky portrays Alyosha entering into an almost trance-like encounter with the Cana of Galilee gospel.  It is as if the whole cosmos, all of reality, all of creation is the wedding feast and Jesus is there transforming the “water into wine,” so that human hearts can be glad.  Everyone is invited to this wedding feast and everyone is drinking the new wine of a new and great joy.  Let us conclude with Dostoevsky’s own words:

“For about half a minute Alyosha gazed at the coffin, at the covered up, motionless dead man stretched out with an icon on his chest….suddenly he turned abruptly and walked out of the cell.  He did not stop on the porch, either, but went quickly down the steps.  Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness.  Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly…. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth…. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars…. Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.  He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages….  What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.  It was as if threads from all those innumberable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, ‘touching other worlds.’  He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself, but for all and for everything…. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul….  ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he would say afterwords….  Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn in the world.'”


Some Thoughts On Tolstoy

At 4am on October 28, 1910, Tolstoy slipped out of his house at Yasnaya Polyana, took a carriage to a nearby station, bought a third-class ticket, and jumped on a train heading for a town nearest to the monastery known as Optina Pustyn.  At the age of 82, with just 10 days to live, Tolstoy was renouncing everything–his wife, his children, his family home in which he had lived for nearly 50 years, and his literary career.  He was seeking refuge in a monastery.  He had felt the urge to flee many times before.  Since the 1880s he had got into the habit of setting out at night to walk with the pilgrims on the Kiev road that passed by his estate–often not returning until breakfeast time.

Such begins a description of Tolstoy’s last days.  This man was a giant of literature, a symbol of so much of what it means to be Russian, a spiritual seeker, a moral reformer, indeed a revolutionary, and also an amazingly complex and conflicted human being.  During the Stalin era, the darkest period of Russian history, Communist Party officials called Tolstoy’s work “counter-revolutionary.”  But Stalin refused to suppress it.  Tolstoy’s country home was turned into a state shrine and in a pamphlet the great Russian writer Gorky reminds the visitor:  “Tolstoy is a profoundly national writer who with astounding fullness embodies in his soul all the peculiarities of the complex Russian psyche: he has the turbulent mischief of Vaska Buslayev and the gentle thoughtfulness of the chronicler Nestor; he burns with the fanaticism of Avvakum; he is a sceptic like Chaadayev, no less of a poet than Pushkin and as clever as Herzen–Tolstoy is a whole world”

Tolstoy fathered at least 13 children–we say “at least” because in his younger days and even in middle-age he seduced a number of peasant girls.  He was not exactly a model of sexual self-control.  That’s why so many people find it hard to take him seriously when in his 60s he becomes an advocate of celibacy and sexual abstinence! And his wife claimed that even then he did not live up to his ideals!   And this was meant for the general populace if they wanted to live a religious life according to Tolstoy.

On Feb.24, 1901 Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church–a rare thing to achieve!  After 20 years of excoriating the Orthodox Church AND the Tsar and pretty much rejecting most of Church doctrine, he finally went “over the brink” with his novel, Resurrection. It was an all-out religious attack on the institutions of the tsarist state–the Church, the government, the judicial and penal systems, private property and the social conventions of the aristocracy, of which he was a member. It was by far the most popular of his novels in his own time. You would think, though,  that in a society where the Church played such an enormous role, such a condemnation would be the end of him.  Hardly.  On the day that the edict was pronounced, the Government forbade any mention of Tolstoy in the press.  But crowds gathered around a painting of him in a St. Petersburg gallery.  People adorned it with flowers.  It had become an icon!   He did get death threats from reactionaries and Orthodox fanatics and the Bishop of Kronstadt even wrote a prayer for his death which was circulated in the right-wing press.  Yet for every threatening message, Tolstoy received a hundred letters of support from villages across the country.  They thanked him for his condemnation of the Tsar in his famous article, “I Cannot Remain Silent,” written in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre which sparked the revolution of 1905.

Excommunication did have some consequences.  Because he never did reconcile with the Church, even though he had visited Optina  and the holy staretz there, he was denied a Christian burial.  However, as one biographer put it:  “But if the Church refused to say a mass for the dead man, the people said one for him in another way.  Despite the attempts of the police to stop them, thousands of mourners made their way to Yasnaya Polyana where amid scenes of national grief that were not to be found on the death of any Tsar, Tolstoy was buried in his favorite childhood spot…  As Tolstoy’s coffin was lowered into the ground, the mourners started singing an ancient Russian chant, and someone shouted, in defiance of the police who had been instructed to impose the Church’s excommunication of the writer to the end, “On your knees! Take off your hats!”  Everyone obeyed the Christian ritual and, hesitating for a moment, the police kneeled down too and removed their caps.”

Tolstoy in his own words:

“Life is the minute by minute living of it, that’s all isn’t it?  And loving all things.”

“I stumbled this way and that way looking for this or that secret of life, little did I know that I’d find it through suffering.”

Very Russian!! (But the Greek tragedians knew this long ago!)

About 1880 he wrote a little tract called What Then Shall We Do?.  Its recommendations are anarchist and pacifist.  He advocates the abolition of every aspect of modern society and a return to communal subsistence farming.  He sees the way to his utopia in passive resistance to draft boards, tax collectors and all the blandishments of modern civilization.

Tolstoy made several pilgrimages to the Optina Monastery.  On June 10, 1881, he set off with an old peasant coat, bark shoes and a staff in his hand.  Being unused to walking such long distances and having home-made shoes which were quite inadequate for  the journey, he arrived covered in blisters.  The return journey was done by train!  In general, Tolstoy was very attracted to monasteries.  One of his sisters was a nun and he loved visiting her.  One time he said that he would love to live in a monastery, carrying out the most humble and difficult tasks, as long as they didn’t compel him to go to church!  What’s striking about this is that most people find the Orthodox liturgy so beautiful and so attractive–it is this which draws them to Orthodoxy, but Tolstoy’s heart was elsewhere.

One commentator put it this way:  “Tolstoy had a mystical approach to God.  He thought that God could not be comprehended by the human mind, but only felt through love and prayer.  For Tolstoy, prayer is a moment of awareness of divinity, a moment of ecstasy and freedom, when the spirit is released from the personality and merges with the universe.  Not a few Orthodox theologians have compared Tolstoy’s religion to Buddhism and other Eastern religions.  But in fact his mystical approach had more in common with the hermits’ way of prayer at Optina.  Tolstoy’s division from the Russian Church, however, was a fundamental one, and not even Optina could satisfy his spiritual requirements.  Tolstoy came to reject the doctines of the Church…and instead began to preach a practical religion based on Christ’s example as a living human being.  His was a form of Christianity that could not be contained by any Church.  It went beyond the walls of the monastery to engage directly with the major social issues–of poverty and inequality, cruelty and oppression….  Here was the religious basis of Tolstoy’s moral crisis and renunciation of society from the end  of the 1870s.  Increasingly persuaded that the truly Christian person had to live as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy vowed to sell his property, to give away his money to the poor, and to live with them in Christian brotherhood.  Essentially his beliefs amounted to a kind of Christian socialism–or rather anarchism, insofar as he rejected all forms of Church and state authority.”

But, alas, Tolstoy never really did divest himself totally of his possessions–unless you count those last days of his life.  He was a truly wealthy man–all of it inherited–huge estates with numerous peasant villages on them.  From his writings he got a good income so he could live off that, but what to do with all his family wealth?  Here, as elsewhere, he was truly conflicted.  He sincerely yearned to be “one with the peasants,” but somehow he never went the whole way as it were.  He thought that they held the secret of life and a special closeness to God–certainly it was not the aristocracy whom he knew quite well.  He also used his wealth to support a number of religious and reforming groups and movements.  Gandhi, for example,  got a good amount from him when he was starting to build his ashram in South Africa–he corresponded with Gandhi and they became good friends irregardless of their great differences.  Certainly Tolstoy was not like the fictional character Lady Marchmain  in Brideshead Revisited, who is one of the richest women in England and a devout Catholic but quite smug in her religion and in her wealth.  According to Lady Marchmain, the rich have this special burden and calling to not envy the privileged position of the poor in the Gospel.  Hey, it’s tough taking a back seat to the poor in the Kingdom of Heaven–tough job but somebody has to do it!!  No, Tolstoy was far from that–there was no smugness in him but only anxiety and anguish over his belongings, over celibacy, over the mystery of just living life.  One is also reminded of well-to-do people today who dabble in spirituality.  How much of this has any reality, only God knows!  But there are all these workshops, retreats, “experiences,” etc.–all costing a goodly sum–but hardly any life is disturbed out of its somnabulistic state, more likely made to feel ok with its privileged position in our society compared to the billions who live in misery in our world.  At least Tolstoy was not like that.

In A Confession, Tolstoy attempts to give an account of his life up to about 1879.  It is the story of a thoughtless sensualist, who had put all thoughts of God, the meaning of life, soul or goodness aside.  He had pursued first, as a young soldier, the sins of the flesh, and the cruel pleasures of war.  Then, as a literary man, he had pursued fame and money, and had enjoyed the didactic role thrust upon the Russian writer, even though he had nothing to teach.  Then he had got married and become wholly absorbed in his family.  He had, however, been haunted by a terrible sense of the pointlessness of existence in upper-class society.  He had known both the anguish of ennui so profound that he had often been tempted to commit suicide.  He had turned this way and that for a solution to the questions Who am I? and What is the point of living?  Finally, he had discovered that while the pampered intelligentsia and aristocracy were leading lives which were indeed pointless, and which led only to despair, there was a huge category of persons who had faith, who were able to live and who did know life’s secret.  These were the peasants.  Although he could not accept their church–and maybe his pride and lack of humility was still an obstacle there–but he did find some semblance of peace as he resolved to live the Sermon on the Mount.

One of Tolstoy’s lesser known stories is Father Sergius.  Sergius is a famous staretz.  In his youth he had been a nobly born army officer, who abandoned his fiancee when he discovered that she had been the mistress of the Emperor.  Sergius does not merely become a monk, he becomes a famed master of the spiritual life, who eventually leaves his monastery to become a hermit.  The first powerful moment of sexual temptation in the story occurs when he is 49 years old.  A passing group of frivolous rich people see if they can get the hermit seduced by a member of their party.  When this beautiful girl “makes her move,” he is so tempted by her that the only means by which he can resist is through the infliction of physical torment on himself, and so he takes an axe and cuts off a finger from his left hand.  She is so impressed by this demonstration that she herself is converted and becomes a nun.  Well, the story does not stop at this conventional point.  Sergius is not really a saint.  He became a monk because he was jealous and hurt, not because his heart loved God.  And he recognizes that the spiritual reputation he now has, although not really faked by him, is not truly real either.  Then one day he is visited by a merchant whose daughter had a nervous disorder–her father brought her hoping for a cure.  When they are alone, she tells Father Sergius that she has had erotic dreams about him, and it is only a matter of minutes before she embraces him.  He wanders out of his cell, a completely disillusioned man; disillusioned, that is, with his own self-image.  After a spell of wandering, he comes upon his former fiancee, now an old babushka and very poor.  He realizes that his renunciation of her has been priggish and ultimately ungodly.  It is she who must bless him, and not the other way around.  After this, he becomes a wandering pilgrim, and little by little God starts to reveal Himself to him.  The real meaning of holiness and life is finally discovered by him.

Tolstoy greatly influenced a number of significant figures in the 20th Century–like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of lesser known people who would lead resistance to war and injustice all over the world.  Typically Tolstoyean, this is not a simple story either–he also was an influence on such figures as that young man who went out into the Alaskan wilderness a few years ago and ended up starving to death.  The rhetoric of Tolstoy’s zealousness needs careful discernment.

Eight years after Tolstoy died, his wife remarked:  “I lived with Lev Nikolayevich for 48 years, but I never really learned what kind of man he was.”  This may be said even more of his many critics and admirers.  But at the very least we can say that Lev Tolstoy was “totally Russian”!

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Identity

This is an interesting season.  The stores have been decked out for Valentine’s Day–a commercial invention to motivate people to buy something.  We are in the dead of winter.  We also have Chinese New Year.  Mardi Gras has started.  And then comes a shocking message: “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  You hear this if you are Catholic, and you go to Church on a Wednesday popularly known as Ash Wednesday.  You hear these words as the priest puts a smudge of ash on your forehead.  The whole thing is over in seconds.  You leave and perhaps you wipe it off or you walk around town for a while with that mark on your forehead.  Maybe you think about the meaning of those words and the ashes; maybe you don’t.  If you are Catholic, this is the beginning of Lent.

Lent is not a popular theme in our consumer culture.  Lent speaks of “giving things up,” of repentance, etc.  It seems like a gloomy thing.  And the ashes are truly a “countercultural” sign!  They don’t seem to be inviting anyone to buy anything, to have fun, to be fulfilled, to be a success, etc., etc.  Note that in the liturgy when the priest puts the ashes on your forehead, he says, “YOU” are dust, not “your body” is dust.  The liturgy cuts through all the contortions of catholic and christian theology and philosophy and anthropology about all this “body” and “soul” stuff.  The liturgy addresses the whole person, not some part of you even if there is some such part.  Indeed the whole dynamic of Christian salvation and divinization is directed toward the whole person and not just a “soul” as in some misleading language especially in the modern West. 

So there is a “you” which is you!   And the liturgy tells you to your face this “you” is dust!  This may remind some of us of a poem that Zen Master Ikkyu wrote- a bit here translated:

“peace isn’t luck  for six years stand facing a silent wall

until the you of your face melts like a candle.”

Or remember these lines from Simone Weil:

“The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good.  But this nothingness is not unreal.  Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.”

“If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God exists, we should find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves do not exist, for it is the same thought.” (And this could have been taken directly from many Sufi masters!)

What Ash Wednesday tells us and what so many spiritual people tell us is that there is something radically insubstantial about us, something so transitory, so evanescent, so empty, etc. that it can rightly be termed as unreal or as nothing.  Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent, and it challenges us on our own sense of identity.  Exactly who are you?  And the follow-up question would be: then what is the point of your life?  Every one of the great spiritual traditions has these questions at the heart of their teaching.  If you don’t address this question correctly you leave the person trapped within an identity of compulsion and unquenchable desire–like drinking salt water.  If you get the identity thing wrong, you will be saying, “I want; therefore I am.”  Being human will be equivalent to this churning of desire, by a constant craving that our economy really feeds off on.

Lent is a time for refocusing on our real identity, for shedding false identities, for relativizing what is merely a surface reality.  And on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, we are whacked as if by a paddle from a zen master, a jolt to a false sense of identity that we all build up: “You are dust…..”  This false identity has two components or manifestations as it were.  First, there is that psychological illusion of self-sufficiency which gets translated even into a metaphysical or philosophical position–that your individual self is a self-sustaining entity, not a created entity drawing its being from a Source transcending itself.  This is the point of Simone Weil’s quote–God exists, but if we use that word that way, we might as well say we don’t exist.  Our being exists ONLY moment by moment as a pure gift of one who is Infinite Love and Goodness and Pure Existence. We are a total, moment-to-moment pure Dependence–not an independent being.  Apart from that we are as nothing.  The fact that we “exist” in a relative sense means that God is saying “Yes” to us moment by moment.  Christian theology and piety expresses this fact by calling you a “child of God.”

The second component of this false identity is that we tend to see ourselves as these individualized, atomized selves, as if marbles in a bucket rubbing against each other.  Each person is a kind of Robinson Crusoe, a self-sufficient, self-made person, an island unto himself.  And each individual acts in their own self-interest.   Interestingly enough both Marxism and capitalism see this as the fundamental axiom of their systems.  The only difference is that Marxism wants to change the human being’s self-understanding by changing the external economic and material relations–almost as if by force making the human being into a non-self-centered creature. And it replaces the ego of the individual with the ego of the collective whole.  Capitalism pretty much absorbs the self-interested activity and depends on the “free market” and “reasonable rules of the road” to bring about  a minimizing of friction.  In other words, if my self-centered activity does not harm your self-centered activity, it’s ok.  Now what is important in all this is that both systems are operating with a view of human identity that is an illusion, a nothing really.  The Ash Wednesday liturgy then proclaims this “unreal” self as “dust.”

The consequence of getting  our fundamental identity  wrong–our “original sin”– is that we create a whole bunch of false identities–they are social constructs, images of ourselves, which we carry around and which we want to project to others.  Our social world is especially big on this–advertising lives off this.  For some the image centers on something physical: being youthful, physically attractive.  For someone else, it is being smart, an intellectual.  Still for some other person it may be the appearance of wealth and success, a position they hold,  or even the fact of being ostensibly religious, etc. etc.  Of course these kinds of things are so fragile and so evanescent that one’s life becomes very burdensome and filled with anxiety in trying to maintain any of these as a sense of one’s identity.  Thus the “word” of Ash Wednesday, “You are dust…,” is not exactly received as “good news” because it basically tells me that I am “nothing” and that is the worst thing you can be in this society.  That is why no one really wants to talk or think about death or any of its “signs”–like ageing.  But the ashes on the forehead point to the emptiness of the self, the real and total insubstantiality of the ego self and all its constructs.  Or to put it another way, borrowing from Zen, we accumulate all these “credentials” and then we confuse the credentials with the person.  But as a great Zen Master put it: the goal is to be “the true person of no rank, of no account.”  The true person has no credentials–that’s why he seems to be nothing.  Is it possible to be a social being and not have credentials?  No, not really.  Social existence brings inevitable credentials–even religious ones.  Most people first encounter you, and you encounter most people, through the facticity of credentials–except for the rare staretz or spiritual guide who sees right into your heart.  The spiritually mature person will “wear” his/her credentials very lightly, and then there are those few who are called to radically challenge the whole realm of credentials and false identity.

Returning now to our reflection, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday does not leave us with a negative message.  Indeed when it tells us who we are not, it immediately begins to point to who we really are.  And indeed this is true for the whole Lenten liturgy–especially follow the Gospel readings for the Lenten Sundays.  But, and this is a very important point, who we are is much, much more difficult to put into words than who we are not.  That is why lists of sins are so easy, or moral rules are so popular with some people.  Who we really are will be pointed at indirectly, through metaphors and symbols, through stories, and in a very quiet way that is easy to miss.

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is always from Matthew, from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18).  What is most interesting about this section is that it addresses religious practices–or to put it more precisely, turning religious practices into credentials and therefore living from a false self.  The Gospel speaks of piety, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting–even these can become parts of a false construct.  In Dostoevsky’s novel,  Brothers Karamazov, there is a character, Fr. Ferapont,  who exemplifies this most clearly!  Anyone who has any experience in spiritual discernment knows that the two areas most vulnerable to self-deception are in sex and in religion.  We are most prone to blindness in these two areas, but the Gospel comes down hard only on the latter.  Does anyone notice how many “hard words” there are addressed to religious practitioners?  Do church people pay any attention to them?  Hey, guys, the Gospel is not just speaking of those “nasty” Pharisees, who by the way were THE religious practitioners of the day!

By contrast, the Gospel invites us to go “into our room,” to go to a “secret place.”  If you read this literally you miss the point by the width of the universe!  In Russian hesychasm this “secret place” is the heart, not the physical organ but the central core of your being where your personhood stands naked, without credentials, and receives its being from God.  Truly it is not a “public” place because only you and God can be there–your ego self cannot enter there, cannot find the place because it seems like nothing, seems like “no-place,” but if God is there then all the rest of creation is also there.  More about that later.  This is also the place of real prayer because it is the place where there is no distance between you and God.  As Augustine put it: “God is closer to me than I am to my own self.”  Indeed.  This is also the place where Paradise abides within us.  In a sense it can be said that the whole point of the spiritual life is to “go to this secret place” and live from our real identity and not from all the images and phantoms that swirl in our heads and around us, the false identity of an ego centered existence.

Now note the Gospel for the 1st Sunday of Lent.  This year in the Catholic liturgy it is from Luke 4: 1-13.  Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.  The test is about his true identity.  Jesus, being truly human, has an ego self like we all do–so the Deceiver puts him to the test about his true identity–“IF you are the Son of God,” then do this and this for your ego benefit.  In other words, conflate and confuse this ego self with your identity as “son of the Father.”  Jesus thoroughly rejects it, and this is what we are called to do in Lent.  Focus on our real identity.  Reject the counterfeit that presents itself as “me.”  Incidentally, this also happens to Buddha.  After Enlightenment, Mara the Deceiver appears to him and tries to confuse and deceive him about who he is and what has taken place within him.  The sobering thought is that maybe the whole culture now plays the role of the Deceiver!  In any case, in next Sunday’s Gospel we are presented with the Transfiguration in Luke(Lk 9: 28-36).  This is the confirmation of Jesus’ true identity as “son of the Father,” but it is also inextricably linked with the path Jesus is on toward his passion, death and this mysterious thing called “resurrection.”  So this Gospel is placed as preparation in order to understand then the events of Holy Week coming in a short while.  But of course this is not only a story about Jesus, but an invitation to embrace our own identity as a “child of God,” which is also inextricably linked with the path of Jesus but in our own personal and historical situation. 

One final word:  back in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us: “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”  In a sense the truth of this can be further  manifested if we turn this completely around: Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.  If we believe that our heart is equivalent to our ego-centered self, then we will by necessity treasure all kinds of things mistakenly.  This then is the source of a great deal of unfreedom, compulsion, desire, and anxiety.  For as the Gospel also says: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures…where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”  It is ultimately “dust” and to dust it all returns.  But if your identity is grounded in your real heart and not your ego-centered identity, then you will discover yourself as a “child of God,” filled with compassion and freedom.

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.