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.'”


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