Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Elder Zossima

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) The Vision of the Youth Bartholomew

To complete my journey – which I know is quite imperfect and subjective – through the five big novels of Dostoevsky, I intend to talk about the character of the Elder(1) Zossima(2).

Even if he is not the central figure of The Brothers Karamazov, the Elder plays a very important role, were it only as a result of his influence on the young Alyosha. He appears at different times in the story, and one of the twelve books of the novel (the sixth, which is about 80 pages) is completely dedicated to him. This means that he will deserve more than one article.

The novel is entirely driven by irony – this is particularly evident in the titles that the writer gave to his chapters –, and I shall be faithful to this approach by beginning with the end, more precisely with the death of the Elder. 

The old man is enveloped with a reputation of indisputable holiness. Father Ferapont is the only monk who looks at him scornfully and directs a dull hatred at him. So, all expect that, after his death, the body of Fr. Zossima will remain intact and will not decay, something that in the popular devotion is a clear sign of holiness.

But it turns out that, very soon after the death of the old monk, "the breath of corruption" – this is how the writer entitles this chapter – becomes perceptible in the cell where the body is exposed. From the announcement of the death, an agitated crowd had gathered at the monastery, waiting for miracles. Father Païssy, confessor of the Elder, is worried about it and even takes offence: “Such immediate expectation of something extraordinary, he said, shows a levity (…) unseemly in us(3)

But now, there was no way to doubt it. “The fact is that a smell of decomposition began to come from the coffin, growing gradually more marked, and by three o’clock it was quite unmistakable.” Very soon, the news spreads like wildfire through the city and is a source of scandal. Also at the monastery, it is a great temptation and scandal. The jealousy that some once directed to the Elder turns to hatred. “For though the late elder had won over many hearts, more by love than by miracles, and had gathered round him a mass of loving adherents, none the less, in fact, rather the more on that account he had awakened  jealousy and so had come to have bitter enemies…” Some do not even hesitate at all to speak ill of his teaching: “He followed the fashionable belief (…) He was not strict in fasting, allowed himself sweet things (…) He abused the sacrament of confession…” Actually, the devotees show their real face, as hypocrites. Blinded by their greediness for supposedly supernatural signs, they are unable to see and recognize the obvious: the Elder Zossima was a saint.

It is now Fr. Ferapont, accompanied by a group of monks, who enters the cell where the body of the Elder rests, screaming: “Satan, go hence! Satan, go hence!” Father Païssy intervenes: “You cast out the evil spirit, but perhaps you are serving him yourself (…) Go away, Father! said Father Païssy, in a commanding voice, it’s not for man to judge but for God. Perhaps we see here a ‘sign’ which neither you, nor I, nor any one of us is able to comprehend.

The young Alyosha himself, who received so much from the Elder, is shattered for a time under the influence of the general suspicion. Everything that happened, all these taunts, hurt and destabilize him. The man that he loved most in the world is "dishonored". He runs away  from the monastery, but in the evening, he returns there and enters the cell where the body of Elder Zossima lies. There, he finds Fr. Païssy reading the Gospel. Alyosha kneels in a corner and prays. “His soul was overflowing but with mingled feelings; no single sensation stood out distinctly; on the contrary, one drove out another in a slow, continual rotation. But there was a sweetness in his heart and, strange to say, Alyosha was not surprised at it”. Gradually, Alyosha falls asleep listening to the reading of the story of the Wedding at Cana (Gospel of John, chapter 2). In a dream, he sees the Elder Zossima who tells him: We are rejoicing (…)We are drinking the new wine, the wine of new, great gladness…” Alyosha wakes up, gets up and leaves, full of excitement. He throws himself down on the earth and kisses the ground weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vows passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever…” Then, he gets up, full of an unspeakable strength. “Someone visited my soul in that hour, he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words”. So, beyond death, the Elder fills his disciple with a new energy that will inspire him and make of him a fighter of love.

We will have to discover what dwelled in the heart and in the soul of the old man Zossima. That will be for a future article.

Fiodor (the other one)

Ambrose of Optino
(1) This is how we translate the Russian word “starets”. In the Russian tradition, this name is given to a monk whose wisdom and discernment make of him a spiritual father.
(2) Several figures have inspired the writer to portray the character of Zossima. First, Tikhon of Zadonsk, who lived during the second half of the 18th century. Dostoevsky made use of his writings to compose the teachings of the Elder Zossima. But it is especially the Elder Ambrose of Optino who was used as a model. We know that the novelist went several times to the Optino monastery. According to Vladimir Lossky, "The outdoor setting, the description of the monastery up to the slightest detail, the expectation of the visitors, the scene of the reception at the Elder, remind one of Optino".
(3) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28054/28054-0.txt