The old man whom Alexey (Alyosha) has known is a peaceful man, rooted in God, with a bright and comforting look. But it was not always so, as the elder portends in these words: “It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy. The mild serenity of age takes the place of the riotous blood of youth. I bless the rising sun each day, and, as before, my hearts sings to meet it, but now I love even more its setting, its long slanting rays and the soft, tender, gentle memories that come with them, the dear images from the whole of my long, happy life — and over all the Divine Truth, softening, reconciling, forgiving!”
The reader then discovers the darker side of the life of Zynovy, the name he bore before entering the monastery. As a young man, he entered the Cadet Corps in St. Petersburg. He remembers how, in military life: “many of my childish impressions grew dimmer (…) I was transformed into a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature. A surface polish of courtesy and society manners I did acquire together with the French language. But we all, myself included, looked upon the soldiers in our service as cattle.”
|Ilya Repine (1844-1930) - Ivan the Terrible and his son|
Immediately afterward, the one who is going to become the Elder Zossima goes to the scene of the duel. His opponent shoots first and misses. But our man, instead of fighting back, throws away his gun and asks for forgiveness... The reactions are mitigated: the honor of the regiment, etc. But his comrades are completely confused by the fiery words he addresses to them. He announces to them that he is resigning from the regiment in order to enter a monastery. The rumor of the event spreads quickly: he becomes a kind of hero, and many people try to meet or to invite him. It is in this context that he meets a mysterious visitor. But that is another story... to be continued.
In the meantime, we can underline how much, for Dostoevsky, the experience of humiliation and repentance are crucial in shaping the consciousness of a man. Indeed, Fr Zossima will never forget that his heart was capable of sheltering such a violence: “Though it’s forty years ago, I recall it now with shame and pain”. Shaped by such an experience, he would be able to welcome without judging and to comfort by testifying of God’s mercy. He would not stop teaching his disciples: “Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of any one.”
Today, we seek to exonerate ourselves from any fault and, if necessary, we make of our deviations standards. Meanwhile, there are a few who find favor in our eyes, and we easily regard a criminal as a "monster". Through deified characters, Dostoevsky reminds us that "the heart of man is complicated and sick"(2) and that we all share a responsibility in evil: “For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime (…) Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me.”
Fiodor (the other one)
(1) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28054/28054-0.txt
(2) Jeremiah 17, 9.