Friday, December 6, 2013

“You cannot be a judge of anyone." The Elder Zossima, continued

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) - The Hermit
Even five minutes before his death, they said afterwards wonderingly, it was impossible to foresee it. He seemed suddenly to feel an acute pain in his chest, he turned pale and pressed his hands to his heart. All rose from their seats and hastened to him. But though suffering, he still looked at them with a smile, sank slowly from his chair on to his knees, then bowed his face to the ground, stretched out his arms and as though in joyful ecstasy, praying and kissing the ground, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.”(1).

Such was the death of Elder Zossima. But what kind of man was he? What kind of role does he play in the complex composition of The Brothers Karamazov? After all, an entire book – about one-twelfth of the work – is almost entirely dedicated to him. Nevertheless, even if the old monk has a determining influence on the young Alyosha, he does not really participate in the plot of the novel. As Paul Evdokimov points out, Dostoevsky’s spiritual characters (the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, or Father Tykhon, in Demons) are present "as icons." They are not actors in the story, but they enlighten it.

The spiritual light he receives from his master is the power that will lead Alyosha throughout the novel. And the sections on this monk form a kind of spiritual biography, written by the disciple, that Dostoevsky integrates into the story, under a significant title: “Notes of the Life of the deceased Priest and Monk, the Elder Zossima, taken from his own words by Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov”.

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
This last statement comes to life in an event he describes in detail. He has just incited another soldier to a duel. “In the evening, returning home in a savage and brutal humor, I flew into a rage with my orderly Afanasy, and gave him two blows in the face with all my might, so that it was covered with blood. He had not long been in my service and I had struck him before, but never with such ferocious cruelty.” The next morning, at dawn, he sees the sun rising and hears the birds singing, and he feels in his “heart as it were something vile and shameful.” He suddenly remembers  the event of the previous evening. “It all rose before my mind (…), he stood before me and I was beating him straight on the face and he was holding his arms stiffly down, his head erect, his eyes fixed upon me as though on parade. He staggered at every blow and did not even dare to raise his hands to protect himself. That is what a man has been brought to, and that was a man beating a fellow creature! What a crime! It was as though a sharp dagger had pierced me right through.” Now, a lieutenant, his friend, comes and finds him for the duel... He tells him to wait a moment, rushes to the closet of his orderly: “’Afanasy’, I said, ‘I gave you two blows on the face yesterday, forgive me’, I said. He started as though he were frightened, and looked at me; and I saw that it was not enough, and on the spot, in my full officer’s uniform, I dropped at his feet and bowed my head to the ground. ‘Forgive me’, I said. Then he was completely aghast. ‘Your honor... sir, what are you doing? Am I worth it?’ And he burst out crying as I had done before, hid this face in his hands, turned to the window and shook all over with his sobs.

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
(2) Jeremiah 17, 9.

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