Friday, January 3, 2014

The mysterious visitor. The Elder Zossima again…

Ivan Kramskoï (1837-1887) - Selfportrait

In a recent article, I started talking about the Elder Zossima. I mentioned his meeting with a "mysterious visitor". Dostoevsky dedicates twenty pages to the account of this meeting. They are a section of the "Notes of the Life or the deceased Priest and Monk, the Elder Zossima, taken from his own words by Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov".

A brief reminder of the background. As a young officer who had become, according to his own words, “a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature”, the future elder(1) became aware of his degradation after provoking a rival to a duel, and then, in his anger, violently hitting his assistant. Overwhelmed by the darkness he discovers in himself, he humbly apologizes to the soldier whom he had struck, and when he meets his opponent in the duel, instead of taking advantage of the first, missed, shot of his rival, he throws away his gun and asks for forgiveness. Finally, he announces his decision to enter a monastery. The rumor of these events spread rapidly, and it is in this context that he meets the mysterious visitor.

If I consider it useful to mention this episode, it is because it illustrates an important spiritual reality, namely that any true experience of God is rooted in a human experience. In other words, the Spirit by whom God speaks to our hearts expresses himself through mediations.
These mediations are numerous and extremely varied. They may come as a powerful word – a word of the Scripture, for example – that pierces the heart. But they may come as well as a tiny event, like the smile of a child or, as I once heard said, a glance that pauses on a small flower pot on a window sill, chasing away in a moment the darkness of despair. In the case aformentioned, it is the story of the uncompleted duel and the accompanying forgiveness that overwhelms the “mysterious visitor” and leads him to conversion.

Here is the storyline of The Mysterious Visitor. At first, he is described as an important man, “in a prominent position, respected by all, rich (…) he was very charitable, too, in secret, a fact which only became known after his death. He explains why he is coming to visit the young officer: “–‘You are, I see, a man of great strength of character’, he said; ‘as you have dared to serve the truth, even when by doing so you risked incurring the contempt of all’.” And he adds: “–‘Tell me, please (…) what were your exact sensations, if you can recall them, at the moment when you made up your mind to ask forgiveness at the duel’?” And the young Zynovy goes on to tell – what he had still never told to anybody –, how he prostrated himself before his assistant to ask forgiveness, and concludes: “–‘When once I had started on that road, to go farther along it was far from being difficult, but became a source of joy and happiness’.”

In his turn, the visitor shares his deep convictions: –‘Heaven lies hidden within all of us – here it lies hidden in me now, and if I will it, it will be revealed to me tomorrow and for all time (…) And that we are all responsible to all for all (…) in very truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality’.”

Even if it is not expressed in a very nuanced manner, this last assertion, typical of Russian spirituality, is a very important aspect in the thinking of Dostoevsky: every human heart shelters a part of evil, and so participates in what darkens the world. Solzhenitsyn expresses the same thing when he writes, in The Gulag Archipelago, that “the battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man”.

But let us come back to our mysterious visitor. During their frequent discussions, the young officer began to perceive that his visitor “was brooding over some plan in his heart, and was preparing himself perhaps for a great deed (…) Sometimes an extraordinary agitation would come over him, and almost always on such occasions he would get up and go away.” And, one day, “quite unexpectedly indeed, after he had been talking with great fervor a long time, I saw him suddenly turn pale, and his face worked convulsively, while he stared persistently at me. –‘What’s the matter?’ I said; ‘do you feel ill?’ He had just been complaining of headache. –‘I... do you know... I murdered someone’. He said this and smiled with a face as white as chalk. –‘What are you saying?’ I cried. –‘You see’, he said, with a pale smile, ‘how much it has cost me to say the first word. Now I have said it, I feel I’ve taken the first step and shall go on’.”
Ivan Kramskoï (1837-1887) - Portrait of a man
The narrator then describes the circumstances of the murder for which the visitor blamed himself. Mad with passion after having been betrayed by the woman he loved, he made his way to her home one night, and taking advantage of the absence of the servants, he entered her room and planted a dagger in her heart. Then, by an infernal calculation, he arranged it that a servant be accused, arrested and put in prison, where he died in the early days of the trial...

It took time before remorse assailed him, but once it arrived, it was terrible: “He had begun to have awful dreams. But, being a man of fortitude, he bore his suffering a long time, thinking: ‘I shall expiate everything by this secret agony’. But that hope, too, was vain; the longer it went on, the more intense was his suffering”. Then, he began to be pursued by a thought: “He dreamed of rising up, going out and confessing in the face of all men that he had committed murder”. This thought obsessed him for three years, and when he heard of this story of duel and forgiveness he made the decision to accept blame. The visitor then evokes the disaster that his confession would be for his wife and his children… “–‘Go!’ said I, ‘confess. Everything passes, only the truth remains. Your children will understand, when they grow up, the nobility of your resolution’.

But doubts and hesitations continued for weeks. The visitor came every night, often bitter and showing at times a kind of hatred: –‘Every time I come to you, you look at me so inquisitively as though to say, ‘He has still not confessed!’ Wait a bit, don’t despise me too much. It’s not such an easy thing to do, as you would think. Perhaps I shall not do it at all. You won’t go and inform against me then, will you?’ (…) –‘I have just come from my wife’, he went on. ‘Do you understand what the word ‘wife’ means? When I went out, the children called to me, ‘Good-by, father, make haste back to read The Children’s Magazine with us’. No, you don’t understand that! No one is wise from another man’s woe’.”

The description of the extraordinary spiritual struggle continues over several pages. One day, Zynovy reads him a verse of the Epistle to the Hebrews: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The man takes the book and flings it down. “He was trembling all over. –‘An awful text, he said’ (…) He rose from the chair. –‘Well!’ he said, ‘good-by, perhaps I shan’t come again... we shall meet in heaven. So I have been for fourteen years ‘in the hands of the living God’, that’s how one must think of those fourteen years. Tomorrow I will beseech those hands to let me go’.The visitor goes away, while his host starts praying. In the middle of the night, the man returns, claiming to have forgotten something... a handkerchief... or anything whatever... He sat down. I stood over him. –‘You sit down, too’, said he. I sat down. We sat still for two minutes; he looked intently at me and suddenly smiled – I remembered that – then he got up, embraced me warmly and kissed me. –‘Remember’, he said, ‘how I came to you a second time. Do you hear, remember it!’ And he went out. ‘Tomorrow’, I thought.”

Indeed, the next day, in front of the numerous guests gathered to celebrate his birthday, the visitor confesses his crime and gives various proofs that incriminate him. All believe that he had become crazy. Actually, a few days later, he falls ill. His wife, together with many others, accuses Zynovy of being responsible for his ‘madness’. But, eventually, she allows him to see her husband.

–‘It is done!’ he said. ‘I’ve long been yearning to see you, why didn’t you come?’ I did not tell him that they would not let me see him. –‘God has had pity on me and is calling me to Himself. I know I am dying, but I feel joy and peace for the first time after so many years (…) Neither my wife nor the judges, nor any one has believed it. My children will never believe it either. I see in that God’s mercy to them. I shall die, and my name will be without a stain for them’.” Then, he adds: “–‘Do you remember how I came back to you that second time, at midnight? I told you to remember it. You know what I came back for? I came to kill you! (…) I went out from you then into the darkness, I wandered about the streets, struggling with myself. And suddenly I hated you so that I could hardly bear it (…) I hated you as though you were the cause, as though you were to blame for everything (…) The Lord vanquished the devil in my heart. But let me tell you, you were never nearer death’.”

A week later, the visitor dies. After some time, Zynovy is bothered by people who came “and questioned me with great interest and eagerness, for man loves to see the downfall and disgrace of the righteous. But I held my tongue, and very shortly after, I left the town”. Five months later, he entered the monastery where he took the name Zossima. “But I remember in my prayer to this day, the servant of God, Mihail [it is only at the end of the story that we learn the name of the mysterious visitor], who suffered so greatly”.

Besides its intensity, this story makes us, once more, plumb the depths of human consciousness and, if we have faith, contemplate the invisible but powerful action of God who, according to Paul Claudel, “writes straight with crooked lines”.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) In the Russian original as well as in the French translation, we learn that his name is Zynovy. This name does not appear in the English translation quoted here.
(2) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project

Church in Suzdal - Picture Véronique Hallereau