Sunday, March 30, 2014

The teachings of the Elder Zossima

Church in Suzdal - Picture Véronique Hallereau

I have already dedicated three articles to the Elder Zossima. A "Secondary" character in The Brothers Karamazov, the old man is however a key to understanding Dostoevsky’s masterpiece. He reached a high degree of holiness and spiritual wisdom, but before entering the monastery, as a young officer, he was, according to his own words, "a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature". Savagery, cruelty and absurdity are to be found, in varying degrees, in the Karamazov’s, father and sons. Only the young Alyosha escapes, for the most part, this onerous inheritance. As for his brothers, Ivan and Dmitri, they do lack neither goodness nor ideal, but these are often thwarted by their passions. The Elder Zossima carries within him as well these human contradictions and contemplates them appeased, in the light of faith.

The sixth book of The Brothers Karamazov, entirely dedicated to the old monk, contains beautiful pages where his teachings and thoughts are exposed. I will quote here some significant passages. They are very representative of the Russian spirituality, and, in my opinion, we may also find there the human and religious ideal of Dostoevsky himself. We must remember that he was deeply impressed by figures such as the elder Tikhon of Zadonsk and Ambrose of Optina.

It took Zossima a long and patient spiritual fight before he acquired the peace of heart and the radiant sweetness that emanates from him. Once he did, everything in him was blessing and thanksgiving. I bless the rising sun each day, and, as before, my heart 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! My life is ending, I know that well, but every day that is left me I feel how my earthly life is in touch with a new infinite, unknown, that approaching life, the nearness of which sets my soul quivering with rapture, my mind glowing and my heart weeping with joy(1).

Vassiliy Polenov (1844-1927) - Landscape
Filled with this gentle wisdom, the Elder is capable of giving a word of life to those who visit him. Doing so, he is part of the ancient tradition of the Desert Fathers, who were asked by visitors: "Abba, give me a word." He knows the power that a word of life welcomed in a humble heart can deploy: Only a little tiny seed is needed – drop it into the heart of the peasant and it won’t die, it will live in his soul all his life, it will be hidden in the midst of his darkness and sin, like a bright spot, like a great reminder. And there’s no need of much teaching or explanation, he will understand it all simply.

We know to what extent Dostoevsky was concerned by the historical development of Russia, plagued by unpredictable upheavals. For him, materialism, the matrix of capitalism as well as revolutionary socialism, paves the way for atheism and hastens the collapse of the Russian culture, that only God will be able to put right. Undoubtedly, the Elder Zossima expresses the vision of the writer when he says: God will save Russia, for though the peasants are corrupted and cannot renounce their filthy sin, yet they know it is cursed by God and that they do wrong in sinning. So that our people still believe in righteousness, have faith in God and weep tears of devotion. It is different with the upper classes. They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that’s consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime?

Only a new fraternity, based in God’s love, will save Russia and all mankind. To illustrate this conviction, the Elder recounts how he once met his former orderly Afanasy(2): He chanced to see me in the market-place, recognized me, ran up to me, and how delighted he was! (…) He took me home with him. (…) He and his wife earned their living as costermongers in the market-place. His room was poor, but bright and clean (…) The man kept gazing at me and could not believe that I, his former master, an officer, was now before him in such a guise and position; it made him shed tears (…) He did not say much, but kept sighing and shaking his head over me tenderly. After tea I began saying good-by, and suddenly he brought out half a rouble as an offering to the monastery, and another half-rouble I saw him thrusting hurriedly into my hand: “That’s for you in your wanderings, it may be of use to you, Father.” I took his half-rouble, bowed to him and his wife, and went out rejoicing. And on my way I thought: “Here we are both now, he at home and I on the road, sighing and shaking our heads, no doubt, and yet smiling joyfully in the gladness of our hearts, remembering how God brought about our meeting.” I have never seen him again since then. I had been his master and he my servant, but now when we exchanged a loving kiss with softened hearts, there was a great human bond between us. I have thought a great deal about that, and now what I think is this: Is it so inconceivable that that grand and simple-hearted unity might in due time become universal among the Russian people? I believe that it will come to pass and that the time is at hand.”

By putting these words on the lips of the Elder, Dostoevsky is not naïve. He senses, with an acuteness that few of his contemporaries have had, the unrest that will occur in the beginning of the 20th century. In Demons, thirty-five years beforehand, he "describes with incredible accuracy all the historical mechanics that will inevitably lead to the revolution"(3). But, just as Jesus invites his hearers to discern the already present Kingdom of God in a world still plagued by violence, injustice and chaos, Dostoevsky understands the march of history in a metaphysical, spiritual and eschatological perspective.
Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945) - Children at the window
Ultimately, every gesture, every word, every relationship, affects the future of all of mankind. Here's how the Elder Zossima expresses this conviction: Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it. Every day and every hour, every minute, walk round yourself and watch yourself, and see that your image is a seemly one. You pass by a little child, you pass by, spiteful, with ugly words, with wrathful heart; you may not have noticed the child, but he has seen you, and your image, unseemly and ignoble, may remain in his defenseless heart. You don’t know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him and it may grow, and all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself a careful, actively benevolent love.”

One thinks of the mathematical theory of chaos, called "the butterfly effect"(4). And the Elder tells how his older brother asked the birds to forgive him… That sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side – a little happier, anyway – and children and all animals, if you were nobler than you are now.” Another sentence that helps us to understand the famous “Beauty will save the world”(5).

And the old man completes his teaching on a note of profound wisdom, illuminated by the vision of a reconciled world: Fear not the great nor the mighty, but be wise and ever serene. Know the measure, know the times, study that. When you are left alone, pray. Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything. Seek that rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one.”

Are we still capable of hearing such words? Yet they are the epitome of the Judeo-Christian heritage, freed from any dogmatic rigidity. It is the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs as well as the Sermon on the Mount. Solzhenitsyn would evoke this spiritual attitude in terms of "self-restraint". Listening to and meditating on the teachings of Elder Zossima is a powerful antidote to the frenzied individualism and the immoderation in which we are immersed.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project
(2) See a previous article: « You cannot be a judge of anyone »
(3) Pierre LAMBLÉ, La métaphysique de l’Histoire de Dostoïevski, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001, p. 76.
(4) The flapping of a butterfly's wings can cause a storm on the other side of the world... In other words, the infinitesimal variation of a parameter in a complex system can ultimately lead to significant effects.
(5) See the article on that topic.


  1. "Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything. Seek that rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one."

    These words bring tears to my eyes now. I read them as a young person, when they set my heart on fire, and they speak again to me today. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Iulia.
    We all need light, love, fire in the heart...
    God bless those who share these treasures with us.
    With your writings, you are one of them.