Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Father Therapon vs. Starets Zosima

Recently I have had a couple of conversations with different people who told me that they or others they know had seen demons.  

I do not doubt that some people see demons; however, I'm not sure that what they are seeing is what they think they are seeing.  In fact, were we to inquire seriously about this matter, we would have to have a long discussion about what it means to "see" in this context and what a demon actually is that someone might see one.  Nevertheless, laying these matters aside, let's assume that these people actually see actual demons.  

The most fundamental question that needs to be asked of those who see the unseen is not "did they really see anything?" or "what does 'see' mean?" or even "how do we interpret what they have seen?"  The most fundamental question is the question Dostoevsky seems to ask in juxtaposing Father Therapon with the Starets Zosima at the beginning of book four in the novel The Karamozov Brothers.

The Starets Zosima is a very old and very holy monk who has befriended Aloysha, one of the Karamazov brothers, the one who has very sensitive religious feelings that are expressed in an openness to everyone and an immediate concern for the suffering of others.  The holiness of the Starets and the occasional miracles that are associated with him have drawn hundreds of followers, especially peasants, to seek his prayer and advice.  This triggers both jealousy or disdain, and a cult of expectation in the monastery.  The cult of expectation (or cult of the startsy), to which the majority of the monks belong, is based on the expectation that Zosima will fulfil a certain role for the monastery, a role that startsy had played--or had been thought to play--in other famous monasteries.  

Those who were jealous of or disdained Starets Zosima were few in the monastery.  Mostly it was some of the the higher clergy who were uneasy with the whole phenomenon of the Starets.  Having a holy man or women to which crowds flock seems to bypass the establish structures and sacraments of the Church. One can see how even well-meaning churchmen would be uncomfortable with flocks of people looking for help form God in this or that holy man or woman rather than in the tried and true paths and sacraments offered by the established Church.  And even in the monastery itself, there is one particular hermit who disdains Starets Zosima, but then he seems to disdain everyone.  And it is this hermit, Father Therapon, who sees demons.

In presenting Starets Zosima and Father Therapon in close contrast, Dostoevsky seems to be asking the fundamental question that needs to be asked of all those who see demons--or see angels or perform miracles or have clairvoyant abilities.  That is, "to what end?"  Or another way to put it is, "what fruit does the seeing of demons produce in the life of the one who sees them and in the lives of those he or she influences?" Dostoevsky both asks and answers this question by juxtaposing Starets Zosima and Father Therapon.

First we are presented with Starets Zosima as he is giving his farewell speech to the community the day before he dies.  He speaks rather confusedly, trying "to say everything once more" before the moment of death comes.  "Love one another, my brothers," the Starets exhorts.  "Just because we have shut ourselves with in these walls, it does not make us any holier than the laity....However, he [who] realizes that not only is he worse than any layman, but that he is guilty before all... only then will the goal of our seclusion be attained."  Not only are the brothers to consider themselves guilty before all, according to Starets Zosima, but they are even to consider themselves guilty "for the sins of all men."  The Starets tells the brothers to be humble: "Be humble with the weak, be humble with the mighty"; and to "bear no ill will against those who reject, defame, malign, and slander you.  Bear no ill will against atheists, false prophets, materialists, even the evil ones...."  For Starets Zosima, the fruit of his life of prayer, the fruit of the spiritual gifts and even his clairvoyant abilities is love, love especially of enemies.  He exhorts the brothers to pray for all those who have no one to pray for them and for those who themselves do not even want to pray.

It seems to me that the fruit, the result, the end, of Starets Zosima's life is such that we could say, "Here is a man who says what Christ says, who does what Christ does, who loves as Christ loves.

Immediately after the Starets' speech, Dostoevsky introduces us to Father Therapon, "the great adherent of the vow of fasting and silence," who was "an adversary of Starets Zosima, and especially of the cult of startsy."  We do not hear Father Therapon criticize Starets Zosima, we are only told that he is an adversary.  What we do hear is a conversation between Father Therapon and a "little monk" who is visiting from "St. Silvester's." This little monk is troubled by a miracle that is attributed to Starets Zosima, and by the cult-like zeal with which many in the monastery, including the abbot, expect the Starets to fulfill their understanding of the role of a starets through miraculous signs, especially after his death, which will make the monastery famous.

The little monk goes to speak to Father Therapon, who lives in a shack surviving on only bread and water,  spending whole days on his knees in prayer and speaking to almost no one.  When he does speak, "he would merely utter some  incongruous word[s] which would cause the visitor much consternation."  It was rumoured that he "communed with heavenly spirits and conversed only with them, which is why he did not enter into conversation with ordinary mortals."  Nonetheless, the little monk takes his chances and goes to see the famous Father Therapon and makes a prostration before him, asking his blessing.  The Father responds as follows:

"'Dost thou expect me too to fall flat on my face before thee, monk?' said Father Therapon. 'Arise!'
The little monk got up.
'Blessed be he who blesseth, sit thee down beside me.  Whence comest thou?'"

That the Father is curt with the little monk is perhaps not unusual, but what I find particularly unusual is the stilted language that the Father uses.  Of course this novel was written in Russian, so I am assuming that the translator is using Elizabethan English here to simulate the use of Church Slovonic by Father Therapon in addressing the the little monk.  Neither Starets Zosima, nor any other religious person in the novel seems to feel it is necessary to use the antiquated language of the old church service books to address others.  Whether or not this use of stilted religious language reveals anything essential about Father Therapon, I don't know.  But for myself, as one who is not a fan of the use of antiquated language in prayer or worship, I find this interesting.

The conversation that ensues, carried on in Church Slovonic on Father Therapon's part, focuses on fasting.  Once the little monk has told the Father where he is from, the first question the Father asks (complete with an imbedded insult) is how the St. Silvester's community fasts.

The little monk runs through the dietary schedule of his home community: what they do and do not eat on certain days and on which days they eat nothing at all.   

Then the Father surprisingly asks about eating mushrooms--apparently the Father a big fan of eating wild mushrooms and berries (which, one wonders, might have something to do with the visions that he is famous for).  The little monk does not know how to respond, and the Father accuses his community of being heretical and delivering themselves "unto Satan" because they do not fast severely enough.  The Father asks, "Didst thou see devils among them?"  The little monk is at a loss.  Then Father Therapon goes into a detailed description of the demons he saw on the monks at the Abbot's residence "on Holy Whitsuntide past."  He describes their size, their odour, their sounds and their actions, and he describes how he slammed the door on the tail of one causing it to screech and flail in anguish.

The Father goes on to describe how the Holy Spirit sometimes "doth fly down" in the shape of a bird, and Who had told him "a fool would come unto me [today] asking all manner of rascally questions," implying, and again insulting, the little monk. Then the Father describes how in the branches of an elm tree he sees Christ, "who reacheth out His arms and seeketh me with His arms, I behold it clearly and I tremble with fear.  Fearful, oh fearful!" The little monk does not understand why the Father would be afraid of Christ.  The Father explains that he fears that Christ might "bear me aloft....in the sprit and glory of Elias..."

The little monk leaves Father Therapon "extremely perplexed," but because he is already "deeply prejudiced against the cult of the startsy," he is inclined to attribute Father Theapon's "somewhat incongruous" ramblings to the words of a holy fool.

The reader, however, comes away with a very different impression, and this seems to be Dostoevsky's intention.  This great faster and apparent visionary seems to be insane, or at least delusional. He expresses nothing like love or concern for others.  He is quick to insult and condemn.  And his visionary powers seem to reveal nothing edifying, but rather create an atmosphere of fear. And even if we assumed that the demons that Father Therapon sees are actually demons, we must ask the question: what fruit does this bear or how does it help us?  Does it reveal to us that those who dine with the Abbot on Pentecost (Whitsunday) struggle with demonic temptation?  That's not news.  Anyone still in the flesh struggles with temptation.  What fruit does his seeing of demons bear?

Side by side we see two presumed holy men.  One is rather embarrassed that people attribute miraculous power to him, while the other goes on about visions he has seen.  One expresses compassion in his words and is gentle in his speech--even to an atheist and an arrogant buffoon ; while the other cannot avoid insulting even a fellow monk who is earnestly inquiring of him.  One sees no demons, but only hurting, confused people who need to be loved; while the other sees demons and condemns those who do not fast as severely as he does.  Where do you, my dear reader, see the fruit of Christ? 

So on the matter of seeing demons (or seeing angels or reading Hebrew for that matter), the fundamental question is "what fruit does it bear?"  In a sense, this question is the only one that really matters.


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