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Russian Literature LXVII (2010) II
Already since the publication of Fedor Dostoevskiis The Brothers Karamazov
(1879-1880), one of the characters that has been arousing much controversy is the
starets or elder Zosima. In spite of the writers intention to create in Zosima a pure,
ideal Christian, the starets stirred up divided opinions in Russian ecclesiastical
circles. In this paper, I aim to show that in his fictional elder Dostoevskii
resuscitated a medieval tradition of contemplative monasticism and related
spirituality, which was gradually pushed into the margins of the Russian church.
More specifically, it will be revealed that in Zosima Dostoevskii recreated some
echoes of the teachings of the 15th century monk Nil Sorskii, or Nil of Sora (1433-
1508), who was the first to develop and write down a Russian theology of
Keywords: Dostoevskii; Starets Zosima; Nil Sorskii; hesychasm
1. A Hagiography of the Pure, Ideal Christian
The elder or starec Zosima in Fedor Dostoevskijs final novel Bratja Kara-
mazovy (The Brothers Karamazov, 1879-1880) is by far one of the most
religious characters in the writers broad and versatile oeuvre.
consciously created Zosima as the religious and moral hallmark of the
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186 Nel Grillaert
narrative and intended him to be the culminating point of the novel (PSS
30, I: 75).
In reply to Konstantin Pobedonoscev, who would be appointed
chief procurator of the Holy Synod some years later and who was extremely
wary about Ivan Karamazovs dismissal of God and his poem of the Grand
Inquisitor in book 5 of the novel, Dostoevskij wrote that he envisioned the
elder as the religious counterweight against the atheism voiced by Ivan (121).
The elder is introduced in book 1 of the novel, in which he and the
monastic tradition he belongs to is the subject of a separate chapter Starcy
(Elders). He is then further described in book 2, Neumestnoe sobranie
(An inappropriate gathering), in a setting that almost borders on the bur-
lesque and scandalous, but in which he seems to serve as the moral and
spiritual centre: he tries to mediate between Fedor and Dmitrij Karamazov
and gives counsel to a woman grieving over the loss of her son. However, it
is not until book 6, Russkij Inok (The Russian Monk), that the reader is
given a full insight into the life and teachings of the elder. This book is cast in
the form of a itie, written down by Alea after the elders death, and contains
the biography and religious world view of Zosima.
In a letter to Nikolaj Ljubimov, the editor of Russkij vestnik (in which
the novel appeared in instalments), Dostoevskij straightforwardly expressed
his ambition to portray in book 6 a pure, ideal Christian:
3ro ne npononet, a xax t paccxas, nonecrt o cocrnenno xnsnn.
Ecnn yacrcx, ro cenam eno xopomee: sacmae.m cosuamic, uro
uncrt, neantnt xpncrnannn eno ne ornneuennoe, a opasno
peantnoe, nosmoxnoe, noounm npecroxmee, n uro xpncrnancrno
ecrt enncrnennoe yexnme Pyccxo 3emnn oro ncex ee son. (68)
(This is not a sermon, but more like a story, a tale about actual life. If it
succeeds, I shall have done something good: I force to realize that the
pure, ideal Christian is not an abstract matter, but is figuratively real
and possible, that stands before our very eyes, and that Christianity is
for the Russian Land the only shelter for all her ills.)
Dostoevskij thus deliberately conceived Zosima to defend and re-affirm
Christianity against the atheism and nihilism that was pervading Russian
culture and consciousness. In Bachtins terms, Dostoevskij used in his de-
scription of the elder hagiographic discourse (itijnoe slovo): his portrait
was designed as a saints life, the purpose of which was to disseminate one
authoritative and unambiguous word within the polyphonic dialogue of the
other characters, without hidden dialogue or sideward glances (Bakhtin 1984:
Still, although obviously created as a hagiography and designed to be a
pure, ideal Christian, Dostoevskijs portrait of Zosima has been arousing
much divided opinions, especially with regard to the precise denominational
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 187
bias of his religious teachings. Several readers from within and outside the
Russian Orthodox church stumbled over the eclecticism of Zosimas creed to
make straightforward claims concerning the religious world view he
expresses. Already since the publication of book 6, Dostoevskijs fictional
elder seemed to distress Russian clergymen because they found in his teach-
ings some traces that evaded strict ecclesiastical discourse. In 1881, the
official journal of the Holy Synod, Cerkovnij vestnik, wrote that Dostoevskij
took a great risk when he introduced into the Brothers Karamazov the types
of the elder Zosima and the other monks (Belknap 1967: 13). In 1886,
government censors thwarted Lev Tolstojs ambition to publish book 6 in a
separate booklet under the title The Story of Starec Zosima. Publication was
suppressed because the censor foresaw javnyj vred v rasprostranenii v
krestjanskoj srede misticeski-socialnogo ucenija, imejucego tolko vidimoe
schodstvo s uceniem Christa, no v sucnosti soverenno protivopolonoe
doktrine pravoslavnoj very (obvious harm in the distribution of Zosimas
mystical and social teaching, which shows only a visible resemblance to
Christs teaching, but is in essence completely opposite to the doctrine of or-
thodox faith, Lebedev 1970: 124).
Dostoevskij himself anticipated the criticism of his fictional monk.
When sending book 6 to Russkij vestnik, he accompanied it with a letter to
the editor Ljubimov, commenting upon his new chapter:
Hasnan +ry 6-m xnnry: Pyccxn nnox nasnanne epsxoe n nt-
stnammee, no saxpnuar nce ne nmxmne nac xpnrnxn: Taxon nn
pyccxn nnox, xax cmert crannrt ero na raxo nteecran? [] xe
cunram, uro npornn ecrnnrentnocrn ne norpemnn: ne rontxo xax
nean cnpanennno, no n xax ecrnnrentnocrt cnpanennno.
(PSS 30, I: 102)
(I have entitled this sixth book: the Russian monk, a bold and
provocative title, because all the critics who do not like us will scream:
is that what a Russian monk is like, how can you dare to put him on
such a pedestal? [] I find that I have not sinned against reality: it is
valid not only as an ideal, but also as a reality.)
The question whether Zosimas religious world view belongs to the
Orthodox mainstream is also the subject of more recent scholarship. Boyce
Gibson calls Zosima a Christian of a new dispensation (Gibson 1973: 190).
Sven Linnr argues that Dostoevsky stylizes his portrait according to prin-
ciples which from an Orthodox point of view must be considered dubious
(Linnr 1975: 96). He cites from conversations with metropolitan Anthony
Bloom a widely quoted authority on Russian Orthodoxy , who calls Zo-
sima sweet and therefore an unauthentic spokesman of the Russian
church (Linnr 1975: 100ff.).
The Orthodox scholar (and archpriest of the
188 Nel Grillaert
Russian Orthodox church) Sergei Hackel has convincingly shown that Zo-
simas discourse is more evasive than affirmative where it concerns the
institute and customs of the church (Hackel 1983). Most recently, and with
reference to the religious dimension in all of Dostoevskijs writings, Malcolm
Jones uses the metaphor of the death and resurrection of Orthodoxy: in
Dostoevskijs polyphonic novels the religious creed that Dostoevskij in-
herited from his own tradition is brought to death, in order that the shoots of a
new faith can be born (Jones 2005: 45ff.). Elaborating on Bachtin, Jones
dismisses the view that religious discourse in Dostoevskijs novels can be
claimed as authoritative discourse or Holy Writ, i.e. as affirming, sup-
porting and legitimizing the beliefs or tradition authorized by the church. The
faith expressed in Dostoevskijs novels is rather what Bachtin calls inwardly
persuasive discourse: it brings into being a faith that the believer has
consciously drawn from personal experience and actually lived through, and
only retains and treasures those elements of tradition that have personal
meaning. Jones calls the religious beliefs in Dostoevskijs writings minimal
religion, which is grown in the Orthodox heritage but may at times deviate
from authoritative ecclesiastical discourse. The metaphor of the death and
resurrection of Orthodoxy enables us to postulate that tradition as author-
itative discourse lost its force and has died in Dostoevskijs writings, but that
instead religious experience as inwardly persuasive discourse has taken its
place. This minimal religion in Dostoevskij bears the seeds of a new inter-
pretation of Orthodoxy, with strong roots in the Orthodox soil, but nourished
by personal beliefs and experiences (Jones 2005: 62).
In line with this, various scholars have identified models for the elder
Zosima, some of whom fall outside the boundaries of established Orthodox
doctrine. Linnr aptly reveals that Dostoevskijs portrayal of the elder is
indebted to Western fictional saint-figures, such as the catholic bishop Myriel
Bienvenu in Victor Hugos Les Misrables (Linnr 1975: 123ff.). Sergei
Hackel convincingly shows that Zosimas veneration of the earth, bowing to
and kissing the ground are religious practices that testify to a cosmophany
rather than a theophany, thereby characterizing Zosimas (and Aleas) Chris-
tianity as a type of nature mysticism (Hackel 1983: 164).
In the present article, I concur with this line of research and aim to add
to it by revealing a prototype for Zosima, whose religious views mainly
thrived in the periphery of the Russian Orthodox church, rather than being
formally supported or legitimized by the ecclesiastical authorities. More
particularly, I aim to show that in his portrait of Zosima Dostoevskij re-
created various echoes of the hagiography and teachings of the 15th century
monk Nil Sorskij, or Nil of Sora, whose theology and associated spirituality
parted ways with the teachings, policy and ambitions of the Russian church.
In a notebook of 1880, Dostoevskij wrote that the Russian church was
especially since the reforms of Peter the Great in the beginning of the 18th
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 189
century in a state of paralysis (Berdjaev [1923] 1991: 121).
In what fol-
lows, I intend to show that in his hagiography of the pure, ideal Christian,
Dostoevskij attempted to create an alternative to the paralysed Russian
church by infusing and thus reviving echoes of a Russian Orthodox con-
sciousness, theology and spirituality that had been pushed into the margins of
the Russian church.
2. Nil Sorskij: Biography and Teachings
We know very little about Nils personal biography, because the hagio-
graphies written about him were probably burned in Tatar invasions in the
1530s and 1540s, or might be destroyed by followers of Joseph of Volo-
kolamsk, who defeated Nil in an ecclesiastical controversy on monastic
landownership. What we know from him is through his theoretical writings
and by reports from others. He was born in 1433 and died in 1508. His family
name was Majkov. He was born into an upper class family of educated
Russians in Moscow, which explains his knowledge of Greek and possibly
other languages. At an early age, he entered the Kirillo-Belozerskij monast-
ery in Northern Russia, which had a great number of spiritual manuscripts in
its library. There, the young Nil steeped himself in the study of the Holy
writings, which were to become crucial not only in his personal development,
but also in his writings. He also read Nil of Sinai, Symeon the New Theolo-
gian, John Climacus and Gregory of Sinai, whose spiritual writings intro-
duced him to hesychasm. Nil then travelled to Mount Athos, where in the
14th century Gregory Palamas had theologically underpinned the hesychastic
practice and had brought it to a level of theological and spiritual perfection.
Nil stayed several years on Mount Athos, where he had frequent conversa-
tions with the elders and immersed himself in hesychast writings. After
having spent some years there, Nil returned to Russia, where he withdrew in
the Volga forests because he consciously sought the solitude and isolation
that is a prerequisite for hesychastic prayer, and because he desired to be
disengaged from the ecclesiastical hierarchy. On the banks of the Sora river
(hence his name Sorskij), Nil built his own skete, i.e. a group of separate cells
or huts that are scattered about a centrally located church or chapel.
monks or hermits lived in their individual cells, where they could devote
themselves to the isolated practice of hesychastic prayer. The skete was
guided by an elder, or a spiritual guide, who had ascended the spiritual ladder
and served to guide the younger hermits in contemplative life and inner
Nils sketic rule introduced a new type of order in Russian monastic-
ism: the monks lived a relatively self-independent life within the skete. They
organized their lives according to their own needs and arranged their daily
190 Nel Grillaert
order, prayer times etc. as they wished. What bound the monks together was
their practice of hesychastic prayer. Nil and the other monks Nils skete had
12 members spent most of their time in inner contemplation and the study
of the Holy Writings. They also copied manuscripts, thereby showing a
critical attitude to faulty translations and correcting the many errors that had
crept into the manuscripts.
Nil lived in the skete at the Sora river until the end of his life. He wrote
two chief works, the Predanie and the Ustav, plus several letters in which he
gave spiritual advice to his brethren, but also to lay men. The Predanie or
Tradition was written early in the period of his sketic life and is a very short
work, in which he wrote down a first version of his sketic rule. The Predanie
gives some concrete monastic rules for the other monks in the skete. His
second and later work, the Ustav or Rule, describes in 11 chapters the
hesychasts process towards union with God in terms of an inner, spiritual
struggle. It is actually not a rule in the proper sense, but more an ascetical
treatise on what Nil calls mental activity, or hesychastic practice (Sorsky
2003: 14-15). In his Rule, Nil draws from the ascetic and mystical writings
from various Church Fathers, thereby displaying an enormous erudition. His
sources are, amongst others, Basil the Great, Macarius of Egypt, Nil of Sinai,
John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac the Syrian, Symeon the New
Theologian and Gregory of Sinai (Fedotov 1975: 269). Constantly com-
mending his readers to steep themselves in the patristic mystical tradition, Nil
describes every step in the process towards unity with the Godhead, a process
that is a constant struggle against worldly temptations. The hesychast should
protect himself from these temptations by cleansing his heart through
solitude, silence, study of the Holy Writings, manual labour and obedience to
his elder.
A seminal element in Nils form of asceticism is poverty, which he
finds indispensable in the struggle against secular temptations and is also an
imitation of the kenotic Christ. Nil resists the churchs owning of land and
serfs: in his view, monastic landowning with rents and slaves is a severe
aberration from the spiritual purposes of monasticism. Monks should be de-
tached from worldly wealth and should instead devote themselves to inner
prayer and contemplation. Nil and his disciples, who upheld an ideal of
monastic poverty came to be known as the non-possessors or the Trans-
volgan elders. Their resistance against monastic property and teaching of
hesychasm gradually became a thorn in the side of the ecclesiastical esta-
blishment who preferred a form of monasticism that allowed ecclesiastical
possessions and owning of serfs, and that was more in conformity with the
churchs ambitions. The defenders of monastic possessions were led by
Joseph of Volokolamsk and were called the possessors: they argued that
own property guaranteed the independency of the church from the state. The
controversy between non-possessors and possessors was brought to a
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 191
close at a church council in 1503, which decided in favour of Joseph of
Volokolamsk and his party of possessors. Nils ideas of a basically spiritual
church posed too great a threat to the ecclesiastical establishment, which im-
posed a ban on his monastic ideal. After that, Nil retired completely into his
skete, where he died on 7 May 1508.
Although Nils type of spirituality attracted a lot of followers in both
monastic and lay circles, hesychasm and the related type of monasticism was
suppressed by the church authorities and pushed into the margins of Russian
Orthodoxy: there was a series of persecutions against Nils followers and the
church started consciously suppressing the hesychast movement (Billington
1966: 63-64; Figes 2003: 294).
The ban on Nils monasticism cut Russian
religious consciousness off from the hesychast tradition, as practiced on
Mount Athos and deeply rooted in the patristic tradition. Russian spiritual life
and monasticism was even further in decline after the church reforms of Peter
the Great in the beginning of the 18th century. Peter the Greats (and Feofan
Prokopovics) installation of the Spiritual Regulation in 1721 turned out to
be detrimental for Russian spirituality: the Russian church was turned into a
state-controlled and secularized institution that served the tsars political am-
bitions rather than guarding its spiritual life. In addition to the secularization
of the Russian church, the Synodical age in the history of the Russian church
was also, in the words of George Florovsky, a period of Western captivity
of Russian theology: the Russian church imitated theological schools in the
West, thereby gradually losing the unique spirituality that was such a distinct-
ive feature of Byzantine and medieval Russian Orthodoxy (Florovsky [1937]
1979 (I): 85).
While digressing from its patristic roots and gradually creating a spiri-
tual vacuum, the church was very suspicious, even hostile, to attempts to re-
vitalize Russian spirituality and did not hesitate to persecute movements that
challenged its dogmas (Pipes 1995: 243-245). Consistently, in the Petrine
church, hesychasm and the associated spirituality was suppressed. In 1724, a
Proclamation on Monasticism was issued, which proclaimed, amongst
others, the prohibition of hermitages and sketes. Under Catherine the Great,
new anti-monastic laws appeared, ordering the closure and further seculari-
zation of monasteries. The 18th century was thus a disastrous period for
Russian monasticism and spirituality.
3. The Revival of Nils Spirituality in 19th Century Religious Consciousness
In Dostoevskijs time, Nils type of spirituality revived in non-ecclesiastical
piety. At the end of the 18th century, hesychasm enjoyed a revival on Mount
Athos, which also gradually infused a movement of Russian religious revi-
valists who wanted to restore authentic Orthodox spirituality. Most instru-
192 Nel Grillaert
mental in the spiritual renaissance was the monk Paisij Velickovskij, who
was zealously devoted to reviving the Eastern Orthodox practice of hesy-
chasm and related theology in the Slavic world. Velickovskij gathered around
him a group of monks to translate the Philokalia, an anthology of patristic
writings that centre on hesychastic practice, into Slavonic (Dobrotoljubie). In
line with their efforts to translate and distribute the Philokalia and hesy-
chastic texts, Velickovskij and his disciples were also engaged in propagating
and re-introducing Nil Sorskijs ideas and works on hesychasm in Russia. In
1813, the first printed edition of Nils Ustav appeared, followed by other edi-
tions of his writings or of literature dealing with his ideas, very often pu-
blished in the Optina Pustyn monastery, which in the 19th century became
the centre of the revival of Russian hesychasm. The Optina monastery is
situated near the town of Kozelsk in the Kaluga province, about 200 kilo-
metres south of Moscow. In the monastery a skete was built, where hermits
could devote themselves in isolation to silent meditation and hesychastic
prayer. In the 19th century, the hermitage had three great elders, who were
eager to re-install hesychastic spirituality in Russian religious consciousness:
elder Leonid (1821-1841), elder Makarij (1841-1860) and elder Amvrosij
(1860-1891). These famous starcy were renowned for their high spiritual and
ascetic charisma and attracted hordes of monks and pilgrims, who had broken
away from the official church and were in search of a more spiritual faith.
The elders popularity and their saint-like status were a thorn in the side of
the church authorities, who made severe, but fruitless, attempts to discredit
them and stop the masses of pilgrims (Dunlop 1972: 33-38; Figes 2003: 292
Among the thousands attracted to the spiritual aura of Optinas elders
was also Dostoevskij, who in the summer of 1878 made a pilgrimage to the
hermitage together with his young friend Vladimir Solovev, hoping to find
solace for the sudden death of his son Alea. Dostoevskij and Solovev stayed
in the monastery only a couple of days, but in this short time Dostoevskij met
with the celebrated starec Amvrosij three times. The Optina hermitage, the
meetings with the starec, and the monastic customs left a profound and last-
ing impression on the writer.
It is very likely that during his stay in Optina,
Dostoevskij became acquainted with Nil Sorskijs ideas on hesychastic spi-
rituality and monasticism, which were revived in the monastery and per-
meated its monastic life.
In addition to the renewed attention to and dissemination of Nils
teachings in 19th-century Russian monastic circles, from the 1860s on, Rus-
sian secular writers, historians and philosophers also developed an interest in
Nils thought and started to investigate his legacy. Nil was especially popular
among Slavophile-minded intellectuals, who embraced him as their spiritual
predecessor: they drew a comparison between Nils resistance to submit to
the ecclesiastical and secular authorities and preaching of poverty, social
engagement and humility on the one hand, and their own efforts to eman-
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 193
cipate the peasants and their belief in Russian sobornost on the other hand
(Maloney 1973: 33-34). Through his intense contacts with Slavophile-minded
thinkers, Dostoevskij might also have become acquainted with the works and
thought of Nil.
Among the books listed in Dostoevskijs private library, there are
several publications from the Optina monastery, which were probably given
to him during his stay there (starec Amvrosij liked to provide special guests
with several copies from the Optina press, probably in the hope that they
would convey the unique Optina spirituality).
The writer owned, for ex-
ample, Istoriceskoe Opisanie Kozelskoj Vvedenskoj Optinoj pustyni (A
Historical Description of the Optina Pustyn monastery in Kozelsk, 1876),
which includes fragments from Paisij Velickovskijs itie and works, and
izneopisanie Optinskogo starca ieromonacha Leonida (v schime Lva) (The
Life of Elder Leonid, 1876), a spiritual biography (written by Kliment Zeder-
golm) of starec Leonid, the first of the 19th century elders of Optina Pustyn
who enjoyed great fame. Other Optina publications in his library are an an-
thology of Paisijs translation of the Philokalia, under the title Vostorgnutye
klasy v picu dui, to est neskolko perevodov iz svjatych Otcev Paisija Ve-
lickovskogo (Exalted ears of wheat to feed the soul: some translations from
the Holy Fathers by Paisij Velickovskij, 1849), writings by Symeon the New
Theologian, Marc the Ascetic, Anastasius of Sinai, and Isaac the Syrian.
In the catalogue of his library, which Dostoevskijs widow listed after
his death but is generally acknowledged to be incomplete, no work of Nil
Sorskij is recorded. However, according to N. Budanova, one of the editors
of the most recent reconstruction of Dostoevskijs personal library, it is very
likely that Dostoevskij owned a copy of an Optina publication of Nil and his
teachings, given to him during his stay at the monastery. Furthermore, she is
convinced that Dostoevskij was already acquainted with Nils writings even
before his visit to Optina, i.e. in the beginning of the 1870s, when he was
working on Besy (The Devils) and Podrostok (A Raw Youth).
claim is indeed evidenced by a reference to Nil Sorskij in Dostoevskijs pre-
paratory notes for Podrostok (1875). In between notes and drafts for the
novel, Dostoevskij jotted down a (slightly modified) phrase from Pauls Se-
cond Epistle to the Thessalonians: A kto ne chocet truditsja, pust tot i ne
est (If anyone will not work, neither let him eat; 2 Thessalonians 3: 10),
adding in brackets Nil Sorskij (PSS 16: 143).
Nil used Pauls quote in his
Predanie, where he insists on the necessity of manual labour in ascetic
discipline. Dostoevskij most probably copied this quote from an 1864 edition
of Nils work, i.e. Ustav ego o itelstve skitskom s priloeniem vsech drugich
pisanij ego, izvlecennych iz rukopisej (PSS 17: 411). Nils name appears
again in the notebooks for the Dnevnik pisatelja, in the beginning of 1876,
with reference to a recently published book on monastic landownership and
earnings. In a review of this book, Dostoevskij had read about the enormous
194 Nel Grillaert
profits the church made out of monastic properties; especially Nil Sorskijs
former monastery at the Sora river turned out to be a fruitful source of
finances. Dostoevskij was struck by the irony of the vicissitudes of Nils
teachings: the monastery at the Sora river, which was founded as a skete on
the principles of monastic poverty and strict asceticism, was now one of the
richest monasteries in Russia and a great source of income for the Russian
church (PSS 24: 157; 443). I will now show that in his hagiography of
Zosima, Dostoevskij attempted to revive and restore the spiritual teachings of
4. Echoes of Nil Sorskijs Theology and Spirituality in Zosimas Religious
4.1. The Hesychastic Subtext
Nils major contribution to Russian Orthodox spirituality is that he developed
for the first time in Russia a consistent theology of hesychasm, a Byzantine-
Orthodox tradition of prayer that has its roots in the early hermits of the
Desert and the patristic Fathers, and that Nil came to know on Mount Athos.
Hesychasm from the Greek hesychia (silence, tranquility) is an in-
ternalized and contemplative prayer method that is fundamentally steeped in
the apophatic tradition of the unknowable and incomprehensible God. The
theory and practice of hesychasm became fully established in the 14th cen-
tury by Gregory Palamas, a monk at Mount Athos who led the defence of the
hesychasts in the hesychast controversy in the 14th century and who became
the preeminent theologian of hesychasm.
While emphatically affirming the
unknowability of God, Gregory Palamas argues that apophatic theology does
not necessarily imply that God cannot be experienced at all: he distinguishes
between Gods essence (ousia), which is fundamentally unknowable, and
His divine energies (energeiai) that pervade creation. God has revealed
Himself to the world in His energies, through which humanity can again enter
in a unity with God. So, although it is impossible to know God in His es-
sence, it is possible to see and experience Him in His energies, through hesy-
chastic prayer.
Hesychasm thus proceeds from the ineffability of God and aims, via a
silent prayer of the heart, at quieting and purifying the spirit so that it can
witness the divine energies and prepare for the mystical union with God.
Hesychast activity is practiced in a context of silence and isolation. In order
to attain inward stillness, the hesychast repeats perpetually, first verbally,
then as though non-discursively, the monological Jesus prayer. By conti-
nuously, automatically and uninterruptedly invoking the Name of Christ and
repeating the words Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 195
sinner, the hesychast gradually casts off his rational mind and progressively
opens up to witness the divine energies (Ware 1997: 61-70). In his spiritual
prayer, the hesychast is guided by a spiritual elder, who has ascended the
mystical ladder towards the divine energies.
A form of hesychastic prayer was already practiced in the Kievo-Pe-
cerskaja Lavra in the 11th and 12th century and in the Troice-Sergieva Lavra
in the 14th century, but it was Nil Sorskij who made the first great efforts to
transfer and spread the practice and theology of hesychasm to Russian soil
and to develop it into a vital tradition in the Russian religious mind. Nils
hesychasm was mostly inspired by the early Fathers of the Desert, the
patristic Fathers and Gregory of Sinai.
As in the tradition he draws from, central to Nils hesychasm is the
Jesus prayer. He explicitly treats the Jesus prayer in the second chapter of the
Ustav, which is entitled: Concerning our battles against these temptations of
the mind, which are to be conquered by the remembrance of Gods presence
and the guarding of the heart, that is by prayer and interior silence (Sorsky
2003: 53). According to Nil, this inner prayer serves two purposes: first, it is
the best practice to empty ourselves from our worldly thoughts, make our
mind deaf and fight temptations. Second, it is the best method for inner
contemplation and the spiritual way to unite with God. Nil gives some rules
concerning the best place, time, posture and manner of saying the Jesus
prayer, which he mainly adopts from his favourite authors on hesychastic
practice, Evagrius Ponticus, Isaac the Syrian, Symeon the New Theologian
and Gregory of Sinai (Maloney 1973: 134-144). His main advice is: We
must continually silence our thoughts and look into the depths of our heart
and say, Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me (Sorsky 2003:
Although the elder Zosima does not literally use typical hesychastic
terminology, there are some undeniable references to and echoes of the
practice of hesychastic prayer throughout his teachings. There is an
undeniable hesychastic thread in his sermon on the Russian monk in book 6,
Necto ob inoke russkom i o vozmonom znacenii ego (Something con-
cerning the Russian monk and his possible significance, PSS 14: 284ff.).
Although not eschewing the question of the contemporary process of reli-
gious and moral degeneration in clerical and some monastic circles, Zosima
sets out to defend monasticism against its critics. He extols a particular group
of monks who preserve true religion and should be taken as models for the
spiritual rebirth of Russia:
A mexy rem, cxont mnoro n monamecrne cmnpenntx n xporxnx,
xaxymnx yennennx n nnamenno n rnmnne monnrnt. Ha cnx
mentme yxastnamr n axe oxoxr monuannem nonce, n cxont
nonnnnnct t, ecnn cxaxy, uro or cnx xporxnx n xaxymnx
196 Nel Grillaert
yennenno monnrnt nter moxer trt eme pas cnacenne semnn
pyccxo! Ho noncrnny npnroronnent n rnmnne na ent n uac, n
mecxn n ro. Opas Xpncron xpanxr noxa n yennennn cnoem
naronenno n nencxaxenno, n uncrore npant oxne, or
pennemnx ornon, anocronon n myuennxon, nexora nao yer,
xnxr ero noxoneanmecx npane mnpa. Cnx mtcnt nennxax. Or
nocroxa snesa cnx noccnxer. (284)
(Yet even so how many meek and humble ones there are in monkhood,
who yearn for solitude and ardent prayer in silence. They are less
noticed and are even passed over in silence, and how surprised would
men be if I told them that from these meek monks, who yearn for
secluded prayer may once again come the salvation of the Russian land!
For verily they are being prepared in silence for an hour, and a day,
and a month and a year. Meanwhile, in their solitude, they are
preserving the image of Christ in its magnificent and undistorted form,
in the purity of Gods truth, as it was handed down to them by the most
ancient fathers, apostles and martyrs, and when the need arrives they
will show that image to the wavering truth of the world. Great is this
thought. This star will shine in the east.)
Even though there is no explicit mention of the practice of the Jesus prayer,
there is a manifest hesychastic subtext in this discourse on the Russian monk,
which must have sounded familiar to 19th-century Russian religious readers.
First, Zosima repeatedly emphasizes the importance of silence for the reli-
gious authenticity and integrity of the Russian monks; silence seems to be a
prerequisite for the monks potentiality to revitalize Russian Christianity.
Second, Zosima insists on prayer in absolute isolation and seclusion from the
world as necessary conditions to preserve the purity of the monks. It is no
coincidence that both silence and seclusion are instrumental in the practice of
the Jesus prayer. The Jesus prayer is practiced in a context of silence: only by
reaching a mental state of hesychia (stillness, tranquillity), the hesychast can
open up towards the mystical union with God. Kallistos Ware explains the
function of silence as follows: the hesychast, the person who has attained
hesychia, inner stillness or silence, is par excellence the one who listens. He
listens to the voice of prayer in his own heart, and understands that this voice
is not his own but that of Another speaking within him (Ware 1986: 1). The
Jesus prayer, although a prayer in words (Lord Jesus Christ, son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner), eventually leads to inner silence: it enables the
hesychast to cancel out his human voice and to become perceptive to the
Divine mystery that is beyond all human speech. Nils main advice con-
cerning the practice of mental prayer is: we should endeavor to maintain our
mind in silence (quoted in Meyendorff 1974: 151).
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 197
Inner prayer should be practiced in a context of isolation and separation
from the world: inner stillness can only be achieved when the hesychast is
detached from the world and worldly matters, for all worldly thoughts are
considered as the devils temptations. Both hesychastic motifs of silence and
isolation recur in the same sermon on the Russian monk:
pyroe eno nyrt nnouecxn. Ha nocnymannem, nocrom n
monnrno axe cmemrcx, a mexy rem nnmt n nnx saxnmuaercx nyrt
x nacroxme, ncrnnno yxe cnooe: orcexam or cex norpenocrn
nnmnne n nenyxnte, camonmnnym n ropym nonm mom cmnpxm n
nuym nocnymannem, n ocrnram rem, c nomomnm oxte, cnoot
yxa, a c nem n necentx yxonnoro! Kro xe ns nnx cnoconee
nosnecrn nennxym mtcnt n norn e cnyxnrt, yennennt nn
orau nnn ce oceooo+oeuui or rnpancrna neme n npnntuex?
Hnoxa xopxr ero yennennem: Yennnncx rt, urot cex cnacrn n
monacrtpcxnx crenax, a parcxoe cnyxenne uenoneuecrny satn.
Ho nocmorpnm eme, xro onee paronmnm noycepcrnyer? Ho
yennenne ne y nac, a y nnx, no ne nnxr cero. A or nac n nspenne
exrenn naponte ntxonnn, oruero xe ne moxer nx trt n
renept? Te xe cmnpennte n xporxne nocrnnxn n monuantnnxn
noccranyr n noyr na nennxoe eno. (PSS 14: 285)
(The monastic path is a different matter. Obedience, fasting and prayer
are even the objects of laughter, yet it is only in them that the path to
true and genuine freedom is contained: I cut off from myself my
superfluous and unnecessary deeds, I humble and scourge my vain and
proud will with obedience and thereby attain, with Gods help, freedom
of spirit and together with it spiritual gaiety! Which of them is more
capable of raising aloft a great idea and of going to serve it, the isolated
rich man or this freed one, freed from the tyranny of objects and habits?
The monk is reproached for his solitariness: You have withdrawn into
solitariness in order to save yourself, living the life of a monk within
monastery walls, and you have forgotten the brotherly service of
mankind. But we shall see which of them will be more diligent in the
matter of brotherly love. For the solitariness is not ours, but theirs, only
they do not see it. And from our midst since olden days have come
leaders of the people, so why should they not exist now? The same
meek and humble fasters and vowers of silence will rise up and go to
accomplish the great task.)
While stressing the significance of both solitariness and silence for the
Russian monks, Zosima also insists on the kenotic renunciation of ones will.
This is another Sorskian motif to which I will return later. The starec ends his
speech by putting in a nutshell his basic philosophy concerning the Russian
monks: their duty is to raise the people in silence (V tiine vospitajte ego
198 Nel Grillaert
[narod]) in order to prepare them to receive Gods truth (285). Zosimas
emphasis on silence is decisively hesychastic: the hesychast lays down
human language and withdraws in silence to become perceptive to the voice
of God that is beyond all human understanding and reveals itself in silence.
In addition to the hesychastic motifs of silence and isolation, Zosimas
discourse on prayer contains other references to the practice of the Jesus
prayer. In his sermon O molitve, o ljubvi i o soprikosnovenii miram inym
(Concerning prayer, love and the contiguity with other worlds), the elder
gives the following advice:
Rnoma, ne satna monnrnt. Kaxt pas n monnrne rnoe, ecnn
ncxpenna, mentxner nonoe uyncrno, a n nem n nonax mtcnt, xoropym
rt npexe ne snan, n xoropax nnont oopnr rex; n nomemt, uro
monnrna ecrt nocnnranne. 3anomnn eme: na xaxt ent, n xora
nnmt moxemt, rnepn npo cex! Iocnon, nomnny ncex nect
npe room npecranmnx. (288-289)
(Young one, do not forget prayer. Each time in your prayer, if it be
sincere, a new emotion will make itself fleetingly glimpsed, and in it a
new thought with which you were previously unfamiliar and which will
give you courage again; and you will realize that prayer is an education.
Remember also: each day and whenever you are able, say to yourself
over and over again: O Lord, have mercy on all those who have
appeared before you this day.)
Although Zosima does not literally recite the words Lord, Jesus Christ, son
of God, have mercy on me, there are unambiguous echoes of the Jesus
prayer in these lines. The elder stresses the need for repetitive and incessant
prayer, which is instrumental in hesychastic practice: in order to attain inward
stillness, the hesychast invokes perpetually and uninterruptedly the Name of
Christ. It seems like a paradox, but unceasing prayer generates silence: You
yourself must be silent, let the prayer speak, more precisely, let God speak.
True inner prayer is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God
within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the
action of God (Ware 1986: 2). The almost mechanical and rhythmical
repetition of the name of Jesus leads the hesychast away from the material
world and brings him into a state of contemplation and utter concentration
towards the divine. Pray an oral prayer without ceasing, writes Nil, because
this is the only way to calm the mind from worldly thoughts and open up to
the Divine truth (Sorsky 2003: 56).
Furthermore, Zosimas short prayer O Lord, have mercy on all those
who have appeared before you this day (Gospodi, pomiluj vsech dnes pred
toboju predstavich) appears as a revised, more universal version of the
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 199
original Jesus prayer Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a
sinner (Gospodi, Iisuse Christe, Syne Boij, pomiluj menja, grenogo).
4.2. The Kenotic Ideal
In his writings, Nil wants to convey a monastic ideal, which is wholly centred
upon realizing the mystical union with God. A first prerequisite to engage on
the path to spiritual perfection and union with God is the kenotic renunciation
of ones own individual will and obedient acceptance and following of the
Divine will. The hesychast must divest himself of his own will and follow
only the will of God: the greatest danger to perfection is to follow ones own
will, that will which inclines so to the things of the flesh and imprudent
judgements (quoted in Maloney 1973: 54).
The kenotic ideal of humility and self-renunciation likewise permeates
Zosimas personality and teachings. His comforting counsel to the woman
grieving over the death of her little son Aleksej (note the reminiscence to
Dostoevskijs deceased boy Alea and to the protagonist of the novel) is to
accept humbly and unquestioningly the death of her beloved boy in the strong
belief that he is now one of Gods angels (PSS 14: 46). In a similar spirit, the
elder instructs his favourite disciple Alea in a gentle, but firm tone that he
has to leave the monastery and go into the world, how reluctant and unwilling
he may be, because that is the place where God commands him to be. Alea
obediently sets aside his desire to stay in the peaceful and secure monastic
environment and goes into the world to fulfil the role God called him for. In
his sermons, Zosima utters his hopes concerning the future of Russia: he be-
lieves that God will save Russia, in spite of its current crisis in religious
consciousness, because Russia is great in its humility (spaset bog ljudej
svoich, ibo velika Rossija smireniem svoim; 286). Humility, or smirenie,
which not coincidentally also means kenosis in Russian, is the hallmark of
Russian religious identity: in their humility and acceptance of suffering, the
Russian people bear and live by the image of the suffering Christ, who died
for the sins of all mankind and was reunited with God. Zosima several times
emphasizes the importance of humility for the regeneration of Russias
spiritual consciousness and Russian Christianity. In fact, his whole moral
message that everyone is guilty before everyone and everyone is responsible
for everyones sins is decisively kenotic in its fundaments:
Ono ryr cnacenne cee: nostmn cex n cena cex xe ornerunxom
sa nect rpex nmcxo. pyr, a net +ro n nnpany rax, no uyrt
rontxo cenaemt cex sa nce n sa ncex ornerunxom ncxpenno, ro
roruac xe ynnnmt, uro ono rax n ecrt n camom ene n uro rt-ro n
ecrt sa ncex n sa ncx nnnonar. (290)
200 Nel Grillaert
(There is only one means of salvation: take yourself and make yourself
responsible for all mens sins. Friend, this is indeed truly so, for no
sooner do you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and
for all men, then you will immediately see that it is so in reality and that
you are guilty for everyone and for everything.)
The only path to salvation is to imitate the kenotic Christ and to take others
sins upon us. Christ died on the cross for the sins of humanity; in like
manner, in order to attain redemption, we should all suffer for the sins of the
whole of humanity. Zosima advocates a world view that accepts, even em-
braces, the sinfulness of human nature, instead of discarding it as a scapegoat
for all the evil in the world: Bratja, ne bojtes grecha ljudej, ljubite celoveka
i vo greche ego, ibo sie u podobie boeskoj ljubvi i est verch ljubvi na
zemle (Brothers, do not be afraid of human sin, love man in his sin, also,
for this likeness of Divine Love is indeed the summit of love upon earth;
289). The elders positive emphasis on sins echoes the hesychastic teaching
on the need of the hesychasts developing the gift of penthos, i.e. a state of
constant repentance and sorrow for ones sins. Penthos keeps the hesychast
aware of his sinful nature and thus functions as a constant caution not to give
in to worldly temptations. Moreover, it continuously reminds the hesychast of
Gods all-embracing mercy and grace.
4.3. The Key Role of the Divine Writings
In light of the kenotic ideal, that is to relinquish our own will and to follow
the will of God, it is imperative, teaches Nil, to read and study the Divine
Writings, which carry the Word of God as handed over by Christ: The
greatest danger to perfection is to follow ones own will [] Act rather
according to Holy Writings (Letter to Starec German, quoted in Maloney
1973: 54). Although God is essentially unknowable and ungraspable in hu-
man language, His Word is present in Scripture. The Holy Writings are
guides to spiritual perfection and the anticipated union with God, they are the
sources for understanding Gods will and function as a manual to act ac-
cording to His will. Under the term Divine Writings, Nil not only refers to
the Bible, but also includes the writings of the Church Fathers: I always
sought out the Divine Writings, above all, the laws of God and their
explanation of them by the Fathers, and the Apostolic traditions, then the
lives and teachings of the Holy Fathers [] Observe the commands of the
Word and the traditions of the Holy Fathers (Letter to Starec German,
quoted in Maloney 1973: 55). For Nil, the Divine Writings contain the only
way to spiritual salvation: it is God speaking and the Holy Fathers inter-
preting the Word of God for humanity.
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 201
In his sermons in book 6, the elder Zosima puts an equal emphasis on
and exhaustively speaks about the Divine Writings. In a separate section in
the beginning of his sermons, entitled O svjacennom pisanii v izni otca
Zosimy (On Holy Scripture in the life of father Zosima), the elder re-
counts his own experience of Holy Scripture. He relates that he has warm
memories of his copy of the Bible in his childhood, in which he eagerly and
repeatedly immersed himself. He learned to read from a childrens version of
the Bible, Sto cetyre svjacennye istorii Vetchogo i Novogo zaveta (A
Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testament), which he keeps
as a relic until now (PSS 14: 264).
But even before he learned to read, the
Bible had a decisive and moving impact on him. The elder vividly recounts
how his mother took him to church for the Monday liturgy during Holy
Week, where for the first time he heard the Book of Job being read out loud.
This reading from Scripture opened up his soul in which he consciously
accepted the first seed of Gods word in his soul (I v pervyj raz ot rodu
prinjal ja togda v duu pervoe semja slova boija osmyslenno; PSS 14: 264).
For Zosima in analogy with Nil Holy Scripture reveals the hidden word
of God and explains the mysteries of His world, thereby enlightening Gods
will and law for humanity:
Iocnon, uro +ro sa xnnra n xaxne ypoxn! uro sa xnnra +ro cnx-
mennoe nncanne, xaxoe uyo n xaxax cnna annte c nem uenonexy!
Touno nsnaxnne mnpa n uenonexa n xapaxrepon uenoneuecxnx, n
nasnano nce n yxasano na nexn nexon. H cxontxo ran paspemenntx
n orxponenntx. (265).
(Lord, what a book this is, and what lessons there are in it! What a book
is Holy Scripture, what a miracle and what a strength is given to man
with it! Like a sculpture composed of the world, of man and human
characters, and it has all been named and explained for the ages, ever
more. And how many mysteries are resolved and revealed!)
Much to his regret, Zosima observes in recent times a resistance, or un-
willingness, among clergymen to teach and explain Scripture to the people.
With a subtle tinge of irony, he describes the frequent and almost fashionable
complaints of priests that their poor material circumstances and miserable
income obstruct them in the fulfilment of their spiritual duties. Zosima insists
that, no matter how low his wage, the priest should at least find an hour in the
week to read the Bible to his flock, especially to the children, because that is
the most basic and essential form of religious education:
Coepn on y cex pas n neenm, n neuepnn uac, cnauana nnmt
rontxo xort erox, npocntmar ornt n ornt npnxonrt naunyr. a
n ne xopomt xe crponrt nx cero ena, a npocro x cee n nsy
202 Nel Grillaert
npnmn; ne crpamnct, ne nsraxr onn rnom nsy, net ncero-ro na
uac onn conpaemt. Pasnepnn-xa on nm +ry xnnry n naunn unrart
es npemyptx cnon n es unancrna, es nosnomennx na nnmn, a
ymnnenno n xporxo, cam payxct romy, uro unraemt nm n uro onn
rex cnymamr n nonnmamr rex, cam nmx cnoneca cnn, nspexa
nnmt ocranonnct n pacronxy nnoe nenonxrnoe npocronmnny
cnono, ne ecnoxocx, nomyr nce, nce nomer npanocnannoe
cepne! (266)
(Were he [the priest N.G]. to assemble in his home once a week, at
the evening hour, at first only the little children their fathers would
come to hear of it, and the fathers too would start to arrive. And it
would not be necessary to build a mansion for this undertaking, but
merely to receive some guests in ones izba [] open this book before
them and begin to read without long words and without self-conceit, not
putting yourself above them, but tenderly and gently, yourself taking
delight in what you read to them and so that they listen to you and
understand you, who love those words yourself, stopping only
occasionally in order to explain some word incomprehensible to the
common folk; do not worry, they will understand it all, the Orthodox
heart will understand it all!)
The elder advises to read those biblical passages that are the most affecting,
moving and close to the peasants social environment: he lists, amongst
others, the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Joseph
who was sold into slavery by his own brothers, of the beautiful Esther and the
arrogant Vashti, of Jonah and the whale, the parables of the Lord (especially
in the Gospel of Luke) and the conversion of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.
He includes other religious texts such as the Lives of the Saints, for instance
the Life of Aleksej the Man of God or that of Mary of Egypt. These simple
tales, full of meaning, will enlighten and instruct the people and guide them
towards spiritual regeneration. It is imperative that the priests take upon
themselves to read Scripture with their flock, because ruin awaits the people
without the word of God, for their soul thirsts for His word and every
beautiful perception (gibel narodu bez slova boija, ibo adet dua ego
slova i vsjakogo prekrasnogo vosprijatija; 267).
4.4. A Spirit of Freedom and Independence from Ecclesiastical Hierarchy
A distinctive feature of Nils monastic teachings which differentiates him
from both his contemporary and future ideologues of the Russian church is
his strong emphasis on self-development and critical attitude towards im-
posed forms of religious experience. He takes as a basic premise the
individuality and spiritual freedom of each monk and establishes a monastic
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 203
rule that warrants primarily the principles of self-development, self-study and
self-realization and rules out any forms of coercion. For him, the only right
form of monasticism is one in which the monks individuality is secured and
respected. Each monk should, with the guidance of a starec, direct his
intellect in a deliberate and self-willed process towards the Divine Writings,
consciously understand and assimilate them until he is fully convinced of
their meaning, and only then put them into practice. The path to spiritual
perfection can only be walked when it is deliberately chosen. It does not
consist of an imposed and routine performance of external practices. In line
with the ancient Eastern asceticism of the Desert Fathers, Nil places at the
centre of monastic life the individual personality of the monk whereby the
external rituals are cut down to a minimum and only have meaning when they
support or contribute to the monks interior contemplation and hesychastic
practice. Perfection for Nil consists in the individual spiritual path towards
God, and not in a mere performance of external practices (Maloney 1973:
Nil gives preference to the skete type of monasticism wherein the
monks live in individual cells grouped around a church or chapel and are
completely devoted to silent contemplation and hesychastic prayer, under the
guidance of a spiritual elder. For him, monastic obedience is of secondary
importance: the monk should first of all direct himself towards and live by
the Divine Writings, which reveal Gods will, and to that purpose live under
the obedience to a starec, who has ascended the spiritual ladder towards
understanding the Divine Writings. He advises the monks to bind yourself to
the Divine Writings and to the elder, rather than to a fixed monastic rule
(150). In order to empty themselves of worldly thoughts and attain the state
of hesychia, Nil advises the monks to engage not in pleasant and common
friendly conversations as worldly men do who busy themselves with absurd
cares, such as various monastic customs, riches, possessions (Letter to Gu-
rij; 116). Aiming to set up a profoundly spiritual and contemplative monastic
type, Nil teaches a complete renunciation of the world and rejects the external
formalism that exists in the Russian monasteries. He develops a monastic
model in which obedience to outward ritualism, which he sees as distracting
the monks from their inner prayer, is banned to the second plane.
Nil drew up a new monastic rule that broke with traditional patterns of
monastic life. In fact, his directives on monasticism, which are very few and
are scattered throughout his writings, cannot be considered a detailed and
methodical monastic rule as such. Each monk is free to arrange his time in
prayer and work, the fixed times for liturgical services are reduced to a
minimum, so that the monks can spend a maximum amount of their time to
inner contemplation. The chief aim of monastic life is not a strict obedience
to an external routine of rituals and liturgical practices, but to arrange an
environment in which the monk can settle in his contemplative solitude and
204 Nel Grillaert
immerse himself in hesychastic prayer (149-155). Nil also rejected any form
of hierarchy in monastic life: there are no superiors among the monks, but all
are brothers. In his Predanie he writes: I call you brothers instead of
disciples. We have but one teacher, Our Lord Jesus Christ (154).
A similar, untraditional view of monasticism emerges from Bratja Ka-
ramazovy: Dostoevskij offers a portrait of the elder Zosima and a description
of monastic life that, from an ecclesiastical point of view, can be considered
unusual and even unorthodox. In accordance with Nils teaching that a
routine observance of liturgical rules is of less importance than the individual
practice of silent contemplation and inner prayer, the monastic idea conveyed
by Zosima is for the most part aloof from ecclesiastical practices and is
deeply penetrated by a spirit of freedom. It has been noted by other scholars
that Dostoevskijs primary spokesman on monastic spirituality shows many
divergences from the mould of ecclesiastical Orthodoxy. The most con-
spicuous deviation is that the traditional teachings and practices of the
church, its liturgy, rituals and sacraments play a very small role in Zosimas
discourse (and in the whole novel, for that matter). Sergei Hackel observes
that in general, and certainly in respect of the devotional practices advocated
by him [Zosima N.G.], the church is not involved, recollected or (ap-
parently) required. Nor do the discourses, which might be expected to contain
the essence of Zosimas teachings, refer to sacraments or services, the normal
manifestations of Orthodox church life (Hackel 1983: 149). There are some
rare references to the church, but these are in the margins of Zosimas
discourse, as if to open up a religious orbit at the centre of which is a spiritual
consciousness that goes beyond the ecclesiastical realm. As mentioned above,
the elder does frame, in the beginning of his itie, his first religious ex-
perience in an ecclesiastical setting: his mother took him to church during
Holy Week, where he consciously accepted for the first time the first seed of
Gods word in his soul (PSS 14: 264). However, as Malcolm Jones aptly
observes, Zosimas spiritual experience in church authorizes minimal reli-
gion rather than supporting the authority of the church: it too is associated
not with the theological tradition of Orthodoxy but rather with the sensual
character of the liturgy, a combination of natural light and ecclesiastical
architecture and a sudden insight into the religious significance of a Biblical
story (Jones 2005: 125). When looking back on this spiritual moment, the
elder remembers how the incense rose from the censer, how rays of the sun
poured down in the church through a window in the cupola and especially the
reading of the Book of Job (PSS 14: 264). Ecclesiastical customs are hardly
mentioned here.
In a similar manner, the church is notably absent when Zosima speaks
about the first stimuli for and the process of his becoming a monk. In retro-
spect, the first seeds of his spiritual path were planted already in childhood by
his brother Markel. The seventeen-year-old Markel, a consumptive free-
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 205
thinker who refuses to observe the liturgy and sacraments of the church,
undergoes a spiritual conversion when facing his impending death. The silent
and gloomy teenager thrives in conveying a whole new message of active
love and mutual responsibility that owes more to nature mysticism than to
dogmatic theology. He eventually found God not in the church, but in the
whole of nature, and only attends church services to give in to his mothers
wish (PSS 14: 261).
When looking back on his conversion to monasticism, Zosima is
conspicuously mute about any possible role of the church in his spiritual
evolution, but instead recalls the life and words of his deceased brother and
emphasizes his influence:
H norom, npoxox xnsnt mom, yenncx x nocrenenno, uro tn +ror
par mo n cyte moe xax t yxasannem n npenasnauennem
cntme, no ne xnnct on n xnsnn moe, ne yt ero nonce, n
nnxora-ro, moxer trt, x rax mtcnm, ne npnnxn t x nnouecxoro
cana n ne ncrynnn na paronennt nyrt ce. (259)
(And later, as I lived my life, I gradually attained the conviction that
this brother of mine had been in my destiny a kind of indication and
preordination from above, for had he not appeared in my life, had he
not existed at all, never, perhaps, I think now, would I have taken
monastic orders or entered upon this precious path.)
Markels deep and lasting impression on the elder resounds in the latters
teachings, which too are permeated with a strong spirit of nature mysticism,
rather than being associated with the traditional doctrines of the church:
Hmnre nce cosanne oxne, n nenoe n xaxym necunnxy. Kaxt
nncrnx, xaxt nyu oxn nmnre. Hmnre xnnorntx, nmnre
pacrennx, nmnre ncxxym nemt. Fyemt nmnrt ncxxym nemt n
rany oxnm nocrnrnemt n nemax. (PSS 14: 289)
(Love the whole of Gods creation, both the whole and each grain of
sand. Each leaf, each sunbeam of God, love it. Love the animals, love
the plants, love each object. If you love each object you will also
perceive the mystery of God that is in things.)
Another key moment in Zosimas process of becoming a monk is, notably,
his beating of his servant Afanasij, an act that overturns readers expectations
with regard to hagiographical discourse. After violently lashing out at Afa-
nasij in uncontrolled anger the servant is not responsible for, Zosima
suddenly remembers Markels message of active love and moral responsibi-
lity for each other. Painfully conscious of his guilt before Afanasij, he under-
goes a moral and spiritual transformation and shows repentance for all his
206 Nel Grillaert
former acts of misbehaviour and inflicting suffering upon others. In that
moment, Zosima consciously decides to swear off his former secular life, he
resigns from military service and is determined to enter monastic life. In this
crucial passage in Zosimas itie, the church is not once referred to. Instead,
Zosima speaks obviously reproducing Markels words about mutual love,
responsibility for each other and the idea of paradise as an earthly prospect,
in a discourse that is permeated with a deep sense of nature mysticism.
Not only the doctrines and practices of the church, but, even more re-
markably, traditional monastic discipline is almost absent in the elders
personality and teachings. According to his title ieroschimonach (i.e. a priest
who has taken the vows of celibacy and wears the robes of monks), Zosima is
a priest (260; 295), but there is no indication that he participates in any
monastic service. Whereas the importance of monastic discipline and sub-
mission to monastic rules is toned down, emphasis is put like in Nils teach-
ings on strict obedience to the starec, a hesychastic motif that is strongly
related to kenoticism. As mentioned above, Alea, who is very reluctant to
leave the monastery, obeys the wish of his elder and goes into the world. In
the chapter Starcy (Elders) in the beginning of the novel, obedience to
the elder is highlighted as essential to starcestvo:
Hrax, uro xe raxoe crapen? Crapen +ro epymn namy ymy, namy
nonm n cnom ymy n n cnom nonm. Hspan crapna, nt or cnoe nonn
orpemaerect n oraere ee emy n nonnoe nocnymanne, c nonntm
camoorpemennem. (26)
(So then, what is an elder? An elder is someone who takes your soul
and your will into his soul and his will. Having chosen an elder, you
give up your own will and render it unto him in full obedience, with full
Conspicuously, a forceful distinction is made between the obligations to an
elder and the ordinary monastic vows of obedience:
Oxsannocrn x crapny ne ro uro otxnonennoe nocnymanne,
ncera tnmee n n namnx pyccxnx monacrtpxx. Tyr npnsnaercx
neunax ncnonet ncex nonnsammnxcx crapny n nepaspymnmax
cnxst mexy cnxsanmnm n cnxsanntm. (26)
(Ones obligations to an elder are of an order different from those
associated with the ordinary vows of obedience which there have
always been in our Russian monasteries. Here it is a question of the
perpetual confession of all who are working under the elder, and of an
indissoluble link between binder and bound.)
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 207
Two historical legends are related to underscore the unbreakable bond
between elder and disciple, in which the ecclesiastical authorities have no
power or control. In the early days of Christianity, there was a novice who
had failed to fulfil the commands of his elder, left his monastery in Syria and
went to Egypt, where he performed many great and heroic deeds in the name
of faith and died a martyrs death. The church regarded him as a saint and
wanted to bury him with the ritual grandeur worthy of a saint, but during the
ceremony his coffin was three times cast from the church. Only then they
heard that the man had broken his obedience to his elder, and that he could
only receive a proper funeral when his elder absolved and forgave him. The
other legend is a more recent one (and seems to anticipate Aleas self-
sacrifice in obedience to Zosima): a monk was ordered by his elder to leave
Athos, which he loved as a sacred place and a haven of refuge, and to travel
to Jerusalem first and then to northern Siberia, because, the elder said, there
is his place, and not on Mount Athos. Unwilling to leave Athos, the crushed
monk went to the Oecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople and implored him
to release him from his obedience to his elder. But the Patriarch replied that
not only was he, the Patriarch himself, unable to release him, but that there
existed no human or power on earth which could release him from the com-
mands of his elder, except the elder himself. The narrator concludes that ta-
kim obrazom starcestvo odareno vlastju v izvestnych slucajach bespredel-
noju i nepostiimoju. Vot pocemu vo mnogich monastyrjach starcestvo u nas
snacala vstreceno bylo pocti goneniem (in such manner is the elderhood in
certain cases invested with a limitless and inscrutable power. That is why in a
large number of our Russian monasteries elderhood was initially met with
what almost amounted to persecution; 27). In the tradition of Nil Sorskij, the
starec is represented as an inviolable spiritual authority, who exceeds eccle-
siastical power and stands aloof from church hierarchy and practices.
4.5. A Theology of Tears
Drawing from the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus and Isaac the Syrian, Nil
Sorskij developed a theology of tears. He values tears as a gift of God,
thereby identifying them as a supernatural and spiritual phenomenon, en-
dowed to humanity by the grace of God. Weeping plays a major role in the
monks mental prayer: first, tears bring the monk in a state of emotional
rapture, thereby releasing the mind from its purely rational activities and
opening it up to its spiritual workings. Second, tears make the monk aware
that this life is inherently sinful and consequently filled with grief. Weeping
reminds humanity of its sorrowful condition of original sin and the broken
communion with God and stimulates to repent and re-establish the union with
God. We must weep for our sins in order to be forgiven and redeemed. Nil
208 Nel Grillaert
believes that tears still the passions and deliver men from sins: for one,
wishing to be delivered from sins, is delivered from them by weeping and
one, wishing to keep the self from sin, is kept so by weeping (quoted in
Maloney 1973: 128). Tears purify the soul from sin and protect it against the
temptations from evil. Though tears are a gift of God, the individual must
consciously prepare himself to receive this gift by inner prayer and
meditation: Above all, pray for the gift of tears, is Nils advice, and con-
tinue to meditate in this fore-said manner and if God should give us the grace
of tears, we must not restrain ourselves, but weep as much as possible, ac-
cording to our strength and power, for the Fathers have taught that such
weeping delivers us from the eternal fire and other impending torments
(Sorsky 2003: 98). Tears enlighten the mind and give the one who has
prepared himself a deeper knowledge of God, they open up the road towards
spiritual union with God.
Such a cultivation of tears also permeates Zosimas discourse.
elder repeatedly mentions his shedding of tears when reading Holy Scripture
and, in a similar spirit, advises the priests to weep when reading from the
Bible and instructing it to the peasants because their tears, together with the
words from Holy Scripture, will affect and open up the hearts of his listeners
(PSS 14: 266). His spiritual transformation, instigated by his beating of his
servant Afanasij, is accompanied by shedding of tears (270-271). When the
mysterious visitor has confessed his murder to Zosima, the elder prays in
tears before the icon of the Mother of God (279-280). In the same passage in
which the elder eulogizes Russia and the Russian people for its innate
capacity for humility (see above), he praises its special gift of tears: both
smirenie and tears bring the Russian people closer to God and will eventually
redeem Russia: No spaset bog Rossiju [] Tak cto neustanno ece veruet
narod na v pravdu, boga priznaet, umilitelno placet (But God will save
Russia [] so tirelessly still does our people believe in the truth, recognizing
God and weeping in tender piety; 286). The gifts of humility and tears are
also combined in Zosimas following words, which sound as a reworking of
the epigraph to the novel, taken from the Gospel of John (John, 12: 24):
A ecnn yxe ne moxemt ronopnrt c osnonenntmn, ro cnyxn nm
monua n n ynnunxennn, nnxora ne repxx naext. Ecnn xe nce
ocranxr rex n yxe nsronxr rex cnno, ro, ocranmnct onn, nan na
semnm n neny ee, omoun ee cnesamn rnonmn, n acr nno or cnes
rnonx semnx, xorx t n ne nnan n ne cntxan rex nnxro n
yennennn rnoem. (PSS 14: 291)
(And if you cannot speak to the malicious people, then serve them
silently and in humility, without ever losing hope. If all forsake you and
even drive you away with force, then, remaining alone, fall to the earth
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 209
and kiss her, moisten it with your tears, and the earth will bear fruit of
your tears, even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude).
Zosima here blends the cult of tears with a religious practice that has no
strong roots in ecclesiastical Orthodoxy, i.e. the kissing and veneration of the
earth, which is adopted from the tradition of dvoeverie (dual faith) in
Furthermore, there is the hesychastic motif of solitude and isolation
as the prerequisite to practice hesychastic prayer and open yourself up to
God. Zosima repeats the same combination of tears, kissing the earth and
solitary prayer only a page further:
B yennennn xe ocranaxct, monnct. Hmn noneprartcx na semnm n
notsart ee. 3emnm neny n neycranno, nenactrnmo nmn, ncex
nmn, nce nmn, nmn nocropra, n nccrynnennx cero. Omoun semnm
cnesamn paocrn rnoex n nmn cnn cnest rnon. Hccrynnennx xe
cero ne crtnct, opoxn nm, no ecrt ap oxn, nennxn, a n ne
mnornm aercx, a nspanntm. (292)
(And remaining in solitariness, pray. Love to bow down to the earth and
kiss her. Kiss the earth and untiringly, insatiably, love, love all
creatures, love all things, seek this ecstasy and this frenzy. Moisten the
earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears of yours. As for this
frenzy, be not ashamed of it, cherish it, for it is the gift of God, a great
gift that is vouchsafed not to many, but to the chosen.)
4.6. The Recollection of Death
Besides tears, another effective weapon in the battle against sins and the
overcoming of temptations, is, according to Nil Sorskij, the recollection of
death. We must keep the remembrance of death always before us, because the
thought of death and last judgement prevents us from giving in to our
passions and committing sins. Drawing from John Climacus, Nil writes:
Remember your last day and you would never sin (Sorsky 2003: 90). In
order to keep death always present in our thoughts, it helps, teaches Nil, to
recall various shocking types of deaths, which we might have witnessed or
have heard of. By bringing to mind the terrifying and sometimes very sudden
deaths of others, we are confronted with the fact that our own life may be
broken off very unexpectedly, which intensifies our fear of death and triggers
us to fight our sins every day: We must keep ever in our mind what we
should be concentrating on if we in this given day were not to live to its end
(90). Keeping the thought of death always in our mind is very significant in
attaining moral perfection, for it reminds us constantly to live according to
the Will of God and to be prepared for the moment in which we face Last
210 Nel Grillaert
Judgement. Nil also stresses that everyone faces the same death, for the social
and economical hierarchy in this world does no longer exist after death. Nil
does not veil the effects of our bodily decomposition after death, he describes
it in very naturalistic terms, a strategy that also serves to increase our fear of
death and strengthen our efforts to combat evil thoughts:
Let us look into the grave and what do we see? We see our created
beauty, now without form, without glory, nothing good remaining.
Seeing our bones, do we know to whom they belonged? Was he a king,
a beggar, honourable, or without honour? All that the world considers
beautiful, powerful, turns again into nothingness as a beautiful flower
fades and dies, as a shadow passes by. Thus all mankind must pass
away. (93)
If put in this perspective, the unforeseen rotting of Zosimas body receives
meaning. While his supporters in the monastery expect that after his death the
elders body will be miraculously preserved and that this will prove his
saintly status, it soon becomes clear during the vigil that his body is subject to
the natural laws of decomposition. The monks and the pilgrims in the
monastery can no longer ignore the putrid smell it is summer emerging
from the body. One motive for Dostoevskij to let the elders body decompose
is to provide a setting in which he can depict the controversy surrounding the
elder within the monastery: the rotting of Zosimas body is received with
mocking glee by the opponents of the starec. A real scandal breaks out at the
coffin of the deceased, which reveals the latent hostility towards the institu-
tion of starcestvo among some monks:
uro o menx nnuno, ro nonaram, uro ryr ononpemenno comnoct n
mnoro pyroro, mnoro pasntx npnunn saono nonnnxnmnx. Hs
raxontx, nanpnmep, tna axe camax +ra saxopenenax npaxa x
crapuecrny, xax x snonpenomy nonmecrny, rnyoxo rannmaxcx n
monacrtpe n ymax eme mnornx nnoxon. A norom, xoneuno, n
rnannoe, tna sanncrt x cnxrocrn yconmero, cront cnntno
ycranonnnmecx npn xnsnn ero, uro n nospaxart xax yro tno
nocnpemeno. Ho xorx noxont crapen n npnnnex x cee mnornx, n
ne crontxo uyecamn, cxontxo nmontm, n nosnnr xpyrom cex xax
t nent mnp ero nmxmnx, rem ne menee, n axe rem onee, cnm
xe camtm noponn x cee n sanncrnnxon, a ncne sarem n
oxecrouenntx nparon, n xnntx, n rantx, n ne rontxo mexy
monacrtpcxnmn, no axe n mexy cnercxnmn. (PSS 14: 299)
(As for my own personal opinion, I believe that here much else was at
work, a simultaneous conflux of many different causes exerting their
influence at the same time. One of these, for example, was even that
same old ingrained hostility to the elderhood as being a harmful
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 211
innovation, a hostility still deeply rooted in the minds of many brethren
in the cloister. And then, of course, principally, there was a sense of
envy for the sleepers holiness so powerfully established in his lifetime
that even to contest it seemed forbidden. For although the departed
elder had drawn many to his side, and not so much by miracles as by
love, and had erected around him almost an entire world of those who
loved him, he had nevertheless and even perhaps because of this
brought into being those who envied him, and in the time that followed
also bitter enemies, both open and concealed, and not among the
monastics only, but even among the secular.)
In addition, another purpose for describing the elders rotting corpse and the
monks reaction to it so meticulously might have been to blend in the
Sorskian imperative to keep the thought of death always before us. Although
tradition prescribes that the body of a saint should not decompose and that in
most cases rays and a nice fragrance emerge from the coffin (299), the author
consciously chose not to mythologize Zosimas death, but instead to describe
it in very naturalistic, almost profane terms, as if to remind the reader that
death is not a beautiful, but a dreadful phenomenon. Also, in accordance with
Nils teaching, Zosimas rotting corpse might be taken as epitomizing that in
the face of death, all humans are equal and the earthly hierarchy has become
5. Conclusion
Fedor Dostoevskij was of course no dogmatic theologian, but religion oc-
cupied a significant place in his works and thought, whereby he was not so
much interested in strict theological questions or discussions, but rather in the
spiritual ethos surrounding them. In his own account, he was troubled by the
paralysed state of the Russian church and thus tried, as I see it, to sow in his
fictional works the seeds for a recovery, or regeneration, of Russian Or-
thodoxy. In this paper, I attempted to show that in his hagiography of the
elder Zosima, whom he intended as a prototype of the pure, ideal Christian,
Dostoevskij subtly infused and recreated echoes of a religious consciousness
that thrived in the periphery of the Russian church and that he wanted to
bring back into the orbit of Russian Christianity. In particular, in Zosima he
brought to life the unique spirituality of Nil Sorskij and as such familiarized
his readers with a tradition that is deep-seated in Russian spirituality.
212 Nel Grillaert
Dr. Nel Grillaert is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, associated to the Faculty
of Arts and Philosophy at Ghent University, Belgium. Her research is
financed by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO).
All quotes from and references to Dostoevskijs works in this article are from
the Polnoe sobranie socinenij v tridcati tomach (Dostoevskij 1972-1990),
cited as PSS, followed by the volume and page number. For translations of
The Brothers Karamazov, I used Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Kara-
mazov (Dostoevsky 2003). I made some slight changes in the translations
where I found them appropriate. Other translations are mine.
No vanoe dlja menja v tom, cto etu buducuju, 6-ju knigu ja scitaju kul-
minacionnoj tockoj romana.
In the very recent Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (2008), Rowan
Williams aptly demonstrates that The Russian monk, although obviously
intended to reflect some of Dostoevskys most passionately held beliefs, is
as marked by internal dialogue as the other parts of the novel. We must not
forget, Williams emphasizes, that book 6 is also a story, i.e. the story of
Zosima, inserted in the novel as a manuscript written by Alea and thus part
of the whole polyphonic design of the novel. As such, Zosimas dossier is
actually a text that reinforces the direction of the novel overall, allowing a
major theological and moral theme to be narratively introduced, tested and
refined and fed back into the mainstream of the story (Williams 2008: 158-
159; 164).
In a letter to Pobedonoscev, written only two days later, Dostoevskij con-
fessed: du rugatelstv ot kritikov [] Ja pisal etu knigu dlja nemnogich (I
await curses from the critics [] I wrote this book [the sixth, NG] for the
few; PSS 30, I: 105).
Anthony Bloom of London (1914-2003) was Metropolitan of the diocese of
Sourozh (the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchates diocese for Great
Britain and Ireland).
Cerkov v paralice s Petra Velikogo. This line comes from a notebook
dated 1880-1881 and has been published for the first time in Biografija.
Pisma i zametki iz zapisnych kniek F.M. Dostoevskogo (Sankt-Peterburg,
1883). The phrase became a popular aphorism for dissenting religious
minds such as Dmitrij Merekovskij, who quotes it a couple of times in his
L. Tolstoj i Dostoevskij (1901), and Nikolaj Berdjaev in his Mirosozer-
canie Dostoevskogo (1923; Berdjaev, [1923] 1991: 121).
A visitor to the skete describes the area as follows:
Wild, deserted, gloomy is the place where Nil founded his hermitage.
It was on level ground, but quite swampy with woods around it with
more pines than other leafy trees. The river Sor or Sorka does not
Dostoevskijs Portrait of a Pure, Ideal Christian 213
flow, but stands still in that place and is more similar to a stagnant
swamp than flowing water. Among the many advantageous spots
offering abundant, cheerful natural beauties, it would have been
difficult to find a place more morose and solitary than this place of
hermitage. At first sight one understands what the saint was seeking
and it completely corresponded to his character of spiritual
contemplation. (Maloney 1973: 40)
For Sorskijs biography see Maloney (1973: 33-47), and Maloneys intro-
duction to Nil Sorsky, The Complete Writings (2003: 11-14).
For a more detailed analysis of the controversy, see Florovsky ([1937] 1979
[I]: 19-24).
Sorskij was only formally canonized in the beginning of the 20th century. His
name appears for the first time in the official ecclesiastical calendar in 1903
(Maloney 1973: 46).
For a detailed study on the Optina hermitage, see Koncevic (2005).
In her memoirs Anna Grigorevna Dostoevskaja wrote:
ueop Mnxanonnu tn crpamno nopaxen +rom cmeprnm []
urot xort necxontxo ycnoxonrt ueopa Mnxanonnua n ornneut
ero or rpycrntx ym, x ynpocnna Bn. C. Conontena, nocemanmero
nac n +rn nn name cxopn, yronopnrt ueopa Mnxanonnua
noexart c nnm n Onrnny nycrtnt [] Bepnyncx ueop Mnxa-
nonnu ns Onrnno nycrtnn xax t ymnpornopennt n sna-
unrentno ycnoxonnmncx n mnoro paccxastnan mne npo otuan
Hycrtnn, re emy npnnenoct npotrt noe cyrox. C roramnnm
snamennrtm crapnem, o. Amnpocnem, ueop Mnxanonnu nn-
encx rpn pasa: pas n ronne npn napoe n na pasa naenne, n
ntnec ns ero ece rnyoxoe n nponnxnonennoe nneuarnenne []
Hs paccxason ueopa Mnxanonnua nnno tno, xaxnm rnyoxnm
cepneneom n nponnnem tn +ror ncemn ynaxaemt crapen.
(Fedor Michajlovic was terribly crushed by this death [] In order to
comfort him a little and distract him from his sad thoughts, I begged
Vl. S. Solovev, who often visited us in these days of our mourning, to
persuade Fedor Michajlovic to accompany him to Optina Pustyn []
Fedor Michajlovic returned from Optina Pustyn seemingly at peace
and much calmer, and he told me a great deal about the customs of
Pustyn, where he spent two days. Fedor Michajlovic met three times
with the renowned starec Amvrosij, once in a crowd of people, and
twice alone, and from these conversations he brought a profound and
lasting impression [] From his stories it was clear, what a profound
knower of the heart and seer this honoured starec was; Dostoevskaja
1971: 323)
214 Nel Grillaert
Dostoevskij may also have obtained Optina editions from a Petersburg
bookshop, such as Glazunovs, who had various Optina books in his catalogue
(Stanton 1990: 444).
See Budanova (2005a: 104-148).
Budanova (2005b).
The original biblical quote is: Esli kto ne chocet truditsja, tot i ne e.
In the 14th century, hesychasm was strongly attacked by Barlaam of Calabria.
Palamas stood up against him in defence of hesychasm (Ware 1997: 66).
Dostoevskij assimilates in this passage his own childhood memories of the
Bible: he also learned to read from the religious primer One Hundred and
Four Sacred Stories from the Old and New Testaments (Jones 2005: 1).
For an analysis of nature mysticism in Zosimas discourse, see Hackel (1983).
Sergei Hackel has analysed Zosimas cult of tears in relation to Isaac the
Syrian (1983: 145-147).
According to Fedotov:
In Mother Earth, who remains the core of Russian religion, converge
the most secret and deep religious feelings of the folk. Beneath the
beautiful veil of grass and flowers, the people venerate with awe the
black moist depths, the source of all fertilizing powers [] The very
epithet of the earth in the folk songs, Mother Earth, the Humid, []
alludes to the womb rather than to the face of the Earth. It means that
not beauty but fertility is the supreme virtue of the Earth. Christianity
did much to destroy the folk religion surrounding the Earth, for it
found too much sexual connotations of the cult of the fertile and birth-
giving Earth. Instead, the veneration of the Earth was in Christian
times replaced by the worship of the Mother of God. (Fedotov 1960:
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