I have never lived in a hermitage such as Dostoevsky describes, a secluded religious retreat with little more than a cot, table and a few decorative icons. But it appeals to every part of my being: the simplicity, the quiet, the solitude. However, I could not pray on my knees for an entire day, and I wonder if two pounds of bread for three days would be enough sustenance for this greedy girl.
As Alyosha leaves Father Zosima’s cell, he is reminded by Father Paissey that “…the science of this world, having united itself into a great force, has, especially in the past century, examined everything heavenly that has been bequeathed to us in sacred books, and, after hard analysis, the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy.” Perhaps, Alyosha wonders, the advice that Father Paissey gives him is exactly what Zosima has bequeathed to him on his deathbed.
For Part II continues with almost endless examples of how our world has “nothing left of what was once holy”. Alyosha sees schoolchildren with rocks in their pockets, taunting and throwing them at a boy named Ilyushechka. He apparently had defended his father, whom his classmates had nicknamed Whiskbroom for his beard, which Ivan used to pull him out of a bar and beat him in the street. Now, knowing that Alyosha is Ivan’s brother, Ilyushechka throws rocks at Alyosha, too.
Katerina gives Alyosha two hundred crisp double notes to take to this home, concerned for the family’s well-being after their father suffered at Ivan’s hand. At first, the father is most grateful for the money; he goes into detail how necessary it is for his family’s well-being. But when Alyosha tells him there can be even more, the father’s pride interferes. He trods upon the bills, and tells Alyosha almost ecstatically that he will not take them. Alyosha leaves with the two bills and a terrible bite on his finger from the son.
“We are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves?” Ivan asks. How is this possible, when man is so despicable? Ivan goes on to enumerate countless horrors done by man: girls being whipped by their fathers, babies being tossed into the air and caught on bayonets, a five year old locked in an outhouse overnight by her mother, a young shepherd forced to tend for the sheep without food or many clothes, and when he grows up he becomes a monster.
It does not seem to me, as I read Dostoevsky, that the condition of our world has changed very much over time. Consider this quote from the talks and homilies of the Elder Zosima near the end of Part II:
The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says, “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest of men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” — this is the current teaching of the world.
It was true then. It is true today. We have not fully discovered the solution which Zosima proposes:
Obedience, fasting and prayer are laughed at, yet they alone constitute the way to real and true freedom: I cut away my superfluous and unnecessary needs, through obedience I humble and chasten my vain and proud will, and thereby, with God’s help, attain freedom of spirit, and with that, spiritual rejoicing!
Amen and amen.
I am reading this with Arti, of Ripple Effects. Please do join the read-along if you wish. Part III will be discussed on July 3; Part IV and the Epilogue is scheduled for July 24.