The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

PART III

Book VII

Alyosha

Chapter 1

The Breath of Corruption

THE body of Father Zossima was prepared for burial according to the established Ritual. As is well known, the bodies of dead monks and hermits are not washed. In the words of the Church Ritual: “If any one of the monks depart in the Lord, the monk designated (that is, whose office it is) shall wipe the body with warm water, making first the sign of the cross with a sponge on the forehead of the deceased, on the breast, on the hands and feet and on the knees, and that is enough.” All this was done by Father Paissy, who then clothed the deceased in his monastic garb and wrapped him in his cloak, which was, according to custom, somewhat slit to allow of its being folded about him in the form of a cross. On his head he put a hood with an eight-cornered cross. The hood was left open and the dead man’s face was covered with black gauze. In his hands was put an ikon of the Saviour. Towards morning he was put in the coffin which had been made ready long before. It was decided to leave the coffin all day in the cell, in the larger room in which the elder used to receive his visitors and fellow monks. As the deceased was a priest and monk of the strictest rule, the Gospel, not the Psalter, had to be read over his body by monks in holy orders. The reading was begun by Father Iosif immediately after the requiem service. Father Paissy desired later on to read the Gospel all day and night over his dead friend, but for the present he, as well as the Father Superintendent of the Hermitage, was very busy and occupied, for something extraordinary, an unheard-of, even “unseemly” excitement and impatient expectation began to be apparent in the monks, and the visitors from the monastery hostels, and the crowds of people flocking from the town. And as time went on, this grew more and more marked. Both the Superintendent and Father Paissy did their utmost to calm the general bustle and agitation.

When it was fully daylight, some people began bringing their sick, in most cases children, with them from the town — as though they had been waiting expressly for this moment to do so, evidently persuaded that the dead elder’s remains had a power of healing, which would be immediately made manifest in accordance with their faith. It was only then apparent how unquestionably everyone in our town had accepted Father Zossima during his lifetime as a great saint. And those who came were far from being all of the humbler classes.

This intense expectation on the part of believers displayed with such haste, such openness, even with impatience and almost insistence, impressed Father Paissy as unseemly. Though he had long foreseen something of the sort, the actual manifestation of the feeling was beyond anything he had looked for. When he came across any of the monks who displayed this excitement, Father Paissy began to reprove them. “Such immediate expectation of something extraordinary,” he said, “shows a levity, possible to worldly people but unseemly in us.”

But little attention was paid him and Father Paissy noticed it uneasily. Yet he himself (if the whole truth must be told), secretly at the bottom of his heart, cherished almost the same hopes and could not but be aware of it, though he was indignant at the too impatient expectation around him, and saw in it light-mindedness and vanity. Nevertheless, it was particularly unpleasant to him to meet certain persons, whose presence aroused in him great misgivings. In the crowd in the dead man’s cell he noticed with inward aversion (for which he immediately reproached himself) the presence of Rakitin and of the monk from Obdorsk, who was still staying in the monastery. Of both of them Father Paissy felt for some reason suddenly suspicious — though, indeed, he might well have felt the same about others.

The monk from Obdorsk was conspicuous as the most fussy in the excited crowd. He was to be seen everywhere; everywhere he was asking questions, everywhere he was listening, on all sides he was whispering with a peculiar, mysterious air. His expression showed the greatest impatience and even a sort of irritation.

As for Rakitin, he, as appeared later, had come so early to the hermitage at the special request of Madame Hohlakov. As soon as that good-hearted but weak-minded woman, who could not herself have been admitted to the hermitage, waked and heard of the death of Father Zossima, she was overtaken with such intense curiosity that she promptly despatched Rakitin to the hermitage, to keep a careful look out and report to her by letter ever half hour or so “everything that takes place.” She regarded Rakitin as a most religious and devout young man. He was particularly clever in getting round people and assuming whatever part he thought most to their taste, if he detected the slightest advantage to himself from doing so.

It was a bright, clear day, and many of the visitors were thronging about the tombs, which were particularly numerous round the church and scattered here and there about the hermitage. As he walked round the hermitage, Father Paissy remembered Alyosha and that he had not seen him for some time, not since the night. And he had no sooner thought of him than he at once noticed him in the farthest corner of the hermitage garden, sitting on the tombstone of a monk who had been famous long ago for his saintliness. He sat with his back to the hermitage and his face to the wall, and seemed to be hiding behind the tombstone. Going up to him, Father Paissy saw that he was weeping quietly but bitterly, with his face hidden in his hands, and that his whole frame was shaking with sobs. Father Paissy stood over him for a little.

“Enough, dear son, enough, dear,” he pronounced with feeling at last. “Why do you weep? Rejoice and weep not. Don’t you know that this is the greatest of his days? Think only where he is now, at this moment!”

Alyosha glanced at him, uncovering his face, which was swollen with crying like a child’s, but turned away at once without uttering a word and hid his face in his hands again.

“Maybe it is well,” said Father Paissy thoughtfully; “weep if you must; Christ has sent you those tears.”

“Your touching tears are but a relief to your spirit and will serve to gladden your dear heart,” he added to himself, walking away from Alyosha, and thinking lovingly of him. He moved away quickly, however, for he felt that he too might weep looking at him.

Meanwhile the time was passing; the monastery services and the requiems for the dead followed in their due course. Father Paissy again took Father Iosif’s place by the coffin and began reading the Gospel. But before three o’clock in the afternoon that something took place to which I alluded at the end of the last book, something so unexpected by all of us and so contrary to the general hope, that, I repeat, this trivial incident has been minutely remembered to this day in our town and all the surrounding neighbourhood. I may add here, for myself personally, that I feel it almost repulsive that event which caused such frivolous agitation and was such a stumbling-block to many, though in reality it was the most natural and trivial matter. I should, of course, have omitted all mention of it in my story, if it had not exerted a very strong influence on the heart and soul of the chief, though future, hero of my story, Alyosha, forming a crisis and turning-point in his spiritual development, giving a shock to his intellect, which finally strengthened it for the rest of his life and gave it a definite aim.

And so, to return to our story. When before dawn they laid Father Zossima’s body in the coffin and brought it into the front room, the question of opening the windows was raised among those who were around the coffin. But this suggestion made casually by someone was unanswered and almost unnoticed. Some of those present may perhaps have inwardly noticed it, only to reflect that the anticipation of decay and corruption from the body of such a saint was an actual absurdity, calling for compassion (if not a smile) for the lack of faith and the frivolity it implied. For they expected something quite different.

And, behold, soon after midday there were signs of something, at first only observed in silence by those who came in and out and were evidently each afraid to communicate the thought in his mind. But by three o’clock those signs had become so clear and unmistakable, that the news swiftly reached all the monks and visitors in the hermitage, promptly penetrated to the monastery, throwing all the monks into amazement, and finally, in the shortest possible time, spread to the town, exciting everyone in it, believers and unbelievers alike. The unbelievers rejoiced, and as for the believers some of them rejoiced even more than the unbelievers, for “men love the downfall and disgrace of the righteous,” as the deceased elder had said in one of his exhortations.

The fact is that a smell of decomposition began to come from the coffin, growing gradually more marked, and by three o’clock it was quite unmistakable. In all the past history of our monastery, no such scandal could be recalled, and in no other circumstances could such a scandal have been possible, as showed itself in unseemly disorder immediately after this discovery among the very monks themselves. Afterwards, even many years afterwards, some sensible monks were amazed and horrified, when they recalled that day, that the scandal could have reached such proportions. For in the past, monks of very holy life had died, God-fearing old men, whose saintliness was acknowledged by all, yet from their humble coffins, too, the breath of corruption had come, naturally, as from all dead bodies, but that had caused no scandal nor even the slightest excitement. Of course, there had been, in former times, saints in the monastery whose memory was carefully preserved and whose relics, according to tradition, showed no signs of corruption. This fact was regarded by the monks as touching and mysterious, and the tradition of it was cherished as something blessed and miraculous, and as a promise, by God’s grace, of still greater glory from their tombs in the future.

One such, whose memory was particularly cherished, was an old monk, Job, who had died seventy years before at the age of a hundred and five. He had been a celebrated ascetic, rigid in fasting and silence, and his tomb was pointed out to all visitors on their arrival with peculiar respect and mysterious hints of great hopes connected with it. (That was the very tomb on which Father Paissy had found Alyosha sitting in the morning.) Another memory cherished in the monastery was that of the famous Father Varsonofy, who was only recently dead and had preceded Father Zossima in the eldership. He was reverenced during his lifetime as a crazy saint by all the pilgrims to the monastery. There was a tradition that both of these had lain in their coffins as though alive, that they had shown no signs of decomposition when they were buried and that there had been a holy light in their faces. And some people even insisted that a sweet fragrance came from their bodies.

Yet, in spite of these edifying memories, it would be difficult to explain the frivolity, absurdity and malice that were manifested beside the coffin of Father Zossima. It is my private opinion that several different causes were simultaneously at work, one of which was the deeply rooted hostility to the institution of elders as a pernicious innovation, an antipathy hidden deep in the hearts of many of the monks. Even more powerful was jealousy of the dead man’s saintliness, so firmly established during lifetime that it was almost a forbidden thing to question it. For though the late elder had won over many hearts, more by love than by miracles, and had gathered round him a mass of loving adherents, none the less, in fact, rather the more on that account he had awakened jealousy and so had come to have bitter enemies, secret and open, not only in the monastery but in the world outside it. He did no one any harm, but “Why do they think him so saintly?” And that question alone, gradually repeated, gave rise at last to an intense, insatiable hatred of him. That, I believe, was why many people were extremely delighted at the smell of decomposition which came so quickly, for not a day had passed since his death. At the same time there were some among those who had been hitherto reverently devoted to the elder, who were almost mortified and personally affronted by this incident. This was how the thing happened.

As soon as signs of decomposition had begun to appear, the whole aspect of the monks betrayed their secret motives in entering the cell. They went in, stayed a little while and hastened out to confirm the news to the crowd of other monks waiting outside. Some of the latter shook their heads mournfully, but others did not even care to conceal the delight which gleamed unmistakably in their malignant eyes. And now no one reproached them for it, no one raised his voice in protest, which was strange, for the majority of the monks had been devoted to the dead elder. But it seemed as though God had in this case let the minority get the upper hand for a time.

Visitors from outside, particularly of the educated class, soon went into the cell, too, with the same spying intent. Of the peasantry few went into the cell, though there were crowds of them at the gates of the hermitage. After three o’clock the rush of worldly visitors was greatly increased and this was no doubt owing to the shocking news. People were attracted who would not otherwise have come on that day and had not intended to come, and among them were some personages of high standing. But external decorum was still preserved and Father Paissy, with a stern face, continued firmly and distinctly reading aloud the Gospel, apparently not noticing what was taking place around him, though he had, in fact, observed something unusual long before. But at last the murmurs, first subdued but gradually louder and more confident, reached even him. “It shows God’s judgment is not as man’s,” Father Paissy heard suddenly. The first to give utterance to this sentiment was a layman, an elderly official from the town, known to be a man of great piety. But he only repeated aloud what the monks had long been whispering. They had long before formulated this damning conclusion, and the worst of it was that a sort of triumphant satisfaction at that conclusion became more and more apparent every moment. Soon they began to lay aside even external decorum and almost seemed to feel they had a sort of right to discard it.

“And for what reason can this have happened,” some of the monks said, at first with a show of regret; “he had a small frame and his flesh was dried up on his bones, what was there to decay?”

“It must be a sign from heaven,” others hastened to add, and their opinion was adopted at once without protest. For it was pointed out, too, that if the decomposition had been natural, as in the case of every dead sinner, it would have been apparent later, after a lapse of at least twenty-four hours, but this premature corruption “was in excess of nature,” and so the finger of God was evident. It was meant for a sign. This conclusion seemed irresistible.

Gentle Father Iosif, the librarian, a great favourite of the dead man’s, tried to reply to some of the evil speakers that “this is not held everywhere alike,” and that the incorruptibility of the bodies of the just was not a dogma of the Orthodox Church, but only an opinion, and that even in the most Orthodox regions, at Athos for instance, they were not greatly confounded by the smell of corruption, and there the chief sign of the glorification of the saved was not bodily incorruptibility, but the colour of the bones when the bodies have lain many years in the earth and have decayed in it. “And if the bones are yellow as wax, that is the great sign that the Lord has glorified the dead saint, if they are not yellow but black, it shows that God has not deemed him worthy of such glory — that is the belief in Athos, a great place, which the Orthodox doctrine has been preserved from of old, unbroken and in its greatest purity,” said Father Iosif in conclusion.

But the meek Father’s words had little effect and even provoked a mocking retort. “That’s all pedantry and innovation, no use listening to it,” the monks decided. “We stick to the old doctrine; there are all sorts of innovations nowadays, are we to follow them all?” added others.

“We have had as many holy fathers as they had. There they are among the Turks, they have forgotten everything. Their doctrine has long been impure and they have no bells even, the most sneering added.

Father Iosif walked away, grieving the more since he had put forward his own opinion with little confidence as though scarcely believing in it himself. He foresaw with distress that something very unseemly was beginning and that there were positive signs of disobedience. Little by little, all the sensible monks were reduced to silence like Father Iosif. And so it came to pass that all who loved the elder and had accepted with devout obedience the institution of the eldership were all at once terribly cast down and glanced timidly in one another’s faces, when they met. Those who were hostile to the institution of elders, as a novelty, held up their heads proudly. “There was no smell of corruption from the late elder Varsonofy, but a sweet fragrance,” they recalled malignantly. “But he gained that glory not because he was an elder, but because he was a holy man.”

And this was followed by a shower of criticism and even blame of Father Zossima. “His teaching was false; he taught that life is a great joy and not a vale of tears,” said some of the more unreasonable. “He followed the fashionable belief, he did not recognise material fire in hell,” others, still more unreasonable, added. “He was not strict in fasting, allowed himself sweet things, ate cherry jam with his tea, ladies used to send it to him. Is it for a monk of strict rule to drink tea?” could be heard among some of the envious. “He sat in pride,” the most malignant declared vindictively; “he considered himself a saint and he took it as his due when people knelt before him.” “He abused the sacrament of confession,” the fiercest opponents of the institution of elders added in a malicious whisper. And among these were some of the oldest monks, strictest in their devotion, genuine ascetics, who had kept silent during the life of the deceased elder, but now suddenly unsealed their lips. And this was terrible, for their words had great influence on young monks who were not yet firm in their convictions. The monk from Obdorsk heard all this attentively, heaving deep sighs and nodding his head. “Yes, clearly Father Ferapont was right in his judgment yesterday,” and at that moment Father Ferapont himself made his appearance, as though on purpose to increase the confusion.

I have mentioned already that he rarely left his wooden cell by the apiary. He was seldom even seen at church and they overlooked this neglect on the ground of his craziness, and did not keep him to the rules binding on all the rest. But if the whole truth is to be told, they hardly had a choice about it. For it would have been discreditable to insist on burdening with the common regulations so great an ascetic, who prayed day and night (he even dropped asleep on his knees). If they had insisted, the monks would have said, “He is holier than all of us and he follows a rule harder than ours. And if he does not go to church, it’s because he knows when he ought to; he has his own rule.” It was to avoid the chance of these sinful murmurs that Father Ferapont was left in peace.

As everyone was aware, Father Ferapont particularly disliked Father Zossima. And now the news had reached him in his hut that “God’s judgment is not the same as man’s,” and that something had happened which was “in excess of nature.” It may well be supposed that among the first to run to him with the news was the monk from Obdorsk, who had visited him the evening before and left his cell terror-stricken.

I have mentioned above, that though Father Paissy standing firm and immovable reading the Gospel over the coffin, could not hear nor see what was passing outside the cell, he gauged most of it correctly in his heart, for he knew the men surrounding him well. He was not shaken by it, but awaited what would come next without fear, watching with penetration and insight for the outcome of the general excitement.

Suddenly an extraordinary uproar in the passage in open defiance of decorum burst on his ears. The door was flung open and Father Ferapont appeared in the doorway. Behind him there could be seen accompanying him a crowd of monks, together with many people from the town. They did not, however, enter the cell, but stood at the bottom of the steps, waiting to see what Father Ferapont would say or do. For they felt with a certain awe, in spite of their audacity, that he had not come for nothing. Standing in the doorway, Father Ferapont raised his arms, and under his right arm the keen inquisitive little eyes of the monk from Obdorsk peeped in. He alone, in his intense curiosity, could not resist running up the steps after Father Ferapont. The others, on the contrary, pressed farther back in sudden alarm when the door was noisily flung open. Holding his hands aloft, Father Ferapont suddenly roared:

“Casting out I cast out!” and, turning in all directions, he began at once making the sign of the cross at each of the four walls and four corners of the cell in succession. All who accompanied Father Ferapont immediately understood his action. For they knew he always did this wherever he went, and that he would not sit down or say a word, till he had driven out the evil spirits.

“Satan, go hence! Satan, go hence!” he repeated at each sign of the cross. “Casting out I cast out,” he roared again.

He was wearing his coarse gown girt with a rope. His bare chest, covered with grey hair, could be seen under his hempen shirt. His feet were bare. As soon as he began waving his arms, the cruel irons he wore under his gown could be heard clanking.

Father Paissy paused in his reading, stepped forward and stood before him waiting

“What have you come for, worthy Father? Why do you offend against good order? Why do you disturb the peace of the flock?” he said at last, looking sternly at him.

“What have I come for? You ask why? What is your faith?” shouted Father Ferapont crazily. “I’ve come here to drive out your visitors, the unclean devils. I’ve come to see how many have gathered here while I have been away. I want to sweep them out with a birch broom.”

“You cast out the evil spirit, but perhaps you are serving him yourself,” Father Paissy went on fearlessly. “And who can say of himself ‘I am holy’? Can you, Father?”

“I am unclean, not holy. I would not sit in an arm-chair and would not have them bow down to me as an idol,” thundered Father Ferapont. “Nowadays folk destroy the true faith. The dead man, your saint,” he turned to the crowd, pointing with his finger to the coffin, “did not believe in devils. He gave medicine to keep off the devils. And so they have become as common as spiders in the corners. And now he has begun to stink himself. In that we see a great sign from God.”

The incident he referred to was this. One of the monks was haunted in his dreams and, later on, in waking moments, by visions of evil spirits. When in the utmost terror he confided this to Father Zossima, the elder had advised continual prayer and rigid fasting. But when that was of no use, he advised him while persisting in prayer and fasting, to take a special medicine. Many persons were shocked at the time and wagged their heads as they talked over it — and most of all Father Ferapont, to whom some of the censorious had hastened to report this “extraordinary” counsel on the part of the elder.

“Go away, Father!” said Father Paissy, in a commanding voice, “it’s not for man to judge but for God. Perhaps we see here a ‘sign’ which neither you, nor I, nor anyone of us is able to comprehend. Go, Father, and do not trouble the flock!” he repeated impressively.

“He did not keep the fasts according to the rule and therefore the sign has come. That is clear and it’s a sin to hide it,” the fanatic, carried away by a zeal that outstripped his reason, would not be quieted. “He was seduced by sweetmeats, ladies brought them to him in their pockets, he sipped tea, he worshipped his belly, filling it with sweet things and his mind with haughty thoughts. . . . And for this he is put to shame. . . . ”

“You speak lightly, Father.” Father Paissy, too, raised his voice. “I admire your fasting and severities, but you speak lightly like some frivolous youth, fickle and childish. Go away, Father, I command you!” Father Paissy thundered in conclusion.

“I will go,” said Ferapont, seeming somewhat taken aback, but still as bitter. “You learned men! You are so clever you look down upon my humbleness. I came hither with little learning and here I have forgotten what I did know; God Himself has preserved me in my weakness from your subtlety.”

Father Paissy stood over him, waiting resolutely. Father Ferapont paused and, suddenly leaning his cheek on his hand despondently, pronounced in a sing-song, voice, looking at the coffin of the dead elder:

“To-morrow they will sing over him ‘Our Helper and Defender’ — a splendid anthem — and over me when I die all they’ll sing will be ‘What Earthly Joy’ — a little cantical,”11 he added with tearful regret. “You are proud and puffed up, this is a vain place!” he shouted suddenly like a madman, and with a wave of his hand he turned quickly and quickly descended the steps. The crowd awaiting him below wavered; some followed him at once and some lingered, for the cell was still open, and Father Paissy, following Father Ferapont on to the steps, stood watching him. the excited old fanatic was not completely silenced. Walking twenty steps away, he suddenly turned towards the setting sun, raised both his arms and, as though someone had cut him down, fell to the ground with a loud scream.

11 When a monk’s body is carried out from the cell to the church and from the church to the graveyard, the canticle “What Earthly Joy . . . ” is sung. If the deceased was a priest as well as a monk the canticle “Our Helper and Defender” is sung instead.

“My God has conquered! Christ has conquered the setting sun!” he shouted frantically, stretching up his hands to the sun, and falling face downwards on the ground, he sobbed like a little child, shaken by his tears and spreading out his arms on the ground. Then all rushed up to him; there were exclamations and sympathetic sobs . . . a kind of frenzy seemed to take possession of them all.

“This is the one who is a saint! This is the one who is a holy man!” some cried aloud, losing their fear. “This is he who should be an elder,” others added malignantly.

“He wouldn’t be an elder . . . he would refuse . . . he wouldn’t serve a cursed innovation . . . he wouldn’t imitate their foolery,” other voices chimed in at once. And it is hard to say how far they might have gone, but at that moment the bell rang summoning them to service. All began crossing themselves at once. Father Ferapont, too, got up and crossing himself went back to his cell without looking round, still uttering exclamations which were utterly incoherent. A few followed him, but the greater number dispersed, hastening to service. Father Paissy let Father Iosif read in his place and went down. The frantic outcries of bigots could not shake him, but his heart was suddenly filled with melancholy for some special reason and he felt that. He stood still and suddenly wondered, “Why am I sad even to dejection?” and immediately grasped with surprise that his sudden sadness was due to a very small and special cause. In the crowd thronging at the entrance to the cell, he had noticed Alyosha and he remembered that he had felt at once a pang at heart on seeing him. “Can that boy mean so much to my heart now?” he asked himself, wondering.

At that moment Alyosha passed him, hurrying away, but not in the direction of the church. Their eyes met. Alyosha quickly turned away his eyes and dropped them to the ground, and from the boy’s look alone, Father Paissy guessed what a great change was taking place in him at that moment.

“Have you, too, fallen into temptation?” cried Father Paissy. “Can you be with those of little faith?” he added mournfully.

Alyosha stood still and gazed vaguely at Father Paissy, but quickly turned his eyes away again and again looked on the ground. He stood sideways and did not turn his face to Father Paissy, who watched him attentively.

“Where are you hastening? The bell calls to service,” he asked again, but again Alyosha gave no answer.

“Are you leaving the hermitage? What, without asking leave, without asking a blessing?”

Alyosha suddenly gave a wry smile, cast a strange, very strange, look at the Father to whom his former guide, the former sovereign of his heart and mind, his beloved elder, had confided him as he lay dying. And suddenly, still without speaking, waved his hand, as though not caring even to be respectful, and with rapid steps walked towards the gates away from the hermitage.

“You will come back again!” murmured Father Paissy, looking after him with sorrowful surprise.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:49