Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter XXXIX.

The Prison Church — Blind Leaders of the Blind.

The service began.

It consisted of the following. The priest, having dressed in a strange and very inconvenient garb, made of gold cloth, cut and arranged little bits of bread on a saucer, and then put them into a cup with wine, repeating at the same time different names and prayers. Meanwhile the deacon first read Slavonic prayers, difficult to understand in themselves, and rendered still more incomprehensible by being read very fast, and then sang them turn and turn about with the convicts. The contents of the prayers were chiefly the desire for the welfare of the Emperor and his family. These petitions were repeated many times, separately and together with other prayers, the people kneeling. Besides this, several verses from the Acts of the Apostles were read by the deacon in a peculiarly strained voice, which made it impossible to understand what he read, and then the priest read very distinctly a part of the Gospel according to St. Mark, in which it said that Christ, having risen from the dead before flying up to heaven to sit down at His Father’s right hand, first showed Himself to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had driven seven devils, and then to eleven of His disciples, and ordered them to preach the Gospel to the whole creation, and the priest added that if any one did not believe this he would perish, but he that believed it and was baptised should be saved, and should besides drive out devils and cure people by laying his hands on them, should talk in strange tongues, should take up serpents, and if he drank poison should not die, but remain well.

The essence of the service consisted in the supposition that the bits cut up by the priest and put by him into the wine, when manipulated and prayed over in a certain way, turned into the flesh and blood of God.

These manipulations consisted in the priest’s regularly lifting and holding up his arms, though hampered by the gold cloth sack he had on, then, sinking on to his knees and kissing the table and all that was on it, but chiefly in his taking a cloth by two of its corners and waving it regularly and softly over the silver saucer and golden cup. It was supposed that, at this point, the bread and the wine turned into flesh and blood; therefore, this part of the service was performed with the greatest solemnity.

“Now, to the blessed, most pure, and most holy Mother of God,” the priest cried from the golden partition which divided part of the church from the rest, and the choir began solemnly to sing that it was very right to glorify the Virgin Mary, who had borne Christ without losing her virginity, and was therefore worthy of greater honour than some kind of cherubim, and greater glory than some kind of seraphim. After this the transformation was considered accomplished, and the priest having taken the napkin off the saucer, cut the middle bit of bread in four, and put it into the wine, and then into his mouth. He was supposed to have eaten a bit of God’s flesh and swallowed a little of His blood. Then the priest drew a curtain, opened the middle door in the partition, and, taking the gold cup in his hands, came out of the door, inviting those who wished to do so also to come and eat some of God’s flesh and blood that was contained in the cup. A few children appeared to wish to do so.

After having asked the children their names, the priest carefully took out of the cup, with a spoon, and shoved a bit of bread soaked in wine deep into the mouth of each child in turn, and the deacon, while wiping the children’s mouths, sang, in a merry voice, that the children were eating the flesh and drinking the blood of God. After this the priest carried the cup back behind the partition, and there drank all the remaining blood and ate up all the bits of flesh, and after having carefully sucked his moustaches and wiped his mouth, he stepped briskly from behind the partition, the soles of his calfskin boots creaking. The principal part of this Christian service was now finished, but the priest, wishing to comfort the unfortunate prisoners, added to the ordinary service another. This consisted of his going up to the gilt hammered-out image (with black face and hands) supposed to represent the very God he had been eating, illuminated by a dozen wax candles, and proceeding, in a strange, discordant voice, to hum or sing the following words:

“Jesu sweetest, glorified of the Apostles, Jesu lauded by the martyrs, almighty Monarch, save me, Jesu my Saviour. Jesu, most beautiful, have mercy on him who cries to Thee, Saviour Jesu. Born of prayer Jesu, all thy saints, all thy prophets, save and find them worthy of the joys of heaven. Jesu, lover of men.”

Then he stopped, drew breath, crossed himself, bowed to the ground, and every one did the same — the inspector, the warders, the prisoners; and from above the clinking of the chains sounded more unintermittently. Then he continued: “Of angels the Creator and Lord of powers, Jesu most wonderful, the angels’ amazement, Jesu most powerful, of our forefathers the Redeemer. Jesu sweetest, of patriarchs the praise. Jesu most glorious, of kings the strength. Jesu most good, of prophets the fulfilment. Jesu most amazing, of martyrs the strength. Jesu most humble, of monks the joy. Jesu most merciful, of priests the sweetness. Jesu most charitable, of the fasting the continence. Jesu most sweet, of the just the joy. Jesu most pure, of the celibates the chastity. Jesu before all ages of sinners the salvation. Jesu, son of God, have mercy on me.”

Every time he repeated the word “Jesu” his voice became more and more wheezy. At last he came to a stop, and holding up his silk-lined cassock, and kneeling down on one knee, he stooped down to the ground and the choir began to sing, repeating the words, “Jesu, Son of God, have mercy on me,” and the convicts fell down and rose again, shaking back the hair that was left on their heads, and rattling with the chains that were bruising their thin ankles.

This continued for a long time. First came the glorification, which ended with the words, “Have mercy on me.” Then more glorifications, ending with “Alleluia!” And the convicts made the sign of the cross, and bowed, first at each sentence, then after every two and then after three, and all were very glad when the glorification ended, and the priest shut the book with a sigh of relief and retired behind the partition. One last act remained. The priest took a large, gilt cross, with enamel medallions at the ends, from a table, and came out into the centre of the church with it. First the inspector came up and kissed the cross, then the jailers, then the convicts, pushing and abusing each other in whispers. The priest, talking to the inspector, pushed the cross and his hand now against the mouths and now against the noses of the convicts, who were trying to kiss both the cross and the hand of the priest. And thus ended the Christian service, intended for the comfort and the teaching of these strayed brothers.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04