Three monks speak in one chapter: the Starets Zosima (the Western concept would be “guru”) gives his final message to his brother monks before his death; Father Therapon tells of exorcising the devils only he can see afflicting the abbot; and Father Païsy gives practical advice to the young saint Aleksei Fyodorovich. Doestoevsky shows vastly differing Christianities in one monastery.
The Starets- recognised as a holy teacher and healer- begins and ends with Love. His call for abasement troubled me: monks are the worst sinners on Earth, and he himself the “vilest of the vile”. I believe in original Blessing, we are created in the image of God. But from this view Zosima crafts love of everyone, atheists, materialists, even the evil ones, whom the monk must respect. The monk becomes a symbol of Christ, guilty of the sins of all people, without thought for his own honour or possessions, wishing only to serve.
Therapon lives in a shack in the forest, alone, keeping the lamps lit before numerous votive icons. The monks bring him two pounds of bread every three days, and he spurns it, living on mushrooms and berries. He might kneel in prayer all day, but rarely attend the monastic liturgy: the monks are heretics delivered unto Satan, and devils which they do not see assail them. Anyone familiar with the Philokalia will know of the Hesychast constantly surrounded by devils tempting him. Therapon trapped the tail of one in the Abbot’s door, and killed it by making the sign of the cross over it. It rots in the corner, stinking, and the other monks are unaware.
Therapon often will not talk, and disconcerts his visitor by spurning his bow, calling him a fool and rascal. Therapon sees an old elm tree in the night and imagines it is Christ, come to take him away like Elijah. He trembles with fear. So he lives with his pride, anger and misery in his never-changed sackcloth shirt.
Païsy tells Alyosha that the temptations of the world are great, and more than a match for his strength, but that nothing shall prevail against the divinity of the Scriptures, which lives on unchanging even in the souls of the atheists.
Only the day before, the Starets met with adoring peasant women, one of whom had the same nervous complaint as Alyosha’s deceased mother, charmingly known as The Screams. Sufferers cannot stop screaming, but Zosima’s blessing calmed her a bit. Shortly before she died, my father went to see his mother, and was horrified that “She couldn’t stop screaming”. Sufferers are known as Screamers, and Fyodor Pavlovich uses that term when he speaks of Alyosha’s mother.
A woman had had the idea of praying for the soul of her son. She had not heard from him for two years. His soul would feel the hurt, and he would write her a letter, by magic. Zosima rebukes her, but tells her by prophecy that her son is alive and will soon return or write to her. She went home, to find a letter from him saying he was coming to her soon. A miracle of prophecy!