Father Sergy
by Leo Tolstoy
(narrated by George Guidall)

[Part 2]

III

Kasatsky entered the monastery on the feast of Pokrov. The abbot of that monastery was a gentleman by birth, a learned writer, and a starets, that is, he belonged to that succession of monks originating in Walachia who each choose a director and teacher whom they implicitly obey. The abbot had been a disciple of the renowned starets Amvrosy, who was a disciple of Makary, who was a disciple of the starets Leonid, who was a disciple of Paissy Velichkovsky.* Kasatsky submitted himself to this abbot as his starets.

Besides the feeling of superiority over others that such a life gave him, in the monastery, just as in everything that he did, even in the monastery, Kasatsky found joy in attaining the greatest possible perfection outwardly as well as inwardly. As in the regiment he had been not merely an irreproachable officer but had even exceeded his duties and widened the borders of perfection, so also as a monk he tried to be perfect, always industrious, abstemious, submissive, meek, pure not only in deed but in thought, and obedient. This last quality in particular made life far easier for him. If many of the demands of life in the monastery, which was near the capital and much frequented, did not please him and were temptations to him, they were all nullified by obedience: It is not for me to reason; my business is to do the task set me, whether it be standing beside the relics, singing in the choir, or making up accounts in the monastery guesthouse. All possibility of doubt about anything was silenced by obedience to the starets. Had it not been for this, he would have been oppressed by the length and monotony of the church services, the bustle of the many visitors, and the bad qualities of the other monks. As it was, he not only bore it all joyfully but found in it solace and support. ‘I don’t know why it is necessary to hear the same prayers several times a day, but I know that it is necessary, and knowing this I find joy in them.’ The starets told him that as material food is necessary for the maintenance of the life of the body, so spiritual food, the church prayers, is necessary for the maintenance of the spiritual life. He believed this, and though the church services, for which he had to get up early in the morning, were a difficulty, they certainty calmed him and gave him joy. This was the result of his consciousness of humility and the certainty that whatever he had to do, being fixed by the starets, was right. The interest of his life consisted not only in an ever greater and greater subjugation of his will, in ever greater and greater humility, but in the attainment of all the Christian virtues, which at first seemed to him easily attainable. He had given his whole estate to his sister and did not regret it. He had no sloth. Humility towards his inferiors was not merely easy for him but afforded him joy. Even victory over the sins of the flesh, greed and lust, was easily attained. His starets had specially warned him against the latter sin, but Kasatsky rejoiced in his freedom from it.

One thing only tormented him, the remembrance of his fiancée. And not just the remembrance but the vivid image of what might have been. Involuntarily he imagined the Emperor’s favourite, who had afterwards married and become an admirable wife and mother. The husband had a high position, influence and honour, and a good and penitent wife.

In his better moments Kasatsky was not disturbed by such thoughts, and when he recalled them at such times he was merely glad to feel that the temptation was past. But there were moments when all that made up his present life suddenly grew dim before him, moments when, if he did not cease to believe in the aims he had set himself, he ceased to see them and could evoke no confidence in them but was seized by a remembrance of and—terrible to say—a regret for the change of life he had made.

The only thing that saved him in that state of mind was obedience, work, and the whole day occupied by prayer. He went through the usual forms of prayer, he bowed in prayer, he even prayed more than usual, but it was lip-service only and his soul was not in it. This condition would continue for a day, or sometimes for two days, and would then pass of itself. But those days were dreadful. Kasatsky felt that he was neither in his own hands nor in God’s, but in someone else’s, someone alien. All he could do then was to obey the starets, to restrain himself, to undertake nothing, and simply to wait. In general all this time he lived not by his own will but by that of the starets, and in this obedience he found a special tranquillity.

Thus he lived in his first monastery for seven years. At the end of the third year he received the tonsure and was ordained to the priesthood with the name of Sergy. The profession was an important event in his inner life. He had previously experienced a great consolation and spiritual exaltation when receiving communion, and now when he himself officiated, the performance of the preparation filled him with ecstatic and deep emotion. But subsequently that feeling became more and more deadened, and once when he was officiating in a depressed state of mind he felt that the influence produced on him by the service would not endure. And it did in fact weaken till only the habit remained.

In general in the seventh year of his life in the monastery Sergy grew bored. He had learnt all there was to learn and had attained all there was to attain, there was nothing more to do. His spiritual drowsiness increased. During this time he heard of his mother’s death and Mary’s marriage, but both events were matters of indifference to him. His whole attention and his whole interest were concentrated on his inner life.

In the fourth year of his priesthood, during which the bishop had been particularly kind to him, the starets told him that he ought not to decline it if he were offered an appointment to higher duties. Then monastic ambition, the very thing he had found so repulsive in other monks, arose within him. He was assigned to a monastery near the capital. He wished to refuse but the starets ordered him to accept the appointment. He did so, and took leave of the starets and moved to the other monastery.

The move to the metropolitan monastery was an important event in Sergy’s life. There he encountered many temptations, and his whole willpower was concentrated on meeting them.

In the former monastery women had not been a temptation to him, but here that temptation arose with terrible strength and even took definite shape. There was a lady known for her frivolous behaviour who began to seek his favour. She talked to him and asked him to visit her. Sergy sternly declined, but was horrified by the definiteness of his desire. He was so alarmed that he wrote about it to the starets. And in addition, to keep himself in hand, he spoke to a young novice and, conquering his sense of shame, confessed his weakness to him, asking him to keep watch on him and not let him go anywhere except to service and to fulfil his duties.

Besides this, a great temptation for Sergy lay in the fact of his extreme antipathy to the abbot of this monastery, a cunning, worldly man who was making a career for himself in the Church. Struggle with himself as he might, Sergy could not master that antipathy. He was submissive, but in the depths of his soul he never ceased to condemn him. And that ill feeling burst forth. It was the second year of his residence in the new monastery. And it happened like this. The vigil service was being performed in the large church on the eve of the feast of Pokrov. There were many visitors. The abbot himself was conducting the service. Father Sergy was standing in his usual place and praying, that is, he was in that condition of struggle which always occupied him during the service, especially in the large church when he was not himself conducting the service. This conflict was occasioned by his irritation at the presence of the visitors, the gentlemen and especially the ladies. He tried not to see them or to notice all that went on: how a soldier accompanied them shooing the common people out of their way, how the ladies pointed out the monks to one another, especially himself and a monk noted for his good looks. He tried as it were to keep his mind in blinkers, to see nothing but the light of the candles on the iconostasis,* the icons, and those conducting the service. He tried to hear nothing but the prayers that were being chanted or read, to feel nothing but self-oblivion in consciousness of the fulfilment of duty, a feeling he always experienced when hearing or reciting in advance the prayers he had so often heard.

So he stood, crossing and prostrating himself when necessary, and struggled with himself, now giving way to cold condemnation and now to a consciously evoked obliteration of thought and feeling. Then the sacristan, Father Nicodim, also a great temptation for Sergy who involuntarily reproached him for flattering and fawning on the abbot, approached him and, bowing low, requested his presence in the sanctuary. Father Sergy straightened his mantle, put on his klobuk* and went circumspectly through the crowd.

‘Lise, regarde à droite, c’est lui!‘1 he heard a woman’s voice say.

‘Où, où? Il n’est pas tellement beau.’2

He knew that they were speaking of him. He heard them and, as always at moments of temptation, he repeated the words, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, and bowing his head and lowering his eyes went past the amvon* and in by the north door,* avoiding the canons in their cassocks who were just then passing the iconostasis. On entering the sanctuary he bowed, crossing himself as usual and bending double before the icon, then raising his head but without turning, he glanced out of the corner of his eye at the abbot, whom he saw standing beside another figure glittering with something.

The abbot was standing by the wall in his vestments. Having freed his short plump hands from beneath his chasuble he had folded them over his fat body and protruding stomach, and fingering the cords of his vestments was smilingly saying something to a military man in the uniform of a general of the imperial suite, with its insignia and shoulder-knots which Father Sergy’s experienced eye at once recognized. This general had been the commander of the regiment in which Sergy had served. He now evidently occupied an important position, and Father Sergy at once noticed that the abbot was aware of this and that his red face and bald head beamed with satisfaction and pleasure. This vexed and disgusted Father Sergy, the more so when he heard that the abbot had only sent for him to satisfy the general’s curiosity to see a man who had formerly served with him, as he expressed it.

‘Very pleased to see you in the angelic image,’* said the general, holding out his hand. ‘I hope you have not forgotten an old comrade.’

The abbot’s red, smiling face amid its fringe of grey, the general’s words, his well-cared-for face with its self-satisfied smile, and the smell of wine from his breath and of cigars from his whiskers, all of this revolted Father Sergy. He bowed again to the abbot and said:

‘Your reverence deigned to send for me?’ He stopped, but the whole expression of his face and eyes was asking why.

‘Yes, to meet the general,’ replied the abbot.

‘Your reverence, I left the world to save myself from temptation,’ said Father Sergy, turning pale and with quivering lips. ‘Why do you expose me to it during prayers and in the house of God?’

‘You may go! Go!’ said the abbot, flaring up and frowning.

Next day Father Sergy asked pardon of the abbot and of the brethren for his pride, but at the same time, after a night spent in prayer, he decided that he must leave this monastery, and he wrote to the starets begging permission to return to him. He wrote that he felt his weakness and incapacity to struggle against temptation without his help and penitently confessed his sin of pride. By return post came a letter from the starets, who wrote that Sergy’s pride was the cause of all that had happened. The old man pointed out that his fits of anger were due to the fact that in refusing all clerical honours he humiliated himself not for the sake of God but for the sake of his pride. ‘There now, am I not a splendid man not to want anything?’ That was why he could not tolerate the abbot’s action. ‘I have renounced everything for the glory of God, and here I am exhibited like a wild beast!’ ‘Had you renounced vanity for God’s sake you would have borne it. Worldly pride is not yet dead in you. I have thought about you, Sergy my son, and prayed also, and this is what God has suggested to me. At the Tambov hermitage the anchorite Illarion, a man of saintly life, has died. He had lived there eighteen years. The Tambov abbot is asking whether there is not a brother who would take his place. And here comes your letter. Go to Father Paisy of the Tambov Monastery. I will write to him about you, and you must ask for Illarion’s cell. Not that you can replace Illarion, but you need solitude to quell your pride. May God bless you!’

Sergy obeyed the starets, showed his letter to the abbot, and, having obtained his permission, gave up his cell, handed all his possessions over to the monastery, and set out for the Tambov hermitage.

There the abbot, an excellent manager of merchant origin, received Sergy simply and quietly and placed him in Illarion’s cell, at first assigning to him a lay brother but afterwards leaving him alone, at Sergy’s own request. The cell was a dual cave, dug into the hillside, and in it Illarion had been buried. In the back part was Illarion’s grave, while in the front was a niche for sleeping, with a straw mattress, a small table, and a shelf with icons and books. Outside the outer door, which fastened with a hook, was another shelf on which, once a day, a monk placed food from the monastery.

And so Sergy became a hermit.

 

 

IV

In Butter Week,* in the sixth year of Sergy’s life at the hermitage, a merry company of rich people, men and women from a neighbouring town, made up a troika-party,* after a meal of bliny* and wine. The company consisted of two lawyers, a wealthy landowner, an officer, and four ladies. One lady was the officer’s wife, another the wife of the landowner, the third his sister, a young girl, and the fourth a divorcée, beautiful, rich, and eccentric, who amazed and shocked the town by her escapades.

The weather was excellent and the snow-covered road smooth as a floor. They drove some seven miles out of town, and then stopped and consulted as to whether they should turn back or drive further.

‘But where does this road lead to?’ asked Makovkina, the beautiful divorcée.

‘To Tambov, eight miles from here,’ replied one of the lawyers, who was courting her.

‘And then where?’

‘Then on to L——, past the monastery.’

‘Where that Father Sergy lives?’

‘Yes.’

‘Kasatsky, the handsome hermit?’

‘Yes.’

‘Mesdames! Gentlemen! Let us drive on and see Kasatsky! We can stop at Tambov and have something to eat.’

‘But we won’t be able to get home tonight!’

‘Never mind, we will stay at Kasatsky’s.’

‘Well, there is a very good hostelry at the monastery. I stayed there when I was defending Makhin.’

‘No, I shall spend the night at Kasatsky’s!’

‘Impossible! Even your omnipotence could not accomplish that!’

‘Impossible? Will you bet?’

‘All right! If you spend the night with him, the stake shall be whatever you like.’

‘A discrétion!‘1

‘And on your side too!’

‘Yes, of course. Let us drive on.’

Vodka was handed to the drivers, and the party got out a box of pirozhki* wine, and sweets for themselves. The ladies wrapped themselves up in their white dog-fur coats. The drivers disputed as to whose troika should go ahead, and the youngest, seating himself sideways with a dashing air, swung his long knout and shouted to the horses. The troika bells tinkled and the sledge-runners squeaked over the snow.

The sledges swayed hardly at all, the shaft-horse, with his tightly bound tail under his decorated breech-band, galloped smoothly and merrily, the smooth road seemed to run rapidly backwards, while the driver dashingly shook the reins, the lawyer and the officer sitting opposite talked nonsense to Makovkina’s neighbour. Makovkina herself sat motionless and in thought, tightly wrapped in her fur. ‘Always the same and always nasty! The same red shiny faces smelling of wine and cigars! The same talk, the same thoughts, and always about the same vileness! And they are all satisfied and confident that it should be so, and will go on living like that till they die. But I can’t. It bores me. I want something that would upset it all and turn it upside down. Suppose it happened to us as to those people, at Saratov I think, who kept on driving and froze to death. What would our people do? How would they behave? Basely, for certain. Each for himself. And I too should act basely. But I at any rate have beauty. They all know it. And how about that monk? Is it possible that he no longer understands that? Not so! That is the one thing they all understand, like that cadet last autumn. What a fool he was!’

‘Ivan Nikolaich!’ she said.

‘What are your commands?’

‘How old is he?’

‘Who?’

‘Kasatsky.’

‘Over forty, I should think.’

‘And does he receive everybody?’

‘Yes, everybody, but not always.’

‘Cover up my feet. Not like that, how clumsy you are! No! More, more, like that! But you need not squeeze them!’

So they came to the forest where the cell was.

Makovkina got out of the sledge and told them to drive on. They tried to dissuade her, but she grew irritable and ordered them to go on. When the sledges had gone she went up the path in her white dog-fur coat. The lawyer got out and stopped to watch her.