Father Sergy
by Leo Tolstoy
(narrated by George Guidall)

[Part 4]

She rose, took her stockings over to the stove and hung them on the damper. It was an unusual damper, and she turned it about, and then, stepping lightly on her bare feet, returned to the bench and sat down there again with her feet up. There was complete silence on the other side of the partition. She looked at the tiny watch that hung round her neck. It was two o’clock. ‘Our party should return about three!’ She had not more than an hour before her. ‘Well, am I to sit like this all alone? What nonsense! I don’t want to. I will call him at once.’

‘Father Sergy, Father Sergy! Sergy Dmitrich! Prince Kasatsky!’

Beyond the partition all was silent.

‘Listen! This is cruel. I would not call you if it were not necessary. I am ill. I don’t know what is the matter with me!’ she exclaimed in a tone of suffering. ‘Oh! Oh!’ she groaned, falling back on the bench. And strange to say she really felt that her strength was failing, that she was becoming faint, that everything in her ached, and that she was shivering with fever.

‘Listen! Help me! I don’t know what is the matter with me. Oh! Oh!’ She unfastened her dress, exposing her breast, and lifted her arms, bare to the elbow. ‘Oh! Oh!’

All this time he stood on the other side of the partition and prayed. Having finished all the evening prayers, he now stood motionless, his eyes looking at the end of his nose, and mentally repeated with all his soul: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me!’

But he had heard everything. He had heard how the silk rustled when she took off her dress, how she stepped with bare feet on the floor, how she rubbed her feet with her hand. He felt his own weakness, and that he might be lost at any moment. That was why he prayed unceasingly. He felt rather as the hero in the fairy tale must have felt when he had to go on and on without looking round. So Sergy heard and felt that danger and destruction were there, hovering above and around him, and that he could only save himself by not looking in that direction for an instant. But suddenly the desire to look seized him. At the same instant she said:

‘This is inhuman. I may die.’

‘Yes, I will go to her, but like the Saint who laid one hand on the adulteress and thrust his other into the brazier. But there is no brazier here.’ He looked round. The lamp! He put his finger over the flame and frowned, preparing himself to suffer. And for a rather long time, as it seemed to him, there was no sensation, but suddenly, he had not yet decided whether it was painful enough, he writhed all over, jerked his hand away, and waved it in the air. ‘No, I can’t stand that!’

‘For God’s sake come to me! I am dying! Oh!’

‘Well, shall I perish? No, not in this way!’

‘I will come to you right away,’ he said, and having opened his door, he went without looking at her through the cell into the passageway where he used to chop wood. There he felt for the block and for an axe which leant against the wall.

‘Right away,’ he said, and taking up the axe with his right hand he laid the forefinger of his left hand on the block, swung the axe, and struck with it below the second joint. The finger flew off more lightly than a stick of similar thickness, and bounding up, turned over on the edge of the block and then fell to the floor.

He heard it fall before he felt any pain, but before he had time to be surprised he felt a burning pain and the warmth of flowing blood. He hastily wrapped the stump in the skirt of his cassock, and pressing it to his hip went back into the room, and standing in front of the woman, lowered his eyes and asked in a low voice: ‘What do you want?’

She looked at his pale face and his quivering left cheek, and suddenly felt ashamed. She jumped up, seized her fur coat, and throwing it round her shoulders, wrapped herself up in it.

‘I was in pain … I have caught cold … I … Father Sergy … I …’

He let his eyes, shining with a quiet light of joy, rest upon her and said:

‘Dear sister, why did you wish to ruin your immortal soul? Temptations must come into the world, but woe to him by whom temptation comes. Pray that God may forgive us!’

She listened and looked at him. Suddenly she heard the sound of something dripping. She looked down and saw that blood was flowing from his hand and down his cassock.

‘What have you done to your hand? She remembered the sound she had heard, and seizing the vigil light ran out into the passageway. There on the floor she saw the bloody finger. She returned with her face paler than his and was about to speak to him, but he silently passed into the back cell and fastened the door.

‘Forgive me!’ she said. ‘How can I atone for my sin?’

‘Go away’

‘Let me tie up your hand.’

‘Go away from here.’

She dressed hurriedly and silently, and when ready sat waiting in her furs. The sledge bells were heard outside.

‘Father Sergy, forgive me!’

‘Go away. God will forgive.’

‘Father Sergy! I will change my life. Do not forsake me!’

‘Go away.’

‘Forgive me, and give me your blessing!’

‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost!’, she heard his voice from behind the partition. ‘Go!’

She burst into sobs and left the cell. The lawyer came forward to meet her.

‘Well, I see I have lost the bet. It can’t be helped. Where will you sit?’

‘It is all the same to me.’

She took a seat in the sledge and did not utter a word all the way home.

A year later she entered a convent as a novice and lived a strict life under the direction of the hermit Arseny, who wrote letters to her at long intervals.

 

 

VI

Father Sergy lived as a recluse for another seven years.

At first he accepted much of what people brought him—tea, sugar, white bread, milk, clothing, and firewood. But as time went on he led a more and more austere life, refusing everything superfluous, and finally he accepted nothing but rye-bread once a week. Everything else that was brought him he gave to the poor who came to him. He spent his entire time in his cell, in prayer or in conversation with callers, who became more and more numerous as time went on. Only three times a year did he go out to church, and when necessary he went out to fetch water and wood.

The episode with Makovkina had occurred after five years of his hermit life. That occurrence soon became generally known, her nocturnal visit, the change she underwent, and her entry into a convent. From that time Father Sergy’s fame increased. More and more visitors came to see him, other monks settled down near his cell, and a church and guesthouse was erected there. His fame, as usual exaggerating his feats, spread ever more and more widely. People began to come to him from a distance and began bringing invalids to him whom they declared he cured.

His first cure occurred in the eighth year of his life as a hermit. It was the healing of a fourteen-year-old boy, whose mother brought him to Father Sergy insisting that he should lay his hands on the child’s head. It had never occurred to Father Sergy that he could cure the sick. He would have regarded such a thought as a great sin of pride, but the mother who brought the boy implored him insistently, falling at his feet and saying, ‘Why do you, who heal others, refuse to help my son?’ She besought him in Christ’s name. When Father Sergy assured her that only God could heal the sick, she replied that she only wanted him to lay his hands on the boy and pray for him. Father Sergy refused and returned to his cell. But on going out for water the next day (it was in autumn and the nights were already cold), he saw the same mother with her son, a pale boy of fourteen, and was met by the same petition. Father Sergy remembered the parable of the unjust judge,* and though he had previously felt sure that he ought to refuse, he now began to feel doubt and, having felt doubt, he took to prayer and prayed until a decision formed itself in his soul. This decision was, that he ought to accede to the woman’s request and that her faith might save her son. As for himself, Father Sergy would in this case be but an insignificant instrument chosen by God.

And going out to the mother he did what she asked, laid his hands on the boy’s head and prayed.

The mother left with her son, and a month later the boy recovered, and the fame of the holy healing power of the starets Sergy (as they now called him) spread throughout the whole district. After that, not a week passed without sick people coming, riding or on foot, to Father Sergy; and having acceded to one petition he could not refuse others, and he laid his hands on many and prayed. Many recovered, and his fame spread more and more.

So seven years passed in the monastery and thirteen in his hermit’s cell. He now had the appearance of a starets: his beard was long and grey, but his hair, though thin, was still black and curly.

 

 

VII

For some weeks Father Sergy had been living with one persistent thought, whether he was right in accepting the position in which he had not so much placed himself as been placed by the archimandrite and the abbot. That position had begun after the recovery of the fourteen-year-old boy. From that time, with each month, week, and day that passed, Sergy felt his own inner life was wasting away and being replaced by external life. It was as if he had been turned inside out.

Sergy saw that he was a means of attracting visitors and contributions to the monastery, and that therefore the authorities arranged matters in such a way as to make as much use of him as possible. For instance, they rendered it impossible for him to do any manual work. He was supplied with everything he could want, and they only demanded of him that he should not refuse his blessing to those who came to seek it. For his convenience they appointed days when he would receive. They arranged a reception room for men, and a place was railed in so that he would not be pushed over by the crowds of women visitors and so that he could conveniently bless those who came.

They told him that people needed him, and that fulfilling Christ’s law of love he could not refuse their demand to see him, and that to avoid them would be cruel. He could not but agree with this, but the more he gave himself up to such a life the more he felt that what was internal became external, and that the fount of living water within him dried up, and that what he did now was done more and more for men and less and less for God. Whether he admonished people, or simply blessed them, or prayed for the sick, or advised people about their lives, or listened to expressions of gratitude from those he had helped by precepts, or alms, or healing (as they assured him), he could not help being pleased at it and could not be indifferent to the results of his activity and to the influence he exerted. He thought of himself as a shining light, and the more he felt this the more was he conscious of a weakening, a dying down of the divine light of truth that shone within him. ‘How much is what I do for God and how much for men?’ That was the question that insistently tormented him and to which he was not so much unable to give himself an answer as unable to face the answer. In the depth of his soul he felt that the devil had substituted activity for men in place of all his former activity for God. He felt this because, just as it had formerly been hard for him to be torn from his solitude, so now that solitude itself was hard for him. He was oppressed and wearied by visitors, but at the bottom of his heart he was glad of their presence and glad of the praise they heaped upon him.

There was a time when he decided to go away and hide. He even planned all that was necessary for that purpose. He prepared for himself a peasant’s shirt, trousers, coat, and cap. He explained that he wanted these to give to those who asked. And he kept these clothes in his cell, planning how he would put them on, cut his hair short, and go away. First he would go some three hundred versts* by train, then he would leave the train and walk from village to village. He asked an old man who had been a soldier how he tramped, what people gave him and what shelter they allowed him. The soldier told him where people were most charitable and where they would take a wanderer in for the night, and Father Sergy intended to avail himself of this information. He even put on those clothes one night in his desire to go, but he could not decide what was best, to remain or to escape. At first he was undecided, but afterwards this indecision passed. He was used to it and yielded to the devil, and the peasant garb just served as a reminder of his thoughts and feelings.

Every day more and more people flocked to him and less and less time was left him for prayer and for renewing his spiritual strength. Sometimes in lucid moments he thought he had become like a place where there had once been a spring. ‘There used to be a feeble spring of living water which flowed quietly from me and through me. That was true life, the time when “she” (He always thought with ecstasy of that night and of her. She was now Mother Agniya.) tempted him!’ She had tasted of that pure water. But since then there had not been time for the water to collect before thirsty people came crowding in and pushing one another aside. And they had trampled everything down and nothing was left but mud. So he thought in rare moments of lucidity, but his usual state of mind was one of weariness and a tender pity for himself because of that weariness.