Chapter 5   -   Elders

    SOME of my readers may imagine that my young man was a sickly,

ecstatic, poorly developed creature, a pale, consumptive dreamer. On

the contrary, Alyosha was at this time a well-grown, red-cheeked,

clear-eyed lad of nineteen, radiant with health. He was very handsome,

too, graceful, moderately tall, with hair of a dark brown, with a

regular, rather long, oval-shaped face, and wide-set dark grey,

shining eyes; he was very thoughtful, and apparently very serene. I

shall be told, perhaps, that red cheeks are not incompatible with

fanaticism and mysticism; but I fancy that Alyosha was more of a

realist than anyone. Oh! no doubt, in the monastery he fully

believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a

stumbling-block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose

realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever,

will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous,

and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would

rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he

admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised

by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but

the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound

by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas

said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he

said, "My Lord and my God!" Was it the miracle forced him to

believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to

believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when

he said, "I do not believe till I see."

    I shall be told, perhaps, that Alyosha was stupid, undeveloped,

had not finished his studies, and so on. That he did not finish his

studies is true, but to say that he was stupid or dull would be a

great injustice. I'll simply repeat what I have said above. He entered

upon this path only because, at that time, it alone struck his

imagination and presented itself to him as offering an ideal means

of escape for his soul from darkness to light. Add to that that he was

to some extent a youth of our last epoch- that is, honest in nature,

desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to

serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for

immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself,

for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the

sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices,

and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their

seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply

tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have

set before them as their goal such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the

strength of many of them. The path Alyosha chose was a path going in

the opposite direction, but he chose it with the same thirst for swift

achievement. As soon as he reflected seriously he was convinced of the

existence of God and immortality, and at once he instinctively said to

himself: "I want to live for immortality, and I will accept no

compromise." In the same way, if he had decided that God and

immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and

a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labour question, it is

before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form

taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built

without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on

earth. Alyosha would have found it strange and impossible to go on

living as before. It is written: "Give all that thou hast to the

poor and follow Me, if thou wouldst be perfect."

    Alyosha said to himself: "I can't give two roubles instead of

'all,' and only go to mass instead of 'following Him.'" Perhaps his

memories of childhood brought back our monastery, to which his

mother may have taken him to mass. Perhaps the slanting sunlight and

the holy image to which his poor "crazy" mother had held him up

still acted upon his imagination. Brooding on these things he may have

come to us perhaps only to see whether here he could sacrifice all

or only "two roubles," and in the monastery he met this elder. I

must digress to explain what an "elder" is in Russian monasteries, and

I am sorry that I do not feel very competent to do so. I will try,

however, to give a superficial account of it in a few words.

Authorities on the subject assert that the institution of "elders"

is of recent date, not more than a hundred years old in our

monasteries, though in the orthodox East, especially in Sinai and

Athos, it has existed over a thousand years. It is maintained that

it existed in ancient times in Russia also, but through the calamities

which overtook Russia- the Tartars, civil war, the interruption of

relations with the East after the destruction of Constantinople-

this institution fell into oblivion. It was revived among us towards

the end of last century by one of the great "ascetics," as they called

him, Paissy Velitchkovsky, and his disciples. But to this day it

exists in few monasteries only, and has sometimes been almost

persecuted as an innovation in Russia. It flourished especially in the

celebrated Kozelski Optin Monastery. When and how it was introduced

into our monastery I cannot say. There had already been three such

elders and Zossima was the last of them. But he was almost dying of

weakness and disease, and they had no one to take his place. The

question for our monastery was an important one, for it had not been

distinguished by anything in particular till then: they had neither

relics of saints, nor wonder- working ikons, nor glorious

traditions, nor historical exploits. It had flourished and been

glorious all over Russia through its elders, to see and hear whom

pilgrims had flocked for thousands of miles from all parts.

    What was such an elder? An elder was one who took your soul,

your will, into his soul and his will. When you choose an elder, you

renounce your own will and yield it to him in complete submission,

complete self-abnegation. This novitiate, this terrible school of

abnegation, is undertaken voluntarily, in the hope of self-conquest,

of self-mastery, in order, after a life of obedience, to attain

perfect freedom, that is, from self; to escape the lot of those who

have lived their whole life without finding their true selves in

themselves. This institution of elders is not founded on theory, but

was established in the East from the practice of a thousand years. The

obligations due to an elder are not the ordinary "obedience" which has

always existed in our Russian monasteries. The obligation involves

confession to the elder by all who have submitted themselves to him,

and to the indissoluble bond between him and them.

    The story is told, for instance, that in the early days of

Christianity one such novice, failing to fulfil some command laid upon

him by his elder, left his monastery in Syria and went to Egypt.

There, after great exploits, he was found worthy at last to suffer

torture and a martyr's death for the faith. When the Church, regarding

him as a saint, was burying him, suddenly, at the deacon's

exhortation, "Depart all ye unbaptised," the coffin containing the

martyr's body left its place and was cast forth from the church, and

this took place three times. And only at last they learnt that this

holy man had broken his vow of obedience and left his elder, and,

therefore, could not be forgiven without the elder's absolution in

spite of his great deeds. Only after this could the funeral take

place. This, of course, is only an old legend. But here is a recent


    A monk was suddenly commanded by his elder to quit Athos, which he

loved as a sacred place and a haven of refuge, and to go first to

Jerusalem to do homage to the Holy Places and then to go to the

north to Siberia: "There is the place for thee and not here." The

monk, overwhelmed with sorrow, went to the Oecumenical Patriarch at

Constantinople and besought him to release him from his obedience. But

the Patriarch replied that not only was he unable to release him,

but there was not and could not be on earth a power which could

release him except the elder who had himself laid that duty upon

him. In this way the elders are endowed in certain cases with

unbounded and inexplicable authority. That is why in many of our

monasteries the institution was at first resisted almost to

persecution. Meantime the elders immediately began to be highly

esteemed among the people. Masses of the ignorant people as well as of

distinction flocked, for instance, to the elders of our monastery to

confess their doubts, their sins, and their sufferings, and ask for

counsel and admonition. Seeing this, the opponents of the elders

declared that the sacrament of confession was being arbitrarily and

frivolously degraded, though the continual opening of the heart to the

elder by the monk or the layman had nothing of the character of the

sacrament. In the end, however, the institution of elders has been

retained and is becoming established in Russian monasteries. It is

true, perhaps, that this instrument which had stood the test of a

thousand years for the moral regeneration of a man from slavery to

freedom and to moral perfectibility may be a two-edged weapon and it

may lead some not to humility and complete self-control but to the

most Satanic pride, that is, to bondage and not to freedom.

    The elder Zossima was sixty-five. He came of a family of

landowners, had been in the army in early youth, and served in the

Caucasus as an officer. He had, no doubt, impressed Alyosha by some

peculiar quality of his soul. Alyosha lived in the cell of the

elder, who was very fond of him and let him wait upon him. It must

be noted that Alyosha was bound by no obligation and could go where he

pleased and be absent for whole days. Though he wore the monastic

dress it was voluntarily, not to be different from others. No doubt he

liked to do so. Possibly his youthful imagination was deeply stirred

by the power and fame of his elder. It was said that so many people

had for years past come to confess their sins to Father Zossima and to

entreat him for words of advice and healing, that he had acquired

the keenest intuition and could tell from an unknown face what a

new-comer wanted, and what was the suffering on his conscience. He

sometimes astounded and almost alarmed his visitors by his knowledge

of their secrets before they had spoken a word.

    Alyosha noticed that many, almost all, went in to the elder for

the first time with apprehension and uneasiness, but came out with

bright and happy faces. Alyosha was particularly struck by the fact

that Father Zossima was not at all stern. On the contrary, he was

always almost gay. The monks used to say that he was more drawn to

those who were more sinful, and the greater the sinner the more he

loved him. There were, no doubt, up to the end of his life, among

the monks some who hated and envied him, but they were few in number

and they were silent, though among them were some of great dignity

in the monastery, one, for instance, of the older monks

distinguished for his strict keeping of fasts and vows of silence. But

the majority were on Father Zossima's side and very many of them loved

him with all their hearts, warmly and sincerely. Some were almost

fanatically devoted to him, and declared, though not quite aloud, that

he was a saint, that there could be no doubt of it, and, seeing that

his end was near, they anticipated miracles and great glory to the

monastery in the immediate future from his relics. Alyosha had

unquestioning faith in the miraculous power of the elder, just as he

had unquestioning faith in the story of the coffin that flew out of

the church. He saw many who came with sick children or relatives and

besought the elder to lay hands on them and to pray over them,

return shortly after- some the next day- and, falling in tears at

the elder's feet, thank him for healing their sick.

    Whether they had really been healed or were simply better in the

natural course of the disease was a question which did not exist for

Alyosha, for he fully believed in the spiritual power of his teacher

and rejoiced in his fame, in his glory, as though it were his own

triumph. His heart throbbed, and he beamed, as it were, all over

when the elder came out to the gates of the hermitage into the waiting

crowd of pilgrims of the humbler class who had flocked from all

parts of Russia on purpose to see the elder and obtain his blessing.

They fell down before him, wept, kissed his feet, kissed the earth

on which he stood, and wailed, while the women held up their

children to him and brought him the sick "possessed with devils."

The elder spoke to them, read a brief prayer over them, blessed

them, and dismissed them. Of late he had become so weak through

attacks of illness that he was sometimes unable to leave his cell, and

the pilgrims waited for him to come out for several days. Alyosha

did not wonder why they loved him so, why they fell down before him

and wept with emotion merely at seeing his face. Oh! he understood

that for the humble soul of the Russian peasant, worn out by grief and

toil, and still more by the everlasting injustice and everlasting sin,

his own and the world's, it was the greatest need and comfort to

find someone or something holy to fall down before and worship.

    "Among us there is sin, injustice, and temptation, but yet,

somewhere on earth there is someone holy and exalted. He has the

truth; he knows the truth; so it is not dead upon the earth; so it

will come one day to us, too, and rule over all the earth according to

the promise."

    Alyosha knew that this was just how the people felt and even

reasoned. He understood it, but that the elder Zossima was this

saint and custodian of God's truth- of that he had no more doubt

than the weeping peasants and the sick women who held out their

children to the elder. The conviction that after his death the elder

would bring extraordinary glory to the monastery was even stronger

in Alyosha than in anyone there, and, of late, a kind of deep flame of

inner ecstasy burnt more and more strongly in his heart. He was not at

all troubled at this elder's standing as a solitary example before


    "No matter. He is holy. He carries in his heart the secret of

renewal for all: that power which will, at last, establish truth on

the earth, and all men will be holy and love one another, and there

will be no more rich nor poor, no exalted nor humbled, but all will be

as the children of God, and the true Kingdom of Christ will come."

That was the dream in Alyosha's heart.

    The arrival of his two brothers, whom he had not known till

then, seemed to make a great impression on Alyosha. He more quickly

made friends with his half-brother Dmitri (though he arrived later)

than with his own brother Ivan. He was extremely interested in his

brother Ivan, but when the latter had been two months in the town,

though they had met fairly often, they were still not intimate.

Alyosha was naturally silent, and he seemed to be expecting something,

ashamed about something, while his brother Ivan, though Alyosha

noticed at first that he looked long and curiously at him, seemed soon

to have left off thinking of him. Alyosha noticed it with some

embarrassment. He ascribed his brother's indifference at first to

the disparity of their age and education. But he also wondered whether

the absence of curiosity and sympathy in Ivan might be due to some

other cause entirely unknown to him. He kept fancying that Ivan was

absorbed in something- something inward and important- that he was

striving towards some goal, perhaps very hard to attain, and that that

was why he had no thought for him. Alyosha wondered, too, whether

there was not some contempt on the part of the learned atheist for

him- a foolish novice. He knew for certain that his brother was an

atheist. He could not take offence at this contempt, if it existed;

yet, with an uneasy embarrassment which he did not himself understand,

he waited for his brother to come nearer to him. Dmitri used to

speak of Ivan with the deepest respect and with a peculiar

earnestness. From him Alyosha learnt all the details of the

important affair which had of late formed such a close and

remarkable bond between the two elder brothers. Dmitri's

enthusiastic references to Ivan were the more striking in Alyosha's

eyes since Dmitri was, compared with Ivan, almost uneducated, and

the two brothers were such a contrast in personality and character

that it would be difficult to find two men more unlike.

    It was at this time that the meeting, or, rather gathering of

the members of this inharmonious family took place in the cell of

the elder who had such an extraordinary influence on Alyosha. The

pretext for this gathering was a false one. It was at this time that

the discord between Dmitri and his father seemed at its acutest

stage and their relations had become insufferably strained. Fyodor

Pavlovitch seems to have been the first to suggest, apparently in

joke, that they should all meet in Father Zossima's cell, and that,

without appealing to his direct intervention, they might more decently

come to an understanding under the conciliating influence of the

elder's presence. Dmitri, who had never seen the elder, naturally

supposed that his father was trying to intimidate him, but, as he

secretly blamed himself for his outbursts of temper with his father on

several recent occasions, he accepted the challenge. It must be

noted that he was not, like Ivan, staying with his father, but

living apart at the other end of the town. It happened that Pyotr

Alexandrovitch Miusov, who was staying in the district at the time,

caught eagerly at the idea. A Liberal of the forties and fifties, a

freethinker and atheist, he may have been led on by boredom or the

hope of frivolous diversion. He was suddenly seized with the desire to

see the monastery and the holy man. As his lawsuit with the

monastery still dragged on, he made it the pretext for seeing the

Superior, in order to attempt to settle it amicably. A visitor

coming with such laudable intentions might be received with more

attention and consideration than if he came from simple curiosity.

Influences from within the monastery were brought to bear on the

elder, who of late had scarcely left his cell, and had been forced

by illness to deny even his ordinary visitors. In the end he consented

to see them, and the day was fixed.

    "Who has made me a judge over them?" was all he said, smilingly,

to Alyosha.

    Alyosha was much perturbed when he heard of the proposed visit. Of

all the wrangling, quarrelsome party, Dmitri was the only one who

could regard the interview seriously. All the others would come from

frivolous motives, perhaps insulting to the elder. Alyosha was well

aware of that. Ivan and Miusov would come from curiosity, perhaps of

the coarsest kind, while his father might be contemplating some

piece of buffoonery. Though he said nothing, Alyosha thoroughly

understood his father. The boy, I repeat, was far from being so simple

as everyone thought him. He awaited the day with a heavy heart. No

doubt he was always pondering in his mind how the family discord could

be ended. But his chief anxiety concerned the elder. He trembled for

him, for his glory, and dreaded any affront to him, especially the

refined, courteous irony of Miusov and the supercilious

half-utterances of the highly educated Ivan. He even wanted to venture

on warning the elder, telling him something about them, but, on second

thoughts, said nothing. He only sent word the day before, through a

friend, to his brother Dmitri, that he loved him and expected him to

keep his promise. Dmitri wondered, for he could not remember what he

had promised, but he answered by letter that he would do his utmost

not to let himself be provoked "by vileness," but that, although he

had a deep respect for the elder and for his brother Ivan, he was

convinced that the meeting was either a trap for him or an unworthy


    "Nevertheless I would rather bite out my tongue than be lacking in

respect to the sainted man whom you reverence so highly," he wrote

in conclusion. Alyosha was not greatly cheered by the letter.