Book Seven: Putrification to mystical transcendence

CanaBook Seven is the one where Dostoevsky dragged out the big guns.  There are some big happenings in this section, and each of them laced with the dark humor that is at the core of this book.

As noted previously, the Starets died in the last section.  In this section, his body is on display in the hermitage–all while a rotating team of monks reads the Gospel, filibuster-style.  Then, something shocking happens.  His body begins to smell.  Honestly, this is as earthy as Chaucer.  But the best part is the reaction of the acolytes.  Apparently, the body of a true holy man isn’t supposed to putrify.  Who knew?

This part of the story just fits so snugly on the intersection of the human and the religious, which is where this book finds itself so often.  All these people, who a day ago revered the Starets, now begin to doubt him.  Actually, it was more than doubt–they literally decide he must not have been the holy man he thought.  In fact, they react with a kind of satisfaction that would indicate they were possibly a tad jealous of the old man.

We’re then treated to the arrival of Father Therapon, the crazy (even by Russian monk standards) extreme ascetic who lives in a part of the Hermitage.  He lays the smack down on the deceased Starets.

‘He did not observe the days of fasting as befits a monk of his monastic title, hence this sign from on high. It is there for all to see, and to deny it is a sin!’ The zealot could restrain himself no longer and, in his fervour, overstepped all bounds of reason. ‘He was tempted by sweets brought to him by ladies in their pockets, he sipped tea for pleasure, he indulged his stomach with sweet things, and his mind with arrogant notions… Therefore hath this ignominy befallen him…’

When I read the putrification section, I see it as Doestovsky continuing to show us the difficulties when extreme expressions of faith collide with actual human life. Taken in concert with the previous faith healing pilgrimages, I think we can see how extreme faith is difficult to sustain in the real world and Alyosha shows us how difficult it is to live with piety in a sin-filled world.

Then, at the end of this section, we see Alyosha back at the Staret’s wake.  In an absolutely incredible scene, Alyosha has a mystical experience in which the Starets takes his hand and escorts him to the Marriage at Cana and Alyosha experiences a mystical love and understands that Jesus’ love is for everyone, even the poor and destitute.

Something burned in Alyosha’s heart, something swelled in it till it hurt, tears of ecstasy welled up within him… He put out his arms, cried out, and woke up…

And here is what I think that Doestevsky thinks is real Christian love–direct communion with God.  From the Grand Inquisitor to the biography of the Starets to the putrification controversy, we see what happens when humans involve themselves in religious matters.  But, here, Alyosha has a direct, mystical vision of the love at the root of the faith.

He leaves the Hermitage.

He did not even stop in the porch, but descended the steps quickly. His soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide-open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleamed in the sapphire night. The splendid autumn flowers in the beds around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the stars

So, if you can’t appreciate the brilliance of that paragraph, you aren’t a reader.  Who hasn’t walked outdoors on a clear night and felt the infinite beauty of the “silent, shimmering stars” above us.  You can see the cupolas in the sky, the flowers, and when you know what “the mystery of the earth” means.

This is our own transcendent moment through the power of literature in the hands of a genius.

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