30 June 2020

Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on Orthodox Christian worship

A few weeks ago I read Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection and in my review of it (see here: Notes from underground: Resurrection: prison and land reform) I mentioned that shortly after the book was published Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church. I remarked that after reading the book I was not surprised by this, since it was clear from the book that he rejected and despised Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox worship.

Some people who read it asked me to say what Tolstoy had to say about Orthodoxy, and this post is a response to that request.

After I finished reading Tolstoy's novel I began re-reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which has more sympathetic descriptions of Orthodoxy and Orthodox worship. In this post I shall quote excerpts from both, and make comments on both.

In the first passage, from Dostoevsky, the monk Zossima, who is ill and near death, tells his fellow monks some of his recollections of his childhood.
But even before I learned to read, I remember first being moved to devotional feeling at eight years old. My mother took me alone to mass (I don't remember where my brother was at the time) on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember today, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God's word in my heart. A youth came out into the middle of the church carrying a big book, so large that at the time I fancied he could scarcely carry it. He laid it in the reading desk, opened it, and began reading, and suddenly for the first time I understood something read in the church of God. In the land of Uz there lived a man, righteous and God-fearing...
And here is Tolstoy's description, from Resurrection:
The service began.

It consisted of the following. The priest, having dressed himself up in a strange and very inconvenient garb of gold cloth, cut and arranged little pieces of bread on a saucer and then put most of them into a cup with wine, repeating at the same time different names and prayers.

Meanwhile the deacon first read Slavonic prayers, difficult to understand in themselves and rendered still more incomprehensible by being read very fast, and then sang them in turn with the convicts. The prayers chiefly expressed desire for the welfare of the Emperor and his family. These petitions were repeated many times, separately and together with other prayers, the people kneeling. Besides this several verses from the Acts of the Apostles were read by the deacon in a peculiarly strained voice, which made it impossible to understand what he read, and then the priest himself read very distinctly a part of St. Marks Gospel, in which it is told how Christ, having risen from the dead, before flying up to heaven to sit down at His Father's right hand, first showed himself to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven devils...

The essence of the service consisted in the supposition that the bits of bread cut up by the priest and put into the wine, when manipulated and prayed over in a certain way, turned into the flesh and blood of God.

These manipulations consisted in the priest, hampered by the gold cloth sack he had on, regularly lifting and holding up his arms, and then sinking to his knees and kissing the table and all that was on it; but chiefly in his taking a cloth by two of its corners and waving it rhythmically and softly over the silver saucer and the golden cup. It was supposed at this point that the bread and the wine turned into the flesh and blood: therefore this part of the service was performed with the utmost solemnity.
There are several notable differences between these descriptions.

The service Dostoevsky describes, though the English translator has called it "mass", is actually Vespers, which on the Monday of Holy Week is followed by the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. In the Orthodox Church, though Vespers is normally an evening service, in Holy Week it is usually celebrated in the morning, by anticipation, hence the sunlight in the cupola.

St Mitrofan Church in Moscow

Doestoevsky describes the service through the eyes of one of his characters. Tolstoy describes it as the author, rather in the manner of a lecturer from the League of Militant Atheists instructing novices in militant atheism on the correct understanding of Christian worship.

Nowadays, in writing courses, novice writers are urged "show, don't tell". This is what Dostoevsky does -- he shows the reader through the eyes of one of his characters. Tolstoy is determined to tell the reader, and does this throughout his book. Tolstoy rarely lets his characters speak for themselves or think for themselves. He himself tells the readers what they think and what they are like. While "show, don't tell" may have become a bit of a literary cliché, or even a literary fetish, comparing Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy has shown me some of the wisdom in it.

The reason I started to re-read The Brothers Karamazov, however, is related to this point. Someone posted a link to an article about the dangers of Christian socialism, and quoted Dostoevsky as having pointed out the dangers:
Dostoevsky: Fear the Christian Socialist | The Voice Blog: by Chris Banescu –
“The socialist who is a Christian is more to be feared than the socialist who is an atheist.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

Now Tolstoy might have said such a thing, but in Dostoevsky, that is not what Dostoevsky himself said -- it was something he put into the mouth of one of his characters (one who is not at all sympathetic to Christianity -- he started a lawsuit against a monastery to show how anticlerical he was). And this character, Peter Miusev, was quoting a head of the political  police in France. It's a bit like a Jewish author putting similar words into the mouth of an anti-Semitic character quoting a Gestapo chief as saying that Jewish socialists were more to be feared than atheist ones. Well he would, wouldn't he.

And so I started re-reading The Brothers Karamazov to remind myself what Dostoevsky's character Peter Miusev was like, because it is clear that in that linked article he is being quoted wildly out of context.

But I'll review that book in due course. For now the point is that Tolstoy shows himself as hostile to Orthodox worship, so he would really have no reason to worry about being excommunicated, since he made it very obvious that he did not value communion at all.

1 comment:

Wurmbrand said...

"Resurrection" is impressive, a real work of social thought and of the imagination, and sometimes tedious too. From a Lutheran perspective, I would say Tolstoy is a powerful preacher of the Law (God's demands upon us), but that he didn't understand the Gospel (what God does for us, in love). He reminds me a little of George MacDonald, who is good at stirring the conscience but tends to be confused about, e.g. the Atonement -- but he is far more sound than Tolstoy in this novel.

Dale Nelson


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