NEAR the wooden portico below, built on to the outer wall of the precinct, there was a crowd of about twenty peasant women. They had been told that the elder was at last coming out, and they had gathered together in anticipation. Two ladies, Madame Hohlakov and her daughter, had also come out into the portico to wait for the elder, but in a separate part of it set aside for women of rank.
Madame Hohlakov was a wealthy lady, still young and attractive, and always dressed with taste. She was rather pale, and had lively black eyes. She was not more than thirty-three, and had been five years a widow. Her daughter, a girl of fourteen, was partially paralysed. The poor child had not been able to walk for the last six months, and was wheeled about in a long reclining chair. She had a charming little face, rather thin from illness, but full of gaiety. There was a gleam of mischief in her big dark eyes with their long lashes. Her mother had been intending to take her abroad ever since the spring, but they had been detained all the summer by business connected with their estate. They had been staying a week in our town, where they had come more for purposes of business than devotion, but had visited Father Zossima once already, three days before. Though they knew that the elder scarcely saw anyone, they had now suddenly turned up again, and urgently entreated “the happiness of looking once again on the great healer.”
The mother was sitting on a chair by the side of her daughter’s invalid carriage, and two paces from her stood an old monk, not one of our monastery, but a visitor from an obscure religious house in the far north. He too sought the elder’s blessing.
But Father Zossima, on entering the portico, went first straight to the peasants who were crowded at the foot of the three steps that led up into the portico. Father Zossima stood on the top step, put on his stole, and began blessing the women who thronged about him. One crazy woman was led up to him. As soon as she caught sight of the elder she began shrieking and writhing as though in the pains of childbirth. Laying the stole on her forehead, he read a short prayer over her, and she was at once soothed and quieted.
I do not know how it may be now, but in my childhood I often happened to see and hear these “possessed” women in the villages and monasteries. They used to be brought to mass; they would squeal and bark like a dog so that they were heard all over the church. But when the sacrament was carried in and they were led up to it, at once the “possession” ceased, and the sick women were always soothed for a time. I was greatly impressed and amazed at this as a child; but then I heard from country neighbours and from my town teachers that the whole illness was simulated to avoid work, and that it could always be cured by suitable severity; various anecdotes were told to confirm this. But later on I learnt with astonishment from medical specialists that there is no pretence about it, that it is a terrible illness to which women are subject, especially prevalent among us in Russia, and that it is due to the hard lot of the peasant women. It is a disease, I was told, arising from exhausting toil too soon after hard, abnormal and unassisted labour in childbirth, and from the hopeless misery, from beatings, and so on, which some women were not able to endure like others. The strange and instant healing of the frantic and struggling woman as soon as she was led up to the holy sacrament, which had been explained to me as due to malingering and the trickery of the “clericals,” arose probably in the most natural manner. Both the women who supported her and the invalid herself fully believed as a truth beyond question that the evil spirit in possession of her could not hold if the sick woman were brought to the sacrament and made to bow down before it. And so, with a nervous and psychically deranged woman, a sort of convulsion of the whole organism always took place, and was bound to take place, at the moment of bowing down to the sacrament, aroused by the expectation of the miracle of healing and the implicit belief that it would come to pass; and it did come to pass, though only for a moment. It was exactly the same now as soon as the elder touched the sick woman with the stole.
Many of the women in the crowd were moved to tears of ecstasy by the effect of the moment: some strove to kiss the hem of his garment, others cried out in sing-song voices.
He blessed them all and talked with some of them. The “possessed” woman he knew already. She came from a village only six versts from the monastery, and had been brought to him before.
“But here is one from afar.” He pointed to a woman by no means old but very thin and wasted, with a face not merely sunburnt but almost blackened by exposure. She was kneeling and gazing with a fixed stare at the elder; there was something almost frenzied in her eyes.
“From afar off, Father, from afar off! From two hundred miles from here. From afar off, Father, from afar off!” the woman began in a sing-song voice as though she were chanting a dirge, swaying her head from side to side with her cheek resting in her hand.
There is silent and long-suffering sorrow to be met with among the peasantry. It withdraws into itself and is still. But there is a grief that breaks out, and from that minute it bursts into tears and finds vent in wailing. This is particularly common with women. But it is no lighter a grief than the silent. Lamentations comfort only by lacerating the heart still more. Such grief does not desire consolation. It feeds on the sense of its hopelessness. Lamentations spring only from the constant craving to re-open the wound.
“You are of the tradesman class?” said Father Zossima, looking curiously at her.
“Townfolk we are, Father, townfolk. Yet we are peasants though we live in the town. I have come to see you, O Father! We heard of you, Father, we heard of you. I have buried my little son, and I have come on a pilgrimage. I have been in three monasteries, but they told me, ‘Go, Nastasya, go to them’ – that is to you. I have come; I was yesterday at the service, and to-day I have come to you.”
“What are you weeping for?”
“It’s my little son I’m grieving for, Father. he was three years old – three years all but three months. For my little boy, Father, I’m in anguish, for my little boy. He was the last one left. We had four, my Nikita and I, and now we’ve no children, our dear ones have all gone I buried the first three without grieving overmuch, and now I have buried the last I can’t forget him. He seems always standing before me. He never leaves me. He has withered my heart. I look at his little clothes, his little shirt, his little boots, and I wail. I lay out all that is left of him, all his little things. I look at them and wail. I say to Nikita, my husband, ‘let me go on a pilgrimage, master.’ He is a driver. We’re not poor people, Father, not poor; he drives our own horse. It’s all our own, the horse and the carriage. And what good is it all to us now? My Nikita has begun drinking while I am away. He’s sure to. It used to be so before. As soon as I turn my back he gives way to it. But now I don’t think about him. It’s three months since I left home. I’ve forgotten him. I’ve forgotten everything. I don’t want to remember. And what would our life be now together? I’ve done with him, I’ve done. I’ve done with them all. I don’t care to look upon my house and my goods. I don’t care to see anything at all!”
“Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once in olden times a holy saint saw in the Temple a mother like you weeping for her little one, her only one, whom God had taken. ‘Knowest thou not,’ said the saint to her, ‘how bold these little ones are before the throne of God? Verily there are none bolder than they in the Kingdom of Heaven. “Thou didst give us life, O Lord,” they say, “and scarcely had we looked upon it when Thou didst take it back again.” And so boldly they ask and ask again that God gives them at once the rank of angels. Therefore,’ said the saint, ‘thou, too, O Mother, rejoice and weep not, for thy little son is with the Lord in the fellowship of the angels.’ That’s what the saint said to the weeping mother of old. He was a great saint and he could not have spoken falsely. Therefore you too, mother, know that your little one is surely before the throne of God, is rejoicing and happy, and praying to God for you, and therefore weep, but rejoice.”
The woman listened to him, looking down with her cheek in her hand. She sighed deeply.
“My Nikita tried to comfort me with the same words as you. ‘Foolish one,’ he said, ‘why weep? Our son is no doubt singing with the angels before God.’ He says that to me, but he weeps himself. I see that he cries like me. ‘I know, Nikita,’ said I. ‘Where could he be if not with the Lord God? Only, here with us now he is not as he used to sit beside us before.’ And if only I could look upon him one little time, if only I could peep at him one little time, without going up to him, without speaking, if I could be hidden in a corner and only see him for one little minute, hear him playing in the yard, calling in his little voice, ‘Mammy, where are you?’ If only I could hear him pattering with his little feet about the room just once, only once; for so often, so often I remember how he used to run to me and shout and laugh, if only I could hear his little feet I should know him! But he’s gone, Father, he’s gone, and I shall never hear him again. Here’s his little sash, but him I shall never see or hear now.”
She drew out of her bosom her boy’s little embroidered sash, and as soon as she looked at it she began shaking with sobs, hiding her eyes with her fingers through which the tears flowed in a sudden stream.
“It is Rachel of old,” said the elder, “weeping for her children, and will not be comforted because they are not. Such is the lot set on earth for you mothers. Be not comforted. Consolation is not what you need. Weep and be not consoled, but weep. Only every time that you weep be sure to remember that your little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there at you and sees you, and rejoices at your tears, and points at them to the Lord God; and a long while yet will you keep that great mother’s grief. But it will turn in the end into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be only tears of tender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin. And I shall pray for the peace of your child’s soul. What was his name?”
“A sweet name. After Alexey, the man of God?”
“What a saint he was! I will remember him, mother, and your grief in my prayers, and I will pray for your husband’s health. It is a sin for you to leave him. Your little one will see from heaven that you have forsaken his father, and will weep over you. Why do you trouble his happiness? He is living, for the soul lives for ever, and though he is not in the house he is near you, unseen. How can he go into the house when you say that the house is hateful to you? To whom is he to go if he find you not together, his father and mother? He comes to you in dreams now, and you grieve. But then he will send you gentle dreams. Go to your husband, mother; go this very day.”
“I will go, Father, at your word. I will go. You’ve gone straight to my heart. My Nikita, my Nikita, you are waiting for me,” the woman began in a sing-song voice; but the elder had already turned away to a very old woman, dressed like a dweller in the town, not like a pilgrim. Her eyes showed that she had come with an object, and in order to say something. She said she was the widow of a non-commissioned officer, and lived close by in the town. Her son Vasenka was in the commissariat service, and had gone to Irkutsk in Siberia. He had written twice from there, but now a year had passed since he had written. She did inquire about him, but she did not know the proper place to inquire.
“Only the other day Stepanida Ilyinishna – she’s a rich merchant’s wife – said to me, ‘You go, Prohorovna, and put your son’s name down for prayer in the church, and pray for the peace of his soul as though he were dead. His soul will be troubled,’ she said, ‘and he will write you a letter.’ And Stepanida Ilyinishna told me it was a certain thing which had been many times tried. Only I am in doubt…. Oh, you light of ours! is it true or false, and would it be right?”
“Don’t think of it. It’s shameful to ask the question. How is it possible to pray for the peace of a living soul? And his own mother too! It’s a great sin, akin to sorcery. Only for your ignorance it is forgiven you. Better pray to the Queen of Heaven, our swift defence and help, for his good health, and that she may forgive you for your error. And another thing I will tell you, Prohorovna. Either he will soon come back to you, your son, or he will be sure to send a letter. Go, and henceforward be in peace. Your son is alive, I tell you.”
“Dear Father, God reward you, our benefactor, who prays for all of us and for our sins!”
But the elder had already noticed in the crowd two glowing eyes fixed upon him. An exhausted, consumptive-looking, though young peasant woman was gazing at him in silence. Her eyes besought him, but she seemed afraid to approach.
“What is it, my child?”
“Absolve my soul, Father,” she articulated softly, and slowly sank on her knees and bowed down at his feet. “I have sinned, Father. I am afraid of my sin.”
The elder sat down on the lower step. The woman crept closer to him, still on her knees.
“I am a widow these three years,” she began in a half-whisper, with a sort of shudder. “I had a hard life with my husband. He was an old man. He used to beat me cruelly. He lay ill; I thought looking at him, if he were to get well, if he were to get up again, what then? And then the thought came to me-”
“Stay!” said the elder, and he put his ear close to her lips.
The woman went on in a low whisper, so that it was almost impossible to catch anything. She had soon done.
“Three years ago?” asked the elder.
“Three years. At first I didn’t think about it, but now I’ve begun to be ill, and the thought never leaves me.”
“Have you come from far?”
“Over three hundred miles away.”
“Have you told it in confession?”
“I have confessed it. Twice I have confessed it.”
“Have you been admitted to Communion?”
“Yes. I am afraid. I am afraid to die.”
“Fear nothing and never be afraid; and don’t fret. If only your penitence fail not, God will forgive all. There is no sin, and there can be no sin on all the earth, which the Lord will not forgive to the truly repentant! Man cannot commit a sin so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God. Can there be a sin which could exceed the love of God? Think only of repentance, continual repentance, but dismiss fear altogether. Believe that God loves you as you cannot conceive; that He loves you with your sin, in your sin. It has been said of old that over one repentant sinner there is more joy in heaven than over ten righteous men. Go, and fear not. Be not bitter against men. Be not angry if you are wronged. Forgive the dead man in your heart what wrong he did you. Be reconciled with him in truth. If you are penitent, you love. And if you love you are of God. All things are atoned for, all things are saved by love. If I, a sinner, even as you are, am tender with you and have pity on you, how much more will God. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others.”
He signed her three times with the cross, took from his own neck a little ikon and put it upon her. She bowed down to the earth without speaking.
He got up and looked cheerfully at a healthy peasant woman with a tiny baby in her arms.
“From Vyshegorye, dear Father.”
“Five miles you have dragged yourself with the baby. What do you want?”
“I’ve come to look at you. I have been to you before – or have you forgotten? You’ve no great memory if you’ve forgotten me. They told us you were ill. Thinks I, I’ll go and see him for myself. Now I see you, and you’re not ill! You’ll live another twenty years. God bless you! There are plenty to pray for you; how should you be ill?”
“I thank you for all, daughter.”
“By the way, I have a thing to ask, not a great one. Here are sixty copecks. Give them, dear Father, to someone poorer than me. I thought as I came along, better give through him. He’ll know whom to give to.”
“Thanks, my dear, thanks! You are a good woman. I love you. I will do so certainly. Is that your little girl?”
“My little girl, Father, Lizaveta.”
“May the Lord bless you both, you and your babe Lizaveta! You have gladdened my heart, mother. Farewell, dear children, farewell, dear ones.”
He blessed them all and bowed low to them.