Thursday, 25 September 2008

Father Sergius - Father Frank's Rants


Rant 320 24 September 2008

Father Sergius

There was once a young Russian aristocrat. A prince and an officer in the Imperial army. Brilliant, intelligent, brave. Had all the gifts. Excelled in everything he did and naturally he was very proud of it. Till the day he fell in love with a beautiful, wealthy and noble young woman. Although the prince was not rich, she agreed immediately. Overjoyed, he looked forward to the wedding. Shortly before it, however, his bride shocked him: she had been the emperor’s mistress. The young man’s world fell apart.

Had it been any other man, the prince would have killed him. But he adored his emperor. Still, his pride mortally wounded, he could not continue as before. Broke the engagement and entered a monastery. Became a monk. In religion, his name was now Father Sergius. An exemplary, strict and devout servant of God. Outdid everybody else at austerities, fasts, long prayers, harsh discipline, everything. But even that wasn’t tough enough. So Sergius became a hermit. Dwelled alone in a primitive cell, some distance away from the monastery. The handsome young fellow, so proud of his looks, now let his hair grow unkempt and wore the roughest monkish cowl. Constant prayer and hard work. That was his daily routine.

Sergius’ fame for holiness spread far and wide. So much so some idle aristocrats made a wicked bet. A shapely female would knock at the door of Sergius’ hut, pretending to have lost her way, and then seduce him. One dark and stormy night the temptress got in. She really was very beautiful. The monk invoked God’s help but felt his resistance was about to yield. What should he do? He laid his forefinger on a block, picked up an axe and, with a swinging blow, chopped his finger off. Horrified, seeing the gushing blood, the woman begged for Sergius’ forgiveness. Later, she too entered a monastery.

After this act, Sergius’ reputation grew immense. They treated him as a living saint. People came from all over Russia to ask him for healing, for miracles, for mercy. Although outwardly very lowly, inwardly the monk now felt a certain pride. Until the day a rich peasant brought along his daughter, not particularly beautiful but young. They were left alone in his cell. This time Sergius gave in. Laid down with the willing girl and…fornicated.

When Sergius awoke, he thought of committing suicide. Instead, he ran away. Wandered in the woods, aimlessly. Exhausted, he slept. Dreamt of a childhood friend, an ordinary girl called Pashenka, whom he had not seen since being a boy. She was his last hope, he decided. On foot, begging his bread, Sergius travelled for days and weeks. Till he arrived, in rags, at Pashenka’s simple house. Despite the time lapse, she recognised him. Offered hospitality but Sergius wanted to know about her. What life had she led? Was she happy? Actually, she had lived a very normal life, with her share of woes, as well as joys. And she was painfully aware she was not right with God. Now Sergius saw Pashenka was all that he should have been and was not. “I lived for people, pretending it was for God, while she lives for God and thinks she is living for people.” Despite the religious habit, it had all been sheer vainglory. At last he understood God does not care for that.

So Sergius set off a wandering pilgrim, a beggar, from village to village. Until he was arrested as a vagrant and exiled to Siberia, where he settled on the holding of a wealthy farmer. He lived on there as a gardener, teaching the children and tending the sick.

Leo Tolstoy authored ‘Father Sergius’. A story the philosopher Wittgenstein would advise his favourite students to read. The solution to the riddle of human existence, he thought, is hinted at in tales such as this. Perhaps. Certainly Tolstoy meant it as a parable of human pride. Sergius is at heart a fine, decent human being. Endowed with many natural and spiritual gifts. But all the devotions, the holy endeavours, the good deeds, even the humility in Sergius’ life are choked and defiled and nullified by his colossal, monstrous pride. His very saintliness is bogus because it arises out of the same human arrogance. It is only when Sergius spectacularly fails, when he is forced to realise his outwardly holy life had really been a fake, a sham and a deception, that God accepts him at last. And so in that he finds peace.

Tolstoy’s ideal was notoriously pre-industrial and sentimental. Even his Christianity was more Buddhist than orthodox. Still, in Father Sergius he is gesturing at something tremendously important. Something that may speak volumes about us today.

Pride is strictly the primeval sin. It predates creation. It is the sin by which the angels fell. Foolish pride led them, like the Titans, to storm Heaven, to attempt to dethrone God. Insightfully, in the epic poem Paradise Lost John Milton shows Satan and his rebel spirits setting out ‘to win the Mount of God, and on his Throne to set the envier of his State, the proud Aspirer’. And Adam and Eve’s transgression also arose out of the same fateful root, human pride. The serpent knew it when he invited them ‘to become like God, knowing good and evil’. Hence the Fall.

Be not deceived. Pride does not manifest itself only in individuals. It also rages in the life of institutions, cultures and nations. Thus the priest sees the economic and financial upheavals now shaking the Western world as also rooted in inordinate human pride. Our civilisation is puffed up with its own human achievements. It glories in its own man-made idols, its human rights, its liberal democracy, its wealth, its consumerism, its sexual freedom, its bogus celebrities, its vile entertainment could go on. In truth, the West has quietly dethroned God – not by violent revolution against him but, worse, by ignoring his presence, his commandments, his love – and has replaced his worship with the monotheism of the market. But now the proud visage of that phoney idol is cracked, its frown of superiority is humbled, the sneer of command has gone.

Verily, a god that has failed. Al Hamdulillah!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli



brd said...

Thank you for your thoughts. My son-in-law, who is doing some seminary courses, asked me the other day, "What makes an effective Christian minister?" As I reflected on that question, this story came to my mind. Your comments refreshed my mind to both the story, and it's potent meaning. Thanks.

Seta said...

As I re-visit comments from years gone by, it humbles me to know that at some point and at some time people who come in contact with this blog are appreciative in helping them with their issues.