The Elder Zosima and St Isaac the Syrian

Like many others, encountering the radiant love of the Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov was a formative early event in my being drawn to the Orthodox Church. Similarly revelatory was my first exposure to the great 7th century Saint Isaac of Syria, whose feast day is today, January 28. Like the fictional elder, Saint Isaac speaks beautifully of the fundamentality of divine love and mercy and the need to reflect those characteristics in our own lives and dealings with creation. Indeed, the parallels are so striking, that I think it not unlikely that Zosima was based on St. Isaac.

There isn’t a ton of direct documentary evidence for this last I checked, but we do know that Dostoevsky owned a newly-available translation of St Isaac’s Ascetical Homilies, and this volume is in fact mentioned by name twice in the novel, though in seemingly inconsequential contexts. But the teachings of the elder so directly match distinctive teachings of St. Isaac that it’s hard not to conclude the former was modeled on the latter. Here are a few examples which I was able to dig up very quickly–I’m sure more in-depth digging could make for an even stronger case. (There is also some evidence that Zosima was modeled on St. Ambrose of Optina, a contemporary elder with whom we know Dostoevsky met. But the extent writings of St. Ambrose that I’ve seen do not present such striking parallels.)

Love for all creation:

Elder Zosima: “Love God’s creation, love every atom of it separately, and love it also as a whole; love every green leaf, every ray of God’s light; love the animals and the plants and love every inanimate object. If you come to love all things, you will perceive God’s mystery inherent in all things; once you have perceived it, you will understand it better and better every day.  And finally you will love the whole world with a total, universal love.”

St Isaac: “What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

 Responsibility for all:

Elder Zosima: “There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God. ”

St Isaac: “Be a partaker of the sufferings of all…Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.”

Non-literal ‘fire’ of hell:

Elder Zosima: “Fathers and teachers, I ask myself: “What is hell?” And I answer thus: “The suffering of being no longer able to love.”…People speak of the material flames of hell. I do not explore this mystery, and I fear it, but I think that if there were material flames, truly people would be glad to have them, for, as I fancy, in material torment they might forget, at least for a moment, their far more terrible spiritual torment. And yet it is impossible to take this spiritual torment from them, for this torment is not external but is within them”

St Isaac: “As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.  That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse”

 Love is Paradise on Earth:

Elder Zosima: “”Gentlemen,” I cried suddenly from the bottom of my heart, “look at the divine gifts around us: the clear sky, the fresh air, the tender grass, the birds, nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, we alone, are godless and foolish, and do not understand that life is paradise, for we need only wish to understand, and it will come at once in all its beauty, and we shall embrace each other and weep”

St Isaac: “Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness, and there the blessed Paul partook of supernatural nourishment…Wherefore, the man who lives in love reaps life from God, and while yet in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection; in this air the righteous will delight in the resurrection. Love is the Kingdom, whereof the Lord mystically promised His disciples to eat in His Kingdom. For when we hear Him say, “Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my Kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love is sufficient to nourish a man instead of food and drink.”

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