Pondering Evil in “Father Sergius” by Tolstoy

Cover of the audiobook edition of "Father Sergius and Other Short Stories" by Leo Tolstoy

At Christmas, I love to watch the now-classic claymation movie Martin the Cobbler (clip below), based on Tolstoy‘s story “Where Love Is, God Is.”  This year, it prompted me to seek out some of Tolstoy’s other short stories.  I began with “Father Sergius.”

The story unfolds in six parts. The main character begins as an up-and-coming youth in the service of the Czar whose primary goal is to become better than everyone else at whatever he takes up  – which he usually manages to do.

He tosses it all aside when the love of his life reveals that she is not, as he assumed, the personification of purity.  He flees to a monastery, supassing his old way of life by his ability to do without it – only to find that his pride now shows itself in efforts to become the perfect monk. He knows this is not the true spiritual life, but his awareness is itself a first step. His prayers and the pattern of his life begin to reshape his personality. The story traces the path to his ultimate – and surprising – discovery of the true way to enter into the spiritual life.  [Download it in several ebook formats or the LibriVox audio recording.]

Father Sergius praying behind his door while Makovkina pleads for his help, saying that she is cold, wet and very ill.

I find myself pondering the character of Makovkina, a divorcée who “shocks the town.” She makes me think deeply about the nature of evil.

During a sleighing party, she decides to visit the still-famous “handsome hermit” and wagers with a lawyer that she can contrive to spend the night in Father Sergius cell. She counts on her beauty, which she thinks is “the one thing they all care for.”  While she seems shallow – bored, seeking amusement by stirring up others. I found her immensely disturbing.

Father Sergius is surrounded by many people who use him for their own ends – pilgrims who want a cure, the monastery that values the income from the pilgrims – but Makovkina is different. She seeks to destroy Father Sergius, not out of hatred or to gain something for herself, but simply to test his goodness and – if it fails – to seem to demonstrate that real goodness does not exist.   The reader knows that Father Sergius’ holiness rests on a “shaky pedestal.” In this frivolous intruder, I saw the face of real evil. Father Sergius initially thinks her voice a trick of the devil; she laughingly declares otherwise – but he was right.

The selfishness of the pilgrims and beggars is merely human self-interest. The monastery, willing to work the hermit to a frazzle to benefit from his fame is no different from modern employers and organizations: corporate self-interest. They are heedless of the impact of their requests on Father Sergius, but they wish him no ill. Their sins come from blindness not malice. If they recognized Father Sergius’ needs, they might change. They simply don’t consider anyone but themselves.

Makovkina shares that trait: she only thinks about herself. But her needs are different. Where the pilgrims seek health or the end of a legal battle, where the monastery tries to support itself, Makovkina seeks to diminish everything around her. Her real aim is the diminishment of others, not the aggrandizement of herself.  Her tawdry wiles do not benefit her in any material way. She reveals that evil is not grand and impressive: it is petty and derisive but persistent.

I rarely encounter this face of evil; mundane self-interest is much more common. My few encounters have been profoundly unsettling. It is impossible to find common ground on which to connect. I am reminded of the demons that Jesus’ disciples failed to cast out, about whom he said, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mark 9:29).  Tolstoy recognizes the seriousness of this seemingly light-hearted evil; the encounter is a major turning point in Father Sergius’ spiritual journey.

In the end, I do not know whether I am more edified by the way Father Sergius eventually emerges into true spiritual life, or by the witness of Makovkina’s thoughtless descent into evil.  Perhaps each needs the other to be understood in its fulness.

[Disclaimer: I have not studied literature; my ruminations are thoughtful but untutored.]

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