Leo Tolstoy’s story about Father Sergius begins with the ambitious, intelligent and handsome Prince Stepan Kasatsky. In everything he tried, including speaking French and playing Chess, he strove to excel. He began a military career and tried to enter into the stratified court life around the Czar. Unable to break into the highest circles on his own, he determined to accomplish that through marriage. He fell in love with a beautiful countess.
The Prince idolized femininity and regarded unmarried women as possessing great purity. Women, in return, flattered by such an evaluation, strove to be goddesses. Men, on the other hand, were permitted to satisfy their sexual urges. However, since men were so overpowered by sexual urges, it was left to the virgins to draw the line. This is the opposite from today when women are now free to pursue their sexual lusts and it is the responsibility of men to respect the line under their own power.
Before their wedding, she confessed that she was not a virgin. This so disturbed the prince that he gave up the world and entered a monastery to live a life of purity and devotion to God. Of course, as Father Sergius, he followed the monk’s life with single-minded attention. At this point, the story is open to misinterpretation unless Father Sergius is understood from the inside.
Obviously, the simple act of becoming a monk does not lead to immediate sanctity. Rejecting the lures, enchantments, and glamour of the world, just exposes more deeply rooted lures. Two sorts of cynicism arise from this.
The secularist will expose the false consciousness of the monk and declare that the life of the prince is the real one. Sexual satisfaction, social life, and nihilism are his values. One’s inner life is irrelevant. The problem for the secularist is that the game of life is stratified, as exemplified by the court life of the Czar. Sexual life is also problematic, since some are desirable and others not, some are considered natural, others disordered. Hence, the inner battle becomes externalized as the fight for economic equality and sexual normalization.
A Lutheran would say that the justified is still a sinner. While true, in one sense, it does not distinguish between the prince and the monk. The prince is a sinner spontaneously, while the monk has reached a higher stage. This spiritual egalitarianism, that is, all being equal in their depravity, is more insidious than the secularist. Until he can become master of his own soul, the monk relies on exoteric teachings, the regulated life of the monastery, and the authority of the Abbott as legitimate aids.
Nevertheless, Father Sergius struggles with feelings of pride and superiority. This is a paradox of the spiritual life. From the objective point of view, the life of the monk is indeed superior to the life of the soldier. Probably unintentionally, Tolstoy has written a parable of the superiority of the Brahman over the Kshatriya. At a higher stage of spirituality, not found until the end of the story, such feelings are themselves transcended.
The celibate path embraced by the monk frees him the strongest attachment to the world. As Nicolas Berdyaev puts it:
Man is greatly dependent, sexually, on woman: he has a weakness for the other sex, a radical weakness which may be the source of all his weaknesses.
By overcoming this ur-weakness, a man is free to sublimate his eros in service to spiritual evolution. On the other hand, this becomes a challenge to a particular sort of woman. In this case, an attractive divorcee, knowing of the monk’s sanctity, vows to seduce him. She tricks him into allowing her into his cell where she begins to disrobe. Overcome by lust, Father Sergius takes an axe and chops off one of his fingers. Strongly moved by that act, the woman fled the cell and shortly thereafter entered a convent.
At this point, the life of Father Sergius aligns with that of St Anthony of the Desert. He is sent off to a more worldly monastery. As this reputation for sanctity grows, a throng of people begin pestering him, the opposite of the life of a hermit. They ask for healings, blessings, spiritual direction, advice, and so on. Now he is considered a saint and a staretz. Since miracles seem to be happening, more people come and he begins to believe them himself.
This demonstrates a peculiar problem in spirituality. Instead of following the example of the monk, most people prefer to live their spiritual life at second hand by attaching themselves to who they believe to be a holy figure. In the case of a Saint Anthony, this may be somewhat beneficial, but it opens up a path to darker forces, as recently occurred with Rampal in India. On a smaller scale, this is happening in the case of Valentin Tomberg. Instead of executing the difficult tasks of meditating on the Tarot, the focus shifts to the person of Tomberg. Speculation then arises about his role, is he a bodhisattva or some sort of savior. Some will claim to be receiving special inspirations from the deceased Tomberg. This is a peculiarly feminine phenomenon for the most part.
After years of this, Father Sergius begins to tire under the demands placed on him. Despite decades of prayer life, his faith wanes and he considers leaving the monastery to live as a vagabond. Finally, left alone with a simple woman whom he was really supposed to help in some way, he allows himself to be seduced. This is not uncommon psychologically, since apostasy is very often associated with a fall into sexuality. Examples, are too numerous to mention.
He sneaks away, and looks for his cousin whom he has not seen in decades. She is a simple woman, once wealthy but now a commoner; yet, she is devoted to her family and to fulfilling her duties. This makes a final impression on him. Some months later, he is arrested on a minor charge and exiled to Siberia. Symbolically, Siberia is on the edge of the world. There,
he settled down as the hired man of a well-to-do peasant, in which capacity he works in the kitchen-garden, teaches children, and attends to the sick.
Tolstoy was opposed to the Russian Orthodox Church, so in the final stage Kasatsky rejects “churchiness”, ritual, healings, and other siddhis. Perhaps this choice is not ultimately opposed to the esoteric path outlined by Rene Guenon. Nevertheless, there is no shortcut in this. Kasatsky lives the life of a Warrior, then a Priest, before he is able to transcend all possibilities open to man.
There is an echo of this in Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. After successive disillusionments with financial success, the love of a beautiful woman, and family life, Siddhartha ends up as a ferryman, ferrying people from one side of the river to the other, and back again, world without end.