Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 14



At the time I found it so necessary to believe in order to live that I unconsciously hid from myself the contradictions and the obscurities in the religious teachings.

There was, however, a limit to this interpretation of the rituals.

Although the most important words in the liturgy became more and more clear to me; although I somehow explained to myself the words:

"Remembering our Sovereign Lady, Holy Mother of God, and all the saints, let us one and all devote the whole of our lives to Christ, God";

although I explained the frequent repetition of prayers for the tsar and his family by the fact that they were more subject to temptation than others and were therefore in greater need of the prayers;

although I explained the prayers for the vanquishing of our enemies by saying that the enemy was evil,

these prayers and other things, such as the hymn of the cherubim, the mystery of the bread and wine, the adoration of the Virgin and so on,

nearly two-thirds of the service either had no meaning at all or made me feel like I was lying when I tried to explain them, which would mean I was destroying my relation to God and would lose all possibility of faith.

I felt the same way when celebrating the main holidays:

I could understand the observance of the Sabbath - that is, the consecration of one day in the week for communion with God.

But the most important holiday was in remembrance of the Resurrection, the reality of which I could neither imagine nor comprehend.

And the weekly holiday, Sunday, was named for this Resurrection. On this day the mystery of the Eucharist was observed, which was utterly incomprehensible to me.

With the exception of Christmas, the other twelve holidays were in remembrance of miracles, which I tried not to think about in order to avoid denying them: the Ascension, the Pentecost, the Epiphany, the Intercession of the Virgin, and so on.

As I celebrated these holidays, feeling that the greatest importance was being attached to what I considered least important, I either invented an explanation that appeased me or I closed my eyes so I would not see the thing seducing me.

All this struck me most powerfully when I took part in the most common and what are regarded as the most important of the sacraments: baptism and communion:

Here I was in conflict with nothing incomprehensible but with matters that were quite easy to understand; it seemed to me that these acts were deceptive in nature, and I was caught in a dilemma - I had either to reject them or lie about them.

I shall never forget the agonizing feeling that went through me when I took communion for the first time in many years:

The service, the confession, the collects - all of it was understandable to me and excited in me the joyous realization that the meaning of life was being revealed to me.

I explained the communion to myself as an act performed in remembrance of Christ, signifying the cleansing of sin and the complete acceptance of Christ's teachings. If this explanation was rather artificial, I took no notice of its being so.

As I humbled and surrendered myself to the confessor, a simple and timid priest, it was such a joy for me to lay bare all the filth in my soul, repenting of my sins;

it was such a joy to be united in thought with the strivings of the fathers who had composed the prayers of the collects; it was such a joy to be joined with the faithful and the believers that I had no sense of the artificial nature of my explanation.

But when I neared the gates of the kingdom, and the priest asked me to repeat what I believed and that what I was about to swallow was actually flesh and blood,

it cut me to the heart; this was a small but false note, a cruel demand placed on someone who obviously had never had any idea of what faith was.

Although now I allow myself to deem it a cruel demand, at the time I had no notion that it was; it simply caused me unspeakable pain:

I no longer took up the position I had adopted in my youth, supposing that everything in life was clear. Indeed, I had come to faith because apart from it I could find nothing but ruin, and therefore I could not cast faith away; so I submitted.

In my soul I discovered a feeling that helped me to endure this. It was a feeling of self-abasement and humility:

I humbled myself and swallowed the flesh and the blood without any blasphemous emotions, and with a longing to believe, but the blow had already left its mark. Knowing beforehand what awaited me, I could not go through with it a second time.

Nevertheless I continued to perform the church rituals, and I still believed that there was truth in the doctrine I adhered to; and then something happened that is clear to me now but at the time seemed odd.

I was listening to an illiterate peasant, a pilgrim, talking about God, faith, life, and salvation, and a knowledge of faith was opened up to me. I grew closer to the people as I listened to their reflections on life and faith, and I began to understand the truth more and more.

The same thing happened to me when I read the Martyrology and the Prologues; they became my favourite reading. Taking exception to the miracles and viewing them as fables that expressed an idea, these readings revealed to me the meaning of life.

Among them were the lives of Macarius the Great and Prince loasaph (the story of the Buddha), the writings of John Chrysostom the story of the traveller in the well, of the monk who discovered gold and of Peter the Publican; they included the histories of the martyrs, all of whom proclaimed that life does not end with death. These were tales of illiterate, stupid men who found salvation though they knew nothing of the teachings of the Church.

But as soon as I mixed with learned believers or picked up their books, a certain doubt, dissatisfaction, and bitterness over their arguments rose up within me, and I felt that the more I grasped their discourses, the further I strayed from the truth and the closer I came to the abyss.