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Anathema by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin

< < < A Clump Of Lilacs
Tempting Providence > > >


“Father Deacon, you’re wasting the candles,” said the deacon’s wife. “It’s time to get up.”

This small, thin, yellow-faced woman treated her husband very harshly. In the school at which she had been educated there had been an opinion that—men were scoundrels, deceivers, and tyrants. But her husband, the deacon, was certainly not a tyrant. He was absolutely in awe of his half-hysterical, half-epileptic, childless wife. The deacon weighed about nine and a half poods[1] of solid flesh; he had a broad chest like the body of a motor-car, an awful voice, and with it all that gentle condescension of manner which often marks the behaviour of extraordinarily strong people in their relations towards the weak.

[1]A pood is 40 Russian lbs., about 36 lbs. English.

It always took the deacon a long time to get his voice in order. This occupation—an unpleasant, long-drawn-out torture—is, of course, well known to all those who have to sing in public: the rubbing with cocaine, the burning with caustic, the gargling with boracic acid. And, still lying upon his bed, Father Olympus began to try his voice.

“Via … kmm! Via-a-a! Alleluia, alleluia. … Oba-che … kmm…. Ma-ma….”

“There’s no sound in my voice,” he said to himself. “Vla-di-ko bla-go-slo-ve-e-e…. Km….”

Like all famous singers, he was given to be anxious about his voice. It is well known that actors grow pale and cross themselves before they go on to the stage. And Father Olympus suffered from this vice of fear. Yet he was the only man in the town, and possibly in all Russia, who could make his voice resound in the old dark cathedral church, gleaming with ancient gold and mosaic.

He alone could fill all the corners of the old building with his powerful voice, and when he intoned the funeral service every crystal lustre in the candelabras trembled and jingled with the sound.

His prim wife brought him in a glass of weak tea with lemon in it, and, as usual on Sunday mornings, a glass of vodka. Olympus tried his voice once more: “Mi … mi … fa…. Mi-ro-no-citsi…. Here, mother,” called he to his wife, “give me re on the harmonium.”

His wife sounded a long melancholy note. “Km … km…. Pharaoh and his chariots…. No, no, I can’t do it, my voice has gone. The devil must have got into me from that writer, what’s his name?…”

Father Olympus was very fond of reading; he read much and indiscriminately, but paid very little attention to the names of the authors. His seminary education, based chiefly on learning by heart, on reading “rubrics,” on learning indispensable quotations from the fathers of the Church, had developed his memory to an unusual degree. In order to get by heart a whole page of complicated casuistical reasoning, such as that of St. Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, Basil the Great or St. John Chrysostom, it was quite sufficient for him to run his eye over the lines, and he would remember them. It was a student from the Bethany Academy who brought him books to read, and only the evening before he had given him a delightful romance, a picture of life in the Caucasus, of soldiers, Cossacks, Tchetchenians, and how they lived there and fought one another, drank wine, married, hunted.

The reading of this tale had disturbed the elementary soul of the deacon. He had read it three times over, and often during the reading had laughed and wept emotionally, clenching his fists and turning his huge body from one side to the other in his chair. He continually asked himself, “Would it not have been better to have been a hunter, a trapper, a fisherman, a horseman, anything rather than a clergyman?”


He was always a little later in coming into the cathedral than he ought to have been. Just like a famous baritone at a theatre. As he came through the south door into the sanctuary, on this Sunday morning, he tried his voice for the last time. “Km … km…. I can sing re,” he thought. “But that scoundrel will certainly give me the tone on doh. Never mind, I must change it to my note, and the choir will be obliged to follow.”

There awoke in him that pride which always slumbers in the breast of a public favourite, for he was spoilt by the whole town; even the street-boys used to collect together to stare at him with a similar veneration to that with which they gazed into the immense mouth of the brass helicon in the military band on the boulevard.

The bishop entered and was solemnly installed in his seat. He wore his mitre a little on one side. Two sub-deacons stood beside him with censers, swinging them harmoniously. The clergy, in bright festival robes, stood around. Two priests brought forward from the altar the ikons of the Saviour and the Virgin-Mother, and placed them on a stand before the people.

The cathedral was an ancient building, and had a pulpit of carved oak like that of a Catholic church. It stood close up to the wall, and was reached by a winding staircase. This was the deacon’s place.

Slowly, trying each step as he went, and carefully resting his hands on the balustrade—he was always afraid of breaking something accidentally—the deacon went up into the pulpit. Then, clearing his throat and nose and expectorating, he struck the tuning-fork, passed deliberately from doh to re, and began:

“Bless us, most reverend Father.”

“Now, you scoundrel,” he thought to himself, apostrophising the leader of the choir; “you won’t dare to change the tone in the presence of the bishop.” At that moment he felt, with pleasure, that his voice sounded much better than usual; it was quite easy to pass from one note to another, and its soft depth of tone caused all the air in the cathedral to vibrate.

It was the Orthodox service for the first week in Lent, and, at first, Father Olympus had not much work. The reader trumpeted out the psalms indistinctly; he was a deacon from the academy, a future professor of homiletics, and he snuffled.

Father Olympus roared out from time to time, “Let us pray.” He stood there on his raised platform, immense, in his stiff vestment of gilt brocade, his mane of grey-black hair hanging on his shoulders, and every now and then he tried his voice quietly. The church was full to the doors with sentimental old peasant women and sturdy grey-bearded peasants.

“Strange,” thought Olympus to himself suddenly, “but every one of these women’s heads, if I look at it from the side, reminds me inevitably either of the head of a fish or of a hen’s head. Even the deaconess, my wife….”

His attention, however, was not diverted from the service. He followed it all along in his seventeenth-century missal. The prayers came to an end: “Almighty God, Master and Creator of all living.” And at last, “Amen.”

Then began the affirmation of Orthodoxy. “Who is as great as the Lord, as our God? Thou art the God who alone doest wonders.” The chant had many turns in it, and was not particularly clear. Generally during the first week in Lent there follows, at this point, the ritual of anathema, which can be altered or omitted as may be thought fit by the bishop. There is a list of persons to be anathematised for special reasons, Mazeppa is cursed, Stenka Razin, Arius the iconoclast, the old-believer Avvakum, etc., etc.

But the deacon was not quite himself to-day. Certainly he must have been a little upset by the vodka his wife had given him that morning. For some reason or other he could not get the story which he had read the previous night out of his mind. He kept seeing clear and vivid pictures of a beautiful, simple, and boundlessly attractive life. Almost mechanically he went through the Creed, chanted the Amen, and proclaimed according to an ancient custom to an old and solemn tone: “This is the faith of the apostles, this is the faith of our fathers, this is the Orthodox faith, this is the universal faith, this faith is ours.”

The archbishop was a great formalist, a pedant, and a somewhat eccentric man. He never allowed a word to be dropped out of the text of the canon of our thrice-blessed Father Andrew of Crete, or from the funeral service or from any other rite. And Father Olympus, imperturbably causing the cathedral to vibrate with his lion’s roar, and making the lustres of the candelabra jingle and sound as they moved, cursed, anathematised and excommunicated from the Church the iconoclasts, all the ancient heretics from Arius onward, all those accepting the teaching of Ital, of the monk Nil, of Constantine Bulgaris and Irinik, of Varlaam and Akindin, of Gerontius and Isaac Agrir; cursed those who insulted the Church, all Mahometans, Dissenters and Judaizers; cursed the reproachers of the festival of the Annunciation, smugglers, offenders of widows and orphans, the Old-Believers, the rebels and traitors, Grishka, Otrepief, Timoshka Akundinof, Stenka Razin, Ivashka Mazeppa, Emelka Pugachof, as well as all those who uphold any teaching contrary to that of the Orthodox faith.

Then the extent of the curse was proclaimed: denial of the blessings of redemption, exclusion from the Holy Sacraments, and expulsion from the assembly of the holy fathers and their inheritance.

Curses were pronounced on those who do not think that the Orthodox Tsar was raised to the throne by the special will of God, when at his anointing, at the commencement of his high calling, the holy oil was poured out upon him; also on those daring to stir up sedition against him; on those who abuse and blaspheme the holy ikons. And to each of these proclamations the choir responded in a mournful wail, tender angelic voices giving the response, “Anathema.

The women had long been weeping hysterically.

The deacon was about to end by singing the “Eternal Memory” for all those departed this life in the true faith, when the psalm-singer brought him a little note from the priest, telling him that his Eminence the archbishop had ordered that Count Leo Tolstoy was to be anathematised.

The deacon’s throat was sore from much reading. But he cleared his throat by a cough, and began once more: “Bless us, most reverend Father.” He guessed, rather than heard, the feeble mutterings of the aged prelate:

“The proto-deacon will now, by the grace of God, pronounce a curse upon a blasphemer and apostate from the faith of Christ, and expel from the Holy Sacraments of the Church Count Leo Tolstoy. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

“Amen,” sang the choir.

Father Olympus felt his hair stand on end. It seemed to stick out on all sides, and become stiff and painful as if turning into steel wire. And at that moment his memory recalled with extraordinary clearness the tender words of the story[1] he had read the previous night: “Rousing himself, Yeroshka raised his head and watched the moths fluttering around the flickering flame of his candle and falling therein. “‘Fool! fool!’ said he to one. ‘Whither are you flying? Fool! fool!’ He got up and drove the moths away with his clumsy fingers. “‘You’ll burn yourself, little fool; come, fly away, there’s plenty of room here,’ said he, coaxing one of them with gentle voice, and striving to catch hold of it by the wings and send it away. ‘You’ll destroy yourself, and then I shall be sorry for you.’”

[1]Evidently, “The Cossacks,” by Tolstoy.—(ED.)

“Good Lord! Who is it I am to curse?” said the deacon to himself in terror. “Is it possibly he—he who made me feel so much, and weep all last night for joy and rapture?”

But, obedient to a thousand-year-old custom, he repeated the terribly moving words of cursing and excommunication, and they resounded among the crowd like blows upon a large church bell.

So the curse went on: “The ex-priest Nikita, the monks Sergei, Sabatius—yes, Sabatius—Dorofei, Gabriel—blasphemers, impenitent and stubborn in their heresy—and all who act contrary to the will of God, be they accursed!…”

He waited a moment to take breath. His face was red and perspiring. The arteries on both sides of his throat were swollen, each a finger’s thickness. And all the while he proclaimed the curse, Tolstoy’s thoughts were in his mind. He remembered another passage: “Once as I sat beside a stream I saw a little cradle come floating bottom upwards towards me. It was quite whole, only the edges a little broken. And I thought—whose cradle is it? Those devils of soldiers have been to a hamlet and taken away all the stores; one of them must have killed a little child and cut the cradle down from its corner with his knife. How can people do such things? Ah, people have no souls! And at such thoughts I became very sad. I thought—they threw the cradle away and drove out the mother and burned the home, and by and by they’ll come to us….”

Still he went on with the curse:

“Those sinning against the Holy Ghost, like Simon the sorcerer and Ananias and Sapphira. As the dog returns to its own vomit again, may their days be few and evil, and may their prayers be turned into sin; may Satan stand at their right hand; when they are judged let them be condemned, let their names be blotted out and the memory of them perish from the earth … and may the curses and anathemas [hat fall upon them be manifold. May there come upon them the trembling of Cain, the leprosy of Gehazi, the strangling of Judas, the destruction of Simon the sorcerer, the bursting of Arius, the sudden death of Ananias and Sapphira … be they anathema and excommunicate, and unforgiven even in their death; may their bones be scattered and not buried in the earth; may they be in eternal torment, and tortured by day and night….”

But Tolstoy had said: “God has made the world to be a joy to man. There is no sin anywhere, not even in the life of a beast. He lives in one place, lives in another. Where he is there is his home. What God gives he takes. But we say that for such things we shall have to suffer. I think that is all one big falsehood….”

The deacon stopped suddenly, and let his ancient missal fall with a bang. Still more dreadful curses were to come, words which could only have been imagined by the narrow minds of monks in the early centuries of Christianity.

His face had become purple, almost black; his lingers convulsively grasped the rail of the desk. For a moment he felt that he must swoon. But he recovered, and straining the whole might of his tremendous voice, he burst forth triumphantly with new words, wrong words:

“The joy of our earth, the ornament and the flower of life, the true servant and fellow-soldier of Christ, Count Leo….”

He was silent for a second. In the crowded church there was not a cough, not a whisper nor a shuffle of the foot. There was a terrible silence, the silence of hundreds of people dominated by one will, overcome by one feeling. The eyes of the deacon were burning and brimming over with tears, his face became suddenly beautiful as the face of a man in an ecstasy of inspiration. He cleared his throat once more, tried an octave, and then suddenly filling the enormous cathedral with the tones of his terrible voice, he roared out:

Mno-ga-ya lye-e-e-ta-a-a. Ma-any ye-e-ears.” And instead of turning the candle upside down, according to the rite of anathema, he raised it high in the air.

It was in vain that the leader of the choir whispered to his boys, to knock the deacon’s head with the tuning-fork, or to put their hands over his mouth. Joyfully, as if an archangel were blowing a trumpet with silver tones, the deacon lifted his voice over the whole congregation: “Mnogaya, mnogaya, mnogaya lyeta.

The prior, a monk, an official, the psalm-reader and the deaconess rushed up to him.

“Leave me alone … leave me alone,” said Father Olympus in an angry whisper, roughly pushing away the monk’s arm. “I’ve spoilt my voice, but it has been for the glory of God. Go away!…”

He took off his brocaded vestment at the altar, kissed his stole with emotion, crossed himself before the altar ikon, and went out of the church. He went out, a whole head taller than the people round him, immense, majestic, solemn. And the people involuntarily made way for him, looking at him with a strange timorousness. His look was adamant as he passed the bishop’s chair, and without turning his eyes that way he strode out into the vestibule.

In the open space before the church his little wife caught him up, and weeping and pulling his cassock by the sleeve, she gasped:

“What have you gone and done, idiot, cursed one! Been guzzling vodka all the morning, disgraceful drunkard! You’ll be in luck’s way if you only get sent to a monastery for this, and given a scavenger’s job. Booh! You, Cossack of Cherkask! How many people’s doorsteps shall I have to wear out to get you out of this? Herod! Oh, you stupid bungler!”

“It doesn’t matter,” whispered the deacon to himself, with his eyes on the ground. “I will go and carry bricks or be a signalman or a sledge driver or a house porter; but, anyhow, I shall give up my post. Yes, to-morrow—I don’t want to go on; I can’t any longer. My soul won’t stand it. I firmly believe in the Creed and in Christ, and in the Apostolic Church. But I can’t assent to malice. ‘God has made the world to be a joy to man,’” he quoted suddenly the beautiful, familiar words.

“You’re a fool, a blockhead,” cried his wife. “I’ll have to put you in an asylum. I’ll go to the governor—to the Tsar himself. You’ve drunk yourself into a fever, you wooden-head!”

Father Olympus stood still, turned to her, and opening wide his wrathful eyes, said impressively and harshly:

“Well?!”

At that the deaconess became timidly silent, walked a little way from her husband, covered her face with her handkerchief, and began to weep.

And the deacon continued his way, an immense figure, dark, majestical, like a man carved out of stone.


< < < A Clump Of Lilacs
Tempting Providence > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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