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I was baptized and brought up in the Orthodox Christian faith. I was instructed in it both as a child and throughout my boyhood and youth. But when at the age of eighteen I left university in my second year, I no longer believed in any of the things I had been taught.
Judging from various memories, I had never believed very seriously but had merely trusted in what I was taught and in what was professed by my elders; but this trust was very unstable.
I remember when I was eleven years old a high school boy named Volodya, now long since dead, came to see us one Sunday and announced the latest discovery made at school. The discovery was that there is no God and that everything we were being taught was just invention (this was in 1838). I remember my older brothers got interested in this news and even called me to join in the discussion. We all, I remember, became very excited and took the news as something very interesting and entirely possible.
I remember too that when my older brother Dmitri, who was then at university, suddenly and with impulsiveness natural to his character embraced the faith and started to attend all the services, to follow the fasts and to lead a pure and moral life, that we all, including the older ones, constantly made fun of him and for some reason nicknamed him Noah. And I remember when Musin-Pushkin, at the time a curator at the University of Kazan, invited us to a ball and jokingly persuaded my brother, who had declined the invitation, that even David danced before the ark. At the time I used to relate to these jokes of my elders, and from them I drew the conclusion that it is necessary to learn the Catechism and it is necessary to go to church, but that one need not take it all too seriously. I also recall reading Voltaire when I was very young; I not only failed to be shocked by his humour but even found it quite amusing.
The decline of my faith occurred in the way in which it has always happened, and still happens, among people of our level of education. It seems to me that in the majority of cases it happens like this: people live as everyone lives, they all live based on principles which not only have nothing in common with religion but are, for the most part, contrary to them; religion plays no part in their life, they never come across it in their relations with others and never have to deal with it in their own lives. Religion is professed somewhere, away from life and independent of it. If we encounter it, it is only as an external phenomenon, disconnected from life.
Now, just as then, it is impossible to judge from a person’s life, or behaviour, whether or not he is a believer. If there is a difference between those who openly profess Orthodoxy and those who deny it, then it is not to the advantage of the former. Nowadays, as before, the public declaration and profession of Orthodoxy is usually encountered among dull-witted, cruel and immoral people who tend to consider themselves very important. Whereas intelligence, honesty, straight forwardness, good-naturedness and morality are qualities usually found among people who claim to be non-believers.
The Catechism is taught in schools and the pupils are sent to church; officials are required to produce evidences of having received communion. But a person belonging to our circle, who is no longer at school and has not entered into public service, can live for dozens of years without once remembering that he is living among Christians and is himself considered to be professing the Christian Orthodox faith.
Thus today, just as in earlier times, religious teaching, which is accepted on trust and sustained by external pressure, gradually weakens under the influence of knowledge and experiences of life that are opposite to the religious doctrine; a person can go on living for a long time imagining that the religious teaching given to him as a child is still intact, whereas it has in fact disappeared without leaving a trace.
An intelligent and honest man by the name of S. told me the story of how he lost his faith. At the age of twenty-six, while staying overnight while out hunting, he followed an old childhood custom of kneeling down to pray in the evening. His elder brother, who was hunting with him, lay on some straw watching him. When S. had finished and was preparing to lie down his brother said to him: ‘Do you still do that?’ Nothing more was said between them. But from that day on S. stopped saying his prayers and going to church. And for thirty years he has not prayed, has not taken communion and has not been in a church. And this is not because he knew his brother’s convictions and wanted to share them, nor was it because he had resolved something in his heart, but simply because this comment of his brother’s was like a finger being pushed against a wall ready to fall under its own weight. These words indicated that the place where he had thought faith to be had long been empty and that the words he uttered, crossing himself, and the bows he made in prayer, were essentially meaningless actions. Having recognized their meaninglessness he could no longer continue doing them.
Thus it has happened and still happens, I believe, with the great majority of people. I am speaking about people from our type of background, of people who are sincere with themselves, and not of those who use the profession of faith as a means of obtaining some kind of worldly aims. (These people are the most stagnant non-believers, for if faith for them is a means of attaining some worldly goals, then that is certainly not faith.) People of our education level find themselves in a situation where the light of knowledge and of life have melted away the artificial edifice, and they have either noticed this and cleared the space, or haven’t yet noticed it.
The belief instilled from childhood, in me, as in others, since childhood have disappeared, with the only difference that because from very early age I began to read a lot and think, my conscious abandonment of religious faith happened very early. From the age of sixteen I ceased saying my prayers, and of my own volition stopped going to church and fasting. I stopped believing in what I had been taught as a child; but I did believe in something. What I did believe in I couldn’t possibly have said. I believed in God, or rather I did not deny God, but what kind of God I could not have said; neither did I reject Christ or his teaching, but what was the essence of his teaching again I could not have said.
Now, looking back at that time, I can clearly see that the only real faith I had, apart from the animal instincts driving my life, was a belief in self-perfection. But what this perfection consisted of, and what its aim was, were unclear to me. I tried to perfect myself intellectually and studied everything I could and everything life thrust in front of me. I tried to perfect my will, setting myself rules I tried to follow. I perfected myself physically, practising all kinds of exercises in order to develop my strength and dexterity, and I cultivated endurance and patience by undergoing all kinds of hardship. All this I regarded as self-improvement. The beginning of it all was, of course, moral perfection, but this was soon replaced by a belief in general perfection, that is a desire to be better not in my own eyes or before God but in the eyes of other people. And very soon this determination to be better than others became a wish to be more powerful than others: more famous, more important and wealthy.
[End of Chapter 1]
…What happened to me was something like this: without remembering when I had been put into it, I found myself in a boat that had set off from some unknown shore. The direction to the opposite shore was shown to me, oars were put into my inexperienced hands, and I was left alone. I rowed as best I could and moved forwards, but the further I rowed towards the centre of the stream, the faster the current became that was carrying me directly away from my object, and I kept meeting more oarsmen like myself, who were being carried away by the current. There were lone oarsmen who continued to row; there were some who had discarded their oars; there were large rowing boats and enormous ships full of people, some struggling with the current, others abandoning themselves to it. And as I looked at the flow of those drifting downstream, I found that the more I rowed, the more I forgot the directions that had been given to me. In the very middle of the current, amid the crowd of boats and ships being pulled downstream, I lost my directions and abandoned my oars. From all directions people were being carried downstream by sail and oar, shouting for joy and assuring me and themselves that there could be no other direction. And I believed them and flowed with them. And I was carried a long way, so far that I could hear the noise of the rapids which were bound to shatter me, and I caught sight of boats that were already being smashed against them. Then I came to my senses. For a long time I could not understand what had happened to me. I saw nothing ahead of me except the destruction towards which I was rushing, but which I feared, and I could see no salvation anywhere, and I did not know what to do. But looking behind me I saw countless boats that could not stop but were defiantly pushing against the current, and I remembered the oars and the direction of the shore, and I began to struggle back against the current, towards the shore.
The shore was God, the direction was ordinance, and the oars were the freedom given to me to row away towards the shore, to be united with God. In this way the force of life rose up within me and I started to live once again…