The Island

I found this amazing film on YouTube:

The Island (Остров in Russian) was made in 1986 towards the end of the Soviet regime and set in the barren icy wastelands of northern Russia. There is a poignant story behind the making of the film. I’ll let you do your own research.

This is a story of a man who carries the weight of his sin (under extreme pressure from the Nazis during World War II) year after year as a brother in a Russian Orthodox monastery, a fool for Christ in his absolute humility and holiness in spite of his differences with normal monastic discipline and odd behaviour. Like the real characters of St Seraphim of Zarov in Russia and St Benedict Joseph Labre in Rome, we are challenged in our conventionalism and orthodoxy, unless we are somewhat “off” ourselves.

Churches are often criticised for instilling guilt into their faithful, but surely compunction and real penance are the conditions of our healing and salvation. The real goal is to accept God’s forgiveness and transcend our misery for the light of the Resurrection. As an organist, I came across Litanies by the French composer Jehan Alain who was killed by a German bullet in 1940. He headed his manuscript with this intensely moving text: Quand l’âme chrétienne ne trouve plus de mots nouveaux dans la détresse pour implorer la miséricorde de Dieu, elle répète sans cesse la même invocation avec une foi véhémente. La raison atteint sa limite. Seule la foi poursuit son ascension. (When, in its distress, the Christian soul can find no more words to invoke God’s mercy, it repeats endlessly the same prayer with a vehement faith. Reason has reached its limit. Only faith pursues its ascension.) So much for those who find fault with repeating prayers!

The fool for Christ is particularly noted in Russian Orthodox spirituality, but is is also noted in the fact that men like St Benedict-Joseph Labre are canonised saints in the west. I leave this article with a reference to Foolishness for Christ. Even so far in advance of Septuagesima, Lenten reflections can begin to form in our minds.

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8 Responses to The Island

  1. J.D. says:

    I just watched this and enjoyed it greatly. As a Slav style Christian I found it greatly inspiring seeing how the same prayers I’ve been praying for years are put into the context of true repentance and another persons life.

    At first a part of me was thinking that Father Anatoly is a mentally ill, guilt obsessed man, but he seemed fully functional and almost mystical at times, a true “holy fool.”

    I must admit that at times that level of obsession with past sins comes off as a little, well, obsessive. Should we beat ourselves up over our past, or should we confess, pray and trust God? At times it seemed like Father Anatoly was unhealthily obsessed with his past sins, although I don’t know how I’d be had I killed a man to save my own skin.

  2. ed pacht says:

    Is it any worse to be obsessed with our sins than to be blithely uncaring about the consequences of what we have done? While it is true that what is forgiven is forgiven, the damage we may have done does not simply vanish. Anatoly is a powerful statement of that. Though his faith is obvious, he is acutely aware that the dead remain dead – usually – though in this case there is a sort of resurrection, a prayer answered (as Scripture says) before it is asked. The dead is alive and the hermit’s life-purpose is fulfilled. This is one of the most powerful short films I have seen. Thank you for posting it. Is Anatoly crazy? I don’t think so. The holy fool, especially in Russian tradition, is often outwardly expressive of a message, but essentially an assumed persona, and the image of a miracle-worker who knows his own unworthiness fits that tradition well, as well as fitting what St. Paul says about himself (“chief of sinners”) even as he hands out blessed handkerchiefs.

    • J.D. says:

      That’s true, the damage done after a sin lingers long after its forgiven. While I’m no longer a card carrying Roman Catholic this is why there can still be (in the language of Roman Catholicism) “temporal punishments” or “consequences” due to sins already forgiven. I hadn’t thought of this connection till reading your comment though.

      All in all I agree, “Ostrov” is a powerful film, and one that I can see myself watching again someday.

      • Thank you, both of you, for your thoughtful reflections. I have no experience with Orthodox monasteries, but I have read the Way of a Pilgrim story, about the pilgrim who had lost everything and took to the roads in search of ceaseless prayer. Atheists like Richard Dawkins condemn belief and religion as manifestations of mental illness. He is not entirely wrong, but rather, mental illness can be a moment of revelation for a person. Where Dawkins is a materialist, I would see that the experience of life is different for each person. I have found this through reminiscing on my experience of ASD and being somewhat in the twilight zone at times in my life.

        Consciousness at another level (like when someone goes on an LSD trip) can bring us tremendous insight into these questions of guilt and self-questioning. The tiny bit I know about quantum theory and consciousness being at the root of everything confirms the fascinating things I have read about Karma in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. I am especially touched by the quote of Jehan Alain (in my posting) and the value of repetition, something Aspergers people know so much about.

        Many have been down the gruelling route of redemption and the search for God, many of whom are totally unsuitable for conventional monastic life and fall between all the cracks of life. It is certainly in this suffering that holiness is found, not something we would be allowed to “enjoy” but the seed that will come to fruition when we die and are buried under the earth. This saying is of Christ and a young priest I saw 3 weeks before his death in 1994, Fr François Crausaz at his parents’ home in Switzerland. Lent is coming, and I almost feel I have already been through it. Just when you think you’re out of the woods, there’s still the jungle!

    • The New Goliards title of this blog is a suggestion of the fool for Christ’s sake theme. The Goliards were clergy and monks on the fringes, and they sang irreverent songs and satirised the worldly aspects of the Church. I don’t set out to be such a “fool”, since in keeping with the Gospel of Ash Wednesday, we need to keep our piety to ourselves so that it may be authentic (not hypocritical) in God’s sight.

      It is not difficult to be a fool. Many people suffer from neuroses and mental illnesses. A few come to terms with their condition and put it to God’s service through stripping away their pride and need to be esteemed or validated by others. It is perhaps a more extreme form of asceticism than physical mortifications or “self-torture”. It is indeed a perilous way, and the dividing line between the fool for Christ and the scrounging tramp is but brief.

      In many ways, I identify with this vocation in that I have largely made a mess of my life by not coming to terms with my limits. I am unable to be completely conventional or keep the mask on, so I try to keep my own quirkiness within limits to be reasonably socially acceptable – which is a part of a priest’s ministry and vocation. Had I known about Aspergers much earlier in life, I would probably have worked harder in musical composition and kept away from the Church other than as an ordinary churchgoer. So I have become “another kind” of priest! That is a challenge to conventional wisdom, but I try not to pile it on too thickly. This blog has seen an evolution in my self-understanding, which was there early on through intuitions and vague fragments of ideas.

      Scholarly studies of this phenomenon are valuable, but nothing replaces experience!

  3. T Graham says:

    I’ve finally got around to watching this very powerful story that I thought was in the very best Russian tradition, of Dostoyevsky and co. Many thanks for putting your readers onto this Fr A. It is the best psychological “thriller” I’ve seen since Wit (Emma Thompson) a decade ago & inspires hope for all of us hopeless sinners.

    • It seems to have a lot in common with the medieval Church in the west. The Church is often accused of controlling people through guilt of sin. We are guilty and need to take an active part in our forgiveness and redemption by God. Another example was Rodrigo in “The Mission” set in the 1750’s. Rodrigo had been a slave trader in what is now Brazil and killed his brother in a duel. He converted and joined the Jesuits as a brother, and a part of his conversion process was to haul a big and heavy net of swords and other weapons all the way up to the tribe from which he had taken slaves. The natives were about to take revenge until they see him burst into tears and accept his humiliation. From that moment, the natives treat him with love and forgiveness, and cut away the net of weapons so that it falls all the way back down into the river. Sin and forgiveness are awesome mysteries, and we are not served by having these things belittled and trivialised. Many people who labour with some of what seem to be mental illnesses might find better health and healing through tough penances (pilgrimages on foot, times of silence with a community of monks or in nature, etc.). If we follow St Augustine, we don’t “earn” our redemption, but we participate in the Passion of Christ which brings us forgiveness.

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