February 25, 2010

A Conversation Between the Ascetic Father Makarios and Nikos Kazantzakis

In his autobiography Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis describes his forty day sojourn on Mount Athos in 1914 with the poet Angelos Sikelianos. There he met Father Makarios, an ascetic, with whom he engaged in discussions about faith and doubt. Kazantzakis, who was heavily influenced by Darwin, Nietzsche and Bergson, would rail against the established Church, especially what he called its life-denying morality. Though he rejected the asceticism of Father Makarios, he respected his rejection of spiritual mediocrity. One conversation in particular went as follows:

"Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father Makarios?" I asked him.

"Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn't have the strength. I wrestle with God."

"With God!" I exclaimed in astonishment. "And you hope to win?"

"I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist."

"Yours is a hard life, Father. I too want to be saved. Is there no other way?"

"More agreeable?" asked the ascetic, smiling compassionately.

"More human, Father."

"One, only one."

"What is it?"

"Ascent. To climb a series of steps. From the full stomach to hunger, from the slaked throat to thirst, from joy to suffering. God sits at the summit of hunger, thirst and suffering; the devil sits at the summit of the comfortable life. Choose."

"I am still young. The earth is good. I have time to choose."

The ascetic stretched out his five bony fingers, squeezed my knees, and nudged me.

"Wake up, my child, wake up, before death wakes you up."
I shuddered.

Whether or not this conversation actually took place, or was just a reflection of the influence Henry Bergson had on him while studying philosophy in Paris, this theme also shows up in his other works, most notably in The Last Temptation of Christ, where he writes:

"The struggle between God and man breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation. Most often this struggle is unconscious and short-lived. A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for very long. It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends. But among responsible men, men who keep their eyes riveted day and night upon the Supreme Duty, the conflict between flesh and spirit breaks out mercilessly and may last until death."