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For whom Chekhov’s bell tolls

While rendering the liturgical rituals with mesmerizing prose, Chekhov shows how even beauty’s summit can become the needle tip of anesthesia—an aesthetic escape for a lukewarm lover of the Lord.

"Anton Chekhov" (1898) by Osip Braz (Wikipedia); right: Bell tower in a Russian Orthodox church (Brett Johnson/

Before he became a literary master, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) sang (like a “little convict”) in the church choir that his father conducted. Punctually the acolyte assisted at the altar, arose early for matins, and ascended the belfry to toll the bells. But for whom? “And what of it?” he asked, recalling from a distance that pious childhood, “it seems to me rather gloomy. Now I have no religion.” Chekhov’s agnostic detachment from dogmas is evident in the doctor’s prescribed aesthetic: if some artists strive to answer great enquiries and others endeavor to form questions correctly, “only the latter is required of an author.”

But his drift from Orthodoxy did not leave the Russian faithless. As he confided to the editor Alexei Pleshcheev, “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable.” Whereas Dostoevsky portrays the “lover of mankind” as an abstracted humanitarian in dreams who cannot bear particular human beings, Chekov cultivated a distaste for the decadent inaction of those who, “out of boredom, write trivial stories, unnecessary projects, and cheap dissertations.” His humanist sympathies drove him to fight a cholera epidemic, organize free clinics, build several schools, and contribute to famine relief. Leonoid Grossman called him “a probing Darwinist with the love of St. Francis of Assisi for every living creature.” But the doubting Chekhov also built a bell tower for a village church, and—Spasibo Gospodi—the Russian wrought stories in spite of their alleged triviality.

In Chekhov’s stories, contends Simon Karlinsky, Christianity and the Church “are totally divorced from the very things they are traditionally supposed to promote in Western Civilization: morality, kindness and ethical treatment of fellow human beings.”

Yes, but the same tales celebrate the Divine Liturgy with beautiful prose. “The Bishop,” for instance, begins during Palm Sunday vigil, as “pussywillows” are passed out in lieu of true palms. “The lights were dim, the wicks were sooty, everything was as if in a mist. In the twilight of the church the crowd heaved like the sea.” When the titular character’s mother, visiting for the first time in nine years, appears—half-recognized—amidst the pressing crowd, we learn that what first seemed sacred and ethereal is clouded by the pains of illness, for her cantankerous son has the sickness unto death. Lyrical visions, impressionist and lovely, serve as a shroud for his present tense heartlessness. Later that evening, after attentively reading his “old, long familiar prayers,” the bishop recalls his mother’s infallible warmth during childhood infirmities, waxing nostalgic until “his memories . . . burned ever brighter, like flames” flicked from votives. A liturgical quality hallows his youth, vesting this time “forever gone” with a garb that is “more festive and rich, than it was in reality.” Back then he had followed the procession of a “wonder-working icon . . . hatless, barefoot, with naïve faith, with a naïve smile, infinitely happy.” But now he is old, infirm, and incapable of Christ’s core commandment. First laughing over his mother’s visit, he later wakes for matins but cannot leave his bed. Something is not right, but he lacks the courage of Tolstoy’s Ivan Illych, who could at least muster the modest confession: “Maybe I did not live as I should have.”

When at last he meets his mother she speaks from the heart, daring a confidence: the sight of him handing out palms in church made her weep, “Why I don’t know. It’s God’s holy will.” Immediately she blushes with embarrassment, for her son’s clerical ministrations have left him cold—like a faint form of God without being. The bishop is startled by her sudden turn; her “timid, deferential expression,” leaves him terribly “sad, vexed.” We soon find out that he rouses this fear from most of the flock under his watch: whenever he looks at these pathetic provincials they gape back “small, frightened, guilty.” Flirting with the first stirrings of a reckoning, he is “struck by the emptiness, the pettiness of all that people asked about and wept about; he was angered by their backwardness, their timidity; and the mass of all these petty and unnecessary things oppressed him.”

And then there is his mother: she jokes and chuckles with his fellow priests but turns serious and silent in his presence. On the verge of epiphany he ducks into the vestry, for the bishop “found peace only when he was in church.” As her visit extends he falls bedbound for months, suffering—supposedly—from gout.

Recovering slightly he goes to vespers, where he hears the monks sing “harmoniously, inspiredly” of the “Bridegroom who cometh at midnight and about the chamber that is adorned.” But the bishop knows not repentance or sorrow for his sins. Rather, the music summons a remembrance of things past, and his celestial daydreams contract, solipsistic: maybe my childhood will be the beatific center of whatever life comes after this; maybe our life on earth will be what we contemplate. For now, his eyes fill with the tears of a man who has achieved all, has faith, and yet lacks “some most important thing” he cannot name.

The missing piece is found when his niece visits his bedside like a beggar, telling of her now deceased father and the dire poverty her family now faces. “Give us a little money,” she dares to ask at last, in a “high little voice” that milks many teardrops even from the bishop. His mourning, however, is shorn of meaning, shows not forth the measure of love. Though she needs help here he defers to hereafter, when “the bright resurrection of Christ will come, and then we’ll talk . . . I’ll help you . . . I will.”

Only when the Easter liturgy requires him does the bishop gain “a vigorous, healthy mood.” Raising his eyes he beholds “on both sides a whole sea of lights,” hears “the sizzle of candles,” and recites the glory of the Son’s resurrection. Afterward, on the same Holy Saturday Christ was in the tomb, the anti-Pharisee takes his final rest, unreconciled. I say anti- because the Pharisees are “whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness” (Matt 23:27), whereas the bishop bided time by prettying his insides, but swapped his crosier for a dead man’s femur, wielding the bone over his cowering brethren with all the marks of Cain.

Chekhov does not commit the clichéd critique of mindless, deadening liturgy. He does not juxtapose good deeds with dead rites. Rather, while rendering the rituals with mesmerizing prose, he shows how even beauty’s summit can become the needle tip of anesthesia—an aesthetic escape for a lukewarm lover of the Lord.

In a letter, Chekhov considers the Bible as bequeathing the best possible morality:

There are neither lower, nor higher, nor secondary moralities, there is one, namely that as was given to us in the time of Jesus Christ, and which now prevents me, you, and Barantsevich from stealing, insulting, lying and so forth.

Given that Chekhov lacks faith in the Resurrection, we can reasonably read his characterization of Christ as one more “humanization” of the God-man. Pope Benedict XVI captures this revision, trending during Chekhov’s time, in his Regensburg Address: “Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favor of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message.” We might suspect that Chekhov, like Harnack, wishes to “bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God.”

Troubling as Chekhov’s reduction of Christ may be, who can find fault in his good deeds? Take his trans-Siberian trip to study the conditions of an island prison colony—a trip that yielded real reforms. We could mistake Chekhov’s letter to his brother for a diary entry of Dorothy Day:

We’ve let millions of people rot in prison for no reason, without thinking, barbarically . . . all of us are to blame; yet we don’t want to know about it, it’s not interesting. The celebrated sixties did nothing for the sick and those in prison, thereby violating the chief commandment of Christian civilization.

Dorothy Day warned against “spend[ing] all our money on buildings,” citing Christ’s command that we feed the poor. “However,” she continued, “there are many kinds of hunger. There is a hunger for bread, and we must give people food. But there is also a hunger for beauty—and there are very few beautiful places that the poor can get into. Here” she said, gesturing to St. Mary’s San Francisco Cathedral, “is a place of transcendent beauty, and it is as accessible to the homeless . . . as it is to the mayor.”

Be wary of an oft-floated false either/or that takes the form of aesthetical/ethical. As Martin Mosebach remarks, “whenever there is a debate about the great Catholic liturgical tradition, it only needs someone to utter the accusation of ‘aestheticism,’ and it is all over,” as the charge is fatal. Chekhov’s cantankerous bishop should cull from Christian readers corporeal counterpoints—works of mercy. A tragic muse would have lovers of liturgy shirk the sacred forms to better love mankind. We faithful who feast on Christ’s consummate art and who love him precisely through the chant and through the monstrance, through the chasuble and through the myrrh, must make certain the chalice of charity spills from the churches, for we are our brothers’ keeper or we’re Cain, treating Holy Mass as an addict does opium.

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About Joshua Hren 7 Articles
Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas. He regularly publishes in such journals as First Things and America, National Review and Commonweal, Public Discourse and LOGOS. Joshua’s books include: the novel Infinite Regress; the short story collections This Our Exile and In the Wine Press; the book of poems Last Things, First Things, & Other Lost Causes; Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy; How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic; and Contemplative Realism: A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto.


  1. Surprised to read the first comment from “Agnieszka”. My sense of this post is quite different from that described by this commentator. I decided to read it, again and again, until I can say I truly understand it. I expect to learn important things, “new and old” perhaps.

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