On June 10, 1881, a fifty-two year old count draped himself in the garb of a peasant and set off down a dust covered, rutted road. The count had been in something of a spiritual crisis for years, coinciding with the deterioration of his marriage. In opposition to his wife's wishes he had used part of their considerable wealth to found schools for the children of serfs.
His 1881 journey, a pilgrimage one might say, led him to the Optina Pustyn monastery in Kozelsk, alongside the Zhizdra River. At the time Optina Pustyn was a model monastery and the most important of spiritual centers within the Russian Orthodox Church, celebrated for its startsy.
Startsy is a derivation of the Slavonic term “staritsi” meaning elder, which in turn comes from “staru” or old. Russian Orthodox monasteries in the nineteenth century, like the one at Optina Pustyn, were led by a starets, or elder, a charismatic, venerated adviser whose wisdom was deemed to have come directly from God through ascetic experience.
The ascetic tradition that the Holy Spirit would bestow special gifts of knowledge to elders who practiced self discipline, prayer and seclusion stems from the Greeks, who used the word geron, the root of gerontology, for an elder.
In the starets system, the elder was not appointed by a pope or higher authority, but rose to the position through the recognition of the faithful around him. In the Russian Orthodox Church of the 1880s starets did not spend all their time praying in seclusion, they offered blessings and confession to the faithful. Some actually traveled great distances to attend to their flock.
However, the tradition at Optina Pustyn brought the potentially faithful on pilgrimage to the monastery. The count who made his way there in 1881 was not impressed with the advice given it would seem, for he made his way back to his estate, seeking his own brand of spiritualism through writing. The Count, known to us as Leo Tolstoy, turned to anarchic, pacifist Christian writing in novels like The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Resurrection. He became a believer in the teachings of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount and a literal believer in the injunction "to turn the other cheek."
In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy disavowed his Church's practices as a perversion of Christ's teachings. As he aged the count became pen pals with American Quakers who introduced him to the writings of William Penn and other pacifists.
Tolstoy rejected much of his most successful early work, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina because he thought the writing did not reflect a true representation of reality. Largely due to the count's published work on philosophy, pacificism, and the contradictions he found in contemporary religious practices, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901.
Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You was banned in his native Russia, but published in Germany. Its advocacy of nonviolent resistance left such an impression on one of its later readers, Mohandas Gandhi, that he listed the book as one of the three most profound influences in his reading life.
Here in this country one of the most modern of pilgrimages, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), is growing so overcrowded at times that locales such as the "Hiker Heaven," operated for nearly two decades by Donna Saufley near Agua Dulce, California, has shut down. The June issue of Backpacker magazine contains an interesting account of the history of "Hiker Heaven" as well as the reasons behind the glut of backpackers on the Southern California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.
As reported here in late April, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) had left many "hack and squirted" eucalyptus lying across the road that descends to the mouth of Slaughterhouse Gulch along the lower Albion River. Somebody at CalFire or MRC must have gotten the message because by mid-May the road was cut clear of the downed eucalyptus, so that it might remain open during fire season. There is one hindrance to large trucks, a single dead eucalyptus is hung up about eight feet above the roadway. Long before it was a logging road, what is now known as the Slaughterhouse Gulch Road served as a somewhat narrower trail for Pomos making their pilgrimage from inland valleys to the coast.