Father Ferapont does not need to eat bread; he can live off of mushrooms. Unlike the other monks of his monastery, he keeps the true fast. He is impervious to the desires of the flesh. In Brothers Karamazov, this monk represents the terrible danger of spiritual strength–a self-sufficiency which masquerades as holiness.
Through Ferapont, Dostoevsky depicts a religion which lacks salvific power, the power of love. Ferapont displays a religion which is truly demonic, one for the strong alone. But it is in weakness (moral, physical, spiritual vulnerability) that the possibility of salvation is hidden.
The weakness of the flesh which one encounters in a fast or in the pursuit of holiness is not a weakness to be eradicated. For Dostoevsky, vulnerability is the common lot of mankind and in it lies a clue to our happiness and holiness.
Real sanctification does not make a person stronger and more self-sufficient, but humanizes. That we fail in our fasts, that we see in ourselves the same lusts and desires which we see and condemn in others, is not ultimately a cause to despair. Rather, such desires reveal that there remains a part of us unsatisfied, a part of us which ever longs for an infinite love. Lusts and desire reveal the unquenchable thirst which is the human soul.
Therefore, these fast and all our struggles with sin should confronts us with the fact of our common humanity, and in doing so, turns our hearts toward our fellows.
There is a terrible kind of righteousness, a kind of strength which hardens the individual. In gaining mastery over the self, in conquering one’s passions or the longing for friendship and acceptance, such a person risks becoming more a demon than ever. Such a person becomes capable of greater sin, of wickedness far more profound than before. Worse, they are hardened against Christ himself. It is no accident that Father Ferapont characterizes a visitation of Christ as a horror.
It is perhaps for this reason that real holiness which is love is discovered in Brothers Karamozov in vulnerability, at the core of what makes us sinners but also creatures. The secret of holiness is hidden in the passionate and sensualist spirit of the Karamazov.
The sensualist, the Karamazov, even while lost in sensuality knows that he seeks something from without, that he desperately desires something or someone which is beyond them, but which would be joy to possess. They may not rightly know who or what this is, but they know that they themselves are not this being.
The one strong in his own strength who has overcome every obstacle of the flesh risks falling into the illusion that they posses all that can be desired. Such is not the religion of God, but of man.
Christ came to crack the self-open–to manifest his power in weakness. It is for this reason that salvation can be described very precisely as something which breaks into man.
This new life is quite unimaginable to us without the hope of the goodness of God. A great example of our terror for vulnerability is The Wall. In it, Pink Floyd depicts the horror of such a breaking–in, in which the destruction of one’s defenses (the tearing down of the wall) is nothing other than the total demise of the self. How true, and yet how wrong. For he who loses his life will find it.
In Christ, we discover the end of the individual (the self as we often imagine it and wish it to be). We find that the self-enclosure which we perceived as strength is itself death, and that it is only in dying that we discover life. We also discover, as Brothers Karamazov depicts, that we do not set about tearing down the self through an act of the will, but by the terrible providence of God which is yet kinder than we could hope.