Archive for March 2nd, 2008

Forgiveness and Paradise – Dostoevsky

March 2, 2008


This small passage from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, has always been among my favorites within literature. It is the story of the death of Markel, the brother of Zossima, who will later become a great monastic elder. The words of his brother Markel serve as something of a summary of the elder’s theology and among the most profound thoughts in literature.

From the Life of the Elder Zossima

…but the doctor arrived and quickly whispered to dear mother that it was galloping consumption and that he would not survive the spring. Mother began to weep, began to ask my brother with circumspection (mainly in order not to frighten him) to fast for a little and then attend communion with God’s holy mysteries, for he was at that time still up and about. Upon hearing this, he lost his temper and gave God’s temple a good rating, but then he grew meditative….. Some three days went by, and Holy Week began. And then, from the Tuesday evening, my brother went to fast and take communion. ‘I am doing this, properly speaking, for you, dear mother, in order to please you and to calm your fears,’ he told her. Mother wept from happiness, and also from grief; ‘It means his end must be near, if there is such a sudden change in him.’ But not for long did he go to church; he took to his bed, and so was given confession and communion at home. The days were starting to be bright, serene and fragrant – it was a late Pascha. All night he would cough, I recall; he slept badly, and in the mornings would always get dressed and try to sit in a soft armchair. That is how I shall remember him: sitting there quietly meekly, smiling, in reality ill, but with a countenance of cheerfulness and joy. He had undergone a complete spiritual alteration – such a wondrous change had suddenly begun within him! Our old nurse would enter his room: ‘Let me light the lamp before your icon, dearie,’ she would say. And previously he had not allowed it, would even blow it out. ‘Light it, dear nurse, light it, I was a cruel monster to forbid you earlier. As you light the lamp you say your prayers, and I, in rejoicing for your sake, say mine also. That means we pray to the same God.’ Strange did those words seem to us, and mother would go away to her room and weep and weep, though when she came in again to him she would wipe her eyes and assume an air of cheerfulness. ‘Dear mother, don’t cry, my darling,’ he used to say. ‘I have much time to live yet, I shall make merry with you both, and my life, my life will be joyful and merry!’ ‘Oh, dear boy, what kind of merriment can there be for you, when all night you burn in a fever and cough till your chest nearly bursts apart?’ ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

The Last Judgment

March 2, 2008


This Sunday, as part of the pre-Lenten calendar in the Orthodox Church, is known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment, because the gospel reading is taken from the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. It is a very proper subject for meditation as the Church makes preparation for Great Lent and its call to repentance.

When I think about the Last Judgment, apart from whatever cosmic images one may draw upon, I’ve often come back to the simple question: “What do you want?” For the Last Judgment has much to do with that question – or at least everything that brings us to that Last Judgment has much to do with that question.

What do we want? By this, I do not mean to say that we are saved by our will but it still matters, “what do we want?”

I could state it another way and say, “What do I desire? or What is the desire of my heart?” For there is some truth in the statement that we all get what we want in the end. By the mercies of God we perhaps get more or less than we want – but that remains in the sovereign hands of God. At least it is true that we “get what we want” in ultimate terms – that is, do I want God – for nothing else will have mattered in the end.

It is confusing for some when they hear “you get what you want in the end,” for we imagine that we want many things. Does this statement mean, “All I have to do is want heaven and I will be saved?” In a manner of speaking, the answer is “Yes,” but it is not as simple (or it is more simple) as it sounds. If by “heaven” someone means a “cosmic pleasure dome” – then the answer is “No,” because there is no such thing as a heavenly cosmic pleasure dome. Such idylls are the product of religious imagination. To say that “I want heaven,” in Christian terms, is to say, “I want God.” And that takes us to the very core of our heart and the nature of our heart’s true desire. “Do I want God?” is a profound question that can never be answered easily or immediately. In many ways the answer to that question is finally only made manifest in the life we have lived.

“Do I want God?” is not the same thing as “I want health,” or “I want prosperity,” or a number of other things that some attach to the Christian religion. If such blessings are given then be thankful. If such blessings are not given, still be thankful.

The Psalmist says:

Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever. (Psalm 73:25-26).

Many of the spiritual fathers of the Church would speak of the role of eros [desire] in the spiritual life – that is – what drives us? what desire or force lies behind our actions? The right answer to the question – or the saving answer to the question is that we desire God.

This is a very different matter than saying “I like religion” or “religious practices” or “I like thinking about God and arguing about theology.” Such things may have a desire for God in them or they may simply be distractions like any number of other hobbies in which we engage. The test of our desire, of course, is love. Do I love God – do I want to love God? Do I want to know God?

Sometimes such questions can seem abstract. We always do well to remember that Christ is the “content” of God (“He is the fullness of the Godhead bodily” Colossians 2:9). Thus we will not be lost in abstractions about the word “God” but understand the very concrete manifestation and revelation of God in Christ and in His self-sacrificing love.

Christ Himself makes the question even more concrete, or immediate, in His parable of the Last Judgment. There He says that “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Thus our love of God is as concrete as our love for every other human being around us – down to the very least.

We are a nation whose culture teaches us to consume. Our economy fails when we stop consuming (or so I am told). But we will not be judged on our consumption (how much stuff we have) but our desires do matter. That which is saving is no further away than the next person. My desire for God, if it is truly a desire for God, will manifest itself in love of others. To feed them, clothe them, visit and welcome – whatever love requires. It is in losing ourselves in such a manner that we find ourselves. It is in desiring God (even in the heart of my brother) that we will find heaven.

If we want it.