Posts Tagged ‘Dostoevsky’

More Notes from the Edge

July 20, 2009

railroadposterI began last week with an article on the End of the World and the Orthodox view of the “last things.” I have followed this with thoughts about life on the “edge.” That image, a common metaphor within a number of 20th century Orthodox writers, is continued in this post – and likely in several more to come. Perhaps it is an aspect of our modern life that we frequently find ourselves to be living “on the edge.” It may also be true that we share this experience with Christians through the ages. The gospel has a way of bringing us to “critical” moments. For all who find themselves on the edge – both religiously and existentially – I offer my prayers and the solidarity of someone who has been there repeatedly. Whatever “the edge” may mean – it does not mean we are alone.

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A short but insightful quote from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. It came to him during his time in the Gulag:

…. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The spiritual battle which confronts us all is to be found in the human heart – our own human heart. This insight, not unique to Solzhenitsyn, but characteristic of Orthodoxy in general, can be news to those who have not heard the faith spoken of in this manner. All too easily the battle between good and evil is externalized and one side settles for a legally defined morality while the other sets for a legally defined immorality and neither side understands anything. Even the debate on Abortion gets completely obscured by the externalization of its legal/illegal status, and fails to see, too often, the great battle that is waged inwardly to bring a life other than my own into the world. What is the state of the heart in this great moral debate?

The same can be said of any number of public issues – and even of issues within the Church. The Church necessarily raises the “level of the playing field” allowing everyone involved to speak in the most absolute terms and to judge quickly and with assurance. Easily lost is the state of the heart throughout all of our battles – both public and ecclesiastical.

Part of the genius of Solzhenitsyn, similar to the genius of Dostoevsky in the century before, was to move issues away from the abstract and bring them to the existential level of the human heart. Nothing was exempt from this requirement. There is no moral “free-ride.” Thus Raskolnikov discovered in Crime and Punishment that there was no greater good that could justify the murder of some “meaningless soul.”

This, of course, is simply the gospel. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” And none of us should doubt that every moment of our life, every decision of the day is a matter that bears on our soul. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

It means that every moment we walk on the edge of an abyss – not that Christ has not entered the abyss to bring us out – forgiveness is real. But having once been rescued from the abyss we need to learn all the more how to tread the narrow path and to pray for all who have fallen. Some brave souls, in their great love of mankind, even enter through prayer into the abyss with Christ, to pray for those who have fallen and to bring them home again. It is certainly the case that those who bore the suffering of Stalin’s Gulag, and yet prayed for us all, had entered the abyss and learned there, union with the Crucified Christ, to Whom belongs all glory!

At the Edge

July 18, 2009

A reprint…since we were discussing the end of the world…

guardian_angelOne of the peculiar marks of life in the modern world is the sense one has of standing on the edge. We are always (it seems) either standing on the edge of disaster or on the edge of some great discovery. Of course, a lot of this is simply the way we market the world to ourselves. But it is an inherent part of modernity to constantly look towards the future and forget the past. This is not to say that our culture is eschatological – we are merely oriented towards constant change with competing visions of light and dark with regard to a relentless future. To be properly eschatological (from the Greek for “concerning the last things”) is to believe that there is an actual end-point that is the fulfillment of all things – the fullness towards which God is drawing His creation.

To stand on the edge of the future is often experienced as anxiety. Like all of modernity, we believe in progress, but the myth of constant progress towards a utopian world has been shattered by the many tragedies of the 20th century. Like previous centuries it had its wars and its oppressive regimes. But unlike previous centuries, we learned that modern wars and modern regimes are apocalyptic in the fullness of their nightmares. We are at least as certain of a bad end as we are of a good end – and, I suspect, more people expect things to get a lot worse before they get better – if they get better.

There are other experiences of standing on the edge. I think that when we confront God, we find ourselves on an edge. As it says in Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It is not that the living God holds any animosity towards us, or that He intends us any harm. But the Light and the Truth that radiate from Him require light and truth to be present in the one who beholds Him. If we have no light and truth then His presence reveals within us the darkness and the lies that are present.

Any number of times in my life I have stood at that edge. To some degree, every occasion of private confession is an approach to the edge, to see the face of God. “Behold, child, Christ stands here invisibly before you receiving your confession,” the priest says. I have stood beside many, many others as they approached the edge and I have seen the wonders of the effect of God’s Light and Truth.

I can also recall very large moments – such as the time of my conversion to Orthodoxy. In some respects, I stood at the edge for nearly 20 years (and very consciously for at least seven). In various comments by readers, it is obvious that many stand at the edge of Orthodoxy and sometimes for a long time. Was I afraid? Yes, I was. Was I afraid of God? Yes I was. I was afraid of the Truth, of the Light, of myself, of everything around me. I can see now that my fear was baseless and that my waiting so long on the edge held far more drama than was necessary. But standing on the edge can be like that.

Dostoevsky had a feel for the edge. The tension that builds in the character Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) becomes almost unbearable until the young man at last turns himself in for the murders he has committed. And like all the rest of us who murder (at least in our heart), turning ourselves in, getting past the edge, becomes the path of salvation just as it was for Raskolnikov.

My children, while quite young, became aware that I had difficulty with heights and edges, particularly while driving. A long, high bridge, or a narrow mountain switch-back, raced my pulse and pumped adrenalin throughout my body. I believe it was my son who first came up with the game (though it could have been on of his sisters) …  When we were traveling and would reach such a frightful point, he (and his sisters) would begin to shout, “Over the edge!” Which usually sent me into paroxysms of terror and shouts of various threats. They found it great fun. To enter the kingdom of God, we must become like little children. Over the edge!

The Chief of Sinners

July 9, 2009

Picture 322A version of this post appeared last January. In light of the recent posts on prayer and communion it seemed timely to rerun this post. Though not on prayer, it carries some of the same thoughts to the commonality of our life as Christians and of our life as human beings. I believe that we will make little progress as Christians nor as human beings (as measured in the Kingdom of God) unless and until we begin to understand the commonality of our life and the significance of Christ’s participation within that life (and our participation in His).

In the Divine Liturgy, it is customary for this prayer to be offered by all who are coming to receive communion. I quote a portion:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

Of course the prayer is a reference to St. Paul’s self-definition as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is a confession made by all the faithful, gathered before the Holy Cup, everyone confessing to be the first among sinners. It would be easy to take such a statement as an example of pious excess – overstating the case of our sinfulness. Were that so it would be a travesty within the Liturgy – which exists to lead us into all Truth and to give us the gift of True Life. Such life is not grasped by uttering pious nonsense. Thus, we must accept the confession as actually what it says. How is it that I am the first of sinners?  We could assume that the language is a claim to be worse than all other sinners. But how is a comparison to be made between sin and sin? Some will say that murder is by far worse than stealing or lying – and perhaps take comfort by saying, “At least I’m not a murderer.” But this is only an echo of the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was “not like other men” particularly the Publican standing nearby (Luke 18:11).

The confession is not an exercise in comparative morality – but an exercise in humility and true contrition before God. Dostoevsky’s famous character, the Elder Zossima, speaks of “each man being guilty of everything and for all.” The mystery of inquity, spoken of in Scripture, is just that – a mystery. Our involvement in sin is itself mysterious. Our culture has made of sin either a moral failing, and thus a legal category, or a psychological problem to be treated as guilt. Both are sad caricatures of the reality and neither image allows us to say, “Of sinners I am first.” Morality would reassure us that we have not done as much as others and would leave us as unjustified Pharisees. Psychology would assuage our guilt by warning us that such feelings are bad for us.

But the Church insists that we stand together with St. Paul and join in his unique confession.

I prefer to understand the prayer in the terms used by the Elder Zossima, whose thoughts are largely derived from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. My solidarity with every sinner is such that I cannot separate myself as better or in no way responsible for the sins of another. Again words of Elder Zossima:

Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to be a judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.

Of course, we live in societies where we frequently make distinctions between the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. And there are truly people who behave in an evil manner that stuns our ability to understand. And yet we share a common life as human beings and every effort to deny its reality pushes us ever further down the road of pride, envy, blame, and every form of hatred.

Thus there is no way forward other than that of forgiveness – and a forgiveness which is in the image of Christ. Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world – indeed, in the raw language of St. Paul:

[God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

If we refuse our commonality with the Christ who Himself was “made sin,” then how can we claim our commonality with Him in the righteousness of God? And if we accept that commonality – then with St. Paul we can also confess ourselves “of sinners to be the first.” The forgiveness of God that is given to us is not a forgiveness which made itself aloof or estranged from us, even though He was without sin. How can we who are sinners then set ourselves above other sinners? The way of forgiveness is inherently a way of solidarity.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is certainly the word of a gracious God. It is also the cry of a Man who yielded Himself to utter solidarity with us all.