Wisdom from Father Zosima

Crime and Punishment is my favourite novel.  And yet somehow I’ve managed to never read any of Dostoevsky’s other novels. So, I’ve started reading Brothers Karamazov, in the 2002 translation by Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I’m not far into it but already I’m starting to love it.  Last week as I was preparing my sermon on Naaman the Leper, there was a scene in the novel that resonated with everything I’d been researching and thinking about in terms of Naaman’s healing.

In the scene, a lady is confessing to a wise elder, Father Zosima, that she doesn’t think she could really “actively love,” since she always wants recognition and reward.  Here’s Zosima’s reply:

“I heard exactly the same thing, a long time ago to be sure, from a doctor,” the elder remarked.  “He was then an old man, and unquestionably intelligent.  He spoke just as frankly as you, humorously, but with a sorrowful humor.  ‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.  In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience.  As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom.  In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose.  I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.’”

After giving a few more pieces of advice on how to live, Zosima concludes:

“I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams.  Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching.  Indeed, it will go as far as the giving of one’s own life, provided it does not take too long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising.  Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.  But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment – I predict this to you – you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.”

One of the reason I love Crime and Punishment, and that I’m beginning to love Brothers Karamazov, is that Dostoevsky is able to weave together a compelling story with characters that are completely human – more so than with almost anyone else I’ve read – and to include long dialogues on philosophy and religion and life without coming across as heavy-handed, since they’re always presented as a true, real part of a character.

I’m fascinated by Dostoevsky’s religion (at some point I plan on reading Dostoevsky’s Religion by Steven Cassedy, although it’s a little pricey).  The religious aspects of Crime and Punishment, and so far in Brother’s Karamazov, resonate strongly with me, and I’ve heard other New Church people say the same – but I’m not sure whether that’s because of similarities in Dostoevsky’s specific religious outlook, or if it’s because of larger similarities between the New Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, or if it’s simply because Dostoevsky’s novels appeal to religious thinkers. I do know of at least one religious scholar who says that the New Church is closer to Eastern Orthodoxy than it is to either Catholicism or Protestantism; and there are others, most notably Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who have pointed out Swedenborgian influences in Dostoevsky’s novels.  And (as I just discovered from re-reading Milosz’s article on Dostoevsky and Swedenborg for this blog post) Milosz even specifically links Father Zosima and Swedenborg:

Father Zosima in many of his pronouncements indeed sounds like Swedenborg, particularly in his talk on eternal damnation. A man’s life, according to Zosima, is a “moment of active living love” and is given to him as a gift of time and space, where love can be exercised.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say the passages quoted above “sound like Swedenborg,” but they certainly resonate with me as a Swedenborgian.

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