Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Brothers Karamazov. Existential Dilemmas. Jumbled thoughts. Etc.

"Poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship."

This is one of my favorite quotes by C.S. Lewis. I feel like it encapsulates all of the beauty and essence of what Christian faith should be. That being said--enter existential dilemmas that plague my thoughts on a regular basis: Despite my history as and oldest sibling/child and teenager who was most of the time afraid to break the rules and my generally moderate lifestyle currently, I cringe when I hear about faith without heart; faith where there are prescribed checklists for political parties and issues; faith that forgets the person of Jesus in the midst of checking the right boxes; faith that then only rants against people who believe in those issues and politicians. The brokenness in my heart. In yours. Sorry.

The Brothers Karamazov, a story of a family crime, was the perfect book to be reading in a season of life where such spiritual issues are haunting my brain because Dostoevsky interweaves an exploration of Christianity with dense complexity.

Together, the Karamazov men all seem to represent a somewhat elusive picture of how life should be experienced. The brothers are preceded by their father's reputation for utter abandon to his selfish, sensual desires. Alyosha, the youngest brother, seemingly misses that gene, is known for his goodness and enters a monastery, mentored by the beloved (by most...of course nothing is really cut and dry) Father Zossima. Ivan is the intellectual atheist. Dmitri is reckless, rash and passionate, whom most of the town views in a similar manner to the father.

Each of these men seems to carry a piece, though, of what makes my heart ache (in the good way) about humanity. Dmitri doesn't think through anything, but this is a man whose passion and vigor enables him to be in the moment. Ivan, though much more emotionally cool, understands that it is the small moments that matter in life: "I have a longing for life, and i go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet i love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people." Alyosha truly loves people.

One of the most interesting things that happened in the book is that Father Zossima, Alyosha's mentor at the monastery, bows down to Dmitri at one point early on, after he causes quite an embarrassing scene for the family. No one can understand, not even Alyosha, why Father Zossima has done this. Why would a monk bow to this out of control, thoughtless, unholy man? He later tells Alyosha that he "bowed down yesterday to the great suffering in store for him." Zossima saw to the depth of him and ached for him. He encourages Alyosha to leave the monastery and its safety in its orderliness, to love and help him. This is what lifts the grounded ship.

The irony of this moment is that when Father Zossima dies, his corpse gives off a foul smell, which all of the monks take as an ominous sign that something wasn't right within him. Is Doestoevsky commenting on our desire to find something wrong with someone who goes against the mold? Or maybe he believes that Zossima was crazy to bow before Dmitri, but I doubt it.

There are two scenes that seem somewhat parallel to me. One is when Zossima criticizes humanity for pursuing things that ultimately don't bring life: "Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, visits, carriages, rank and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honour and human feeling are sacrificed, and men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy it." We chase the wrong things and our hearts break. Over and over.

The other is when Ivan shares his fable of The Grand Inquisitor, where Christ comes back, but is arrested and sentenced to be killed. The Grand Inquisitor explains that his return would interfere with the mission of the church. Shoot. Historically, the Church has run into most of it's problems when it desires order, power and control. Ivan completely understands this, thus his justified distrust of the church.

So it's not about what we can consume for ourselves. It's not about controlling people. But loving people. Being with them when we are there. Seeing the small moments of beauty?

Poetry. Gospel. Longing.

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