The sun shone brighter. The buds on the pollen-laden trees perched like the shadows of so many angels around me. My children’s laughter peeled sweeter than I have heard it in awhile, and I was able to stand by and smile and laugh with them with a peace of heart I have not felt in forever.
Can a book really do such things?
Because this meager transfiguration of my world is precisely what occurred as I turned the final page of The Brothers Karamazov yesterday. And I’m not sure it’s merely because of that joyous final scene around Ilyuesha’s rock, in which Alyosha bids his young friends never to forget one another - a scene that, written by anyone else, would have been cloying, too easy. This last wave of beauty was not what made me follow St. Peter in desiring to build tents for the mysteries, grasping at them to remain, for, it was indeed good to be in their presence.
No, not merely beauty, wave after wave of purest, baptizing beauty. But even more so, truth. Crash after crash of heart-breaking truth. And, if such things may be said anymore, also, the sheer goodness that emerges, unbelievably, from the utter darkness of this bundle of dead souls. Beauty, truth, and goodness. From Karamazovs?
I still recall my freshman year college course on the “Problem of Evil.” I limped to the end of the semester, my faith lacerated, my spirit crushed, by the knowledge of so much suffering in the world. And then Dr. Larrimore proclaimed the Gospel that still makes this whole faith thing possible for me today. He turned the tables, offering that the true problem was not of evil, but of good. Because if we have eyes to see, evil should not be a shock or surprise. It is the very medium in which we eek out our tragic existence. We know where evil comes from, even if we cannot speak it. But good? Self-sacrifice? Love? Whenever and wherever these occur, can we ever truly account for them? For the French Huguenot village that gave its life for a handful of Jews during the Second World War? For Ivan Karamazov’s sudden willingness to sacrifice himself for his despised brother Dmitri?
That, I think, is what makes Dostoevsky’s miracle so miraculous. When transcendence appears, it is not a deus ex machina, not a sudden salvage operation. Beauty, truth, and goodness just happen. Ivan, collector of horror stories about the suffering of children, encounters the devil within himself, and suddenly discovers truth. Dmitri wrestles with lasciviousness and violence, and only when he is wrongfully accused, arrested, and convicted, does he discover real goodness, in himself and the world. Katya and Grushenka never quite make it to reconciliation, and yet, we know they will, but only precisely because they do not actually make it the full way yet. This is a book of planted seeds that are dead and buried. And yet, unless a grain of wheat falleth and die...
And then there is Alyosha. I find him the most perplexing character of all. Because Alyosha, for me, does not seem to change much. He begins as a budding saint, and ends as one. He has a momentary crisis of faith when his beloved Elder Zossima dies. But it is not clear to me that this is not really just grief. As is said several times, St. Thomas the Doubter did not believe because he saw the Risen Christ, but because he had already made up his mind to believe. Perhaps what is compelling about Alyosha is that his mind has, in a sense, been made up for him. Love has no logic. It is simply there, and can only ripen in the midst of such a storm of sin, seduction and suffering.
When I was in college, I wrongly believed that, of course, I was Alyosha, the lover of mankind and the hero of the tale. A hair over a decade later, I still long to be Alyosha. But I cannot help but think that, in truth, I am Dmitri Karamazov. I am Kolya Krotsokin. I am Smerdyakov. I am Grushenka, and I am Katya. I am a thread of darkness woven into the tapestry of human self-deception, self-assertion, and self-hatred that shrouds the world in the shadow of suffering. Like Dmitri, I am a loquacious buffoon and a spend-thrift. Like Kolya and Ivan, prematurely and insufferably imperious and arrogant. Like Smerdyakov, bitter and conniving. Like Grusha, unwilling to forgive, like Katya, insanely jealous. Like all, desperate for love to come and touch us tenderly, visit me in prison, believe in my goodness, untangle my confusion, speak the truth.
I am not Alyosha. But now, I think, I can truly long for Alyosha, and when he comes, in the presence of love that is not cloying but perfect in its naivete, then like Grushenka, I will no longer desire to “eat him up” with malice, but receive him with awe and wonder, begging him to sit upon my lap, able, finally, to see that the world is not darkness at all, but blinding, marvelous light. The light is coming into the world, and while the world does not receive it, it receives us, and seeks us out, and reveals its presence, deeper than the darkness, at the very heart of our created beings.
There is no doubt in my mind that Terrence Mallick, the writer and director of another great work on suffering and grace, The Tree of Life, found his inspiration from the Brothers Karamazov. The words of the father’s final, broken confession echo the crucial revelation in the life of Father Zossima: "Yes, there was so much of God's glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and the glory of it all."
I wonder if, in the end, it is possible to see the glory without first arriving at the dishonor; if grace and truth can be known without Law unveiling our lies. If the world can be truly transfigured without first being crucified. If we can truly delight in the laughter of children, the angelic presence hiding in the bursting forth of new life, if resurrection and innocence can truly be miraculous, and not merely cliche and cloying, if we do not face the fact - the Good News! - that indeed, we are not Alyosha, but the world desperately in need of his imperfect perfection. I think then can we hear his prayer as prayed, not merely for others out there, but receive it, hear it, for us, and for all:
"Lord, have mercy on them all today, unhappy and stormy as they are, preserve and guide them. All ways are yours: save them according to your ways. You are love; you will send joy to all!"