Perhaps I am still being influenced indirectly by Pope Francis’ talk to Catholic artists that he delivered in Rome last May. I did not need to be convinced about the important role that artists can play in our society, but the words of Pope Francis led me to make some good resolutions.
One of them was to reread Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov.” Some critics think it is the greatest novel ever written. Rereading it, I can see why it is considered a masterpiece. Dostoevsky’s insights into life are marvelous.
Several scenes in the novel I find moving and insightful. In one scene, a woman is having trouble believing that there is a life after death and she comes to Father Zosima, a very holy monk, to discuss her problem. She says the following:
“You see, I close my eyes and I think if everyone has faith, where does it come from? And then they say that it all came from fear of the awesome phenomena of nature and that there is nothing to it at all. What? I think, all my life I’ve believed and then I die, and suddenly there’s nothing. … What will give me back my faith? …
“How can it be proved? I’ve come to throw myself at your feet and ask you about it. … How can it be proved, how can one be convinced? Oh miserable me! I look around and see that for everyone else, almost everyone, no one worries about it anymore and I’m the only one who can’t bear it. It’s devastating, devastating!”
Father Zosima replies:
“No doubt it is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”
“How? By what?”
Father Zosima says, “By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.
“And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then, undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.”
I think that at times we appreciate being loved but perhaps forget that not only does love benefit the person who is loved, but the person who loves is greatly enriched by loving. I believe that everyone is enriched by loving, indeed the basic vocation of every person is to be a lover.
This is how God has created us, to be people who give ourselves away by loving, by making ourselves self-gifts to others. Dostoevsky has Father Zosima inviting the woman, who has trouble believing in a life beyond the grave, to love as strongly and deeply as she can.
I think it is significant that Dostoevsky has Father Zosima use the term “active love.” The love that the woman is called to give will cost her something. The monk continues his advice with the following words:
“For active love is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed and with everyone watching … whereas active love is labor and perseverance. …
“But I predict that at 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.”
Father Zosima’s remarks have moved me to recall how important it is that the Church be a community of love. At times it is easy to write about the mystery of love or to preach about the mystery of love, but the active love that Father Zosima describes to the woman can involve great sacrifice.
I can imagine that trying to incorporate active love into our experience of life might lead to strong temptations to be discouraged. Yet Father Zosima insists that at the moment of temptation illumination might happen.
I believe that Dorothy Day frequently quoted Father Zosima’s words to the woman who was finding it difficult to believe in a life beyond the grave. Everything I know about Dorothy Day, who with Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker, makes me believe that she lived a life filled with active love.
I wonder if Dostoevsky was suggesting that in living a life of active love a person will experience in some way the life we will live beyond the grave. This makes a great deal of sense to me, though it involves a great mystery, perhaps several great mysteries.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.