Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same book that had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

Unless a Kernel of Wheat

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

These are the words of Jesus that Dostoevsky chose to open The Brothers Karamazov  with, words that are now etched as the epitaph on his gravestone.  I want to know what he was feeling when he chose that verse; take away all your critical essays and footnotes and academic speculations, and just let me see that man’s heart before his God.

Was he feeling what I feel today?

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

These are the words of Jesus that have been on meditative repeat all day long, washing away the fear that dirties my eyes and clogs my ears.

The fear has lied to me for years, spouting its logic that such a sacrifice is not meant for me, but for another follower. “You,” the fear whispers, “must make your primary goal self-protection, you must do everything to prevent yourself from this daily death. You are fragile, brittle, weak, and the grand paradox must be experienced from a safe distance, in the acknowledgement of the One who set the precedent and in the reading of stories of followers who were so much stronger than you. Don’t think you need to follow in their footsteps; it is your spiritual mission to achieve a peaceful control. Control over anxiety, depression, and your unpredictable emotions is what will make you most useful to Him. For what good is a desperate child, weeping, fumbling through the day without finesse or passion or plan? Only when you feel confident and competent will you understand what it means to live victoriously.”

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

The death is meant for me too, though, I realize as I walk along icy streets awaiting spring’s breath. Safety doesn’t equal freedom in His kingdom, and it is beauty, not shame, to be in the place where I have to cry every morning “your grace is sufficient for me, for your power is made perfect in my weakness.”

This death is meant for me, and the words of Christ nudge me to stop and consider if the goals I’ve subconsciously set for July and beyond really align with his calling. Five months of living in chaos external and internal has tempted me to exchange the word adventure for comfort, a concession I never thought I would make. Yet here I am, tricking myself into the smallness of stability.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” John 12:25

Jesus’ next words defy logic, proclaiming a paradox that I have been so scared to embrace. I love my life too much, and in trying to barricade it against harm, I suffocate and starve it.

I may never get control of my “issues.” Depression and anxiety may very well make regular appearances throughout my life. And I may not ever feel like I have it all together. But the words of Christ make me realize that gaining control of my emotions, my relationships, and my vocation shouldn’t be my goal. My goal, however unsafe and unfair and impossible it seems, should be to embody John 12:24-25.  In each feeble step forward to breathe “He must become greater, I must become less.”  To reclaim adventure by embracing this paradox of life through death.

To Be Too Conscious

 “I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness — a real thorough-going illness.” –The Underground Man, Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man; over-consciousness can drive us to despair, to depression, to step heavily through each day to the beat of Ecclesiastes’ moans of meaninglessness and futility.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man, but they stop short of acknowledging that this “sickness” has the power to shake us from a zombie-like going through the motions, to push us to fix our eyes on God and eternity.

There are days that I am tempted to give in to the negative side of this “sickness,” when thoughts of life’s futility beckon me to despair. These are the days when I am content with blindness, choosing to scorn hope, not having faith that my immortal inclination in the face of death, death, death is the most human of states because it points to the truest truth.

I bite my lip as I examine the broad order of things, people scurrying to and fro like ants, building houses and advancing careers and endlessly consuming, unconscious that one misplaced step, one turn of the steering wheel could propel them into eternity. I see them distracting themselves from over-consciousness,

knowing that it will pierce them,

knowing it will kill them,

not realizing that the death of the meaningless will birth a life of meaning.

I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness- a real thorough-going illness.

I am told that I think too much, that life must be lived, that the order of things is the order of things. I am over-conscious, morbid, in constant awareness of my own mortality, of the mortality of others, of the insignificance of striving and ambition and trying to make one’s mark.

I long for meaning in a place where people seem set on ignoring meaning, where people seem content in pretending, in trying to force meaning into promotions and white picket fences.

I almost give into despair, then real meaning calls: his name is Christ, and I reach out in feeble faith.  Real meaning calls, and for now, no one on earth can squeeze my hand in understanding.  But the time that we hoard and coerce and try to stop is insignificant; I will blink and be seventy and blink again; the dream will have lived its life and I will wake up, rub my eyes, and finally see.

If over-consciousness is a sickness, then I wish this disease upon everyone, confident that its ache might direct them to the deeper cancer that needs to be purged to save their lives. Death and history chug along, and the unconscious walk off cliffs into hell with smiles on their faces. I know intimately that over-consciousness can lead to depression when it turns inward, when it narrows itself into the claustrophobia of self-consciousness.

But I know that an over-consciousness that looks outward to the infinite Creator is a vivid gift, filled with joy. Its sharpness tells me that mortality is a distortion of the original plan. Its depth tells me that we are not a mistake, but crafted in the image of God, each of us one of his poems. And its constant pulse tells me that there is purpose, and that purpose is to pursue a life that joyfully sings “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

A Psalm of Life

Earlier this morning, I was paging through an old copy of Longfellow poems my grandmother had given me. I had always treasured the old volume from 1896, embossed with silver etchings and delicate roses. I thought that I might bring it with me to share with my students in Russia; after all, Longfellow was from Maine and it would be a unique thing to share with them. While scanning the yellowed pages, I happened upon a perspective-giving poem that is a must read for any Christ-follower who gets a little too focused on the “meaningless” cries of Ecclesiastes, who forgets that for us, mortality is truly of little significance,  that trials of this life pale in comparison to the hope to which we are called. Thank you Longfellow, for reminding me of who I am, of who we are.

A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

Heart within and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;—

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.