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

Waiting, Meaning, Kingdom

“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.

Scorched to the root

My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.”-Sylvia Plath, “Elm”

It haunts acutely when she travels alone. A girl, eyes fixated out and beyond, knifed by meaning and meaninglessness. The rhythmic lull of a Soviet era train hums her to thought as she looks through the window-frame to emptiness and beauty. Snowy fields tinted in orange and pink by the sunset, forest that stretches out in monotony, sights gulped by a wait-er, suffering the contraction of time and eternity. A guttural whisper is the only expression of this bursting, bursting, bursting.  2014-02-05 17.03.05

There is more, there is more, there is more.

There is more, you know. It is your life to breathe the truth that there is more. There is meaning in the orange and pink tinted fields, in the rhythmic lull of the train, in the expanse that knifes you. There is more, so why, then, the tears? Why then, the grasping at a mirage of the flawed finite when the infinite is what is more…you know that it is your life to breathe the infinite and make Him known. Yet in the Russian train, in the long car rides, in long walks crunching through fallen leaves, you curse the waiting.

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You curse the waiting because all of this meaning is meaningless without that unknown someone you’ve dreamed of, storied, objectified and distorted into something like a god. Because the waiting is a curse, and unfair, and you are wilting and frantic. Because you have done all the things right and all the right things, all the years added up should be enough, and so your eyes rove in the waiting, pitying the self because she is not adored by someone whom she would make her god.

It is in the now, the waiting, that your life must be stale. It is in the now, in the waiting He is cursing you with, that you wonder why it haunts more and more in the mundane. The thing is, you thought there was a time limit, because the waiting is worthless, and you have an expiration date. And Plath again gives you words: “I am inhabited by a cry.   Nightly it flaps out Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing/That sleeps in me; All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” The girl is greedy, and if she continues, she will suck the life out of another or spill her blood on the altar of self, spinning the story to sustain herself while she waits, unfaithfully.

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But somehow, she is shaken from the ravenousness by simple truth. The truth comes in the soft, yet sudden way that it came to Alyosha, the novice shaken out of his idealization through a suffering that led to hopeful reality: “Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind- now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in the moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn the world.’” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

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The monastery was, for Alyosha, a comfortable place, a place of safety, a place to view the world the way it had always made sense to view it. And through trial and disillusionment, when the mystical didn’t translate into everyday life, when Zosima was un-deified by the stench of death and humanity, only then could he truly understand the meaning of hope. And only then could he leave the place of comfortable ignorance filled with fantasies and embark on his true mission, which lay outside the monastery walls. The monastery was filled with truth, but its stagnancy also reinforced the lies that blinded Alyosha. The truth for the waiting girl: The waiting isn’t worthless. The waiting has meaning. The waiting points to the greater story, the greatest story.

Ann Voskamp’s words bathe the mind that has become soiled with cynicism: “Every tulip only blossoms after cold months of winter wait. Every human ever unfurled into existence through nine long months of the womb waiting. And the only kingdom that will last for eternity still waits, this millennia-long, unwavering-hope for return of its King. Instead of chafing, we accept that waiting is a strand in the DNA of the Body of Christ. That this waiting on God is the very real work of the people of God.”

Every act of waiting can point to the most important waiting we will ever do, waiting for Christ’s return. And if marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, then the waiting for the fulfillment of good desires is a picture of our hope and expectation for the King to return and restore and herald in a joyful eternity. When I long, my natural inclination is to find a quick fix to douse the ache. To write my own story, to live in my imagination while cursing the reality that I’m living. What if I leaned into the longing and looked to Christ in hope, remembering that the hunger is indicative of the eternity I am waiting for? The longing can’t be filled by a person; it is a hunger pang for Christ that can only be fulfilled in him. This longing will not be fulfilled completely in this life. So may these pangs direct the waiting girl to the hope of the Truth. To be unsatisfied, to wait, to long, is not a curse, but a blessing, because in her little story, the girl can let her longings point to the greater story He has swept her into. A story that may be filled with suffering, but ends in joy. A story that on the hard days, doubt may tarnish, but ends, indisputably, in confident faith.

Hebrews 11:13. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  

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.”