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

The Heart I Want to Have

Prayer has always been a battle for me, an enigmatic pursuit that I often am lazy in pursuing. I confess that I have often avoided prayer simply because articulating my heart before the unseen Creator seemed so elusive and vast. Vague words would waddle around in distracted circles, coming out more like a laundry list of complaints and centerless generalizations:

“God, please help so and so.”

“Lord, thank you for who you are.”

It is not that these types of prayers are somehow wrong; it is not as if God judges based on the articulateness of our words. But I had become lazy in the pursuit of communing with God. Instead of running first to Him with a broken heart or overwhelming anxiety or even blossoming joy, I would first run to my friends, to my family, overwhelming them with problems and dilemmas that were meant for Him to carry. In the center of this “praying” to humans around me festered the core of unbelief. Unbelief in the freeing, peace-bringing power of exposing the heart to the One who created it. And because of this perpetual unbelief, I had become complacent in repeating half-hearted Christianese collocations, and I knew that I needed to rise from this lethargic daze and trade passiveness for activeness. To begin believing that opening up to the Creator and laying all on him would infuse joy and purpose and precise perspective into my life.

But where was I to begin? How was I to break myself from these shallow and vague habitual mutterings? For me, the answer lay in discovering a little red book filled with recorded prayers of Christians throughout the centuries.

I grew up in a very non-liturgical tradition, and although liturgy was never outright condemned, there was always the sense that to repeat or memorize prayers from a book was somehow inauthentic and mechanical, the harbinger of legalism. And for this reason, I think I always felt that I had to “make up my own prayers” in order for them to be genuine.

But as I began to read this little red book filled with prayers, I began to realize how small this view of prayer was. One of the joys of reading for me has always been when the author has articulated something in my heart that I could never put into words. In the same way, I found myself savoring the words of Christians before me because they articulated precisely and powerfully the heart I want to have and the heart I know that God desires for his children to have. The following prayer by Thomas Aquinas has given focus to my prayers and I am so thankful that I can learn from the heart and examples of Christ-followers before me.

“Grant me, I beseech Thee, Almighty and most merciful God, fervently to desire, wisely to search out, and perfectly to fulfill, all that is well-pleasing unto Thee. Order Thou my worldly condition to the glory of Thy name; and, of all Thou requirest me to do, grant me the knowledge, the desire, and the ability, that I may fulfill it as I ought, and may my path to Thee, I pray, be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;

give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; 

give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness that may finally embrace Thee. Amen.”