“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Theme of Love in The Brothers Karamazov: Bearing the Sufferings and Sins of Others

I recently read Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. An interesting theme can be seen in the teaching of the beloved Father Zossima. Take a look at the following quotes:

"For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man...Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. Then every one of you will have the power to win over the whole world by love and to wash away the sins of the world with your tears." (book 2, ch. 3)

"There is only one means of salvation. Make yourself responsible for all men's sins. As soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that you have found salvation." (book 6, ch. 2)

"If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once...seek suffering for yourself, as though you were guilty of that wrong." (book 6, ch. 2)

What does Father Zossima mean when he tells his listeners to be responsible to all for all, and to take the burden and punishment for men's sins upon oneself? Of course he does not mean that we are literally to consider ourselves guilty of others' wrongs. And yet we are to take those crimes upon our own heart, to bear them, perhaps to seek a love for others that brings one to a point of suffering when another sins. Father Zossima also says,
"Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love." (book 6, ch. 2)

"When you are left alone, fall on the earth and kiss it. Water it with your tears and it will bring forth fruit...Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything." (book 6, ch. 2)
To "be responsible to all and for all," to "suffer for all men," is nothing more or less than to love - in the fullest and truest way possible. "Kiss the earth, water the ground with your tears," says Father Zossima. We are to give ourselves, to empty ourselves out of love for a broken world.* We are to love others in their sins, to forgive, even to the point of bearing their pain.

Why do Dostoevsky's words ring so true? Why do they pierce the heart? It is because Father Zossima's wisdom was first taught by Jesus - and not only taught by him, but embodied in his life and being till the very end (see "The Paradox of Jesus"). He "made himself nothing" (Philippians 2:7), he washed his disciples' feet, he wept at the death of Lazarus, he gave himself unto death for our redemption. "This is my commandment," teaches Jesus, "that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:12-13).

In Christ, God falls to the earth and waters its dead ground with the tears of his love. In Christ, God loves and embraces all creation by becoming part of it. In Christ, God loves all humanity and each individual person, each sinner. In Christ, God really does bear responsibility for all and suffer for all, and for each individual person. In Christ, God sheds his blood on the earth, the gift of his love. In his blood shed and his body broken, we see tangibly the love of God, his tears and suffering for us.

Father Zossima's teaching, then, is simply that we be like Christ, imitating his character, joining him in his sufferings, and participating in his death and resurrection, just as the apostle Paul taught (Philippians 3:10-11, Colossians 1:24). This does not mean that we ought to seek out "suffering for all men" as a goal in itself, or that we can save others by taking their sins upon ourselves. Only Christ can and truly has taken the burden of others' sins upon himself and suffered in their place. This he did out of love, and while we cannot do what he did, we can love others with a love like his: to the point where their pain is very nearly ours, where if they do wrong we feel the moral weight of that sin. Even if a sin is not punished, it is a moral burden and a weight, and loving a man in his sin means feeling that reality, even wishing that we could suffer the punishment in his place. If the sin committed is again us, it may mean forgiveness.

"Love bears all things" wrote Paul. Christ bore all on the cross, suffering for all men and bearing responsibility for their sins. If we love as Christ taught us to love, we reflect him and bear his image to the world. The challenge is incredibly high, just like Jesus' teaching to love our enemies and to "be perfect" (Matthew 5:48), but all things are possible if we live "in Christ."

Each one can give to others, emptying himself for them just as Christ made himself nothing, and each one can receive from others in the same way. Yet it is in this very act of emptying ourselves that we can be filled. This is the nature of love - always giving, always becoming nothing, yet always receiving from others and being filled again in the act of giving (see "The Paradox of the Empty Cup Overflowing").

*This love, writes Dostoevsky, also means knowing ourselves in relation to all, and recognizing and bearing responsibility for the dark blot on creation that our own sin is.

1 comment:

  1. Nice quotes and explanation. I hadn't picked up on this point enough. It got lost in the mires of pages many months ago. But the podcast I listed to (http://www.christianhumanist.org/) mentioned it as well.

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