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The Elder Zosima Option?

What ordinary people can learn from monastic spirituality, according to Dostoevsky's spiritual hero

A reader very kindly writes:

I wanted to write briefly and say that I appreciate how fervent you have been in trying to help the conservative church pick a path through the dark time confronting us. At one point you sounded so damned alarmist that I almost stopped reading your blog. Thankfully I have not. After last week and the judicial nonsense of the high court I picked up The Brothers Karamazov, my sort of go-to read for times that demand reflection. Here is an excerpt from the homilies of Elder Zosima as he is on his death bed. Some notions highly amenable to the type of withdrawal you advocate are sounded here. First, the prescription of contemporary ills and then the place of monastic retreat:

“Look at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself above the people of God: are the image of God and his truth not distorted in it? They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says, ‘You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest of men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them’–this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been given any way of satisfying their needs. . . Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure seeking and self-display.” (313-314)

The antidote, sounding very Benedict-y. . .

“Very different is the monastic way. Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet they alone constitute the way to real and true freedom: I cut away my superfluous and unnecessary needs, through obedience I humble and chasten my vain and proud will, and thereby, with God’s help, attain freedom of spirit, and with that, spiritual rejoicing! Which of the two is more capable of upholding and serving a great idea–the isolated rich man or one who is liberated from the tyranny of things and habits? The monk is reproached for his isolation: ‘You isolate yourself in order to save your soul behind monastery walls, but you forget the brotherly ministry to mankind.’ We shall see, however, who is more zealous in loving his brothers. For it is they who are isolated, not we, but they do not see it. Of old from our midst came leaders of the people, and can they not come now as well? Our own humble and meek ones, fasters and keepers of silence, will arise and go forth for a great deed. The salvation of Russia is from the people.” (314)

And one more quick one on love, because sometimes while reading Dostoevsky I wonder why it is I would ever read anything else. Also, out of everything I have been thinking in the past week what I keep coming back to is love:

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things.” (318-319)

We must hold forth something better than the created needs of the world. Christ and the love of every bit of creation seems like a good place to start.

God bless you, brother.



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