Dostoyevsky On The Most Powerful Humility

Thursday, November 18, 2021 Comments (1)


Kevin J.N. Hughes



      People know a lot about my conversion story, at least the late elements, because I have been very open about them. I have been very open about how I ended up in Adventism, what led me out of it, why I was initially drawn to and eventually repulsed by Calvinism, and how after the death of my son I was somehow both slowly and quickly drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. However, one thing that hasn't gotten as much notice (although I've been equally up front about it) is quite possibly the very earliest influence I had towards Orthodoxy, namely, my favorite fiction writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I discovered Fyodor Dostoyevsky on accident over summer vacation one year all the way back when the world was still young, and to the absolute shock and adulation of my mother, I chose to read it all by myself with no prompting from a teacher or school. My mom was so excited to see me reading a real book (one that didn’t involve sci-fi super soldiers slaughtering aliens), that she started working into conversations with her friends, “Oh you like Harry Potter? My son is actually a big fan of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” Praise God that she encouraged my new passion, and would even drop… subtle… hints at the bookstore, “look, that’s that author you like, Dostoyevsky”. I thank God for that, because those books helped form my mind. Today, I want to talk about a theme that runs through Dostoyevsky's works, even when not expressly stated, that I believe will help to transform us and make us to have the sort of humility that conquers the world.

      In many of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's works, this idea is less obvious, but in a couple of his books, Fyodor comes right out and tells us what’s going on. For example, in The Brothers Karamazov, it is the wonderful and beloved Elder Zosima who says outright, “If we could learn to see ourselves as guilty of all sin, I mean truly to see us as guilty as much, or perhaps more than the sinner, we would perhaps draw all people to Christ.” Now, the first time I heard this radical notion of Christian humility, while I still didn’t even know what Eastern Orthodoxy was and just thought Dostoyevsky was Roman Catholic because he used the word “Icon” in one of his books (I know, totally cringe of me) I will admit that I was actually repulsed by it. Over the years though, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I find this both fascinating, and even alluring.

         If you’re like me, you don’t think this is a very alluring concept at first glance, and I understand. I remember so many times on long walks while living in Colton I would listen to the wind rustle through the bushes and ponder Dostoyevsky’s books. Trust me, there is a lot to ponder, but this quote kept coming back and every time, I would rack my brain with some of the same objections you’re probably thinking of, things like, “What? That’s ridiculous, I am a good person, I took in and adopted children, I’m nothing like that dead beat dad who left his family because he wanted to commit adultery. How can you say that I should hold myself responsible for his bad behavior?” Or, “No way, the Taliban are so evil, I would never and could never take their sins upon my head, I would not want to.” Maybe you even think like I initially did, that Dostoyevsky is being naïve. You would be forgiven for thinking that this concept of radical humility and almost vicarious repentance is naïve. After all, even Fyodor himself places these words in the mouths of characters he generally writes to be somewhat unpolished, a prisoner in a Siberian Prison, an old monk who has assumedly seen very little of the world, a young woman who prays before an icon of the theotokos at night and then is forced into a life of prostitution during the day. However, you would be wrong.

        Not only is Fr. Zosima (and every other character who at first appears to be nobody) proven to be the farthest thing from naïve in the end, but Dostoyevsky himself proves that he is not at all naïve of just how evil the world can be. In The Brothers Karamazov there are actually two separate stories which Ivan Fydorovich mentions, both historical facts, both meant to call to mind the worst possible atrocities. (Mature audiences only, if you wish to skip the messy part, go to the next paragraph) One of these stories involves the famous Cleopatra of Egypt, and how she used to enjoy torturing slave girls by having them stand naked in her presence while she stuck golden pins into their nipples. The second, even more horrifying example that Ivan mentions is the true story of the Turks invading a Christian village in the middle east and pulling the babies from their mother’s arms, and just for sport mind you, tossing the babies in the air to be caught by the bayonets of their rifles.

         I am genuinely sorry to have to relate those terrible stories. I am even more sorry to relate that Dostoyevsky didn’t make them up. However, what that shows is that Fyodor Dostoyevsky is not naïve. He knows what he’s talking about. I would wager that he knows more about suffering the effects of the sins of other people better than most of us do. After all, being a mostly poor writer in Russia in the 1800s was not an easy task, and his stories show that he knows a thing or two about what it’s like to be cheated, screwed over, and treated unmercifully. No, Fyodor Dostoyevsky is not at all naïve, what we can easily mistake for naiveté is hope.

        Dostoyevsky is a man of great hope. His famous quote, “I believe that beauty will save the world” is not naïve, it is rather profoundly hopeful. Here we have a man who, despite, no, even because of, the profound evil and suffering that the world throws at him, has chosen to look to God and say, “I ask not why, but instead say only that I love you. And I know you’re going to make it right.”    

        So, let’s look again, because the more I read and study Dostoyevsky’s work, the more I learn that there is this thread in most if not all of his works, this thread that radical, almost self-abasing humility, is going to be a weapon with which we conquer the world. And I have come to believe that if we really take him seriously, if we really learn to believe and practice this kind of humility, whether it conquers the world or not, it will do something better, it will conquer our own sinfulness and bring us into the bosom of God. Okay, enough claims, let’s get down to brass tax. First, this statement is not as simple as critics usually make it out to be. Dostoyevsky is not advocating that we go around making police investigations difficult by confessing to murders we did not commit, like the what happened in the case of the so called, Happy Face Killer. Nor is he saying that we should prevent evil doers from seeing justice. In fact, Dostoyevsky firmly believes that everyone who dies in unrepentant sin will face justice, because God is good. So, it’s not about that.

        If avoidance of justice and false confessions aren’t what Dostoyevsky is getting at, then what is? I’m glad you asked.

         In essence, Fyodor Dostoyevsky is saying that if we learn to see in ourselves the guilt of others, then we will not hate them, nor will we be bitter, rather we will pity and feel sorry for, and even be able to pray for those who sin against us. Three months ago, my wife was shocked to discover that every time I attend the liturgy, and sometimes at vespers, I light two candles. One is for the people I love desperately, and who I believe love me. I light it for my beloved wife, for my daughters, and for my son who died, for my parents and for Nuria who also recently passed away, as well as all Sheryle’s family in Costa Rica. That did not surprise her in the slightest. What shocked her was that I also light another candle. I will not say any names in this article because I choose to speak their names only to God. But this candle is lit for people who have wronged me, and my family in profound ways. One in particular who caused a lot of suffering to myself and to my wife and daughters, and I pray for him every day, even lighting candles for him. Sometimes it’s hard to pray for people who have wronged me thusly, but it’s made easier when I realize that I am guilty with them.

         I’m not guilty with them because I’m some raving feminist anti-christ who supports abortion, nor am I guilty with them because I have been a dead-beat dad who hates Christ, the Church, and actively does whatever he can to lead his own children to damnation. I am not guilty of their sins, I am not a participant with them. No, but I am guilty with them for two reasons.

         First, I am guilty with them societally. For example, I am guilty with planned parenthood for the death of every baby they have murdered, not because I am somehow culpable, but because I am part of the very society that upholds them. I can certainly oppose that, I can work to end it, but I am nevertheless embroiled in it. And there is nothing I can do to change that, it is an accident of my birth that I was born into such a wicked society, and I am not angry about that, but I do bear some responsibility to change it, and I can repent for the murder of those babies. I can lift up my voice to God in sorrow for them, and in sorrow for the society that I am a part of, which is the society that killed them. When I do so, I can still hate the fact that babies are murdered, and I can even be angry at people like Gosnell and Tiller who perpetuate these serial killings. However, I can also pray for the souls of even the most prolific paid serial killers in even the most terrible of abortion clinics. Not because I minimize their sin, but because I understand myself to be in some mysterious way guilty with them, and therefore even as I pray for their repentance, I offer up my own.

           Second, and more importantly, I am guilty with them by my failure to exemplify virtue. This is actually the argument that Fr. Zosima himself brings up when he is instructing his spiritual sons. Namely, if I had been a perfect Christian, it may well have convicted even the worst of sinners to stop their sinning. In my case, if I had been the perfect example of patriarchal virtue, then perhaps there never would have been a feminist, because all the feminists would have looked upon the perfect man and seen that the patriarchy was wholesome. Moreover, perhaps there would be no deadbeat fathers if they could look upon the shining example of a perfect man. Yet, alas, I am something fundamentally far from perfect. I am something deeply flawed and imperfect. An atheist friend of mine recently told me that he believes I am a very good person. I told him that I disagree, I am a flawed person. And truth be told, I agree with Fr. Zosima, perhaps my friend would not be an atheist if he saw in me a perfect Christian. He says that I am good, but if I were truly as good as he says, then maybe his atheism would not seem tenable anymore. If I had been a perfect father, then perhaps all the world of deadbeat dads would have looked to my example and repented of their abandonment.

           Someone may object and say, “but that is speculation, you cannot know if these people would repent.” And of course they are correct. I cannot know. But what I can know is that I can pray for them all. And while I pray for them, I can repent on their behalf, repenting that I live in a society that fosters the sins it fosters, and repent of the imperfections in myself that have made me an imperfect witness to those I could have witnessed to.

          So, let us be part of the beauty that will save the world by becoming so radically humble that we learn to repent on behalf of all the world. In short, let us be the ten righteous men who save even the wicked city of Sodom by our prayers.

Pax Christi

St. Tsar Nicholas Pray for us




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