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Angelic presence all around us

18 December 2015

David Bryant finds hope in the bleak world of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Glimpse of glory: a humble fir tree is transformed for Christmas

Glimpse of glory: a humble fir tree is transformed for Christmas

AS A CHILD, the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) witnessed the brutal rape of a nine-year-old girl at the hands of a Russian serf. It haunted him throughout his life.

Disasters followed remorselessly. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15, and his father disappeared soon after, allegedly murdered by his peasant workers. As if that was not enough, Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy and seizures, and repeatedly lost all his money through obsessional gambling.

He was arrested for political agitation when he joined a protest group that condemned the Russian feudal system, and was sentenced to death at the hands of a firing squad.

After a 15-day sleigh journey across Siberia, he reached the hard-labour camp: “In summer there was intolerable closeness, and in winter unending cold.” Rotten floors and inch-deep filth greeted him. The convicts were packed into huts like sardines in a barrel, and it was impossible not to behave like pigs. Fleas, lice, and black beetles were there by the bushel. Shackled in irons, he was allowed only a New Testament.

The execution was a cruel charade, aimed at crushing opposition. Chained and blindfolded, the men were lined up before a firing squad. At the last moment, a cart arrived bearing a pardon from the Tsar, and the sentence was commuted to six years’ hard labour.

The mental anguish nearly cost Dostoevsky his reason; but it also instilled in him an intense spirituality, which infuses his novels.

In The Idiot, he attempts, in Prince Myshkin, to paint the picture of a man with a perfect human nature. Myshkin is a thinly disguised Christ, who loves nature and humankind. “Look at a little child. Look at God’s day dawn, look at the grass growing. Look at the eyes that love you as they gaze back into your eyes.”

He is speaking here of a beautiful but licentious woman with whom he falls in love. At the close of the book, as he watches over her dead body, a godlike love and compassion flow from him.

Crime and Punishment deals with tougher themes. It is a novel of murder, guilt, repentance, and final redemption. These theological concepts are explored through Raskolnikov, a penniless student who murders the elderly owner of a sweet shop, and also her sister.

Finally, the tortured Raskolnikov makes a public declaration of his crimes, urged on by a young prostitute, Sonya. She is another Mary Magdalene. Together they go off to serve his sentence of exile in Siberia. “Now a new history commences: a story of the gradual renewing of a man, of his slow progressive regeneration and change from one world to another.”

In The House of the Dead, he recounts his terrible time in prison. On his release, the convicts say: “May God go with you. Yes, God go with you!” He exults in his freedom: “A new life, a resurrection from the dead. What a glorious moment.”

The Brothers Karamazov abounds in Christian teaching. Father Zosima, an orthodox monk, preaches a God whose love animates all living creatures, and the beauty of nature. He speaks of a Christ who has to be found amid the world’s pain and suffering.

In the famous passage “The Grand Inquisitor”, we are taken back in time to Spain, at the time of the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor talks to the novice monk Alyosha, casting scorn on the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. He argues that Jesus should have turned stones to bread, jumped off a cliff, and claimed a kingdom; then he would have found worldwide fame.

Alyosha, another Christ figure, remains silent before stepping forward and kissing the inquisitor gently on the mouth. “That was all his answer.” In short, Dostoevsky is maintaining that the love of God is unfailing, even if we deride Him.

 

THE author’s theological thinking is summed up in fable form in his short story “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree”. At first sight, it gives the impression of being a somewhat mawkish tale of an orphan boy. It is that; but unpack it, and the meaning of Christmas is unfolded.

It tells of a half-starved, shivering boy of six, who wakes in a freezing cellar in a Moscow slum. His companions are a sick, elderly woman in her eighties, whose moaning and cursing instil fear into him, and an alcoholic derelict. Standing guard at a neighbour’s door is a savage black dog.

On a filthy mattress lies a bone-thin woman. His mother. He touches her face, not comprehending that she is dead. Screwing up his courage, the boy goes out into the icebound town. Darkness, heavy with demons, closes in on him. A policeman passes him by — Dostoevsky’s nod to the parable of the Good Samaritan. The boy stares into shop windows. In one is a Christmas tree covered in baubles. Music blares out, and little girls dance — they are happy, well fed, and spoiled.

The pain bites in the boy’s frostbitten fingers, and, crying, he stares into a second window. Here are grand ladies enjoying rich cakes. He creeps inside and is thrown out. Somebody derisively tosses a meagre kopek coin after him.

The third window is full of expensive dolls playing violins. Then, an older lout hits him on the head, snatches off his cap, and throws him on to the ground. In desperate fear, he crouches behind some wood stacked in a courtyard. “They won’t find me here. Besides, it’s dark.”

In an instant, the scenario is transformed into joy. He hears his mother’s voice singing him to sleep, and then he senses a quiet whisper in his ear: “Come to my Christmas tree, little one.” It is the Christ speaking.

He leads him to a Christmas tree beautiful beyond imagining. Around it, children are flying and kissing each other joyfully.

“Who are you?” he asks wonderingly.

“This is Christ’s Christmas tree. He always has a Christmas tree on this day, for the little children who have no tree of their own.”

The children have all been brutalised — some stifled half to death, others crying from hunger and the foul air of the slums. Some have been abandoned by their mothers. There is Christ in the middle of them, offering blessing, and forgiving the sins of the weeping mothers who have reclaimed their children.

In the tale, the savage world of 19th-century Russian poverty has become a haven of happiness. It does not last long. In the morning, the porter finds the dead body of the frozen child on the woodpile, and his mother’s corpse in the cellar. “They met before the Lord God in heaven,” he says in conclusion.

 

DOSTOEVSKY’s myth evokes three Christmas worlds. There is the empty, vacuous world of materialism, with its lit-up shop windows, profligate use of money, disregard for the unfortunate, and self-centred search for pleasure.

When the boy looks into the window and sees the orchestral dolls, for a moment he thinks that they are alive. But they are as dead as the secular philosophy that the author depicts.

Ruthless materialism is nihilistic, destructive, and loveless. It is an empty charade resulting in disillusionment. Set against this is the world of deprivation, child cruelty, hunger, alcoholism, condemned housing, neglect, and violence. Both these world-views leave the boy cold, lonely, and neglected, and they should leave us aching for the troubled nations on earth.

Dostoevsky’s third, Christ-filled universe spills out into a scenario of compassion, love, forgiveness, peace, and joy; and therein lies the author’s Christmas message.

The holy God-presence lies in and beyond all pain and suffering. The compassion of the Lord overrides humanity’s cruelty and disdain. The world that, at times, appears to be starkly non-spiritual is actually anything but; if we search hard enough, we will find that it is filled with flying children, representing an angelic, holy presence all about us.

There is a further blessing. Here, close to Christ’s Christmas tree, redemption is found for us, and forgiveness for all the mothers who have failed their children.

As we read Dostoevsky’s Christmas tale of the little boy and his dead body lying on the frozen woodstack, we are drawn to the Christ-child who lay in a crude manger, a symbol of the all-merciful, loving God who hovers over the darkened world at Christmas.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky writes: “The darker the night, the brighter the stars; the deeper the grief, the closer to God.” May that bring comfort to all those whose Christmas will be a time of sadness, and a spirit of thankfulness in those of us who are happy and blessed.

 

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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