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Filtering by Tag: Dostoevsky

Antidote to Political Hell

Jean Hoefling

The Trinity (Russian: Троица, tr. Troitsa, also called The Hospitality of Abraham) is an icon created by a Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. Though I am as dismayed as anyone by the current election year antics, I take comfort in remembering that bald-faced lunacy exercised in high places is nothing new. But I still have the sense that this election cycle is in a league of its own. Hopefully the bilious clouds of insanity swirling around us this fall will one day coagulate to something Americans can still recognize, once the whole thing is relegated to the history heap.

But the fact remains that we’ve got this crazy-making situation with us for a few weeks longer and I shudder to think of the mean-spirited political tirades on social media yet to come before voting day. The cringe-worthy blurring of vice and virtue we’re daily fed by the media won’t abate either, and the differences between our lead presidential candidates will continue to be measured only in degrees of goofiness on a sordid, subjective moral continuum.

It’s this rigid, linear continuum that bothers me, this seemingly endless road that, God help us, doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere very cool. If politics were geography, I picture a bleached-out, sunken old highway that meanders through topography yet unknown to planet Earth. You can’t tell what season of the year it is, either, and overall there’s just nothing to warrant getting out the camera. Worse, there’s no reward after miles in the car, like a cozy roadside diner where waitresses call you Hon and serve up great patty melts. Beyond the diner that isn’t there, there isn’t a single fun and crazy roadside attraction where they sell fur ashtrays or charge $10 to see the world’s biggest cement prairie dog—something, anything to make you believe the drive is worth it. As to your destination, the road signs on Route Twilight Zone have been tampered with. If you thought you were en route to some pristine Florida beach, you’d be wrong. You’ll end up in a deserted gas station in Nome, Alaska and be told to be happy about it because wind-scarred Nome is the future of America.

It’s in this world-weary frame of soul that I’m drawn in a new way to that most famous icon painted by Russian monk and iconographer Andrei Rublev, his Trinity. A mounted copy of this icon hung in our house for years until one of our daughters spirited it away in a cross-country move. Art critics extoll the 15th century icon for its exquisite aesthetics: the rare translucence of the colors, the ethereal mood and composition of circular unity that comprise a powerful visual representation of the Triune God. For those who seek the spiritual lesson, the attraction goes deeper. These days I gaze hungrily at an online Trinity, feeling an irresistible draw toward the peacefulness even a cyber copy manages to embody. Where else will I find an unbroken circle of fellowship amidst the absurdity around me? Have I forgotten that God is the source of humility and perfect deference, of loving intent that transcends every earthly point of view? This God is at peace with himself. He does not aggressively parade his views on Facebook. Sit before this icon with its nuances of body language between the three Persons who mutely speak of God’s seductive unpretentiousness, as each leans toward or bows in the Others’ direction that they might be affirmed. We forget God is always inclined toward the other, no matter how they’ll be voting in November.

May each of us rise above the fray in these worrisome weeks ahead and choose to incline ourselves humbly toward all we meet. Dostoevsky claimed that beauty will save the world. Perhaps peace of heart may do the same.

On Canons and Saints

Tom Sturch

Untitled It happened during the Q&A portion of Dr. Cairns' poetry reading. When a man at the workshop posed his question, Dr. Scott Cairns prefaced the answer by asking him if he had read The Brothers Karamazov. No, he replied. Suddenly, the bright, amiable room we sat in shuddered and darkened like a rift valley in a quake and descended into an animated, if not fiery, lecture on the essential nature of that book.

“Wow! Was that Socratics?” asked a panicky voice.

“Rhetoric, I think,” said another, catching her breath in the aftershocks.

“No,” said the voices of those who'd read the book. “He was finding the right ground for his answer.”

Of course, nobody outside my silly mind said those things and the ground falling away is a figure. But the initial incident was true and left the man's question, along with its answer, lost in a canonical chasm. And we who were exposed with poorer footing made an orderly bee line for the bookstore.

My habit is to read rather slowly for an hour a day in the early morning. So Brothers, a thick book, will take a while. (Another thick book I read, Centennial, took about a hundred years!) But someone once said that a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies so the amount of time is really no concern. What is, is the quality of choices for the lives and times I read. Dr. Cairns, knowing this, cared enough to risk his Q&A on the seismic question, Have you read...?

As Dostoevsky begins telling the story of Alyosha, the book's protagonist who would come to study under an elder, the narrator offers this picture:

What, then, is an elder? An elder is one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it to him under total obedience and with total self-renunciation. A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life's obedience, attain to perfect freedom that is, freedom from himself and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves.

* * * * * * * *

All Saints Day has just come. It sits on the liturgical calendar like an outpost in Ordinary Time and readies our journey into Christmastide. The Saints, like great teachers, point the direction, supply the need, and walk a distance alongside. They become fellow travelers from a different time that we do not see except by the light of words and imagination, and yet are there. In this relationship words become light and light becomes time. How small the leap, then, that word might become flesh when we see it so in the courses of other lives?

Thus, I embark on Brothers, which I should finish around Epiphany. I do it so I might ask questions grounded in the prospect of better insight, and as an act of trusting my teachers' admonitions that time spent in good reading is time being redeemed.

What time, by what light, do you read?