“A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Two, Chapter Three
by Dennis Abrams

“Women of Faith” “Below, crowding near the wooden porch built onto the outside wall, there were only women this time, about twenty of them. They had been informed that the elder wold cone out at least, and had gathered in anticipation” The Khokhalov ladies: the mother, wealthy, still fairly young, “always tastefully dressed…still fairly young and quite attractive…She was not more than thirty-three years old and had been a widow for about five years,” and her daughter, fourteen years old, who “suffered from paralysis of the legs. The poor girl had been unable to walk for about half a year already, and was wheeled around in a long, comfortable chair.” In their week in town, they had visited the elder three times, and were once again, begging for “the happiness of beholding the great healer.” “But when the elder appeared on the porch, he first went directly to the people.” The ‘shrieker.’ Was it a pretense? Was it “a terrible woman’s disease that seems to occur predominantly in our Russia, that is testimony to the hard lot of our peasant woman…” The psychological trick of being “cured” by the chalice, or, in this case, “as soon as the elder covered the woman with his stole.” Zosima selects a woman, “But she comes from far away.” Her unrelenting grief over the death of her last son, “When I buried the first three, I wasn’t too sorry about them, but this last one I buried and I can’t forget him. As if he’s just standing right in front of me and won’t go away.” The saint, the grieving mother, “Do you not know, the saint said to her, “how bold these infants are before the throne of God?…they beg and plead so boldly that the Lord immediately puts them in the ranks of the angels. And therefore, you, too, woman, rejoice and do not weep.” The woman’s desire to see her son just one more time; his little gold-braided belt.” “Alexei, the man of God.” Zosima promises to remember the mother’s sorrow in his prayers, as well as her husband, “Your little boy will look down and see that you’ve abandoned his father, and will weep for both of you.” The very old little old lady who had not heard from her military son in Irkutsk: Would it be Ok to list him as being remembered among the dead, so “his soul…will get troubled, and he’ll write to [her]?” “Do not even think of it. it is shameful even to ask.” The woman with two burning eyes seeking Zosima’s, “the eyes of a wasted, consumptive-looking, though still young, peasant woman.” A widow for three years: Her husband had been old, had beaten her, “Once he was sick in bed; I was looking at him and I thought: what if he recovers, gets up on his feet again, what then?” And then the thought came to me…” Her confession, her desire to have her soul absolved, “I’m afraid, afraid to die.” “Do not be afraid of anything, never be afraid, and do not grieve. Just let repentance not slacken in you, and God will forgive everything. There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?” Zosima blesses the widow three times, “took a little icon from around his neck, and put it on her.” The healthy woman with the baby Lizaveta.

The contrast between the mocking buffoonery of Fyodor Karamazov and the sincerity of the believers waiting for Zosima on the porch. Zosima’s evident goodness and belief in a God who forgives all and loves boundlessly. “How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?” Can there be?

And to continue yesterday’s post from Joseph Frank’s “Dostoevsky: The Writer in His Time,” recapping what we’ve learned about Fyodor and his sons:

“It is to Alyosha that, after Feodor Pavlovich, the narrator devotes the most attention. Dostoevsky endeavors to persuade the reader that, unlike the previous incarnation of his moral ideal in Myshkin, such a figure was ‘not a fanatic…and not even a mystic’; on the contrary, he was, ‘a well-grown, red-cheeked clear-eyed lad of nineteen, radiant with health.’ He is immediately associated with Christian values by his earliest memory, that of his mother, partially deranged by her suffering at the hands of Feodor Pavlovich, who prays for him before the image of the Mother of God, ‘as though to put him under the Mother’s protection.’ Alyosha’s moral sensibility is thus shaped in the all-forgiving love traditionally associated with the Mother of God in Russian Orthodoxy. ‘There was something about [Alyosha] which made one feel at once…that he did not care to be a judge of others — that he would never take it upon himself to criticize and would never condemn anyone for anything.’

The depiction of Alyosha’s character and behavior, which the narrator makes no attempt to explain psychologically, conforms to the hagiographical pattern; the moral purity of his nature, and the love that he inspires in everyone despite his ‘eccentricity,’ are traditional saintly attributes. The forces that move him, which are left deliberately vague so as to suggest a possibly otherworldly inspiration, come from the childhood impressions just mentioned, and from the nature of the religious vocation they have inspired. Alyosha was instinctively religious, and until his faith is tested later, he has had no doubts about God or immortality, or even about the truth about the miraculous legends connected with the institution of elders (startsy). Novices who entrusted themselves to an elder committed their will to h is guidance in ‘the hope of self-conquest, of self mastery”, and Alyosha had decided to submit himself to Zosima in this way. He fully shared the Russian Peasant’s adoration of the ideals of holiness embodied in the saintly monk, whom he also believed to possess the gift of a spiritual force — the force of Christian love — capable of redeeming the world.

This submission to Zosima does not mean that Alyosha is detached from the questions posed by the modern world. Indeed, Dostoevsky brings Alyosha into immediate relation with the social-political situation by describing him as ‘an early lover of humanity,’ as ‘a youth of our last epoch,’ passionately seeking truth and justice and ready to sacrifice himself for these ideals on the spot. These phrases unmistakably associate Alyosha with the discontent and moral idealism of the generation of the 1870s; and he is clearly intended, at least in this initial volume, to offer an alternative form of ‘action’ and ‘sacrifice’ to that prevalent among the radical youth. For if Alyosha, we are told, ‘had decided that god and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and Socialist (for Socialism is not merely the labor question or that of the fourth estate, it is the question of atheism in its contemporary incarnation, the question of the Tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth, but to bring down Heaven on earth).” The same ideals and feelings that had led Alyosha to Zosima might have led him to atheism and Socialism since both offer divergent paths leading to the same goal of the transformation of eartlhy life into a society closer to the Kingdom of God: but the first would be guided by Christ, while the second id deprived of the moral compass that he provides.

It is also in relation to Alyosha that the main theme of the novel — the conflict between reason and faith [I’m guessing that Colin Wilson would see a very different main theme] — receives its first exemplification. When the narrator touches on Alyosha’s belief in miracles, he immediately explains that this did not prevent him from being ‘more of a realist than anyone.’ Alyosha’s ‘realism’ does not counteract his faith because the latter is defined as an inner state or disposition anterior to (or at least independent of) anything external, visible, tangible, empirical. Alyosha’s faith thus colors and conditions all his apprehension of the empirical world; it is not the evidence from the world that inspires or discourages faith. Alyosha’s spiritual crisis will be caused by the decay of Zosima’s body, a crisis that is only one instance of Dostoevsky’s major theme — the true faith must be detached from anything external, any search for, or reliance on, a confirmation or justification of what should be a pure inner affirmation of the emotive will.

Dostoevsky plays endless variations on the irreconcilable opposition between faith, on the one hand, and the empirical and rational on the other — an opposition initially dramatized in a brief dialogue between Alyosha and his father. Feodor Pavlovich’s jeering words foreshadow Ivan’s soaring speculations, and they link the two in more than merely a father-son relation; but what will be noble and elevated in Ivan becomes vulgarly cynical in the corrupt old scoundrel. Agreeing to let Alyosha enter the monastery, the half-drunken Feodor explains the reason: ‘You’ll pray for us sinners;…I’ve always been thinking who would pray for me, and whether there’s anyone in the world to do it.’ But this implicit admission of moral awareness and of a faith in an afterlife is immediately canceled by a scoffing inability to imagine the physical paraphernalia of hell. If there are hooks in hell that will drag Feodor down, where did they come from? Were they attached to a ceiling? ‘If there’s no ceiling there can be no hooks, and if there are no hooks it all breaks down, which is unlikely again, for then there would be none to drag me down to Hell, and if they don’t drag me down what justice is there in the world? Il faudrait les inventer, those hooks, on purpose for me alone”. This is the debased and niggling form of ‘realism’ — a parody of Russian Voltarianism — in which Ivan’s ‘Euclidean understanding’ becomes manifest in his father, in Mme Khokhlakova, in Smerdyakov, and finally in the hallucinatory devil, whom Ivan will accuse of representing ‘the nastiest and stupidest’ of his blasphemous thoughts and feelings.”

The Weekend’s Reading:

Book Two, Chapters 4-7

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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3 Responses to “A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?”

  1. Lynn Rios says:

    Sorry I have not been by more frequently Dennis, but sometimes life just throws things at us that we are not expecting. Maybe that is why it is so easy to relate to the characters in this work, and their struggles and questions about God. the questions that continue to surface are the questions that man has been asking since the earth began. The sin that exceeds God’s love has been pointed out by some as rebellion against Him, but even this can be overcome through confession and true repentance.

    Though my visits are infrequent, I want you to know how much I appreciate this blog. Without your synopsis and commentary, I would have never experienced the depth of this great work.

    • Lynn:

      I appreciate your visits, no matter how infrequent. I think you’d really appreciate this book, which looks deeply into the struggle between reason and faith.

      I also have to add, though, that even if I were a believer, I’d find it difficult if not impossible to believe that any sin can be forgiven — that, to use an example, if Stalin confessed his sins and truly repented the millions of murders committed under his name, that he could be forgiven. Tennessee Williams, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” had Blance DuBois say, “Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing in my opinion and the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty.” And that, I think, might just be the case.

  2. Rick Delaney says:

    Thanks much for the thoughts, and critical thoughts, on this aspect (faith/reason, etc.) of the novel. It is one that greatly interests me. I am not a believer, but I never tire of discussing such issues with folks of all beliefs and non-beliefts. Religion and “metaphysical” ideas are always interesting to me.
    May I also say, I am reading this novel on my nook e-reader. I got it in February, and, contrary to what I anticipated, I am reading more books with the device. I’ve read a couple of science books, Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, and some Shakespeare. I read it while walking the dogs, waiting in the doctor’s office, etc. Anybody else out there have an e-reader? (I am reading the Penguin edition, I believe. Yes, it has explanatory notes that are found in the print version! Thank goodness!)
    Rick

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