Once upon a time there was a wicked-wicked woman, who died. And she left behind her not one single good deed. The devils seized her and threw her into the fiery lake. But her guardian angel stood, and thought: ‘What good deed of hers might I remember, in order to tell God?’ He remembered, and told God: ‘She pulled up an onion in the kitchen garden,’ he said, ‘and gave it to a beggarwoman.’ And God replied to him: ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘take that very same onion and offer it to her in the lake, let her reach for it and hold on to it, and if you can pull her out of the lake, then let her go to heaven, but if the onion breaks then let the woman remain where she is now.’ The angel ran over to the woman and offered her the onion: ‘Here you are, woman,’ he said, ‘reach for it, and hold on!’ And then carefully he began to pull her, and soon she was nearly right out; but then the other sinners in the lake, when they saw that she was being pulled out, all began to catch hold of her, so that they should be pulled out together with her. But the woman was a wicked-wicked woman, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘I’m the one who’s being pulled out, not you. The onion’s mine, not yours.’ And no sooner had she said that than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and burns there to this very day. As for the angel, he began to weep and left the spot.
From The Brothers Karamazov
Of course, no good deed saves us. None of us earn our way to heaven. But the depth of this little folk parable still bears much truth. The wonder of the human heart isn’t found so much in its works, as in its weakest places. We’re never saved in our strength, only in our weakness. The hardness of our heart is frequently found in our strength. For a “wicked-wicked woman” an act of kindness to a beggarwoman is a moment of weakness, an uncharacteristic action of the heart. There, a crack appears and in that crack the Light can shine and salvation becomes possible. In this little folk parable her strength prevails and she is lost. She could not embrace her weakness.
St. Paul said that he would “boast in his weakness” because in it “God’s strength is made perfect.” It is very hard for us to be weak, frequently very embarrassing. I know a quote from St. Teresa, though the source has long been lost to me. But the quote is quite apt: “If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself; then you will be for Jesus a place of refuge.”
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