Thoughts on Dostoevsky


I have begun re-reading The Brothers Karamazov, this time in the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which, I am told is a great improvement over earlier efforts. I readily confess to being a great fan of Dostoevsky and easily touched by his novels. I find an occasional brilliance in them that reveals the world in greater clarity than I see almost anywhere else.

I read the following today in the Introduction. It is a passage from a letter that Dostoevsky wrote just after leaving prison (this was early in his life). It was written to the wife of a political exile who had given him a copy of the Gospels:

Not because you are religious, but because I myself have experienced and felt it keenly, I will tell you that in such moments [times of suffering and solitude] one thirsts like “parched grass” for faith and finds it precisely because truth shines in misfortune. I will tell you regarding myself that I am a child of the age, a child of nonbelief and doubt up till now and even (I know it) until my coffin closes. What terrible torments this thirst to believe has cost me and still costs me, becoming stronger in my soul, the more there is in me of contrary reasonings. And yet sometimes God sends me moments in which I am utterly at peace.

For me personally, such thoughts are probably why I find Dostoevsky’s writing so compelling. Most of us are indeed children of this age, and doubt, despair and agnosticism are a default position that haunt us. I find this to be true particularly when we come to the level of the heart and stop all intellectual posturing for one another.

This reality of our age has something to do with Orthodoxy for me. The “thinness” of Protestant thought and practice do not contain enough of heaven to serve as a sufficient antidote in our modern world – at least for me. I could not be a happy Protestant without somehow becoming blind to my own culture (for to a large extent, Protestantism simply is the culture and, for me, cannot be the bearer of Kingdom of God). Our culture has spawned many religions that are essentially worship of America itself (homegrown products like Mormonism is one that comes to mind – but I would have to quickly add almost all of the Protestant Churches that I know). I like America, but I do not think it is the bearer of the Kingdom of God.

Oddly, I have known a number of Protestant ministers (and in these cases I am thinking of Episcopalians) who simply did not believe in God and in private, safer moments would say so. They were always a puzzle to me. I can understand doubt, even plenty of it, but not disbelief within the position of Holy Orders.

I have also known many who evidenced no doubt at all, and I wondered whether the faith I met was authentic or simply the sound of someone who did not live on the level of the heart.

It is because Dostoevsky writes so honestly and authentically of the human heart that I find him attractive. What he finds is a mass of contradiction (which is certainly the human heart I have met in this world) and the possibility of the Kingdom of God. It is this possibility that drove him, sometimes like a madman, other times into a blissful peace. For having ever tasted the heavenly gift, one cannot be satisfied with less without denying some very key component of the soul.

And here is Orthodoxy – full, rich, bearing the Kingdom of God itself – existing in the midst of a very dry, disabling culture that would turn our hearts to stone. And yet, as the author says, God sends us moments in which we are utterly at peace.

I will share one personal example of those moments: watching someone else pray – and from the heart. To stand sometimes with another priest in the altar, particularly in such intimate moments as the priest’s communion – I have been blessed to witness the Kingdom of God manifest in the soul of another man.

I have often seen the same thing in the eyes of communicants coming to the cup. Such faith, such intimacy, such moments that we do not share easily with others. But I thank God for the chance of seeing such things and the peace that comes with them.

May God give us all grace – grace to believe – and to live in the very heart of that belief.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





4 responses to “Thoughts on Dostoevsky”

  1. albion Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I am reading the book for the first time (translation and introduction by David McDuff), and find that it is fitting in comfortably with my Lenten lectio.

    Just last night I read the passage about the disgraced officer and his little boy, and am haunted by it.

  2. david hyman Avatar
    david hyman

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m trying to find this quotation you’ve used. It’s just powerful. Do you have a reference for it?


  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ll dig around the house (if I haven’t loaned my book). It’s from the introduction to the Verkhonsky translation.

  4. Cameron Avatar

    Looking at the introduction to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation now, I don’t see any reference as to where once can find that exact quotation among Dostoevsky’s letters. Richard Pevear merely says it was written to N.D. Fonvizina, wife of a political exile (as Fr. Stephen noted above).

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