God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew, and everything came up that could come up, but all growing things live and are alive only through the feeling of their contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak or is destroyed in you, what has grown up in you will die. Then you will become indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.
The Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This small quote from the “Teachings of the Elder Zossima,” is perhaps among the stranger sounding to our 21st century ears. “Contact with other mysterious worlds” sounds like extraterrestrial stuff which would put Dostoevsky in the boat with Jules Verne. But as it is, he is not referring to any such thing, but rather, in an odd turn of phrase, to the fact that everything that exists does so because of its reference to God. The seed of each living thing is its relationship to God – only here Dostoevsky has put that statement into terms that make us stop and think and perhaps see something we’ve not seen before.
Especially helpful is his statement that we only live and are alive by feeling our contact with that “other mysterious world.” Again, it is possible to misread the novelist. Our language has so devalued the meaning of feeling that we risk hearing this as another trite emphasis on emotion and the like. Instead, it is a profound reminder that we can grow cold and hard and sadly unaware of the true nature of our life.
More frightening still is his warning that letting our hearts grow cold we can become indifferent to life and even to hate it. This, in Orthodox terms, is a picture of hell.
In Christ’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, He speaks of a “great gulf that is fixed” between the Rich Man in Hades and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. I have read any number of metaphysical speculations on the meaning of the “great gulf.” Most venture some sort of impossible barrier between heaven and hell. The great gulf does seem to be a great barrier, but I have come to think that the barrier is nothing other than the hardness and emptiness of the rich man’s heart.
Every day the rich man passed Lazarus at his gate, and in doing so passed the entrance to paradise. Becoming cold and indifferent the gulf of empty hate is fixed. In another place Dostoevsky’s Elder Zossima says, “Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.”
Doctrine is the fruit of a Divine seed (to use Dostoevsky’s imagery). To think about it is necessary, but we must do so with great caution. If we approach doctrine as something inert, a mere idea, then we risk the loss of feeling (truly knowing in an experiential manner) its connection with that other “mysterious world.” In such a way it is possible to do “theology” in hell.
Orthodox life is most properly to be found as the living expression of what Dostoevsky referred to in his “mysterious worlds.” Fr. Georges Florovsky once called doctrine a “verbal icon of Christ.” As such, even the verbal icon (like all icons) has value only because it refers to its prototype. Or, in Biblical terms, “I believed and therefore have I spoken” (2 Corinthians 4:13).
The garden of God is a wondrous place. That’s what I think.