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.
This essay desribes an understanding which I forget most of the time. How often have I hated life because I was blind to it’s beauty and it’s connection to God? Zossima is a favorite of mine.
‘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.’
Why must we assume that Dostoyevsky signified God when he spoke of mysterious other worlds? I would interpret ‘mysterious other worlds’ as the existence of other people, and life being the interaction and love for other people, rather than God. If you call this emphasis on emotion trite, then I would call the emotion for God similarly trite. Either all emotion is trite, or none is.
Are you saying those in hell are those incapable of love? I reject that claim utterly. Those in hell are those who were considered unworthy of God, those in hell are those who never manage to find their faith and those in hell nevertheless feel their suffering in the same manner all suffering is felt. An atheistic and sinful child roasting in the fires of hell nevertheless felt and was not indifferent to life.
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I am not assuming this is what Dostoevsky meant, but rather basing that understanding on the notes of Dostoevsky, and commentaries on The Brothers Karamazov. It’s a strange phrase, and in English translation has the modern ring of “extraterrestrial life” but would have been quite strange in Dostoevsky’s time. Dostoevsy’s Fr. Zossima is speaking very much within Orthodox Christian tradition. St. John says that “he that loveth, knoweth God, and he that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love,” (1 John 4:7-8) Thus, it would seem that the character Elder Zossima was on solid scriptural ground for saying that those who are in hell are “incapable” of love. If they loved, they would know God and would not be in hell.
Orthodoxy, in its deeper writings, tends to push beyond the spatial imagery of heaven and hell and focus on its existential, experiential reality in order to understand as well how hell invades our world here as well.
I do not mean to denigrate emotion. Emotion is good and proper, coupled with deeper elements of our heart. But emotion by itself, as understood in modern terms does not go far enough. Also, to think of suffering as “all suffering is felt” may not be sufficient as a definition of suffering. Who considers someone unworthy of God? Christ, who died for us all? Who of us did he consider unworthy. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Those in hell are those who refuse the gift of God, which is His love and His mercy in Christ. But not because they are unworthy. None in heaven will be worthy of heaven.
The disconnect here is between the forensic imagery of some parts of Western Christianity that is simply foreign to the Eastern Church, and the larger part of the Christianity for at least its first thousand years. Read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. There is as good an account of the doctrine of heaven and hell as can be found in the early Church, Helping us to rightly divide the word of truth.
Fr. Stephen Freeman
“The garden of God is a wondrous place. That’s what I think.”
It is, indeed. I almost lost my mother to the “Garden of the Mother of God” once, as I recall.
I think that we are all prized plants in His garden. Some plants, like you, Fr. Stephen, are gentle and fragrant…and the seeds that they sow in their own little section of the garden are grateful for the shade and nutrients they provide.
My dearest Grateful Spawn,
What a delightful title for my kind daughter. Your mother bears the fragrance of the Mother of God’s garden every where she goes. There is a bouquet always ready in her heart. But why am I telling you what you already know?
What a delightful thing to say of one’s spouse!