I took on myself to re-read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for Great Lent, and have made far greater speed than I would have thought. (Little or no television and bedtime reading can sometimes take you far.) It is a book I have loved for years – being the first Dostoevsky I ever read as a teenager. I still recommend it frequently as a means of contemplating forgiveness.
Like all of Dostoevsky (on moreso), the novel is a maddeningly psychological story in which we listen repeatedly to the thoughts of a virtual madman who is also a murderer; a drunk; a consumptive; a prostitute; petty officials and a host of others. At the deepest level of the novel, however, is the human heart and its confrontation with the gospel of Christ. For the main character, the confrontation comes in the story of the raising of Lazarus.
The power of the novel, however, lies in the power of redemptive suffering. The young madman is driven to murder by the incessant logic of a modernist train of thought. Trying to force this train of thought on the young prostitute (who is herself the closest thing to a saint in the novel), asking her to choose between whose life she would save in certain situations (typical of the utilitarian logic of some progressivist thought), she reviles him for asking such an impossible question and for blaspheming the Providence of God.
And there lies the redemption in Dostoevsky – to embrace the Providence of God and to accept bravely the consequences of our sin. When the madman confesses his sin to the prostitute, she tells him that he should immediately rush out to a crossroad, bow to the ground and ask the earth’s forgiveness (for the blood he has spilled) and then bow in all four directions and ask forgiveness of everyone (of course to be followed by turning himself over to the authorities). And she promises not to leave him but to share his hard labor. It is the love of God, calling each sinner to the truth of His sin, to the fearful feat of confession, and to the promise of redemption that will not be our own creation but a companionship with One who loves us.
I treasure Dostoevsky’s writings because they are so profoundly Christian. Not simply that they are permeated with 19th century Russia which seems to have encapsulated the struggle of the modern world, but that it is also permeated with a profound grasp of the Christian faith at its most basic level.
Forgiveness, confession, repentance, and the embracing of voluntary suffering – simply the way of the Cross – is never put so clearly in any other novel of our modern world. I am a priest and I thus carry a responsibility for souls. I have learned over the years that we all have some level of the madman about us – even some level of the prostitute (although her prostitution is actually a means of self-sacrifice). We have a mad complexity about our heart that drives us all to strange behaviors – or at least behaviors we would not want broadcast to the world (some broadcast them anyway – such is our lack of shame). But in Dostoevsky I am reminded of the truth of God and the power of that truth in the human heart. As confused as we may be – saints still rise among us and often in unexpected places.
What should not be unexpected is that in every place – the mercy of God abounds. Everyone can be saved and that part of the Gospel of Christ must remain essential for us all.