In December of 1849, the Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, stood waiting his turn for execution, having been found guilty of plotting against the Russian Tsar. At the last minute, under instructions from the Tsar, the sentence was commuted from death, to four years in a Siberian prison. Later that day, Dostoevsky wrote a famous letter to his brother, describing the experience. He was shaken and changed to the very core of his being:
When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul – then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness!
I am neither downhearted nor discouraged. Life is everywhere, life is in ourselves, not in the exterior. I shall have human beings around me, and to be a man among men and to remain one always, not to lose heart and not to give in no matter what occurs – that is what life is, that is its task, I have become aware of this. This idea has entered into my life and blood.
Over the next four years in prison, Dostoevsky’s experience would be refined and sharpened. He recovered his faith and became the writer who has moved so many positively towards God and the Orthodox faith. His experience is an example, quite rare, of finding the core of life in a single moment.
Finding the “core of life” (for want of a better term) is synonymous with the naked experience of the soul, the deep life of our existence. Up until the time of his feigned execution, Dostoevsky had been a young “man of the world,” an aspiring writer, who fancied a bit of revolution (quite the fad in his day). He was not living life seriously nor understanding its true nature. It was only in the clarifying moment of his impending death that he saw himself and his life clearly.
Such experiences are rare (mere danger is insufficient). Whenever there is an encounter with the soul on such a level, there is also, inherently, an encounter with God (whether recognized or not). The soul properly reflects God (St. Gregory of Nyssa calls it a “mirror”). If we are created in the image and likeness of God, then to see God is to see the truth of our own life as well, and to see the truth of our own life is a revelation of God.
St. John says to us (1Jn. 3:2), “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we shall be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” The movement proper to the soul is always towards its maker. By nature, we love God and are loved by Him.
Christ says, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Jn. 17:26
This is a very striking statement. Christ prays that the very love the Father has towards the Son would dwell in those who follow Him. The love of God is the primary and proper energy of the soul.
A question was asked in recent comments about how we might increase our love of God. A simple answer is that we begin the journey towards this true depth of the soul. The roadmap, so to speak, is the commandments of Christ. The actions described in His commandments are depictions of what it looks like to be like God. As such, they are also actions that give us the outline and shape of the soul itself.
Christ tells us to love our enemies – because God loves His enemies and is “kind to the evil and ungrateful” (Lk. 6:35) Christ tells us to share what we have and to give without expecting in return – because God gives without measure and never begrudges His giving. Christ tells us to speak the truth – because God only speaks the truth and there is no darkness in Him at all. Christ tells us to lay down our lives for one another – because God laid down His life for us and for all.
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (Jn. 14:21)
Because we live in a romanticized culture (one in which we are spell-bound by our thoughts and feelings), it is often the case that growth in the love of God is expected to begin with how we think or feel. (We make the same mistake in marriage, assuming that we marry someone because we “love” them, instead of loving someone because we married them.) Christ’s words direct us towards the whole of our life, particularly starting with what we do. This same principle can be seen in His saying, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” The soul follows the body (in many things).
Despite the word’s association with trendy ideas, I like to describe the Christian manner of life as an “authentic” existence. We are called to live in the truth of our being rather than in the many false images and delusions of our passions and their distortions. The life of the Church is medicine that guards against an inauthentic existence – when we attend to it as we should. Repentance of the deepest sort, is far more than a turning away from things we have done wrong. It is a turning towards God (and the deepest self) and moving towards the truth regardless of the cost.
Often, when I think about the calling of the Apostles, their near-instant responses come to mind. What must you hear in an invitation to simply drop what you are doing, leave home, and begin a new life? One is the Voice of the heart’s true desire. The other is the revelation of the heart itself that can only come when that true desire is revealed. The greatest gift anyone can be given in this life is the moment of such a revelation (and the grace to answer it). When Christ speaks about the Kingdom of God, He consistently likens it to such a priceless event. If you find it, you sell everything and buy it.
This is ever-so-much more than a theological construct. It is not a belief or even a set of beliefs. It is not a better Church than the one you’ve been in. This is the honest-to-God truth – of everything and of yourself. God give us the grace to find it.