Conversation 5: ‘Light from the East’. Episode 6.

So there I was, laughing with dead people in Kelvingrove Park. Unembarrassed, absurd laughter. I was reminded of how Dostoevsky’s fictional Elder Zosima tells his followers that faith can only be communicated through joy. Perhaps there was no answer to my questions—only laughter? But I wasn’t prepared to let go just yet.

            “Excuse us, please,” chuckled Fyodor Mikhailovich, “we never could agree about the Church!”

            “But aren’t you both now in a situation where you know which is the true Church … I mean from your new vantage point, as it were … there?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich raised his hands towards his forehead, as if searching for the right words.

            “You see, I told you before that we cannot comment on what is happening in your world now and when you say ‘church’ I think you mean the visible historical insitutions that people call churches. But we are limited in other ways too. We cannot stand in judgement on history past or present. Only when, as Vladimir Sergeyevich said, God is all in all—only then will we too know the truth once and for all. But we do agree—and I think everyone here, where we are, has the same opinion—that, whatever else it does, the Church must act in the world. That was the point of my making Alyosha Karamazov leave the monastery to go out into the world. But he doesn’t set himself up as a new Peter, he doesn’t make himself his disciples’ leader. He is simply their friend, and he, in turn, lets them go out into their lives, each in their own way. And remember, it was Zosima himself who sent him out and wouldn’t let him remain—as he wanted—in the monastery.”

            I remembered from The Brothers Karamazov the story of how Alyosha came across a group of boys throwing stones at another boy, Ilyusha, whose father, it turned out, had been publicly humiliated by Alyosha’s brother, Dmitri. Alyosha befriends the boys and helps them to be reconciled to Ilyusha who, in good Victorian fashion, is dying from consumption and whose family are too poor to get help. After Ilyusha’s death, Alyosha gathers the boys at a large stone on the edge of the town (presumably a reference to Peter, whom Christ called the Rock) and urges them to keep alive the memory of Ilyusha and to remember how they had become friends with him. This, he says, will be a consolation and a guide to them in the time that lies ahead, a reminder of how they ought to be and how they can be, no matter how wicked the world around them. Keeping Ilyusha’s memory alive will be an ‘eternal memory’ (he said) of what goodness really is.

            “So you both agree that the Church must get down into the mud, like St Nicholas, that it must reconnect with the people?”

            “The Church—our Church—never left the people; it was always there, alongside them, sharing their suffering and their hope. Christ was always with them, and their hearts understood him. Always.”

            I could see Solovyov shaking his head, but Fyodor Mikhailovich’s words brought me back to the problem with which we’d started—the people. Who is this ‘people’? Is it only the Russian people? Both Fyodor Mikhailovich and Vladimir Sergeyevich had said not, but that still left me with the question as to just who they were and how I could get to be one of them!

            “So, this people, Fyodor Mikhailovich, who are they? How do I find them? How do I become one of them? You say—Vladimir Sergeyevich says—that it’s not just about Russians, it’s the man in man that matters, universal humanity, sympathy. But where does someone like me begin?”

            “Someone like you?”

            “Not just me, but someone of my time; someone who’s living over two hundred years after the industrial revolution began and after all the wars and revolutions and technological transformations of the twentieth century; someone living in a post-industrial, pluralistic, secular age. I mean, there is no ‘people’ anymore, not even in the sense in which there was still something like an industrial working class just fifty years ago. Everything has become fragmented and individualized and the ‘people’ are probably more preoccupied by building their conservatories or their loft extensions, by their pension plans or just their next holiday in the sun. Does being with the people mean driving to the retail park at the weekend or joining the queue for the next flight to Malaga? Just what does it mean these days?”

            They both looked at me intently, perhaps wondering whether I was going to say more, but I’d run out of steam. Fyodor Mikhailovich nodded sympathetically, while Solovyov seemed more doubtful.

            “Well, of course, all these tendencies were true in our day already. People were more and more taken up with their own affairs and when it came to their neighbours it was a matter of ‘What’s that got to do with me?’ Or, which is the same thing, if their neighbours got too close it would be ‘Why’s it any business of yours?’ Of course, this was especially true in the cities and amongst the middle-classes, the people who’d been exposed to all those Western ideas about everybody being a law to themselves. As I said—as you know—I felt, I knew, that the common people still had a different kind of reality and that the Russian heart was still an Orthodox heart. But you’re right, even in Russia that heart has been broken many, many times and it’s as true of nations as of individuals that heartbreak can lead to despair—and a heart that’s been broken too many times inevitably becomes hardened. Even in Russia—and, yes, even in our time, you could see this already in the West, where spiritual life had become almost extinguished …”

            “Come, come,” said Solovyov, a little impatiently, but sympathetically, as one would rebuke a child.

            “Very well, but, please note, I didn’t say it was extinct and I concede that London, Paris, Geneva, and the Spa towns, the places I knew best, weren’t the whole of the West. Perhaps the worst of it. Maybe I was unlucky in what I saw and experienced. Maybe something of a genuine Christian solidarity still lived on, in hiding, as it were.”

            “You yourself said you thought that maybe there was an affinity between the Italian and Russian peasants,” I added, remembering one of our previous conversations.

            “Yes, maybe, maybe. But the truth is that even in the cities, even where the life of the community has become most fragmented and individualized, even in the rootless and despairing crowd there remains a certain sympathy, a certain possibility of sympathy.”

            “Like the story you told me about the young father you saw out for his Sunday afternoon walk?”

            “Exactly so.”

            Solovyov leant forward and shook a school-teacherly finger at me.

            “You see, this is what Fyodor Mikhailovich can do; it’s what he did more than anyone before him ever did. He takes the people who have been uprooted and find themselves adrift in a world of catastrophic forces they cannot control and shows that they too have the same needs of the heart as any other human being. I was a philosopher and I spoke about universal humanity—but he shows you the universal in the individual, in any individual, in each individual.”

            I couldn’t help noticing that Fyodor Mikhailovich looked rather self-conscious and even that he was blushing—just a little.

            Still feeling the after-effects of our moment of shared laughter, I almost joked as I asked whether that meant I really could reconnect to the people and rediscover the common human heart at the retail park or the airport.

            “Why not? Perhaps those people are building their house extension to care for their ageing parents and perhaps they spend half the night, every night, sitting up by their old father’s bedside, helping him to the bathroom, dressing his wounds; perhaps they are travelling to be reunited with a child they haven’t seen for half a lifetime or to consummate a love-affair that is as deeply felt as the love between Romeo and Juliet. And maybe as tragic. And those people down there” (he gestured towards the network of paths below where we were sitting) “what do we really know of why they are here or what troubles await them when they go home? I could only write about my Russian reality, as it was then, and perhaps I was too hasty to deny that humanity in other nations—perhaps—but let every one of us look for that humanity wherever we are, whoever we are. There are stories to be told about those people too. And not only about their crimes and miseries. Love your neighbour, even if he’s really rather repellent and someone you wouldn’t like to mix with socially. You’re no better than him. But—more importantly—both of you are better than you know.”

            “Yes, but it’s so hard … there are so many layers to get through, so many masks, so many roles to negotiate. How do I know when I’ve got to the real person, the one behind the mask?”

            “You don’t know, of course, you feel and trust your feeling. It’s like your feeling for life itself.” I guess that I looked blank because he stopped and put a forefinger to his lips as if trying to think and then asked what seemed like a bit of a non sequitur.  “Tell me, are you warm?”

            “I’m OK. It’s quite mild for February and I’m well wrapped up so, yes, I’m warm enough.”

            “How do you know that?”

            “I just feel it!”

            I began to see what he was getting at, but he wasn’t finished.

            “And do you see those flowers beneath that tree over there or the buds forming on the ends of the branches?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “And what do they mean?”

            “Well, they don’t really mean anything, but I suppose they’re a sign that spring will be here in a few weeks.”

            “And how do you know that?”

            “I don’t know. I’ve always known it. Everyone knows it.”

            “Exactly.”

            “Exactly?”

            “Yes, exactly.”

            “But surely there’s a difference between knowing whether you’re hot or cold or being able to recognize the signs of spring and being able to read the human heart? Isn’t there a world of difference between the world of nature and the human world? Yes, I know about Wordsworth and the Romantics … and I know about the Neo-Pagans … and our friend Tamsin is always telling us that we have to tune in to the rhythms of the cosmos. But even if I did, how would that help me be more in tune with my fellow human beings? In fact, it’s often struck me that the people who talk most about being at one with the universe tend to be even more self-absorbed than the rest of us, as if dealing with some of the really bad stuff that’s going on all around us would ruin their cosmic harmonies.”

            Mikhail Fyodorovich and Solovyov looked at each other questioningly, as if asking which of them should reply. Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke first.

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