I’m very aware that one of my faults is a tendency to be rather flippant, even, maybe especially, when talking about something really serious.
“So does that make it a mistake to think we should just love one person for our whole life, like in marriage? Isn’t that a kind of egoism too, a kind of possessiveness? The way we say my wife, my husband … perhaps the people who call themselves polyamorous are right?”
“Look. In the course of a human life, we all do have a variety of loves. But the fulness of love isn’t less than a whole human life, it’s more. If you really could perfectly love just one other human being you’d have achieved a miracle. To be sure, the way we love is sometimes very egotistical and people use what they call love to make themselves more interesting or exciting as individuals. But that’s a delusion—though sifting the true from the false isn’t always easy. Just think of some of the relationships I described in my novels. Does Myshkin love Aglaya or Anastasia Phillipovna? Does Katerina love Dmitri or Ivan? Does Stavrogin love Liza? And however you answer, how real is that love? Is it love or passion? A lot of ink has been spilled over these questions. And I’m not the only novelist to have noticed it. The lie sometimes does a very convincing imitation of the truth and true love may sometimes hide itself behind the lie. But if there is some seed of genuine love in any one of our loves, then it will abide. So, to get back to your question, yes: Masha … Anna Grigroryevna … even Suslova … not to mention my little Alyosha … and, of course, you already know about Vladimir Sergeyevich … they are all here, we are all here … but, how can I say, it is not our feast, we are only guests, and our joy is no longer for ourselves only, it is for the bridegroom, for the one whose feast is being celebrated here. This is the joy that unites us.”
“You mean Christ?”
He nodded. Almost imperceptibly.
“So … how is it? I mean, is it like Dante’s ‘mystic rose’ where all the saints are sitting round like the petals of a great rose and looking up at God?”
I think I was being flippant again. Like I said, it’s what I do when things get really challenging.
He shook his head, as if in incredulity.
“I’ve told you before, haven’t I, that I cannot really tell you how it is here. And even if I were permitted, I couldn’t. It’s not possible. It really is indescribable.”
Again, I had a momentary twinge of anxiety, sensing the great gulf between us and realizing that this man I was talking to had been but no longer was a man quite like me. This time, though, it was less intense. Maybe this was because I sensed a tone of sympathy, even regret, in what he said. Not quite like me—but human, all the same. As if wanting to allay my fears, he continued, slipping into what was by now a familiar school-teacherly tone.
“What you say about Dante’s heaven isn’t quite accurate, but we’ll leave that. Of course, Dante spoke and could only speak in images, figures, parables—as he himself said. He could say nothing of what he had experienced except by adjusting it to the minds of his readers, his Euclidean readers, you could say. You might object that I’m now speaking to you from that place he spoke of and that I maybe know what he only imagined. But even if that’s so, then—as long as I’m talking to you—I’m forced to use those same images, figures, and parables. Well, not exactly the ‘same’ because he was a man of the Middle Ages and I was a man of the modern world, the modern city, and the modern capitalist system, living in a world of railways, steamships, newspapers, and stock markets. But I can say this much: that we’re not, as you put it, sitting around looking at Him. He is everywhere, His light is everywhere, and we don’t need to look at it because we see it when we look at each other. That’s what I mean by seeing each other in His light.”
“Each other? Most of what I’ve read about heaven speaks about the saints contemplating God, not each other!”
“This is why I’m saying that it’s so difficult to explain. You ask: ‘Is it this?’ or ‘Is it that?’ but it’s not exactly either and not exactly both. We don’t—as you put it—sit around looking at Him. We see Him, but we see Him in the light in which we see each other and to see each other in His light is to see Him. It’s a matter of love, again, you see. Even on earth,
we sometimes have moments (at least, I did) where we feel that if only we could all let go of our prejudices, our suspicions, our fears, our jealousy, our pride, and all the rest of it and see each other as we are, as the best in us is always wanting to be—why, then, we might be in heaven already.”
“Markel,” I said, referring to the ecstatic visions of Zosima’s younger brother that Dostoevsky described in The Brothers Karamazov and who said that if we saw the world as it truly is we’d be in paradise now.
“Markel, and not only Markel. You see it’s not a matter of choosing between each other and Him or between earth and heaven. We just have to learn to see things in the right way—but learning always takes time. Perhaps there are those like Markel who see it in an instant, but for most of us learning it takes a lifetime and more. You could even say that it’s unending.”
“So you don’t see him directly at all?”
“Please, don’t try to make me say what I’ve said quite clearly I cannot say. Think back to when Alyosha dreams of seeing Zosima amongst the guests at the wedding in Cana and Zosima calls to him to come and join them and to behold Him, their Sun, their light. But the light is far too bright and Alyosha cannot look, any more than you could look at the sun with your naked eyes. But, please—no more: I can only say this much because it’s actually something that you can experience on earth, at least in some degree.”
I don’t for a moment believe that God—whatever God is—plays pranks with the weather, but, as Fyodor Mikhailovich was speaking the sun momentarily came out from behind the clouds that had been steadily thinning out as the morning progressed and I had to raise my hand to shade my eyes.
“Fair enough,” I was forced to admit. “But it’s hard to see what that sort of light might have to do with Jesus of Nazareth, a human being like us! Why can’t Alyosha look at him?”
He tutted. “Now listen—I need you to listen very carefully,” he said. “Alyosha couldn’t look at Him because he was still limited by his earthly body and humanity, but Zosima and the other guests—they could see him. In fact, it’s in Him and through Him that God’s light, the ultimate and uncreated light, becomes visible, ‘acquires a human face’, you could say.”
I wondered whether Fyodor Mikhailovich had actually meant to quote William Blake and, if so, where he’d encountered his poetry. But I still didn’t quite get it. Was there one light in heaven or two? And how could Christ’s human face also reveal the divine light?
“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I complained, realizing as I did so that it might sound lie bleating. “This is all very confusing. Help me out a bit. I mean, if this divine light is so bright we can’t look at it, how can you see it in a human face, even Christ’s?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich looked nonplussed, as if unsure how to respond.
“Very well,” he said finally. “Let’s begin with a story from the gospels that I’m sure you know.”
He paused and looked questioningly at me but, of course, I couldn’t say yes or no until I knew which story he was referring to.
“Sorry,” I said, “you’ll have to help me out.”
“Really? Don’t you remember the transfiguration?”
“Ah! Yes, when Christ ascended the mountain with Peter, James, and John and was illuminated and irradiated by the divine light, so much so that they had to turn away—being, like Alyosha, still in the body.”
“Yes, but … I’ve always thought that was a legend.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich put his hands to his head in what I hoped was only mock frustration.
“But why? Is it so incredible? Haven’t you had moments in your life when you’ve suddenly found yourself face to face with a beautiful woman who’s literally so radiant that you can hardly look at her?”
“But that’s different!”
“Obviously it’s not the same, but just think of the effect Beatrice had on Dante! Everything I’ve been saying should be telling you that earthly love, imperfect earthly love is the best way of learning divine love.”
Divine love. This was a long way from where our conversations had started: with a vision of a loveless world beneath a dead sun.