Down to the right of where we were standing loomed the great dark bulk of Glasgow’s cathedral, the one medieval building surviving the constantly repeated demolition and rebuilding of the surrounding city, its black spire steadily but wearily pointing those who might care to look towards God. Or so the faithful hoped. I couldn’t help thinking of Nietzsche’s madman who described Christendom’s empty churches as tombs of God. What such a building or its God had to do with our conversations was hard to say.
“God, Fyodor Mikhailovich. God.”
He looked surprised and watched me for several seconds as if waiting for me to say more.
“Yes, God. We’ve been talking, I suppose, about immortality, but in The Brothers Karamazov it seems like the question about immortality is also a question about God. So. God. Does he exist? I suppose if there’s immortality, he must—but maybe this immortality is all just part of some great cosmic process, some eternally evolving collective mind in which Christ is the most highly evolved individual, or something like that?”
I almost surprised myself by how philosophical I sounded. It’s true that I’d dipped in to Solovyov’s writings since that conversation in the park, so maybe some of it was filtering through.
“God? Yes. Where does the light come from if not from God? We, I’m afraid, don’t generate too much light. Not left to ourselves. Reptiles devouring each other in some dark primeval swamp. But there is light. The world is flooded with light once we have eyes to see.”
“Sorry, I don’t want to niggle about words, but I thought you said the light you see each other by there was Christ’s light. So: Christ—God. What’s the difference? Is there any difference? How does that work?”
“Don’t you remember—it seems you don’t—the apostle’s word about the light of God’s glory shining in the face of Christ? That’s the light we see: or, to be more precise, it’s when it’s reflected in his face that it becomes a light that human beings can see and be seen by. As I’ve said, that doesn’t mean that all human beings are ready to see that light. Perhaps none of us can see it directly while we’re on earth and, even here, it takes some time to adjust to. The source, of course, is hidden and will always remain hidden, but we know it by the light it emits—and I’d add, the joy.”
“The joy. It’s the only real eternal answer there is to all those interminable eternal questions. Even if you can’t see the light or aren’t aware that you’re seeing it, the joy you feel in your life is, I’d say, almost a direct awareness of God. You can’t see Him, but you can have joy in Him and having joy in Him is to know Him. If I may mention Zosima again, remember how he exhorted his monks to pray for joy and to be as joyful as children and as the birds from heaven. Joy, in the end, is the answer to all our prayers. Only, of course, it’s not an answer that any philosopher would accept, though the best of the Church Fathers knew it.”
“But how do you mean, ‘joy’, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I asked. Part of me warmed to what he was saying but joy didn’t really seem like an explanation and, anyway, what kind of joy was he talking about? There was the joy we experienced in physical exercise, in listening to music, in work, in being out in nature, and, well, sex. Was this what he was talking about or did he mean some special kind of religious joy? If it was the last, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. So I put the question to him, pretty much in those terms.
Slowly, thoughtfully, he put his hat back on and pressed it down firmly. Despite the fact that we were now talking about joy he seemed to become quite sombre, almost withdrawing into himself.
“Questions, questions, questions” he said, almost reproachfully. “Listen. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, but you have to ask them in the right way. As I said in our very first conversation, why ask me, why not ask God? You said, that he hadn’t turned up and, since I was there, you had to make do with asking me.”
“Yes, yes, I remember.”
“I didn’t object and, as you know, you’ve asked me a lot more questions since then. I’ve done my best to tell you what I can, but, in the end, it really isn’t me you need to be asking.”
“It’s God,” I said.
“But how do I ask God? Do you mean going to church and joining in the prayers?”
“That’s one way,” he said, “as long as you pray in the right way.”
“But how do I pray in the right way? And who’s able to tell me what the right way is? We were just talking about joy, but I don’t always see the people who go to church being very joyful. In fact, I have to admit that I sometimes find their services rather dismal.”
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “It’s a true story and I wrote about it in The House of the Dead. It’s rather appropriate because it happened during Holy Week—and I think this is your Church’s Holy Week now?”
“Yes, tomorrow’s Easter Day.”
“Good, well you can think about this tomorrow if you like. When we were in the prison camp, it happened that we were taken to church for the Holy Week services—under armed guard, I might add. And the guns were loaded. Can you imagine that?” He paused, perhaps to give me space to grasp the irony of taking people to church under armed guard. Ready to shoot them if they stepped out of line. “When we arrived, a great crowd of us, shaven headed, chained, many of us branded, were corralled into a place at the back of the church where we could hardly see anything, though we could hear the voice of the priest, smell the incense, and see the light coming through the windows in the cupola. A bright Siberian light. And I couldn’t help remembering how, in my childhood, our family had always stood towards the front, if not in the very best places then in the next-to-best places, along with the other middle- and upper-class people. Like any child, my attention drifted from time to time and sometimes when I looked round I’d notice the common people massed by the door, poor, shabby, and, frankly, smelly. I was even a bit frightened of them. And now, now—I was one of them, and worse, because we were in chains, we were feared, but also the object of pity. Once I too had been one of the gentry—now people gave me alms, as if I was a beggar. But, I tell you, it was there, amongst those men, the lowest of the low, men who knew their own degradation and prostrated themselves before God in full knowledge of their depravity and guilt, it was there I learned what it really meant to pray. Pray like that, and your prayer will be answered.”
What could I say? I’d never really experienced anything quite like that in my life. Of course, there’d been moments when I felt like an outsider in one or other social situation and, yes, moments of desperation when I just didn’t know what to do, where to turn, or what to say. Did I have to relive those moments? But that was just taking me back to where we started—despair, not joy!
On several previous occasions, I’d notice how Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed to read my thoughts and when he resumed he might have been answering my unspoken questions.
“Of course, you haven’t experienced that, few people have. And I should say that there’s nothing good about suffering that kind of degradation. Whatever people think I said, suffering itself doesn’t bring you nearer God. Some of those penitents who sought out suffering and tramped over Russia going without food and water and wearing chains found forgiveness, it’s true. But it wasn’t the hunger or their chains that saved them. It was their desire, their hope, their truth. And for those prisoners, there and then, for me too, there was honesty, there was truth. When we prayed ‘Save us’ we meant ‘Save us’. It wasn’t just a formula spoken in a polite and well-trained voice. It was everything, the whole content of our lives gathered into that moment, that word. None of them could have put it like this—I couldn’t have done so myself at the time—but when you’re praying like that, even while you’re still praying, you know you’re being heard and even though you know you have to go back to the camp and maybe serve another ten years there’s a seed, a seed of joy, and you feel it, even then. That,” he concluded, “is the truth that makes you free.”
So we were back to the beginning—questions, despair, truth. But, as he spoke, I began to understand, perhaps for the first time (or perhaps I’d always known it) that it wasn’t an explanation I was looking for. I didn’t need convincing that God existed or that the world had some sort of purpose. What I needed was joy.
Looking back on that time now, I wouldn’t say the joy had gone out of my life but it’s true that I’d neglected it; maybe I’d become a bit stoical, as you’re inclined to be in middle age, taking the bad with the good, gritting your teeth and getting on with it; struggling on. All those clichés that somehow help you to get through the next day and deal with whatever’s going on. But the joy wasn’t really gone, it was just eclipsed. Waiting for me to accept it. It was such a small thing. The difficulty was simply in accepting that it was nothing grand or heroic, nothing uncommon, nothing that only deep thinkers or mystics could find, just the joy that any child or one of Dostoevsky’s peasant criminals could experience. I didn’t even have to have some great conversion experience, like Paul on the Damascus Road. I just had to be honest with myself about what I wanted. And ask.
As I say, I don’t imagine God plays tricks with the weather, least of all for my benefit, but at that moment the light seemed somehow brighter, the breeze milder and, you could even say, pleasant. I’ve no doubt there were lots of miserable people down there in the city, families squabbling, couples splitting, addicts dragging themselves through the streets or sinking back into unconsciousness. Just beyond the cathedral was the Royal Victorian Infirmary, with who knows how many stories of sickness and grief unfolding within its walls. There was suffering. There was a lot—so much—that needed to be done. There were things I needed to do. Debts I needed to pay. And I don’t mean money. I mean everything I’d received from other people that made life possible, people I knew and people I didn’t. And yet—it was a good day. At least, there was good in it and that was something to be glad about.
“Thank you, thank you,” I said. “Maybe I’m starting to get it.”
He didn’t respond.
In fact, he wasn’t there. Gone—without saying goodbye. I was left alone, but I didn’t feel alone. Something, something I couldn’t quite find the words for, had come into my life and, as I write this now, it seems to have stayed with me. I’m not talking about anything like those flashes of inspiration that Dostoevsky described Prince Myshkin as having in the moment before one of his epileptic fits, visions in which time seemed to stop and he was lifted up into heaven. No. Just feeling, well, different. More rooted? Perhaps. But also lighter. Ready. Ready for what? For whatever came next.
“Thank you,” I repeated in a whisper, as if speaking to myself.
I looked at my watch. Time to go. It was a good fifteen minutes’ brisk walk to the restaurant where I was meeting Laura, but I didn’t need to rush. It was, as I said, a good day. Leaving the Necropolis, I strode down into the city.
THIS IS THE FINAL EPISODE OF CONVERSATIONS WTH DOSTOEVSKY. A SHORT EPILOGUE WILL FOLLOW NEXT WEEK. THE BLOG WILL REMAIN ONLINE FOR SEVERAL MONTHS BUT WILL THEN BE TAKEN DOWN. A BOOK VERSION WILL HOPEFULLY APPEAR LATER IN 2022 OR IN 2023. THANK YOU FOR FOLLOWING IT.