Dear Anya

Thank you for your cool list of queries which I saw after I got back from vacation at Blue-Eye, Missouri!

I will start  with an easy one:  “Favorite Book”—

The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I think I’ve read it 7 or 8 times since 1992.  

Three times I facilitated reading groups with friends: in 1999-2000, 2013-2014, and 2021.

So many vivid and amazing characters, like Grushenka and Alyosha and Mitya and Ivan and Lise and Katerina and even old Fyodor and Smerdyakov himself!

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book—an exchange between Lise’s mom, Madame Khokhlakov and the spiritual sage of the book, Zosima—

“How, how can it be proved? I’ve come now to throw myself at your feet and ask you about it. If I miss this chance, too, then surely no one will answer me for the rest of my life. How can it be proved, how can one be convinced? Oh, miserable me! I look around and see that for everyone else, almost everyone, it’s all the same, no one worries about it anymore, and I’m the only one who can’t bear it. It’s devastating, devastating!”

“No doubt it is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”

“How? By what?”

“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.”

“Active love? That’s another question, and what a question, what a question! You see, I love mankind so much that—would you believe it?—I sometimes dream of giving up all, all I have, of leaving Lise and going to become a sister of mercy. I close my eyes, I think and dream, and in such moments I feel an invincible strength in myself. No wounds, no festering sores could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands, I would nurse the suffering, I am ready to kiss those sores …”

“It’s already a great deal and very well for you that you dream of that in your mind and not of something else. Once in a while, by chance, you may really do some good deed.”

Then, Zosima says, “Is it true what you say? Well, now, after such a confession from you, I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on a good path, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid lies, all lies, especially the lie to yourself. Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute. And avoid contempt, both of others and of yourself: what seems bad to you in yourself is purified by the very fact that you have noticed it in yourself. And avoid fear, though fear is simply the consequence of every lie. Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love, and meanwhile do not even be very frightened by your own bad acts. I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment—I predict this to you—you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.”

It’s around eight hundred pages and, while I’ve been reading a lot of Dostoevsky’s contemporary Leo Tolstoy this summer, while writing this to you it makes me want to reread it again, it’s such a powerful reading experience!

Thank you for asking!


P.S. If you haven’t already started a personal reading list, do so!  Add to it as you are inspired.  

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