Like many mainline Protestant churches, our little Episcopalian congregation in St. Mary’s City, Maryland is having money difficulties. The expense of aging buildings plus a recession that wiped out much of our endowment has forced us to hold fairly continuous fundraisers to balance the budget. People have become testy and some, not liking the changed environment, have left.
I haven’t left—that’s not how I work—but I have drawn back. I’m still trying to figure out what to make of the emotional bruising I experienced during three years on the Vestry. Therefore it was a great comfort to read the following extended passage from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.
It is taken from the sermon/lecture/reminiscence that Father Zossima delivers from his deathbed. The passage begins by addressing the financial hardships that churches are undergoing, and even though it digresses at times and even though it is long, I have chosen to quote it in its entirety. That’s because it is all of a piece—to understand the love of the Bible that Zossima mentions, it helps to see his enthusiasm for Biblical stories. His message to the assembled monks is that, if one gives oneself over to the spirit, material circumstances will take care of themselves.
Although the passage deals with churches, it could apply to any circumstance where we let financial hardship sidetrack us from high ideals. If the society in which we live is currently undergoing hard times, let us remember that life is more than money and that we are surrounded with countless blessings.
Give yourself permission to immerse yourself in the Zossima’s words. Or better yet (because he says much more that is just as enthralling), go read the book.
Here’s he is:
“Friends and teachers, I have heard more than once, and of late one may hear it more often, that the priests, and above all the village priests, are complaining on all sides of their miserable income and their humiliating lot. They plainly state, even in print—I’ve read it myself—that they are unable to teach the Scriptures to the people because of the smallness of their means, and if Lutherans and heretics come and lead the flock astray, they let them lead them stray because they have so little to live upon. May the Lord increase the sustenance that is so precious to them, for their complaint is just, too. But of a truth I say, if any one is to blame in the matter, half the fault is ours. For he may be short of time, he may say truly that he is overwhelmed all the while with work and services, but still it’s not all the time, even he has an hour a week to remember God. And he does not work the whole year round. Let him gather round him once a week, some hour in the evening, if only the children at first—the fathers will hear of it and they too will begin to come. There’s no need to build halls for this, let him take them into his own cottage. They won’t spoil his cottage, they would only be there one hour. Let him open that book and begin reading it without grand words or superciliousness, without condescension to them, but gently and kindly, being glad that he is reading to them and that they are listening with attention, loving the words himself, only stopping from time to time to explain words that are not understood by the peasants. Don’t be anxious, they will understand everything, the orthodox heart will understand all! Let him read them about Abraham and Sarah, about Isaac and Rebecca, of how Jacob went to Laban and wrestled with the Lord in his dream and said, “This place is holy”—and he will impress the devout mind of the peasant. Let him read, especially to the children, how the brothers sold Joseph, the tender boy, the dreamer and prophet, into bondage, and told their father that a wild beast had devoured him, and showed him his blood-stained clothes. Let him read them how the brothers afterwards journeyed into Egypt for corn, and Joseph, already a greater ruler, unrecognized by them, tormented them, accused them, kept his brother Benjamin, and all through love: “I love you, and loving you I torment you.” For he remembered all his life how they had sold him to the merchants in the burning desert by the well, and how, wringing his hands, he had wept and besought his brothers not to sell him as a slave in a strange land. And how, seeing them again after many years, he loved them beyond measure, but he harassed and tormented them in love. He left them at last not able to bear the suffering of his heart flung himself on his bed and wept. Then, wiping his tears away he went out to them joyful and told them, “Brothers, I am your brother Joseph!” Let him read them further how happy old Jacob was on learning that his darling boy was still alive, and how he went to Egypt leaving his own country, and died in a foreign land, bequeathing his great prophecy that had lain mysteriously hidden in his meek and timid heart all his life, that from his offspring, from Judah will come the great hope of the world, the Messiah and Savior.
Fathers and teachers, forgive me and don’t be angry, that like a little child I’ve been babbling of what you know long ago, and can teach me a hundred times more skillfully. I only speak from rapture, and forgive my tears, for I love the Bible. Let him too weep, the priest of God, and be sure that the hearts of his listeners will throb in response. Only a little tiny seed is needed—drop it into the heart of the peasant and it won’t die, it will live in his soul all his life, it will be hidden in the midst of his darkness and sin, like a bright spot, like a great reminder. And there’s no need of much teaching or explanation, he will understand it all simply. Do you suppose that the peasants don’t understand? Try reading them the touching story of the fair Esther and the haughty Vasti; or the miraculous story of Jonah in the whale. Don’t forget either the parables of our Lord, choose especially from the Gospel of St. Luke (that is what I did) and then from the Acts of the Apostles the conversion of St. Paul (that you mustn’t leave out on any account), and from the Lives of the Saints, for instance, the life of Alexey, the man of God and, greatest of all, the happy martyr and the seer of God, Mary of Egypt—and you will penetrate their hearts with these simple tales. Give one hour a week to it in spite of your poverty, only one little hour. And you will see for yourself that our people are gracious and grateful, and will repay you a hundred-fold. Mindful of the kindness of their priest and the moving words they have heard from him, they will of their own accord help him in his fields and in his house, and will treat him with more respect than before—so that it will even increase his worldly well-being too. The thing is so simple that sometimes one is even afraid to put it into words, for fear of being laughed at, and yet how true it is! One who does not believe in God will not believe in God’s people. He who believes in God’s people will see His Holiness too, even though he had not believed in it till then. Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have torn themselves away from their native soil.
And what is the use of Christ’s words, unless we set an example? The people are lost without the word of God, for their soul is athirst for the Word and for all that is good.
In my youth, long ago, nearly forty years ago, I travelled all over Russia with Father Anfim, collecting funds for our monastery, and we stayed one night on the bank of a great navigable river with some fishermen. A good-looking peasant lad, about eighteen, joined us; he had to hurry back next morning to pull a merchant’s barge along the bank. I noticed him looking straight before him with clear and tender eyes. It was a bright, warm, still, July night, a cool mist rose from the broad river, we could hear the plash of a fish, the birds were still, all was hushed and beautiful, everything praying to God. Only we two were not sleeping, the lad and I, and we talked of the beauty of this world of God’s and of the great mystery of it. Every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all so marvelously know their path, though they have not intelligence, they bear witness to the mystery of God and continually accomplish it themselves. I saw the dear lad’s heart was moved. He told me that he loved the forest and the forest birds. He was a bird-catcher, knew the note of each of them, could call each bird. “I know nothing better than to be in the forest,” said he, “though all things are good.”
“Truly,” I answered him, “all things are good and fair, because all is truth. Look,” said I, “at the horse, that great beast that is so near to man; or the lowly, pensive ox, which feeds him and works for him; look at their faces, what meekness, what devotion to man, who often beats them mercilessly. What gentleness, what confidence and what beauty! It’s touching to know that there’s no sin in them, for all, all except man, is sinless, and Christ has been with them before us.”
“Why,” asked the boy, “is Christ with them too?”
“It cannot but be so,” said I, “since the Word is for all. All creation and all creatures, every leaf is striving to the World, singing glory to God, their sinless life. Yonder,” said I, “in the forest wanders the dreadful bear, fierce and menacing, and yet innocent in it. And I told him how once a bear came to a great saint who had taken refuge in a tiny cell in the wood. And the great saint pitied him, went up to him without fear and gave him a piece of bread. ‘Go along,’ said he, ‘Christ be with you,’ and the savage beast walked away meekly and obediently, doing no harm. And the lad was delighted that the bear had walked away without hurting the saint, and that Christ was with him too. ‘Ah,’ said he, ‘how good that is, how good and beautiful is all God’s work!’” He sat musing softly and sweetly. I saw he understood. And he slept beside me a light and sinless sleep. May God bless youth! And I prayed for him as I went to sleep. Lord, send peace and light to Thy people!