Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Dostoevsky and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Thirty young men, dressed in shrouds (and thus, nearly naked), were led to the scaffold. The morning was bitter, the temperature below freezing, as they were compelled to stand for half an hour while the burial service was slowly read. Facing them stood the soldiers with their muskets. A pile of coffins was stacked suggestively in a corner of the yard. At the last moment, with the muskets actually at the shoulders of the guards, a white flag was waved, and it was announced that the czar had commuted the sentence to ten years' exile in Siberia. Several of the prisoners lost their reason under the strain; several others died shortly afterward. Fyodor Dostoevsky passed courageously through the ordeal, but it affected his nerves; he never recalled the experience without a shudder, and he referred to it with horror in several of his books.

On Christmas Eve, 1849, he commenced the dreadful journey to Omsk and remained in Siberia "like a man buried alive, nailed down in his coffin." On his arrival in that desolate region, two women slipped a New Testament into his hand and, taking advantage of a moment when the officer's back was turned, whispered to him to search it carefully at his leisure. Between the pages he found twenty-five rubles. The money was a comfort to him; but the New Testament itself proved to be infinitely more.

His daughter, Aimee, tells us in her book Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Study (1921) that during his exile the little new Testament was his only solace. "He studied the precious volume from cover to cover, pondered every word; learned much of it by heart; and never forgot it. All his works are saturated with it, and it is this which gives them their power. "Many of his admirers have said to me that it was a strange chance that ordained that my father should have only the gospels to read during the most important and formative years of his life. But was it a chance? Is there such a thing as chance in our lives? The work of Jesus is not finished; in each generation he chooses his disciples, beckons to them to follow Him, and gives them the same power over the human heart that He gave to the poor fishermen of Galilee."

Aimee Dostoevsky believed it was by that divine hand that the Testament was presented to her father that day. "Throughout his life," she adds, "he would never be without his old prison Testament, the faithful friend that had consoled him in the darkest hours of his life. He always took it with him on his travels and kept it in a drawer in his writing-table, within reach of his hand. He consulted it in the important moments of his life."

In Siberia, Dostoevsky discovered the beauty of the parable of the prodigal son. Siberia was the far country. It was there that he was the prodigal among the husks and the swine. His companions were the lowest of the low and the vilest of the vile.

"Imagine," he said, "an old crazy wooden building that should long ago have been broken up as useless. In the summer it is unbearable hot, in the winter unbearable cold. All the boards are rotten. On the ground filth lies an inch thick: every instant one is in danger of slipping. The small windows are so frozen over that even by day one can scarcely read: The ice on the panes is three inches thick. We are packed like herrings in a barrel. The atmosphere is intolerable: the prisoners stink like pigs: there are vermin by the bushel: we sleep upon bare boards."

In the midst of this disgusting and degrading scene was Dostoevsky. At first glance he was by no means an attractive figure. He was small and slender, round-shouldered and thick- necked. He was clothed in convict-motley, one pant leg black, the other gray; the colors of his coat likewise divided; his head half-shaved and bent forward in deep thought. His face was half the face of a Russian peasant and half the face of a dejected criminal. He was shy, taciturn, rather ugly and extremely awkward. He had a flattened nose; small, piercing eyes under eyelashes that trembled with nervousness; and a long, thick, untidy beard with fair hair. The stamp of his epilepsy was distinctly upon him. You could see all this at a glance, and the glance was not alluring. But Nekrassov, the poet, gives us a different picture, the scene as the convicts saw it. In this picture Dostoevsky appeared almost sublime. He moved among his fellow prisoners with his New Testament in his hand, telling them its stories and reading to them its words of comfort and grace. He seemed to them a kind of prophet, gently rebuking their blasphemies and excesses, and speaking to them of poetry, of science, of God and of the love of Christ. It was his way of pointing the prodigal to the path that leads to the Father's heart and the Father's home.

For this was the treasure he found in that New Testament. This was the beauty of the story of the prodigal son. It revealed the way to the Father. "One sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy," he wrote from Siberia. "And yet God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simply: here it is. I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Savior: I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one."

On his bended knees, Dostoevsky blessed God for sending him into the Siberian steppes. For it was amidst those stern and awful solitudes that he, a homesick and penitent prodigal, found the road that leads to the Father's house. The parable that had opened to him a paradise in the midst of perdition was in his thoughts through all the years that followed.

After his return from Siberia, he found life anything but easy. Through voluntarily taking over the debts of his dead brother, his finances had become involved. Moreover, he had fallen into the clutches of an unscrupulous publisher, for whom he had contracted to write a novel on the understanding that, if it was not finished by a certain date, all the author's copyrights would fall into the publisher's hands. As the date approached, the impossibility of the task became evident, and ruin stared him in the face. Somebody advised him to get a stenographer, but no stenographer could be found. There was, it is true, a girl of nineteen who knew shorthand, but lady stenographers were unknown then. And the girl doubted if her people would consent to her taking the appointment.

Dostoevsky's fame, however, removed the parents' scruples, and she set to work. On her way to the novelist's house, she told her daughter afterward, she tried to imagine what their first session would be like. We shall work for an hour, she thought, and them we shall talk of literature.

But Dostoevsky had been seized by an epileptic fit the night before. He was absentminded, nervous and peremptory. He seemed quite unconscious of the charms of his young stenographer and treated her as a kind of Remington typewriter. He dictated the first chapter of his novel in a harsh voice, complained she did not write fast enough, made her read aloud what he had dictated, scolded her and declared she had not understood him. She was crushed and left the house determined never to return. But she thought better of it during the night and the next morning resumed her post.

Little by little, Dostoevsky became conscious that his Remington machine was not only a charming young girl but also an ardent admirer of his genius. He confided his troubles to her, and she pitied him. In her girlish dream, she had pictured him petted and pampered; instead, he was a sick man -- weary, badly fed, badly lodged, badly served -- hunted down by merciless creditors and exploited by selfish relatives. She conceived the idea of protecting Dostoevsky, of sharing the heavy burden he had taken on his shoulders and of comforting him in his sorrows. She was not in love with this man, who was more than twenty-five years her senior, but she understood his beautiful soul and reverenced his genius. She determined to save Dostoevsky from his publishers. Begging him to prolong the hours of dictation, she then spent the night copying out what she had taken down in the day and worked with such good will that, to the chagrin of the avaricious publisher, the novel was ready on the appointed day. And, shortly afterward, Dostoevsky married her. And then, fifteen years afterward, Dostoevsky was dying (the funeral was on the anniversary of the wedding). "He made us come into the room," his daughter recalled, "and, taking our little hands in his, he begged my mother to read the parable of the prodigal son. He listened with his eyes closed, absorbed in his thoughts. 'My children,' he said in his feeble voice, 'never forget what you have just heard. Have absolute faith in God and never despair of His pardon. I love you dearly, but my love is nothing compared with the love of God. Even if you should be so unhappy as to commit some dreadful crime, never despair of God. You are His children; humble yourselves before Him, as before your father; implore His pardon, and He will rejoice over your repentance, as the father rejoiced over that of the prodigal son.'"

A few minutes later, Dostoevsky passed triumphantly away. "I have been present," said Aimee Dostoevsky, "at many deathbeds, but none was so radiant as that of my father. He saw without fear the end approaching."

Russia, which has witnessed so many tragic and dramatic happenings, never was a funeral like that of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Forty thousand men followed the coffin to the grave. "When I heard of Dostoevsky's death," said Tolstoy, "I felt that I had lost a kinsman, the closest and the dearest, and the one of whom I had most need."

Clearly, we have here a man among men; a man who stirred the hearts of thousands; a man who, through his books, still speaks to multitudes. What is the secret of his deep and widespread influence? It is rooted in the story of the prodigal son.

Take up any of his books, and you will catch fitful glimpses of the battered volume in which he learned of the Father's love for His most wayward children. Near the close of The Possessed, Stepan Trofimovitch is taken ill, and Sofya Matveyevna sits by his couch, reading. What is she reading? Two striking passages from the New Testament. And in Crime and Punishment there occurs a particularly poignant scene. It describes Raskolnikoff, the conscience- stricken and self-tormented murderer, creeping at dead of night to the squalid waterside hovel in which Sonia lives. Sonia was part of the city's flotsam and jetsam. The relationship between these two was one of sympathy. Each had sinned terribly, and each had sinned for the sake of others rather than for self. On a rickety little table in Sonia's room stands a tallow candle fixed in an improved candlestick of twisted metal. In the course of earnest conversation, Sonia glances at a book lying on a chest of drawers. Raskolnikoff takes it down. It is a New Testament. He hands it to Sonia and begs her to read it to him. "Sonia opens the book: her hands tremble: the works stick in her throat. Twice she tries without being able to utter a syllable." At length she succeeds. And then --. "She closes the book: she seems afraid to raise her eyes on Raskolnikoff: her feverish trembling continues. The dying piece of candle dimly lights up this low-ceilinged room in which and assassin and a harlot have just read the Book of Books." This is in the middle of the story. On the last page, when Raskolnikoff and Sonia have both been purified by suffering, Raskolnikoff is still cherishing in his prison cell the New Testament which, at his earnest request, Sonia has brought him. There is Raskolnikoff -- most prodigal of prodigal sons -- and there is Sonia -- most prodigal of prodigal daughters -- bending together over the living page that points all prodigals to the Father's house.

The candle in Sonia's wretched room burned lower and lower, and at last sputtered out. But the candle that, in a Siberian prison, illumined Dostoevsky's soul, grew taller and taller the longer it burned.  

-- Adapted from The Prodigal, by F.W. Boreham (Epworth Press, 1941).