Scriptorium 2

10 Feb 2019

A Test for Activists

This morning I saw a post by a Fr. David Abernathy about a blog post that writes about one of the many great passages in The Brothers Karamazov. In this passage, a woman confesses to a monk, Fr. Zosima, about how she finds it difficult to actively love others in the way that Christ teaches us to do. Fr. Zosima replies:

“I heard exactly the same thing, a long time ago to be sure, from a doctor,” the elder remarked. “He was then an old man, and unquestionably intelligent. He spoke just as frankly as you, humorously, but with a sorrowful humor. ‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.’”

When I read this, I thought about the importance that is placed today on activism. People are all concerned about the injustices and problems all over the world and what they can do about it. While there is nothing essentially wrong with activism, people should ask themselves about the little injustices they perpetrate against family members, class mates, room mates, and coworkers.

Fr. Zosima continues:

“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 of one’s own life, provided it does not take too 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.”

Jesus warns about showy religious works that don’t flow from a love relationship with him.

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Mt 7:21–23)

St. Paul also warns about the lack of love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Co 13:1–3)

We cannot all do great social programs or feed millions of starving people, but all of us have the opportunity to love the individuals around us. It is very hard to do, but God will give us the power to do it if we seek him. Fr. Zosima concludes:

“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.”

Unfortunately, I think that many people are self-satisfied with their activism, their political involvement, or the money they give, and they think it justifies them being selfish jerks to the people closest to them. They are fooling themselves. The only way to change the world is to seek and love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Only then will our activism be truly effective.