“We’ve become better people since we read The Karamazovs!” Readers spoke these words to Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky just months before he died. Since then, many have echoed that testimony, including Pope Francis, who has attested that “for all of us” Dostoevsky stands as “an author that we must read and reread due to his wisdom.” This year, we celebrate the author’s two hundredth birthday. What better time to reread The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s last and greatest novel, or discover it for the first time?
The novel’s young hero, Alyosha, thinks he’s called to become a monk. The local monastery serves him as an escape from his torn, tormented family. But early on Alyosha’s mentor, the Elder Zosima, counsels him to leave, urging him instead to marry and become “a monk in the world.” In the course of the novel, whose plot revolves around the murder of Alyosha’s father and the subsequent trial of his older brother, Alyosha fulfills that vocation by attending to others in the “harsh and dreadful” work of “active love.” As opposed to “love in dreams,” active love (according to Zosima) entails “labor and fortitude.” It’s the slow, steady practice of small, often unacknowledged acts of attentiveness toward others.
Zosima exemplifies such love, as does Alyosha—especially in his relations with his anguished brothers Dmitri and Ivan and their lovers, Grushenka and Katerina. His down-to-earth ministry, which I call his “incarnational realism,” helps him emerge for readers as an image of Christ. In Zosima’s teaching, the “precious image of Christ” prevents wayward humanity from remaining “altogether lost, as was the human race before the flood.” And that’s just what Alyosha does for the other characters in the novel: he’s a vehicle, but also an agent, of divine love.
Zosima’s use of the word “image” is significant. It recalls the ancient tradition of icon painting, so vital to the Orthodox Christian tradition. In 451 C.E. the Council of Chalcedon had issued the definitive statement on the Incarnation, asserting that Christ is both man and God, finite and infinite, “without separation or confusion.” The well-known icon of Christ Pantocrator, painted during the same century at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai (in present-day Egypt), makes that theological definition visible.