Reaching ultimate harmony: The Concert

There is a lot of confusion at the beginning of The Concert. People yell, play music loudly and poorly at weddings, or get fake passports and visas right under the nose of the police. It is the craziness of a post-communist society. The movie takes place in Russia, some years after the fall of communism. It begins with a janitor, Andrei Filipov. Many years ago, he used to be the conductor for the orchestra where he now cleans the place: the renown Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The maestro’s career was destroyed by the communist regime when he was labeled an “enemy of the people.” The syntagm was applied to all real and imaginary enemies of the government, and it usually resulted in public disgrace or even deportation to the Gulag, as it happened to Filipov’s friends. Now, 30 years after the KGB stopped the performance of his Tchaikovsky’s Concert for Violin and Orchestra, he grasps an opportunity to enlist his former musicians in order to impersonate the real Bolshoi orchestra and go to Paris for a concert. But all these people do not look like musicians. Old, living in clearly poor regions of the city, taking their instruments from dark corners, from under the table where they sell vegetables, or from obscure rooms where they record the sound for porn movies, they seem to come out of a forgotten world. In fact, they themselves were forgotten. They are people without a name, the “enemies of the people.”

It is the portrayal of a society that came out of communism, with broken people, who have lost their connections with others and with themselves. When the KGB destroyed the careers of the musicians from Andrei Filipov’s orchestra, the possibility to create music also stopped. Music is no longer heard, although many of the musicians still have an instrument and are still able to play beautiful notes. But all of these sounds seem to be only the appearance of a far, far away dream.

I will avoid giving details about the plot, so that I wouldn’t ruin it for those who may want to watch the movie, but I will refer to one scene. Sasha, Filipov’s friend, whose life was also destroyed by the communists, asks Anne-Marie Jacquet, the desired soloist, to come back and play for them. Filipov had specifically asked for her, and the movie lets us see that this is connected with the past, with something that took place 30 years ago, when the KGB interrupted his concert and broke the lives of so many people. “Just play violin, please,” Sasha says. Nothing more is required; don’t heal anyone; do not think about duties; just play violin. Just live; do not turn your back from us; do not refuse music. “Come play the concert.”

Anne-Marie, who had sensed Filipov’s sickness, refuses. “A concert  is not a psychotherapy session.” She cannot cure him. In fact, he had asked too much of her, Anne-Marie believes–to become a ghost, the copy of Lea, the soloist with whom, 30 years ago, Filipov wanted to reach “ultimate harmony” in playing Tchaikovsky. And she refuses to give in to the same madness.

But Sasha had not asked for her responsibility. He had asked her to live: just play violin. Don’t say “yes” to brokenness and separation; do not refuse the possibility of music to come through you. And this call was one of despair; Sasha and Andrei need music, but they are no longer able to make it themselves. They are too broken. Perhaps if they can just hear it again, something may happen. Perhaps even Anne-Marie can be cured. “What if at the end of the concert, you’d find your parents?”

Sasha has spoken too much. Or maybe too little. “Music sometimes helps us grow,” he says. “Gives us answers. We are scared, scared before playing music. Scared of truth.”

Anne-Marie continues to be confused and demands clarity. And here are some of the most beautiful words from the movie: “Nothing is ever clear. I, a poor idiot, messed up my life. You ask for words, but words are traitors. Words are dirty. Only music’s still beautiful. But music’s prisoner in us. Music… refuses to come out of us. Why?… Sorry to bother you…”

“Words are dirty.” But how can this be? Aren’t the words alive? Don’t they contain life and also connect us with others over generations? They do; but in a broken human being, one that has been separated from life, one that has fallen into disgrace and lost himself in drunkenness, the words are no longer pure; they are tainted, just like all of us are tainted, by the dirtiness of this world. Only music is pure, Sasha says. Only music can give us answers. But music is buried inside of us, and needs to come out in order to be expressed. It’s just that, broken as we are, we no longer find the power to do it. We need someone else; we need love. It is our working together which can bring music out of us.

Anne-Marie suffers as well. She has never met her parents, and this brings her pain. Anne-Marie is not a hero. She is just a normal human being, like each one of us; but she is the person, the one person missing in the constellation that this broken orchestra is. And the well-being of each of the members cannot be reached in the absence of one of the stars. They need her; but she also needs them, even without knowing. If they all return to go for a concert, they do not do it for a principle, for an idea (as the communists do). They do it in the name of a person: “for Lea,” the one musician whose life was also broken 30 years ago. For Lea, regardless of where she is, can also be healed.

Harmony itself is not a notion, but life. Harmony is a notion as it is proposed by communism; a perverted idea, in which workers of all countries unite; against what? Against those who are not like them and even against each other. But ultimate harmony is just that: playing violin. Not refusing the music; and especially not refusing the music with another. A broken orchestra can heal when someone who can still play fills their brokenness with her music–her presence.

 

 

Angels and birthgivers

 
The Mother of the Lord and Jesus in prison cloths. The painting is done by Fr. Arsenie Boca, who was imprisoned during communism. The Church Elefterie in Bucharest.

Regardless of where I am, I always try to call my mom on March 25. It is the Annunciation, and I know she has always loved this day. I don’t often have something to tell her. There is nothing spectacular in my life. However, being at that moment together, something is said. The “she and I” is being said. When calling other people, the “they and I” is being said.

Regardless of the words used, the being together is “love” in all of these situations.  What if I respond to it with the words of the Virgin: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word!”

The Annunciation… Giving yourself up in the arms of love, regardless of perils, of shame, of disgrace… Giving yourself up–becoming a birthgiver of that with which you are pregnant: the Beautiful! “When the soul, when our whole being becomes pure, when we… attain the state of virginity… Jesus is born in our being” (Fr. Arsenie Boca, Living Words).

Pregnant with the Beautiful we are. But we can also be birthgivers of the Beautiful.

The Annunciation reminds us of one other thing: we also need an angel to remind us of our pregnancy. Perhaps we can all be angels to one another, and doing so, without even realizing, we give birth to the beautiful in us and in others.

 

Socrates’ "a good man cannot be harmed" and Alyosha Karamazov


The presence of another in one’s life: the chance of remaining a “good man” even when harmed. Photo taken at the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Muzeul National al Taranului Roman)

Socrates often says that a good man cannot be harmed. Here is a good human being: Alyosha Karamazov, who spends his life running from one to another brother, to his dad, or to various other people who need to be fed by his presence. But at one moment in the life of the hero of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is harmed. Father Zosima, his spiritual father, just died, and people began speaking badly about him. His corpse stinks, instead of giving the sweet fragrance of myrrh. People are ready to say that he was not a saint, because there was no material proof that could have given them the certainty they desired.

Alyosha hurts; “it was not miracles he needed; rather, some ‘supreme justice’ that be believed had been violated, and as a consequence of which violation his heart had been so cruelly and unexpectedly wounded” (p. 427 in the Oxford edition). I think this is the first time when Alyosha is harmed in the novel; and Dostoevsky gives us the reason why: he was expecting some supreme justice.

One may say that Alyosha changed here from love to justice. So far, he has given himself to others without any second thoughts, without expecting anything in return. Now, because of the love he has for Fr. Zosima (so, at least on first sight, not because of self-love), he wanted justice for his spiritual father. The memory of his mentor was tarnished, and Alyosha wanted justice for him.

It is in this moment, when justice becomes his focus, that Alyosha can change to Ivan, a person who judges whether the world is just the way it is and who rejects it if it does not fulfill his own requirements for beauty. Alyosha does the same thing here: because of his love, which is quite interesting, he thinks first of justice, and he wants justice for Fr. Zosima.

The first effect of this is shown when Rakitin approaches Alyosha (429); the latter replies in a quite surprising manner: “go away!” Rakitin, who’s not among the most gracious characters of the novel, immediately rejoices in a fallen Alyosha: “My word! So we’re capable of raising our voice just like any other mortal.” In other words, Alyosha has descended to our level; he’s mud, just like us, Rakitin thinks, someone who has no moral superiority. And Rakitin is right, even if not in how he understands this; he thinks of morality applying merit and justice. Alyosha’s outburst shows that he has no merit, Rakitin may believe, so he further tempts him immediately, to bring him even lower. He gives him sausage during lent and invites him to Grushenka, who, so far in the novel, does not have a good reputation.

Alyosha is so upset with God that he goes to Grushenka precisely to get some sort of revenge against Him. “I’m not rebelling agains my God, I merely ‘refuse to accept His world,'” Alyosha says, using Ivan’s words, the one who treats the problem of evil from the perspective of justice.  A world  in which a holy man like Fr. Zosima is mocked by people without love and understanding is not just; why should we take a ticket for it? In his own rebellion, Alyosha goes to Grushenka–and he does not go just to pay her a visit.

But it is Grushenka, the one with no morals, who saves him. As I may have said with other occasions, there are no saints in Dostoevsky’s world; all characters are just that, human beings who travel this world, having an infinite numbers of moments in which they can lose or recover themselves. Alyosha is a human being who falls, who loves, who sometimes forgets to love, but who has the fortune to encounter someone who, at his lowest point, does not push him further into the abyss, but acknowledges his suffering and rediscovers for her and for himself his personhood. Through Grushenka, Alyosha recovers himself and recovers love; he comes back from justice to love when someone like Grushenka, instead of treating him “justly,” so instead of giving him wickedness because he came for it, has pity on him.

At the beginning, Grushenka is her usual self, sitting on Alyosha’s lap–on the lap of someone who is dressed like a monk, in a cassock. But then she finds out that Fr. Zosima has died, and the pain of Alyosha becomes visible to her. She crosses herself devoutly: “My God, and here am I sitting on his knees!”

At that moment, Grushenka no longer sees in Alyosha an object with which she can have fun or of which she can take advantage, but she perceives in him a suffering soul. She thus considers him a person in suffering. someone who is just like herself–because she has had her share of suffering in life. She makes him a favor; she escapes him from the abyss in which he is about to fall.

Alyosha comes back to himself:
“Rakitin, don’t mock me for rebelling against my God. I don’t want to bear a grudge against you, so try to understand how I feel. I’ve lost a treasure such as you’ve never had, so you’ve no right to judge me now. Look at her! Did you notice how she spared my feelings? When I came here I expected to find a wicked person–I was attracted to her because I am mean and wicked myself, but instead I found a true sister, a treasure–a loving soul… She spared me… I’m talking about you, Agrafena Aleksandrovna. You’ve uplifted my soul” (442).

So Alyosha comes to Grushenka not to be uplifted, but because he is low, he feels wicked, he is upset, and he wants to indulge into wickedness. He wants to be connected with someone else not as a person to person, but rather to lose himself in her wickedness; he goes to her to take advantage of her. He would use Grushenka, just as she would use him, but Grushenka, the wicked one, the one who seems to tempt anyone, the one who enjoys being desired by both a father and a son, is at that moment the human being who perceives in him a suffering soul and gives him a hand.

There are two ways to be with another in hell. At the beginning of their encounter, Grushenka and Alyosha are ready to consume the other for his or her own benefit. They are ready to devour the other. Later, though, after Grushenka’s pity, they are still in hell, but only externally. The world is still in suffering; people still mock Fr. Zosima unjustly. Grushenka herself still lives in a world in which she was abandoned by others. Their own suffering and the suffering of the other people create an external hell, but the care one has for the other by “sparing him,” by giving him a loving hand, transforms hell in an internal heaven. Even the darkest dungeons have light when someone else loves you.

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P.S. I previously wrote about a song, Rachel Platten’s “Stand by you.” Here is the text: A Song on the morning commute.

And here is the song:



Alyosha and the schoolboys


Photo taken in the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest.


During moments of tension, it is always difficult to perceive in your opponent a human being in need. When someone hates me, the first inclination is to blame that person; if I perceive he does evil against me,  I may immediately believe that he is fully responsible for whatever he does. There are plenty of such examples in life or in literature. One may think of election seasons, or of many stories from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Just consider this little event, when a boy, Ilyusha, throws stones at others. What could have made him that angry? How can a good human being, a little boy who loves his parents, who is also loved by them, become bad?

The scene in Dostoevsky is quite familiar: six boys, filled with righteousness, throw stones at another boy, who retaliates by throwing back as many stones as he can. The familiarity of the story stems from its “righteousness”: the boys do not even think that they would be in error. The lonely kid is a “rat”; “it’d serve him right if we killed him”–can you imagine little children saying this about one of their previous friends? What could be the reason why hatred is justified?

Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov brother, is surprised by this as well. And he decides to go find out the reason from the boy himself, although the children want to prevent him: “watch out, he’s not afraid of you, he’ll stab you without warning when you’re not looking” (p. 224 in the Oxford edition). But Alyosha goes. He sees a small child “of no more than nine.”

But Ilyusha made fun of him (“monk in a funny skirt”), so Alyosha began to walk away. At that moment, the kid got the biggest stone and hit Karamazov in the back.

This was evidence that the boy was a “rat,” as the other kids said, and even Alyosha blurted out, “they were right after all when they said that you steal up on people” (226). But notice Alyosha did not give him a name; he did not call him a “rat” or a “coward.” He only accurately described an action. And he did not retaliate.

Of course, this infuriated the child and he bit Alyosha’s finger, causing him even more pain. Even more evidence of the wickedness of the child.

Wouldn’t anyone expect Alyosha to get angry? To leave the boy alone and ignore him completely, as such a “base human being” would deserve? But Alyosha said something completely different. With his “gentle eyes,” he looked at the boy and said: “Even though I don’t know you and have never seen you before, I can’t imagine that I’ve done nothing, otherwise you wouldn’t have hurt me so much. So, what have I done? Tell me what you’ve got against me” (226).

Alyosha mentions here a certain kind of responsibility–the one that a person has for one’s own actions. Alyosha is not guilty; he has not done anything. But Alyosha is someone who lives under a different kind of responsibility as well, which is described by Fr. Zosima, the young Karamazov’s mentor: “When, however, he (the monk–after all, any human being) realizes that not only is he worse than any layman, but that he is guilty before all, for everything and before everyone, for the sins of all men, individually as well as collectively, only then will the goal of our seclusion be attained.” “It is only through this realization that our hearts will be moved to boundless, universal, all-consuming love” (206).

When he met the schoolboys, Alyosha came from the monastery, so from the same frame of mind that Fr. Zosima had. This responsibility has nothing to do with justice. It is not whether I am responsible legally, but rather whether I am responsible for the entire humanity because it lives in me.

So, if Ilyusha becomes evil, I cannot blame him for it, but I am the only one who can bear the responsibility because I contribute to the ugliness of the world without even meaning to do so. In The Brothers Karamazov, there are plenty of examples of people who “become bad.” How does Fyodor Karamazov become the man that he is? What about Mitya or Ivan? Do we not all share this world and somehow influence it for good or bad? This does not deny individual responsibility. In fact, if I am responsible for the entire world, I am also responsible for my own actions. But if I look at someone else, I can no longer say that he or she is responsible because I have already placed that responsibility on me. I cannot even call on their own responsibility for the world’s faults, because this responsibility can only be conjugated in the first person singular.

One may say that this demolishes a human being. Can you imagine what it would mean to carry that huge load on your shoulders? Truly, it sounds as if you would not be able to even raise your eyes from the earth. And still, the suffering of others, all the others, calls on me to respond to them. It is this strong request for my presence that should give me the power to come up. For, if I remain demolished by my responsibility, then instead of thinking of others, I focus on me–a false responsibility even if it may look “virtuous.”

Sometimes, there are moments in my (as I said this can only be conjugated in first person) life when things do not go well. In those moments, I may be lucky enough to have one person coming toward me and giving me a flower or an embrace. Doing so, even without knowing, that person may save me from falling further into darkness, into lack of hope. But there are moments when, while being in darkness, I meet people who push me even further into my darkness because they judge me according to the darkness in which they have found me. They would not even realize that they do it; they would not even think about it, because the only thing they would see is the “righteousness” of their position, the legality according to which I would be in the wrong. Or it may be that, because of their own problems, they would not be in the position to embrace someone else–especially someone whom they may despise. Even so, in my wrongness, I would still need to feel responsible for their inability to help me. But wouldn’t the world be more beautiful if, instead of pushing me from the cliff, they would hold an open hand?

If Ilyusha did not have someone like Alyosha in his life, he would have died before his biological death because he would have been consumed by hatred. A boy, a nine years old boy. A “rat,” as his friends described him. Someone who’d be served right “if we killed him.” There may be so many people in my life whose suffering I did not perceive because I judged them according to the evil things in which they engaged. How corrupted must my soul be if I’m incapable of perceiving their suffering?

Persons and individuals; taking all in one’s heart through forgiveness


There are no individuals in Dostoevsky’s work, but we often encounter situations in which characters treat others as individuals. I actually think that the beauty of Dostoevsky’s writings stems also from the fact that he explores our failure to treat others as persons. The difference between “persons” and “individuals” is often discussed in Orthodox Christianity, and Dostoevsky is of course influenced by it. So what does this difference mean? 

Photo taken by Andrei, who has a relationship with Mishu


Let’s say that individuals are always replaceable, in the same way in which we replace pieces of furniture. At times, people treat animals as individuals. Suppose my cat Mishu dies. If my relationship with him was the relationship I have with a cat, any cat, then I did not treat him as a person and I can replace him with any other cat who will engage in “cat-activities.” So I can continue my life of a cat-owner with some other cat. 

If I treat humans as individuals, then I look at the function that they perform. It does not matter how I relate to them personally because I can replace them with others who can perform the same function. In a workplace, for example, people are usually treated as individuals, not as persons. We have an institution in which every human being functions according to the job description of that individual. If any one individual no longer functions properly according to what the institution wants, the employer replaces him or her with someone else. 

Persons, however, are never replaceable; we cannot replicate the experience with any person. I can never replace the relationship I have with my children, spouse, or parents. If someone remarries, that person does not replace his or her previous spouse, but builds a new relationship. We all, in our personhood, are irreplaceable, unique in our relationships. But this is not an individual uniqueness, but rather one shaped by our relationships with others, with all others. My unicity is given by my way of taking all others to my heart. There is a wonderful line at the end of The Brothers Karamazov: “I take you all to my heart, and I ask you all to take me to yours.” After all, throughout the book, Dostoevsky reminds us that, for good or bad, we all remain in each other’s hearts when we interact in this life. We are in this together, and our well-being depends on the others’ well-being (I just heard a very interesting talk by Hans Bernhard Schmid on how we find this idea even in Aristotle). We touch one another, especially when we look at each other as persons. But we touch us even when we treat others as individuals–we convince them that they are less than what they are. Ilyusha’s fall, his becoming bad, is influenced by how others treat him. And Alyosha’s ability to look at him as to a worthy person even while the little boy bites Alyosha’s finger may contribute to the boy’s spiritual recovery. Through this, their entire little community is healed. The influence we have on other people brings upon us a huge responsibility. 

We are co-creators of the world in which we live. We complain so much about our environment, about how the world is, but we often forget that we are part of it, that the world we criticize is never outside of us, but it is part of us, and we are part of it. It makes us who we are, and we make it what it is.

At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha tells the boys who have come to Ilyusha’s funeral, “no matter how wicked we become–which, God grant, we may never be–when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in these last days, and how we talked together by this stone with such closeness and affection, then even the cruelest and most cynical amongst us–if such there be–will not dare to mock the kindness and goodness of this moment! Moreover, that memory alone, perhaps, will restrain that person from some great wickedness, and he will think about it and will say, ‘Yes, I was good then, I was brave and honorable.'”

What we experience in life touches us; we are so responsible for the life of the young ones. The way we treat them creates the world in which they will live. This is not a dark responsibility that crushes us, that paralyzes us because of its great weight; it is a responsibility of light, one that tells us that we can be truly human beings only in love, in taking others in our hearts. Ilyusha is alive in the midst of these boys who came to his tomb. Ilyusha dies for good–as all people do–only when he is completely forgotten. He dies only when the goodness which his little life occasioned is completely lost in the life of the others. 

Today is Forgiveness Sunday. At the end of the vespers service, people in the church ask forgiveness from one another. Some may have never seen each other before; others may have harmed each other during their lives. All of them, equally, come before all others, before the entire world, and acknowledge their responsibility for the brokenness they experience. Doing so, they promise all to take them back into their hearts and humbly ask from the others to take them back into theirs. It is the beginning of the process of regaining personhood. 

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For those of you who know Romanian, here is a poem by Zorica Latcu, recited by Fr. Teofil Paraianu: “Te port in suflet.



"It’s only with you that I have moments of goodness"

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, during one of the conversations between Alyosha and his father, Fyodor, Alyosha tells him, “You’re in such a bad mood. It must be because of what happened yesterday. Why don’t you go and lie down?” His old man replies, “Coming from you, it doesn’t make me angry at all. But if Ivan had said that to me, I’d have taken offense. It’s only with you that I have moments of goodness, because on the whole I am a wicked person.” Alyosha replies: “You’re not wicked, just a little muddled.” And he smiles.

Alyosha’s last line reminds of Dostoevsky’s general approach, that all human beings live in a fallen world, and our passing through it brings muddle on us–a familiar idea if one considers Psalm 50: “in sins (so in a broken world) my mother conceived me.” We are all muddled (Solzhenitsyn’s “the line between good and evil crosses every human heart”), and this mud is cleaned (or increased) by our rubbing against other people. For the moment, though, I would like to consider something else here (although it is still connected with what I just mentioned): the idea that we act differently with different people. Fyodor Karamazov points to the fact that the words’ influence depends on who utters them.

There are studies in communication that discuss this problem. Dostoevsky is not interested, however, in the efficiency of processes of communication or in how we may obtain desired effects when we interact verbally with other people. Rather, the emphasis is on the responsibility we have for the good of other people (and Smerdyakov tragically reminds Ivan of his responsibility at the end of the book). This is not because we make others good or bad, but rather because by our presence we may create the conditions in which they can only be good. In the text I just mentioned, Fyodor acknowledges that he can become good in relation with another human being, but outside this relation he remains in wickedness. And it is Alyosha who seems to be able to bring out the good in others.

What would be the reason? One of them is because there is no judgment in Alyosha’s attitude. If Fyodor Karamazov reacted differently to Ivan, if he had taken offense, it is because Ivan judges. Ivan is the one character in The Brothers Karamazov who relies on his reason and judges all around him. And when you are judged, you are already made part of a corrupt world, and it feels as if the only option is to remain corrupted. This works in daily life as well. A long time ago, I heard that the New York Police Department no longer knew how to eliminate crime in the New York subways. Then someone came with a novel idea: they decided to clean the stations, paint the walls, take out the trash… As a consequence, crime diminished. Evil does not feel at home in a clean place. But in judgment, evil is brought to the surface; it is shown and given being. So Fyodor Karamazov almost feels called to be wicked in the presence of Ivan. But how can one be wicked in the presence of Alyosha, who never judges anyone? Alyosha always speaks from a realm of freedom. He points to a problem. It would be as if he said, “there is dirt in the subway, so let’s clean it.” He does not judge the other because of the problem, but rather points to it. In doing this, Alyosha embraces. It is hard to be wicked when embraced–rather, as a flower, the good comes to surface. Of course, I am not saying that Alyosha is the agent. But he is sufficiently wise to allow beauty to come out.

 

Dostoevsky emphasizes that all human beings are just this, human beings, not good or wicked; perhaps a little mudded. And in all of them there is hope for goodness. As Fr. Roman Braga once said, each individual, even my torturer, is a candidate to holiness. Alyosha sees this; he sees the mud as well, but embraces all with love. In this love, wickedness and evil no longer feel at home.

Alyosha is present, and his presence fills the emptiness that is manifested in the brokenness of the others.

 

Giving definitions and Grushenka’s spring onion

 

I do not eat meat. As one may imagine, whenever I arrive at this topic in a conversation, I always get this reply: “So you are a vegetarian.” This is a fairly safe conclusion. People who do not eat meat are vegetarians (taken in general, without the various definitions depending on peculiar traits); Tavi does not eat meat, so Tavi is a vegetarian. However, I always reply with “no, I am not a vegetarian.”

Needless to say, my interlocutors are always confused and look at me with mistrust. Answers vary from “so you do eat meat” to “you’re funny…” The conversation may get into details, and I explain that I claim that I am not a vegetarian because the term “vegetarian” carries a lot of baggage (including political baggage) and that I prefer to avoid being placed into a category. For me, I am a human being who happens not to eat meat.

I have written about our temptation of justice, and this temptation to give definitions to people is much related to it (I just called a good friend a “moralism hunter”). We usually know by defining things, by placing them on the map of our understanding, so we give them names which presumably would describe their nature. In this process, we use the verb to be in various ways, so that, departing from what may be the nature of things, we move at times to their qualities or to their actions. Without much thought, we move on to considering the nature of these things as the nature of these qualities or of these actions. So I would be a vegetarian. But what does a vegetarian mean other than a human being who engages in certain actions–in this case, that of getting his nourishment from things other than meat?

It is Dostoevsky who always reminds me that all of us, during this life,  have moments that lead us into one direction or another. Nevertheless, any event is not the final experience and does not define fully our lives. What really defines us is love, expressed in gestures of kindness that we have hopefully received in our childhood (as Mitya Karamazov) and which, when we are thrown in situations from which we may fall into despair, bring us back to light, as a string of hope that there is some good in this world. Or the string of a spring onion which raises us up from the hell of solitude. (Here is a summary of the spring onion parable from The Brothers Karamazov).

“But bad people are bad people,” I seem to be hearing. What if we say that bad actions are bad actions, and that the actions do not define us fully? Suppose we consider someone of whom we would say that he has always acted righteously, and we define that person as a good human being. Perhaps someone like Alyosha, who seems to be a living saint at the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov, always ready to give himself to others without any second thought.  But Alyosha himself could have become a bad person; he goes to Grushenka ready to fall. He says, and I cite from memory, “I came to her because I wanted to be with a wicked person.” And this wicked person “heals” him: she throws him an “onion.” In the absence of this encounter in which a presumably wicked person does something that reminds Alyosha of who he really is, Alyosha could “have become bad” as well. So perhaps we may not be able to call him completely good.

But in this case, if we cannot define people who do good actions as good human beings, why would we define people who engage in bad actions as bad human beings? Maybe they were dealt with very difficult lives; maybe they were dealt with situations that may cause us huge problems, even place us in the impossibility to see the light.

I guess it is always good to throw a spring onion; it’s always good to throw a spring onion even to someone who may seem rotten, because that spring onion may help in curing his or her rottenness. And, one day, the love manifested in giving that spring onion may just be the hand which holds our hand, the hand by which we come out of the sea of oblivion.

 

Mercy and justice; discernment and judgment




The most rational temptation that I know of is that of justice. I can always say that there is a reason for why I feel betrayed, misunderstood, used, or merely frustrated. Most likely, if I were to describe such stories, people would agree with me and would acknowledge that I deserve some kind of retribution for what I may have experienced. 
 
If people leave me, we would all agree that they must do something before I would be held responsible for any action toward them. They must first return, show a change of heart, ask for forgiveness, and only then I may decide whether or not I want to accept them. Before that, however, it is just to not care about the state of their souls, to not pay attention to their needs. They have left me, so they are responsible for the situation created.
 
In such moments of frustration it does not cross my mind that I may have done the same things to others. Come to think of it, where would I be if I were treated justly? Where would I be if my parents did not love me in spite of me, in spite of my actions? Where would I be if people decided that I am no longer worthy of their company unless I somehow pay for the misfortunes I may have caused them?

Nevertheless, I always find justifications to be “just.” And this is because I know, because I know what others deserve, and I am ready to give to each according to his of her worth. The temptation of knowledge mixing itself with the temptation of justice.


But if justice is a temptation, with what can it be replaced? Mercy? St. Isaac of Syria puts it this way:


Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. Justice is the return of the equal because it returns to man that which he deserves and it does not bend to one side, neither is it partial in the retaliation. But mercy is sorrow that is moved by grace and bends to all with sympathy, and it does not return the harm to him who deserves it, although it overfills him who deserves good.


Still, my reason tells me that this cannot be sufficient. Love is not blind. Love does not throw you in the path of wolves, letting you die at their mercy just because you are called to bend to all with sympathy. After all, God Himself is just and He separates people between those on the left and those on the right. On the Sunday of judgment, one week before the beginning of the great lent, the Gospel read in churches says, 


Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-36). 


Those on the left hand have not done it. So it is just that they would depart from Him. Those on the right have done it, so it is just for them to inherit the Kingdom.
 
However, it may well be that, according to justice, the thirsty deserve to be thirsty. The hungry deserve to be hungry. And those in prison deserve to be locked up. They have not nourished their being–so presumably they have not taken care of Christ in them, of the beautiful Lily that needs to be watered and needs to be cared for, so that it can be born in them. They may have lived in lawlessness. Why would I be called to give them water, to give them food, to care for them if they are sick or in prison? What kind of loving justice is this? Isn’t it blind?

It is perhaps here that we find that we are not called to the judgment of justice, but to that of discernment. Christianity is not stupidity, as Fr. Nicolae Steinhardt says in his Jurnalul fericirii (The Diary of Happiness). Taking care of the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned does not mean to not see the evil in which someone else is involved. In fact, being able to visit someone in prison requires discernment: you must be able to see that he is in prison. 


“Thousands of devils give me itches when I see how Christianity is confused with stupidity,” Fr. Nicolae Steinhardt says, “with a sort of dull and coward piety […], as if the destiny of Christianity were to leave the world mocked by evil forces, while it would facilitate iniquities because it is doomed to blindness and paraplegia by definition.”

So perhaps mercy requires discernment: the ability to see that my brothers and sisters suffer. The ability to see that my Brother suffers. And the ability to see that He suffers in me.


I am hungry, and I do not give me food, for I do not nourish the beautiful Lily that desires to be born in me. I am thirsty, and I do not give me water, for I do not water the Lily that dies in me. I am a stranger, and I do not take me in, for I do not bring in my house the Lily that awaits at my door. I am naked, and I do not clothe me, for I allow the petals of this Lily to die one by one, leaving It naked. I am sick, and I do not care for me, for I am too blind to “my needs” to be able to see the that the Lily shouts Its desire to live in me. I am in prison, and I do not visit me, for I am His very warden. 
 

Stories from communism


“Before the communists took our land, our parents always punished us when we, children, took an apple from a tree on the street or cherries from a neighbor’s garden,” a friend told me once. “It was theft, and such a thing was not accepted, even if, for us, it was just part of our life in the village, running around with our friends, playing, and picking up an apple when we were hungry.”

The Communists came, and people lost their lands and their orchards. “One day, we went on our former land, where we had the orchard, and we picked up some apples. We brought them home. It was the first time when our parents did not punish us. They did not say anything, but they had tears in their eyes.”

*

During communism, at the beginning of the school year, for a month or so, middle school and high school students were sent to work on the fields to gather potatoes, apples, grapes, depending on what the land was producing in that part of the country. The government had already collectivized the land, and they needed free labor. Officially, it was called “practica agricola.” Something like a practicum course in agriculture.

It was a period of time when you could find no produce in the grocery stores. Everything was rationed, and people were waiting in huge lines whenever they heard that some product or another (sugar, eggs, or potatoes) was “given” at the store.

In my region, the land is very good for potatoes, so we were taken out to gather potatoes from the field. A friend of mine, Cristi, told me one day, “I will get some potatoes so that my mom could make mashed potatoes for my brother this evening.” Cristi’s brother was two years old. Their dad had died, and their mother was their only support. Cristi was a very serious kid, somehow older than his age.

We were not supposed to get potatoes from the field. It was a crime, because we would steal from “the potatoes of the people.” The same people who had no potatoes at home.

Cristi got some potatoes in his bag that day. He chose only the smallest ones. He thought that nobody would care about it. It was probably one or two pounds. At the end of the day, we got into the bus that was to take us back into the city. After a short drive, we were stopped, and the “agents” (whoever they were) came in the bus and checked our bags. They found the small potatoes in Cristi’s bag, yelled at him, took the bag out, and emptied it on the field. Nobody cared about those potatoes, but a kid should not be allowed to steal from the property “of the people.”

The thirds, nameless people for whom there is no song

 

Many may be familiar with Taylor Swift’s song Style (I included a video of it below). I have listened to it many times, but it was only this morning that it made me wonder about something: how would “the other girl” feel when listening to it? I do not assume that the song is about real life; I just imagine how this conversation would sound in the third person’s ears.

 

There’s something very human in these verses: a mutual acceptance based on the understanding that we are made of the same stuff. The girl in the song says, “I heard that you’ve been out and about with some other girl.” The guy confesses: “What you heard is true, but I can’t stop thinking about you.” Nothing special, young people sorting out their relationship. But then the girl replies, “I’ve been there, too, a few times.”

Now there is something quite interesting here. First, it is the mutual acceptance that I just mentioned. I can understand another because I have experienced similar things. It shows openness, awareness of human frailty, the possibility of falling, or the acceptance that the personal relationship existing between the two is not diminished by the relation with some other girl (or some other boy). In this last point, however, there is another interesting aspect. I accept that I and the person in front of me can treat others as just that, some other people. No differentiation, no personhood, no “ties attached,” as some may put it. Just some other girl, an object of consumption. What makes me then different than these other people? Am I not a potential object of consumption?

But suppose the third, the some other girl, hears this conversation–any other conversation in which two people who understand one another, who understand their human frailty, talk about someone else as just an object with which they have fulfilled some desire only. What is that some other girl for herself when she discovers that she was just some passing entity? Well, if she’s the subject of a song, she may just be the famous nameless. But usually the thirds are just that, nameless people for whom there is no song, for they have been cut away from it. We do not hate them, we do not love them, but we are just uninterested in them. We use them without paying a second thought to them, mere pieces of furniture for our lives with which we ornate one or two of our days, one or two of our seconds, and then they disappear in the ocean of the some other entity.

There seem to be so many thirds in my life. Just in the four minutes while I listened to this song, I passed by so many cars, with some other girls and boys to whom I paid no attention. Pieces of furniture in my life–at times annoying pieces of furniture because they drive too slowly or change lanes at the wrong moments. The nameless thirds for whom we have no songs are so much usual parts of our existence that we no longer think of them even as thirds. I am always surprised when students come in class, for example. They do not say hello to any other student already present in class unless they know them personally. They walk in, pass by them without even a sign of acknowledgement, and sit in one of the chairs. It is as if they do not pass by another human being. When I bring this to light, they are even surprised that this is potentially an issue. It is as if they were saying, “they are just some other girls and boys.

I am not saying that we should pay attention to the others, to all the others. In fact, I am not saying that we should do anything. I just wonder how a song in which there is no some other human would sound. A song in which every human has a name, a personal name…

A song of songs?