Donald Sheehan: Have You Forgotten the Departed?

Feast of St Therapon the Hieromartyr, Bishop of Cyprus

Sheehan_square.jpgTOGETHER, THESE three strands—the resurrected self, the relational self, and the joyful self—are the three defining aspects of personhood in The Brothers Karamazov. And all three aspects can be best understood—in Dostoevsky and Orthodox Christendom—as aspects of the meaning of Memory Eternal. In the final scene of the novel, Alyosha talks to the dozen boys with whom he has just attended the funeral of Ilyusha, the boy they all had come to love in the final days of life. Toward the end of his speech to the boys, Alyosha says this: “Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then—let us never forget one another. I say it again. I give you my word, gentlemen, that for my part I will never forget any one of you; each face that is looking at me now, I will remember, be it even after thirty years.” This shape is, of course, the Orthodox shape of Memory Eternal: the present seed of actual love is already becoming the unceasing fruitfulness of memory. And this fruitfulness of memory is a triumph over death—made possible, in the words of the triumphal song that fills the Orthodox Paschal Liturgy, by Christ’s “trampling down death by death.” This can occur for us, not at all because we erase the dead in our mind’s oblivion (what secular culture calls “getting over it”), but precisely because we keep them so strongly, indeed so brightly present in our love. And Dostoevsky is luminously clear in his Orthodox understanding of Alyosha’s speech. By holding another in our love, we are becoming like God in that we are remembering the seed of God in ourself at the very instant we are seeing the fully ripened fruitfulness of the other in God. In this way, the other begins to become our very self. Alyosha concludes this way: “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages and ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”

The point is magnificently clear. The fruitfulness of Memory Eternal arises always and solely from an actual person—here, Ilyusha—who unites in love all the Orthodox believers who sing his passing and have taken him into their hearts. Thus, what begins in isolative grief concludes in relational joy. Such is the shape of Memory Eternal in Orthodoxy and in Dostoevsky.

And thus emerges still another significance: through the action of Memory Eternal, the person who has died continues to act back into the lives of those who continue to love him or her. In the middle of the novel, in the chapter called “Cana of Galilee,” Alyosha kneels by the coffin of his spiritual father, the Elder Zosima, while the episode in St. John’s Gospel telling of Jesus’ changing water into wine is being read aloud. As the episode is read, Alyosha prays silently, and then he dozes slightly—and then he instantly enters into a vision wherein he sees Father Zosima sitting at the wedding table in Cana where Jesus Himself is sitting. As the Elder catches sight of Alyosha and rises and walks toward him, smiling in beautiful welcome, Alyosha registers perfectly the Orthodox comprehension of what is now occurring: “Why, he is in the coffin . . . But here, too.” That is, Alyosha fully sees how his spiritual father lies dead in the coffin and yet—simultaneously—is standing alive before him. In the actions of Memory Eternal, death on earth is defeated by unceasing aliveness in God.

The scene continues with Alyosha listening to his beloved teacher speaking words of wisdom to him. And then Alyosha, the vision ended, goes out under the immense night sky where, the narrator tells us, “the silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the majesty of the earth touched the majesty of the stars.” Then Alyosha suddenly falls to earth, weeping in joy and kissing the earth; and the Elder’s voice rings again in Alyosha’s soul: “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears . . .” The narrator then says: “It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, ‘touching other worlds.’” This last phrase is, of course, the Elder Zosima’s phrase, here remembered by Alyosha, yes, but above all directly given by the Elder to Alyosha in this moment, directly shaping and indeed directly creating this moment. “Never, never in all his life,” the narrator says, “would Alyosha forget that moment.”

This moment is, for Alyosha, a moment of theosis, one in which he participates fully in divine aliveness, a moment, that is, of Memory Eternal. And this moment, Dostoevsky makes abundantly clear in the chapter, is a moment that is entirely given by the dead to the living in an action of love. The chapter ends this way: “‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ Alyosha would say afterward, with firm belief in his words.” In Memory Eternal, the beloved dead act in love directly in the lives of the living.

—Donald Sheehan, The Grace of Incorruption

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