Active Love

In the great Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman comes to seek advice from a holy and renowned priest, Father Zossima. She is anxious about eternal life, and wants to know how she can be sure of it. Father Zossima tells her, there is no proving the existence of God or eternal life. But there is one way she may be convinced of it. “How?” she asks. “By the experience of active love.” he replies. “Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love, you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.”

The woman goes on to tell him that she loves humanity, so much in fact, that she dreams sometimes of leaving her privileged status and becoming a sister of mercy. She would nurse the afflicted and bind up their wounds. She tells the elder, “I close my eyes and think and dream, and at that moment I feel full of strength to overcome all obstacles.” But then she worries that if the patients did not respond with gratitude, if they were rude or abusive, she would be incapable of continuing to love them. And so she is in despair about her quandary.

He replies,

I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last too long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps a complete science.Person in shadow

Dorothy Day would often repeat the pronouncement of Father Zossima, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

We are here to awaken to that kind of active loving, that vision of divinity within each person. I remember an experience that happened one time when I was flying on an airplane, returning home from an event in Washington, DC. I had settled into my window seat, and started to read a book. I can’t remember now what the Washington event was or what the book was, but something had inspired me to be pondering this connectedness of all beings, this divinity within all beings.

Then, two young men climbed into the seats next to me. The man in the middle leaned his head against the back of the seat and closed his eyes. A while into the flight, he started to be sick—his friend gave him a paper bag, and he vomited, mostly into the bag, but also splashing his friend. I was a little horrified, and imagined them with hangovers from some drinking and partying.

But then it struck me that if I truly believed in the connectedness of all beings, I would realize that these men were my brothers. They were part of me, living in another lifetime, another journey. Something shifted within my heart. Instead of judging them, I was able to feel compassion. We didn’t go on to have a long conversation or anything like that—I think I just asked, are you okay? I remember a flight attendant coming by to check, and asking me if I wanted to change seats. But I said no. I was experiencing something deeper, something taught to me by these unlikely teachers.

Quotes from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, (New York: MacMillan, 1922), pp. 59-61.

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