Descent as an Opening to Greater Beauty

Brothers KaramazovThe Opening of Alyosha Karamazov

My favorite novel of all time is the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. One of the world’s greatest pieces of literature, it penetrates the mysteries and complexities of the human heart with a depth, scope and passionate vision that I have never quite encountered in another work. Each of the brothers represents certain aspects of the human spirit; the “hero” of the story is Alyosha, the youngest brother who is simple, spiritual, pure hearted, idealistic and pragmatic. One of the most poignant scenes in all of literature involves Alyosha’s moment of inner transformation after a powerful crisis of meaning, a loss of faith.


In a nutshell, here is what happens to the young idealistic novice monk: His most loved and admired spiritual elder and mentor, the saintly Father Zossima, dies and his corpse starts to “stink”. This unleashes a fury of petty rivalries and squabbling and back-biting among the other monks and brothers, many of whom all along nursed resentments against the kindly and well-loved elder. Since it was accepted doctrine that a saint’s body would not putrify after death, but would remain “uncorrupted,” all of Father Zossima’s supporters and close students assumed this natural proof of his spiritual stature would come. Father Zossima’s corpse eventually begins to “corrupt,” not just normally, but “in excess of nature,” before the sneers and righteous satisfaction of his enemies.

Alyosha struggles and suffers, intensely, out of his love for his elder. He cannot handle the injustice of it—that such a good and loving being as his beloved spiritual father should be maligned and ridiculed, and even accused,  in death  like this. Why would a just God allow this to happen? It leads to a total crisis of meaning for the pure-hearted young man. He becomes lost. His orderly spiritual universe and faith is challenged.  In pain and desperation, he almost breaks his vows as a monk and willingly puts himself into the “clutches” of the complex woman character Grushenka. Yet when she perceives the spiritual nature of his suffering, she suddenly acts with mercy and compassion—and renews his faith in love and goodness. It is a beautiful scene of love’s redemptive powers. After this renewal, Alyosha finds himself wandering in the night, and the climax of his spiritual opening comes in the following lines:

“Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his own tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it forever and ever.”


There is something in these lines that gives me chills when I read them. I recognize something ineffable and luminous about this moment. After his descent into darkness, he does not fall on his knees in prayer to the Heavenly Father above, he falls upon the earth, as into a mother’s arm. After he is made naked and vulnerable through anguish, his heart opens and he is simply overcome with love for creation, for this earthly existence. His mission from this moment on will be to love– without conditions–all of life.  This surrender marks his spiritual re-birth, as an initiated lover of this earth, of existence, with its limitations, suffering and apparent “injustices.” His vows now are to be a lover, no longer a monk limited by religious conventions and ideas—but to follow love wherever it takes him.

He had to descend, to lose faith and become naked  in order to attain this deeper heart opening. His predicament was one many of us have faced some version of: Your holy of holies, your pure ideal, whatever you thought was good and true in the world, is apparently desecrated, destroyed, thrown down and trampled. Where is the justice? What is the meaning?

The loss of that thing of greatest value is often what causes the heart to open to greater Love. We are hollowed out by loss; ironically, suffering, in destroying our rigid ideas and ego structures, creates a greater capacity for Love and beauty.


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