Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
In Part VI of Dostoevsky’s great masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, entitled “The Russian Monk,” we hear a familiar description from the narrator, the young man who will grow to become the Elder Zossima, a character at the ideological heart of this profound religio-philosophical novel:
Mother took me to church by myself … It was a clear day, and remembering it now, I seem to see again the incense rising from the censer and quietly ascending upwards, and from above, through a narrow window in the cupola, God’s rays pouring down upon us in the church, and the incense rising up to them in waves, as if dissolving into them. I looked with deep tenderness, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the first seed of the word of God in my soul…. And then the soft and sweet singing in the church: “Let my prayer arise …” and again the incense from the priest’s censer, and the kneeling prayer!
The young narrator is clearly describing his reminiscence of being in church for the Presanctified Liturgy, perhaps a unique allusion to this service in Russian literature. The young boy is deeply moved by the aesthetic beauty of the service, and this in turn plants the initial seed of God’s word in his impressionable soul. Dostoevsky understood the importance of just such memories for the later adult:
From my parental home I brought only precious memories, for no memories are more precious to a man than those of his earliest childhood in his parental home, and that is almost always so, as long as there is even a little bit of love and unity in the family.
Our parish children have the same opportunity for such “precious memories” to enter their minds and hearts and to remain there as they mature and face the later challenges and responsibilities of life. Elsewhere, Dostoevsky claimed that it was precisely such memories that could “save us” later in life when we may be overwhelmed with burdens and anxieties. For in that continuity that is so essential to our Orthodox Tradition, we also serve the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts during Great Lent; the church is censed in the identical manner to the singing of “Let my prayer arise…”; and we also practice the “kneeling prayer” in our lenten worship. “Beauty will save the world” Dostoevsky once wrote rather enigmatically. In this enticing phrase that many have sought to interpret, we are certainly hearing Dostoevsky’s most heartfelt conviction that Christ is the perfect image of moral, ethical and spiritual beauty, and that once encountered He will remain an ideal that we long to incarnate in our lives whenever sin and cynicism threaten to overwhelm us. Christ is God’s “gift” to us and we, in turn, offer this gift to our children when we choose to cultivate the image of Christ in and for our children as the primary focus of our lives. Christ will preserve them and us from wandering through life in a restless search for meaning and purpose. In the further words of the Elder Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov:
But on earth we are indeed wandering, as it were, and did we not have the precious image of Christ before us, we would perish and be altogether lost, like the race of men before the flood.
I believe that we need to assert ourselves with renewed commitment to keep the image of Christ ever before our gaze. This evening, at 6:00 p.m., we will serve the first of the Presanctified Liturgies that are designated for Great Lent. Here is that wonderful opportunity to experience that spiritual beauty “that will save the world.” At the end of a long day of prayer and fasting, we will sing to the Lord “Let our prayer arise in Thy sight as incense …” And then we will receive Christ in the Eucharist, the “Bread of Heaven” who satisfies our hunger. Where else is there to be?