Friday, February 25, 2011

Crime and Punishment

It is my firm conviction that one of the greatest penances that people must bear is to suffer the ongoing consequences of their sin.  In doing so, these consequences can have a purifying effect; the suffering incurred by sin has a way of making one holy.  It is for this reason alone that I can recommend Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  Though a masterpiece in psychology and the spiritual life, it is simply painful to read because of its likeness to reality.

On Tuesday, I finally finished this piece of classic literature.  Having begun reading it and stopped two times previously, this was no small accomplishment.  It is not as though the book is too dense, or the ideas too complex, or the plot too slow that halted my progress.  Rather, in a way, the book is too heavy.  The author's portrayal of sin and self-loathing is too accurate.  True to life, Dostoevsky opens the novel with his main character, Raskolnikov, agonizing as he encounters the relentless temptation to sin.  Equally true to life, he incrementally justifies the sin in his own head, until he finally arrives at the decision to murder an old pawnbroker and then her sister who catches him in the act.  Seeing the plot progress, the reader feels as though he is suffocating, unable to convince Raskolnikov to turn back each when, with each passing epsidoe, he is provided opportunities for doing so.

Raskolnikov does not turn back, though.  In a scene as dark as any written by Tarantino, the two women lose their lives to an ax-wielding, impoverished college student.  This action occurs early in the book, leaving several hundred pages thereafter, each dripping with Raskolnikov's sense of alienation, self-loathing, his incapacity to love or be loved, and his paradoxical desire to confess coupled with a desperate desire not to be discovered.  Through all of this, Raskolnikov is physically ill, an outward manifestation of his inner turmoil.  With him, the reader has two desires: alleviate the guilt, but do not get caught.  As any sinner can tell you, though, nothing alleviates the guilt of a sin once committed except a good confession.  It is that moment toward which the entire novel spirals. 

Besides the sins of the main character, Dostoevsky introduces readers to the sins of several other characters.  Through them, one comes to see very clearly that no sin is private.  Sonya, a young prostitute, lives her life of sin due to the dereliction of her father.  Raskolnikov's sister finds herself engaged to a dreadful man in the hope that she might sacrifice herself for the benefit of her brother.  A stranger and minor character in the story, nearly goes to the gallows for Raskolnikov's crime.

Only in the last few chapters of the book does a glimmer of hope begin to shine.  Confronted by a lawyer convinced of his guilt, Raskolnikov begins to acknowledge his sin and to begin to suffer the consequences thereof.  This is the start of a long healing process.  Through suffering, he finds that he is able to love again.  Through suffering, he is able to begin to forgive himself.  Through suffering, he is able to let others forgive him.  In a word, through his suffering, Raskolnikov is able to find the truth of his own sin and depravity.  In knowing these, he finally comes to recognize the true depths of love.

This book is agonizing because it is true.  Too real are the emotions and thoughts of Raskolnikov.  Anyone who has undergone an experience of conversion will find himself resisting the book, screaming within himself, "I will not go back there.  I will not go through this again."  Punishment, one discovers at the end of this novel, has little to do with the suffering one endures at the hands of another.  Suffering of that sort would be easier.  Indeed, one often wishes that another would simply punish him so that his sin could be expiated.  Such is not often the case, though.  Instead, punishment is the real experience inflicted on himself of any man of conscience who has sinned.  This self-inflicted punishment is necessary.  It carries with it the possibility of salvation.  Like Raskolnikov, each of us must confront the truth of our wickedness and perversion.  We must suffer the consequences that such knowledge brings.  In doing so, we will experience love, and we too will love.  By this love, we will find salvation.  That is the mystery of the Cross.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


My childhood was punctuated by a parade of beloved pets.  I don't remember a time when my family was without a dog, and more typically, we had several of them.  Likewise, we had a curious assortment of cats, some of who0m lived in the house and some of whom lived without.  I recall having had rabbits for a while as well as a runt pig that lived very briefly.  Along with these were many lambs, a goat, several ponies, and bottle fed calves.  Most of these animals had exquisite names; one of the cats was Evinrude,* one dog was Rastus, and one of the bottle calves was Ephrem.**  On a recent trip across central South Dakota, however, couldn't help but call to mind Duke.

For a great deal of my growing up years, I didn't realize that the dog's name was Duke.  When calling him, my grandfather would simply say "Here, Dog," to which he generally responded.  As I recall, he was mostly a mut, but clearly has German Shepherd in his background.  

Family lore abounds with stories of Duke.  He loved to fetch.  My mother talks of how he would accompany her to softball practice and catch line drives in his mouth.  Dad tells of a time that he fetched wrenches while he and Grandpa were working on a tractor or something.  He also had a predilection toward rabbit chasing.  We owned a rather realistic looking plastic rabbit (the sort one might use as a decorative piece in a garden) with which the adults of my family would torment him by saying "Get the rabbit."  Ears alert, back stiff, and nose twitching he would look in the direction people pointed and prepare himself for a full fledged chase.  The plastic rabbit was just a tease, but he could give a real rabbit a run for its money.

Duke is long gone, but his reaction toward rabbits is one that I have seen in many dogs since then.  Whether it be Border Collies upon noticing livestock, or goofy house dogs chasing a stick the reaction is similar.  The whole body tenses with desire to run, to chase, and to capture.  Depending upon the situation, I have found this reaction comical or at times maddening.  Never had I suspected that it was a behavior that I shared with them until I was making my drive.

Looking across the snowy landscape on Monday, I saw hundreds of pheasants.  I spent most of that portion of the trip staring out the side windows, aching to shoot, to throw a rock, or to at least give chase and make them fly from me in fear.  I could do none of these things.  I had no gun and the season has ended.  The pheasants seemed to know this.  Some were pecking and scratching but most were simply standing there, mocking me, defying me.

I felt pretty awful about poor old Duke and all the times he tried to give chase to a plastic rabbit.

* His purr was like a motor. 

** There was always a danger in naming the calves.  One never knew when it might end up on one's plate.  Steak with a name has a way of sticking in one's throat.