November 26, 2021
Facing the genuineness of our faith and love
and our ability to care for others
In offering our services to people, the genuineness of our faith and the genuineness of our love for others are put to test. These two components designate the values on which our lives are based and the type of care we offer. The question of faith reflects how we see ourselves in relation to God and our fellow-human beings; how much trust we have to allow ourselves to participate in the life of others and for them to participate in ours as well. It also brings to light the motives behind our actions, particularly those concerning the care we offer to others, if our actions are merely a way of verifying our self and gaining praise.
Dostoevsky shows us how faith and love are intertwined with each other. In the dialogue between starets Zosima and Lisa’s mother (Brothers Karamazov), she questions her faith and wonders if she really believes, or if she believes just because she is terrorized by the Final Judgement. The Elder responds that the answer will come if she experiences active love. “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. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”
The way the lady responds to Zosima reveals the inner difficulty one has in offering love to others. She states that she loves all of humanity so much that she is willing to become a “sister of mercy”. She would not dread treating or mending the wounds of any sort, and she would overcome all obstacles in doing so. Her agony though is if she could endure that type of life for long. “That’s the chief question — that’s my most agonizing question.” She continues: “…if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but worried you with his whims, without valuing or remarking your charitable services, began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities about you (which often happens when people are in great suffering) — what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?’” She comes to the conclusion that if she was treated with ingratitude, she would not be able to offer her love. If there was not praise and the repayment of love with love, she would be incapable of loving anyone. In hearing this, Fr. Zosima recalls having met a doctor who said something similar. This doctor also stated that he loved all of humanity, but he could not love people on an individual basis. In fact, he had said that he was incapable of living in the same room with someone for two days. As soon as anyone came near him, the other’s personality would disturb his own self-complacency and would restrict his freedom. He even said, “I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me.”
In hearing this, the lady realized her own inadequacies and was left in agony. “But what’s to be done? What can one do in such a case? Must one despair?” The starets answered in a reassuring way: “No. It is enough that you are distressed at it. Do what you can, and it will be reckoned unto you. Much is done already in you since you can so deeply and sincerely know yourself.” He commended her for her honesty but warned that if someone expresses altruism or self-castigation in order to make an impression on others, “then one will not attain to anything in the achievement of real love; it will all get no further than dreams, and one’s whole life will slip away like a phantom. In that case, one will naturally cease to think of the future life too, and thus live without any agony at all.”
What seems to be a cynical and oxymoronic conclusion made by Zosima expresses a fundamental truth. The reality is that one cannot live without agony, even if one tries to avoid it. There is no life without existential anxiety. That which we call “faith” and “love” are not ideologies but a way of existence that includes various tensions and difficulties. Faith is always challenged by the questioning of faith. If we do not question our faith and beliefs, our faith will not grow and mature. In like fashion, we must honestly examine our willingness to trust others and how much we allow them to participate in our lives in a loving way, whether it be God or our fellow human beings. We must also examine our motives, especially when helping others, so that our actions will not cause harm. More so, in our efforts to have faith and to love, we should never forget that each of us alone cannot attain perfection. In realizing our inability to have faith, to love and to offer proper care to others, we should not fall into resentment and faint-heartedness due to our shortcomings. For truly, in coming to the realization of our weaknesses, we will be made perfect by God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:9).