If the absurdity, essence and mystery of Christian spirituality could be distilled into one passage of scripture, this would be it; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Bib. John 3:16-17). However, belief is not trivial, not something to be taken for granted, and faith is not something that always comes easily. And though there have always been religious skeptics; the modern era represents the beginning of a blitz. Christianity no longer holds the West together; the unifying thread has been broken. Never before have writers and artists been so personal, so open, wearing their struggles with doubt, faith, guilt and grace on the pages of their books, in painted swirls on a canvas. This struggle is an inevitable part of Christian spirituality, and, a pervasive theme in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment
If nothing else, Crime and Punishment is a novel of progressions–or more accurately, Raskolnikov’s “gradual transition from one world to another,” a man’s reconciliation with society after his self-willed alienation (Dostoevsky 551). Dostoevsky makes an active choice in creating such an appealing, yet at times, grossly inhumane character. In doing so, he accomplishes two things. First, he sets the stage for Raskolnikov’s remarkable transformation, and second, he makes the reader care about this transformation. When Raskolnikov murders Alonya, when he splits her skull at the crown, he is mechanical, “in full possession of his reason” (Dostoevsky 77). However, the “unexpected murder” of Lizaveta cannot be rationalized by Raskolnikov, he cannot find justification for it in his dissident superman theory, and as a result, “fear [takes] hold of him” (Dostoevsky 79). What Raskolnikov failed to understand, is that one cannot choose the consequences of one’s actions. Still, this fear is only the beginning of Raskolnikov’s battles with his own conscience. That he killed Lizaveta out of the selfish need to cover up Alonya’s murder, makes him aware of the fact that he is not a remorseless killer. That he cannot then let go of the transgressions forces upon him the tremendous weight of a personal cross.
Raskolnikov’s character exhibits an interesting duality throughout much of the text. On the one hand, he is proud, fatalistic and driven by savage intellectualism; on the other, he is infantile, compassionate and meek. Throughout nearly all of Crime and Punishment, the motif of the cross, a symbol of the guilt-stricken Raskolnikov’s undeniable shame and misery, weighs him down and slowly crushes his pride, manifesting itself through physical illness. Holquist presents it this way:
Crime and Punishment is about crime and punishment, but these are only the effects of another dynamic; namely, contagion, disease, immunity and cure. The contagion and disease are associated with the secular myth of rationalism; immunity and cure with the Christian myth of redemption. (111)
The inevitability of either his confession
or his eventual madness becomes self-realized
when he mutters to himself, “About three weeks and welcome to Bedlam
! I’ll probably be there myself, if nothing worse happens” (Dostoevsky 325). Through Sonya, Dostoevsky introduces the redemptive power of religion and Christian love
to Raskolnikov. Sonya, like Raskolnikov, has problems, she has turned to prostitution
to support her family. Moreover, Raskolnikov charges her with being guilty of the same crime he has committed:
“...Haven’t you done the same thing? You, too, have stepped over . . . were able to step over. You laid hands on yourself, you destroyed a life . . . your own (it’s all the same!). You might have lived by the spirit and reason, but you’ll end up on the Haymarket . . . But you can’t endure it, and if you remain alone, you’ll lose your mind, like me. You’re nearly crazy already; so we must go together, on the same path! Let’s go!” (Dostoevsky 329)
Thus, he is saying that alone, they are both destitute. However, in each other, Raskolnikov and Sonya find “infinite sources of life
for the other” (Dostoevsky 549). It is in this way that Raskolnikov is able to fuse his disparate halves together into a joyful human being
The story of Lazarus plays an important role in Crime and Punishment, giving both Raskolnikov and Sonya hope, a reason to keep on going, a reason to follow the same path: “Her feverish trembling continued. The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book” (Dostoevsky 328). For Raskolnikov, the death of Lazarus mirrors his own alienation from society. The resurrection parallels his eventual reintegration into society. “Sonya’s reading of the chapters from the gospel on the resurrection of Lazarus . . . is the ultimate paradigm of Raskolnikov’s fate and the point of convergence for the different characters and for the various threads of the novel,” it is the “ultimate spiritual regeneration of [the] hero . . . the invincible power of life” (Chirkov 65-66).
Eliot and Ash Wednesday
While both Crime and Punishment and Eliot’s Ash Wednesday approach the subject of Christian spirituality and renewal, they do so in starkly different ways. Whereas Crime and Punishment contains hints of biographic elements, but consists largely of a narrative independent from Dostoevsky’s life, Ash Wednesday is a testimonial, a glimpse into Eliot’s personal struggles with his new Anglo-Catholic faith. “Ash Wednesday records what it feels like to surrender to a conversion process. Somewhere between despair and hope is an unspecified length of time when the poet—not completely defeated by suffering—chooses to stand where there is nothing to stand on” (Weiskel 71). Eliot captures this grey area beautifully here, letting us into his own experience:
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these
He is turning from his old way of living to a new way of life, and “although [he does] not hope to turn again,” he is still attached to much of what defined his pre-conversion life, his natural self. But, there are no compromises in Christian spirituality, and Eliot acknowledges this. As C.S. Lewis writes:
The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” (153)
The root of Eliot’s conflict
in Ash Wednesday
lies in his inability to hand over his entire will to God, something is stopping him from giving up everything earthly
and accepting a new life in the Body of Christ
Throughout the poem, Eliot gives us images of his separation from God, and his desire to be renewed:
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise
and deny the voice (64)
This darkness is symbolic of a rebellious heart, walled off from God, walking “among noise,” going the way of the rabble, following every worldly desire, trend and delight. However, while Eliot still has reservations about his new faith, he is ascending a figurative stairway to heaven, leaving the earthly masses “twisting, turning below” (Eliot 61). At the end of Ash Wednesday, he calls out, “Suffer me not to be separated / And let my cry come unto Thee” (66). This is a pivotal moment in the poem, Eliot comes recognize that his attention has not been entirely on God. Though he strives, he has erred, but the mere recognition of this failure represents a tremendous growth in his faith. Gardner reminds us that “Nobody can underrate the momentousnous for any mature person of acceptance of all that membership of the Christian Church entails....any such act, which makes an apparent break with the past, is itself the result of the past....faith precedes faith in a regressive series” (103). That one cannot escape one’s past, that every decision made in the present is a result of the past, affirms the notion that every day, we are becoming the people that we will be for the rest of our lives. The final line of the poem is the most important. “Let my cry come unto Thee,” is for Eliot, a prayer that he might desire God as much as he lusts after the innocent pleasures of the world, that he might become what he presently is not.
Joyce and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Where both Dostoevsky and Eliot wrote of conversions, Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man casts a new light on the issue of Christian spirituality: exploration. In the novel, Stephen Dedalus comes to accept the Catholic faith, he becomes devoutly pious, but then abandons religion. The crux of Stephen’s spiritual dilemma is one of motivation. Which is to say, why did Stephen become a Christian in the first place? Thornton writes,
Each of Stephen’s experiences involves what he regards as a progressive rejection of false possibilities and a progressively clearer realization of his true calling, or of what is most compelling, most ‘real’ in his experience. Each of Stephen’s experiences builds upon—largely by reacting against—the preceding ones. (73)
Granted, I accept the Christian world view, and thus beg the question, why does Stephen feel that his faith is not real enough, why does he want to explore, “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience” (Joyce 185). The answer is simple: his faith wasn’t real, it was grounded in fear. As in Exodus, when the Lord asked that the Israelites supplant their fear with faith, so to must the modern Christian act out of trust in God. In perhaps the most important line in the entire novel, Stephen reveals all to his former priest:
— You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too. — (Joyce 181)
Stephen has not rejected Christianity, he has rebelled against it, and there is a world of difference between the two. Stephen feels he cannot surrender his life to the Lord, instead, he chooses to live his own life. C.S. Lewis comments,
For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. (154)
Lucifer rebelled against God, and he fell, just as Icarus melted his wings by flying to close the sun. The myth of Icarus is intricately tied to Stephen’s story, and though he has chosen now to fly towards the sun, away from the Son, his wings have not yet melted.
It is very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Every waking moment of our existence passes as soon as it comes, our individual feelings fading, replaced with new states. True faith transcends the temporal: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Bib. Heb. 11:1). Dostoevsky, Eliot and Joyce each capture a different side of Christian faith: renewal and conviction, uncertainty and conversion, doubt and rebellion. Raskolnikov and Sonya place their faith in Christ, convicted of that which they cannot see. Eliot turns toward God, and does not wish to turn again. And though Stephen doubts he has not fallen eternally, yet.
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Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land and Other Poems. New York: Harcourt, 1934.
Gardner, Helen. The Art of T.S. Eliot. New York: Dutton, 1959.
Holquist, James M. “Disease as Dialectict in Crime and Punishment.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Crime and Punishment. Ed. Robert Louis Jackson. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Dover, 1994.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
Thornton, Weldon. The Antimodernism of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
Weiskel, Portia Williams. “On the Writings of T.S. Eliot.” Bloom’s BioCritiques: T.S. Eliot. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.