Posted November 22, 2010 in Word Made Flesh:
A Murderer and a Prostitute

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

What kind of king do we have? Here’s a reflection on the Gospel for the feast of Christ the King (Lk 23-43).

Dos-toy who?

Evsky. Dos-toy-ev-sky!

Oh yeah, he did that book about those brothers—ca-rah something.

Kara-mah-zoff. The Brothers Karamazov.

Yeah. I know him. I’ve tried reading him a number of times, but he’s too complex and gloomy for me. What brings him to your mind at this time of the year?

Well, I get a little more serious about sinners and saints this time of year what with all the images of the End of Time in the Sunday Gospels over the last few weeks.

So I was quite delighted to discover that this year the Gospel for the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the liturgical year is St. Luke’s story of the "good" thief on the cross. And that story always brings to my mind one of my favorite scenes from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

You read this guy?

Now and then. In any case, early on in this particular story, Raskolnikov robbed and murdered an old lady and her emotionally handicapped daughter for a mere pittance.

By now he is on the edge of insanity. He is with Sonia, the prostitute, seeking friendship and solace with her, and he is still trying to understand this terrible thing he did.

Unbeknownst to him, she is grieving the loss of her best friend, the very daughter he murdered.

Sonia has known Raskolnikov for some time, and she knows that he is in agony about something dreadful from his life. He in turn knows that she is grieving the death of a dear friend. But neither knows the full story yet.

In the clumsy silence, Raskolnikov is pacing the floor and sees a Bible on a table. Little does he realize that this very Bible had been given to Sonia by the young girl he murdered. In fact, she and Sonia used to read this Bible together for some solace in the darkness of their broken lives.

Surprised that a prostitute would have a Bible in her room, Raskolnikov picks it up and says to her, "So you pray to God a great deal…?"

"What would I be without God?" she whispers rapidly, glancing at him with flashing eyes and squeezing his hand.

"And what does God do for you?" he asks, probing her further.

Sonia is silent a long time, as though she cannot answer. Her weak chest keeps heaving with emotion. "He does everything," she whispers quickly.

Why would that make you think of the thief on the cross? He was a real historical person who had a real conversion in his last moments on earth. This man and woman are figments of Mr. Dos-toy-whatever’s imagination.

Not quite. And that’s the blessing of great writers like him. Incidentally, his name is not "Dos-toy-whatever." It’s "Dostoyevsky." Dos-toy-ev-sky!

Oh. Sorry about that.

Dostoyevsky had a very hard life. As a boy with epilepsy, he grew up in one of the poorest sections in Moscow: they lived next to a cemetery for criminals, an asylum for those gone mad, and an orphanage for abandoned infants.

His father was a vicious and violent alcoholic, who was probably murdered there in that same neighbourhood.

When Dostoyevsky was 28, he was accused of plotting to overthrow the tsar, the monarch, and was sentenced to death. At the last minute, the sentence was commuted, and he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp.

His life there was so horrible that he could hardly even write about it. And yet, he had a significant conversion there and returned to his Orthodox roots. As a result, his works became more and more "religious" in the sense that he wrote about virtue, humility, submission, and suffering.

Later on, when his wife and his only brother died, he went into a severe depression. This led him into a life of compulsive gambling resulting in huge debts from which he never managed to free himself. In 1881, he died of a lung haemorrhage (from emphysema) and of an epileptic seizure.

I’d say his literary characters were cut from the same cloth as he was. They were very real indeed.

Maybe. But can you imagine those people really saying something like, "What am I without God? He does everything for me."

"Those people?" Before you make any final judgments about them, imagine us all together with "those people" at the foot of the cross as we witness Christ our King dying—for us. And let’s say those moments together are to be our last moments on earth as well.

Would it sound so strange then to hear a prostitute say, "What am I without You, Jesus? You did everything for me." And would it sound so strange to hear a condemned criminal say, "Remember me Lord, when you come into your Kingdom"? (Lk 23:42)

Would we be so surprised if there were many, many other people there saying equally weird and wonderful things in their final moments on earth? Maybe even you and me?

Well, no. But if you’ve tried to be a good Christian all your life, surely your last moments on earth would be more blessed than that. Don’t you think?

Maybe yes, maybe no. But if I could choose the words to speak in my last moments, I would want them to be very close to those of Sonia, the prostitute—"What am I without You, Jesus? You did everything for me."—and the thief on the cross—"Remember me Lord, when you come into your Kingdom."

Then maybe I too might hear those astounding words of the King, "This day you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:43).

P.S.: You know how St. Luke’s gospel-story ends. But if you want to know how Dostoyevsky’s ends, you’ll have to get hold of the book. Any librarian will know the author and the book quite well—even if you can’t pronounce his name.


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