May 23rd, 2004
Just another Literary Guild meeting, I thought. I brought pumpkin bread to share. Officially I was Guild president, but that was just a title to put on my (now already accepted) college application. We were really a glorified book group, some nerdy friends who worked together at the community college’s Writing Lab.
We sat at the beautiful oak table in Pat’s dining room. My boss at the Writing Lab, Becky, sat to my right. She’d picked out the month’s reading, just one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Usually we tackled things like Homer’s Iliad, but the summer highs had already crept above a hundred degrees, so Becky had suggested something short, something light and summery by our standards: “The Grand Inquisitor.”
Three hours we sat there and talked about that chapter. It was nine-thirty by the time Becky drove me home, and I remember how the stars looked as we bounced down the dirt road. I was giddy with energy. I was newly in love.
The chapter (spoiler warning!) takes the form of a story told by one brother to another. Ivan is the skeptic, Alyosha the one with the childlike faith, and Ivan tells Alyosha a story about Jesus. Jesus coming back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition and meeting the Grand Inquisitor, the head of it all. Actually, the Inquisitor has Jesus thrown into prison.
Visiting the captured Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor stares at him and exclaims: “Is it Thou? Thou? … Don’t answer, be silent… Thou hast no right to add to anything thou said of old.” Jesus obeys, looking on in silence as the old man rants about how Jesus ruined everything during his encounter with Satan in the desert, when he denied the temptations of “miracle, mystery and authority.” Jesus refused to manipulate people into submission to him – he left them with their freedom to accept or reject him. The Inquisitor explains that people are too weak for this freedom, that they need control, that no one can live up to the standards Jesus taught, that the church is now controlling the masses and fixing these mistakes Jesus made.
He concludes his indictment of Jesus by saying that he will burn him at the stake as the worst of heretics, and the same people who worship him today will rush tomorrow to throw more kindling on the fire that consumes him.
Alyosha interrupts the story at this point, horrified, saying his brother is misrepresenting Christianity and that the Inquisitor clearly doesn’t believe in God. Ivan admits the old man’s atheism, but says it’s actually compassion for humanity that drives him forward, his sincere realization that the average person will never be able to carry the burden of morality Jesus has placed on his or her shoulders.
Around that oak table, we asked ourselves and each other, Is faith a sign of weakness or of strength? Is religion inevitably cruel and oppressive? Are people really too weak to follow the hard teachings of Jesus?
I took Ivan’s side in these questions. I couldn’t help but see the ugliness of religion, how it was so often used for cruelty, how the teachings of Jesus seemed often to burden people instead of setting them free. I was grateful for Ivan’s boldness in asking questions, his frankness in admitting he couldn’t believe in God.
But when we got to the end of Ivan’s story, something happened to me. I’d read through the thing quickly by myself, but discussing it with my friends around the table, the words jumped out at me as if for the first time.
Jesus looks at the old man in silence. The Inquisitor wishes he would say something, anything at all, no matter how terrible. But then Jesus silently comes forward and kisses the old man on his wrinkled lips. That’s the only answer he gives.
The old man shudders, opens the door to the cell, and lets him go. Ivan concludes the story, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”
A kiss? That was Jesus’s idea of an answer to this torrent of words? The thought almost offended me, but at the same time touched me in a way I couldn’t explain. My own mind, so full of doubt and argument, bumped up against a love so great it didn’t have to explain itself.
The kiss glowed in my own heart as I came home under the stars. I didn’t yet understand what was happening to me. That night God called to me and I heard, a moment as mysterious and irresistible as suddenly falling in love.