In the novel The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a scene where a very self-centered character, Mrs. Khokalov, asks a very saintly character for advice about loving other people. She says that there are moments when she loves mankind so much that she thinks about giving up everything, abandoning her invalid teenager, and running off to kiss the sores of the suffering. And the elder Zossima replies, “It is good that you should think of these things rather than others…but it would be very nice if you actually performed some good deed.”
Well, if you live with children, maybe you find as I do that one thing you never run out of is obvious opportunities to perform some very tangible good deed for someone else. And every time you do, you are in fact working toward an ideal of immense power and beauty—the Christian ideal of living a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.
Please be warned: high ideals ahead. Low level of attainment of these ideals by the person talking about them. Nevertheless. Many people in this world live lives of alienation. Alienated from God; from other people; from nature; from so many of the good gifts of this life. But in a home where Christ is present by his Spirit, he himself can replace alienation with peace. And so our home, and any home, can be a place of real life—of laughter and singing, prayer and praise and God’s word. It can be a place where people matter—where the poor matter—not a place of luxury that’s bursting with stuff. It can be a place where people who think Christians are weird are welcome to come in and join our fun, and see up close how weird we really are.
And my husband and I are cherishing an ideal for the childhood of these little people entrusted to our care, that we could give them enough of what’s true and beautiful and good while they live with us to nurture them and strengthen them for their lives ahead—and we hope that in later life whenever they come near a place of alienation, they’ll be homesick for what is true and good, for hope and charity, and in fact for Christ. 19th-century educator Charlotte Mason wrote, “Let us save Christianity for our children by bringing them into allegiance to Christ, the King. How? How did the old Cavaliers bring up sons and daughters, in passionate loyalty and reverence for not too worthy princes? Their own hearts were full of it; their lips spake it; their acts proclaimed it; the style of their clothes, the ring of their voices, the carriage of their heads––all was one proclamation of boundless devotion to their king and his cause. … If a Stuart prince could command such measure of loyalty, what shall we say of ‘the Chief amongst ten thousand, the altogether lovely’?”
But what about bad days? My sister had a good “bad day” story recently. She was doing laundry, lovingly sorting and folding so that her two little girls would have clean clothes to wear, and she had stacks of folded clothes all over the living room. And she asked her normally extremely sweet 3-year-old to take her own little stack of pajamas into her bedroom. And her 3-year-old looked at her and said, “I’m not helping you clean up your mess!”
I have plenty of bad-day stories of my own, but mine aren’t funny, at least not to me! But what about really bad days, that truly aren’t funny, or seasons when it seems like our high ideals are nothing but a reproach to us? What about circumstances that range from imperfect to really very difficult—and imperfect people trying to walk by faith in those circumstances? I think at those times, but equally at times when we think we’re doing pretty well, thank God that he loves our children, and our neighbors, and this world a lot more than we do. As parents, we’re called to be letters from Christ to our children, but he’s the one who works in their hearts. We actually don’t have access. And he truly does bless our meager efforts, because it’s his letter. I hope you’ll be as blessed as I’ve ben by the end of the elder Zossima’s words to that self-centered inquirer who wanted to learn to walk in love.
“Never be afraid of your petty selfishness when you try to achieve love, and don’t be too alarmed if you act badly on occasion. A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. Imaginary love yearns for an immediate heroic act that is achieved quickly and is seen by everyone. A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and, for some, it is a whole way of life. But I predict that at the very moment when you see despairingly that, despite all your efforts, you have not only failed to come closer to your goal but, indeed, seem even farther from it than ever—at that moment, you will have achieved your goal and will recognize the miraculous power of our Lord, who has always loved you and has secretly guided you all along.”
This reflection was originally shared by Andrea C on Sunday, January 27th at All Saints Church as part of our Living Epistle Series.