Are we responsible for everyone and everything?
That question comes from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
In Book Five, Chapter Two, Father Zossima recalls the last days of his elder brother Markel. Falling seriously ill, Markel went through a conversion experience, and as the end approached, Markel became extraordinarily sensitive and kind, even to the point of questioning why the servants should take such good care of him. "Why do I deserve to be waited on? I should wait on you."
His mother thought it was the illness that made him talk like that, but the insights Markel shared from his deathbed suggest something more. He told her, "Everyone of us has sinned against all men, and I more than any."
When his mother objected, he explained, "Mother, little heart of mine, believe me, everyone is responsible to all men for all men and for everything. I don't know how to explain it to you, but I feel it is so, painfully even."
Dostoyevsky often writes like a mystic, wrestling with the mystery of God and searching for the meaning of life. Markel's observation sounds like the insight of a mystic, someone who has caught a momentary glimpse of life's meaning in a wordless encounter with God.
Those of us unskilled in the ways of mysticism often think the wisdom of mystics borders on the absurd. For example, Meister Eckhart said, "Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us." And we ask, "What does that mean?"
Teresa of Avila wrote, "The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it." Such insight challenges credibility.
When Francis of Assisi called the sun his brother and the moon his sister, some rolled their eyes. Was he speaking poetically or should we question his sanity? But in his Praise of the Virtues he went further:
Obedience makes us submissive
to all persons on earth,
nor just to humankind
but to all animals
and wild beasts, too,
that they may do as they please with us
as far as God so permits them.
Is that absurd, or are we responsible to everyone for everything?
Jesus insists that we are family. "He who does the will of my Father is mother and brother and sister to me. What you do to the least of my brothers you do to me. Love one another...love your enemies."
I realize that I stand only on the edge of understanding. The mystical experience eludes me. And yet I am not absolved from the responsibility I have toward the world around me.
When I do what is right, good and loving, I am making the world a better place and I send out a tiny ripple of faith, hope and love. When I fail to do what is right, good and loving, I am, in effect, damaging the world and failing the people who live in it.
Looking at the birds in the garden, Markel begged forgiveness, "Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too. Yes, there was such a glory of God all about me; birds, trees, meadows, sky --only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and the glory."
There is a wisdom there, even if most of us cannot explain it or choose not to acknowledge it.
Henry David Thoreau saw it. That's why he would write, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
John Ruskin saw it. That's why he insisted that we have the duty to delight in nature and receive strength and hope from the stones, flowers, leaves and sounds of natural earth.
Jesus saw it. That's why he said, "Consider the lilies of the field...the birds of the air."
Every Sunday we acknowledge our belief in the communion of saints. We gather as God's people, we pray for the deceased, we remember the saints in heaven, we pray for the world around us. We are acknowledging responsibility.
I may not yet be able to explain how we are responsible for everyone and everything, but I think this bit of mystical wisdom must be at the heart of what it means to be Church.
The insights of mystics warn me not to be too quick to think of anyone as being outside the Church, the people of God. Some may be better members than others, but some how, in God, we are all in this together.
Whether I like it or not, whether or not I can explain it, I am then responsible for everyone, and for everything.