Little Seeds of Charity
By the Fr Nicholas Blackwell (The Frank Friar)
Over the last few years, I have made it a point to read one book of Dostoevsky a year. The fruit from this endeavor has been quite enriching for my life. For this article, I wish to write about a moment in the book The Idiot.
Early in the text, our protagonist, The Prince, shares the story of Marie. Marie is a woman, who out of passion, made poor choices in her life. After the fall out of those choices, she returns home and is ostracized from her community, even to the point of enduring ill-treatment from her mother. The Prince, who is treated as a fool because he acts like a fool, sees her, and responds with compassion. His compassion helps to change the way the local children see Marie. At first, those children harassed her, and then after seeing kindness, they cared for her. The story ends with the burial of Marie by the Children, who shower her grave with flowers. Every time I read this portion of The Idiot; a tear always comes to my eye. The beauty of the end does not take away from the sorrow of the life of Marie, but it does reveal the impact of love. Love that shows the meaning and beauty that exists in life itself. The effect of love is cultivated in the little acts of compassion, a lesson I take away from Marie's story.
However, notice what I leave out in the last sentence of the previous paragraph, perfection. I did not mention that those little acts of love must be or were perfect. The Prince has many virtues about himself, yet he is in no way an ideal person in the story. Throughout the story, we see that the Prince has some severe character defects that, in a literary form, become embodied in the antagonist of the story. Yet, through his little acts of charity, the Prince, as imperfect as he is, does them to the best of his ability. It is interesting that in the story, the Prince is seen as a fool (as previously mentioned). He does things that cultivate that label of him, and sometimes it is imposed unjustly from other characters, through which they show their defects. Nevertheless, being foolish or being seen as foolish does not deter the acts of charity the Prince wishes to offer Marie. His endurance for the sake of charity begins a process of awakening. What is awakening? The hearts of the children. The ability to love and act charitably lays within them, yet they never had that aspect of their nature cultivated. His acts of charity and the endurance of ridicule touch the hearts of the town's children, breaking up the soil of their hearts so the seeds of love can grow. We see the fullness of those blossoming seeds when the children cover the grave of Marie with flowers.
This moment of The Idiot gives flesh to a seed of wisdom of St. John of the Cross. St. John of the Cross wrote, "Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love." The Prince has several conversations about God throughout the text, but for our purpose, the first part of the phrase from John of the Cross reminds us that all things exist because God created them and allows them to continue in being. It is the latter part of the quote that I wish to stay with for a moment. Within the townspeople, there appeared to exist no love for Marie. They are cold and downright mean to her. She made foolish choices that arose from her passion, so I guess the townspeople figured she should live with her choices. Yet, as Christians, we know that cannot be our response. We understand that each person, because they exist, rests on a foundation of love.
Thus, the Prince's actions must be our response; we must put love where we see no love. None of us are perfect agents of God's love, yet that inadequacy cannot become our barrier to spreading love. "Christ has no hands but ours now," as St. Teresa of Avila reminds us. It is in the act of putting love where love appears absent that the love hidden away becomes drawn out of the person's nature. Seeds become hidden from our eyes when planted under the earth, yet the farmer knows that they are there waiting for her or his response of tenderness. As Christians, this must be our response also during our earthly pilgrimage. The seeds of love may be hidden away in the deep recesses of a person's heart, but they exist because God has placed them there through his act of creation. Our lives of charity may awaken those seeds so they can rise to the surface of the heart of the person who is willing to receive love. Marie's little story in The Idiot is a reminder for us Christians about the power that small acts of love can have in a community that appears cold and barren of compassion.