Grushenka, a character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, relates a now-famous fable about an old woman:
Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.
It reminds me of a small scene in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Angels are trying to help a soul make the journey from hell to heaven. One, a woman, seems mostly to a grumbler. Lewis’ soul has this conversation with his own guide:
‘I am troubled, Sir,’ said I, ‘because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would due her all right.’ ‘That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.’ ‘I should have thought there was no doubt about that!’ ‘Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman— even the least trace of one— still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’
Both stories have in common a tiny, insignificant thing: an onion, a grumble. There is in Scripture a similar “tiny thing,” a single moment that serves as a hinge in a human life. The exchange between the “Good Thief” and Christ on the Cross is hymned during Holy Week with the words, “The Wise Thief entered Paradise in a single moment…” It is a remembrance of the extreme measure of God’s grace.
The human life can be terribly complicated. We rarely make decisions that are straightforward. We are filled with contradictions. The gospel is frequently presented as a matter of choice and decision, a very dangerous categorization in a consumerist culture. We are the subjects of massive propaganda and advertising, the goal of which is to guide our consumption, not only of goods and services but of ideas and allegiances. In a world that celebrates freedom, we are made the subjects of marketing so all-pervasive that freedom itself is suppressed and distorted. Worse than this, I think, is the fact that our culture nurtures the “character” of consumption within the soul. We think and reason as consumers and “decide” in that same manner. This is not the same thing as the “will,” or freedom as understood in the teaching of the faith. We rarely actually engage our will, substituting, instead, the passions of consumption.
When I consider the reality of our lives, I think of St. Paul’s cry for help, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And I take comfort in the single moments.
The story of the Old Woman and the Onion is a parable stated in the extreme manner of absurdity. I was first drawn to it by the simple fact of its willingness to ascribe such mercy to God. A single, rotten onion, given as charity would be sufficient to get you out of hell! It was the imaginative force of such a thing that shook my soul when I first read it. In my childhood, there could never have been such a Christian mercy. Hell is hell is hell.
I have also had the unfortunate experience of meeting “Mrs. Grumbles,” or various versions of her. These are personalities that have almost disappeared behind a consuming passion or fixation (a memory, an injury). There is a deep sense that their freedom could come if but for a moment they could set aside this besetting thing.
But I have seen, more than once, the favorable outcome of a soul whose deepest hunger has, in an unguarded moment, been exposed to the light of the gospel. I know the case of a woman who found God when a priest called her by name unexpectedly. Just her name. The mercy of God is wonderfully opportunistic. I have often thought, “Give Him an inch and He’ll take your life!”
However, we generally labor along in the struggles of the life of faith, unaware of such moments, with a sense that it is hard, even wondering if God is involved at all. We are like the Elder Brother of the Prodigal Son. The younger, foolish son seems to have found an amazing moment, filled with hugs, rings, robes and fatted calves. The Elder Brother felt he had received nothing. But in that moment, he is told, “All that I have is yours.”
The moment (“all that I have”) is so large and continuous, it is overlooked. On a cloudless day, the sky ceases to interest us. But we breathe it, swim in it – as it nurtures the life of everything around us.
I ran across a sermon of Fr. Pavel Florensky (who died in Stalin’s Camps). This small quote underlines the beauty of what lies within, and perhaps suggests how it is that God treasures even a single moment:
Oh brothers, if you could only realise how beautiful you all are! Does not the priest swing the censer to the Holy Spirit Who lives in you, when he turns to you with the incense? Is it not the altar of the internal temple that he envelops with clouds of incense? And is not man – also the self-same ikon of God? For, as in the ikon beyond the paints and the wood, the grace of the Lord is present, so behind the flesh of man, beyond it and the sinful soul, dwells in the innermost temple, in the many-eyed conscience – the Holy Spirit.