In chapter 2 of The Joy of Ministry, Thomas Currie offers us the fruit of his tutelage in the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In contrast to the contemporary church culture and its offerings of success strategies and management helps, we find in the writings of Dostoyevsky a vision for God’s mysterious grace that embraces life’s painful and oftentimes tragic messiness. Currie profiles the character of Father Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov and draws lessons for pastoral care from Zossima’s interaction with three different peasant women. In each case,
The joy that is offered by Father Zossima perceives and addresses great suffering, revealing itself to be no stranger to human misery but refusing to let such misery define the terms of a life that belongs to God (p. 22).
Currie’s study of Father Zossima and the insights he offers here for pastoral care are rich indeed. I was particularly struck by his interaction with the third vignette. A peasant woman comes to Father Zossima and without saying word falls prostrate before him with her face to the ground. She confesses that when her alcoholic, abusive husband was deathly ill, she wished not for healing but for his death. Having already confessed this to her priest, she comes to Father Zossima continuing to fear for her soul. In Zossima’s response Currie finds the heart of God’s extravagant mercy:
By offering this woman the sign of the cross Father Zossima doesn’t simply offer forgiveness, a religious token, or ‘the squaring of some moral equation; instead, as Currie understands it, he offers her a ‘redescription of who God is and how the terms of God’s own life reconstitute our own’.
Father Zossima’s words to the woman voice the deepest convictions of Dostoyevsky’s own novelistic vision and summarize his understanding of redemptive love, “If I, a sinner even as you are,” Father Zossima says to the woman, “am tender with you and have pity on you, how much more will God have pity on you.” The God with whom this peasant woman has to do is not a god who must be persuaded or harangued into forgiving, rather (how much more!), this God’s mercy is what makes repentance possible at all, drawing sinners to the grace offered in the cross… (p. 28).
Some thoughts on Pastoral Care
Currie’s insight has deep significance for the ways in which we think about and practice pastoral care. Although it is easy to be seduced by psychological solutions or pragmatic plans of spiritual gymnastics, pastoral care – at its most basic & when properly rooted in the Gospel – offers a ‘redescription of who God is how the terms of God’s own life reconstitute our own.’
We communicate this ‘redescription’ sometimes in words and many other times in our silent presence alone, in shared suffering. When walking with people in crisis we offer them God, not just any god but the God of the Gospel and its attending joy. We offer them the God who, as Currie recounts from Ivan’s poem “The Grand Inquisitor”, is ‘The God who refuses to be ‘schismatic’ about this world and who insists on kissing it with his life’ which bears witness to ‘the gospel’s unflappable, incorrigible, marvelously earthly joy‘ (p. 33).