Today, we remember the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. In the Catholic Church, we call this Friday before Easter 'Good Friday', and we abstain from eating meat and fast from eating large meals or snacks between meals. Having inherited my dad's metabolism, I will admit that I hate fasting. I get crabby when I'm hungry, which is a problem when you're trying to be EXTRA holy as you remember how your Lord and Savior died an agonizing death for you.
In January of this year, I finished reading the book Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. My final paper had to be about the theme of redemptive suffering in the novel, and I was stuck. I had no idea how to define 'redemptive suffering'. In my head it kind of made sense, but when I tried to write about it, I felt like an idiot. I just couldn't wrap my mind around it.
Remember, I'm the one who dislikes fasting because it does its job in helping me feel more united to Christ's suffering on the Cross.
This was my final literature paper for my first semester of senior year, and I wanted to blow it out of the water. So I took a pen and a notebook with me to youth group on Wednesday night and basically dumped the entire thing into my priest's lap. And, being the ridiculously generous guy that he is, Fr. Jeremy spent an hour and a half talking to me about my paper, Crime and Punishment (which he had never even read), and redemptive suffering. All but two people left while I talked to him, which I felt kind of bad about. Apparently most teenagers aren't freakishly philosophical (or home schooled).
Thanks to Fr. Jeremy, I accomplished my goal: I blew my paper out of the water. I printed him a copy and gave it to him, and he said, "Very impressive for a junior in high school,"
My heart sank. "I'm a senior."
"Really!? Well, it's very good for a senior in high school!"
Now, why am I recounting this? Because through writing that paper, I came to understand a little better WHY we fast on Good Friday, and why we recall the horrifically gruesome death that Jesus died. In the summer of 2012, while I was on a retreat, I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament and I felt compelled to tell Jesus, "I give my life to You, because YOU are worth dying for!"
And Jesus replied, in the depths of my soul, "Yes. And you needed to know that. But what is more important is that you are worth dying for. I made you worth dying for, and I did."
Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross was not an impersonal event in history. It transformed everything; life, death, and yes, suffering. Christ, in redeeming all of mankind, also redeemed suffering. He made suffering something that could purify us, and save us.
Here is my paper on the theme of redemptive suffering in Crime and Punishment. I am very proud of it because I fought for it. I have never worked as hard on any paper as I did on this one, mainly because I didn't understand how suffering could redeem me, and I wanted to.
Literature Qtr 2 Week 7 Paper
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, the reader is taken through an inside-out murder mystery, where you know everything about the crime and the criminal from Book One. The main character and murderer, Raskolnikov, is tormented by his desire to shape history rather than being shaped by it. This self-imposed suffering within him causes him to lash out and murder two innocent women to try and prove he is ‘a man of greatness’. Raskolnikov’s story is a difficult one to read because it is riddled with evil and suffering that seems meaningless and insane. However, the central theme of Crime and Punishment is that suffering can be redemptive, and this is embodied by the young Sonia Marmeladov, who was forced into prostitution by her stepmother yet still carries the divine light of God’s love inside of her.
Redemptive suffering occurs when a person is open to the love of God, and can therefore unite their own sufferings to Christ’s on the cross, which is transformative for their soul or for the soul of another. In Crime and Punishment, there is no lack of suffering, be it emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual. Raskolnikov suffers mentally and spiritually from his disordered desire for greatness. The drunken Marmeladov suffers physically from his addiction which he cannot control but regrets immensely, and drags his destitute family down with him. The depraved Svidrigailov, who tries to seduce Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, suffers emotionally from regret and a crippling fear of death that he overcomes only to kill himself. It would be easy to say that Crime and Punishment has a theme of redemptive suffering if the main character was pious and humble in his pain, but Raskolnikov is a proud sinner who believes up until the final page that his crime was justifiable and his suffering worthless. How, then, could all this suffering, which resembles insanity more than anything else, ever redeem anyone?
In Dr. Alan White’s talk on Dostoyevsky’s writing, Dr. White says that Dostoyevsky held that there is no redemption outside of Christ, and that this redemption must come through suffering. But the notion of suffering as a positive thing, let alone a redemptive thing, is a difficult idea to get one’s mind around. This is especially because redemptive suffering can be taken to an unhealthy extreme, and it is, even in Crime and Punishment itself. The painter Nikolay Dementiev is suspected of the murders that Raskolnikov committed, and Nikolay goes so far as to confess that he is the murderer, to end the torment of suspicion, and to take on the suffering of another man. To purposefully seek out physical suffering, through self-mutilation or trying to dishonestly take on another’s guilt as Nikolay does, is not redemptive, because it is done without love. When Raskolnikov believes his suffering is worthless, he is right, because suffering in and of itself, without love, is lunacy.
The theme of suffering in Crime and Punishment that is redemptive, in my opinion, lies within the prostitute Sonia. She is not fully culpable for her crime of prostitution because she was literally forced into it to provide financial support for her family. This innocent young woman suffers unspeakably from her life as a street-walker, because it requires her to partially extinguish her own divine light every single day. But Sonia is redeemed in her suffering unlike any other. She suffers to try and relieve the suffering of others, but not at the expense of her soul, as Nikolay does out of fear. She suffers in and with Christ, abiding in His love, and clinging to faith in God and His mercy when everyone else sees in her situation only shame and despair. After Raskolnikov confesses his crime and is sentenced to eight years of labor in Siberia, Sonia follows him and offers every moment of suffering she experiences in serving him that his soul may be saved. She unites her suffering to Christ, and it takes on a redemptive power.
Finally, if it is true that redemptive suffering is the central theme of Crime and Punishment, it only makes sense that the main character would be touched by it. Is he? Is Raskolnikov redeemed by his great and terrible suffering, especially because he, for the most part, brought it willfully upon himself? Perhaps a more important question, if the murderous Raskolnikov really can be redeemed, is this: What redeems him? I personally do not believe that Raskolnikov’s own suffering was redemptive for him at all. It hardens him and makes him bitter to a point where he is numb and purely apathetic towards life itself. What redeems him is love; Sonia’s love, the love with which she suffers. He is transformed slowly by love for Sonia, which turns not his suffering, but her suffering, into something that will make a new man of him. This redemption and transformation takes a long time to flower within the murderer’s heart; it seems for most of the book that Raskolnikov is beyond the reach of God’s grace entirely. Sonia patiently loves him even though she is terrified and saddened by him, and it is her humility, love, and persistence that redeem Raskolnikov. Sonia is the one whom redemptive suffering works through. She is the lantern by which God bears His divine life, and the redemption of the Cross, to the sinner’s heart.
The redemptive power of suffering is a message riddled throughout Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but it is found mainly within one woman only. It is difficult to imagine a group more saturated in sinfulness, or people who suffer more horrifically, than the cast of Crime and Punishment. Suffering is a terrible evil, but it can relieve the temporal punishment for the even greater evil of sin. Though the idea of redemptive suffering is a difficult and mysterious one, it is a reality. It is nothing to ignore, this wondrous idea, that a murderer like Raskolnikov could find redemption, especially through suffering; the suffering of the woman who loved him.
May God bless you and keep you this Good Friday 2013!