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A reflection on Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, by Tim Summers

"Do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over."


These words are part of the final teachings of the elderly monk Zosima, who is in his last illness and talking to his followers. But Zosima is quoting a far earlier deathbed conversation: that of his older brother, who died at a young age but in his last days had a tremendous influence on Zosima, who would go on to be an officer in the army before remembering his brother's speeches and becoming a monk. Zosima's brother had been a critic of religion, and a harsh son, until he came down with consumption at the age of seventeen. In the months before he died, he talked continually about loving God’s creation and all living things.


“My dears, why do we quarrel, boast before each other, remember each other's offences? Let us go to the garden, let us walk and play and love and praise and kiss each other, and bless our life.”


On their deathbed, it has been said by many an eyewitness, people at last see things as they really are. Ego and selfishness no longer control them. What is the view revealed to the person free of ego? It is love. The sick person is in paradise already. They can see "the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars." In these deathbed scenes, Dostoevksy shows that process in motion.


“Paradise is hidden in each one of us, it is concealed within me, too, right now, and if I wish, it will come for me in reality, tomorrow even, and for the rest of my life."


Zosima's dying brother, freed from ego and filled with love, wistfully but joyfully asks: what if we could drop our ego now, not waiting for our final hours? Would we not find ourselves in paradise throughout our life? Is this not what Jesus enjoins, when he tells you to die to yourself, to "take up your cross and walk"?


The image above is Gustav Dore's illustration of the final Canto of Dante's Paradiso, in which the Pilgrim and Beatrice behold the vision of God - in the words of the poem's final line, "the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars."

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