The pastor lived in a mansion atop a limestone hill studded with ammonite fossils.
One Sunday, when I was maybe ten, he passed out slips of paper on which the adults might write the names of sinners needing prayer. Then he preached his semimonthly come-to-Jesus sermon. While he introduced the megachurch to our eventual inferno — eyeballs popping in hellfire, eyeball juice sizzling down cheeks like runny mascara, and all that good stuff — I remembered what Christ had said about the rich entering the kingdom of heaven. Christ also said the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children. If the pastor had permitted me one of those slips, I would’ve written his name.
Really, I cherished the pastor: his pit stains, his desperate puns, his relentless opinions on topics he didn’t understand. These embarrassments reminded me of myself. But when it came to his inadequacies only, he bit his tongue, maybe because he knew them all too well.
A long time after, a long way from the megachurch’s bleachers, sin sin sin still ricocheting in my skull, I read The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This novel introduced me to a priest named Father Zosima. And this character, just the invention of a Russian ex-sublieutenant a century-and-a-half dead, delivered a sermon that taught me how to tell the truth.
His first strange lesson: telling the truth requires honesty more than the truth itself. By admitting that the truth escapes you, you begin to discern it in its very absence, as that which you do not possess. And so honesty demands a self-awareness both heroic and insufferable.
Insufferable — that was my first impression of Zosima. When we meet him, he’s a saint, kissing feet and giving pep talks to the novel’s annoyingly nice protagonist, Alyosha. He seems to levitate — but not in a cool way — above someone like me, a connoisseur of faux pas.
But then he speaks with us honestly. We find his sermon in a packet of papers Alyosha reads after Zosima’s death. An autobiography precedes Zosima’s homilies and lays bare his life before conversion. In the beginning, he was an army officer who breathed vodka and beat his servant.
Not unlike Dostoevsky. A gambling addict, an adulterer, an anti-Semite, he names a “repulsive” character (his description) Fyodor, after himself. Even Dostoevsky’s sentences, careening multi-clauses ending in prepositions, are conscious of their rough wanting.
Maybe more important than a sermon’s words or ideas or calls to the altar is the surrender that comes when the mouth first opens.
And from his sermon’s first sentence, we feel Zosima daring to descend from the pulpit and speak with us face to face. We smell his breath and he smells ours.
“Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone.”
So he begins with a pretty quick answer to his sermon’s title question, “Can One Be the Judge of One’s Fellow Creatures? Of Faith to the End.” No meddler in suspense, this Zosima. But he also renounces the false power of knowing better than everyone else. In a genre predisposed to moralizing, he seeks, just as he says, not to judge, and instead, to understand.
A refusal to judge differs from a shrug in that it insists on the assumption of unfathomable responsibility. “For if I myself were righteous,” Zosima says, “perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.” He addresses most of the sermon to his listeners, but here he switches to the first person and condemns himself. One is tempted to ask him to calm down. Yet he takes honesty to a majestic extreme, where all judgment is mere blame, prestidigitation that frames others for my own indecencies.
That dictum seems the perfect excuse for self-pity. I prove myself no hypocrite by professing my own hypocrisy. Therefore I should spend my few days dragging around this sense of cosmic unworthiness, alternately beating my chest and wiping my nose with my snot-curled sleeve. But Zosima urges the exact opposite. He stirs us to look up from shame and cross over to a reality in which contradictions align without resolution.
Sermons ask for the impossible. Zosima wants not just to convince us — to vote, buy a luxury treadmill, or abolish daylight saving time — but to convert us, to revolutionize the very way we face the world and ourselves.
Yet a soul’s transformation occurs not in the achievement but in the hopeless effort of transforming. No one can suspend judgment perpetually. And who isn’t, deep down, a judgy little troublemaker? So Zosima’s sermon vexes as much as it clarifies, that we might finally give in to the truth which inundates wherever our illusions crumble.
In Zosima’s telling, the truth is a buoy at nighttime that lifts on floods of doubt. The truth is an act of love.
Love makes Zosima’s sermon possible. Because he loves us, we’re willing to entertain our own imperfection.
But it’s easier said than done with big ridiculous nouns like love. And so, the further Zosima ventures into his sermon, the more he tends to the specific. He offers a litany of hypotheticals, repeating “if” nineteen times: “If you yourself have sinned…rejoice for the righteous one.” In every scenario, he recommends love.
These little missions circle and circle, like ripples returning to the stone that formed them, until they reach the sermon’s end. We are brought back to the beginning, restored to the disposition of the soul that makes possible — and which is made possible by — judgment’s opposite.
“Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably, love all men, love all things, seek this rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. Do not be ashamed of this ecstasy, treasure it, for it is a gift from God…”
The altar where Zosima kneels is a muddy field at night, his church the face of every person called undeserving. The truth blesses whatever we fear, dismiss, or misunderstand. The truth sounds like weeping.
To speak something like the truth — the furthest my ambition may reach — we must believe that everyone deserves to be spoken with as Zosima has tried to speak with us.
Begin in honesty. Ask the impossible and answer with understanding. Remember that no conversion is ever complete.
As for myself, I have written these words from the hope love will enter through the flaw in my heart.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
You can find Father Zosima’s speech in its entirety in The Brothers Karamazov.
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