Another year, another decade. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, it’s freezing cold and it might just be the beginning of Liverpool’s long post-Christmas unbeaten run to fourth place in the Premier League. (Well, I can dream…)
I was thinking yesterday about the past and the year to come and my mind turned to Dostoyevsky. This doesn’t happen often. I once told the Archbishop of Canterbury that I found Dostoyevsky boring and long-winded, only for Rowan to tell me that he was about to write a book about the great writer. I decided that I should be a bit more intelligent next time we spoke about Russian literature and began to read all Dostoyevsky’s books. I am now on the The Brothers Karamazov – then I will read Rowan’s book on Dostoyevsky…
Near the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov there is an encounter in a monastery between the Elder (Starets) and a woman. The woman bewails her lack of faith and, in response, the Elder tells her of an intelligent and elderly man who once said the following to him:
I love mankind, … but I marvel at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons. In my dreams I would often arrive at fervent plans of devotion to mankind and might very possibly have gone to the Cross for human beings, had that been suddenly required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else, and this I know from experience. No sooner is that someone else close to me than his personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom. In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings… To compensate for this, however, it has always happened that the more I have hated human beings in particular, the more ardent has become my love for mankind in general.
Human history tells us that the old man was not alone. It is always easier to love in general and to hate in categories than to work these out with individuals. Read the Gospels, however, and Jesus seems to bring these together: loving humanity in general whilst making that love real for individuals. (That love also brought hard challenge for the haters and he paid the price for exercising a strong love.)
As I look to the year ahead – with all its uncertainties and unknowns, its threats and its promises – I think I want to work at bringing the general and the particular closer together: both personally and in the life of the Church. I am conscious of a million failures (often evident in this rather fallible blog), but the challenge is there for me and the Church.
Perhaps in the Church we can stop speaking of people in categories (‘gays’ are the obvious example) and have our easy generalities subjected to the sometimes embarrassing particularities that challenge our prejudices and self-defences.
A happy new year for me will be one in which I make some progress along the general-particular spectrum – one in which other people come to be judged less by my own imbalances and more by grace.