I have always been profoundly marked by this story, which is truly characteristic of Russian thought. It may be construed as a Russian Orthodox criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. We should read a much broader meaning into this text, because a form of evil, present in us all, can creep into every caricature of Christianity. It is the Third Temptation of which we read this morning at Mass. It is the temptation to assume that Christ did not do His work properly, and can be corrected by committing evil. Thus in the real gritty spirit of Lent, I hit hard at the shadows within each one of us.
At our level, not that of the evil inquisitor like Topcliffe or Torquemada with power to torture and kill, but at our level to commit sins of the spirit, we find people who try to pry into the souls of others. In particular, they cast doubts upon the sincerity of those Anglicans interested in the Ordinariate scheme. Those people, like ourselves, should be more concerned with their (and our) own spiritual condition.
The Grand Inquisitor is someone who succumbs to this temptation, objecting to others having the presumption to think for themselves or obeying their own consciences.
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Legend of the Grand Inquisitor
taken from Fydor Dostoïevski (1821-1881), The Karamazov Brothers, 1879
Do you know, Alyosha — don't laugh I made a poem about a year ago. If you can waste another ten minutes on me, I'll tell it to you."
"You wrote a poem?"
"Oh, no, I didn't write it," laughed Ivan, and I've never written two lines of poetry in my life. But I made up this poem in prose and I remembered it. I was carried away when I made it up. You will be my first reader — that is listener. Why should an author forego even one listener?" smiled Ivan. "Shall I tell it to you?"
"I am all attention." said Alyosha.
"My poem is called The Grand Inquisitor; it's a ridiculous thing, but I want to tell it to you.
The Grand Inquisitor "EVEN this must have a preface — that is, a literary preface," laughed Ivan, "and I am a poor hand at making one. You see, my action takes place in the sixteenth century, and at that time, as you probably learnt at school, it was customary in poetry to bring down heavenly powers on earth. Not to speak of Dante, in France, clerks, as well as the monks in the monasteries, used to give regular performances in which the Madonna, the saints, the angels, Christ, and God Himself were brought on the stage. In those days it was done in all simplicity. In Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris an edifying and gratuitous spectacle was provided for the people in the Hotel de Ville of Paris in the reign of Louis XI in honour of the birth of the dauphin. It was called Le bon jugement de la tres sainte et gracieuse Vierge Marie, and she appears herself on the stage and pronounces her bon jugement. Similar plays, chiefly from the Old Testament, were occasionally performed in Moscow too, up to the times of Peter the Great. But besides plays there were all sorts of legends and ballads scattered about the world, in which the saints and angels and all the powers of Heaven took part when required. In our monasteries the monks busied themselves in translating, copying, and even composing such poems — and even under the Tatars. There is, for instance, one such poem (of course, from the Greek), The Wanderings of Our Lady through Hell, with descriptions as bold as Dante's. Our Lady visits hell, and the Archangel Michael leads her through the torments. She sees the sinners and their punishment. There she sees among others one noteworthy set of sinners in a burning lake; some of them sink to the bottom of the lake so that they can't swim out, and 'these God forgets' — an expression of extraordinary depth and force. And so Our Lady, shocked and weeping, falls before the throne of God and begs for mercy for all in hell — for all she has seen there, indiscriminately. Her conversation with God is immensely interesting. She beseeches Him, she will not desist, and when God points to the hands and feet of her Son, nailed to the Cross, and asks, 'How can I forgive His tormentors?' she bids all the saints, all the martyrs, all the angels and archangels to fall down with her and pray for mercy on all without distinction. It ends by her winning from God a respite of suffering every year from Good Friday till Trinity Day, and the sinners at once raise a cry of thankfulness from hell, chanting, 'Thou art just, O Lord, in this judgment.' Well, my poem would have been of that kind if it had appeared at that time. He comes on the scene in my poem, but He says nothing, only appears and passes on. Fifteen centuries have passed since He promised to come in His glory, fifteen centuries since His prophet wrote, 'Behold, I come quickly'; 'Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, neither the Son, but the Father,' as He Himself predicted on earth. But humanity awaits him with the same faith and with the same love. Oh, with greater faith, for it is fifteen centuries since man has ceased to see signs from heaven.
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