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Sonia’s spiritual depth

· ​In nine thousand characters ·

The heart of Orthodox spirituality has been illuminated by the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Among Dostoyevsky’s characters whose role is that of guidance are the monk Bishop Tikhon in Demons, the old man Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov and his disciple Alyosha; however in Crime and Punishment (1866), the only spiritual guide who has a pronounced effect on the tormented murderer Raskolnikov is on the contrary a woman, Sonia Marmeladova. Sonia is a prostitute driven into the profession by the anguish she feels when faced with the wretchedness and hunger of her family, brought to ruin by her drunkard father.

This decision as, later, that of another Sonia, the adulterous woman in The Adolescent [formerly The Raw Youth] has left several theologians and philosophers perplexed. “These characters”, they have written, “not only do not belong to the Church, but as sinful women they do not take part in Orthodox liturgies and rites. Yet it is forgotten that women like these play an important role in the Gospels (cf. Mt 321:31, Lk 7:36-47)”.

Even in Dostoyevsky’s previous works none of the characters has the explosive strength of Sonia’s faith.

Dostoyevski made working notes for his books which have been preserved to our day. On 7 December 1865 the writer noted a sentence which he puts into Sonia’s mouth: “You will probably have seen nothing of human adversity in a situation of ease or in wealth. God sends to those he loves and in whom he places great hope many misfortunes, so that they may have a personal experience of them and develop greater knowledge, for human suffering can be more clearly seen when one is suffering rather than when one is happy”. This sentence prepares for Dostoyevski’s note of 28 December 1865 in which, reorganizing the different threads of the text on which he is working, he writes in capitals: “idea of the novel 1) the Orthodox conception, what Orthodoxy consists of: there is no happiness in a comfortable situation. It is through suffering that happiness is attained. This is the law of our planet but this direct knowledge, perceived through the vital process, is such an immense joy that it can be paid for with years of suffering”.

This passage – which is the vital nucleus around which the writer elaborates not only his book of 1866 but also subsequent texts – expresses, paraphrasing it, a concept which is at the root of the conception of Isaac the Syrian, so frequently cited by the Starets of Optina and by other Orthodox writers.

“Afflictions, worries and temptations are among the gifts that God sends us in order to prepare the way [...]. No one can ascend to heaven living in ease. We know where the life of comforts leads. Do not refuse tribulations for it is through them that you will enter into knowledge. Do not fear temptations for in them you will find precious goods […].Blessed is the man who recognizes his weakness. By comparison with our own weakness we also know how great is the help that God gives us. There is no person in need who asks and is not humiliated. And as soon as a human being is humiliated God immediately surrounds him and enfolds him in his mercy […]. Those who have once recognized this will from now on cherish prayer as a treasure. All these beautiful things are born in man from the perception of his own infirmity. Hence in fact through the desire for help people cling to God. And the closer they come to God with their thought, the closer God comes to them with his gifts and, through his great humility, he no longer removes his dwelling place from them”.

It is around these ideas that Dostoyevski builds his novel. Sonia has passed through the desperate suffering of selling herself to feed the elderly and children in her family as well as her drunken father, despised by all, for whom the room in which she lives is his “only place to go”, the only place where he can be welcomed without reproaches.

The life of Raskolnikov, who killed to prove to himself whether he was a “louse” or a man able to do great things in the world, seems to be supported by a providential plan. There is a subterranean thread which links different, seemingly chance events. Lizaveta, who as well as her pawn-broker sister is a victim of Raskolnikov, brings Sonia a Gospel. Marmeladov is sent to Raskolnikov and through him is sent Sonia, who in her turn transmits to him the message of faith, humility and meekness of the woman he has killed unintentionally.

Recovering from his personal experience of guilty and marginalized people, Dostoyevsky lets the New Testament illuminate the poor room of Sonia the prostitute, just as in other circumstances it was the only text permitted and the only possible light in the life of the inhabitants of the penal colony which the writer had shared.

At the beginning of the meeting Raskolnikov torments the girl, almost as if he wishes to put her to the test. “‘So, Sonia, do you pray to God often?’. ‘What would you ever be without God?’ she murmurs. ‘And what does God do for you?’, he asks her, continuing his interrogation. ‘He does everything!’, she whispers excitedly, once again lowering her eyes”.

The first confession made in this room is not that of the murderer, but rather is the revelation of herself which the girl makes through her tone of voice, herpauses and the manner in which she reads the passage from John. What Raskolnikov, lost in his abstract reflections, does not understand is expressed by this meek and humble character, vibrant with a joy that passes through suffering. It is a disturbing meeting for the main character of the novel, whose rebellion comes from not managing to give a meaning to the presence of evil in the world, which he looks at with disgust as something foreign to himself and to those whom he holds dear. In his meeting with Sonia, Raskolnikov experiences for the first time the goodness, faith and light of this being to whom he feels deeply attracted and at the same time he senses the presence in her life of a guilt that humiliates her. Sonia’s sincerity and acceptance is able todraw her interlocutor into a dimension of reciprocal openness and of the revelation of self which is actuated through the reading of the passage on Lazarus.

This passage is extremely important to Sonia who, after her devastating experience, feels “restored to life” with the full force of her being and bases on these words the meaning of her existence, which from every other point of view is utterly miserable. The delay of Christ, who does not immediately go to the aid of his sick friend because the time has not yet come, has a profound significance in the events of the novel. Raskolnikov would like everything and wants it instantly, the immediate gratification of his desires. In Crime and Punishment the answer is contained in the powerfulness itself expressed in this Gospel passage and at the same time in the intuition and contagious faith of Sonia, who not only believes these words but lives them with her whole self.

“As little by little she approached the account of the supreme and unheard of miracle, a feeling of great exultation took possession of her. Her voice had become shrill like metal; exultation and joy resounded within her and made her stronger. The lines were jumbled before her eyes, because her sight was dimmed, but she knew by heart what she was reading”.

Thanks to the eager participation of the character who pronounces those sentences as if they referred to herself, the words of the passage from John come to life and become present to Raskolnikov the listener too: they were addressed not only to the small crowd in the Gospel scene but also precisely to him and to the woman who was reading them at that very moment. Christ does not act immediately to help Lazarus, nor to rescue the two protagonists of the novel, since the divine project is more complex than it appears to Dostoyevsky’s “blind eyes” and tormented characters. It requires on the part of human beings a process of self-knowledge which is often painful, an active participation and the readiness to be instruments of rebirth, witnesses for each other. Sonia and Raskolnikov are left free to do evil and to accept the temptations which torment them until the moment when they come to die to their former selves: that is, to know their own weakness and powerlessness.

At the moment when the action of the novel begins Sonia, although she is suffering, lives her life with trust and with the awareness of someone who understands that what one asks of God may not be given because his project is a loftier one. Like Lazarus’ sisters, like Mary in the episode of the wedding at Cana, it is she with her love and her boundless faith who intercedes for Raskolnikov and drags him, almost in spite of himself, towards a path that he would not have been able to take or to follow by himself. Even though unwillingly, the protagonist agrees to confess his guilt and go to the penal colony in Siberia. Sonia goes with him and takes care of him and of the other convicts sentenced to hard labour, who welcome her with admiration and tenderness. In this place of punishment Raskolnikov succeeds in discovering his wretchedness and weakness, getting to know himself through and through.

Silouan the Athonite, an Orthodox monk who died in 1938 and was canonized in 1987, describes this situation with lyrical clarity: “The Lord loves men and women and yet permits afflictions to upset them so that they may recognize their powerlessness and become humble and because of their humility receive the Holy Spirit. The humble person’s soul is like the sea. Throw a stone into the sea: it will barely disturb the surface and will sink instantly. Thus sink the afflictions in the humble person’s heart, for the Lord’s mightiness is with him”.

In Crime and Punishment,in a manner seen in the writer’s entire opus, Sonia is capable of attaining and passing on to others an inner dimension of a paradise on earth, albeit fragile, made up of love, of sharing, of acceptance and of a joy that passes through pain and succeeds in overcoming and transforming it.

Simonetta Salvestroni




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 27, 2020