Purgatory on Earth

May 2014By Christopher Gawley

Christopher Gawley is an attorney in the New York City area. His academic articles have been published in The South Dakota Law Review, The Capitol University Law Review, and The George Washington Law Review. He regularly writes book reviews and other articles for The Remnant.

The Idiot. By Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

“Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment.” — St. Augustine

Sin scars. God’s law written on our hearts testifies that sin — even forgiven sin — has real consequences. The wounds sin leaves on a soul require satisfaction, whether by penance in this life or purgation in the next. Though the concept of Purgatory has been attacked by Protestant “reformers” and Eastern schismatics for centuries, it is an infallible dogma of Holy Mother Church. Scripture and Tradition testify to the reality of Purgatory. It is not a marginal teaching; it reflects divine truth and informs the spirituality central to an authentically Catholic life.

A reminder of Purgatory may seem an inapposite introduction to a work by legendary novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But in one of the more remarkable literary and religious ironies, Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot is in fact a purgatorial story. Undoubtedly, The Idiot is a biting critique of the Russian aristocracy written fifty years before its destruction in the final Bolshevik conflagration. But Dostoyevsky is always a philosopher before he is a social commentator, and The Idiot is a profound testament to the power of purgatorial justice and mercy — something so ingrained in our nature that even Dostoyevsky, a lifelong anti-Catholic, uses purgation as the book’s primary theme without ever connecting it to its dogmatic equivalent.

Set in St. Petersburg in the 1860s, the novel is centered on a guileless “idiot,” Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin. Rather than what we think of as a conventional idiot, Prince Myshkin is a sweet and loving soul. Dostoyevsky’s description of him is more a commentary on those around him than on the Prince himself. In keeping with another New Testament principle, Dostoyevsky’s naïve Myshkin is a foil to the sophisticated and intellectual society that surrounds him: “But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).

The novel begins on a train — a metaphoric introduction suggesting that the story we are about to read is one that involves journey and change. Myshkin is a threadbare traveler returning to Russia after years of treatment in Switzerland for his “idiotic” condition — epilepsy. Dostoyevsky, himself an epileptic, often employed this condition as an important character trait in his novels, and the same is true of The Idiot.

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