We’ve all experienced those moments. Out of the blue, a crease in our brain releases an image or a passage from many years ago. It appears in great detail as if the stage lights are shining on it. While in prison, the great Russian author Dostoevsky tells of such a vision. His short story, The Peasant Marey begins: “It was Easter Monday.”
The setting is grim. His fellow inmates are coarse and fowl and most unpleasantly quarrelsome. Out of sport or ill-temper, a band of six pummel a drunkard. And in the confusion of the prison yard, a passing phrase from a fearful colleague seems to trigger Dostevsky’s memory. “Je hais ces brigands!”
The notion comes to Dostoevsky across time. It is painted out clear to him in impeccable detail. A message his brain has been waiting to send for decades. Waiting for the right moment when a new circumstance will make its truth undeniable. As a young boy, while out near a peasant working a field, he comes to imagine that a wolf is nearby. He is certain he is in danger and runs to the peasant Marey.
The serf is the lowest, humblest in the household. His fingers are coarse, thick, and sopped in mud. The young Fyodor is the refined future, educated and well-groomed. Yet at the moment the fear of his surroundings is all-consuming, the unpresuming Marey is transformed into the rescuer. In a simple turn of circumstance, the meek become powerful.
A voice of doubt might question, “How could that be so, the lowly peasant could have an impact of such magnitude?” The memory shows up to offer the answer. Surrounded by the bleak existence of prison life, Dostoevsky is reminded how the downtrodden become powerful. Such work leaps over time and class. And he sets out to “look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished from my heart.”
The Christian themes are thickly woven into this story not even seven pages in length. But the impulse to care for the vulnerable, the ability for all to participate in the unity of the whole, the challenge of waiting over elongated time frames for renewal, are universal in nature.