Understanding God’s Love With An Onion

In the Gospel of St. John, our Lord Jesus Christ utters the following commandment, “that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (St. John 13:34). Yet around the world, there exist great struggles to truly love all as one’s self. With mass media always looming on the horizon, bringing with it struggles around the world, bitter lies and deceit spun as truths, political circuses with enough fanfare to make the Great Games of the Caesars look like mild county fairs, and nonstop talk of violence and doom, it is a wonder the whole world has not succumbed to madness yet. How can one love a total stranger as himself, if, in today’s dog-eat-dog world of Social Darwinism, all are taught that it must be every man for themselves, and if one does not agree with a particular political persuasion, they should be deemed with carrying the Mark of the Beast? Such a state of brother against sister, father against son, and so forth threaten to rapidly erode any charity that one might have left for fellow man.

How can a commandment to love everyone as the Perfect, All-Holy, All-Good God loves everyone be possible in a world that seems to reflect only hatred, decay, violence, and falsified witness against everyone and anyone, with the only “Golden Rule” being that every man is an island? There thus exists a constant, never-ending fear of breaking the gentle commandment of the Good Shepherd, for love seems a commodity rarer than the perfect glimmering jewels upon the crowns of kings. Yet not all hope is lost, for there are examples among Orthodox both Eastern and Oriental that should give anyone hope for their fellow man and reignite their forgotten fervor to truly love all people. There are a couple of stories that can be shared on this subject matter, from far-flung Orthodox Russia and Ethiopia, that hopefully will help all people understand how God’s love and mercy shine through in spite of seemingly impossible standards.

The Story of an Onion

In the beloved Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s grandiose dramatic masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, there are many scenes that showcase the amazing mercy and love of God. One particular story and its later spiritual conclusion truly demonstrates how God’s love and mercy descend into even the bowels of Hell. The wily Grushenka, a woman in town who is renowned for her promiscuity and refusal to marry, has just met with the youthful novice monk, Alyosha. Originally, she planned to “devour” him as she already had his brother and father with her seductions, but finds she cannot go through with it. There, in a dim room lit only by candles, the harlot has a conversion experience. With tears of both bitterness and regret, she laments that she has only ever “gave an onion” (p. 298).[1] Questioned by what she means, she bequeaths the following parable, quoted in full:

“It’s just a fable, but a good fable, I heard it when I was still a child, from my Matryona who cooks for me now. It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away. That’s the fable, Alyosha, I know it by heart, because I myself am that wicked woman. I boasted to Rakitin that I gave an onion, but I’ll say it differently to you: in my whole life I’ve given just one little onion, that’s how much good I’ve done” (pp. 298-299).

Fig 2: Photo taken at one of several Onion Festivals in Russia by Vladimir Smirnov. Onions are one of the most common crops in the country and consumed by every social class.

In essence, a woman who has been thrown into Hell by her own vices is given a chance to be free through her single good work, and squanders even this chance. Certainly, an onion has never tasted bitterer for a sinner. Such a parable gives the reader a glimmer into the reality of God’s mercy. Let it first be noted that the woman has sinned so greatly even her guardian angel, who was with her at all times, struggles to think of a good deed she has done, and she is deemed “wicked as wicked can be,” yet such a despicable woman is granted a second chance. Such an idea of a second chance after death will already sound foreign to the American mind, whereupon is stamped the words of the Puritan Rev. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” read by every High-Schooler, where he boldly proclaims in regards to sinners: “They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They do not only justly deserve to be cast down thither, but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell…” [2]

Yet in Dostoevsky, there lies the exact opposite portrait, that through the woman’s only good deed she can yet be saved. It is only when others attempt to be saved by grabbing onto her, and her evil refusal of mercy despite being offered God’s infinite mercy, that condemns her. God does not damn her, God allows her salvation through the only good deed she ever achieved, which in itself was a paltry act given the commonality and cheapness of onions everywhere in Russia, but she in turn destroys herself with selfishness. Such is the same lesson the Lord taught when He preached of the man forgiven his debts, yet could not forgive the man who owed him a debt smaller than his own, and was thus cast into the dark dungeon until he paid “all that was due” (St. Matthew 18:21-35). If anyone can be forgiven but cannot forgive, that will be what condemns them, not the Lord. The Lord is always looking for ways to save all sinners, even if it be through the tiniest black onion. Even so, Dostoevsky’s parable is told through the lens of a sinful peasant girl, who views herself as the evil woman, and ergo does not believe in her own salvation, but rather even through her one good deed she will condemn herself as the woman did when the onion broke. When one reads further, it is demonstrated that even such an evil woman as that will, in reality, eventually be saved thanks to the infinite, beautiful mercy of Almighty God.

(Warning: Minor Spoilers for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Book 7, below.)

What can be found, almost immediately after Alyosha’s meeting with Grushenka, and her (at least partial) repentance for her sins,  he returns to his venerable Elder Zosima, whose reputation had previously been besmirched and trodded down after his body was not found to be incorruptible following his death. Rather the opposite, his body emitted a foul stench that filled the monastery like Satan’s incense, at least to the scornful and jealous monks’ nostrils. Yet when Alyosha goes before the coffin of his dear spiritual father, he smells no foul stench, and as he listens to the Gospel story of the Wedding of Cana, he finds himself carried up to Heaven in a vision, where he sees Elder Zosima not only alive and well, but radiant, and he speaks gently:

“We are rejoicing,’ the little wizened man continued, ‘we are drinking new wine, the wine of a new and great joy. See how many guests there are? Here are the bridegroom and the bride, here is the wise ruler of the feast, tasting the new wine. Why are you marveling at me? I gave a little onion, and so I am here. And there are many here who only gave an onion, only one little onion … What are our deeds? And you, quiet one, you, my meek boy, today you, too, were able to give a little onion to a woman [Grushenka] who hungered. Begin, my dear, begin, my meek one, to do your work!’” (p. 306)

Thus the Elder personally tells young Alyosha that he only gave one little onion and thus was admitted to Paradise, and so too many others have also entered through only “one little onion.” I might wax on a moment to extol the great and glorious mystery of God’s unceasing mercy. Though the wicked woman did not deserve salvation, and she was given a second chance yet squandered it, Elder Zosima’s wording here would indeed imply she will have more than a single chance. Through a single good deed, the Lord God will mould and shape that deed into a chain from which to rescue sinners, dragging all into His Glorious Light and therefore to true repentance, no matter how many aeons it may take, no matter how much penance the soul has to suffer, no matter how much His Love burns the sinner with “bitter regret.” [3] One should not think, of course, from such a message that Hell does not exist, or that Hell is not painful. One of the greatest ascetics of the Church, Saint Isaac the Syrian, purported a similar message to Elder Zosima, and yet cautioned all the same (as does Dostoevsky) against thinking Hell is not real or not full of torments.


Words of Saint Isaac the Syrian

Fig. 3: Icon of St. Isaac of Nineveh

St. Isaac of Nineveh (700 AD), well known for his homilies on God’s mercy, justice, and love, speaks of this exact matter as Elder Zosima. In regards to that “one little onion,” he beautifully writes “To anyone who shows just a little suffering, and the will to compunction for what has occurred, to such a person, immediately, at once, without any delay, He will grant forgiveness of their sins.” [4] Such a message reverberates with the message that one good deed can save anyone’s soul, so long as they are willing to repent and capitulate to the Divine Light of Christ. St. Isaac was so sure that every soul would willingly embrace Christ’s Loving Light that he hypothesized that “the majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of Heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But (this is) apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, (and) because these people have not been disciplined at all.” [5] This amazing teaching certainly goes along with the words of Elder Zosima, in that “one little onion” will be the salvation of many thanks to the all-encompassing compassion of the Lord. There are many stories within the Oriental Orthodox Church that reflect this divine mystery in a full way, such as within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC).

The Story of the Cannibal of Qemer

Within the EOTC, no Saint is more highly venerated than the Saint Virgin Mary. As the Ethiopian Church strongly believes, one whisper from St. Mary is enough for the Holy Trinity to grant her good desires, much the same as the righteous King Solomon promised his own Queen-Mother Bathsheba he would grant her anything she desired if she would only ask (1 Kings 2:18-20). An extremely popular miracle story exists that showcases not only the power of works done in the name of Christ’s Mother, but also the infinite mercies of the Lord. The Ethiopian Church carries a massive text containing many miracles performed by St. Mary, of which at least two English translations can be found, both by the renowned Orientalist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge. [6] The story about to be told can be found within the shorter recension, though I have personally heard this story in longer and fuller detail from the mouth of my own Abba as well. I will tell my own abridged version of the tale: [7]

Once there was a man from the City of Qemer (or Kemer, located in what is today Turkey) who was very rich but could only be satiated in his hunger by the taste of human flesh. Using his wealth, he was able to amass many friends and servants, whom, once he gained their trust and was able to get them alone, would kill and devour them. Such was his horrifying gluttony for human flesh, he ended up devouring his own children. Eventually, his amount of people devoured reached seventy-eight in all. By this time, the entire town had fled, and the man had to seek for flesh outside the city. On one of his hunts, he came across a poor leprous beggar, not fit for consumption. As he turns in disgust, the beggar cried piteously, “Please, in the name of God, grant me water to drink!” The cannibal refuses in disgust, and so the man tries a second time for the sake of Heaven and Earth and all the Martyrs and Saints, and the cannibal refuses once more. Finally, the man asks for water for the sake of St. Mary, and the cannibal recognizes the name. He agrees to give water because he has heard that her prayers will save anyone, but he only gives the man a single drop (or single sip in some versions) of water.

Fig. 4: The Cannibal of Qemer giving the sickly leper the tiniest sip of water from his canteen; taken from Budge’s The Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Life of Hannâ (Saint Anne), and the Magical Prayers of A̕hĕta Mîkâêl, p. 81

After this incident, the man can find no more humans to consume and dies. The demons then come immediately and snatch his soul away, and he is taken to Hell. However, the Virgin St. Mary wished to know if this man had ever done any good deeds, much like the bitter old woman’s guardian angel. She found that he had given water in her name, and therefore begged Christ to forgive the cannibal. Christ then has the Archangel St. Michael bring out scales upon which are weighed the seventy-eight murdered souls versus the one drop of water the cannibal gave to the leper. Astonishingly, the single drop of water outweighs all these murders and the angels are amazed. Christ orders the cannibal to be brought out from Hell, and St. Mary fetches him and brings him to Paradise. Thereupon all the inhabitants of Paradise celebrate and stand in awe of the mystery of Christ’s mercy and love alongside the love of His mother St. Mary.

Fig. 5: The cannibal is taken to Hell by demons, judged by his one good deed on scales, which outweighs his sins and allows St. Mary to release him. Taken from Täˀammərä Maryam, image 187, Princeton Ethiopic Manuscript No. 65, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Christ’s Mercy Goes Beyond Understanding

Here the full mercy of Christ is displayed in full view. In Grushenka’s similar tale, the evil woman is denied her salvation because she refuses to allow others to be freed with her, and her one good deed is broken by such selfishness. The cannibal, on the other hand, is freed despite having far worse sins weighing upon his soul, and is saved alongside his seventy-eight victims. Such is the incomprehensible mercy of the Holy Trinity, which should ease the hearts and minds of the millions who worry daily for the salvation of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. By the words of Father Zosima, Saint Isaac, and this great miracle of St. Mary, it can be strongly inferred that the greedy old woman will be given another chance, and that many souls may go with her. Within both books of miracles translated by Budge, there are several other examples of souls being freed from Hell post-mortem by the intercession of St. Mary. Indeed, the Ethiopians have many stories from the lives of their Saints, of Hell being plundered of its treasures time and time again, numbering thousands of souls freed each time, most especially through the power of St. Michael and also the famous story of St. Kristos Samra attempting to save Satan himself (see iconography below).

Fig. 6: A wall mural from an unknown Ethiopian Orthodox Church showcasing the famous scene in St. Kristos Samra’s hagiography where, after failing to convince the Devil to repent and come back to Heaven with her, frees 100,000 souls from Hell instead upon her wings alongside the Archangel St. Michael.

Fig. 7: Two iconographic paintings taken from a 17th Century Ethiopian Orthodox manuscript entitled The Miracles of St. Michael, depicting the Archangel saving hundreds of souls upon his wings from Hell and bringing them to Heaven, where their souls can be seen clothed in glory on the second page. The folios can be found in the Walters Art Museum.

I do not extol such a message to cause scandal, or deny that God must be perfect in His Justice as well as His Mercy, for Hell is very much real and its punishments are horrifying. As Saint Isaac strongly remarks, “Let us beware in ourselves, my beloved, and realize that even if Gehenna is subject to a limit, the taste of its experience is most terrible, and the extent of its bounds escapes our very understanding. Let us strive all the more to partake of the taste of God’s love … let us not not experience Gehenna through neglect.” [8] However, I wish to carry a message of love in a time of darkness and turmoil in so many peoples’ lives, most especially in the Oriental Orthodox Church, with the recent destruction of Armenian Churches and Armenian Christianity in general by the government forces of Azerbaijan, or the recent mass murders swathing the Ethiopian Orthodox community. When a hardness of heart occurs, and the urge comes on to hate another human being for such horrible actions that have unfolded across history by groups such as the Young Turks, may those who feel anger welling up within them reflect upon these men’s one little onion, one drop of water, one moment of repentance, and then reflect upon their own little onion. Only then may all be able to follow the commandment to “love one another, just as I have loved you,” and “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (St. Matthew 7:1).

In times of great evil, let there also be great hope and love in the truly All-Merciful, Compassionate Savior of All, the Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. May all cultivate their little onions, and strive always towards repentance, in order that those who may face the flames of Hell may truly see how the Lord wishes for all to come unto Him (Ezekiel 18:23). May the prayers of St. Mary the Ever-Virgin, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Kristos Samra, St. Ambrose of Optina, and St. Tikhon of Zadonsk be with all of us before the throne of Almighty God, asking for His Mercy to be poured upon the whole world. [9] Amen.

Dcn. Clement (Logan Polk), M.A.
Chief Overseer of the Center for Orthodox Studies (COS)
St. Mary & St. Raphael Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Memphis, TN, USA


Endnotes

[1] All quotations and passages from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov come from the gorgeous Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonksy English translation, published by Penguin Random House in 1992.

[2] From Rev. Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached in 1741, taken from https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/edwards_jonathan/Sermons/Sinners.cfm

[3] “torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend … Thus I say the torment of Gehenna [Hell]: bitter regret.” (Isaac the Syrian. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Second Edition. Translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Brookline: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011. p. 266)

[4] Isaac the Syrian. ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI. Vol. 555. Translated by Sebastian Brock. Leuven: Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, 1995. Pp. 177-178.

[5] St. Isaac II.40, p. 177

[6] These two English translations by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge can both be found online. The first, shorter recension, translated in 1900 and containing around forty miracle stories, is titled The Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Life of Hannâ (Saint Anne), and the Magical Prayers of A̕hĕta Mîkâêl, which can be found for free on Internet Archive, XXIX, p. 83 (https://archive.org/details/gri_33125008690600/page/n635/mode/2up). Though as a Deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, I must highly caution any curious reader not to look at the “Magical Prayers of A̕hĕta Mîkâêl” section, of which there are nine and include runic amulets and prayers invoking “holy names,” unknown in both the Bible and the Fathers, as this portion does not come from the Church but rather “Debtera” magicians from Ethiopia proper who use the names of Saints and the Trinity in their diabolical rituals and trick the common folk into thinking they are faith healers. These incantations have nothing to do with our precious, glorious protector St. Michael. The other translation of St. Mary’s miracles, which is extremely rare and translated in 1933, is titled One Hundred & Ten Miracles of Our Lady Mary and gives a longer version of the cannibal story, which can be found on Google Books, also chapter XXIX, p. 94 (https://www.google.com/books/edition/One_Hundred_and_Ten_Miracles_of_Our_Lady/vOYKAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover).

[7] Within Budge’s two different manuscripts for the Miracles of St. Mary, the story is different in terms of certain details of the cannibal’s life, and when I have asked several of the Ethiopian Church’s own priests about this story, they are happy to regale it for me, but even they tell slightly different variations of the story each time. In my own book, The Orthodox Church Is for All: The Journey and Reflections of a Western Convert, (pp. 91-96) I have compiled all versions of the story I have heard into one large edition, but for the sake of this article I am giving only a short retelling.

[8] St. Isaac II.41, p. 180

[9] Both St. Ambrose of Optina and St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Russian Orthodox Saints, are said to be the main influences upon Dostoevsky’s creation of the saintly Elder Zosima. https://orthochristian.com/134783.html

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