The Tale of the Onion


Onion_08_by_xiaocacaOnce 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.1


GuardianAngel2The above comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

While it certainly should not be looked at as a “literal” account, it offers some very interesting insights.  Firstly, God is looking for any excuse to save us from our own destruction.  I’ve got a blog coming up on heaven and hell, so I won’t go any deeper into what “destruction” means right now.

We can live the most wicked lives, but if we repent (meaning if we turn ourselves to Him), he is eager to embrace us as we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  I also like how the story shows how eager even our guardian angels are for our salvation.  Growing up I hardly ever thought about the angels, but the Orthodox Church teaches that they intercede on our behalf.  There is an epic war being waged at this moment.


Truly, our best deeds amount to little more than the onion that this woman gave a beggar.  Speaking from my own experience, various motives often attribute to my good deeds:

  • a desire to feel good about myself
  • a hope that I’ll be noticed and appreciated
  • a yearning for acceptance and/or popularity among certain individuals or groups
  • a hope that I’ll impress God or make Him love me more
  • a feeling of inadequacy, and an attempt to measure up to others
  • attempting to be polite
  • or it could even be that I want to alleviate my conscience of feeling bad for neglecting to do the right thing in a given situation.

Whatever the case, we all have ulterior motives for most of the good things that we do, which is why I say that our deeds are not much more than little onions.   It is also why you’ll see phrases in Orthodox prayers like “I have done nothing good before Thee, O Lord.”

I think in the end, our greatest deeds will be the ones we don’t even remember.  Some kind gesture or word to someone, a little gift that we didn’t think was any big deal.  All of the other deeds which we imagine are quite grand will probably turn out to be little onions.  So, let us remember to always speak with gentleness, and to never despise or grow weary of secret acts of kindness.  We may be sowing little onions along the way.


Source for the story: The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880.  Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  Everyman’s Library edition, 1992.

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