On Suffering, the Russian Soul, & the Kingdom of Heaven

Russian_NightIt’s become a byword, the Russian tradition of suffering. Apparently everyone knows that misery permeates the works of the great writers and merits a substantial paragraph in even the most basic information about Russian literature. Wikipedia devotes an entire section of the Russian literature page to this very thing, stating,

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature.

Happily, I didn’t get the memo about that. A year ago, when I wrote about Imagination as Love, I still didn’t know that what I was writing about was at the very core of not only Chekhov’s writing, but Tolstoy’s too, and Gogol’s and Solzhenitsyn’s and Dostoevsky’s.

I didn’t read the Sparknotes, only the books. Only War and Peace, and How Much Land Does a Man Need? Only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Overcoat, and The Grand Inquisitor, and half of Chekhov’s Stories. And one of the delightful things about missing the study guides is that you have no idea what to look for, so that when you do pick up a pattern all by yourself, it means something to you.

So it was for me, through pages and pages of the stories about tragedies without happy endings, and hunger that isn’t assuaged, and grief that doesn’t go away, and the long defeat of living. After a time, I sat back and said, “These stories are about suffering. They are all about suffering.” It seems simple enough to the initiated, but to go from not-knowing to knowing at last – there is an exquisite satisfaction in that.

Yet that wasn’t all. In these stories there was something else. The Russian grief is not purposeless. There is a colossal sort of reduction in suffering and in loss: it takes things down to essentials, strips away circumstances, reveals to a man what he truly is. There are hints in it of the possibility that suffering might usher in truth, precisely by ripping out lies.

And Christ. There is in these Russian stories a wild, confused, at times unorthodox fascination with Christ as humble, as suffering. As silent.

fathers-taleThis much I picked up on my own, but was hardly sure how to put it all together and make sense of it. Then last month I read my second Michael O’Brien novel, and found a man with the answers. A man who knows the historic Russian soul, and is intimately acquainted with the turbulent history of the 20th century. A man who knows the importance of traditional imagery better than anyone I can think of, who understands the vital significance of boats and of birds. A man who knows about kingfishers catching fire, and homesickness, and more than anything, who knows about the poor in spirit.

The Father’s Tale is 1076 pages long, but after the first 100 pages or so, it goes by like a breath. Alex Graham is a Canadian bookseller whose college-aged son gets caught up in a cult group and goes missing from Oxford University. The plot follows the timorous, unadventurous Alex as he travels around the globe in the search for his son. It’s a storyline that never works out exactly as you expect, and yet somehow always works out in the best possible way. Like any author who’s turned out this much volume on a regular basis, O’Brien certainly leaves some holes in the book, in terms of weak sentences and things you wish you could rewrite or reconstruct. But then, so does Dickens, and it didn’t seem to ruin his legacy.

O’Brien and I are not on the same page as regards faith traditions, so I’m not entirely in sympathy with some portions of the book, and found some of them exasperating. However, the ultimate themes in here transcend our differences, because they aren’t about icons but ideas, and those ideas are rooted deep in the literature that we both love, beginning, perhaps, with the Bible itself.

One of the many things that the tepid and dispassionate Alex Graham learns in his travels is the mysterious and yet lucid beatitude of poverty.

One becomes empty and poor, and in that state the Kingdom of Heaven is given to you,someone tells Alex while he is en route to Siberia. “To become a poor man is the greatest thing that can be given to us. It is the foundation.”

O’Brien takes the old Russian preoccupation with suffering, and shows its redemptive purpose with astonishing clarity.

Not what you expected, perhaps,” his friend tells Alex, after a particularly disappointing setback in his venture. “But it was a gift.”

A gift?” Alex responds. “It seems a total failure.”

“What is failure? The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”

In a public lavatory in Moscow, Alex encounters a dying man. The man is sick and filthy and wasted with substance abuse, and does not wish to live. He is in the drain-hole of the world, he says, the nyet, nyet, nyet. But Alex is determined to rescue him and take him to a hospital, in spite of a disgruntled taxi driver and an unsympathetic nurse. When he learns that the man’s name is Alexei, the Russian form of Alex, he is a bit taken aback by the coincidence, and chooses to call him by the fond and familiar derivative, Alyosha, the pet name that Alex gave himself as a child and a budding Russophile.

Lake-Baikal-russia-iceAlex doesn’t stay long with Alyosha after he sees him admitted to the hospital, but the significance of the incident pursues him throughout the rest of the story. It pursues him to strange and bizarre places, as he finds himself on a train attacked by militant protestors, stranded for weeks with a widowed Russian doctor and her two fatherless sons in a tiny village on the shores of Lake Baikal, and, in an unexpected turn of events, tortured by government intelligence officials in a windowless cell in Siberia. All along, O’Brien is probing deeper and deeper into the Russian psyche, into the legacy of the Soviet era, into the corruption of East and West.

In one scene, Alex speaks to an agnostic Russian with words that are far beyond him, although he doesn’t know it yet.

“Irina, do you remember when we first met, that night on the train? You quoted Pushkin. You said that in our times man was either tyrant or traitor or prisoner.”

“I have not changed my opinion,” says the woman with a hint of bitterness.

“But the Christian is a prisoner in Christ and with Christ and thus he is the only free man on the planet,” Alex says triumphantly. But he does not yet know what he is talking about.

It is in Alex’s greatest crisis of suffering that the ultimate gift is given to him. He wakes up brutalized in a freezing cell, completely dispossessed, and sees a man beside him in an even worse condition. Although Alex feels like his body has become one great wound, he reaches out to other person to try to offer some comfort.

“Who are you?” Alex breathed. Christ_Suffer

“Alyosha,” the lips whispered in reply.

“We are suffering, Alyosha,” Alex sobbed, placing the palm of his hand on the man’s forehead. “But we are not alone.”

The flesh of the forehead was riddled with holes. “You,” said the prisoner, are Alyosha.”

He touched the holes in the hands and feet of the prisoner. He lightly touched the face that a rifle butt had shattered. The hands of the prisoner drew his fingers to the wound in his heart, and his heart was a fountain.

And blessed are the poor in spirit.

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Imagination As Love

Kid ImaginationImagination is the power of image-creation. It is a living fire in the mind, for we are image-using creatures. Indeed, all our dealings and deliberations are the chasing – or the fleeing – of some picture we aspire or dread to enter into. Images are the way we understand the world, the way we sort what is desirable from what is to be avoided, the way we associate words with each other and words with deeds and words with the world. Words without pictures are without meaning. Images are the incarnation of language, the taking on of flesh.

This picture-processing begins in childhood. A child knows that words must go with something, they must belong to something. Like “spoon” belongs to the long, metal shovel that puts ripe, strong bananas between the teeth. Like “flowers” belongs to the cotton-white clusters that house the bees. Like “mommy” belongs to the soft, big person who knows all of the answers to everything.

SharkThe young people harried and hurried on every side by the world rushing to plot a plan, a course for all their days, they know it: how “actress” means they will strut the red carpet with the eyes of the world on their shimmering gown and their thick scarlet lipstick. How “secretary” means they will sit behind a little oak desk and speak in polished terms over the wires to disgruntled customers and important potential clients. How “engineer” means they will masterfully disassemble and gut the insides of automobiles, computer hard drives or spaceships. Based on the little that they know of the world, they chart their ways in hopes they will fall in with the image they saw once on the cover of National Geographic and loved: the sleek-skinned deep sea diver caressing the rubbery shark, the chic, fairytale couple kissing on the bridge over the Seine.

Red Carpet
A man or a woman who has not learned image-making is forever confined to understand the world through the images presented to him or her by life as it rushes by in its haphazard, careless way. Without imagination, she will not know until her own way takes her there what it is like to be an actress, a secretary, an engineer. She will not, perhaps, understand the possibility of soul-destroying preludes to the red carpet, the way she might have to give up everything she has for the eyes of the world on her mincing steps. Without imagination, how will she know that a secretary is more than the name of an employment position, that it is what she brings to it, that there are so very many pictures to go with a word?

Ten years in AfghanistanWithout imagination, a man will not know what it is like to be the parent of a runaway child or of a young boy slaughtered in an unjust war. He will not know what it is to be sick with hunger so that the smell of break cooking is dizzying. He will not know what it is to lose two legs, to lose his dream job, to lose his one true love. He will not know what it is to be the only survivor of a bombed village in an arid desert country. He will not know what it is like to be old and dying in a hospital with no one to visit you or even send cheap flowers.

Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed,” warned Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter. “By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”

This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.

In recent days, I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s Complete Short Stories. It would be a waste of breath to remark that the man was a masterful teller of tales. That fact is well-known. But something else that he was, which gives his stories much of their value, was a fabulous image-maker. His stories are from a century past in a country across the globe, but they speak vividly of the same human spirit we encounter around us every day, that we “joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”

One of these stories in particular has served for mmiserye as a stellar example of the importance of image-making to love. It is, of course, not certain that this story will act on everyone else in quite the same way, but it is beyond question that something else will.

The story is Misery. It is short and grim and sad and you can read it online here. It is just a sketch, an incomplete and unresolved look into another life. But when I read it, I cried as though at the end of a long, fully-developed work of tragedy. Such is the power of imagination.

Iona Potapov is a cab-driver in the snowy twilight of evening in long-ago Russia. His son has died and he is a poor man, a working-man, with no leisure for sorrow or for talk. He must load up his sledge with hasty, arrogant people all night and taxi them to and fro in the chill wind. Their schedules are brimming and they are not polite, but he is a man sick with grief and he must tell of it, though none should listen.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off.

“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the right! You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips…. Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

“What?” inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

“Who can tell! It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”

“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! drive on!… ” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box…. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white.

Iona is not necessarily a sentimental man, not necessarily a good man even. He is just a man who has lost a son. You have seen them before. And yet, have you really seen them? Have you really dedicated your powers to putting yourself in their place? So as to love?

And God so loved the world.

That He gave His only Son.

What I’ve Recently Finished Reading

The Island of the World, Bryana Johnson, Having Decided To StayIsland of the World (Michael O’Brien) –5 STARS– It took me a little while to realize that I do like this book and then a little longer to realize just how much I like it. However, since it’s 838 pages long, I had plenty of time in which to make those decisions. The Island of the World is a novel about one man, but written in epic form to illustrate the way that all our lives are epics in themselves. The Odyssey is referenced frequently and provides a backdrop for the book, which draws heavily on the beautiful theme of nostos, the homeward journey. Indeed, this is the theme of the entire book, although on a grand and cosmic scale. Josip Lasta, the central character, is a Croatian boy whose life is traced from childhood until old age during a period of massive and tragic turbulence in the Balkans and wanders through hell itself on his search for a reason to live. While I grew frustrated in the middle of the story with imagery that didn’t seem to make sense, I was pleasantly surprised by the way that all of the clues were woven into the story by the end. Note that O’Brien does not shy away from writing about violence. On the contrary, he seems to revel in it when it is necessary to the telling of the story he has set out to tell. Sensitive readers should be forewarned.

Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Kevin Belmonte) –4 STARS– This is a decent biography of Chesterton. Belmonte capitalizes on the sequence and contents of his writings (which were many and varied!) and doesn’t add as much insight into his life – especially his childhood and conversion – as I would have liked, so I didn’t learn quite as much as I was hoping I would.  Overall, however, this is a solid look at the legacy of a mighty wordsmith.

Letters To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (C.S. Lewis) – 4 STARS – I think Letters to Malcolm is quite underrated. An insightful collection of thoughts concerning the subject of prayer, it gives the reader a glimpse into a more private side of the mind of C.S. Lewis, revealing questions which that great man asked and yet perhaps was never able to answer on this side of the gray rain-curtain. However, the fact that he didn’t understand everything doesn’t seem to have bothered Lewis overmuch and this happy fact makes the book all the more precious. Of course, in addition to these more theoretical and philosophical considerations, Letters To Malcolm also provides practical ideas for cultivating a habit of prayer.

Miracle in Moscow (David Benson) – 5 STARS – David Benson’s story of distributing Bibles and meeting with followers of Christ in Russia during the cold war is chilling, to say the least. It’s also educational and fulfilling, but I wouldn’t tack on any light and fluffy words like “inspiring.” It is a chronicle of great faith and its rewards, but the rewards mostly consist of assistance on the battlefield of the world and in desperately dark places. This isn’t a book that will leave you with warm and fuzzy feelings about leaning on the everlasting arms, but will point out to you instead that leaning on the everlasting arms is not always a matter of settling into heated blankets. Indeed, it is more often like walking through the valley of the shadow of death with four cold fingers taking refuge in One Great Hand. The nobility of the upside-down Kingdom is portrayed very beautifully in this book, as well as the harried and haunted people of God who have lived in all ages in fear for their lives and yet not afraid. I suppose this is the aristocracy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Landlady’s Master (George MacDonald, edited by Michael Phillips) – 4 STARS – I’ve already reviewed this book here.

The Weight of Glory (C.S. Lewis) – 5 STARS – This is a book I will probably come back to more than once, in order to spend more time going over some more complex portions, particularly the chapter on transposition. My favorite essays from this collection were The Weight of Glory, Learning in War-Time, The Inner Ring, and Membership. The title essay, The Weight of Glory, is an exploration of sehnzucht, what C.S. Lewis calls “your inconsolable secret.”  It questions if the answer to our unfulfilled longings might not be ultimate acceptance by God. Of course, in so doing, Lewis lays bare a score of other delightful things. I want to post about three pages of quotes from this book, but will refrain from doing so, and simply admonish you to pick up this book and read at least the first chapter, if nothing else.

The Defendant (G.K. Chesterton) – 4 STARS – The Defendant is not really built around a unifying theme but is a collection of observations concerning varied and mostly unrelated topics. Chesterton’s two great weaknesses – carelessness and generalization – render a few of the essays unsubstantiated and shallow reasoning is evident in some places. However, there are also many moments of stunning brilliance contained in this volume and these make it well worth the read. Some of my favorites of the “defenses” were Rash Vows, Heraldry, Humility, Baby-Worship, and Patriotism.

Autobiography of George Muller (George Muller) – 5 STARS – This classic is simply written and easily read in a few hours. It is well worth it. Don’t let the title fool you: it is not really an autobiography of a man, but a chronicle of the ways of God with one man who wanted to give everything. And oh, what would we see if we would once realize the heights and the depths of the riches that are ours in Him?

A Damsel in Distress (P.G. Wodehouse) – 4 STARS – Wodehouse delivers again with another entertaining novel spiced with his typical verbal gymnastics and the recycled stock characters we’ve come to know and love.

How to Read the Bible as Literature & Get More Out of It (Leland Ryken) – 4 STARS – This is a magnificent look at the literary nature of the Bible. The preface and first chapter (which, in my opinion, are the best parts of this entire book) attempt to show the reader the artistry of the Bible and the importance of the imagination in coming to a true understanding of the Word of God. Ryken works from the premise that the story is the meaning, explaining that, “because literature aims to recreate a whole experience, there is a certain irreducible quality to it.”  He shows why our abstract dissections of the Bible so often fall short of truly communicating the truth contained in the text. This book gave a context and an expression to things that I have felt for many years but have not been able to coherently verbalize.

The Club Of Queer Trades (G.K. Chesterton) – 4 STARS – Solid Chestertonian fiction, riddled with farce and mystique. I listened to this on Librivox and heartily enjoyed the reader, David Barnes, who reads in a delightful British accent, well-suited to the characters in the story.

Adela Cathcart (George MacDonald) – 3 STARS – Novel about a sickly and psychologically weary young woman who is restored to health through the efforts of a group of acquaintances who form a storytelling club. The plot is rather thin, and some of the stories are annoyingly sentimental, but a few of MacDonald’s classic short stories are also included in this volume, such as The Light Princess and The Giant’s Heart. Overall, I have read better things by MacDonald and expect to read more of them in the future. I was super excited to find 53 of MacDonald’s books in one book on Kindle for $1.99. Now I won’t have to settle for anymore abridged and edited versions of his writings!

The Cold War: A History In Documents (Allan Winkler) – 3 STARS – I would hesitate to recommend this book. Despite its claim to rely on documents for evidence, the author’s bias toward modern liberalism is made all too evident. While Winkler does try to approach most issues more or less objectively, some statements he quotes (or makes himself) serve as windows into his own ‘progressive’ worldview. Take, for example, one towards the beginning of the book which deplores the fact that women in the US during the 1950s “could identify with nothing beyond the home – not politics, not art, not science, not events large or small, war or peace, in the United States or the world…” A discerning reader may be able to pick out the fact from the opinion, but I’m going to keep looking for a better book on the Cold War.

What I’m still reading

The Iliad (translated by Martin Hammond)
A Patriot’s History of the United States (by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen)
The Complete Poems (W.H. Auden)
The Collected Fictions (Jorge Luis Borges)
The Road to Serfdom (F.A. Hayek)

What else I want to read in the near future

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
The Weapon of Prayer (E.M. Bounds)
Hudson Taylor (by Howard Taylor)
The Gulag Archipelago (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers