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.

 

On Heroism: A Letter to my Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. How will I explain to them what to do with the deep-seated, grasping longings they have in them and don’t understand? How will they know they aren’t alone with their wants, that all of humanity pulses with the same passions? – passions that can raise the sinking ship from the waves, or drown it utterly? How will they know that I too know the press of their heartache? I will write a letter… ]

Titanic

My Dear Children,

You want to save the world. God bless you.

How it does need saving! How like it is to an overbold ocean liner, broken on the bergs of the deep and going down. How you want to dive under it and uphold it! How you wish your hands were great like those of God, that you could seize the smokestacks of the terrorized Titanic and take her out. How you want to dispense a thousand lifeboats into the cold darkness. How you want to hang on the heavy bell-ropes of the planet and set up a clamor for help that combs the stars.

This ambition to be a hero is one of the grandest things about the kingdom of youth. Never let anyone belittle it in your hearing, as long as you live. You are wise to let it run in your veins and impassion you. You are wise to look beyond your little self and into the great world, and hurt for it. You are wise to nurture your longing to heal the ravaged globe. Young people, never stop.

There is something you need to know, though. You should know it now, while you are still young, for though it will surely dawn on you when you are old and full of days, it may be too late, then, for much good that might have been. Oh, it may be too late.

You need to know that you are not the caped savior but a passenger on the ship that is going down. The world’s only hero has already been here, and you can add nothing to what He has done. The scared crowds lining the decks are not in need of you, but of something else entirely. And you can only offer it to them if you are sure you have got it.

Know your poor self as deeply as you can bear to. Know your own frailty and your own frame. Know how to laugh at the joke that is you. It is a very good joke.

Come more time, and a little age on your shoulders, you will want to die for something. Maybe you already do. God bless you.

I know the feeling. How small and ultimately insignificant is your little life in the scheme of things. How you ache for the picture to be bigger, for the story to be wider, for something to put it all together, and make it all make sense. How you want to go down fighting for a greater cause. How you want your tiny, rather wretched self to be swallowed up in something ineffable and all-consuming. How you want your one, precious life to be spent on the very best thing.

RussianSoldierWWIIFor this cause men leave all that is dear and familiar and hard-won, and fling themselves recklessly into battles that can’t be won. For this cause a boy will put all his hopes into the barrel of a gun and fire it into the nothingness and fall into the dirt with his life ebbing out. For this cause little bands of brothers will break themselves against the impossible fortresses of tyrants. For this cause young women in new bloom and old women with happy memories and strong, able men and small children have endured slow deaths and dismemberment and decades behind iron bars and gone out singing, singing.

All down the ages the world has been going to war. Because a man needs a thing higher than himself to spend himself on.

This is the one essential condition,” says Dostoevsky, “of human existence: that man should always be able to bow down to something infinitely greater. If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair.”

This ambition to be given up entirely to something entirely beyond you is one of the dearest things about you. Never let anyone poison your mind with myths about your own importance, murmurings about your individual rights and your individual grievances. You are wise to know your own poverty and insufficiency. Never stop knowing it.

There are some other things you need to know, though. You need to know them before you spend yourself on what is not worthy of you. For only one thing is.

The first thing you need to know is the way that evil men can take your best and noblest ideals and exploit them to the detriment of everything you honor and admire. Are men filled with a hunger to be sacrificed grandly? The kings of the earth are eager with ideas for grand sacrifice. They are eager to utilize your goodwill and your humility and your willingness to offer unquestioning obedience, and a man who will be guided by them may soon find himself blowing away the brains of toddlers in a pool of blood in a rice paddy, caught in a war that no one wants to win.

You do not owe your unquestioning obedience to that. Be sure you never offer that kind of allegiance to any of the rulers of the earth. A man may be weak and small, but his life, once he has given it up, is of great value, and may bring great ruin.

Nevertheless, you must not become less humble or less loyal because of this. You must not become embittered. The hunger in you is good. You have but to satisfy it with the thing that is right. You must offer your humility and your loyalty to a worthy commander. There is only one.

There is a second thing you need to know. It is the most important thing of all.

Ultimate heroism does not consist in dying for a thing, but in living for it.

Anyone can die. There is hype and adrenaline and suddenness and the strong, present sense of significance. The significance of death is rarely lost on anyone who comes to meet it face to face.

But to live something out, day in, day out, every tedious, monotonous, fearful, dull minute? Every morning to wake to the same alarm clock and fill your mouth with toothpaste and wear clothes you’ve worn a hundred other days and do the same tiresome work, and brush with the same tiresome people and greet all of this wearisome business with the same quiet joy, and seek in it the end that is higher than you?

Oh, that takes a hero. Oh, that takes a truly mighty man, a truly strong woman. Oh, that takes a power that is higher than you.

Yet that is the heroism that is before you, the bleak road through the thick darkness that severs everything from everything else and veils your eyes to what is occurring on every side. Will you go out without knowing? Because this is the satisfaction for the hunger in your heart and the only preparation to make you fit for the kind of dying that you want to one day do.