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 The Importance of Being Smike

Nicholas NicklebySometimes a story smacks you squarely in the face with precisely the thing you need. So it was for me with Nicholas Nickleby last month, which I read over the course of only a week and which has been growing on me ever since, like a widening light.

Charles Dickens’ third published novel, Nicholas Nickleby is among the author’s earlier writings, and belongs very definitively to that set of his work that was the most Dickensian. That is, it is full of flair and hyperbole and drama and oppression and cold weather and child abuse and misery and heroics and ideals. Especially ideals.

Indeed, as with all of Dickens’ best work, Nicholas Nickleby’s strengths lie not in any unique plot twists or unusual characters, but in the incarnation of ideals, their taking on of flesh. Nicholas Nickleby is strong because its’ characters are ideals. And they take on flesh quite well – indeed, in 900 pages they have plenty of time to do so. The ideals are very fully fleshed out. But they are also very strong ideals, that have endured in the world since the genesis of Christendom. And if you love them already, you will find them splendid because Dickens makes them so, but mostly because they are splendid in their own right.

NicholasAt the heart of these ideals is the hero. This is Nicholas himself. He is not particularly original, but he attracts us because he is not merely a protagonist, but is, in fact, really a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. He adores justice and honor with a childlike simplicity and he takes on the miseries of life with a pure heart and cheery self-denial. Beside his fiery innocence, every contaminated sentiment and half-wrong seems horrible, and not to be endured.

All my days I have been seeking to be like him. Quite without knowing his story, at all, of course. Because Nicholas Nickleby is not a character invented by Dickens at all. He is the quintessential human hero, a picture of the man that men will follow, and that the world is not worthy of.

In Dickens’ story, Nicholas is afflicted by some rather prosaic difficulties when his father, a country gentlemen, dies unexpectedly, leaving the nineteen-year-old Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother in dire straits. They are forced to apply for assistance to the senior Nickleby’s brother, Nicholas’ uncle Ralph. Ralph is a ruthless and unscrupulous miser, who sends Nicholas off to work for pennies at a wretched boarding school in Yorkshire, and exploits Kate’s feminine graces to please his business partners. Their mother, while an amiable woman, lacks discretion, and cannot serve as a source of guidance for the two young people in their difficulties.

All told, the title character’s situation seems thoroughly unenviable. Fortunately, Nicholas carries something with him that turns the desolation of the world into an adventure: his stalwart decency. Thrust into scenes of unbearable degradation and injustice, his ideals of truth and righteousness do not falter, and cannot be co-opted. He is an honest man, and no one can take that away from him. This makes his life bearable and serves as a roadmap. You pity him in his hardship, but not too much, because you know he has a treasure of incalculable worth, and that he has what it takes to get to the other side of what is before him. Before his story is over, he will be the one turning the arrogant from their ease, and rescuing the downtrodden with remarkable flair.

I can’t not want to be that guy.

But I’m not.

I spent all my childhood imagining myself as something of a champion in the making. Oh, the places I would go, and all of the rescue I would dispense! All of my dreams were about heroics. So the knowledge that I have been somewhat mistaken in my aim has been a long time coming home to me.

With Nicholas Nickleby, it came home a little more. Because beside even Dickens’ simple and clichéd ideal, I seem very unheroic indeed. And I know that there must be something besides the fruitless chase after championship.

And so there is.

At Dotheboys’ Hall, a stereotypically Dickensian hell-hole, where Nicholas serves as an assistant to the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, we meet another character. Smike is crippled, and hardly a boy anymore at eighteen. He was abandoned at the school six years ago, and has been exploited by the Squeers ever since, serving them as a slave in deplorable conditions and beaten continually. His ill-treatment and ignorance have given him a feeble mind and doubled his terror and helplessness. Smike has no ideals to nourish him, and no prospects or plans ahead of him. His life is a living death.

Smike4
Nicholas, enraged by the cruelty that Smike endures, is very kind to the drudge. This is something Smike has never experienced before, and something happens to him that he did not realize could happen:  it dawns upon him that there is a reason to live, and that waking up in the morning doesn’t have to be just the shock of death flooding his lungs. His reason to live is Nicholas, and the hope of Nicholas’ approval and the ambition of serving him.

The Squeers, who are evil, are annoyed by the sight of goodness thriving anywhere, and redouble their efforts to make Smike’s life a torment to him. Nicholas decides this additional oppression is just about the last straw, and he informs Smike that he is going to leave. In a wild fit of desperation, Smike abandons the disgraceful institution on his own that night. Lame and starving, he doesn’t get far before he is dragged back by the schoolmaster’s wife. The Squeers, who find it necessary to deal with the imminent threat of mutiny among the boys, decide to make a great spectacle of Smike, and to flog him severely before the whole school.

As this ordeal commences, Nicholas snaps, and descends like a hurricane upon the schoolmaster, administering a sound drubbing to the latter, before packing his little bag and quitting the place. As he sets out on the long journey back to London, impoverished and with grim prospects, he runs into Smike, who has been following him all the way. Smike drops to his knees at Nicholas’ feet.

 ‘Why do you kneel to me?’ Nicholas asks.

“To go with you–anywhere–everywhere–to the world’s end–to the churchyard grave,” says Smike in a wild supplication. “Let me, oh do let me. You are my home.”

Smike is a cripple all of his days. He drags his deformed limbs with him everywhere, and his weak mind is never made whole. Wherever he goes, people will stare and whisper and feel sorry for him. He will never be a specimen of perfection. But in spite of all this he is at rest, and at home. Because he is following Nicholas Nickleby , and consumed in a sort of slavish devotion to his hero. What he is is wretched indeed, but what he is is not important to him. For he is utterly wrapped up in worshipping a worthier champion. In himself, there is limitless impotence and fear. But in his master there is enough glory to satisfy him.

And when the full import of this burst upon me, I found it disturbing, like a call to wake up.  Because my Dearest Friend is the prince of champions, and oh, are all of my springs in Him? The grace that has set me free, is it enough for me? Or must I do something of my own to add to it, before it is sufficient to be happy-making?

Hudson Taylor wrote to his wife in 1869,

I now see that it is not in what He is to me, not in what He is working, or has worked, or may work in, for, or by me, but in Himself I am to rejoice;  in what He is and has in Himself absolutely. And this, it appears to me, is the only possible or even legitimate ground for constant, unchanging, full joy.

But to get at the joy that is only outside of ourselves, we must come to the end of ourselves. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said our Lord. Not because they are lesser or more wretched than their brothers, but because they know it. And theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For the life at the heels of Christ is not about being a hero, but about loving a hero. And the more you love Him, the more you are at home in Him. And when He is all that matters, it doesn’t matter that you are what you are.

Because He is what He is.

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.

Thoughts for Independence Day

C.S.Lews -Born To Obey
A citizen of the world, an alien on the planet, and an emissary of the kingdom that is coming, calling no place home, still I have made a home of the nation founded on liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And it is a happy thing to owe loyalties to the country that has made room for us to freely serve The Captain. It is worth busting some fire-showers into the darkness. It is worth celebrating.

And the quickly-coming loss of all this is worth lamenting. Be glad for what is and what has been. Sorrow for the things that are coming. Be expectant.

Where the Spirit of the The Captain is, there is liberty.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory,
are being transformed………

On Ringbearing & Abiding & 2013

The Lord of The Rings - Bryana Johnson - Having Decided To StayYesterday was the seventh time that my house has welcomed the New Year with the sounds of the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith thundering in the living room. Yes, we watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy into the morning of every New Year’s Day. We have done it on two continents and in three houses and always heralded the event with much jubilation and adrenaline and hype and this is a practice that has blessed my life in probably more ways than I even know.

My history with Tolkien and his colossal epic goes back about nine years, to when I read the books at the age of twelve, along with my sister, and came away from watching The Fellowship of the Ring to find that the whole world felt different. And the world has never been quite the same since.

Cloak - Having Decided To Stay - LOTR - Bryana JohnsonAt first it was the sheer wonder of the story and the way that it opened doors on a world unlike and apart from this one – a fairytale of cosmic proportions. We were children, and our own world was still such a small place to us. The stories were bigger and told of a bigger world. We wanted to incorporate that world into every area of our own. We played the movie soundtracks day and night and read and reread the books. We crafted costumes and wore them unashamedly. At 6:00 AM on cold mornings we slipped out to the woods alone to walk among graceful, imaginary elves and ambush orcs. Also, we worked hard to construct a place where we could convey our experience to the world. It was all just a little ridiculous – in a delicious and enchanting way.

Later, though, those things began to change. We began to grow up and to grow into this poor, old, glory-haunted world. It was not that our love for the stories grew less, but that the love morphed into a different thing, a deeper, stronger, realer thing. We no longer loved Middle-Earth because it was set apart from and better than the world we happen to inhabit. We began to love it because it is the world we inhabit. Just as Tolkien always intended it to be. And we must inhabit it more and more and more.

As I keep growing up, walking more erect, putting away more of the childish things, I find I love these stories deeper in my marrow every year. Every year I find something new to marvel at, and every year this fictional world has something new to tell me about this very real world, every year this fictional war seems to have even greater bearing on this very real war that is closing in on every side. Every year the stories seem just a little more like truth.

Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one,” wrote the German poet Novalis. This sentence has been utter nonsense to me for most of my life. This year, though, I wish to shake the man’s hand quite heartily and congratulate him on his good sense in making such an admirable statement.

The thing about The Lord of the Rings (so I thought, last night, when we were just a few minutes into the first movie) is that it takes place in a world that looks very like the way the real world really looks.

For instance, Tolkien has crafted some people who are very much enamored of the light and of the truth and of beauty. They have strong power at their disposal, because the Ruler listens to them. We have such people in our own world also, and it is to be hoped that we are all aspiring to be among them, but – alas! – to my eyes and to your eyes they don’t all walk with a steady and measured tread and silver in their hair and a tangible grace seeping from their fingertips.

Perhaps, however, they do walk this way in the eyes of God. And the view from the eyes of God is the only definition of reality. Perhaps Tolkien was attempting to force this reality onto our own sight. Perhaps his intention was to fashion a world where the realest things are visible. Whether he thought of it in those terms or not, in some measure, at least, he succeeded in doing that very thing.

I believe it is this that makes these stories like a dream we are waking into, like a reality that is realer than all of the real around us.

In some circles it seems that New Year’s resolutions are going out of style. A number of very intelligent and godly people are writing about how they are not writing out any New Year’s resolutions this year. We are all going to stumble some this year, is part of their reasoning. We are all going to crash headlong in the dirt and fail to keep our promises and look back disappointed at the end of 2013. The important thing is to keep going forward, to keep growing stronger, to keep growing closer to Christ, to keep growing up. They have a point there.

I have been naming my new years since 2008. It is a sort of open-ended New Year’s resolution, like a flag-planting before a battle. There was the Year of Great Awakening first, and the Year of Victory came close on its heels. There was the Year of Glory after that and behind it the Year of Prayer and Shadowfeet. There was the year of Adoration. There has been a host of spectacular titles in my history.

But the only words that really matter are the ones we really live, and mostly my years have not been overwhelming successes but have been a series of little awakenings, a process of growing up, of coming to understand things, and coming to accept the fact that I cannot understand everything. And while growing up is a miracle all in its own right, it is not wrong to be dissatisfied with this sort of life, to insist on pressing in harder and to keep making promises, even though we are far too small and too frail to see them through.

We serve a God of grand promises and great expectations and the issue of our frailty is not a hindrance to Him. Indeed, it is almost a requirement.

God creates out of nothing, so until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him,” wrote Martin Luther. How much of our disappointed history is a result of the fact that we are not little enough, not helpless enough, that we must become less if Jesus is to become great?

It is all too easy to fall prey to the temptation to expect less of God, to make His promises less than they are, to forget that we who are lowly and uninitiated and powerless Halflings have been summoned to walk like Elven queens and princes, trailing glory and holding authority on our tongues. But sometimes the source of our doubting is our refusal to accept that we are those impotent and childish little hobbits, that it is only His grace which can pour out of our fingers, roll off our tongues, lift our eyes.

For this reason I am not afraid to name another year by another splendid and lavish title, to declare again that great glory shall be worked out of my days. Because the title I have chosen this year is one which I hope lowers me into the place where I belong, which invites Him to occupy preeminence.

I have named my new year The Year of Abiding.

To abide is to dwell, and I wish to abide this year, and forever after, in some things which are easily forgotten, and which the epic of The Rings always underscores with brilliance. I wish to abide in the clear and present knowledge of the war that is all around, to abide in the royalty that has been gifted to me, to abide in the dream that is realer than the world itself, the dream that is coming true.

I will not do all of these things all the time, however much I wish it at this moment. I will be stopping short sometimes in thick woods and owning myself thoroughly lost. I will be falling sometimes into puddles, lakes, and quarries. I will be sometimes huddling in a forlorn heap and saying no, I am done with this. When these things come about,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Such is my own prayer for the year we are just stepping into, like the carol over the cradle of the Christ,

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

But it means something else also. The abidan, gebidan words in Old English carried a meaning of waiting, of remaining behind. To abide is to wait. And so the supplication of abide with me is a prayer that cries

stay with me, live with me, OH! might you please wait with me?

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known. (-1 Corinthians 13:12)