I’ve been on a bit of an odd kick recently. It all started when I read The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy. I’ve been thinking about death, and about how it is approached.
Ilych is a man who never considered death, who always lived for himself. Selfish in every way, even in his marriage. But when he injures himself mildly by fixing up some curtains in a new fancy home, the wound takes a turn for the worse, and he ends up suffering terribly from an infection which eventually kills him. An excerpt from what is, in my opinion, the core passage of the book:
He cried about his helplessness, about his terrible loneliness, about the cruelty of people, about the cruelty of God, about the absence of God.
“Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me to this? Why dost Thou torture me so? For what?”
He did not expect an answer, and he cried because there was no answer and there could be none. The pain started up again, but he did not stir, did not call out. He said to himself: “Go on then! Hit me again! But what for? What for? What have I done to Thee?”
Then he quieted down and not only stopped crying, but held his breath and became all attention: he seemed to be listening — not to an audible voice, but to the voice of his soul, to the flow of thoughts within him.
“What do you want?” was the first thought sufficiently intelligible to be expressed in words. “What do you want? What do you want?” he repeated inwardly. “What? Not to suffer. To live,” he replied.
“To live? How?” asked the voice of his soul.
“Why, to live as I did before—happily and pleasantly.”
“As you lived before, happily and pleasantly?” asked the voice.
And in his imagination he called to mind the best moments of his pleasant life. Yet, strangely enough, all the best moments of his pleasant life now seemed entirely different than they had in the past—all except the earliest memories of childhood. Way back in his childhood there had been something really pleasant, something he could live with if it were to recur. But the person who had experienced that happiness no longer existed. It was as though he were recalling the memories of another man.
“What does it all mean? Why has it happened? It’s inconceivable, inconceivable that life was so senseless and disgusting. And if it was really so disgusting and senseless, why should I have to die, and die in agony? Something must be wrong. Perhaps I did not live as I should have,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be when I did everything that one is supposed to do?” he replied, and immediately dismissed the one solution to the whole enigma of life and death, considering it utterly impossible.
[ From Chapter 9, "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy (1886) ]
God have mercy on me, but neither do I live as I should. I am selfish. I am mean. And that is the tip of the iceberg.
There are comments I have left on blogs that have been less than loving. I apologize, please forgive me. It is hard, speaking truth while loving those to whom you speak. Many time when I speak, I should be listening. Many times, I’ll speak, and though the words are true, they aren’t loving at the time I speak them. I have been asked, on another blog, to “explain my communion” but the context of the question was of a pugnacious nature. I did not post.
We experience spiritual battle and temptation all the time. But I want not to triumphally discuss the superiority of Orthodoxy with anyone, particularly in a general blog, even when I know the folks, because who knows who may come along later. Who knows who might be disgusted at what that person might perceive as hubris rather than explanation. Individuals require answers in person based on a relationship. I know that I will not always be able to keep to this “rule”, but I hope that when I do respond that the context of the conversation makes it obvious that any response is to the inquiry, and not to trumpet the goodness of the Church… although she is very, very good!
Anyway. What came out after that excerpt wasn’t what I was planning to type, but there it is.
I pray God gives us all the grace and desire to love others as He has loved us. That is a self-sacrificing love, not the selfish “pleasant” life that Ilych pursued. It is a great book, I recommend it.
I’ve been reading a lot these last few weeks. It has been hot, and instead of tossing and turning in bed, I’ve gotten in some extra book time. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was the next book I finished, and I think I’ll save my comments for another post. The soundtrack for my thoughts on these books have been Chopin’s nocturnes, if you want to listen along.
I’ve also been reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. My summary, so far, is that he wants to be Orthodox without becoming Orthodox. Ironic, in that that would involve becoming an old kind of Christian…