You may recall my raving about Laurus, a prize-winning Russian novel that has just been translated into English. My friend Eric Metaxas read it on my recommendation, and says it’s mind-blowing. Frederica Mathewes-Green just started it, and she says she can’t put it down. It really is that good. BBC Radio 4 has posted a PDF of the first chapter of the novel. It’s a very short introductory chapter, only a few paragraphs, but it gives you a glimpse of what’s to come, and you get to read the translator’s introduction too.
Laurus is the story of an inadvertent holy man of the Russian medieval period, Arseny, who experienced love and tragedy at a young age, and whose life became both a real and a metaphorical pilgrimage in response to this suffering. I’ve been in touch with the novel’s author, Evgeny Vodolazkin, and will be interviewing him next week (so watch this space). One of the things we will talk about is Time, which is a great theme of the novel. In a short interview Evgeny did with BBC Radio 4, he talked briefly about how he handles Time in such a way in the novel as to convey the idea that Time does not really exist, that it’s a human construct.
Confronting this concept in Laurus, I was reminded of this passage from Canto 33 of Dante’s “Paradiso,” when the pilgrim Dante reaches the end of all his journeying, and beholds the Holy Trinity:
O plenitude of grace, by which I could presume
to fix my eyes upon eternal Light
until my sight was spent on it!
In its depth I saw contained,
by love into a single volume bound,
the pages scattered through the universe:
substances, accidents, and the interplay between them
as though they were conflated in such ways
that what I tell is but a simple light.
I believe I understood the universal form
of this dense knot because I feel my joy expand,
rejoicing as I speak of it.
Or consider this translation of the same text, by Anthony Esolen:
O overbrimming grace whence I presumed
to gaze upon the everlasting Light
so fully that my vision was consumed!
I saw the scattered elements unite,
bound all with love into one book of praise,
in the deep ocean of the infinite;
Substance and accident and all their ways
as if breathed into one: and, understand,
my words are a weak glimmer in the haze.
The universal Being of this band
I think I saw — because when that is said,
I feel the bliss within my heart expand.
“Substances” and “accidents” are Aristotelian categories that were key to medieval thought. Here’s an explanation of what they mean; roughly, a “substance” is the essence of a thing, and an “accident” is a particular expression of substance. As the website to which I link says, “Accidents are the modifications that substance undergo, but that do not change the kind of thing that each substance is.” In his notes, Esolen says:
The first of the three mysteries beheld by the poet is that of the unity of all things and their harmonious dependence upon and permeation by the providence of God. The image of the book derives from Bonaventure: “From this we may gather that the universe is like a book reflecting, representing, and describing its Maker, the Trinity” (Brev. 2.12).
Dante’s point is that at the end of the universe — that is to say, when he reaches the throne of God — he perceives that everything that ever was and is to come already exists within the totality of Being, which is to say, God. The poet Dante, describing his pilgrim self’s experience, says that what he discloses in his poem is barely a glimmer of radiant Reality.
There’s a great book called The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, by a scholar at the University of Notre Dame, Christian Moevs. In it, he discusses how one of the most important discoveries that the pilgrim Dante makes on his journey is that Time does not exist in reality. Moevs writes:
To experience and live the improbable postulate that even though consciousness (as in humans) appears to exist in, and depend on, the spatiotemporal world, the truth is the opposite (all space-time is a creation or projection of conscious being): it is to free oneself from the obsessive lure of the ephemeral through faith (action and experience, not just words and ideas) and take one’s rightful place in the Empyrean [eternity, the kingdom of Heaven — RD]. It is to know oneself not only as a thing in space-time, but also as one with the source of space-time. It is to awaken to onself Christically as the subject, and not only an object, of experience, by voluntarily sacrificing the attachment to, or obsessive identification with, the finite. It is to experience oneself as attributeless, extensionless, immune to all contingency: one with the ontological ground that spawns and knows all possible object of experience as itself. It is to know oneself as everything, and as nothing, which is to love all things literally, and not just metaphorically, as oneself. It is to achieve salvation, or eternal life.
This language is not easy, nor is the book. What Moevs says here is that the pilgrim Dante, on the verge of achieving theosis, or metaphysical unity with God, understands that everything that exists is only the projection of the mind of God, bound together by Love. We cannot “read the book” of reality with our minds, only with our hearts, through Love, which is the Logos, or ordering principle. Once you understand that Time does not exist in the mind of God, that everything is part of eternity, you become detached from created things, and love only God. This is not to say that you hate created things (because God created them, after all, and declared them good, and can be known partially through His creation), but rather that your love for them is subordinated to your all-consuming love of God. Moevs continues:
In the Comedy salvation is rather a self-awakening of the Real to itself in us, the surrender of sacrifice of what we take ourselves and the world to be, a changed experience that is one with a moral transformation. We cannot know what we are until we surrender what we think we are, with all its attendant desires. Dante could say with Wittgenstein that he aims to prevent understanding unaccompanied by inner change, and that there can be no true understanding without moral perfection (perfect selflessness, the dissolution of the ego)…
The point here is that to know God is to know Reality, and even more, it is to know God/Reality not with one’s mind, but with one’s heart. One cannot comprehend intellectually the fullness of Reality, standing outside of it, but one may unite with that Reality, by conversion of the heart, which is to say, through the purification and illumination of the nous (pron. “noose”).
In my earlier blog post here about Laurus, I quoted from an interview that Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and an ardent reader of Russian literature, said about Dostoevsky:
RW Dostoevsky and some of his followers would say ethics is not about good and evil; it’s about truth and falsehood, reality and illusion. The right way to live doesn’t amount to a series of approved actions. It’s about living in recognition of reality.
LC I like this idea of a true reality beaming its message out from Dostoevsky’s great novels, but on the face of it it’s so airy-fairily metaphysical I wonder whether we can persuade many people today to buy it.
RW Reality is an underlying conviction of harmony. The sense that there is a unity to human experience, that somewhere every river runs into the same sea.
This metaphysical truth is exactly what Vodolazkin bears witness to in Laurus, and exactly what Dante says in the Commedia. The journey of the pilgrim Dante is ultimately the same as the journey of Arseny: towards unity with Reality, which is to say, with the God revealed to us in the Bible. Theosis.
Again, this concept may sound airy-fairy mystical, but when you encounter it in the pages of Laurus, you understand. All Christianity held this vision until the end of the High Middle Ages in the West. Orthodoxy still maintains strongly. One of the things I most cherish about Orthodoxy is the way time seems to stop when you enter into a church for the Divine Liturgy. All the icons on the walls remind you of the reality that we stand among a great unseen cloud of witnesses from all ages of the Church, worshiping. Here is a photo of the interior of Holy Theophany church in Colorado Springs, where I attended liturgy a week ago. All these colors and images are signs pointing to Reality:
Finally, on the subject of Time, here is a comment about Laurus by a young writer named Grigory Ryzhakov, who attended a lecture on medieval history and literature that Vodolazkin delivered recently at Oxford. Excerpt:
When the Q&A started, I asked the author about his latest book, Laurus, and why it was written.
Vodolazkin said that he wrote it from the heart. He felt a compulsion to write about a kind, virtuous man. There is a lot of decadence, ‘sh*t’, and negativity in the modern literature. Vodolazkin intended to counter all that with a story of a saint, which he could only find in the medieval times. [Emphasis mine — RD]
In his opinion, literature is all about reaction, reflection, and it should raise questions and make readers attempt to answer them. In Laurus, Vodolazkin depicted a path that one could choose to follow or decide not to. The moral questions aside, the author tried to make it an exciting read.
Someone asked the speaker why the saint was a man, and not a woman. Vodolazkin said it was easier for him to write a male protagonist, though the story was not about a man, but a human. In fact, it was inspired by the life of Blessed Xenya of St Petersburg, who, after her husband had deceased, decided to live his life for him and wandered for 45 years, often wearing her husband’s uniform. So, in a way, Laurus is a ‘fool-for-Christ’ type of text (юродивый), so nobody would take it too serious. One shouldn’t not ‘portray’ a serious Wise Man, the seriousness should be inside.
I am sure Vodolazkin doesn’t deny that there are saints in the post-medieval period. St. Xenia, for example, died in 1803. Perhaps what he is saying is that the Middle Ages were a time when sanctity was easier to perceive. I don’t know; I will ask him. I can say that part of my passion for the Benedict Option is a desire to live out that same sense that the medievals had of the divide between the temporal and the eternal being an illusion, and of God being everywhere present and filling all things. That is Reality — a Reality that is harder to perceive in our present Dark Age.