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The Sacramental Laurus

Reading the novel with Orthodox and Protestant eyes

I was reading to the kids the other night from Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, by Suzanne Massie. It’s a wonderfully written book. Here’s a passage that caught my eye. Christianity first came to Russia in 988, with the conversion of the Kievan Prince Vladimir to Orthodoxy. In this passage, Massie explains how the Slavs brought their own traditions into the forms handed to them from Byzantium:

For the Slavs, the destines of man, animals and plants were all blended into one; they blossomed and died together. For them, beauty lay primarily in an all-embracing, all-encompassing nature. To their church, the Russians brought this close feeling for nature. The Earth was the ideal of Eternal Womanhood, and so in Russia, there never was the extreme Latin veneration and cult of the Virgin as the Virgin of Purity but more importantly as the Virgin of Motherhood, fertility, and compassion; the Virgin was rarely portrayed without a child. Permeated by this sense of unity with nature and the earth, the Russians interpreted Christians rebirth quite literally as the beautifying and transfiguration of human life. The church building itself had a twofold meaning. It embodied the significance of the Resurrection and was also part of the natural world, blending harmoniously into the landscape.


The Orthodox believe that it is possible to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in a man and to convey it to others by artistic means. Therefore, the function of an icon painter had much in common with that of a priest, and although it was important for an icon painter to be a good artist, it was essential for him to be a good Christian. Those who painted icons had to prepare themselves spiritually: fast, pray, read religious texts, for it was a true test, not only a pictorial work in the usual sense.

… For an Orthodox worshiper, icons were far more than paintings; they were the palpable evidence of things hidden and a testimony to the possibility of man’s participation in the transfigured world which he sought to contemplate. The role of icons was not static but alive, a dynamic means by which man could actively enter into the spiritual world, a song of faith to man’s spiritual power to redeem himself by beauty and art.

It’s important to point out here that no Orthodox Christian would say that man could “redeem himself”; the theologically correct thing to say would be “a song of faith to the ability of man to enter into a redeeming communion with God through beauty and art.” God does the redeeming, but the important point here is that for Orthodox Christians, with their sacramental mentality, the entire world testifies to God’s presence in Creation. This was especially true in medieval Latin Christianity too. One of the most common Orthodox prayers even today hails God as “everywhere present and filling all things.” Laurus conveys the imagination of the medieval Russian, who does not recognize a clear division between nature and supernature. Indeed, later in the book, as he matures spiritually, the healer Arseny recognizes that the healing herbs and gestures he has been using were nothing but vehicles through which the Holy Spirit worked.

Anyway, I bring this up because these passages from the Massie book helped me put my finger on what I didn’t like in my Torchy’s Taco-buying friend Alan Jacobs’s somewhat negative review of Laurus, a novel I’ve come to love. Alan is a very sophisticated reader, but I’m wondering if his Evangelicalism caused him to miss certain aspects of this very Russian novel. (Similarly, I wonder if the fact that I have been worshiping in the Russian Orthodox tradition for almost a decade revealed certain things to me about the novel that I would not have understood without that experience.)

Alan writes:

Indeed, Jesus Christ does not play a large role in Arseny’s consciousness. He is in constant conversation not with his God but with those dear to him who have died, and this seems to be related more to his temporal dislocation than to any faithful hope for the resurrection of the dead. His constant proximity to what certain Celtic spiritual traditions call the “thin places,” where the boundaries between this world and another are porous, doesn’t seem to be related to any particularly Christian ideas. When another such porous one, traveling with ­Arseny through Eastern Europe, comes upon the future site of Auschwitz and senses the evil yet to come troubling the ­medieval air, we shudder along with him; but such disruptions of ­conventional realistic narrative—and there are many of them in Laurus—seem, in this reader’s mind anyway, to owe little to any iden­tifiably Christian understanding of the supernatural.

Well, see my first point about the Orthodox imagination reading all of Nature as a revelation of the Triune God of Holy Scripture. This is, as I said, very much the same outlook as the medieval Western Christian. It did not occur to me, as a reader, to see anything particularly unusual about Arseny never, or rarely, mentioning Christ. I took it as given; his life would not make sense without Christ. I’m interested to hear from Catholic and Protestant readers of Laurus, to see if what we brought to the reading of Laurus affected our ability to grasp its message.

About the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. The wonder-working elder, or starets, is an old and venerable figure in Russian Orthodoxy. In Orthodox Christianity, there is a long tradition of certain elders receiving the gift of clairvoyance. In recent times, St. Paisios, an Athonite monk, had this gift, and demonstrated it (this amazing book, by one of his spiritual children, discusses this at length). But he also made some wild prophecies that have not come true, and seem quite unlikely to be realized. As ever, we have to be careful and discerning about these things. The point here, though, is that in the Orthodox Christian tradition, clairvoyance is rare, but still considered a spiritual gift that God grants to a few particularly holy elders.

Second, and, I think, more important, Vodolazkin plays with the concept of Time to reveal the essential unity and timelessness of all things in God. It is a mystical insight that has a long history in Christianity. St. Benedict of Nursia, for example, was granted a vision in which he saw all of creation unified “in a single ray of light,” according to his biographer, Pope St. Gregory the Great. In Dante’s Paradiso, at the end of the pilgrim’s journey, Dante had his final vision:

O grace abounding, by which I have dared
To fix my eyes through the eternal Light
So deeply that my sight was spent in it!

Within its depths I saw gathered together,
Bound by love into a single volume,
Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.

Substance and accidents and their relations
I saw as though they fused in such a way
That what I say is but a gleam of light.

The universal pattern of this knot
I believe I saw…

Granted, this is fiction, but the point is the same: all things that exist exist in God, Who is eternal. Time is an illusion to God. This is a metaphysical point. In the late Middle Ages, many Western theologians came under the sway of Duns Scotus’s concept of “univocity,” which meant that God is not Being, but rather a being, within the broader category of Being. This began the intellectual process, aided by nominalism, that separated God metaphysically from Creation. Orthodoxy never lost that understanding, and it is still present within the Thomistic metaphysical structure of Roman Catholicism. As far as I know, it does not exist within Protestantism, and certainly it is not stressed in contemporary Catholicism. Maybe that is why such an intelligent and perceptive reader as Alan didn’t recognize this material in Laurus as Christian.

Furthermore, reviewing Laurus, Justin Lonas said:

The way time moves (or doesn’t) in Laurus is reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five, with Arseny “unstuck” in time. Whereas Vonnegut’s clock-play evokes an underlying banality to life, what Vodolazkin achieves is more akin to prophecy—unfolding reality with a rising spiral of metaphysics.

Events and themes seem to reverberate through the book and beyond. What occurs is never in isolation from everything else in the story, but reaches across time and space to give significance to what comes before and after. Like biblical prophecies, which so often have immediate, intermediate, and ultimate fulfillments as they ripple out from their proclamation, the phases of Arseny’s story rhyme, often with repeated phrases and mirrored scenes. For example, early in the book, Arseny sees his older self staring back at him through a fire; the same few paragraphs are retold from the perspective of the old man some 200 pages later, as they behold one another and weep together.

The one constant in time within the story is writing. Characters are constantly quoting Scripture, things of importance are always written down, and Arseny reads and re-reads a few key texts and the manuscripts his grandfather had scribbled into pieces of birch bark.

“For Christofer, the written word seemed to regulate the world. Stop its fluctuations. Prevent notions from eroding. This is why Cristofer’s sphere of interest was so broad. According to the writer’s thinking, that sphere should correspond to the world’s breadth…Cristofer understood that the written word would always remain that way. No matter what happened later, once it had been written, the word had already occurred.”

I hope you will read Alan’s review. I don’t want to overquote it, but he has some interesting things to say about the parallels between a Hindu ascetic’s life and Arseny’s. Here’s one more passage of the review I want to comment on. Alan writes of a moment in the book where Arseny asks Christ for direction in life. I’ve slightly edited this to avoid plot spoilers:

“And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.” He speaks this aloud, and is overheard:

What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder … . Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey—and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.Arseny replies, somewhat comically, that he just wants to know the “general direction” of his journey; to which the elder replies, “But is not Christ a general direction?” That ­Arseny does not grasp the full import of this question may be seen in the question that he in turn asks a few lines later: “Then what should I be enamored of?”

I think this scene is clearly meant to be the fulcrum of the novel—and the “repose” the elder speaks of is echoed in the title of the next section, “The Book of Repose”—but it is not clear to me that Arseny ever really understands, much less practices, what the elder says to him. Such repose as he achieves strikes me as all too consistent with what he wants from his pilgrimage’s very beginning, an atonement to be earned by lengthy penitence. To be sure, there is grace for him, but it strikes me as a novelist’s kind of grace, not God’s.

Boy, do I disagree with this conclusion — and again, I suspect the difference between Alan’s reading of it and my own may simply be theological. I can’t talk about it in too much detail without spoiling the story, so bear with me. In the novel, the Elder who gives Arseny direction is telling him that he needs to quit walking around the world looking for redemption, but to go within, to be contemplative, not active, and to meet Christ there. In the stunning conclusion of the novel, Arseny — now called Laurus — sacrifices everything he had gained in life, in radical humility, to save the life of someone who wronged him. Because of Christ, and through Christ, he lived as Christ when he was put to the test. That is not “earning” atonement, but the ultimate repentance of the sin of Pride, which is what caused Arseny’s terrible fall as a young man — a fall that resulted in two deaths. If it weren’t for Arseny’s radical death to self as a Christian monk and ascetic, he would not have been open to the grace that allowed him to offer himself in the place of another.

By the way, Vodolazkin addressed these themes himself in the interview I did with him:

RD: I think one of the most important moments in Laurus occurs when an elder tells Arseny, who is on pilgrimage, to consider the meaning of his travels. The elder advises: “I am not saying wandering is useless: there is a point to it. Do not become like your beloved Alexander [the Great], who had a journey but no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.” What does this say to the modern reader?

That it is time to think about the destination, and not about the journey. If the way leads nowhere, it is meaningless. During the perestroika period, we had a great film, Repentance, by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze . It’s a movie about the destruction wrought by the Soviet past. The last scene of the film shows a woman baking a cake at the window. An old woman passing on the street stops and asks if this way leads to the church. The woman in the house says no, this road does not lead to the church. And the old woman replies, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”

So a road as such is nothing. It is really the endless way of Alexander the Great, whose great conquests were aimless. I thought about mankind as a little curious beetle that I once saw on the big road from Berlin to Munich. This beetle was marching along the highway, and it seemed to him that he knows everything about this way. But if he would ask the main questions, “Where does this road begin, and where does it go?”, he can’t answer. He knew neither what is Berlin, nor Munich. This is how we are today.

Technical and scientific revelation brought us the belief that all questions are possible to solve, but that is a great illusion. Technology has not solved the problem of death, and it will never solve this problem . The revelation that mankind saw conjured the illusion that everything is clear and known to us. Medieval people, 100 percent of them believed in God – were they really so stupid in comparison to us? Was the difference between their knowledge and our knowledge as different as we think? It was not so! I’m sure that in a certain sense, our knowledge will be a kind of mythology for future generations. I reflected this mythology with humor in Laurus, but this humor was not against medieval people. Maybe it was self-irony.

RD: Timelessness is one of the main ideas of Laurus, which leaps suddenly and unexpectedly from the medieval present, to our own time. What does this mean?

EV: Time doesn’t exist. Of course time exists if we’re speaking in everyday terms, but if we think from the perspective of eternity, time doesn’t exist, because it has its end point. For medieval people, God was the most important thing about life, and the second most important thing was Time. On the one hand, medieval people lived rather short lives, but on the other hand, life was very, very long, because they lived with their minds in eternity. Every day is an eternity in the church, and all that surrounded these people. Eternity made time very long, and very interesting.

If you would think about the first patriarchs, Adam, Methuselah, and others, they had an incredible long life. Adam lived 930 years, Methuselah lived, as far as I remember, 962 years. Because they had eternity in their memories, eternity could not disappear at once. This eternity disappeared slowly, dissipated in the long life of the patriarchs. Medieval people, by comparison to us, are these patriarchs. Their life was very long because they had as part of daily life this vertical connection, the connection to the divine realm, a connection that most of us in modernity have lost.

The book is Laurus. Evgeny is flying all around now, getting ready for the release of his follow-up novel, The Aviator, which comes out on April 8 (not sure when it will be released in English). Not sure what the plot of this one is, but he tells me it is very different from Laurus. You can imagine how anxious I am to read it.



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