June 2013


Tolstoy, who was rather short-sighted, cut short the legs of the chair at his desk so that he could sit closer to the page he was writing. Looking at the chair is enough to visualise his large bearded bulk hunched in passionate concentration over his words.

 His writing room in his Moscow house is on the top floor, at the end of a short narrow corridor, lined with wood, off which are the rooms once occupied by his valet, his sister and other members of his teeming household. The office is well-lit, surprisingly, for a writer’s solitude, crammed with leather sofas and chairs. Nothing illustrates more vividly Tolstoy’s gregarious and intense aloneness. The bicycle leaning on the wall outside his room, testifying to one his favourite hobbies is evidence of the powerful physicality of this man, even in old age, tirelessly seeking truth. In the old daguerreotypes around the walls of the house he sits surrounded by wife, children, friends and disciples, with a fierce and glowering look. But the blissful expression on the face of his companions suggest that for all his awesomeness he was, in his immense vulnerability to life, remarkably loveable.

To anyone who has read, and therefore probably loved, Tolstoy these domestic details are not trivial. Like religious relics in a former age, they carry real presence in ordinary solidity. That presence, in turn, deepens the devotee’s reverence for the kind of mastery in question – whether of sanctity (if such a competence exists) or of the powers of thought and expression. Perhaps it is a sign of our weakness, but we feel the need to come close to such greatness. And better this way than gossiping about the private lives of the rich and famous of Beverly Hills.

Feeling Tolstoy’s presence like this awakens the longing to take time to re-read him and know him better. Similarly, a pilgrimage to saint’s shrines is about mere spiritual celebrity unless it nourishes a deeper motivation in us for the work of our inner journey. Knowing that we can come close to the simple humanity of the masters’ minds and hearts can free us from the self-denigration of false comparison. It awakens an awareness of our unique potential. As Simone Weil encouragingly remarked, everyone has genius though not all have talent.

Nevertheless touring the world of relics and museums is playing with fire. The great churches of Orthodox Moscow and St Petersburg hit the drab Western Christian visitor with an unexpectedly intense, if not wild religious experience. With our abbreviated ‘low’ mass, the masterpiece of Roman efficiency and brevity, there is little competition with the complex liturgical density of an Eastern rite intoxicated with its own religious beauty and lost in time.

They would excommunicate me for saying so – as they excommunicated Tolstoy at the end of his life - but the sheer religious power of these churches is reminiscent of an Indian temple operating in full force. Worshippers in a Russian church are not neatly and passively stacked in pews, to be serviced. They stand and participate. They walk from a baptism on one side of the church to a funeral rite conducted simultaneously on the other. The icons, like the reserved sacrament in the West, invest the devotional experience with a physical locality. Powerful spiritual magnets attracting worshippers icons are, unlike the tabernacle, physically approachable. They demand to be kissed.

The Russian psyche is hard to capture in one image or a few phrases. But it is passionate - about ideas and living them incarnately. Thought flows in action, mind and body are in your face. Moscow, despite decades of the Communist religion, appears to have re-emerged, at least in its own imagination, as the other Constantinople, a centre of Orthodoxy, a city of glittering gold onion domes. Better to leave the politics of the Orthodox Church under Tsar Putin to one side for the moment. Many Russians are as secularized as in the West, many are spiritually hungry but feel religiously alienated, a few would have had me thrown out of the churches that I prayed in until I had been re-baptised.

The rationalist Tolstoy was exasperated by this deep and slightly dark mysticism. A church instructed to pray for the death of Russia’s enemies went too far for him. He and the mystical Dostoevsky were at opposite social and religious ends of the Russian spectrum. They admired each other but never met. Dostoevsky, who was born in a small, claustrophobic Moscow apartment near the poor hospital where his father served, was aghast at Tolstoy’s denial of the divinity of Christ. These two mighty minds are equally Russian, forever irreconcilable and inseparable. This is not a culture that could have come up with Anglo-Catholicism.

How you deal with this aversion to compromise is, no doubt, a matter of temperament.


Laurence Freeman OSB

Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine and the Director of The World Community for Christian Mediation. His daily readings for Lent are available online: www.wccm.org