by Reader Nicholas Kotar 

A review of Lau­rus, by Evgenii Vodolazkin (Oneworld Pub­li­ca­tions, 2016). 352 pp., $24.99. Hard­cov­er ISBN: 9781780747552

One of the more com­mon words of advice we hear from our priests is: “Read the lives of the saints.” It would seem to be an easy enough task to accom­plish. And yet, I was sur­prised once to hear a very devout Ortho­dox young man say, 

“No one reads the lives of saints any­more. What we need is liv­ing exam­ples of sanc­ti­ty, not old sto­ries.”


We’re not supposed to see ourselves in the saints. We’re supposed to see how far we have yet to go before we can become saints.

Of course there are plen­ty of Ortho­dox (some in high places, unfor­tu­nate­ly) who don’t even believe the lives of the saints. I’ve even heard of a pro­fes­sor at an impor­tant sem­i­nary in the US who taught that the life of St Mary of Egypt was a leg­end and that she nev­er actu­al­ly lived. This prob­lem is a very seri­ous one. If peo­ple have lost the abil­i­ty to relate to the sto­ries of the Church (and the lives of saints are, first and fore­most, sto­ries), then what’s to stop Ortho­dox peo­ple from ques­tion­ing the most impor­tant sto­ry of all — the Gospel?1

 

Why Story?


In a series of arti­cles and two excel­lent books, author and sci­en­tist Lisa Cron makes a com­pelling argu­ment, based on recent research in neu­ro­science, that there is some­thing wired into the human brain that makes it recep­tive to good sto­ry­telling. 


“Sto­ry is how we make sense of the world,” she says, “In short, we’re wired to turn to sto­ry to teach us the way of the world and give us insight into what makes peo­ple tick.”
2

Sci­ence has only con­firmed what we have known for a long time to be true. Christ Him­self under­stood this. That’s one of the rea­sons why He spoke in para­bles, not in lengthy philo­soph­i­cal argu­ments. Christ, as we read in the Gospels, wants man’s whole heart, his whole per­son. Reach­ing the heart through com­pelling sto­ry is one of the ways He attract­ed peo­ple to Him­self. 


All effec­tive preach­ers are, and have always been, sto­ry­tellers. On Pen­te­cost, St Peter told the sto­ry of Christ’s cru­ci­fix­ion from a star­tling, new per­spec­tive.3 Aid­ed by the grace of the Holy Spir­it, his sto­ry con­vert­ed thou­sands. Stephen the First Mar­tyr retold the entire sto­ry of the Cho­sen Nation to defend him­self. His accusers became livid, not because he out-argued them, but because he told a bet­ter and truer sto­ry.4 The sto­ry of St Paul’s con­ver­sion is told three sep­a­rate times in the Book of Acts,5 each to a dif­fer­ent audi­ence and in a dif­fer­ent style. 

Thus, a slightly comic, slightly fantastic, slightly historical fable about a fictional saint turns out to be the perfect recipe for modern readers to begin developing their “poetic souls.”

Repeat­ing tropes (such as occur in fairy tales and lives of saints) have a way of assur­ing the lis­ten­er that “here is some­thing true,” some­thing that can explain the strange­ness and mys­te­ri­ous­ness of life. After hear­ing a good sto­ry, a per­son is more amenable to virtue. 

Oth­er stud­ies show that read­ing good sto­ries makes peo­ple more empa­thet­ic toward oth­ers. This is because when we read, we lose our­selves in the sto­ry so much that we begin to asso­ciate our­selves with the hero of the sto­ry. In a way, we become the hero of the sto­ry. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, after read­ing these sto­ries, we are nat­u­ral­ly more com­pas­sion­ate to the peo­ple we encounter in “real life.” We’ve been trained to think and feel in the right way by the sto­ries that we read. 

That also means that if we read the wrong kind of sto­ries, or don’t read sto­ries at all, we may become less com­pas­sion­ate and less lov­ing to oth­ers. We lose our child­ish sense of won­der, our “poet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty.” 


The Poetic Soul 

And in case any­one thinks this isn’t impor­tant, the recent­ly can­on­ized St Por­phyrios of Athens will quick­ly rebuke him: 

For a per­son to become a Chris­t­ian he must have a poet­ic soul. He must become a poet. Christ does not wish insen­si­tive souls in His com­pa­ny. A Chris­t­ian, albeit only when he loves, is a poet and lives amid poet­ry. Poet­ic hearts embrace love and sense it deeply.6

This lack of a “poet­ic soul” is endem­ic, and it must be com­bat­ted fierce­ly. What we need is to train our­selves with good lit­er­a­ture first. When our souls have become mal­leable through such read­ing, then we will become more amenable to the sub­tle truths that the lives of saints offer us for emu­la­tion.


Laurus


I can think of no bet­ter place to begin this self-train­ing than by read­ing a recent nov­el by Evgenii Vodolazkin, Lau­rus. 


It’s a nov­el that’s hard to cat­e­go­rize. On the one hand, it’s clear­ly a his­tor­i­cal nov­el set in 15th cen­tu­ry Rus­sia. And yet, some of the char­ac­ters inex­plic­a­bly begin to speak in 21st cen­tu­ry slang. Our main char­ac­ter stum­bles across a plas­tic bot­tle in the for­est. One of the char­ac­ters sees his own descen­dant four hun­dred years in the future. 

So, it’s a fan­ta­sy? Maybe. There’s a tame wolf, a sta­ple of good fan­ta­sy nov­els. The main char­ac­ter can see his future self in the fire of his family’s stove. Time trav­el is a very real pos­si­bil­i­ty. But the sto­ry is ground­ed in the details of the dai­ly life of reg­u­lar peo­ple in medieval Rus­sia, down to the kinds of herbs you should use to make a tea that can guar­an­tee preg­nan­cy. And the sto­ry is ulti­mate­ly about the spir­i­tu­al jour­ney of a future saint. 

So, it’s a nov­el­ized saint’s life? Maybe, but what about the absur­dist com­e­dy? What about the fools for Christ who bat­tle over ter­ri­to­ry in Pskov? Some of them even go so far as to walk on water to defend their space. And why is it that I laugh as I read how the rival fools for Christ engage in pugilis­tic activ­i­ties over triv­i­al­i­ties? 


What is this book? 

I give up. I won’t char­ac­ter­ize this book. It defies char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. But I will say one thing. Read it. 

Read­ing this is the best way to intro­duce peo­ple back into the Church’s tra­di­tion­al genre of saints’ lives. It’s an excit­ing, dra­mat­ic nov­el, full of unex­pect­ed twists and turns, but ulti­mate­ly it’s a saint’s life, only told from an unusu­al perspective—the saint him­self.


Our mod­ern read­ing tastes fol­low our TV-watch­ing habits. Most of us no longer like read­ing sto­ries told from an omni­scient point of view, where the author is a clear voice direct­ing the reader’s atten­tion from one char­ac­ter to anoth­er, like Dick­ens or George Eliot. No, we like to be inside char­ac­ters’ heads, watch­ing what’s going on as though we’re sit­ting in front of a TV screen. And that’s a per­spec­tive from which no saint’s life has ever been told. 

Saints’ lives are told from a detached per­spec­tive, and the “heroes” of the sto­ries have achieved such a high sta­tus that it’s dif­fi­cult for the reg­u­lar read­er to empathize with them. Of course, that’s the point. We’re not sup­posed to see our­selves in the saints. We’re sup­posed to see how far we have yet to go before we can become saints.

But in Lau­rus, the saint is (as all saints are, of course) a fall­en, sin­ful man who is touched by an unusu­al grace of heal­ing. This grace comes not out of the blue, but as a result of intense repen­tance over a ter­ri­ble, har­row­ing sin.7 This is a saint that we can relate to. A saint whom we can under­stand.


This is what makes Lau­rus so valu­able. By read­ing it, we are sub­tly rein­tro­duced into the leg­endary world of the saints, but in a way to remind us that we our­selves must even­tu­al­ly become saints if we want to be assured of our sal­va­tion. Any­thing less is not enough. After all, “the King­dom of God is with­in us“8 and that means that if we don’t attain it here, on earth, we won’t find it after death. 

Thus, a slight­ly com­ic, slight­ly fan­tas­tic, slight­ly his­tor­i­cal fable about a fic­tion­al saint turns out to be the per­fect recipe for mod­ern read­ers to begin devel­op­ing their “poet­ic souls.” And that’s the great­est praise that any nov­el­ist can hope to hear—that his sto­ry is the kind that will change peo­ple for the bet­ter, in very real ways.

Conclusion


Plen­ty of saints and priests have sug­gest­ed that read­ing nov­els is bad for the soul. Per­haps, but real­is­ti­cal­ly, nov­els are much more effec­tive teach­ing aids than any oth­er mod­ern media. Tele­vi­sion and movies have evanes­cent effects on a person’s soul, but books can change a person’s entire world-view. 

That’s why this book is so impor­tant. There are books that are nec­es­sary. Start with this one. Find oth­ers like it. Avoid the trash that is ped­dled by seek­ers after cheap thrills. Enrich your­self with good sto­ries. You may find, after a time, that you have rekin­dled your poet­ic soul. And, as St Por­phyrios reminds us again, 
“Only poet­ic hearts embrace love and sense it deeply.” 

About the Author

Nicholas Kotar is an author of epic fan­ta­sy inspired by Russ­ian fairy tales, trans­la­tor from Russ­ian into Eng­lish, and renowned con­duc­tor of Russ­ian sacred choral music. He num­bers sev­er­al Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions titles among his trans­la­tions. Make sure to check out his blog, where he posts reg­u­lar­ly on Russ­ian reli­gious tra­di­tions, cul­ture, and his­to­ry. His nov­el A Lamen­ta­tion of Sirin comes out July 1st, 2017.

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