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?1Naturally, by “story” I don’t mean “invented fable”, but “an interesting narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.”
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.” 2Lisa Cron, “Why are We Wired for Story?”; this is an excellent introduction to her way of thinking
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.3Acts 2:14–41 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.4Acts 6:8 — 7:60 The story of St Paul’s conversion is told three separate times in the Book of Acts,5Acts 9:1–19; 22:1–21; 26:12–18. 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.6Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios, p 218
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.
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.7Squeamish readers should be warned that a very realistic infant death is a major plot point in the novel. 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“8cf. Lk. 17:21: nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you. 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.
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 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 The Song of The Sirin is available now.