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 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.